Date: Tue 30 May 89 16:57:28 Subj: Snakes, what snakes? A Brief History and Analysis of Sa
Date: Tue 30 May 89 16:57:28
From: Warren Stott (on 1:104/904.7)
Subj: Snakes, what snakes?
A Brief History and Analysis of Saint Patrick and the Myth
Much of the history and life of St. Patrick is inextricably entangled in
legend. The legends have been perpetuated and embellished through the years to
the point of mystery. Some of these legends served in Patrick's time to
further his missionary efforts among the pagans of Ireland. Today, however,
they are a source of great debate. The tales of magic and miracles have been
weighed by historians, both ecclesiastical and agnostic, with the few
authenticated writings of Patrick himself. The resulting picture is still
subject to much interpretation. The information presented here is intended to
be a cursory overview dealing primarily with the nature of Patrick's
Patrick was probably born in Briton between 385 and 389 CE. Many accounts hold
that his father was and a minor administrator for the Roman Empire, a deacon
of the church and himself the son of a priest. The rules of celibacy among the
clergy were apparently not strictly adhered to in fourth century Briton. A
Roman subject and Christian by birth, Patrick lived on his fathers estate
until he was sixteen years old. Patrick's own writings say that he was not
devoted to study in his youth and (1)"knew not the True God."
It is clear from other historical evidence that Briton was subject to periodic
attack by Irish raiding parties. Many Britons were kidnapped and sold as
slaves in Ireland. Sometime around 403 CE Patrick himself was carried off by a
band of raiders. He was sold to an Irish king who held him as a herdsman for
ten years. During this time Patrick learned Gaelic and an appreciation for the
Irish countryside. This was also when he found his "true God." Later in his
live he wrote that each day of his enslavement he "said a hundred prayers and
nearly as many at night."
Patrick's writings tell of visions that began after years of enslavement and
prayer. The visions came in his sleep, guiding him toward his escape. "You are
soon to return to your native land." was one message telling him to prepare
for escape and "Your ship is ready." telling him when. Historians presume that
after a decade of working herd animals on the slopes of the Irish highlands,
he was in good health and well able to make good his escape. Patrick writes
that he walked two hundred miles to where a boat was "waiting" for him. He was
refused passage at first but after a silent prayer, and presumably God's
intervention, the sailors let him aboard.
In the course of returning to Briton, a number of miracles and tests are
attributed to Patrick. He is said to have converted the sailors after being
stranded in an unpopulated area of Gaul. Legend has it that the party was near
starvation when Patrick was challenged about the nature of his loving God that
would let these men and His disciple starve. Patrick is said to have testified
as to his unshaken faith and only shortly there after to have miraculously
found a herd of wild pigs immediately on the road ahead. This is one of the
many legendary miracles that historians tend to discount as being exaggeration
of mere coincidence.
Patrick finally made his way to civilization and indirectly back to his family
in Briton. Here again Patrick was influenced by visions. This time the visions
suggested that he was to bring Christianity to the pagans of Ireland. "We
beseech thee, holy youth, to come and walk among us again." From this point
the history of Patrick's travels and teachers becomes convoluted. It is
presumed that the self-enlightened youth would have required formal education
and acceptance by the church to continue on to his calling. His travels and
tales of him suggest that he studied for a number of years in Gaul and Briton,
and perhaps even Rome. During this period his travels brought him into contact
with a number of other men who would become saints themselves. This in itself
created a number of stories and legends leaving unclear not only where and
when Patrick studied but also confusing the stories surrounding these other
one-day saints. Regardless, this teaching brought him firmly under the
influence of Rome and the church. He, however, was not the one picked by the
church to open Ireland to Christianity.
By this time their were already a small number of Christian settlements and
monasteries in the south and east of Ireland. Most of these Christians were
refugees from strife in Europe and Briton. They had, of course, had an impact
on the natives and converted some number of Druid and pagan folk. Likewise,
some early clergy practiced a mixture of the old pagan religions and druidism
by night and Christianity by day. Word came to Rome of this heresy and the
charge to convert Ireland and punish the offending clergy was born. One Deacon
Palladius was selected by Pope Celestine to be the first bishop of Ireland in
431. Palladius is thought to have been a Greek with little knowledge of the
Irish people, language, or culture. It is not surprising that his missionary
efforts were less than wholly successful.
Palladius founded a few churches in the northeast of Ireland though the known
Christian settlements and monasteries were mostly in the south. He met with
tremendous resistance from the local king, Nathy, and the native pagans.
