Sometimes A Snake Is Just A Snake…

Hey folks.

It’s St Patrick’s Day in Australia and as is the more recent norm, there are an abundance of Pagan folk bringing up the fact that it was Pagans that were driven out of Ireland  (with the occasional kneejerk reference to an Irish Pagan Holocaust). The only problem is that this idea, while it sounds like it should be true, really isn’t.

Now, I’m going to give you a little bit of history that tends to get ignored because it doesn’t fit with the Pagans Driven Out story.

What you need to understand is that St Patrick didn’t bring Christianity to Ireland. There were already Christians there. A whole bunch of them, due in no small part to travellers to other lands bringing the new religion to Ireland with them. The problem was that they weren’t nice Catholic folk like the church in Rome had wanted. They were part of the Arian Church which was seen as heretical due to not accepting the concept of the Holy Trinity. THIS was St Patrick’s target audience. The fact that many pagans converted peacefully was a bonus.

That’s right, I said peacefully. While he was no friend of the Pagans, he wasn’t one of the people that went around with the ultimatum of “convert or die”. He would have died with nary a word written about him if he’d tried. The Irish would have had exactly none of that bullshit.

Christianity had already made its mark and was already becoming popular. I’m not going to pretend that Patrick wasn’t part of that, but he didn’t start the process and there were still plenty of non-Catholics around after him. His effect on Ireland is overstated (at least), but the myths around him live on.

Now, getting back to the idea of the snakes being a reference to him driving out the Pagans, there are two gaping plot points that need to be addressed.

1, There were already stories of his efforts against the Pagans all over the place, so why change the story from Pagans to snakes? When every second story in his early biographies were about he openly smote the Pagans, why try to hide it?

2, It would have confused people no end, as there was still an abundance of Pagans to call bullshit on this in Ireland. I’m not talking about their religions going underground, either. Druids were still being talked about in the seventh century to try to figure out what part they played in law.

Folks, the idea that Pagans are the snakes in the tale is bunk. As of right now there are no snakes in Ireland except in zoos and pets. There were no snakes in Ireland loooooong before St Patrick got there, either. When later generations of settlers from lands outside of Ireland realised that there were no serpents to murder them in their sleep, the idea that they were driven out seems nice, especially if you can pin it on someone that was once considered local. It’s been suggested that the driving out of the snakes from an area came from another saint, but since I have none of the info on where it supposedly came from, I can’t say conclusively on that one way or another.

Morgan Daimler, a Celtic reconstructionist, went to work trying to find out where the idea that the snakes were Druids came from and came up with this:

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).

It feels like it would be true, but there’s no genuine evidence for it, and surrounding stories (and actual history)don’t bear it out. St Patrick barely made a dent in the paganism of Ireland and he certainly had no effect on the snake population.

Southern Howler, signing out (with a few references for those who’re interested).

Saint Patrick, Druids, Snakes, and Popular Myths


~ by southernhowler on March 17, 2016.

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