“The Sanctuary of Saint Michael the Archangel is famous not for the splendor of its marbles, but for the miraculous events that took place here: in its form it is modest, but rich in heavenly virtues, because Saint Michael the Archangel himself built and consecrated it, and, mindful of human weakness, he himself descended from heaven so that at that time people could become participants in the works of God.Anonymous author, circa the first millenium A.D., in Bogacki, 2017, p. 3.
The Fifth Stop on the Line
In Puglia (Apulia), the south-eastern region of Italy, on Mount Gargano, in the city of Monte Sant’ Angelo, there is the most famous Roman Catholic Sanctuary, built in honour of Saint Michael the Archangel. Located atop a mountain, encrusted in white coat of buildings, on a peninsula of land surrounded by the Adriatic Sea, there is an extraordinary, one-of-a-kind Basilica, which consists of buildings clustered around the cave, testifying to its centuries-old tradition and history. For centuries it has been a place of prayer and reconciliation, famous throughout the Christian world. On the other side, Monte Gargano is the source of many legendary stories.
I had just returned from the Piedmont region and its fabulous sanctuary on Saint Michael’s Line, Sacra di San Michele, when another flight was yet waiting for me from Krakow to Bari. After five days since my return from Torino, I landed together with my three charming companions in the Puglia region, just on the eve of All Saints’ Day, which we spent in Giovinazzo, on the sunny Adriatic coast. On All Souls’ Day, November 2, we took a train from there to Foggia, where our driver, Leonardo, had already been waiting for us and took us to Monte Sant’Angelo, also known as Monte Gargano. It was a good day to meet Saint Michael. This was the All Souls’ Day, also known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. It is a day of prayer and remembrance for the faithful, who died. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Saint Michael the Archangel, regardless of his other functions, plays the role of a guide of souls to the Afterlife, that is to say, a psychopomp. In such a role, he usually appears in the Greek and Oriental Orthodox traditions. In art, we can find many examples of images of the dying man, with the devil at their side, and Saint Michael with a sword to defend the soul and lead it to the afterlife. This day was also the first All Souls’ Day after the loss of my beloved Godmother, who died of cancer last August. With my intention of praying for her soul, I went to the Archangel.
At the Foot of Saint Michael’s Mount
Monte Sant’Angelo is the highest inhabited point of the Gargano Peninsula, which reaches 800 metres (2625 feet) above sea level. Since 2011, the town has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the Basilica of Saint Michael. We climbed there by car driving on the road from Foggia. Right at the foot of the mountain, the road turns into a swirling serpentine all the way up to the Basilica. However, the white buildings of the town are visible from afar against the greenery of the Peninsula. Since we turned towards the coastline and found ourselves on more local roads zigzagging the Gargano Peninsula, our car was being chased by the shadows of surrounding walls of rock, leading up to the sacred mountain. At the top of the ridge, white outlines of buildings were slowly emerging in the background of the blue sky, and with every turn up along the winding road, they were becoming more and more visible and detailed.
‘Monte Sant’ Angelo up on the left’, said Leonardo.
And in a minute, we kept turning right, while climbing up a coiled road, taking us to the white city of the Archangel and his cave.
The origins of the Sanctuary date back to the end of the fifth century and to the first decades of the sixth century. The oldest written sources testifying to an ancient tradition of this place are two letters of Pope Gelasius I, written at the turn of 493 and 494. The first of them was addressed to Bishop Giusto of Larino, and the second to Bishop Herculentius of Potenza (492-496). There is also a brief account in The Martyrologium Hieronymianum (Martyrologium sancti Hieronymi or simly, the Martyrology of Jerome), under the date of September 29. Another written source is Liber de apparitione sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano, written anonymously between the sixth and tenth centuries. It is a hagiographical and composite foundation myth of Monte Sant’ Angelo, a compilation of legends on the apparitions of Saint Michael the Archangel. The final version was possibly created around 900 but a more ancient written versions of the legend had already circulated between 800 and 850. Those were compiled on the ground of earlier versions. Accordingly, the composition of the story or rather stories must already have appeared between 750 to 800. Yet, a contemporaneous anonymous writer still mentions an original version of the legend, which is estimated even for the sixth century, so one century after the described apparitions had occured.
