St. Quiteria: The Nonuplet Warrior Who Carried Her Own Head

On May 22nd we celebrate the feast of St. Quiteria, a saint with the most jaw-droppingly awesome legend I have ever heard. And if you know your saint legends, you know that is really saying something.

According to legend, St. Quiteria, daughter of a Galician prince, was a nonuplet: one of nine daughters born at the same time. Her sisters are St. Marina, St. Liberata, Eumelia, Genebra, Germana, Basilissa, Marica, and Victoria. (I do not know why only three are saints). Their mother felt disgusted at the whole ordeal: she had given birth to nine children, like some kind of animal, and not a single boy in the litter. So, she ordered her maid to drown the girls.

The maid instead took the girls to be raised by a local monk (or by some women at a local village, in another version of the story). The girls formed a gang, smashing idols and breaking Christians out of prison.

The girls were eventually caught and brought before their father, now a king. He realized the girls were his daughters and offered to marry them off to nice pagan husbands, and pardon them. The girls refused and were imprisoned. An angel broke the gang out of prison, and the girls fled into the mountains, where they began to conduct a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the Romans.

It is said that when attack dogs were set on Quiteria, she could calm them with the sound of her saintly voice, which is why she is the patron saint against rabies.

Quiteria was caught a second time, and again broken out by an angel. During her multiple imprisonments, she converted many to Christianity. When she was caught for the last time, she was beheaded and thrown off a cliff into the sea.

She emerged from the sea shortly afterwards, carrying her severed head. I invite readers to note the artist’s attention to detail in the picture below, particularly the blood spurting from her neck and head.

Incidentally, saints who carry their own severed heads are called cephalophores––Greek for “head carrier.” I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder to be Catholic.

A helpful Redditor brought to my attention a 15th century Collect prayer from the Mass on St. Quiteria’s feast day, transcribed below:

Praesta quaesumus omnipotens Deus, ut qui Beatam Quiteriam virginitate et martyrio decorasti: et sicut in tua virtute diabolum colligavit, et regem cum multa plebe convertit: ita et a rabie diabolica, et a cunctis infirmitatis fraudibus, ejus assiduis precibus: nos facias liberari. Per Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum Filium tuum, qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti, Deus, per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.

My very amateur translation:

Grant, we beseech Thee Almighty God, that Thou who hast decorated Blessed Quiteria with virginity and martyrdom: and as she in Thy power bound the devil, and converted (or possibly “turned back”) the king with many people: thus from diabolical rabies and from all all frauds of infirmity, by her ceaseless prayers, Thou may makest us free. Through our Lord, Jesus Christ, Thy Son, who livest and reignest  with Thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen. 

St. Quiteria is a popular saint in Navarre, and they celebrate her feast day by eating “culecas,” a sweet bun with a hard-boiled egg inside that is surprisingly delicious. I found a traditional recipe for them on a food blog in Spanish, which is more less coherent when Google-translated. I initially thought this food was meant to be symbolic somehow of St. Quiteria’s beheading, but it appears that culecas are simply the go-to treat for any major feast day.

For readers inclined to wonder how much of this legend is true, I leave this excellent quotation from G.K. Chesterton’s poem “The Myth of King Arthur”:

O learned man who never learned to learn, 

Save to deduce, by timid steps and small, 

From towering smoke that fire can never burn 

And from tall tales that men were never tall. 

Say, have you thought what manner of man it is 

Of who men say “He could strike giants down” ? 

I, for one, can’t wait to meet her.

St. Quiteria, pray for us.

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