Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox myths
In the Christian religion, St. Christopher is thought to have carried the child Jesus across a difficult stream. For this reason, he is associated with helping travelers and is, in fact, the patron (protector) saint of travelers. He is reported to have lived during the third century CE, though little historical evidence exists to support this. The best-known legend about St. Christopher states that he was a giant named Reprobus (or Offero in some versions) who wanted to serve the world's most powerful king. When he found out that Christ was the greatest king, he converted to Christianity. He then took up a post by a river that had no bridge and carried travelers across on his shoulders. One day he was carrying a small child who became so heavy that Christopher could barely make it across. The child turned out to be Christ himself, and Christopher had just carried the weight of the world's sins. He was then given the name Christopher, which translates as “bearer of Christ.” Another legend about St. Christopher suggests that, in addition to being a giant, he had the head of a dog. According to this legend, he was once a fierce cannibal who changed his ways after converting to Christianity. He was later executed for his Christian beliefs.
St. Christopher in Context
Although Christopher has been recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, there is no verifiable evidence that he ever existed. According to legend, he was executed by the Roman emperor Decius, who served as the leader of Rome from 249—251 ce. During his short reign, Decius was known for persecuting Christians, whom he saw as a threat to traditional Roman beliefs. This may explain why St. Christopher, portrayed as a loyal follower of Christ, is associated with this time period.
In 1969, the Roman Catholic Church removed St. Christopher's feast day from the universal calendar of saints, citing a lack of evidence for his existence. However, he still remains on the list of saints recognized by the Roman Catholic Church.
Key Themes and Symbols
One of the main themes of the myth of St. Christopher is loyalty. St. Christopher's dedication to Christ is why he begins helping people across the river without a bridge. It is also this loyalty that leads to his ultimate execution. The most notable symbol associated with St. Christopher is the dog; he is said to have had a dog's head, and the dog has long been a symbol of loyalty.
St. Christopher in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
St. Christopher was a popular figure in medieval Christian art. He was sometimes depicted with the head of a dog, and often shown carrying a young Jesus on his back. A famous example of the latter is the painting St. Christopher Carrying the Christ Child (1480-1490) by Hieronymus Bosch.
St. Christopher often appears in modern films, music, and literature as a symbolic protector of travelers. An image of St. Christopher is kept by a character in the classic film The Spirit of St. Louis (1957, based on Charles Lindbergh's real-life flight across the Atlantic Ocean). St. Christopher is also considered the patron saint of many cities, including Vilnius, Lithuania, and Havana, Cuba.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
St. Christopher may or may not have been an actual historical figure, but his description qualifies as “larger than life.” Some scholars have suggested that the man was referred to as “dog-faced” because he came from a region thought to be savage or primitive. This illustrates the problems of reading a text literally, instead of understanding the symbolic nature of some phrases or descriptions. Although people often use expressions in casual conversation—such as “I'm starving,” for example—it can be difficult to spot such expressions in ancient texts originally written in another language.
Write a brief account of a time when you or someone you know mistakenly interpreted a statement literally. If you cannot think of an example, try to come up with at least ten figures of speech that could be easily misunderstood by readers a thousand years in the future.