A-Z of Saints: Michael

St Michael is distinctive as a saint for being an archangel rather than a human. Here we explore the various traditions associated with him.

Different traditions assert that there are either three, four or seven archangels – but Michael is always one of them (along with Gabriel and Raphael), and he has been venerated for centuries by Jews and Christians alike, and indeed referred to in Islamic writings, including the Koran.

He appears in the Bible just four times. The first two references are in Daniel 10 and 12, described as a ‘great prince’; the third in the book of Jude, referring to an ancient tradition of a dispute between Michael and Satan over the body of Moses; and finally in Revelation 12: ‘And there was a great battle in heaven, Michael and his angels fought with the dragon.’

Some traditions associate Michael with other angelic references in the Bible, such as the cherub who stood at the gates of paradise in Genesis 3, and he is mentioned in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls as the ‘viceroy of heaven’, and in the apocryphal Book of Enoch.

In Christian tradition, Michael is given four offices: to fight Satan (the fallen angel Samael or Lucifer); to rescue the souls of the faithful from the enemy, especially at the point of death; to champion God’s people, whether Jews or Christians; and to bring people’s souls to judgement. Early Christians venerated him more for care of the sick than battle with evil, however: it was only in late mediaeval times that he joined St George as a patron of chivalry.

St Michael’s memorial day is 29 September (Michaelmas) – one of the old ‘quarter days’ of England and Ireland when servants were hired and rents became due. Another day, 8 May, is important to Michael: in the Roman Breviary he is said to have appeared at a sanctuary on Monte Gargano, Italy, in the late 5th or early 6th century, and interceded in favour of the Lombards in a battle with the Greek Neapolitans – this date has since been remembered as the ‘apparition of St Michael’, and a church was built in his honour at the site. ‘Relics’ of St Michael are usually chips of rock from this cave, or cloth that has touched it.

Michael’s patronage extends far and wide: early Egyptian Christians placed the Nile under his protection; in Normandy, he is the patron of mariners and said to have appeared to a bishop in 708; in Germany he replaced the pagan Wotan (Odin) as patron of mountains; on the Scottish Isle of Skye, a procession was held on Michaelmas and a cake – St Michael’s bannock – baked; and he is also patron of ambulance drivers, artists, bankers, grocers, hatters, knights; policemen, storms at sea and swordsmiths, among many others.

Michael has also enjoyed popularity in recent popular culture, including the 1996 John Travolta movie Michael and the DC Comics Lucifer series.

Other ‘M’ saints include:

  • The two evangelists Mark and Matthew, of course. Mark, symbolised by the Lion, is said to have travelled to Cyprus with Paul, and Orthodox traditions say he was the first pope of Alexandria. His memorial is 25 April and he is patron of lawyers, prisoners, glaziers and Venice. Matthew was a publican or tax collector before he bacame one of Jesus’ disciples; his day is 21 September and he is patron of financial workers such as accountants and stockbrokers.
  • St Margaret of Scotland (c1045-1093) was the granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, and married Malcolm III, King of Scots. She was born in Hungary but grew up in Scotland, and helped with the founding of Dunfermline Abbey, as well as being renowned for her almsgiving. She died at Edinburgh Castle; her memorial was in June but was moved to 16 November in the 1970s. She is patron of large families, widows and Scotland.