Happy St. Vinny’s Day!
Today marks the 843rd anniversary of a very strange voyage involving two ravens and a corpse. By command of King Afonso Henriques, on January 22, 1173, a ship set out to make the 300-km journey from the southernmost point of Portugal and carry the remains of Saint Vincent the Martyr — the patron saint of Lisbon, sailors, vinegar-makers, and vintners — from Sagres to Lisbon.
Interesting non-denominational factoid: In 1934, Sagres became the name of the second of Portugal’s two most famous local beers (Super Bock was founded seven years earlier).
St. Vincent, before he got the “St.” part, was a fourth-century Iberian deacon. In the year 304, he was imprisoned in Valencia (in what’s still known in Portugal as the “enemy empire of Spain”) for his fearless manner of preaching the word of God, something a lot of Lisbon-dwellers feel should happen to metro evangelists today.
He was offered freedom if he agreed to throw the Bible into the fire, which he refused. He was tortured for this, viciously, stretched on the rack, his skin torn with iron hooks, his would salted, before getting burned alive, But before he died, he managed to convert his jailer, who helped get his body a proper burial.
Well, sort of proper.
One legend says that Vincent’s body was set out to sea by his followers so that the vultures couldn’t do what vultures do best. Accompanying his body was a conspiracy of ravens (If you’re Portuguese, that means a flock, if you’re an English speaker, shame on you for not knowing. Other names for a flock of ravens? An unkindness of ravens, a constable of ravens).
Anyway. The ravens were with the corpse the entire way out of the enemy empire, until it washed ashore 6 km from Sagres. St. Vincent’s body was found and enshrined on the cape.
The ravens never left him (conspiracies never do), even after he was in the ground.
But what became known as Cape St. Vincent — Cabo São Vicente — has been considered sacred ground even before this voyage: Neolithic monoliths still stand in this area today. The ancient Greeks called it the Land of Serpents, while the Romans considered it a magical place with the “largest sunset in existence” marking the edge of the world.
When King Afonso demanded the body be brought to the capital 870 years later, a pair of ravens (so, not a conspiracy) accompanied the boat that carried St. Vincent’s body on its journey. This pair of stowaways later became a symbol of the capital: their image is in Lisbon’s coat of arms.
Sadly, ravens can no longer be found among the city’s 134 species of birds. There could be an explanation: St. Vincent’s tomb in Lisbon was destroyed by a fire that broke out following the devastating earthquake of 1755.
Get the whole story here.
Check out the monoliths.