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Did Saint Patrick Really Chase the Snakes From Ireland?

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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10:26AM PDT on Mar 21, 2014

@ Brian S: St Patrick was not the only 'saint' to go the country he represented. St David was born in Wales to a Welsh mother who was also later sainted (St Non, her feast day is the day after his) His father was a Welsh prince and his family were from one of the most ancient royal families of Wales. David or as we prefer to call him, Dewi, was instrumental in setting up colleges - guess where? Although he did travel to the Continent, he died in the smallest Welsh city and his bones now rest behind the altar of the cathedral there. The reliquary which held the bones was recently replace and a new one carved by a friend of mine!

10:17AM PDT on Mar 21, 2014

They did not succeed in driving the pagans out either. If you haven't noticed we are still here and one of the fastest if not the fastest growing religion while Christianity is losing ground. We should celebrate Snakes Day instead.

2:35AM PDT on Mar 21, 2014

Interesting article, but you just couldn't resist having a gratuitous dig at Christianity, could you? "Misogynistic"? The Christianity of the past and to a major extent nowadays was/is no more misogynistic than society in general and originally (in the gospels) actually credited women with respect and status quite unheard of at the time. Even today, the only issue (granted, a pretty major one) is whether women can occupy leadership positions; in all other aspects of the Christian community, they are as valued and productive as men.

On a separate note, the UK has four patron saints (Patrick for Ireland, George for England, Andrew for Scotland and David for Wales) and Patrick is the only one who ever went to the coutry he went on to represent!

6:33PM PDT on Mar 20, 2014

Hee heeing at Ron B.s comment! Thanks Ron - again!

12:05PM PDT on Mar 20, 2014

just s few points - Patrick could not have driven all the snakes out of Ireland because there are snakes in Wales, which was at one point joined to, and then very near Ireland until relatively late. There are actually few snakes in any of the British Isles, in any case. Also Brittany and France are NOT the same country and there is no evidence to prove that he came from there. It is most likely that he was a Pict from Northumbria or Scotland - many of the red headed Irish are descended from Pictish raids that took place around the C4/5th. The lower tribes of Picts who were dark haired tried to raid North Wales in the C4th and were beaten back - but some did settle there; their descendants still have Pictish characteristics and there are some Pictish style memorial stones to be found in the area. Also it is likely he was Romanised as he sent wolfhounds, slaves etc to Rome.

11:29AM PDT on Mar 20, 2014

Ron B, a bushel of stars for you!
It’s like the “explorers” who came to America. The non-Catholics wanted to make sure “the new world” wasn’t converted to Catholicism and the Catholics wanted to wipe out every indigenous religion and replace it (forcefully) with their own.

8:54AM PDT on Mar 20, 2014

Snakes are cool.

5:27AM PDT on Mar 20, 2014


7:24PM PDT on Mar 18, 2014

what he really did was drive the pagans out

6:58PM PDT on Mar 18, 2014


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