Jean Markale observes it represents the unknown, and figured as the Guardian Of Hidden Treasures on earth. Maybe an internalization of the "knowledge" and "wisdom" qualities believed on Eastern religions.
Celtic art is the key evidence of ancient serpent worship and snake symbolism in pre-Christian Ireland. If one looks at the crosses, Celtic knots and designs found in inscriptions, monument details and manuscripts of Ireland, the depiction of snakes abounds.
Some believe that there is a phallic element to the use of snakes, as there is also a female element in eggs also associated with serpent art. As snakes never existed in Ireland, the religious serpent beliefs and iconography had to have originated from the Celts outside of Ireland, but depictions of sexual organs were clearly native to the ancient Irish.
Allowing for the pre-Christian origin of some Irish crosses, we may understand why these were accompanied by twining serpents. "Is it not a singular circumstance," asks Keane, "that in Ireland where no living serpent exists, such numerous legends of serpents should abound, and that figures of serpents should be so profusely used to ornament Irish sculptures? There is scarcely a cross, or a handsome piece of ancient Irish ornamental work, which has not got its serpent or dragon."
The singular cross of Killamery, Kilkenny Co., exhibits thereon two Irish serpents. The font of Cashel illustrates the same mystery. The writer saw several stones at Cashel cathedral with sculptured snakes, one large specimen ornamenting a sarcophagus. The Crozier, or Pastoral Staff of Cashel, which was found last century, bears a serpent springing out of a sheath or vagina. The end of the sheath is adorned with wreathing serpents. in the handle a man stands on a serpent's head with a staff, at which the reptile bites. This staff was like that of a Roman augur, or of an Etruscan and Babylonian priest.
Brash's Sculptured Crosses of Ireland refers to one cross, at Clonmel, having four serpents at the centre, coiled round a spherical boss. Several instances were known in which the serpents have been more or less chipped away from off such crosses.
A serpent occupies a large space on the beautiful Irish sculptured stone, Clwyn Macnos, or Clon Macnois. Not long ago, a stone serpent was discovered, with twelve divisions, marked as for the twelve astronomical signs, reminding one of the Babylonian serpent encircling the zodiac. Several ancient Irish fonts have upon them sculptured serpents. Glass snakes of various colours have also been frequently turned up.
When the author was at Cashel some years since, he saw, among a lot of fragments of the ancient church, a remarkable stone, bearing a nearly defaced sculpture of a female--head and bust--but whose legs were snakes. This object of former worship was not very unlike the image of the Gauls, that was to be. seen in Paris, though that goddess had two serpents twisted round her legs, with their heads reposing on her breasts. The Caribs of Guadaloupe were noticed by the Spaniards worshipping a wooden statue, the legs of which were enwreathed by serpents. Auriga is sometimes represented with legs like serpents. The Abraxis of the Christian Gnostics of the early centuries had serpents for legs.
Rude carvings of snakes adorn the pyramidal stones overlooking the plains of Dundalk in Louth County. This is on Killing Hill. The marvellous megalithic temple of New Grange, one of the finest antiquities of Ireland, has its curled serpentine monument.
The legends still floating about among the peasantry of the country parts of Ireland have frequent reference to the Piastra, Piastha, Worm, or Serpent This creature is always in some lake, or deep pond. The Fenian heroes are recorded in ancient songs to have killed many of them. Fionn, in particular, was the traditional dragon-killer of, Ireland. Of one monster in a lake, it said:--
"It resembled a great mound--
Its jaws were yawning wide;
There might lie concealed, though great its fury,
A hundred champions in its eye-pits.
Taller in height than eight men,
Was its tail, which was erect above its back;
Thicker was the most slender part of its tail,
Fionn was inquisitive as to the country from which the reptile had come, and what was the occasion of the visit to Erin. He was answered--
"From Greece, to demand battle from the Fenians."
It seems that it had already swallowed up a number of Fenian warriors, and finished by gulping down Fionn; but the Hero cleverly opened the side of the Piast, and released himself and the imprisoned men, and then killed it. After this the poet added--
"Of all the Piasts that fell by Fionn,
The number never can be told."
Fionn elsewhere figures in The Chase of Sliabh Guilleann, being after one in Lough Cuan.
"We found a serpent in that lake.
His being there was no gain to us;
On looking at it as we approached,
Its head was larger than a hill.
Larger than any tree in the forest,
Were its tusks of the ugliest shape;
Wider than the portals of a city
Were the ears of the serpent as we approached."
