Saint Anthony

By Robert Chambers

Editors’ Note: This is an excerpt from Chambers’ work The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character, Volume 2. (1864 and 1869). This book and its excerpt are in the public domain. We have added some annotations, links, and images and performed some slight editing.

January 17th is the feast day [1] for St. Anthony. [2]

Antonius (Anthony), reputed as amongst the earliest of anchorets [3], and commonly called the Patriarch of Monks, was a native of Egypt, born about the year 251. After leading an ascetic life for some time in his native village [4], he withdrew from human society and took up his abode in a cave. His abstinence, his self-inflicted punishments, the temptations of the evil one, the assaults of demons, and the efficacy of his prayers, are all narrated by Saint Athanasius.[5] His manner of life was imitated by a great number of persons, who occasionally resorted to him for advice and instruction. Antonius seems indeed to have been the founder of the solitary mode of living, which soon extended from Egypt into other countries. During the persecution under Maximinus, about the year 310, [6] some of the solitaries were seized in the wilderness, and suffered martyrdom at Alexandria, whither Antonius accompanied them, but was not subjected to punishment. After his return, he retired farther into the desert, but went on one occasion to Alexandria in order to preach against the Arians. [7]

The two monastic orders of St. Anthony originated long after the time of the saint,—one in Dauphine (Dauphiné), in the eleventh century; [8] and the other, a military order, in Hainault, in the fourteenth century. [9] In Dauphine, the people were cured of the erysipelas, by the aid, as they thought, of St. Anthony; and the disease was afterwards called St. Anthony’s Fire. [10]

It is scarcely necessary to remark that St. Anthony is one of the most notable of all the saints in the Roman Catholic calendar. One cannot travel anywhere in Europe at the present day, and particularly in Italy, without finding, in churches and monasteries, and the habits and familiar ideas of the people, abundant memorials of this early Egyptian anchorite. Even in Scotland, at Leith, a street reveals by its name where a monastery of St. Anthony once stood; while, on the hill of Arthur’s Seat, overhanging Edinburgh, we still see a fragment of a small church that had been dedicated to him, and a fountain called St. Anton’s Well. [11]

St Anthony’s Chapel, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The Temptations of St. Anthony have, through St. Athanasius’s memoir, become one of the most familiar of European ideas. Scores of artists from Salvator Rosa downwards, [12] have exerted their talents in depicting these mystic occurrences. Satan, we are informed, first tried, by befuddling his thoughts, to divert him from the design of becoming a monk. Then he appeared to him in the form successively of a handsome woman and a black boy, but without in the least disturbing him. Angry at the defeat, Satan and a multitude of attendant fiends fell upon him during the night, and he was found in his cell in the morning lying to all appearance dead. On another occasion, they expressed their rage by making such a dreadful noise that the walls of his cell shook. ‘They transformed themselves into shapes of all sorts of beasts, lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves; every one of which moved and acted agreeably to the creatures which they represented: the lion roaring and seeming to make towards him; the bull to butt; the serpent to creep; and the wolf to run at him, and so, in short, all the rest; so that Anthony was tortured and mangled by them so grievously that his bodily pain was greater than before.’ But, as it were laughingly, he taunted them, and the devils gnashed their teeth. This continued till the roof of his cell opened, a beam of light shot down, the devils became speechless, Anthony’s pain ceased, and the roof closed again.

Stained glass roundel depicting Saint Anthony fighting the demons and beasts. High Gothic German, 1532-1533. (Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

St. Anthony has been long recognized as the patron and protector [13] of the lower animals, and particularly of pigs. [14] Quaint old Fuller, in his Worthies, [15] says:

‘St. Anthony is universally known for the patron of hogs, having a pig for his page in all pictures, though for what reason is unknown, except, because being a hermit, and having a cell or hole digged in the earth, and having his general repast on roots, he and hogs did in some sort enter-common both in their diet and lodging.’ 

The Temptation of St Anthony (note the book and the pig). Lelio Orsi, 1570s. Oil on canvas. Held at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Stow, in his Survey, [16] mentions a curious custom prevalent in his time in the London markets: 

‘The officers in this city,’ he says, ‘did divers times take from the market people, pigs starved or otherwise unwholesome for man’s sustenance; these they did slit in the ear. One of the proctors of St. Anthony’s Hospital tied a bell about the neck, and let it feed upon the dunghills; no one would hurt or take it up; but if any one gave it bread or other feeding, such it would know, watch for, and daily follow, whining till it had somewhat given it; whereupon was raised a proverb, such a one will follow such a one, and whine as if it were an Anthony pig.’ 

This custom was generally observed, and to it we are indebted for the still-used proverbial simile—“Like a tantony pig.”

At Rome, on St. Anthony’s day, the religious service termed the Benediction of Beasts is annually performed in the church dedicated to him, near Santa Maria Maggiore. It lasts for some days; for not only every Roman, from the pontiff to the peasant, who has a horse, mule, or ass, sends his cattle to be blessed at St. Anthony’s shrine; but all the English scud their job-horses and favourite dogs, and for the small offering of a couple of Paoli [17] get them sprinkled, sanctified, and placed under the immediate protection of the saint. A similar custom is observed on the same day at Madrid [18] and many other places.

