[Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, so we are once again revisiting one of our most popular articles. Some conversations never go “out of vogue.” Here is the 2017 edition.]
In 2012, Wild Hunt founder Jason Pitzl-Waters published an article called, “Saint Patrick, Druids, Snakes, and Popular Myths.”* To this day, it remains one of our most popular posts. Every year as March approaches, and even as March leaves, the article is read and re-read and read again. So today, we revisit that article with updated links, information and quotes.“[Tomorrow] is St. Patrick’s Day, a yearly holiday celebrating Ireland’s favorite patron saint. While it’s a big event in Ireland (and used to be a very solemn occasion), in America it’s a green-dyed bacchanal where everyone is ‘Irish for a day’ (let’s not even start on the horridly stupid ‘unofficial’ St. Patrick’s Day celebrations on college campuses). For some modern Pagans (whether Irish or not), St. Patrick’s Day isn’t a day of celebrations, as they see Patrick, famously attributed with converting Ireland to Christianity, as committing something akin to cultural genocide,” Pitzl-Waters began.
This idea is based on a theory that the “snakes,” which St. Patrick (387-461 CE) allegedly drove out of Ireland in the 5th Century C.E., are actually a symbol for the Druids and their religion. This is not a far-fetched idea considering that the serpent is a common symbol for the Christian devil. Additionally, according to scientists, there weren’t any real snakes in Ireland at that time. In fact, there haven’t been snakes in Ireland for over than 8,500 years. The Ice Age performed the reptilian eviction, or the slaughter as it were, not St. Patrick.
Therefore, the offending serpents had to be something other than actual snakes. And, many modern Pagans have taken this snake as Druid metaphor to heart. For example, as Pitzl-Waters noted, “author Isaac Bonewits called the day All Snakes Day and penned songs calling for the return of the “snakes.”But that theory has also been up for debate and, at this point, completely debunked. In 2012, P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, a Celtic Reconstructionist Pagan and scholar with extensive knowledge of Irish myth and folklore, said:
Unfortunately, this isn’t true, and the hagiographies of St. Patrick did not include this particular “miracle” until quite late, relatively speaking (his earliest hagiographies are from the 7th century, whereas this incident doesn’t turn up in any of them until the 11th century). St. Patrick’s reputation as the one who Christianized Ireland is seriously over-rated and overstated, as there were others that came before him (and after him), and the process seemed to be well on its way at least a century before the “traditional” date given as his arrival, 432 CE, because Irish colonists (yes, you read that right!) in southern Wales, Cornwall, and elsewhere in Roman and sub-Roman Britain had already come into contact with Christians and carried the religion back with them when visiting home.
That idea was corroborated, in part, by a 2014 television special featured on the Smithsonian Channel. In Sacred Sites: Ireland, documentary filmmakers interview several scientists and Celtic scholars who all agree with Lupus. St. Patrick neither drove out snakes or “snakes;” nor did he singlehandedly convert Ireland’s pagans to Christianity.
According to these experts, it was actually Halley’s Comet that evicted the metaphoric “snakes.”
In his book Blood & Mistletoe: The History of The Druids in Britain, historian Ronald Hutton notes that many of the details surrounding St. Patrick’s life and his work were changed and even fabricated hundreds of years after his death.
As quoted by Pitzl-Waters, Hutton wrote, “The importance of Druids in countering [Patrick’s] missionary work was inflated in later centuries under the influence of biblical parallels, and that Patrick’s visit to Tara was given a pivotal importance that it never possessed – if it ever occurred at all – to suit later political preoccupations. […] The only appearances of Druids in documents attributed to Patrick himself occur in some that are generally thought to have been composed after his death.”
Pitzl-Waters also quoted Celtic Reconstructionist Morgan Daimler, who agreed, saying:
…The rest of Patrick’s hagiography has him dueling Druids right and left, killing those who oppose him with callous righteousness, so why would the story suddenly get cryptic about him driving the Druids out? Every other page was proclaiming it proudly! No, this particular tidbit – which is suspiciously exactly the same as a story from the life of a French saint – was always meant to be literal.
