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St. Dymphna, the King's Desirable Daughter

By Edited Apr 8, 2016 4 4

Martyred Maiden

The lives of the Catholic saints are steeped in misery, sadness, and sometimes adventure. Unfortunately, much of the facts surrounding them have been entangled with folk tales, misspeaking from oral retellings, and even in some cases confused with the lives of other saints.

For the best known saints, and certainly the ones whose lives could be more accurately documented with modern means, their upbringing, mystical callings, and canonizations are

St. Dymphna (relic card)
carefully constructed.  Saints such as Jeanne d’Arc (St. Joan of Arc, 15th century), Bernadette Soubirous (St. Bernadette, 19th century), and Gemma Galgani (St. Gemma, fl, early 20th century) have been immortalized in millions of words and many images. 

Other saints, such as the Eastern Orthodox St. Theodora, are lesser known.  However, her role as a 6th century Byzantine Empress insured that her life and deeds (both good and bad) were carefully preserved by court recorders and scholars. 

One obscure saint, an Irish lass named Dymphna, has her life’s history steeped in both folklore and issues of incest and mental disease.

Cinderella Girl
Rhodopis was an Egyptian slave girl who lived in the 6th century BCE.  Her place in the noble house she served was as a “haetera” (this social class was similar to the Geisha of feudal Japan centuries later).  Though the haetera, like her Geisha sisters later, primarily were for companionship and light entertainment, they were also sexual playthings of their masters.  They had little status in Egyptian society (unlike the Geisha, who held an honored rank).

Rhodopis’ name is Greek for “red cheeks” (intended as the more fanciful reading of “rosy cheeks”).  Her real name may have been Doricah, and “Rhodopis” was a nickname.  It is believed she was born a slave; she was Thracian (in the area of the Bosporus) by birth and had been taken from her homeland at a young age.

After being a slave in at least two Greek households she was sold or traded to an Egyptian noble house. The other slaves in this new place had been there longer, and Rhodopis was mistreated by the other female slaves because of her youth and her foreign birth.

Sappho (the classical Greek poetess) had a brother who traveled on business to Egypt.  He came across Rhodopis incidentally; he was smitten.  He paid a large sum to secure her freedom from slavery – she repaid his kindness by spurning him.  Instead, she lived independently as a haetera. 

When she had been a slave, the master of the house had given her a pair of golden sandals as a gift for her dancing talents.  One day she was bathing in the Nile with her clothes and golden sandals sitting on shore.  A story developed around her leisurely river bath that day.  An eagle swept down, snatched up one of her sandals, and carried it some distance before dropping it in the lap of Egypt’s Pharaoh in the capital of Memphis.  This Pharaoh (likely Amasis II, 570 BCE – 526 BCE) noted the fine crafting of the golden sandal and set out to find its owner. When he finally found Rhodopis, he made her his wife.  And she lived happily ever after.

This historical tale, of course, is easily recognized today in a classic fairy tale.  Substitute jealous female slaves for jealous stepsisters, change the golden sandal to a glass slipper and the basis for the timeless story of Cinderella is brought to life.  However, Rhodopis was real, as were her abusive sister-slaves.  The golden sandal element is probably the only fabrication in the tale of romance.

Rhodopis & Cinderella
Thus, fact (as is normal) was used to create fiction.  Unfortunately, though, sometimes fiction is used to create “fact”.
Daddy’s Girl
Folk tales (and their charming subset “fairy tales”) usually came from oral traditions and were meant to illustrate life’s travails or to teach life lessons (morals).  Many of these stories, though, are brutal in the immorality and criminality of the main characters.  One of the most disturbing folk tales is Scottish in origin and has been collected under the title “The King Who Wished to Marry His Daughter”.  It is an obscure story that contains lurid elements of incest and obsession.

A Scottish king was happily married, but then his wife died.  This grieved him greatly.  Seeking to replace her, he decided that he wanted a woman as close to her in physical appearance as possible.  Having made that commitment to marry only such a woman, he declared any woman who could properly fit his dead wife’s clothes would become his new bride.

