Invoking the Pig Man: A St Swithun’s Day Card

Tomorrow is St Swithun’s Day, and it can’t come to soon for our parched part of the country.

I used to think St Swithun’s Day was just a made up feast, a kind of shorthand for all those obscure feasts and festivals in our calendar, or the colloquial equivalent of some far-off day that never comes. “What are you waiting for, St Swithun’s Day?” my English father used to say. My former mother-in-law, God rest her, was the greeting card industry’s dream. She sent cards for any and every occasion, to people she had only met once. She bought cards in bulk, in advance, and kept them filed by holiday in a special Hallmark shoebox. My own mother, God rest her, became a frequent, if puzzled, recipient. “Don’t tell me,” she said. “Betty’s got a file folder full of St Swithun’s Day cards!”

When I visited England in 1995, though, I ran right into St Swithun, or at least the legendary cathedral that carries his patronage. At Winchester, the great battleship that rides the sea of the Hampshire downs, Swithun is remembered as a deacon, priest, and bishop of the 9th century. His name means “Pig Man,” so it’s possible he began life as a swineherd. Not much else is known about Swithun until after his death. According to a chronicle, he requested that his body be interred outside the cathedral, in a patch of “obnoxious ground,” where pilgrim feet would tread above him and summer rains would fall.

William Blake (1757-1827), The Ordeal of Queen Emma (1793)

Bishop Swithun’s will was carried out at first, and you can still see the patch of obnoxious ground that once held his bones. But miracles came to be associated with his gravesite from the very first. These ranged from the practically compassionate—restoring to wholeness some eggs that a gang of workman had purposely broken, so an old woman could sell them—to the magnificently chivalrous. It was to the spirit of St Swithun that Queen Emma, widow of Aethelred the Unready and Canute, and mother of the king who would become Edward the Confessor, turned when she was falsely accused by her son of adultery with a bishop. Emma agreed to undergo a trial by fire—walking barefoot over 9 red-hot iron plowshares—to prove her innocence, after a vision of St Swithun assured her she would feel no pain. In the (totally legendary, it seems, but a terrific story nonetheless) ordeal, Queen Emma did indeed survive unscathed, with her reputation restored.

About a hundred years after his death, St Swithun’s humble grave was broken up. Relics were distributed to various local churches, and a new and ornate shrine containing what was left was erected within the cathedral, which received an additional dedication: The Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity, of Sts Peter and Paul, and of St Swithun. According to legend, Swithun was so perturbed to be disturbed that he sent a record-breaking rainfall that flooded the cathedral and its surrounds—thus ensuring that the summer rains would fall on him even indoors.

Some say the association of St Swithun’s Day with weather prediction began then. If it rains on St Swithun’s Day, the legend goes, it will continue raining for 40 days. If the sun is out, there will be no rain for 40 days. It’s likely that this was a bit of pre-Christian Saxon weather lore associated with mid-July, and Swithun’s flood only reinforced it. In any case, Swithun is invoked against droughts.

So here’s my St Swithun’s Day card to you: Please pray for rain for the parts of our country and our world that need it so desperately right now. I know that my crunchy tan lawn—”obnoxious ground,” indeed—and the stunted cornfields just outside of town are only nuisances compared to the decades long deadly desertification of Africa, but this summer’s drought is a reminder of how much we all rely on rains from heaven. It needn’t be 40 days straight—I have four weekends of outdoor performances of The Merchant of Venice kicking off on Thursday—but 40 days’ worth of good, steady, sweet, cooling, reviving summer rain, packaged in convenient sessions, would be one more miracle to the Pig Man’s credit.

St Swithun, we are walking through fire: pray for us!

  • ace

    Thanks for the stories and legends of St Swithun. Made me smile.

    For those who may not know, we can now add to Saint Swithun and San Isidro (St. Isidore), the European saints invoked by farmers, a Japanese born, naturalized American, Saint (Father) Hisanori Kano to be celebrated on the Episcopalian calendar on October 24, the anniversary of his death (already celebrated on the Nebraska & Colorado Episcopalian calendars, I believe). A fascinating story of conversion to Christianity from a noble Japanese family; immigration, farming and graduate work in Nebraska; Episcopalian missionary work to Japanese farmers and ranchers; incarceration during WWII (unusual for Japanese not on the West Coast); attendance and ordination to the Episcopalian priesthood; naturalization… and, along the way, the sponsorship of William Jennings Bryan and a courageous saintly Episcopalian bishop by name of George Allen Beecher (who lasted 33 years as a bishop as part of 51 years in ministry). If this catches anyone’s attention, Kano’s translated autobiography is called “Nikkei Farmer on the Nebraska plains”. From the editor’s postscript: “When reparations were offered to Japanese American internees in the 1980′s, Kano refused any payment. God, he insisted, had used his internment to guide him towards a useful purpose, allowing him to spread the gospel. Viewed in that light, no compensation was necessary.” May God help us in the droughts of faith and trust in the directions for our lives.

  • Manny

    “A file folder full of St Swithun’s Day cards?”
    I’ve never even heard of St. Swithun. People actually celebrate his feast day? It reminds me of the saint I drew in the annual draw a saint to revere for the year. I drew St. Guy of Anderlecht, who turned out to be the saint of stables, workhorses, and outhouses. LOL. I’ve been trying to connect with him all year, and amazingly I have. We are having our bathrooms gutted and remodeled this summer. ;)

    Well, we are in need of rain here too, though we did just get a thunderstorm an hour ago. I’ll appeal to St. Swithun tomorrow for some needed help across the country.

  • ace

    A bit of a non sequitur, but when you mention pigs and we start talking about the English, it brings to mind the historical bloodless (except for the pig), but long-lasting, Pig War confrontation between the United States and the British Empire over land in the San Juan Islands. Today the Union Jack and the Stars & Stripes are still raised on the once disputed Washington state island. (Perhaps a bit like Catholics and Episcopalians sharing St. Swithun or, at his request, the Battle Hymn of the Republic being played at Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral.)