Cornish Saints and Sinners: St. Michael and the Conger

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The Legend of St. Michael at St. Michael's Mount, Cornwall
by J. Henry Harris

S T. M I C H A E L
A N D  T H E

The Archangel arrives in Cornwall

There are more St. Michaels than one, but the hero of this story was the one who landed, in a fog, at the Mount later named after him. He had been heading for Penzance which used to appear on saints' charts as the "Holy Headland", and was a mark to steer by; but he drifted off course, and landed at the Mount. The Mount was then the marine residence of an ancient giant, well known for keeping a sharp look-out for saints through a telescope, which he stole from an unfortunate Phoenician ship laden with tin and oysters. The giant had an evil reputation, and did nothing by halves. He was asleep when St. Michael landed; and when he slept, he snored, and when he snored, the Mount shook.

The poor saint was in a terrible state, wandering about for days, reading notices which the giant had posted up warning saints not to land, unless they wished to be cooked in oil like sardines. There was nothing to be picked up in the area to eat, except seaweed and the dry bones which the giant threw away - and there wasn't enough on the bones to support a saint after the giant had done with them. St. Michael finished off his very last drop of best Irish whisky, and sat on the empty keg. He dreamt of his own peat fire in Ballyknock, and the little alehouse where a drop was to be had for the asking. It was fear of the fierce giant above which alone kept him from singing the poem he had composed about "Home, sweet home".

The saint was very sad and had almost given up hope of rescue, when something in the sea attracted his attention. He saw a great conger rise, tail first, and stretch itself until the tail topped the rock. Its head remained in the sea. The giant was snoring, and the Mount shook. St. Michael was top of his class at college, and could put two and two together with the help of his fingers. "A sign," he said, putting on his sword-belt and best pair of spurs. The conger was to be his Jacob's ladder.

So he dug his spurs well into the fish's side, and climbed and climbed until he reached the top. There, with one mighty stroke, he cut off the giant's head. There wasn't much personal estate - only the telescope - and the saint took that, but he forgot to send a return to Somerset House, and pay the death duties. The conger wagged his tail, by way of saying he was tired and wanted to be off, so the saint slipped down quite easily - so easily that he hit the ground rather forcefully when he reached the bottom. To this day, those who have eyes to see, may see the mark he left behind.

Then the conger disappeared into the sea, only to return again, this time headfirst. It licked the saint's hand, and he blessed it. There are some who say that it was a beanstalk which grew in the night for the saint to climb. Congers, however, are now very fine and large, and abundant in their season, and the white scars down their sides are the marks of the saint's spurs which retell the story of the climb.

The giant's blood flowed over the cliff, and a church sprung up, which St. Michael dedicated to himself. Then he went away, for the Mount was not was not inhabited in those days and there was nothing to keep him. This was the beginning of the war between the saints and giants, which continued for centuries, and might have lasted until the present day, only the saints came out on top.

Saint Michael crops up in various places, and, for convenience, I may add here what is known of him. He became the patron saint of the county after meeting with his arch-enemy, Old Nick, at Helston. There was no time to advise the newspapers, and get special correspondents on the spot, but it was reported that the battle was long and tough. The enemy carried a red-hot boulder under his arm, and hurled it at the saint; but he was out of practice, and the ball went wide. Then the saint got in with his trusty blackthorn staff, and thrashed the enemy so soundly that he couldn't fly away fast enough for comfort. The boulder was picked up, when cool, and is still on view at the Angel Hotel.

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Edited from "Cornish Saints & Sinners" (1906)  (T) 302.234.8904    (F) 302.234.9154    Copyright 2000, LLC