Of Snakes and Saints

St. Patrick’s Day has become a worldwide celebration of Irishness, in its many forms. Every time it comes around, I find myself reflecting on the significance of a legend commonly associated with Saint Patrick: how he is said to have driven the snakes out of Ireland. This story is a metaphor for the abandonment of the country’s pagan beliefs in favour of Christianity. I believe that this change would have taken place with or without Patrick’s intervention – much of the available historical evidence suggests that he was just one of many early Christian missionaries in Ireland – but for better or worse, he has become associated with the country’s move away from traditional beliefs.

My thoughts on this were prompted by a St. Patrick’s Day Facebook and Instagram post from Bang Bang café in Dublin. They said:

Today on our national holiday, we’re remembering Pre-Christian Ireland: a time of druids and ancient customs, of passage tombs and standing stones, when the female deity was supreme, when nature overruled man.

The tale of St Patrick “driving the snakes from Ireland” was a metaphor for the destruction of ancient Irish pagan traditions. St Patrick is supposed to have defeated the ‘Caoránach’, a female serpent the saint is described as pursuing from Croagh Patrick to Lough Derg.

The legend of him climbing Croagh Patrick also contains the story of him being tormented by a black bird. The black bird refers to the shape-shifting Celtic war goddess ‘the Morrígan’ in Irish mythology.

The subsequent descent into Christianity led us into untold anguish: the downgrading of the land to a resource we could destroy, the worship of men…ultimately a control mechanism from distant shores to rule through fear.

We’ve no love for the church…bring back the worship of women and the worship of the island. 🌲❤️

In sharing those words, my intention is not to bash Christianity in any way. I completely recognise that this path has brought great solace, joy and fulfilment to many people. However, I am critical of the Church’s harmful policies (anyone familiar with Ireland’s painful recent history of religious control and suppression will understand exactly why) and I feel very drawn to the beliefs and values of the pre-Christian world: to stories that have now been lost to the mists of time.

As is often the case with legends that develop around distant historical figures, the literal truth of what happened is impossible to discern at this point! One commenter on the Bang Bang post pointed out that another myth credits the absence of snakes from Ireland not to Patrick, but to Goídel Glas (an ancient Egyptian noble who is said to have travelled to this part of the world during the pre-Christian era and invented the Gaelic languages). Patrick’s association with snakes first emerged in the late medieval era, appearing side by side with the tale of Goídel Glas in the 15th-century Annals of Clonmacnoise.

Other early accounts of Patrick’s journey through Ireland are much more blunt: they essentially involve him killing anyone he met who refused to convert to the new religion! Hyperbole, propaganda and embellishment are ever-present in mythology, making it impossible to establish which parts of a story – if any – are rooted in factWhen I read any myth or legend, I’m interested in what the story represents, and what insights it can offer to our jaded modern world.

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Actual snakes haven’t inhabited the island of Ireland since before the Ice Age, but these animals have long symbolised healing, transformation and awakening in other cultures. Snakes’ ability to shed their skins has been used, time and time again, as a metaphor for how we too can learn how to graciously set aside what we no longer need. Examples could include possessions that weigh us down, or old, outmoded concepts that we might cling to out of a monumental fear of change.

The ‘snakes’ of the St. Patrick legend are commonly understood to symbolise the druids who were spiritual leaders in Ireland at the time of the saint’s arrival. The tradition of druidry has always fascinated me. The druids’ mysteries, their reverence for trees (the word ‘druid’ itself is derived from a Celtic compound of ‘dru’, meaning tree, and ‘wid’, which means ‘to know’) and their ancient lore have always been dear to my heart. The earliest evidence of druidry dates from around 25,000 years ago, through cave paintings that have been found across Europe, appearing to depict some of the druids’ earliest spiritual practices.

The Celts were not known for keeping written records about themselves, so much of what we know about these mysterious people comes from classical Greek or Roman writers. They describe three main types of druids within Celtic societies: the Bards, who knew the songs and stories of their tribe (these are the ones with whom I feel the strongest sense of kinship, being a major story fanatic myself!), the Ovates, who were healers and seers, and the Druids, who were philosophers, judges, and teachers.

I’m not inclined to be overly sentimental about the druids, as I can fully acknowledge that many of their practices are hardly things we would want to emulate today (their human sacrifice rituals have been well-documented, to cite one example). However, I’ve always been deeply moved by the respect they had for the natural world – for trees, for rivers, for the natural cycles of the year (as demonstrated in major Celtic festivals such as Samhain, Imbolc or Beltaine) – as this quality of reverence has all but disappeared from the modern world.

As stated in the Bang Bang post I shared above, our land has been downgraded to a resource we can use and destroy at will. The tragic results of that mindset can be seen in excruciating detail all around us. It’s time for us to remember our history, recover all that was valuable and pure about our pre-Christian era, and reclaim our sense of reverence. Let us welcome home the ‘snakes’ who should never have been driven away.

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The main image used to illustrate this post comes from an old Magners ad! It’s been on my laptop for a while and I forget where I originally came across it.

The snake picture comes from ahlea on Flickr, accessed via Creative Commons.

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