Did Saint Patrick Really Chase the Snakes From Ireland?

Editor’s Note: This post is a Care2 favorite, brought back by popular demand. It was originally published on March 12, 2013. Enjoy!

St. Patrick’s Day, which is celebrated on March 17, honors a 5th-century missionary who was supposedly responsible for spreading Christianity in Ireland, and also supposedly rid the island of snakes by herding them out to sea.

Let’s take the second assertion first. Did Patrick really cast all the serpents out of Ireland?

The Answer is No and Yes.

No: Snakes in Ireland were wiped out not by St. Patrick, but by the last ice age. Up until roughly 10,000 years ago, the British Isles, along with most of the rest of northern Europe, was covered by icecaps and glaciers, not a great habitat for snakes. When Patrick arrived in the year 432, there were no snakes. Ireland is now one of five major landmasses on Earth with no native snakes; the others are Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland and New Zealand.

Yes: It’s figuratively true. The serpent is well known as the archetypal symbol of the great mother goddess in Pagan religions: it was one of the most widely used symbol associated with the female in many cultures, including the Celtic religion, which was flourishing in Ireland when Patrick arrived there. The snake was also associated with several Celtic goddesses, and particularly with St. Brigit, beloved of the Irish.

Patrick destroyed the Celtic, female-dominated religions of Ireland with their snake symbols, and substituted the male-dominated, misogynistic, Christian religion. Therefore, he chased the snakes away.

Scholars have debated for years, and will undoubtedly keep debating, how monotheistic, male-dominated religions like Christianity took over from polytheistic, goddess religions, but St. Patrick definitely played his part in making this happen. And it was no coincidence that Christianity demonized snakes: just look at the story of Eve.

Who was Saint Patrick?

Here’s how the myth goes:

He was born in Dumbarton, Scotland, around 385, of Roman descent, Britain being occupied by the Romans at that time. (That’s right: he was not Irish.) At the age of 16, he was captured by Irish pirates, who brought him to Ireland and sold him into slavery.  During his six years of captivity, he became deeply devoted to Christianity and determined to “free” the Irish from Paganism by converting them to Christianity. Finally, he managed to escape back to England.

After years of studying, he entered the priesthood, and around 431, Pope St. Celestine I consecrated St. Patrick Bishop of the Irish, and sent him to Ireland to introduce the Christian Gospel to the Pagans there. He threw himself into converting the Irish, and supposedly convinced many Irish to convert to Christianity, while creating a structure for the church:  electing church officials, creating councils and founding monasteries.

He is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland.

St. Patrick: The Myth and The Truth

From Christianity Today:

Patrick isn’t really a Saint with a capital S, having never been officially canonized by Rome. And Patrick couldn’t have driven the snakes out of Ireland because there were never any snakes there to begin with. He wasn’t even the first evangelist to Ireland (Palladius had been sent about five years before Patrick went). Patrick isn’t even Irish. He’s from what’s now Dumbarton, Scotland (just northwest of Glasgow)

In addition, it seems that the process of Christianizing Ireland had been going on for at least 100 years before his arrival,
because Irish colonists in southern Wales, Cornwall, and elsewhere in Roman Britain had already come into contact with Christians and carried the religion back with them when visiting home.

So Patrick wasn’t really a saint, he didn’t cast out any snakes and he wasn’t even the first evangelist to try and bring Christianity to Ireland. But when did the truth ever prevent anyone from having a party?

And Now For The Truth About Those Snakes

Did you know that:

*  Snakes regulate rodents: Snakes are very efficient predators, and a world with no snakes would mean a world full of rodents. “Worldwide,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “rats and mice spread over 35 diseases.”

*  Snakes help control disease: By regulating rodent populations, snakes also benefit people by keeping infectious diseases in check.

*  Snakes as food: Snakes serve as food for carnivores such as coyotes, badgers and bobcats, as well as for raptors and other snakes.

*  Snakes in Medicine: Most people have heard of snake venom being used to create antivenom.  But research with snake venom has begun to create drugs for other ailments, including type 2 diabetes and digestive problems.

So now you know! Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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Photo Credit: thinkstock

486 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus4 months ago

Thank you for sharing.

Amanda M.
Amanda M.5 months ago

Aria Spenser, I tend to agree with you-as a Wiccan, I find not too much about the Christian aspects of the mainstream holidays that is fun. (The secular parts are definitely another story!) And I agree with the fact that Christianity's patriarchal nature tried (and is still trying today) to stamp out the matriarchal pre-Christian religions and anything that smacks of women's equality today (the conservative Christian sects' and groups like Quiverfull's attitudes towards women are glaring examples if ever there were any!). Besides, not being Irish, I don't celebrate that holiday. However, my birthday is on the 16th, and the year I turned 21, my friends took me out the next day to celebrate with the "street legal" tradition of getting the new member of the "group" hammered. Since that day was a St. Patrick's Day Friday night, you can imagine the chaos of bar-hopping! All the bars were giant mosh pits, and it was a case of giving one person the orders and money, watching them disappear into the crowd around the bar, and maybe half an hour later they'd come back alive. It was...interesting!

STEFANIE RACKS
STEFANIE RACKS6 months ago

I REALLY DON'T LIKE SNAKES BUT FIND THEM INTERESTING AND DANGEROUS BUT THANKS FOR SHARING THE STORY OF ST. PATRICK.

Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran6 months ago

noted

Chris Ringgold
Chris Ringgold6 months ago

I'm not a fan of snakes, either. However, I've learned a lot about St. Patrick & other important information regarding the man (& the holiday) in this article & the other articles featured in this article's links.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill6 months ago

I love the story of St. Patrick. It's a story of true Christianity at work! He was taken into slavery, escaped, became a Christian, then went back to bring them to the Lord because of the love God gave him for the Irish.

Estelle Oelofsen
Estelle Oelofsen6 months ago

Here by us a constrictor will easily get to 5 meters long. I have a photo of one we saw on a farm that was more than 4 meters.

Estelle Oelofsen
Estelle Oelofsen6 months ago

Sorry, where I live the only good snake is a dead snake. I am not asking a snake whether he/she is poisonous, I kill him. He bites our horses and dogs and spits in their eyes. Big drama. He bites you and the constrictor kills every small living thing. Sometimes even the bigger ones, depending on his size. They will come into your house following, not rodents, but frogs that escapes form the rain. We keep our living area free from rodents. They only breed where it's dirty and in the horses feed.
In any case , a good story.

Jane R.
Jane R.6 months ago

Who really cares?

Gale L.
Gale L.6 months ago

Robert Fitzgeraldyesterday - The oldest actual COPY of the Confessio which is believed to be written by St. Patrick is 400 years after he was believed to have lived (which is not bad in terms of ancient copies of things...you have to get rid of a lot of historical figures if you use the fact that you have no tangible copies talking about them from the time they were around...especially if you are talking about people other than kings, who might have more durable references to them, like coins or statuary. Paper doesn't usually hold up that long, and a copy of an older manuscript is usually the best you can get). The fact that we date Patrick to the 5th century is actually based on his Confessio. I'm not sure how that work dates him to the 5th century. I'm guessing either people or events mentioned in it, or quite possibly the style of the writing shows 5th century patterns of speech. That over the years people have added to his story and altered it is true (there's a 7th century story, which we also have copies from the 9th or 10th century of, that is clearly fiction...it has a lot of "magic" added to it and conflicts with his own writings in various ways).