In this post we explore some of the myths and legends of the islet of Mont Saint Michel!
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Mont Saint Michel - ©CRT Normandy
Mont Saint Michel Abbey lies at the peak of a rocky islet less than half a mile off the coast of Normandy. One of France's most recognizable landmarks, it receives more than 3 million visitors each year. Both Mont Saint Michel and its bay are on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.
Interestingly, this islet was not always called Mont Saint Michel. Prior to the construction of the first church there in the 8th century, the island was called Mont Tombe. There are various legends relating to St. Michael and Mont Saint Michel which may explain the name-change. Here, we share some of these, and hope that it will inspire you to travel to Mont Saint Michel and find out more!
The Archangel Michael and the Bishop of Avranches
The story goes that one night in the year 708, the Archangel Michael, leader of God’s armies against Satan, appeared to St. Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, in a dream. The archangel ordered the bishop to build a sanctuary in his name at the top of the island. Aubert ignored this order; after all, it was only a dream. The next night, the Archangel Michael appeared again and repeated his order to build a sanctuary at the top of Mont Tombe in his honor. Again, Aubert was unconvinced - and in any case, building a church on overgrown and rocky terrain on an isolated mount surrounded by the sea would be an immense task. Thus, it suited the bishop to ignore this recurring dream.
Third apparition of the Archangel to Aubert, Avranches Bishop, in 706
Faced with such obstinacy, St. Michael realized that he would need to work on his powers of persuasion! As Aubert slept the following night, the Archangel Michael pressed his finger into Aubert’s forehead and repeated his command. Aubert awoke the next morning to find that the archangel had burned a hole in his head. He needed no further convincing! In late 709, a church was built and devoted to Archangel Michael.
St. Michael and the dragon
Apparently, it is no coincidence that St. Michael chose this location for the church. Some believe that it was on this mount that St. Michael won his mighty victory over the dragon, described in the New Testament’s Book of Revelations (12:7-9):
"And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not… the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent called the Devil and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him".
Saint Michel fighting the Evil above Mont Saint Michel
This leads us to the next legend, where St. Michael clashes with the devil once again.
Guy de Maupassant and the Legend of Mont Saint Michel
From one of the masters of the short story in French Literature, Guy de Maupassant’s short story, The Legend of Mont Saint Michel, gives an account of a battle between St. Michael and Satan. In this story, the narrator is at Mont Saint Michel, stunned by its beauty and in awe of its colossal size and delicate architecture. While he is gazing up in incredulity, a peasant approaches him and tells him the story of the great quarrel between St. Michael and the devil.
French Writer - Guy de Maupassant - 1850-1893
The story goes like this: to escape from his malicious neighbor Satan, St. Michael built himself a home on an islet in the open ocean (what would eventually be known as Mont Saint Michel). Only a saint like himself could build a residence of such splendor. For protection, he surrounded his island with treacherous quicksand. The devil lived in a humble cottage on the hill across the bay. He owned all the salt marshes and rich lands which produced the finest crops; St. Michael had nothing but sand.
After a few years of poverty, St. Michael became tired and decided to bargain with the devil. One morning, he walked across to the shore and found the devil eating his soup in his garden. When he saw the saint, he warmly invited him in for a drink. St. Michael had a glass of milk and told Satan of his proposition. He asked the devil for all his lands. He would work the land and then they would both share the crops equally. The lazy devil agreed to this, in exchange for some gray mullet fish from the waters around the mount. St. Michael agreed and they shook on it. St. Michael asked Satan whether he would prefer the part of the crops that grew above the ground or the part that grew underground. Satan declared that he would take everything that grew above the ground, St. Michael agreed and the devil was delighted.
Six months later, the lands had produced nothing but carrots, turnips, onions and parsnips, which all grew underground. Satan was furious. He declared St. Michael a trickster and said the deal was off. St. Michael told the devil how sorry he was about this unfortunate turn of events and offered to give him everything that grew in the ground the next year.
The following year, all of Satan’s lands were covered with golden wheat, giant oats, peas, cabbage, artichokes, and everything that thrives above ground. Once again, Satan received nothing, and this time he took back his fields in anger and would not hear another word from his cunning neighbor.
A whole year passed and St. Michael could do nothing but watch in frustration as the devil worked his fertile lands below and reaped his harvest. St. Michael decided he would have his revenge on this smug devil, and he went to invite him to dinner the following week. He told Satan that he regretted what had happened in the past and did not want there to be any hard feelings between them. This dinner was meant as a peace-offering. The greedy Satan eagerly accepted, put on his finest clothes and set out for the castle.
St. Michael had prepared a magnificent meal. They ate some delicious tender lamb from the salt-marshes, vegetables which melted in the mouth and a hot pancake covered with melted butter. They also enjoyed some of Normandy’s best sparkling cider and apple brandy. The devil drank and ate to his heart's content until he was so drunk and full that he felt quite nauseous.
St. Michael saw his chance and in a fit of anger chased Satan out of the castle with a stick. Satan was sick, and no match for St. Michael. Before long he was cornered at the top of the highest tower. On a fine day, the devil might have stopped to enjoy the breath-taking views over Normandy, but on this occasion, the devil was concerned only with escaping the wrath of St. Michael. However, there was no escape and the saint gave the devil an almighty kick up the rear, launching him across the bay like a cannonball. He landed heavily by the town of Mortain, sinking his claws deep into the rock, leaving his traces there for all eternity.
Evil claws traces in Mortain - by the cascades
According to this peasant from Guy de Maupassant’s short story, this is how St. Michael vanquished the devil.
Visit Mont Saint Michel
We hope that these stories have left you eager to find out more about St. Michael and Mont Saint Michel! Why not travel there to experience the magnificence of the abbey and its surroundings for yourselves? Check out our itineraries in Normandy, which include trips to Mont Saint Michel. We will organize for a private guide to take you off the beaten track during your visit to the village and the abbey, avoiding the tourist crowds.
We can also arrange a guided tour of the bay area, where the English-speaking guide will talk about the local flora and fauna and the history of the region. This will also be a chance for you to ask a local what they think about the legends of Mont Saint Michel!