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Chris Weigant

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Saint Patrick and the Snakes

Posted: 03/17/2010 5:44 pm

First off, Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig!

For our non-Gaelic-speaking readers, Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

Saint Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, lived in the fifth century A.D., and he came to Ireland as a proselytizer for Christianity. That is about the sum total of the known, verifiable facts about Patrick. The rest is myth. Since such mythologizing began only a few hundred years after his death (which happened on March 17, by the way), these myths of Patrick are much more widely known than the thin shreds of his real history (which are limited to two surviving letters written by Patrick in Latin). Besides, it's much more fun to sit around telling these tales over a pint of Guinness than to dig up actual facts. Even if the tales are pure blarney.

There are many of these myths, from Patrick's supposed use of a shamrock to explain the mystical Christian Trinity (hint: three separate leaves make a single shamrock...), to the well-known story of Patrick banning all the snakes from Ireland. Everyone's heard the one about the snakes, right? And Ireland has no snakes today, therefore the story must be true.

Well... no.

This is an interesting case in mythologizing, because the story was originally a metaphor which was widely understood when it was introduced, but then as the symbological link faded over time, somehow began to be interpreted literally instead of metaphorically. Which led to lots of confusion over the years. Or, at least, that's what schoolchildren in Ireland are taught. Myths are slippery creatures, so one can never be completely sure of the facts, such as they are.

It is indeed true that there aren't any native snakes in Ireland. But there never have been. Or, to be finicky, if snakes somehow ever existed on what is called Ireland today, humans weren't around at the time. Snakes evolved a few million years ago, from lizards (they dropped the idea of legs). At this time, Ireland may have been part of continental Europe (it hasn't always been an island), or it may have been underwater. Either way, it was much more recently completely covered with ice. During the last Ice Age, Ireland was a frozen wasteland (check out where Ireland is on the globe compared to North America -- the same latitude as Hudson Bay). No humans lived there, and any snakes who might have been around previously were frozen solid (snakes, remember, are cold-blooded).

When the ice retreated, Ireland was an island. And snakes can't fly. Meaning there simply was no way for them to migrate to the Emerald Isle. Patrick, sorry to say, had nothing to do with this geologic and evolutionary coincidence.

So why does the story of Patrick banning the snakes even exist? Was it just that overzealous Patrick fans were trying to come up with a few miracles to convince the Pope to sanctify him (don't laugh, this sort of thing happened all the time back then)?

Well, no. The story has meaning. But rather than Patrick commanding all the Irish snakes into the sea, or tricking them somehow to slither beneath the waves (differences abound in the snake-ridding mechanisms ascribed to Patrick by those who mistakenly take the story literally), the story goes to the core of Patrick's sainthood and his core mission in Ireland.

Previous to Christianity's ascent in Ireland, the Romans claimed the island, but only in a halfhearted manner. Rome never really "held" the island, the way that they had conquered and occupied Britain (or at least the parts of it south of Hadrian's Wall). In reality, Ireland at the time was a land of tribal Celtic "kings" who ruled over their people, and whenever they got bored (which, according to their myths, was quite often), they fought and raided cattle from neighboring tribes for entertainment and healthy exercise. The dominant religious figures were the Druids. There was no written language, as the traditions of the people were all passed down in oral histories. Which means not much is actually known about the Druids, either. They were spiritual advisors to the tribal kings, and likely knew the secrets of the stars and the calendar -- mystical knowledge indeed to a tribal society.

They also, Irish schoolchildren are taught, had tattoos. Big tattoos of snakes, on their arms.

Which brings us back to Patrick's story. Patrick did not "bring Christianity to Ireland" (it had arrived previously, other Christians were already there when Patrick arrived), but Patrick was indeed Ireland's biggest evangelist (in the classic, rather than the modern, sense of the word). Patrick was a missionary to the unconverted parts of Ireland, and lived up to the stories of tramping all over the island, proselytizing and converting as he went. This part of the myth (which would later spring up in his name) was largely true, which is one reason why he's the patron saint of the island.

By bringing Christianity to so many of the Irish people, Patrick was a major instrument of Christianity supplanting the Druids. And, by doing so, Patrick "drove the snakes into the sea" in a metaphorical way. Because by the seventh century, the Druids had pretty much disappeared. Coincidentally, the seventh century is also when the myths of Patrick began to take form (at least as far as the historical record shows). So, assuming the story of snake tattoos is true, and assuming the myth began back then, it's easy to see how the story changed. Patrick transformed the island's dominant religion from listening to the "snake-tattooed people" into listening to the Catholic priests and bishops. A contemporary would understand the "snake" symbology for what it represented (the Druids) instead of actual serpents. When that link disappeared into the mists of time, so did the symbolic meaning of the myth. And absent the knowledge of what the symbol was originally supposed to represent, people started taking it literally. Which they were never meant to. Patrick never, like the Pied Piper, charmed actual snakes into mass suicide so the Irish people wouldn't ever have to worry about them again -- but he did "rid" the island of the snake-tattooed Druids, in a way.

So you'll now excuse me if all this typing has raised a monstrous thirst in me. As the Irish say to their barmen, "I believe my physician would recommend the customary...." While awaiting the delivery of your own pint of Arthur's famous product, feel free to impress your friends with the tale of Saint Patrick ridding Eire of the snakes. Which had nothing to do with actual snakes, but rather the conversion of the island from one religion to another.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:
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