The 17th of March is a day when there is much green to be seen. Tradition says that if a person isn’t wearing green, they deserve a pinch. The green is in reference to Ireland, known as the Emerald Isle for its lush rolling hills and countrysides and the day is named in honor of Saint Patrick, considered a patron saint of Ireland. In our modern popular culture, it seems mostly a day of drinking and festivities, with leprechauns and shamrocks at least as popular as the figure of St. Patrick. Parades and other activities are held as a way to recognize Irish heritage and culture. Like many things throughout history, it may have been an actual fete (feast day celebration) at one point, and in some societies it likely still is, but here and now, St. Patrick’s Day is mostly another day for fun and merriment.
St. Patrick is credited with ‘driving the snakes out of Ireland’. Science has shown us however that during Patrick’s lifetime in the post-glacial period, Ireland never had snakes. The snakes are said to be the Druids, the priestly caste of the Celtic people, and his reputation of ridding the island of the snakes is a poetic way of saying he drove out the Pagans and converted Ireland to Christianity. Among many modern-day Pagans, St. Patrick is reviled for this act, but is that entirely accurate as well? The legends of St. Patrick also talk of him converting Ireland to Christianity by using a shamrock to explain the Trinity. This idea is bound to the understanding that to the ancient Celts, triads in multiple forms were considered sacred. Triskeles and triquetras which go back many years before Patrick’s legendary arrival to the island show this. The concept of a divine triune godhead was not new to them. Many of their gods and goddesses had a triple form. This was how those similarities between the native Celtic deities and the Christian concept of the Trinity could be understood and grasped.
So, what’s the deal with the snakes and the conversion to Christianity myth?
Snakes are a motif seen in Celtic and Druidic art. But all of the actual designs showing actual, recognizable snakes in Celtic art comes from continental Europe, not the British Isles.
The Gundestrup Cauldron, considered the “Rosetta Stone of Celtic Mythology”, is understood to be key to picturing and understanding the culture and religious beliefs of ancient Celts.
However, it was found in Denmark in 1891 CE and was produced in the Balkans, which is in the south-eastern portion of the European continent.
I also think that it wasn’t the Druids who used snakes to represent themselves, but Christians who drew the connection between people who didn’t worship their God and snakes, as indicative of the Devil. Celts used a number of various animals in their religious symbolism: wolves, deer, birds, boars, rabbits, and yes, snakes. Continental Celts and Continental Christians would have been familiar with snakes, but not those who were native to Ireland, because snakes didn’t exist in Ireland from the time of the post-glacial Ice Age. This means that no one living in Ireland since humans first showed up there had ever laid eyes on a snake in their native homeland! You know who connects the myth of snakes with Pagans?
In Christian tradition, the snake is the enemy of Christ and his followers, representing Satan from the story found with the Garden of Eden.
But the Druids were connected with ALL of those other animals as well. Why was the snake the choice for saying that Pagans had been driven from Ireland?
The bishops that came to Ireland to do the work of conversion were not native Irish. They were from Roman Britain (Patrick), from Gaul (Palladius), from northern Italy (Secundinus and Auxilius) — all areas which had native snakes.
I pose this as my theory: Ancient Christians in Ireland looked around and noticed, “Hey… There aren’t any of these creatures described in the bible and our holy books… no reptiles that crawl on their bellies. No snakes… Must be that they’ve all been banished and this land was claimed by God as his own.” Because any study of the teachings, writings, and behaviors of very early Christians can demonstrate the idea of looking around at the world, seeing something they don’t understand, and assuming “GOD did it!” No snakes to be found must mean the beliefs associated with the devil must’ve been banished. Who could have done that? Well, the first few bishops to minister in Ireland… Patrick! Let’s make him a saint for performing this holy act!
But the snakes — the actual reptiles — were never there. The logic is faulty in this connection between snakes being absent and Paganism being “banished”.
And here we are.
St. Patrick is not canonized as a saint on the list of Saints of the Catholic Church. His sainthood is more a label given out of popular love and admiration and wasn’t decreed by papal authority. It is quite possible that like many figures of myth and legend, St. Patrick is a combination of different people that have been blended together to create a good story.
What we claim to know of the historical Patrick and his work in Ireland comes down from two letters: The Confession of Saint Patrick and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. In the letter to the soldiers, it is shown that Patrick cared deeply for the Irish people (specifically mentioning the Christian ones, but at least he didn’t want to see the entire population all murdered before they had the chance to be converted), and spoke out against their slaughter at the hands of their enemies, the non-Christian Picts and Scots. According to more current historical documents, Patrick was not the one responsible for converting Ireland to Christianity, a man named Palladius was. Palladius is very likely to be one of the historical figures combined with some others to create the legendary St. Patrick we know of today.
The thing that bugs me about a story that’s been repeated so much that we don’t really know where it came from is the idea that because of Patrick’s work and teachings, Pagan practice was ended in Ireland.
It wasn’t and it didn’t.
Christianity in Ireland spread from the ‘top down’, meaning it was the kings and chieftains who were converted first, most often because they willingly accepted the missionaries’ words and teachings, while the populace still actively practiced the older Pagan traditions. Conversion in Ireland was slow, happening a piece at a time, and compared to the conversions of other parts of Europe, it was in fact quite peaceful and non-violent. What began as an effort in the 5th century to convert Ireland to Christianity by Patrick and his predecessors was still being worked on by the 9th century when the power structure really seemed to have shifted into an amalgamation of Pagan and Christian belief. Because of this, Celtic/Irish Christianity had its own unique flavor for hundreds of years and still has it to an extent where these folk customs and practices are ingrained and accepted by the Christian population today.
Patrick’s goal, as other Christians before him and other Christians after him, was to see people become Christian. But Ireland never fully converted to anything, and it didn’t succumb to the vicious, bloody war for souls that other nations endured at this time and even more so a thousand years later across continental Europe and the island of Great Britain. An important thing that comes from Patrick’s documentation is that he loved Ireland and the Irish people. He never really seemed to hold any great power or authority, and from the records we have, spent a lot of his time running away from powerful chieftains and warlords that he would tick off.
When choosing whether or not to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, this should be the main focus and in this way, Pagans can let go and heal from the burden and pain of thinking this is a day to honor a man who committed unspeakable horrors and caused the destruction of the Pagan traditions because it wasn’t him and it wasn’t like that. We need to come to terms as a community with allowing more accuracy to be presented in our history.
So, instead, use this day celebrating a rich and complex people, enjoying Irish heritage and celebrating as the people of old Ireland would have: lots of music, dance, and no shortage of alcohol.