St. Brendan's Cross
The St. Brendan's Cross is a cross adorned with one or more dolphins (or just their tails) hence also known as the
Dolphin Cross (see also Fishtail Cross). It is a fanciful design made up by modern jewellers who have heard the famous legend regarding St. Brendan; a tale that's been told again and again for hundreds of years.
Q: Why did the dolphin cross the ocean?
A: To get to the other tide!
Brendan the Saint
After the Romans left Britain at the start of the 5th century, Teutonic Angles and Saxons rushed in, sacking and burning as they crossed the country from east to west. Many of the locals fled west, taking with them their Roman culture, language and Christianity. Ireland became a stronghold for the Christian church and it is there where St. Brendan was born (c. 484).
He was educated under the guidance of St. Ita (second only to St. Brigid among the most beloved of the Irish women saints), and became a priest in 512. During his long life he established many religious houses, monasteries and churches all over Celtic Britain. In particular, on the Blasquet Islands (the most Westerly lands in Europe), Brandon Hill (Kilkenny), Gallerus (Dingle Peninsula, west coast of Ireland), and Kilmalchedor (Kerry). In 550 he went on to build a monastery on Inis-da-druim, now known as Coney Island (Ireland, not New York's Brooklyn), and completed a three year mission in Wales and Iona.
Brendan the Seafarer
In the Middle Ages people believed Paradise was a physical land overseas somewhere. Since the globe had not been fully explored, it was obvious that more lands were just waiting to be discovered.
A famous tale relates how St. Brendan went searching for Paradise and may have stumbled on the American continent 900 years or so before Columbus.1 Unfortunately, fact is befuddled with fiction in medieval literature, so probably little is true about the fantastic 10th century Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis (The Voyage of St. Brendan the Abbot)2.
Interestingly however, it does mention several geographical features one would see taking the northern route to cross the Atlantic: islands that closely describe the Faroes, a volcanic eruption that might have been seen on the south coast of Iceland, and a fog which is typical of Newfoundland. In the 1970's, explorer Tim Severin "put to sea in an small open boat of ox hides and survived storms, collisions with pack ice, and visits from inquisitive whales"3 and showed that such a journey was indeed possible.
The 10th century story tells how St. Brendan heard of the 'Land of Promise' from a monk named Barinthus who came from the lands of King Niall (of the Irish Red Hand fame). St. Brendan set sail in 545 A.D. with 17 other monks in search of the Land of Promise. They used a coracle (small hide-covered fisherman's boat) for the journey and took seven years to reach the Land of Promise (there's that lucky seven again), a perilous journey which revealed to them wondrous lands.
At one stage, an angel appeared to St. Brendan and told him "...the vigil and festival of Easter you will celebrate on the back of the great whale...", and indeed the story goes on to relate that's what happened - they came across an island, landed on the beach, cooked a meal on an open fire, camped for the night, held Mass the following morning, and just as they were packing up to leave, the island began to shudder like a major earthquake. They leapt into the boat for safety, just in time to see the island sink into the waves. It was then they realised the 'island' had been a huge whale!
Another time, St. Brendan's boat was being pursued by a sea monster, when Iasconius, the great whale, came to their rescue and fought off the monster. Iasconius appears again later in the story and gives the monks a ride on its back to the 'Land of Promise'.
Since so much religious literature between the Dark Ages and the Renaissance has been 'enhanced' by storytellers, we should take the Navigatio with a generous pinch of sea-salt. But the object of this page is simply to show why dolphins feature on the St. Brendan Cross. And it is this:
Whales and dolphins star in several Greek myths, invariably as helpful beasts to man. Being mammals with a certain intellect4 they also display swiftness and grace in their movement which has made them somewhat superior to the simple fish. The idea is that Christians should seek the knowledge of Christ swiftly. Dolphins often appear in pairs on religious monograms and gravestones, and often with an anchor, trident or Celtic Cross.
And finally, if you haven't yet seen the joke below4 about 'dolphinese', here are a couple more:
We all know (don't we) that dolphins are mammals and not fish. But do you know the difference between a fish and a piano?
A: You can't tuna fish!
And why are dolphins more clever than humans?
A: Within three hours they can train a man to stand at the side of a pool and feed them fish!
Smile if you wish at cute dolphins, but don't kid yourself that they are smiling back – especially those in captivity. Dolphins don't smile. (See here why we think they do.)