From 2011, A Benediction of the Beasts. (Benedizione delle Bestie). Blessing for St Anthony’s Day.


This excerpt was adapted from the very excellent Hillman’s Hyperlinked and Searchable Chambers’ Book of Days. (Here)

  1. Orthodox and Catholic Churches.
  2. Anthony (also Antony, Antonious, Antonius) the Great; the Hermit; of Thebes; of Egypt; the Anchorite; of the Desert; Father of All Monks; Father of Monasticism. He is considered to be one of the Desert Fathers. (Not to be confused with the much later Saint Anthony of Padua)
  3. Anchorite. See here for definition and also the difference between hermits and Anchorites. (Note: all Anchorites were hermits but not all hermits were Anchorites.) (See also the more extreme and slightly later Stylites [stylobites, stylobates]— again, all hermits.)
  4. Said to be Coma, near Heracleopolis Magna in early CE Lower Egypt. Sited near the modern towns of Silo, Izbat Fanus, Qahla, and Dayr Barawah. [source]
  5. You can read and download a copy of Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony here or listen to it via LibriVox.
  6. This seems to be a mistake on Chambers’ part. Maximinus Thrax (of Thrace) ruled only from 235 to 238. It is probable that he rather meant Maximian, one of the Diocletian rulers (286-305). Chambers also most likely has the year wrong: Not only were neither Maximinus nor Maximian in power in 310, but in 311, Galerius began nullifying persecution of Christians and in 313, Constantine and Licinius passed the Edict of Milan.
  7. Arianism depends, in part, on the view of the nature of God, Jesus, and (a bit of a supporting player) the Holy Spirit. Arian (named for Arius, and not a term used by Arians — and, oh yeah, not remotely related to anything “Aryan”) beliefs viewed Jesus as a later component of God the Father (therefore not of one substance, not quite equal). Because this went against the view of the Trinity (once codified) as well as something less or other than monotheistic (if Jesus and God are different but equal, these are two gods), the Arian beliefs would recur in Early and Medieval Christianity as heresy.
  8. The Hospitallers (the Canons Regular, the Hospital Brotherhood, the Order) of Saint Anthony, founded circa 1095 by Gaston de Dauphine of Valloire.
  9. The Order of the Knights of Saint Anthony (also known as The Order of Saint Anthony), founded 1382 by Albert of Bavaria, Count of Hainault, Holland, and Zealand.
  10. Which also referred to both ergotism and shingles. Today, Saint Anthony is a patron of skin diseases.
  11. Arthur’s Seat, the well, and the ruins of the chapel can all be found at Holyrood Park.
  12. Dissertations have been written on this stuff. See: “Temptation of St. Anthony in visual arts” on Wikipedia (note follows under “See Also” Section). (Check also your friendly neighborhood scholarly research engines, JSTOR and the rest.)
  13. He is the patron and protector of animals (particularly domestic animals), skin diseases, farmers, butchers, basket makers, brush makers, grave diggers, swineherds.
  14. Pigs form part of the iconography of this saint. He is often pictured with them, as well as bells, books, the Tau cross (a T-shaped cross), or these items in combination. (And/or the Temptations —gold, demons, animals — and/or a hermit/cave setting, sometimes paired with St. Paul the Hermit.)
  15. Thomas Fuller, “History of the Worthies of Britain” (1662)
  16. The Survey of London by John Stow, originally published 1598. A later edition is available on Project Gutenberg.
  17. Plural of paolo, a pontifical coin. The popular name, at the time Chambers was writing of the 10 baiocchi coin of the Papal States.
  18. In Spain, bonfires are also often lit for this day.

See Also:

Diocletian Persecution of Christianity (Wikipedia)

Full text version of “Butler’s Lives of the Saints, complete edition” (Project Gutenberg, Bartleby, and LibriVox all have versions, as well.)

McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia

”Saint Anthony of Egypt,” Saint of the Day (Franciscan Media)

  • A quick note about our sources and linking. We do link frequently to popular sites, especially Wikipedia. We vet every source, read every source, and link or note nothing that appears to be corrupt in any way (at the time of publishing). This is not meant, by any stretch, to be a scholarly resource (obvi), although we’d be flattered if it were a jumping-off point. We doubt it’s that. Not for nothing, however, we never put up the first link we find; we always choose among several. If anyone wishes to sponsor our strange endeavors, we’d love to use actual, like, serious links to academic journals and such. (Just kidding, although we do have a Tip Jar.) But, as it is, we aim to provide links that both will benefit a popular, general audience and links that are not behind paywalls. While we believe in paying everyone for their work, we’re all for free information, too, especially at this rather rudimentary level.

In memoriam, our beloved lost Anthony. Rest In Peace. You are missed.


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