The Apparitio and the Episode of the Bull
The text, also known as the Golden Legend, is a famous report that highlights for the first time the miracles done by the Archangel and thus emphasises the features of Saint Michael. Its eighth-century version describes in detail and at times evocatively three miraculous events that gave rise to the cult of Saint Michael the Archangel on Mount Gargano. These events are more intertwined to anient apocryphal traditions than to historic records, and are related to Saint Michael’s apparitions, three of which, represented in a simple, yet colorful way in the account, took place in the fifth century. Apart from these three apparitions described by the Golden Legend, there was also the fourth one, as miraculous as the previous ones, which took place several centuries later.
The first apparition of the Archangel is referred to as the “Episode of the lost bull”. According to the Apparitio, Saint Michael the Archangel appeared near a city called Sipontus (Siponto) in 490. A rich landowner lived there and had sheep and cattle that were grazing about the mountains. One day, he was informed that the most beautiful bull from his herd, grazing in the hills of Gargano, strayed and, instead of returning to the stables in the evening, went to the cave at the top of the hill. That fact upset the bull’s owner, who armed with bow and arrow, and accompanied by a multitude of servants went looking for the animal. After long searches in all possible places, the owner together with his men finally found the bull on the top of the mountain, kneeling at the entrance to the cave. In anger, the rich man drew his bow and fired a poisoned arrow at it to put to death the disobedient animal, but instead of striking the bull, the arrow inexplicably reversed its direction, turned back and struck the shooter instead.
“[I]t happened that one bull separated himself from the rest and climbed to the top of the mountain. When the herd came in and this bull’s absence was discovered, the landowner mustered a band of his people to track it up the mountain trails, and they finally found the animal standing in the mouth of a cave at the top. The owner, annoyed at the bull for having wandered off alone, aimed a poisoned arrow at it, but the arrow came back, as if turned about by the wind, and struck the one who had launched it”.Anonymous author, Liber de apparitione sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano, The First Apparition of Saint Michael or the Episode of the Lost Bull (fragment), in Kosloski, 2019.
Shocked by this incident, the owner of the bull went to the local bishop to tell him of the strange event that took place on the top of the mountain. It is agreed that the bishop who heard about this even was the contemporaneous Bishop of Siponto (modern-day Manfredonia), Lorenzo Maiorano. Having heard about what happened, he pronounced a three-day fast and for all citizens to ask God for an answer. When the last day of prayers was approaching the evening, Saint Michael the Archangel appeared to the bishop and spoke to him with these words:
“Know that it was by my will that the man was struck by his arrow. I am the Archangel Michael, and I have chosen to dwell in that place on earth and to keep it safe. I wished by that sign to indicate that I watch over the place and guard it.”Anonymous author, Liber de apparitione sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano, The First Apparition of Saint Michael or the Episode of the Lost Bull (fragment), in Kosloski, 2019.
The Identity of the Landowner
After some modern scholars, the rich landowner from the above cited fragment of the Apparitio, is identified with Elvio Emanuele, the leader of the army of Siponto. Nevertheless, there are written and oral versions of an ancient Apulian myth, calling the landowner Garganus, which brings to mind the name of a historical and geographical sub-region in the province of Apulia, where the story is said to have happened, namely Gargano Peninsula or more precisely Monte Gargano. Some versions additionaly say that Garganus was not only wounded but actually killed by the reversed arrow, and consequently, these were his servants who eventually informed the bishop. When I first read that story I was surprised and even concerned that Saint Michael purposely hurt the landowner or even caused his death. There are also questions about Garganus’ behaviour: why was he so determined to kill his most beautiful animal after a long search for it? Could it be just because the animal had strayed from the heard? Answers to those questions emerge only if we omit a historic context of the the story and try to understand its ancient underlying.
