Saints and Wolves

Author : François de Beaulieu / July 2023

Statue of Saint Hervé with his guide, Guiharan, and his wolf. Church of Saint-Miliau, Guimiliau

There are several stories of Breton saints harnessing a wolf to their plough, the latter having devoured the former’s donkey or horse. Saint Hervé goes one step further, transforming the wolf into the world’s first guide dog. Saint Brieuc also shows his skills as a ‘master of wolves’ when he calms an angry, threatening pack. But the story of Saint Ronan is different and seems to contradict the idea that saints were merely able to control the natural world and keep wild animals at bay, suggesting instead that he was part of both the animal world and the human world. Legend tells us that not only does Saint Ronan force a wolf to let go of the sheep it is running away with, but that he “repeats this miracle every time there is a wolf attack in the area”. In addition, when Keban accuses the saint of “turning into a wolf when there is a new moon”, of ravaging flocks of sheep in the local area and even attacking humans, not only does Saint Ronan calm the vicious dogs which are set upon him in order to verify his innocence, but he also brings Keban’s daughter back to life after she chokes on a piece of bread whilst hiding in a chest. She had been placed there by her mother in order to frame the hermit saint for the girl’s disappearance.

These three incidents have something in common. When he steps in to calm the wolves and the dogs, or to save the girl, Saint Ronan shows that he has command their jaws. He opens what was closed (the wolf’s jaws, the girl’s mouth), and closes what was open (the dogs’ jaws). It is said this gift was passed down to him from a god associated with the Gallic lunisolar calendar, in which a lunar leap month must regularly be removed. His story may therefore also be at the origin of popular saying, “Keep the Wolf Moon” (the Wolf Moon traditionally being the first new moon of a new year), and of various other traditions.

Group sculpture of Saint Hervé, his guide Guiharan and his wolf.  Saint-Houarno Chapel, Langoëlan – BCD. Photo by Julie Léonard.


Author : François de Beaulieu, « Saints and Wolves », Bécédia [en ligne], ISSN 2968-2576, mis en ligne le 3/07/2023.


Contributed by : Bretagne Culture Diversité