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Saint, Witch or Both? The Strange Case of St Columba of Sens

The cult of St Columba is connected to France, where she died. She was beheaded in Sens – the major center of her cult now. However, while French religious people pray to the historical figure as an iconic saint, hundreds of kilometers from Sens there are people who worship her as a witch.

St Columba was probably born in the current territory of Spain, but her life, death, and cult is mostly associated with France. However, specialists in the lives of saints suggest that Columba of Sens is the same woman as Columba of Spain, who lived during the 9th century AD. The French saint is known as a very different person in some regions of Spain.

The St Columba cult is very strong in France and connected with a specific story, thus linking her with the Spanish woman may be a misinterpretation. There is also a possibility that the legend of Columba of Spain was just another way to stop the cult of women who were seen as dangerous for the Church.

Saint Columba with a bear.

Saint Columba with a bear. ( hartzulo)

The Legend of Saint Columba the Martyr

According to the popular Christian legend, St Columba was a martyr who was murdered by the Roman Emperor for her beliefs and disagreements about pagan domination. Her original name was probably Eporita, and she was a member of a very influential noble family. Her relatives worshiped the old deities and didn’t follow the new religion. Members of her family were some of the most important people related to the Roman Empire.

When she was 16 years old, she decided to leave her homeland and go to the region of modern Vienna, where she was baptized and received the name Columba or Comba. The legend of St Columba says that when Emperor Aurelian wanted to arrange the marriage of his son with Columba she refused. For her disobedience, Aurelian decided to close her in the brothel of the amphitheater, which is known in Christian literature as a place used by the Roman Empire for torturing and killing Jesus’ followers.

While Columba was imprisoned, someone tried to rape her, but the legend says she was saved by a she-bear. Aurelian was furious and decided to burn the animal and Columba together, but the bear escaped and survived. Moreover, the legend says that God sent rain, stopping them from starting the fire. Therefore, Columba was beheaded instead. The execution took place next to a fountain known as the fountain d’Azon. Later, people recovered her body and buried her in a grave, which is now under the famous Abbey of Sens.

St Colomba Saved by a Bear. (1340s) By Giovanni Baronzio.

St Colomba Saved by a Bear. (1340s) By Giovanni Baronzio. ( Public Domain )

Although the story may not convince anyone who has a deeper knowledge of the Roman Empire, it survived for centuries and became the basis for the huge cult dedicated to this woman seen as a symbol of innocent virgins and martyrs.

The Spanish Witch

The cult of Saint Columba or Comba flourished during the Middle Ages, but Allyson M. Poska, a researcher and author of the book ”Women and Authority in the Early Modern Spain. The peasants of Galicia” , found another version of the story. Although Christianity believes that Columba was a martyr, the old Galician resources reveal a different story. According to Poska, the woman known as a saint from Sens was none other than a famous witch in Spanish Galicia. As she wrote:

”Across Galicia, St Comba is known as the patron saint of witches, a curious notion in and of itself. On the one hand, she acts as an intercessor on behalf of witches, while on the other hand, people go to her to defend themselves against witches. One informant told Marisa Rey-Henningsen, ‘there . . . you can see she was a great witch, and now she is the greatest of saints.’ Even today, Galegos remain comfortable with both the positive and negative connotations of having witches in their midst.”

Santa Columba at Santa Coloma, in Arceniega (Álava, Spain).

Santa Columba at Santa Coloma, in Arceniega (Álava, Spain). ( Public Domain )

The Galician version of the legend about the saint says that St Columba was a witch who met Jesus Christ on the road. He told her that she would not enter his kingdom, so she decided to change her life. However, it seems that she remained a witch while being a Christian. This was a common mixture in the early times of Christianity.

During the first centuries of Christianity and even medieval times, it was quite common for women who were witches to try to enter safe places like monasteries. These witches weren’t what the newly growing religion wanted them to be. They were well educated women, who knew about nature and had skills to help and heal. With the appearance of the new monotheistic religion the tradition of witchcraft lost its place. Many of these women wanted to continue cultivating the ancient wisdom no matter what, so they joined safe places where they could plant their herbs and spend time with books – in the convents of the nuns.

Painting titled ‘Saint Catherine of Siena writing’ (1630s) by Rutilio di Lorenzo Manetti.

Painting titled ‘ Saint Catherine of Siena writing’ (1630s) by Rutilio di Lorenzo Manetti . ( Public Domain )

Searching for the Real Columba

The remains of St Columba were supposedly destroyed by the Huguenots during the 16th century. Without her bones it is impossible to verify the information about her origins, age, etc. In fact, apart from the two different stories there is no evidence of her existence.

St Columba is not only the patron of witches, but also the rain, and thus she is connected with nature. She is always presented with an animal and/or a plant. This iconic person remains a bridge between two different worlds – Christianity and pagan witchcraft.

Statue of Santa Columba.

Why Did the Spanish Inquisition Allow Some Witches to Stay Alive?

The Spanish Inquisition has a reputation for having been very bloody and cruel. However, in some regions of Spain their actions were barely visible and were focused on heretics but not witches. Most of the people accused of witchcraft were actually sent back home and lived as if the Inquisition didn’t exist.

The horror of the trials started in 1478, when King Ferdinand V (1452 – 1516) and his wife, Queen Isabela I (1451 – 1504) requested papal permission to establish the Spanish Inquisition. Although practices like this were known of in 13th century, it was always focused on issues other than witchcraft. 5,000 men and women were accused of witchcraft, but less than 1 percent were sentenced to death.