The Story Behind the Name
When I visited the Gargano Peninsula as a teenager, together with my two younger sisters, we went to the coastal town of Vieste, located in Gargano National Park, and at the very edge of the Gargano Peninsula. Although we had chosen that place for purely leisure purposes, and I was not so fond of archaeology yet at that time, one evening, when the heat was not so overwhelming, we decided to take part in a guided tour around Vieste. I heard then for the very first time about mysterious peoples inhabiting once the lands, and legendary connections of that region with a race of giants, who were led by the gereatest of all, Garganus; his name later went down in local tradition, and so gave the name of the Peninsla. Needless to say, at that time I had not been aware of the fact that there was a continution of the story with Saint Michael as a heveanly hero, and of his mountain that he retrived once from evil spirits having guarded it for centuries. I was not even aware of the Sanctuary atop Monte Sant’ Angelo, lying in the proximity …
As the legend goes, Gargan or Garganus was a name of a supernatural creature and inhabitant of the cave on top of the mount, where Saint Michael later appeared. It was possibly a giant or a pagan deity, or both … Once, bloody sacrifices (possibly also including humans) were offered in front of the cave to ensure the well-being of the local population. Hence, the poisoned arrow launched at the bull may have been turned back by the Archangel because he wanted to say – no more offerings to the evil. Such a role of Garganus, as presented in the Apparitio, is similar to that played by a giant or a dragon, taking into possession a mountain or a cave and spreading terror among local people until a hero kills it and frees his human victims from evil powers. The latter archetype can be easily recognised in the character of Saint Michael slaying the dragon, who himself reveals that he punished Garganus (or Gargan) – supposedly the pagan giant deity of the cave, and placed the cave on the mount under his own special protection. This is why the name of Monte Gargano changed its dedication to Saint Michael (Monte Sant’Angelo).
Garganus Means Giant
A later tradition of a giant of similar name, Garganeus, is retold by the twelfth century French poem Florimont by Aymon de Varennes. That giant also lives on Mount Garganus, devours humans and is finally killed by the hero, who once lived on the opposite site of the Adriatic Sea. Such stories of man-eating giants actually abound in the French folklore; apart from François Rabelais’ giant, Gargantua, who comes to life in the sixteenth century, giants had apparently inhabited the Caves of Gargas in the Pyrenees region of France. There is also an interesting medieval Arthurian legend, referring to another great sanctuary of Saint Michael, also constructed on the Line, namely Mont Saint Michel, in Normandy.
The account can be read in mid-twelfth century Historia regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and in the fourteenth century Alliterative Morte Arthure. The legend goes that Arthur freed the people of Mont Saint Michel from a blood-thirty giant, who had settled there in the pagan times, as much as did the giant from Saint Michael’s Mount, in Cornwall. The latter is mostly known from the Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean (1734). Also, an Icelandic tradition has its gaint, who may be hidden under the term gargann, found among poetic names for snakes or dragons. Although it has not been yet fully explained, the word may also refer to a legendary giant or dragon, which once was the owner of a mountain.
Giants as Creatures from the Stone Age
Yet, there is much more to the story to be told. Many modern scholars have been highly interested in the origins and remnants of the literary figure of Gargantua. Hence, they studied his name, including the derivation of the prefix gar– from a pre-Indoeuropean root. After René Herval, the common root of these similar names ascribed to giants, who went down in European folklore, could be gal – ‘stone’, and the reduplicated version, galgal would indicate accumulation and probably give the meaning tumulus, a stone and earth structure typical of a prehistoric site. From galgal, the word gargas and Mount Garganus may have originated.
Furthermore, there is Gilgal (Galgala or Galgalatokai) of the 12 Stones in Western Palestine, then, the name of Saint Galganus from Sienna, whose story is curiously also marked by the apparition of Saint Michael. Those linguistic connections place Garganus, and so ancient giants, in the prehistoric cluture of megalithic stone structures, which are asrcibed by numerous legendary accounts to giants, who are said to have been their designers and engineers. On the other side, they are predominated as evil creatures related to fallen angels.
