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Celtic Christianity: Saint Patrick & the Banished Serpents

Many stories concerning to Saint Patrick and the serpents are most likely a metaphor for his bringing Christianity to Ireland and driving out the celtic religion (serpents were a common symbol in many other religions). Moreover all evidence suggests that post-glacial Ireland never had snakes. However, one suggestion is that snakes referred to the serpent symbolism of the Druids during that time and place, as exampled on coins minted in Gaul, (see Carnutes)

Giraldus Cambrensis, who went over the Irish Sea with Henry II. in the twelfth century, having some doubt of the story, mildly records that "St. Patrick, according to common report, expelled the venomous reptiles from it by the Baculum Jesu"--the historical staff or rod. The Saint is said to have fasted forty days on a mount previous to the miracle, and so gained miraculous power. Elsewhere, Giraldus says, "Some indeed conjecture, with what seems a flattering fiction, that St. Patrick and the other Saints of that country cleared the island of all pestiferous animals."

An Irish historian of 1743 gives the following differences of belief about the affair:--"But the earlier writers of St. Patrick's Life have not mentioned it Solinus, who wrote some hundreds of years before St. Patrick's arrival in Ireland, takes notice of this exemption; and St. Isidore, Bishop of Seville, in the seventh century, copies after him. The Venerable Bede, in the eighth century, mentions this quality, but is silent as to the cause."
The non-residence of snakes in the Isle of Thanet was accounted for by the special blessing of St Augustine, who landed there on his mission to the Saxons. So also tradition ascribed the Irish deliverance to the blessing of St Patrick.
Yet, while Giraldus evidently treats the story as a fable, St. Colgan felt compelled to "give it up." Ancient naturalists relate that Crete was preserved from snakes by the herb Dittany driving them away.
Being a Romano-Briton , Patrick was captured by the irish when he was young and driven to Ireland. During the six years of Patrick's captivity he acquired a knowledge of the Celtic tongue which he would later use. Also during this time, as Milchu his master was a high druid, the young Patrick became familiar with the details of the aboriginal Irish religions.

St. Patrick spent his life bringing Christianity to the people of the Emerald Isle and dispelling what he considered to be false traditions of the Irish, which would include the reverence for serpents.
But not all of Celtic and pre-Celtic beliefs and myths, including those about serpents disappeared. St. Bernard, in his Life of Malachy, referred to the Irish of the 12th century C.E. as "Pagans, while calling themselves Christians." The Irish are still noted for retaining much of the old religion in their Christianity and artistry to this day.
The Christian missionaries would have been disgusted by the folk beliefs of the Irish and would have tried to banish such beliefs from Ireland. The Celts, and pre-Celts were animists who believed in many spirits and deities. They believed that spirits dwelled in nature, such as mountains, trees and streams, and had local shrines for worshipping their nature deities. The early Celts of Ireland focused on deities of the local landscapes and animals (which would not have included snakes, but which beliefs may have been borrowed from Britain and Europe).
While Ireland was an Island, it was not remote from Europe and much trafficking of ideas transpired. Serpent devotion and symbolism was found in the pan-Celtic religion from Britain and Europe, which would have been imported to Ireland. Snakes in this pan-Celtic context were believed to be fertile, destructive, powerful, and self-regenerative -- all magical qualities worthy of emulation.
The Druidical serpent of Ireland is perceived in the Tara brooch, popularized to the present day. Irish crosses, so to speak, were alive with serpents. And even in the plates of the Book of Dorrow.
Although tradition declares that all the serpent tribe have ceased to exist in Ireland, "yet," as Mrs. Anna Wilkes writes, "it is curious to observe how the remains of the serpent form lingered in the minds of the cloistered monks, who have given us such unparalleled specimens of ornamental initial letters as are preserved in the Books of Kells, Ballymote, &c." A singular charm did the reptile possess over the imagination of the older inhabitants. Keating assures his readers that "the Milesians, from the time they first conquered Ireland, down to the reign of Ollamh Fodhla, made use of no other arms of distinction in their banners than a serpent twisted round a rod, after the example of their Gadelian ancestors."

An old tradition is held that Niul, the fortunate husband of Pharaoh's daughter Scota, had a son, Gaoidhial, who was bitten by a serpent in the wilderness. Brought before Moses, he was not only healed, but was graciously informed that no serpent should have power wherever he or his descendants should dwell. As this hero, of noble descent, subsequently removed to Erin, that would be sufficient reason for the absence of the venomous plague from the Isle of Saints.

Other Powerful Ejections
St Patrick wasn't the only one! He had more saintly competitors for the glory of reptile expulsion supported by popular believes.
St. Kevin, the hero of the Seven Churches of Wicklow, is stated to have caused the death of the last Irish serpent, by setting his dog Lupus to kill it. This event was commemorated by a carved stone placed under the east window of Glendalough Cathedral, delineating the struggle between Lupus and the snake. This stone was stolen by a visitor on the 28th of August, 1839.
Again, the gallant conqueror of, or conquered by, the Irish Danes, King Brian Boroimhe (aka Brian Boru), we are assured by an ancient MS., had a famous son, Murchadh, who destroyed all serpents to be found in Ireland. This is mentioned in the Erse story of the Battle of Clontarf.
St. Cado, of Brittany, was an expeller of serpents from Gaul; and Doué de Gozon expelled them from Malta.
Even Colomba did the same good service for Iona, as others of his disciples did for Donegal. On the tombstone of the Grand Master of Malta, 1342, are the words, Draconis Extinctor.
Among the heroes of serpent-destroyers were also St. Clement, the vanquisher of the Dragon of Metz; St. Marcel, the deliverer of Paris from the monster; and St. Romain, whose exploits were immortalized over the gargouille of Paris, not to speak of German, Spanish, Russian, and other Saints--Michael.
One meaning, however, for these revelations of a miracle, has been found. Keating, the Irish historian, fancies the whole must be taken in a figurative sense, referring to the expelling from the converts of the old Serpent, the Devil. O'Neill, also, observes--"The conquest which the Irish Apostle of Christianity is said to have gained over the serpents of Ireland has been doubted, but if it means that he gained a victory over the serpent-worship, the story seems entitled to credit."
Irish Catholic Celtic monks, ca. 800 C.E., also famously used Celtic art with decorative serpents to embellish the detailed illuminated Latin New Testament manuscripts such as the Book of Kells. Irish Christian art and architecture is filled with drawings of serpents and snakes.
If, as some have speculated, the Tuatha De Danann, the Irish mythological pre-Christian kingly race, were descended from the Israelite Tribe of Dan, then the serpent would have been associated with the people of Danann. The Israelite Tribe of Dan, also Dann, used the serpent to symbolize their tribe from ancient times.
Sources:
Irish Druids And Old Irish Religions by James Bonwick [1894]


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