I do not celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day, which is a day of holy obligation for Catholics in Ireland (as well as revered by a few other Christian denominations). Why would I, a heathen, celebrate a 5th Century Saint whose mission in life was to turn pagans from their Gods and ancestral ways? If he lived today he’d be trying to convert me away from the Gods of my life as well.
For those with Irish ancestry who take this day to celebrate their ancestry, that is all to the good. But remember there is a difference between a drunken revelry of green beer, and the celebration of a vast rich culture. There is a difference in remembering your ancestors and laying out offerings, telling their stories, and hailing their names versus urinating on the sidewalk because you’re behaving as a drunken fool.
While there are many stories about Saint Patrick, the tale of him driving out the snakes is the most wide known. Of course it’s also clearly historically impossible as snakes haven’t inhabited Ireland since the last Ice Age. Since the last one concluded more than 10,000 years before Patrick was even born it’s a bit ridiculous to think he drove out animals that weren’t even there. But not only did this story appear very late (centuries after his death), there’s also a belief in some corners that the story was allegorical, and the snakes were symbolical representations for the ancient pagans.
But if you look to Patrick’s letters of the time, as well as more contemporary accounts, Patrick wasn’t symbolical when talking about dealing with the native pagans . So why would things be so vague and suddenly alluded to via symbolism?
Throughout Catholic Europe we see a motif of snakes/serpents being fought that appear numerous times, as all these other saints were also reported to have driven out snakes from various places too:
Returning to just Irish stories, there are other tales about snakes too. We have another Irish Saint, Kevin who was known as the hero of the Seven Churches of Wicklow, who set his dog Lupus to kill the last snake. Leaving the Catholic saints behind, there’s still more Irish accounts of snakes.
We have another Irish man, specifically Murchad who was the son of the Irish High King Brian Boru who is attested as destroying all the snakes in the Erse account of The Battle of Clontarf during the Irish-Vikings War.
Then we have the Gadel Glas tradition. The most well known account comes from the narrative in the Lebor Gabála Érenn (there are many versions across multiple manuscripts, the earliest parts date to the 11th Century and the details will contradict against themselves too) which attempts to ascribe an origin story to the Gaels by connecting to Biblical stories and figures: including the Tower of Babel story, Moses, and a snake free Ireland.
P. Sufenas Virius Lupus pointed out to me previously that there are parts of Lebor Gabála Érenn–which state that they are derived from Cín Dromma Snechtai, which was a lost 8th-century manuscript. So there’s some suggestive evidence that this account may be even older.
In its corpus the Tower of Babel was built by 72 chieftains including the Scythian prince Fénius Farsaid. His son was Nial. Nial would father upon the Egyptian Pharaoh’s daughter Scota a son who will come to be called Gadel Glas. Gadel Glas becomes the father of the Gaelic language and peoples. At some point as they wander for centuries, he is bitten by a snake. Moses prays over, him blesses him with his staff (assumingly the same one that transforms into a snake as he demands Pharaoh to let his people go), and Gadel Glas survives the venomous serpent sting (and thus gets the nickname, as the name Gadel Glas appears to refer to the green ring left by the Snake’s bite). Not only is he cured, but he has acquired a bonus: no serpent will thrive where he or his progeny live. Eventually after centuries the Gaels leave Egypt, settle into Europe, and make a home in Ireland. Outside of the account here, there’s quite a folkloric tradition with a lot of variance with Gadel Glas.
There’s also the Fenian Cycle where serpent’s are being killed all over by Fionn Mac Cumhail, and the Warriors known as the Fianna. Like Gadel Gas, outside of the cycle, there’s a large variety of folkloric variations too.
Clearly we’ve got a theme going on here!
Now some are confused how there’s so many references in stories and even art to snakes on an island without any. People forget that even if Ireland was a geographically isolated island, it wasn’t truly isolated. On a clear day you can see the Scottish coast (and yes, there are snakes in Scotland). In the historical record we know from archaeological and written accounts that there was a variety of points of cultural exchange including trade, travel, and human migration as well as war and raids by numerous peoples. So they wouldn’t have been isolated from the knowledge of snakes both the biological animal, as well as the serpent as it appeared in a wide array of cultural concepts throughout Europe.
If you expand to other items like ‘dragons’ and great ‘wyrms’ there’s even more stories all over Europe with this motif. I’m sure there’s tons of scholarship on the subject, and it very much seems to be an example of a cultural milieu of Christian scribed stories in the late Viking Age and Medieval periods. Just as Shakespeare called out ancient Greco-Roman Gods and Goddesses in his plays.
