Why Did Early Christians Call the Holy Spirit the “Wild Goose?”

The Holy Spirit can be gentle as a dove, or rambunctious and unpredictable as a wild goose.

Ferdinand von Wright, “The Goose Disciplines the Duck,” 1858
Ferdinand von Wright, “The Goose Disciplines the Duck,” 1858 (photo: Public Domain)

You’ve heard of a wild goose chase, right? It’s a hopeless pursuit, a foolish search that is certain to prove unsuccessful. The adventurer who sets out on a wild goose chase wastes a lot of time chasing after something he’ll never catch, or following a path that leads nowhere. The Oxford Dictionary defines a wild goose chase as “a hopeless search for something that is impossible to find.”

In earlier times, a wild goose chase referred not to birds, but to horses. In the equine version of a “wild goose chase,” the lead rider steered his galloping horse erratically through the open countryside, with followers — like geese soaring overhead in a classic V formation — replicating his every move.

It was in that sense that William Shakespeare employed the idiom “wild goose chase” in Romeo and Juliet. In Act 2, Scene 4, Mercutio finds himself in a battle of wits with Romeo. Mercutio calls on his friend Benvolio to help him; but Romeo scoffs, “Nay, if thy wits run the wild-goose chase, I have done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five.”

So why did the early Christians speak of the Holy Spirit as the “wild goose?”

But wait: What does all of this have to do with the Holy Spirit? Isn’t the third Person of the Holy Trinity represented as a gentle dove (as in Jesus’ baptism by John, in Matthew 3:16)?

Not always. Early Christians had an appreciation for the goose’s unexpected interventions, and saw the goose as a fitting symbol for the Spirit. Well before Shakespeare wrote of the wild goose chase, believers saw the noble goose as a symbol of vigilance.

The story goes that on July 18, 387 B.C., the Gallic Celts attacked the city of Rome. More than 30,000 Gallic warriors overtook much of the city, raping and pillaging, burning and plundering, driving the surviving citizens and the Roman soldiers to take refuge at the top of the Capitoline Hill. The invading Gauls tried to overtake the Hill at night — but a flock of geese, startled by the scent and sound of approaching fighters, began loud cackling, thus warning the sleeping Roman troops.

In Natural History, Book 10, Pliny the Elder wrote in the first century of the goose’s unique characteristics:

“Geese keep careful watch; the cackling of geese warned of an attack at the Capitol in Rome. Geese may have the power of wisdom, as shown by the story of a goose who was the companion of the philosopher Lacydes and refused to leave his side. ... Geese come on foot to Rome from Gaul; if one gets tired it is moved to the front, so that it is forced to continue by the press of the geese behind it.” 

St. Isidore of Seville, who lived in the sixth century, repeated the story of the Gauls’ attempted sacking of Rome, and the saving cries of the geese. Isidore wrote in his Etymologies, Book 12:

“Geese watch at night and give warning with their noise; they can smell humans better than any other animal can. Geese warned Rome of attack by the Gauls.”

Whereas the dove has a reputation for gentleness and calmness, a wild goose will attack if it feels threatened. It’s wild and untamed. In the same way, the Celtic believers in the British Isles believed that the Holy Spirit is unpredictable, upsetting the status quo and leading people toward a new adventure with God. They found evidence for this interpretation in John 3:8:

“The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

So what best represents the Holy Spirit? On the one hand, the Holy Spirit is gentle as a dove — he can come silently, planting the seeds of wisdom in our hearts. On the other hand, the Holy Spirit is sometimes rambunctious as a goose — wresting us from our sedentary ways, disturbing the status quo, injecting the fire of God’s love.

Either way, he is welcome. Come, Holy Spirit!