From the Giant to the Landowner
In Virgil (70-19BC) and Horace (65-27BC), the name Garganus is typically attached to a mountain, whereas in folklore, he is a wealthy man and landowner, and lives on a mountain, which is named after him. An Italian scholar, Giovanni Battista Bronzini claims that the name Garganus is likely to have originated as a personal name since palce-names have different endings, and so there is a hypothesis that Gargan was an ancient personification of an Oriental deity, and a remnant of a primitive Asian cult transplanted to Europe that reemerges in the two sites now dedicated to the Archangel, precisely, Monte Gargano and Mont Saint Michel (once called Mont-Gargan or Mont-de-Gargan). An Apulian legend about a man-eating giant, Gargan, a monstrous lord of the cave atop the mountain is thus echoed in the Apparitio, where Gargan is simply referred to as the owner of the herd in the First Apparition.
Still during his first appearing to the bishop of Siponto, Saint Michael also asked him to have his sanctuary loacted atop the mountain, in the cave, where he had demonstrated his powers, and where people could look for his intercession.
“Where the rock opens, human sins will be forgiven… The prayers you will offer to God here will be answered. Go to the mountains and dedicate this cave for Christian worship”.Anonymous author, Liber de apparitione sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano, The First Apparition of Saint Michael or the Episode of the Lost Bull (fragment), in Bogacki, 2017, p. 5.
From Human Fear to the Angelic Victory
As the Apparition goes, because the Monte Gargano was a mysterious and almost inaccessible mountain, and was also a place of pagan worship, the bishop hesitated for a long time before deciding to fulfil the Archangel’s command. This type of dilemmas accompanying the people appointed by the Archangel to establish his sanctuaries also appear in other accounts on the creation of the seven monasteries along Saint Michael’s Line; the Bishop of Avranches, Saint Aubert, also delayed the construction of the monastery due to pagan rituals taking place on the site designated by the Archangel, whereas Saint Giovanni, who initiated Sacra di San Michele, primarily started the construction of the sanctuary in the wrong place and was suggestively corrected by the heavenly forces.
Despite all that hesitancy, so typical of human nature, even of the saints appointed by God, Saint Michael’s sanctuaries were built along the Line, staring with the one on Monte Gargano, the place once dedicated to the pagan deity and giant. Saint Michael’s apparitions are an invitation given to man to humble himself before the majesty of God. Christians from all over the world have come to the sanctuary of Celestial Basislica, wchich is seen as the house of God and the gate of heaven. They have chosen that place to find peace and forgiveness in the arms of God’s love. For centuries, the holy cave has been the centre of countless pilgrimages, a place of prayer, and, above all, a place of reconciliation with God.
Among the pilgrims who visited this place were many popes, rulers, numerous government leaders, and ministers, as well as many saints, and thousands of pilgrims from all nations. In this special place, all of them found forgiveness, hope and peace of mind through the powerful intercession of Saint Michael the Archangel. Over the course of fifteen centuries, pilgrims flock there to honour Saint Michael, the Prince of the Heavenly Hosts, preaching, like he does, with all their life, “Who is like God!”
Featured image: The frontispiece with Saint Michael fighting the devil at the entrance to the Sanctuary on atrio superiore (the upper courtyard). Photos by Magdalena Wrona and Joanna Pyrgies. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.
Bogacki, P.J., 2017. Przewodnik po Sanktuarium Św. Michała Archanioła na Górze Gargano. Monte Sant’ Angelo: Wydawnictwo “Michael”, 7th Edition.
Kosloski, P., 2019. ‘This sanctuary of St. Michael was not consecrated by human hands’, in Philip Kosloski. (https://www.philipkosloski.com/this-sanctuary-of-st-michael-was-not-consecrated-by-human-hands/,2023, accessed 9th September, 2023].
Oleschko, H., 2023. ‘Płynąc z psychopompposem, part 2’, in Któż jak Bóg. Dwumiesiecznik o aniołach i życiu duchowym, no 3 (183), May-June, 2023, pp. 22-24.
Ruggerini, M. E., 2001. ‘St Michael and the Dragon from Scripture to Hagiography’, in Monsters and the Monstrous in Medieval Northwest Europe. Mediaevalia Groningana, Vo. III, Olsen, pp. 23-58. K. E. and Houwen, L.A.J.R., eds. Leuven – Paris -Sterling, Virginia: Peeters.