Located deep within the region of Alsace (an area that has shifted between French and German control for centuries, currently French), is a mysterious mountain peak in the Vosges range with a centuries-old convent at the top.
Known as Mont-St-Odile, it is now most famous for its abbey/convent- Hohenburg. According to legend, the abbey was founded in the 7th century by the Duke of Alsace for his daughter Odile. She was born blind and was thus raised by peasants so as not to bring shame on her family. When she was twelve she was brought to a monastery in Palma where she was meant to live out her life in service to God. While there, she was baptized by Saint Erhard of Regensburg and given the name Odile (Sol Dei).
Following this event, her sight was miraculously restored. Her brother found out that she had been healed and proceeded to bring her home. In typical medieval fashion, the father was so enraged that he accidentally killed his son but Odile, who was now favored by God, was able to bring him back to life. She fled from the castle and proceeded to hide in a cave, which, according to legend opened up from a cliff face. Her father tried to follow but was injured by falling rocks. Years later, her father fell ill and she left the cave and returned home to nurse him to health. Upon his recovery, he finally welcomed his daughter home and proceeded to found a monastery in her honor, where she would later become abbess. She lived happily there for many years before dying in AD 720. The prayers of her convent sisters brought her back to life, but she was so enthralled with the beauty of the afterlife that she took communion and died again.
Today she is venerated as the patron saint of Alsace and of the blind. Her monastery is a very popular place of pilgrimage and there is a fountain on the property that is said to have healing properties. I visited this past summer during a stay with my in-laws while in Alsace. As is quite typical with most holy Catholic sites (especially in Europe), there is more to the story. I did a bit of digging before my visit and found that the site was actually home to a Celtic fortress. It is cited by the Romans and was apparently sacked by Vandals in AD 407. There is even speculation that it was the site of a Celtic temple to a solar deity; which would make sense given Odiles Latin name, Sol Dei (of sun). Also interesting to note is that her feast day is December 13 (which also happens to be the feast day of St Lucia ) which was the day of the winter solstice before the Gregorian calendar reform. It’s commonly accepted that this was a pagan feast day that honored solar deities.
One of the major pieces of evidence that gives credence to the Celtic fortress theory are the remnants of prehistoric fortifications on site. Named the ‘Mur païen’ or Pagan Wall by Pope Leo IX, this structure is over 10 km (6+ miles) long and contains approximately 300,000 stone blocks. There has never been any official state-sanctioned excavation as far as I can tell. However, I did find out that this ‘pagan wall’ was home to archaeological investigations by the Nazi’s during World War II. It’s commonly known that Hitler was very interested in the occult so this just lends further credence to theories about the ancient sacred origins of the site.
“The mountain of St Odile has been an important place for many centuries There are signs of Celtic and Roman occupation the latter consisting of a huge rampart locally known as the Heathen Wall the Romans were perhaps heathens when they built it though that is by no means certain as the date is unknown the former far more vague being chiefly doubtful cromlechs and so called Druids caves.” (Lee)
“The Odilienberg forms a plateau like ridge about 6 M in circumference surrounded by the Heidenmauer, a prehistoric fortified wall parts of which are still 6 10 ft high and 1 ft thick. It is supposed to be one of the Gaulish places of refuge like Alesia Bibracte etc mentioned by Caesar.” (Baedecker)
Regardless of the Celtic antiquity of the site, I found the story of Odile to be quite incredible. She lived during the Middle Ages in a world dominated by men. She made a name for herself and founded an abbey which she ran for over 40 years. She is the patron saint of the entire Alsace region and her convent is still an important place of pilgrimage. It’s a remarkably beautiful site and I highly recommend a visit to anyone who is in the region.
For more information about the Alsace region check out this link.
*Also just because I can’t not mention this, Mont St.Odile was the center of a crazy literary heist. In 2002, loads of ancient books were going missing from the abbey. Turns out a local teacher had found a secret passage that led up the mountain and he was sneaking in and taking books because he thought they weren’t being preserved well enough. Police only figured out what was happening once they installed cameras!
Johann Chapoutot, “L’archéologie Nazie,” Vingtième Siècle, Revue D’histoire, no. 96 (2007): 240-44.
Katherine Lee, In the Alsatian Mountains, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1883)
Karl Baedeker, The Rhine from Rotterdam to Constance: Handbook for Travellers, (Harvard University Press, Boston,1886)