Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Saint Dymphna

Saint Dymphna is believed to be the daughter of a pagan Irish chief and his Christian wife or concubine and who was born in the 7th century. When her mother unexpectedly died, her father Damon scoured the world for an equally beautiful replacement. When his search failed, the chiefs advisors pointed out to him that his teenage daughter had inherited her mother's looks. Driven mad by grief, Damon made advances on Dymphna.

With the assistance of St. Gerebernus, she fled to Belgium. There they took refuge at a chapel not far from Antwerp. However Damon's spies tracked them down the chief confronted them, ordering his soldiers to slay Gerebernus. Damon then begged Dymphna to return with him to Ireland as his wife. When she refused, he decapitated her in a rage with a single stroke of his sword.
The historical basis for this story is uncertain. There are variations in the legend and it has counterparts in the folktales of many European countries. Dymphna as a saint first shows up in a 13th century document after a local bishop commissioned her biography. Although it is obvious that he was prompted by already existing practice of veneration by the locals, it is clear the story is derived entirely from oral tradition. Fragments of two sarcophagi that supposedly bore the bodies of Dymphna and Gerebernus were found in the area, as well as a brick inscribed "DYMPNA" that was supposedly lay in one of the coffins. The body of St. Dymphna is supposedly held in a silver reliquary in the church named in her honor, although the original church burnt down in the 15th century.

The burial place of St. Dymphna has long been associated with accounts of miraculous cures of mental illness. A hospital was built there in the 13th century and to this day hosts a world-class sanatorium. A peculiar aspect of the treatment from the earliest days is that patients are hosted with local residents, living and working alongside them. This is especially remarkable considering the attitudes of hostility towards the insane at that time.

St. Dymphna may be synonymous with the Irish saints Davets and Damhnait. Her feast day falls on May 15. She is the patron saint of insanity and mental illness professionals as well as incest victims, runaways, and those suffering from mental illness.

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