Mar 17, 2010

St. Patrick and the Snakes

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

I'm a always a little ambivalent about St. Patrick's Day. Being of largely Irish descent, I enjoy the day as a celebration of the culture, people, and spirit of Ireland. But St. Patrick's legendary conversion of the country's people to Christianity is not something I get terribly excited about. It has been suggested by many sources that his miracle, driving the snakes out of Ireland, is a metaphor for driving the indigenous, pagan practices from Irish culture. There is no way to know for certain, because St. Patrick's life is more mythologized than the legend of the leprechaun.

Today we raise a glass of warm green beer to a fine fellow, the Irishman who didn't rid the land of snakes, didn't compare the Trinity to the shamrock, and wasn't even Irish. St. Patrick, who died 1,507, 1,539, or 1,540 years ago today—depending on which unreliable source you want to believe—has been adorned with centuries of Irish blarney. Innumerable folk tales recount how he faced down kings, negotiated with God, tricked and slaughtered Ireland's reptiles.

The facts about St. Patrick are few. Most derive from the two documents he probably wrote, the autobiographical Confession and the indignant Letter to a slave-taking marauder named Coroticus. Patrick was born in Britain, probably in Wales, around 385 A.D. His father was a Roman official. When Patrick was 16, seafaring raiders captured him, carried him to Ireland, and sold him into slavery. The Christian Patrick spent six lonely years herding sheep and, according to him, praying 100 times a day. In a dream, God told him to escape. He returned home, where he had another vision in which the Irish people begged him to return and minister to them: "We ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once more," he recalls in the Confession. He studied for the priesthood in France, then made his way back to Ireland.

He spent his last 30 years there, baptizing pagans, ordaining priests, and founding churches and monasteries. His persuasive powers must have been astounding: Ireland fully converted to Christianity within 200 years and was the only country in Europe to Christianize peacefully. Patrick's Christian conversion ended slavery, human sacrifice, and most intertribal warfare in Ireland. (He did not banish the snakes: Ireland never had any. Scholars now consider snakes a metaphor for the serpent of paganism. Nor did he invent the Shamrock Trinity. That was an 18th-century fabrication.)

There is some evidence that serpent worship was practiced by the Druids; one of the ancient religious orders replaced by Catholicism.

It will probably be a matter of surprise to many, but it is a fact that even in Britain in ancient times Ophiolatreia largely prevailed. Deane says: "Our British ancestors, under the tuition of the venerable Druids, were not only worshippers of the solar deity, symbolized by the serpent, but held the serpent, independent of his relation to the sun, in peculiar veneration. Cut off from all intercourse with the civilized world, partly by their remoteness and partly by their national character, the Britons retained their primitive idolatry long after it yielded in the neighbouring countries to the polytheistic corruptions of Greece and Egypt. In process of time, however, the gods of the Gaulish Druids penetrated into the sacred mythology of the British and furnished personifications for the different attributes of the dracontic god Hu. This deity was called "The Dragon Ruler of the World" and his car was drawn by serpents. His priests in accomadation with the general custom of the Ophite god, were called after him "Adders." 1

In a poem of Taliessin, translated by Davies, in his Appendix No. 6, is the following enumeration of a Druid's titles:---

"I am a Druid; I am an architect; I am a prophet;

I am a serpent" (Gnadr).

From the word "Gnadr" is derived "adder," the name of a species of snake. Gnadr was probably pronounced like "adder" with a nasal aspirate.

This would place the Druids in good company. Great serpents weave their way through numerous world traditions; the Chinese Lung, the Naga serpents of Hindu and Buddhism, the Pythia channeled by Greek oracles, the serpent mounds of Native Americans, the feathered serpents such as Quetzalcoatl throughout Latin America and in the hieroglyphs of Egypt, where serpent power also emerges from the foreheads of pharaohs as the Uraeus cobra goddess Wadjet... The list goes on and on. The serpent is the original mother goddess and divine creatrix. That the pagans of Ireland would have revered the serpent simply puts them in context with the rest of the pre-Christian world.

From the Book of the Kells

Across Ireland there are hundreds of crosses, many of which can be proven to have pre-Christian origins, and many are entwined with images of serpents. The same is true of other locations, such as Malta we have just mentioned - although here the snakes are found upon ancient megalithic monuments. These are remnants of a pre-existent serpent-worshipping cult that we discovered existed across the known world in ancient times. In fact, the very reason that Ireland was said to be infested with serpents, was in reality a Christian code word for serpent worshippers. And Ireland has not been the only place infested and eradicated of serpent worshippers. Malta, Rhodes, India, Greece and many more have all at one time or another been laid waste of the serpent cult, so often misread as solar worshippers. The truth of the solar worship becomes obvious once one understands the beliefs of the serpent cults. They worshipped the esoteric or inner light of themselves or wisdom which was manifested in the sky as the sun and this light came about via methods pertaining to the inner serpent energies, [1] as they perceived them. These inner serpentine and solar linked visions were then manifested or physically represented in megalithic monuments, oral folktales and art.

The existence of this universal cult can also be discovered in other elements of the Irish and Celtic tradition. It is my view that Celtic Knotwork is entirely derived from the image of the serpent and this is prevalent across the Celtic world and especially Ireland. We can see influences of this in the spirals and other serpent shapes seen upon many of the world’s ancient monuments. In Scandinavian literature and stone art we can also see how the serpent appears, looking remarkably like Celtic Knotwork. In Roman and Greek wall paintings there are running spirals thought to be symbolic of the protective snake and emerging later on as Ivy or Vine, the symbols of the serpentine Bacchus and Dionysus.

A Neolithic vessel, now in the museum of Henan in China, shows a distinct correlation between the idea of the snake and the Knotwork. The idea of the Knotwork coming from the snake was probably discontinued due to Christian influence. The proof is simple; there is scarcely a design or ornament in Ireland from ages past that does not show the serpent or the dragon. There is scarcely a myth, a folk tale or a legend, which does not include the serpent. And these are not just pagan ornaments or myths - they also bled into the Christian world, or more simply, the Christians could not keep them out. So deep was the culture of the snake in the mind of the people and so entangled within the folds of the snake was the story of Christianity itself that no amount of tinkering could tear them apart.

All over the "civilized" world, people are reclaiming their serpent power and wearing it proudly.  Patti Wigington of explains how to make a "Spring Snake Wreath" to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. To celebrate my Irish heritage I wear green; a pair of handmade snake earrings made of green glass that I bought at a craft fair years ago.

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