The earliest reference I have found to anyone thinking the snakes meant Druids (and thanks to the friend who helped me find it) is in the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries from 1911 where someone states that he believes based on a story that because a certain place was where the Druids last stronghold was and also the place Saint Patrick drove the snakes that the snakes must represent the Druids, but it’s just faulty logic (Evans Wentz, 1911). The snakes in the story were just meant to be snakes, just as the toads were toads and Saint George’s dragon was a dragon.
In an article titled “The True Story of St. Patrick,” Ireland’s Druid School speculates that the snake story, as well as the connection to the shamrock, were fabricated simply to help convert the masses.
The article reads, “It was as if the Pagan traditions were still so strong with the Lughnasa pilgrimage to the Reek in August that something had to be done to displace the old ways and such a fantastic story as dragon/snake banishing fitted the bill. It had to be long after St Patrick’s death or else everyone would know it was just made up fantasy.”
Historians appear to agree that paganism, in some form, did “thrive” for generations after St. Patrick died. Pitzl-Waters concluded, “There was no Irish pagan genocide, no proof of any great violent Druid purge in Ireland, it simply doesn’t exist outside hagiography.”
He speculated that the snake story and other such details were added to Patrick’s story simply in order to “establish a heroic Irish saint” rather than to “eradicate traces of Paganism.”
However, despite the overwhelming scientific and historical evidence, the popular snake as Druid metaphor lives on. This is most readily seen in social media, where users perpetuate the idea that St. Patrick’s “snakes” were the country’s Druids.
In 2012, Pitzl-Waters wrote “some [people] cling to [the theory] simply because it feels right, or because they like the idea of a holiday dedicated to pagan/Pagan resistance to conversion.”
But the evidence against that idea continues to build. St. Patrick’s serpents were not real snakes, nor could they have been metaphoric “snakes.” It does appear that the story was completely fabricated for one reason or another. And the “driving out” of both types of serpents, was triggered by completely natural, catastrophic events: climate change and a comet.Regardless, the holiday itself has grown far beyond this particular story and the boundaries of its original religiosity. St. Patrick’s Day has become both a cultural pride day for the Irish people as well as a secular extravaganza, if only in the United States.
For some the day is serious business and a day to connect with one’s ancestors and heritage, while for others, it’s simply a day to wear green, eat corned beef and get kissed (or pinched).
While it is may be easy enough to push aside the unnaturally green brew and leprechaun t-shirts, it is hard to deny the role that this holiday has played in Ireland’s history. As Pitzl-Waters noted, “To erase St. Patrick’s Day also erases a vital connection to Irish history and culture.”
But for many modern Pagans, the holiday’s connection to religion, regardless of how the “snakes” were actually evicted, still looms in the background. But Lupus offered one suggestion for those people wishing to celebrate Irish culture on this day without embracing St. Patrick’s story. E wrote, “replace St. Patrick’s day with a day to honor Cú Chulainn.”
… given that Patricius may have usurped a local festival of Macha in the area around Armagh, perhaps what could instead be celebrated is the date that Cú Chulainn first took up arms, upon which he did so in order to fulfill a partial prophecy he heard that whomever took up arms for the first time on that day would be famed forever after; he only learned later that the rest of the prophecy revealed that the famous hero would only live a very short life, to which he responded that it would be better to live but one day and one night in the world if everlasting fame were to be attached to him.
This active taking up of the heroic life and all of its responsibilities, including death (most likely on behalf of one’s people, as a warrior), was the date on which he became the protector of the people of Ulster and thus of Emain Macha and his uncle Conchobor mac Nessa’s kingship. What more appropriate occasion, therefore, to celebrate the hero-cultus of Cú Chulainn than on the day that he decided to take up the heroic life?
There are alternatives as Lupus suggests. However, it is difficult to shift associations that are so deeply embedded in the modern cultural and commercial experience. However change can happen over time. And, it has. As seen above, the story of St. Patrick itself has shifted since it was first written. The day has gone from a solemn, Catholic-based story of heroic sainthood to a secular festival celebrating Irish heritage in all its glory, and many things in between.
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[Editor’s Note: The original article was published in 2010, with updated versions published in 2011, 2012, and 2016. The above article pulls quotes from the 2012 version.]