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January 17: Saint Anthony the Abbot, The Great, or The Father of Monks

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Originally written on January 17, 2021. Updated 2023

According to traditions, Saint Anthony the Abbot, celebrated on this day, is Patron Saint of Amputees, animals, basket makers, brush makers, butchers, cemetery workers, domestic animals, epileptics, gravediggers, hermits, skin diseases, but also hogs, pigs and swine.

The life of Anthony will remind many people of Saint Francis of Assisi. At 20, he was so moved by the Gospel message, “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21b), that he actually did just that with his large inheritance. However, he is different from Francis in that most of his life was spent in solitude. He saw the world completely covered with snares, and gave the Church and the world the witness of solitary asceticism and prayer. Either way, despite his solitude, Anthony drew many people to himself for spiritual healing and guidance.
At 54, he responded to many requests and founded a sort of monastery of scattered cells as he had great fear of “stately buildings and well-laden tables.”
At 60, he hoped to be a martyr in the renewed Roman persecution of 311, fearlessly exposing himself to danger while giving moral and material support to those in prison while, at 88, he was fighting the Arian heresy, that massive trauma from which it took the Church centuries to recover.
Anthony is associated in art with a T-shaped cross, a pig and a book. The pig and the cross are symbols of his valiant warfare with the devil: the cross his constant means of power over evil spirits, the pig a symbol of the devil himself. The book recalls his preference for “the book of nature” over the printed word. He died in solitude at age 105.
St Anthony requested to be buried secretly in an unmarked grave. Therefore, the exact location of his tomb is unknown even though several traditions have arisen about his relics. One tradition holds that his tomb rests directly under St Anthony’s Monastery in Egypt which was built close to where St Anthony had lived as a hermit. A second tradition holds that his tomb was discovered and that some of these relics were transported to France.

There are a variety of stories, traditions and legends about the Saint. For istance, interestingly, “St. Anthony’s fire”, the tormenting (and yes, fiery!) skin flare (or shingles, herpes zoster), is named after him. In addition, for Italians, St. Anthony is the protector of animals. Until a few years ago, farmers were given an image of St. Anthony to hang on their stalls to protect the sheep, the oxen and all the farm animals.
Pane benedetto (or “blessed bread”) is distributed on his feast day, January 17th, day of the blessing of the animals. And he was Egyptian, not Italian!
In any case, St. Anthony Abbot, much venerated throughout Italy, is a hermit-saint who died in the deserts of Egypt on January 17th in the fourth century, not to be confused with St. Anthony of Padua, a Franciscan saint of the thirteenth century.
According to the legend, during his periods of prayer and fasting in the desert, his only companions were the animals and, occasionally, the local people brought him bread. Like most Italian feast days, the Feast of St. Anthony is intertwined with the ancient Roman world. The long period between the winter solstice and summer equinox was replete with festivities and rites of purification, of the animals, the fields, the people, as propitious offerings for fertility and regeneration of the cosmos. Today, under the veil of religious feast days, local customs are tied to those ancient rites of fecundity and regeneration. The blessing of domestic animals on the Feast of St. Anthony was considered auspicious, keeping away evil forces from the home and land, bringing fertility, fecundity.
A classic element of the lives of most hermit saints is the continual struggle against tempting and tormenting demons during their periods of isolation. A Sardinian legend has it that during his life there was no fire in the world and the people appealed to St. Anthony, who went to knock on Hell’s gate, accompanied by his little piglet (the hermit’s only companion). The terrified devils, who knew of his powers and considered him invincible, refused to open the door. The piglet, however, squeezed in through a slit and frolicked about the devils’ abode, tormenting them. The desperate devils beseeched St. Anthony to come into Hell to get the pig and, as the Saint and the joyful piglet returned to earth, the Saint’s walking stick caught fire and so warmth was brought to earth. St Anthony’s iconographic symbols in art are the walking stick and the piglet and he is the bearer of fire, that is, life.
And, not by chance, the night before his feast, in rural areas, it is still customary to light huge bonfires.
The ashes from these bonfires were once considered amulets and since time immemorial, fire has represented purification. In this case, the burning of the old year, including all its evils and illnesses. In popular culture, St. Anthony is the dominator of fire and the healer of shingles, also known as “St. Anthony’s fire”. In the middle ages, the lard of a pig was used as a salve for shingles, perhaps accounting for the association of St. Anthony with this illness.

St. Anthony Abbot is one of the most revered saints in Abruzzo region, in central Italy, as protector of animals, stables and preservers them from the dangers of fire. The religious feasts celebrating Saint Anthony are linked to ancient medieval legends, in particular to the “sacred fire” and the “pig”.
In regards to Saint Anthony’s pig there are two legends. In first one, the Saint became victorious over a demon with whom he was fighting, and he won the battle by turning the demon into a piglet, while in the second, the Saint heals a pig that will follow him everywhere, which starts the legend that makes Saint Anthony the protector of the animals….

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