Christian Saints With Compelling Pagan Backstories

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Vote up the Christian saints with the most captivating links to the pagan world.

Some Christian saints are officially canonized by the Catholic Church; others rose to sanctified status through popular veneration and local support. Regardless, a saint's holiness is to be honored and praised. Saints, who devote themselves to God, going to great lengths to prove the extent of their devotion, often have foundations in earlier religious traditions - whether they are carryovers from pagan belief systems or work to eliminate paganism as part of their Christian duty. Martyrs are often considered saints, too, as are men and women who converted the masses to Christianity throughout the centuries. 

The lives and legacies of saints, and their pagan backstories, offer insight into the development of Christianity - and just how intense its relationship with paganism was. 


  • St. Brigid Is The Patroness Of Ireland
    Photo: Patrick Joseph Tuohy / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    111 VOTES

    St. Brigid Is The Patroness Of Ireland

    St. Brigid of Kildare, also called Brigit or Brig, is considered the patroness of Ireland. Brigid was legendarily born to a nobleman and an enslaved Druid woman circa 450 CE

    Brigid's father, Dubthach, sent his pregnant concubine away at the urging of his wife, and until she was a young girl, Brigid remained with her mother. Acts of charity, miraculous events, and extreme purity characterized Brigid's early life before and after she returned to her father around age 10. Dubthach later tried to sell his daughter, but when the king of Leinster saw her, he freed her, noting, "Her merit before God is greater than ours."

    Once Brigid was free, the pious woman founded a nunnery in Kildare, Ireland. The religious house was the first of its kind in Ireland and attracted Christian converts from across the island. It's not entirely clear when Brigid became Christian, but her life coincides with the introduction and dissemination of the religion in Ireland.

    The relationship between St. Brigid and the Celtic goddess of the same name is multifaceted. The Celtic deity Brigid was the daughter of the Druid king-god Dagda; became the goddess of poetry, healing, fertility, and fire; and had two sisters similarly named who oversaw leechcraft and smithwork. The composite that grew out of this tradition, including the tripartite personhood of Brigid, has stark similarities to Christian belief and teaching.  

    During the Middle Ages, the two Brigids syncretized into one entity. According to author Pamela Berger, Christian "monks took the ancient figure of the mother goddess and grafted her name and functions onto her Christian counterpart, St. Brigid."

  • St. Patrick Found Christianity After Being Snatched By Irish Pirates
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Born in Scotland around 386 CE, Patrick was taken captive by Irish pirates when he was 16 years old (although at least one author, Roy Flechner, asserts Patrick went to Ireland to escape his family). According to his ConfessioPatrick "did not, indeed, know the true God" at that time but, while surrounded by "many thousands of people" similarly taken to Ireland as prisoners, he said:

    The Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief... and he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would a son.

    Patrick spent six years in Ireland as a captive of the pagan High King of Ireland, Niall of the Nine Hostages. He prayed from "one up to a hundred" times a day and was later guided to freedom by an angel. Patrick took a ship to the continent, a journey facilitated by God.

    Patrick devoted himself to Christianity and, when a "voice" called him back to Ireland, he served as a missionary starting around 433 CE. Patrick's efforts to rid Ireland of paganism involved co-opting Celtic symbols (like a shamrock) and Irish practices to teach Christianity. 

    Like many church figures from the early Middle Ages who were later considered saints, Patrick was never canonized by the Catholic Church. The canonization process itself didn't become formalized until the 12th century and, until that time, veneration was the large motivator of sainthood.

    • Birthplace: Banwen, United Kingdom
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    64 VOTES

    St. Derfel Of Wales Purportedly Fought Alongside King Arthur

    As one of King Arthur's knights, Derfel Gadarn fought alongside six fellow warriors and the legendary king at the Battle of Camlann during the sixth century. King Arthur was mortally wounded during the engagement, but Derfel survived. After the fight, Derfel became a hermit in Gwyneth, Wales.

    Derfel became a monk and spent the rest of his life founding churches throughout Wales, earning him the status of a saint.

    In 1538, a statue of St. Derfel that stood at Llanderfel was brought down because too many pilgrims visited it to make offerings. Elis Price, a diocesan official, complained to Thomas Cromwell that, despite his best efforts, people believed the image of Derfel had curative and restorative properties - those associated with pagan superstition, not faith.

