Cuthbert and the otters

There’s a story about the Celtic hermit-monk, St Cuthbert, and a pair of otters, which is very endearing – but whose truth, until recently, I doubted. It’s told by Bede, his biographer and near-contemporary.

An icon of Cuthbert praying - with otters in attendance

An icon of Cuthbert praying – with otters in attendance (from Aidan Hart Sacred Icons)

Cuthbert lived as a monk on Lindisfarne in the 7th century, and soon acquired a reputation of great holiness. While visiting another monastic community he was known to slip outside in the middle of the night and return in the morning. A fellow monk wanted to find out what he did, so one night he followed him from a distance. He discovered that Cuthbert waded into the sea up to his neck. When morning came he returned, knelt on the beach, and prayed. While he did so, “two otters bounded out of the water, stretched themselves out before him, warmed his feet with their breath, and tried to dry him with their fur. They finished, received his blessing, and slipped back to their watery home”.

It’s hardly surprising that Cuthbert had a reputation for closeness to nature! But when I frist read the story my thoughts were, “I wish this were true, but really, it’s too far-fetched; it must be pious legend.”

I thought the same about another story of Cuthbert – his association with crows – but that changed because of evidence from an unexpected source.

Cuthbert had sought greater solitude in later life and ended up on Inner Farne, a small, bleak island in the North Sea off the Northumbrian coast. Some ravens that shared the island decided that straw on the visitors’ house would make great nesting material. Cuthbert rebuked them – but they ignored him. So Cuthbert resorted to more drastic words: “In the name of Jesus Christ, depart forthwith!”. At this, the ravens departed.

Bede records what happened next: “Three days later, one of a pair of them returned, and finding Cuthbert digging, stood before him, with feathers outspread and head bowed low to its feet in a sign of grief. Using whatever signs it could to express contrition it very humbly asked pardon. When Cuthbert realised what it meant, he gave permission for them all to return. Back they came with a fitting gift – a lump of pig’s lard. Cuthbert would often show this to his visitors, inviting them to grease their shoes with it”.

Again a lovely story – but again one that my sceptical mind doubted severely.

Until I read a couple of articles on the BBC News website about crows bringing gifts. The one that really struck me was about a crow called Sheryl (geddit?!): “Sheryl brings me gifts. My first was presented to me with her wings splayed open and head bowed. I was very ceremoniously handed a yellow foam dart from a toy gun! She refused to take the dart back as she does when we play games. I felt truly honoured.”

What really struck me about the story is not just the fact that it brought the gift, but the gesture while doing so which evoked Bede’s description of Cuthbert’s raven. I suddenly realised that story had a ring of truth to it: he was accurately describing the bird’s behaviour. Whether the ravens were “repentant” in the way that Bede described is a little less clear- but perhaps the event itself is described accurately.

I wonder whether the same might be said of Cuthbert and the otters? Perhaps they did indeed play around his feet as described – but perhaps with less intention to warm him with their breath and dry him with their fur as the monk described? I’m realising that I may have underestimated the veracity of Bede’s ‘Life of Cuthbert’, which the story of the ravens unexpectedly reveals.

An otter sighting

I may have otters on the brain at the moment. I went for a birding trip last week to the new hide at Catcott Lows which overlooks a small, reed-lined lake. There was hardly a bird in sight, apart from a little egret on the far side and three little grebes in the middle. Then I became aware that there was a form in the water to my left – “What have we here?” I thought, as I saw the unmistakable shape of an otter swimming through. It cruised along, diving gracefully, emerging to swim further on and dive again. I watched it doing this for about five minutes before it disappeared. It was a stunning sighting!

The stories about Cuthbert are from “The Age of Bede”, Penguin (2004), p54 and p71

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