Those who work for the emergency services are often said to be “a bit like guardian angels”; sometimes they are all that stand between members of the public and serious harm. But did you know the emergency services - like many institutions - has traditionally had their own protectors of a more spiritual kind and that one of them, Saint Michael, is an actual angel of Biblical proportions?
It’s certainly no surprise that patron saints offering divine assistance would be adopted by emergency workers, given that they walk into danger on a day-to-day basis. In fact, the practice of turning to divine protection pre-dates Christianity; even the ancient forerunners of our emergency services had their otherworldly helpers, invoking a whole host of pagan deities in their fight against disasters.
As we always try to stress here at NESM, the emergency services do not exist in a vacuum. Their story is deeply interwoven with our social and cultural history, reflecting the societies they exist to serve. With that in mind, let’s take a spiritual journey through the sometimes-overlooked religious history of the emergency services…
Gods of fire (and of other emergencies)
Long before the 999 services we know started to appear in the 19th century, our ancestors sought to deal with disasters. The ancient world might not have had professional public service 'firefighters', police officers' or 'paramedics', but there are plenty of examples of nascent emergency workers trying to help in crisis situations when fire broke out or people were injured.
Given that religion in the ancient world was famously pantheistic, with gods and goddesses for everything and anything (I’m looking at you Cardea, Roman goddess of door hinges) it was natural that people working in emergency situations should call on the aid of some very specific divinities.
The ancient Roman world has particularly good examples in the realm of fire prevention. Rome itself, like many large cities, was under constant threat of fire. In 64 AD the Great Fire of Rome destroyed huge swathes of the city and there were various 'bucket brigades' and watchmen whose duty was to try to extinguish blazes. They would no doubt have pleaded with Vulcan, the god of fire, for a safe resolution to any conflagration. Indeed, each summer when the risk of major fires was greatest, the Romans held a festival to appease the fire god. This was 'Vulcanalia' on 23 August. People were particularly worried about wildfires ravaging crops in the dry heat of the Mediterranean so decided to light (controlled) bonfires to honour Vulcan and prevent any need for him to start his own! When invoked to stop fires, Vulcan was known as Volcanus Quietus or Mulciber, 'The Fire Allayer'.
Vulcan, often identified with Hephaestus, Olympian god of fire
Many other civilisations had fire gods who were invoked to help guard against destructive blazes. The Greek Prometheus was the Titan god of fire, and the Norse Logi, or Halogi ('High Flame'), was a giant who personified fire itself. The Romans, however, also had a goddess whose sole remit was the prevention of fire. Stata Mater was the goddess of protection against destructive fire, her name meaning 'mother who stabilises'. Though not as famous as Vulcan she was well known in imperial Rome where her image adorned the Forum. A statue was placed there to protect new stonework from fire around 80 BC. Other statues of her have been found with dedications to local bucket-brigades inscribed in them.
Unsurprisingly the ancient gods are not commemorated so much by modern fire brigades but there is at least one emergency service today that still bears the mark of a pagan past. Many NHS ambulances - and others around the world - feature the image of a snake entwined around a staff. This strange symbol is the 'Rod of Asclepius' which derives from ancient Greek religion. Asclepius was the Olympian god of medicine and healing. Those invoking him often used non-venomous snakes in their rituals. The symbol has proven powerful enough to last. And, if you look hard enough, you can find many references to gods who would once have been called upon to avert catastrophe adorning modern emergency vehicles: Neptune has been, and remains, a popular name for coastguard vessels.
Neptune (Poseidon to the Greeks), Roman god of the sea
Saints and angels
When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 AD it marked a major step in the spread of the new religion through Europe, supplanting the old pagan cults. Until the Emperor Constantine converted, Rome’s rulers had persecuted Christians who refused to worship the Roman gods. Suddenly Christians were free to practice their faith.
It was too late, however, for one martyred Christian who went on to be revered as the patron saint of firefighters. Saint Florian (250-304 AD) was a commander of the Roman army in Austria. He was made responsible for organising the area’s bucket brigades and keeping watch for fires. During the Great Persecution of Christians, which began in 303, Florian refused to enforce the imperial edict, just as he refused to make sacrifices to the Roman gods. Instead he was put to death for his Christian beliefs. Florian was not, however, burned at the stake as planned, for he unnerved the executioners by challenging them to light the fire so that he could climb onto it himself! Instead, Florian was drowned in a river. In iconography he is often depicted holding a pitcher of water.
Modern fire brigades thus had the perfect saint to adopt when they appeared in Britain in the early 19th century.
Modern police forces have several saintly protectors including Saint Ambrose of Milan (340-397) a theologian, bishop, and fighter of heresy.
The saint many emergency services look to most often as a patron, however - including the police force, paramedics and coastguard - is not a human, but rather a heavenly being: the Archangel Michael.
In the Book of Revelation Saint Michael is identified as the warrior angel who led the hosts of Heaven against the armies of Satan. He is often depicted wearing armour and crushing the devil-serpent beneath his feet. Saint Michael’s Day on 29 September was once a major festival in Britain (Michaelmas being for autumn what Christmas is for winter). It was a time for harvest suppers beneath the equinox 'harvest moon', a feast that would involve a Michaelmas goose!
Saint Michael has many patronages (and devotion to him is common among Christians, Jews and Muslims). Due to his warrior status he is particularly associated with chivalry, and it is notable how many emergency services adopted him as a patron. Ambulance drivers and paramedics, police officers and coastguards have all looked to Michael as patron of those who work in dangerous conditions; the guardian angel of those whose job is to act as the public’s guardian angels.