Since most written accounts are late in the period of conversion and penned by Christian scholars some think this may be thematic of using the pagan symbol of the snake found in various European cultures (to varying degrees, prevalence and even meanings) as the evil Biblical snake in the Garden of Eden representing the antithesis of monotheism. Or they look more specifically to the Old Testament story of the staffs of the Egyptian Priest and Moses turning to snakes to battle one another, where the monotheistic backed snake devours the one belonging to the polytheists.
For this reason there are some pagans and polytheists, in part spearheaded by the late Isaac Bonewits “All Snake’s Day” initiative who wear the symbol of the snake on Saint Patrick’s Day in remembrance to the ancient Pre-Christian pagan traditions as well as in counter protest to Patrick who they view as the embodiment of one cog in the cultural holocaust Christianity caused in Europe.
Some point to a cultic site we’ve found in the archaeological record and with accounts in written lore as their proof Patrick destroyed the religion.
In Ireland there’s a megalithic stone circle called Magh Slecht “Plain of Prostrations” found in Killycluggin, County Cavan. In the 1920s the landowner found a broken and buried stone within the line of sight to that megalithic circle. Today we call that stone the Killycluggin stone. This stone is thought to be a stone idol and therefore representation of the God Crom Cruach, and most likely once stood within the circle.
Crom Cruach is also known as Crom Dubh, or Cenn Cruach, among other names.
He was their god, the wizened Cromm, hidden by many mists. – Metrical Dindshenchas
He was worshiped and given offerings for blessings toward the harvest and thus can be understood to have associations with the fertility of the land. Beyond the harvest, some theories think he may have also been a solar deity.
It’s covered in what appear to be Iron Age (500 BCE – 1 BCE) La Tene markings. The swirls remind me of other symbols we see crop up across Iron and Bronze Age Europe with sun deities, and was adorned with gold as well (often times a very visual way used to symbolize the sun). By comparing the archaeological finds with textual accounts a possible story seems to emerge.
The Metrical Dindshenchas (lore of places) was a collection of Irish lore, primarily dealing with onomastic content. They survive in snippets across multiple manuscripts, written at various times. One of the major sources is the 12th Century recension, the Book of Leinster.
The text claims that Crom Cruach was a bloodthirsty God requiring the first born children to be killed. The sacrifices had their heads smashed in upon the stone idol in offering in return for a plentiful harvest.
The text proceeds to describe the ritual site as having 12 companion stones surrounding the golden idol of Crom Cruach.
Both the Lebor Gebála Érenn, and the 9th Century Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick also support these details, and relate how Patrick put an end to the cultic tradition.
During the cultic celebration around Samhain the High King of Ireland Tigernmas and his people had gathered at the site in devoted protestration before Cromm Cruach where Patrick with some well armed missionaries came upon them. In a fish tale that I find really hard to swallow, supposedly Cromm Cruach then slays all of his own worshipers including the King, amounting to nearly 75% of all the men in Ireland.
Patrick now proceeds to fight Cromm Cruach by using his bishop’s staff to break the stone idol, casting out the ‘demon’ (i.e. the God) to banish it to Hell. Patrick proceeds to destroy the cultic site, blesses the area to claim it for Christianity, and then baptizes the few survivors.
It’s important to note these texts also appear centuries after the time of Patrick, we have no idea how long these accounts may have been in the oral record, or how much sensationalized by the Christian scribes that wrote them, but the historical timeline alone between Tigernmas and Patrick is rather obviously impossible as there is a gap of nearly 2000 years between their respective lifetimes.
I suspect there’s some kernels of truth in the stories and then a very intentional attempt to aggrandize Christianity and vilify the indigenous pre-Christian religion.
Some accounts say Patrick’s destruction of the idol broke the cultic practice.
Indeed the bit about the idol being broken is corroborated in the archaeological record, and it probably did drive one of the coffin nails into the ancient polytheistic tradition. But historical accounts paint a picture of gradual conversion, so despite the dramatic story, it really can’t be pointed to as a decisive moment of Patrick driving out the pagan/snakes at least historically, in fact it doesn’t appear to be something Patrick truly did, but it can be one of the much later origins for that figurative theory to come from.
So instead of Saint Patrick and green beer for those so inclined maybe it’d be a better Testament to remember Cromm Cruach or one of the ancient Gods of pre-Christian Ireland.
And might I recommend checking out the blog of scholar and Celtic Reconstructionist Polytheist P. Sufenas Virius Lupus; there’s a lot more to learn on the subject here:
To those pagans who take this day to wear the symbol of the snake in protest to a man who helped to destroy a polytheistic culture I hope you have a Happy All Snake’s Day!
Personally as a heathen, Saint Patrick’s Day and its tendency to be accompanied by cartooned leprechauns evokes to me the land vaettir, so I use the day especially for offerings to them.