Wedding portrait of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile.

Wedding portrait of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile. ( Public Domain )

The Worst Side of the Spanish Holy Inquisition

The cruelest of the Royal Inquisitors was Tomas de Torquemada, who lived between 1420 and 1498. He created a model of the Inquisition concerned with converting people to Christianity and punishing people who didn’t want to follow that path. Most of the victims of their activity were Muslims and Jews. All of the trials, tortures, and hearings were officially arranged to protect the Christian faith.

With time, the grand inquisitor Torquemada became synonymous with the cruelest acts performed in Spain due to the fight for his faith. He tortured and burned thousands of people, but currently he’s one of the legendary people of the Catholic Church and he appears on the altars of many important churches. However, it should be noted that most of the priests who worked for the Holy Inquisition never followed his practices.

The Spanish Inquisition during the activity of Torquemada cultivated the ceremony called the auto-de-fe, during which hundreds of heretics could have been burned at one time during the “festival.” Similar things happened to the bones of the Inquisitor, which were stolen and burned, perhaps by “witches” for revenge.

Auto de Fe in the Plaza Mayor of Madrid.

Auto de Fe in the Plaza Mayor of Madrid. ( Public Domain )

Witches and Enchantresses

One of the most important creators of the definition of a witch in Spain was St Isidor of Seville. He believed that there were not only witches, but also enchantresses, necromancers, hydromancers, fortune tellers, astrologists, and healers who used magic to help people. In many regions of Spain, witches were not as strongly punished as enchantresses. According to Salzar, the youngest of the three judges who worked in the Basque region at the beginning of the 17th century:

”The real question is: are we to believe that witchcraft occurred in a given situation simply because of what the witches claim? No: it is clear that the witches are not to be believed, and the judges should not pass sentence on anyone, unless the case can be proven with external and objective evidence sufficient to convince everyone who hears it. And who can accept the following: that a person can frequently fly through the air and travel a hundred leagues in an hour; that a woman can get through a space not big enough for a fly; that a person can make himself invisible”.

St. Isidore, depicted by Murillo.

St. Isidore, depicted by Murillo. ( Public Domain )

In the most rural parts of the country, the priests were so busy with serving people and searching for Jews, Muslims, and other heretics, that they didn’t have enough time to follow the women who were planting herbs, making potions, or celebrating the phases of the moon.

Spanish Traditions of Witchcraft

The roots of witchcraft in Spain come from the times of the domination of the Celts and the flourishing of local tribes. The Goths appreciated these practices as well. For centuries, witchcraft was taught in the Cave of Salamanca (Cueva de Salamanca), a place where the so-called “witches” studied their craft. The traditional places of their meetings were in Zugaramurdi or Viana in Nawarra, Barahoa in Soria, Aezcoa in Basque country, Vallgorguina or Llers in Catalonia, Trasmoz in Aragonia, Penamelera in Asturia, Seville in Andalusia, and Coiro in Galicia.

Modern day Cave of Salamanca.

Modern day Cave of Salamanca. (CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The first witch burned in Spain was Garcia de Valle, who died in 1498 in Saragossa. In 1526, the inquisitors and Spanish theologists met in Grenada. They decided that if the witch informed the Church about her profession, she would be patronized and none of her goods would be confiscated. Apart from this, nobody else could be judged by the statement of the witch. The judges decided to check if the woman accused by her neighbors for being a witch was really outside during the sabbath or if she stayed at home.

Inquisitors and Galician Meiga

In Galicia, the main center of the witch trials was in Santiago de Compostela. Witches in Galicia, Leon, and Asturias were called meigas, which relates to the Latin word magicus. In Catalunia, witches were called bruixes, and in other parts of Spain they were known as brujas. Meigas were considered as both good and evil, sometimes stunning, and sometimes ugly. Most of them were actually considered as women who shouldn’t be disturbed by the Church.

In Galician, there is a popular expression “Eu non creo nas meigas, pero habelas hainas,” meaning: “I don’t believe in witches, but they exist.” Most of the Spanish witches who were burned died earlier by being poisoned by the priests. Each execution was strongly criticized by local people, who mostly believed that witches were healers who could save a life and help in many ways.

Persecution of witches.

Persecution of witches. ( Public Domain )

One of the examples of these behaviors is Maria Salinia, who was born in Coiro near the Ria de Vigo. Her trial took place after the heroic fight by women near Ria de Vigo, who protected the city and villages in 1617 during the attack of the Ottoman fleet. The trial took place in Santiago de Compostela, but Maria was acquitted and she went back home. She lived in Coiro until her death in 1580. Maria was well known by locals as a “witch”, but she was never disturbed by the church again.

A Wild Land of Witches

Witches in Spain had a better life than in many other parts of Europe. Many of them survived due to the decision by priests who could have sent them to death. Nowadays, people still think that witches exist in many parts of Spain. They also believe that dwarves and fairies exist as well. For centuries, Spain has been considered as one of the most Catholic places of the world, but at the same time ancient cults remained strong in many regions.

Sources:

https://www.ancient-origins.net/history/why-did-spanish-inquisition-allowed-some-witches-stay-alive-005900

https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/saint-witch-or-both-strange-case-st-columba-sens-006735

https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/term/BIOG158366

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columba_of_Sens

https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=2708

https://anastpaul.com/2021/12/31/saint-of-the-day-31-december-saint-columba-of-sens-c-256-273-virgin-martyr/

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