This king had a daughter, and when she was 14, she tried on one of her dead mother’s dresses.  It fit her, and because of her resemblance to the king’s beloved, he decided that he would marry her as the next best thing to the woman he longed for. The girl, however, loathing a marriage to her own father, put before him a series of challenges to be met before she would submit to his demands. 

Mostly, she requested clothes made of strange materials.  The first was a gown made from swans’ down.  After requests for other strange garments were met, she later asked for a pair of shoes, one of gold and one of silver. The king happily supplied these items for her.  Frustrated, and despairing of ever getting out of an incestuous marriage to her father, the young princess finally asked for a chest that could be locked from either inside or outside and that could travel by itself over land or sea.

The king managed to have such a trunk built.  In a bid for freedom, the girl packed all of her exotic clothes into it, and had her father take it and her to the sea shore.  There, she told him she wanted to see if the chest was seaworthy as it was supposed to be.  The lascivious king allowed her to get into the trunk – she locked it from inside and was swept away over the water. 

She came ashore in a foreign land.  A shepherd boy found the trunk and tried to open it, but the girl (from within) convinced him his father should try to free her instead.  She then went off with the boy’s father to his home where she stayed for a time.

The runaway later went into service in the foreign king’s household.  She worked in the kitchen baking bread.  On occasion, she would sneak away from her scullery duties to try on her fine gowns.  One day, the king’s son spotted her cavorting in her gown of swans’ down, and he was smitten with the mysterious girl. She tried on each of her dresses on separate occasions, each one prettier than the previous one, and the king’s son desperately tried to corner her and ravish her.  Finally, when she appeared in the last gown wearing the one gold and one silver shoe, the prince set guards upon her.  She managed to escape, but left one of her strange shoes behind.

The rest of the tale follows familiar lines, similar to Rhodopis and Cinderella. It is only in details it differs.  The prince tried the shoe on many women, but a bird always sang nearby telling him that only the kitchen maid would fit the shoe.  After many failures to find the bewitching beauty, pining, he fell ill.  During his delirium the prince’s mother went to the keep’s kitchen.  The vagabond princess convinced the queen to let her try on the errant slipper.  With the prince’s permission, the princess tried on the shoe, the ailing boy had found his beloved mystery girl, and they married and lived happily ever after.

Runaway Girl
The story of the demented king who lusted for his own daughter was immortalized and legitimized in the life history of an Irish princess who became a saint.

Dymphna was born in Ireland in the 7th Century CE.  Her father, Damon, was a petty king in the land of Oriel.  King Damon was a pagan; Dymphna’s mother (of a noble family), however, was a Christian.  While King Damon cared little for the religious predilections of his wife he was deeply devoted to her.  The princess Dymphna was assigned a tutor, a Christian priest named Father Gerebernus.  As a child, she received instruction in Catholicism by a woman in the household and was secretly baptized by the priest. 

Her life would have been otherwise unremarkable except for the tragedy of her mother’s death when Dymphna was 14.  King Damon, insanely attached to the woman, became obsessed with replacing her with a woman who looked like her.  Failing that, he began ogling his daughter, obsessing on a desire for her because of her strong resemblance to her mother.

King Damon’s obsession with taking his daughter in an incestuous marriage became known to Dymphna.  The trusted Father Gerebernus was enlisted to help her escape, and along with the court jester and his wife, the little party fled Ireland.  The travelers eventually arrived on the shores of Belgium in Antwerp.  They rested, and then traveled further inland for safety to the small village of Geel (Gheel), roughly 25 miles east of Antwerp.

Antwerp & Geel (Belgium) location map
Her father, meanwhile, had sent a bounty party to trail her, and he learned of her presence in Belgium.  He led a mercenary party to Belgium.  Once there, he learned of her hideaway in the bucolic village of Geel.  For his role in helping Dymphna escape, Father Gerebernus was murdered by Damon’s henchmen.  The King appealed to his daughter to come back to Ireland with him and be his bride.  She resisted, and in a rage, King Damon swept her head off with his sword.  Dymphna was not yet 16 years old at the time of her murder (sometime between 620 CE and 640 CE).
Girl Saint
Dymphna and Father Gerebernus were interred in Geel by the locals in a nearby cave in two stone sarcophagi.  Dymphna’s bore a red tile placard with her name, “DYMPNA” [sic] spread
St. Dymphna (Eastern Orthodox iconography)
over two lines. 

