St Patrick’s Day has become associated in the minds of many with the color green, Guinness, drunkenness and partying, but who was St. Patrick? And what did he do for Ireland?
St Patrick was born in the latter half of the 4th century CE, and very little is known about his life. When he was roughly 16, he was captured by Irish raiders, and taken aboard their slave ship to Ireland, where he remained in servitude for 6 years before being able to return to his home in Briton.
After entering the Church, Patrick left again for Ireland as an ordained bishop full of missionary zeal, though following this history generally loses track of him. It’s known that he worked in the north and the west of the island, but details beyond this stem primarily from hagiographies (semi-factual biographies mixed with a heavy dose of folklore) which are generally discredited today.
The most well-known legend of St Pat is his banishment of all of the snakes from the Emerald Isle. But the majority of archaeologists assert that snakes never actually inhabited the island:
…climate in Ireland was inhospitable to snake species until 10,000 years ago, when the seas arose and snakes were unlikely to be able to find their way to Ireland in the frigid seas. Snakes cannot survive in areas that are frozen year round as Ireland was until after the Ice Age, and they do not swim great distances to migrate to other areas as is seen in Hawaii, New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica which are all snake-free. Following the Ice Age, however, snakes did return to northern and western Europe, reaching as far as the Arctic Circle.
This has led many to speculate that the legend of St Patrick is largely metaphorical. Could it be that Patrick did not banish actual serpents from Ireland, but pagan, serpent cults that predated Christianity?
Some have pointed to early Irish art as evidence of the existence of a serpent religion existing on the island long before the advent of the Catholic Church. This from Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions, written in 1894:
Allowing for the pre-Christian origin of some Irish crosses, we may understand why these were accompanied by twining serpents. “Is it not a singular circumstance,” asks Keane, “that in Ireland where no living serpent exists, such numerous legends of serpents should abound, and that figures of serpents should be so profusely used to ornament Irish sculptures? There is scarcely a cross, or a handsome piece of ancient Irish ornamental work, which has not got its serpent or dragon.”
The singular cross of Killamery, Kilkenny Co., exhibits thereon two Irish serpents. The font of Cashel illustrates the same mystery. The writer saw several stones at Cashel cathedral with sculptured snakes, one large specimen ornamenting a sarcophagus. The Crozier, or Pastoral Staff of Cashel, which was found last century, bears a serpent springing out of a sheath or vagina. The end of the sheath is adorned with wreathing serpents. in the handle a man stands on a serpent’s head with a staff, at which the reptile bites. This staff was like that of a Roman augur, or of an Etruscan and Babylonian priest.
Brash’s Sculptured Crosses of Ireland refers to one cross, at Clonmel, having four serpents at the centre, coiled round a spherical boss. Several instances were known in which the serpents have been more or less chipped away from off such crosses.
A serpent occupies a large space on the beautiful Irish sculptured stone, Clwyn Macnos, or Clon Macnois. Not long ago, a stone serpent was discovered, with twelvedivisions, marked as for the twelve astronomical signs, reminding one of the Babylonian serpent encircling the zodiac. Several ancient Irish fonts have upon them sculptured serpents. Glass snakes of various colours have also been frequently turned up.
When the author was at Cashel some years since, he saw, among a lot of fragments of the ancient church, a remarkable stone, bearing a nearly defaced sculpture of a female–head and bust–but whose legs were snakes. This object of former worship was not very unlike the image of the Gauls, that was to be. seen in Paris, though that goddess had two serpents twisted round her legs, with their heads reposing on her breasts. The Caribs of Guadaloupe were noticed by the Spaniards worshipping a wooden statue, the legs of which were enwreathed by serpents. Auriga is sometimes represented with legs like serpents. The Abraxis of the Christian Gnostics of the early centuries had serpents for legs.
The author continues:
The Irish early Christians long continued the custom entwining their old serpent god around the cross. One has said, “The ancient Irish crosses are alive with serpents Their green god-snake was Gad-el-glas. The word Tirda-glas meant the tower of the green god. The old Milesian standard, of a snake twisted round a rod, may seem to indicate a Phallic connection with the Sabh.
So did St. Patrick actively work to eradicate an ancient, snake cult reaching back into the prehistory of Ireland? It’s possible. We may never know, as the church was very thorough in its decimation of older, pagan religious systems.
One thing is certain: the presence of serpentine imagery in Irish history is undeniable. Kennersley Lewis is quoted as saying the following: “Search where we will, the nuptial tree, round which coils the serpent, is connected with time and with life as a necessary condition; and with knowledge–the knowledge of a scientific priesthood, inheriting records and traditions hoary, perhaps, with the snows of a glacial epoch.”