    Price escribed how people had been "enticed to worship the image in so much that there is a common saying among them that who so ever will offer anything to the said image...hath power to fetch him or them that so offers once out of hell when they be damned."

    As a result, Derfel's likeness was wiped out and used as firewood to burn a local friar at the stake for denying the supremacy of the king.

  • St. Sebastian Protected Pagans As A Member Of The Praetorian Guard
    Photo: Andrea Mantegna / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    91 VOTES

    St. Sebastian Protected Pagans As A Member Of The Praetorian Guard

    St. Sebastian was an early convert to Christianity who, during the late third century, entered military service for Rome to help his fellow believers. As Christians fell to persecutions under the likes of Emperors Decius (r. 249-251 CE), Valerian (r. 253-260), and Diocletian (r. 284-305), more and more martyrs appeared throughout the empire.

    Sebastian, a skilled soldier, was promoted to the ranks of the Praetorian Guard under Emperor Diocletian. From that position, he worked from behind the scenes on behalf of Christianity. When two Christians, Marcus and Marcellian, were imprisoned for refusing to worship pagan gods circa 286, Sebastian convinced them to not renounce their Christian beliefs and also converted the boys' parents to Christianity when they visited their sons.

    Numerous other prisoners were converted under Sebastian's guidance before he was outed as a Christian as well. In the end, Marcus, Marcellian, their parents, several of their associates, and Sebastian were all condemned to death. When Diocletian gave Sebastian his sentence, the emperor "ordered him to be bound into the midst of the plain, and to be shot by the soldiers; who so filled him with arrows, that he seemed like a hedgehog, and supposing that he was dead, they went away."

    Sebastian was rescued and healed by a widow named Irene and, once he was well, Sebastian went back to confront Diocletian. When Diocletian saw Sebastian, the future saint was beaten to death and his body thrown into the sewer.

    • Birthplace: Milan, Italy
  • St. Nicholas Is Often Associated With The Greek God Poseidon
    Photo: Byzantine Icon-Painter / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    St. Nicholas was born in modern-day Turkey, served as a bishop in the city of Myra, and is considered a miracle worker, protector of seafarers, and generous to children and the poor alike. During the late third and early fourth centuries CE, Nicholas witnessed Christianity spread throughout the Mediterranean region and, on one occasion, allegedly took off his sandal and slapped a heretic in the face with it. The evidence on this is sparse, but the tale attests to Nicholas's legacy in the Church.

    While Saint Nicholas served as the foundation for figures like Sinterklaas in the Netherlands and Santa Claus in various parts of the world, he continued to be the patron saint of sailors, fishermen, and harbor cities, often described as a Poseidon-like figure in Greek folklore. "The cult of Poseidon amongst seafaring merchants was displaced by the veneration of St. Nicholas of Myra" by the sixth century in parts of the Byzantine Empire.

    • Age: Dec. at 73 (270-343)
    • Birthplace: Patara, Turkey
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    37 VOTES

    Alphius, Philadelphus, And Cyrinus Refused To Acknowledge Paganism And Met Harsh Ends As A Result

    The trio of Alphius, Philadelphus, and Cyrinus traces back to the third century CE. The three Christian martyrs were purportedly from southern Italy, may have been brothers (they're identified as the sons of Benedetta, a woman who similarly martyred herself, abusing pagan gods in the process), and perished painfully.

    Considered saints in the Orthodox Church and Roman Church, the three men were said to have been detained during the persecution of Christians under Emperor Decius. Taken into custody alongside several other Christians, the three were put to death in Sicily, where they continue to serve as patrons of Lentini.

    One version of the three saints' fate comes from author Henry Festing Jones. Best known as the biographer of Samuel Butler, Jones spent extensive periods of time in Sicily and kept copious records. In his Castellinaria, and other Sicilian Diversions, Jones wrote about "three saintly brothers" martyred at Lentini:

    Their hands bound behind them, their heads uncovered and their feet bare, presenting to the emotional crowd an appearance of great nobility.  They were put in prison... [tormented] and starved; but a venerable man girdled with grace and celestial light miraculously brought food to them, embraced them and blessed them, their wounds were healed, their strength was restored, their courage was reinforced. Their tortures were increased after this, and so it went on till the 10th of May when [Alphius] was killed by having his tongue pulled out, [Philadelphus] was burnt on a gridiron, and [Cyrinus] was boiled in pitch and bitumen.