Today is a strange day in the feasting life of the church because in some pockets of the community, specifically Celtic and French pockets, a saint is not honored, but rather an animal considered saintly: Guinefort the Hound, Protector of Children and Martyr.
The story of Guinefort is one that can be found in many different cultures. In Celtic lore his name is Gelert. In east India he’s not a dog at all, but rather a mongoose (a modern adaptation is the much beloved children’s cartoon, “Riki, Tiki, Tavi”). But though the names, and sometimes animal species, changes in across cultures, the story is largely the same: a faithful pet saves the family newborn from a deadly viper.
The testimony surrounding Guinefort the Greyhound comes from a Dominican monk, Stephen of Bourbon, from the 13th Century. In his relating a hunter left his French cottage to bring back breakfast, and upon returning finds the nursery room a complete wreck, and his faithful hound meeting him with a bloody snout. Assuming the worst, the hunter dispatches of the dog, only to find the young child unharmed under an overturned bassinette, with a dead viper nearby.
The faithful Guinefort had not destroyed the child, but had destroyed the viper.
In their elation over their child and guilt over the mistaken identity, they buried the hound and made an altar of rocks there to always remember him.
In France the altar became a pilgrimage site of sorts for the townspeople, and Guinefort became a revered “saint” in their eyes, with them calling upon him to protect their children in their work and play.
This veneration of a dog obviously rubbed the church the wrong way, and many attempts have been made in the centuries since to tamp down this sort of animal reverence (the Celts had been doing it forever, though, and some habits die hard!). Try as they may, Guinfort’s memory, story, and yes, saintliness remains to this day in many pockets of the world. The tale is a reminder for us not to be too hasty with our assumptions and to give those we know and love the benefit of the doubt.
It’s also interesting to see how the fear of snakes has a through-line throughout human history. Truly our evolutionary-driven fear of what is sneaky, silently, and venomous is common across cultures. Instead of making us more interested in learning the differences between different kinds of snakes, though, this has usually just encouraged us to kill all snakes regardless of their bite.
Which is too bad.
Regardless, it is clear that Guinefort is a very good boy.
Guinefort is a reminder to me, and should be for the whole church, that no matter what you want the people to believe or do, or whatever you want them to stop believing and refrain from doing, people will do what they do because sometimes tradition is stronger than belief for humans.
It just is.
-historical bits from common sources