He destroyed serpents in Lough Cuilinn, Lough Neagh, Lough Rea, as well as the blue serpent of Eirne, and one at Howth. He killed two at Glen Inny, one in the murmuring Bann, another at Lough Carra, and beheaded a fearful creature which cast fire at him from Lough Leary.
"Fionn banished from the Raths
Each serpent he went to meet."
Another poet left this version--
"A serpent there was in the Lough of the mountain,
Which caused the slaughter of the Fianna;
Twenty hundred or more
It put to death in one day."
It demanded a ration of fifty horses a day for meals.
Croker, in his Legend of the Lakes, gives a modern allusion to the myth, which relates to Lough Kittane of Killarney. A boy is asked--
"Did you ever hear of a big worm in the lake?
"The worm is it, fakes then, sure enough, there is a big worm in the lake.
"How large is it?
"Why, then, it's as big as a horse, and has a great mane upon it, so it has.
"Did you ever see it?
"No, myself never seed the sarpint, but it's all one, for sure Padrig a Fineen did."
There is in Wexford County a Lough-na-Piastha. O'Flaherty calls one known in Lough Mask, the Irish crocodile. No one would dream of bathing in the lake of Glendalough (of the Seven Churches), as a fearful monster lived there. There was a Lig-na-piaste in Derry. The present Knocknabaast was formerly Cnoc-na-bpiast in Roscommon. Near Donegal is Leenapaste. A well of Kilkenny is Tobernapeasta. A piast was seen in Kilconly of Kerry. Some names have been changed more recently; as, Lough-na-diabhail, or Lake of the Devil.
The Dragon of Wantley (in Yorkshire) was winged, and had forty-four iron teeth, "with a sting in his tail as long as a flail," says an old ballad.
Scotland, as the author of its Sculptured Stones shows, furnished a number of illustrations of the like Dracolatria. Among the score of megalithic-serpent Scotch monuments, some have crosses as well. There is, also, the well-known earthen serpent of Glen Feochan, Loch Nell, near Oban, in view of the triple cone of Ben Cruachan, being 300 feet long and 20 high. Professor Blackie noted it thus
"Why lies the mighty serpent here,
Let him who knoweth tell;
With its head to the land, and its huge tail near
The shore of the fair Loch Nell?
Why lies it here? Not here alone--
But far to the East and West;
The wonder-working snake is known,
A mighty god, confessed.
And here the mighty god was known
In Europe's early morn;
In view of Cruachan's triple cone,
Before John Bull was born.
And worship knew, on Celtic ground,
With trumpets, drums, and bugles;
Before a trace in Lorn was found
Of Campbells and Macdougalls.
And here the serpent lies in pride,
His hoary tale to tell;
And rears his mighty head beside
The shore of fair Loch Nell."
Visitors to Argyllshire and to Ireland cannot fail to recognize this old-time symbol. The mound on the Clyde in Argyllshire, is the head remains of a serpent earthwork. A lithic temple in serpentine form is seen west of Bute. Some connect the cup and disc superstition with this worship. Forlong, however, thinks of a relationship in the spectacle-ornament with the phallic, though one form of inscription is decidedly draconic. Serpent stones put into water, were, until lately, used in the Hebrides to cure diseased cattle.
The Great Serpent mound of the North, at Ach-na-Goul, near Inverary, was opened by Mr. Skene. Serpent worship was common in Argyll, as that part of Scotland was Irish by contiguity and racial descent. Keating tells us that the Gaedhal, derived from Gadelius, got the name of Glas, or green, from the green spot on his neck caused by the bite of the serpent in the days of Moses.
South Britain can still exhibit vestiges of serpent worship. Among English fonts bearing reminiscences are those of Stokes-Golding, Alplington, Fitzwarren, Tintagel, East Haddon, Locking in Somerset, and Avebury. The three first represent George and the Dragon, or, rather, Horus of Egypt piercing the monster, In the last case, the serpent's tail is round the font. The Vicar of Avebury remarks:--
"On the ancient Norman font in Abury Church there is a mutilated figure, dressed apparently in the Druidical priestly garb, holding a crozier in one hand, and clasping an open book to his breast with the other. Two winged dragons or serpents are attacking this figure on either side. May not this be designed to represent the triumph of Christianity over Druidism, in which there was much veneration entertained for this serpent and serpent worship?"
In interviews with the late Archdruid of Wales, a man full of curious learning and traditional lore, the writer heard much of serpent adoration in Ancient Britain. Whatever the race or races might have been, the mystic creature had friends in the British Isles, though chiefly in Ireland. Long ago Bryant's Mythology taught that, "The chief deity of the Gentile world was almost universally worshipped under the form of the serpent."
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