From Saint Dog to Saint Death

Art Remillard

It was an early 13th century spiritual contest that the Dominican Stephen of Bourbon just couldn't win. While ministering to people of the French countryside, Stephen heard stories about Saint Guinefort. His investigation revealed that the infamous holy person was actually a dog--a greyhound to be precise. According to the legend, Guinefort, who belonged to nobility, saved an infant from a dangerous approaching serpent. The lord and lady, who were absent during the conflict, arrived at the bloody scene and assumed that the dog had killed the child. In response, the lord killed Guinefort, but then discovered that the child was alive. So the negligent parents who left their infant with a dog were also impulsive. That kid's future had therapy written all over it. But the dog was destined for sainthood, in the popular imagination at least.

The shrine to Saint Guinefort was just north of Lyons. In Stephen's time, it was an oft-visited pilgrimage site for women with sick children. Here, mothers petitioned the "holy greyhound" to remove demonic forces from their offspring. For Stephen of Bourbon, however, the only devilish forces were found in the dog. The women were improperly worshiping an idol, he resolved, and any perceived good happening there was an "illusion of the Devil." So the shrine became a location for spiritual competition. And at first blush, Stephen had won. He had the site destroyed and criminalized all future devotions to the greyhound. Still, under the cover of darkness, women continued visiting the site for centuries after. The dog-saint had a tenacious hold on the popular imagination, which no official act or admonition could disrupt.

Of course, these sorts of competitions between clergy and laity still exist. Consider the 2007 documentary Saint Death. The description reads:
In Mexico there is a cult that is rapidly growing--the cult of Saint Death. This female grim reaper, considered a saint by followers but Satanic by the Catholic Church, is worshipped by people whose lives are filled with danger and/or violence-criminals, gang members, transvestites, sick people, drug addicts, and families living in rough neighborhoods. "La Santa Muerte" examines the origins of the cult and takes us on a tour of the altars, jails, and neighborhoods in Mexico where the saint's most devoted followers can be found.

Connections with drugs and violence has prompted Mexican officials to order the destruction of 35 Saint Death statues. Perhaps this was an attempt to cut out the divine lifeline of organized crime. Or perhaps it was a state-sponsored act of idol destruction, motivated by the Catholic Church's opposition to the cult. Either way, I suspect that Saint Death isn't going anywhere. Much like Saint Guinefort, Saint Death represents a creative human response to misfortune and difficulty that will likely retain its significance for quite some time.


Jon Pahl said…
Great stuff, Art. I'm forwarding the dog-saint material to my colleague in Reformation studies, Tim Wengert, who will need to rethink his anti-Catholic refusal to recognize saints, since he lives with a greyhound who might be the reincarnation of Guinefort; or at least is treated in the Wengert household with suitable devotion....

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