The village established a very progressive mental health care colony in the 13th Century, and one of its best features – in a draconian age when mentally ill people were generally thought of as possessed by demons – was the privatization of care.  All patients started out in a central infirmary, but as they improved they were housed with private families instead of warehoused in institutions.  The patients then took up a useful place in the host home, helping in their farming labors, etc.  As a result of this holistic approach, the success rate of treatment for this colony was nothing short of miraculous.

It is the “miraculous” nature of the healing of the mentally ill that led to a belief that Dymphna, the girl who had been martyred by her insane father, had interceded on behalf of Geel’s recovered mentally

St. Dymphna with sword
ill.  That, combined with her (presumed) virgin status, made her a clear candidate for sainthood, and she was canonized as Saint Dymphna.  Father Gerebernus was also canonized for his role as her protector and for his piety.  Her remains were later put into a silver reliquary.  This was enshrined in a church in Geel named for her.  [The remains of Saint Gerebernus were removed from Geel to a town in Germany].  The old church of St. Dymphna in Geel was razed by fire in 1489. A new church (1532) still stands.

Saint Dymphna’s feast day on the ecumenical calendar is May 15.  She is honored in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.  She is usually depicted with a sword in her hand or with a fettered devil at her feet in obeisance. She is the patron saint for people afflicted with mental and neurological disorders.  She is also the intercessor for runaways and victims of incest.

Fairy Tale Girl
Unfortunately, though very intriguing and filled with adventure, St. Dymphna’s story resides more in the realm of fairy tale than journalistic fact.  It is one of the few instances where fiction creates reality.

Her story was first recorded in the 13th Century after it was learned the Belgians of Geel had been venerating her. [The discovery of fragments of two simple ancient sarcophagi – claimed

St. Dymphna
to have held the bodies of the martyrs, Dymphna and Gerebernus – and a quadrangular brick bearing two lines of letters (read as “DYMPNA”) were probably the origin of the veneration].  Her biography was commissioned by Guy I (1238 – 1247), Bishop of Cambrai. [Cambrai is a town in the French department of Nord (which is in extreme northwestern France abutting the Belgium border.]  The person who actually wrote the work, though, was a church canon named Pierre.  Pierre reported (honestly) that he had based her biography on an oral tradition that spanned centuries.  He also used what he considered compelling evidence of “inexplicable and miraculous” healings of the Geel mentally ill as further proof of her saintliness.

Dymphna’s story is tragically beautiful, but probably false.  There is a Saint Dymphna, though, and she is venerated.  Her life story, however, is too close to earlier folk tales to be taken as factual.  Probably the only thing that can inarguably be said of her is that she was born in Ireland and died in Belgium in a town later known for its “miraculous” cures for mental  illness.




Aug 18, 2012 6:44pm
Wow--you've done it again!!!
I loved this article--it is not only informative but thought provoking and entertaining. And I truly enjoy your views (The ones I agree with and the one's I don't) they are always provacative and wonderful--5 stars from me again
Aug 19, 2012 8:41pm
She is a piece of obscure iconography for certain -- thanks for checking her out.
Aug 18, 2012 11:59pm
An enjoyable read - as usual.
Aug 19, 2012 8:41pm
Thanks for reading.
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  1. "Cambrai." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  2. "Geel." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  3. "The King Who Wished to Marry His Daughter." en.wikipedia.org. 21/01/2012 <Web >
  4. "Dymphna." en.wikipedia.org. 21/01/2012 <Web >
  5. "St. Dymphna." newadvent.org. 21/01/2012 <Web >
  6. "A Brief Story of St. Dymphna, Patron of Victims of Nervous Disorders." natlshrinestdymphna.org. 21/01/2012 <Web >

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