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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