Unwilling to stay in this hostile environment and away from his homeland,
Palladius soon sailed from Ireland for home. A chance landing in western
Scotland gave him opportunity for a more successful missionary effort among
the Picts which ended with his death the following year in 432. An Irish
saying has it that (2)"The Lord gave Ireland not to Palladius but to Patrick."
It is not clear who actually raised Patrick to the rank of bishop and sent him
to Ireland. This too is lost in the legends but it is generally held that St.
Germanus and not the Pope was responsible. Patrick came to Ireland in 432
landing at the sight of Palladius' failure.
He realized that the common people would follow in conversion if he could
first convert their leaders. He made great show of his strength against the
chieftains and kings and sought opportunities to challenge their faith. Legend
has it that Patrick was as willing to raise his left hand in a curse as his
right in a blessing. Stories abound of the miracles Patrick performed
throughout his travels; he turned the fertile lands of king Nathy into a salt
marsh, he changed the dogs of the local chieftain Dichu into stone, he healed
the injured and raised the sons of one converted chieftain from the dead.
There are many incidents in legend of Patrick performing acts of druidical
magic much to the astonishment of druids and chieftains alike.
Beyond the attributed magic and miracles, there is the more realistic
historical view that Patrick brought more than Christianity to the pagan
masses. Historians have long credited the spread of Christianity with the
spread of literacy and vice-versa. The missionaries brought with them books,
albeit Christian books, and written language which proved to be the brightest
of offerings to cultures that relied on the oral histories for recording the
past. This was no less true of Ireland.
There was a practice at the time of the high king lighting the first Beltane
fire each year. Fires were extinguished all over the country to allow the king
to bring forth the new fire thus demonstrating his power and ability to
provide for his subjects through the grace of the Gods. The fire was light on
a high hilltop so people for miles around could see this event. Brands from
this fire were taken through the countryside to light anew the peoples own
fires. This symbolized that all blessings flowed from the Gods, through the
high king and on to the population. It was held at the time that should any
fire be raised before the king's fire it would mark the end of the these times
and the fall of the king. Patrick's coup de grace was no doubt the lighting of
a Beltane fire on a hilltop near by before the king's fire was light. Many
people saw this a sign that Patrick had indeed unseated the king and
supplanted his new God for the old. Patrick had made good the prediction and
tightened his grip on the ruling class of Ireland.
Modern non-ecclesiastical historians take exception with the authenticity of
much of the St. Patrick tale. First there is the question of separating the
legends from the man. Though there was a man named Patrick who served as
bishop in Ireland, much of the legend surrounding him appears more likely to
be a composite of Patrick and a number of other bishops and clergy, some
earlier than Palladius. Secondly, the accomplishments attributed to Patrick at
once reinforce the multiple persona of Patrick as well as discredit most of
the legends as pious wishful thinking or simple exaggeration.
Legend has it that Patrick's deliverance of Ireland to Christianity took only
15 to 25 years. This appears to be far too short a time to have accomplished
the establishment of the Church of Ireland and the baptizing of "thousands" of
pagans. Further, there is the question of deliverance. The suggestion is that
Ireland as a whole became a Christian country in this short period of time.
There is significant evidence that widespread pagan and pagan sympathetic
religion was practiced throughout the fifth and sixth centuries in much of
Ireland. Considering that Patrick appears to have died in 461, his
accomplishments are, at best, chronologically misrepresented and at worst,
completely over stated.
The story of St. Patrick driving the serpents from Ireland into the sea is an
excellent example of the corruption of fact by the historians that first
attempted to record Patrick's life. This tale has been interpreted by some as
a metaphor for the conversion or banishing of the Druids and other pagans
during this time. This has been used by both Christians and pagans for their
own purposes and actually serves neither. Many historians now view the tale as
a fabrication of one man in the name of pious fervor.
The story goes that Patrick spread his missionary zeal throughout Ireland for
a number of years, finally coming to what is now County Mayo on Clew Bay. Here
Patrick fasted and meditated the forty days of Lent atop the 2500 foot high
peak known today as Croagh Patrick. Observing this peak it is clear this was
not a hospitable place for a old man alone. Even today, the peak is seldom
visible through the clouds and is subject to freezing temperatures and wet
winds off the ocean. When the days of Lent had passed, Patrick (3)"gathered
together from all parts of Ireland all the poisonous creatures... By the power
of his word he drove the whole pestilent swarm from the precipice of the
mountain, headlong into the ocean."
Modern historians as well as geologists and anthropologists have a different
story to tell. As Katherine Scherman puts it, (4)"This legend was invented
some seven hundred years after Patrick lived, to explain the then-
unaccountable fact of Ireland's freedom from snakes. The island actually lost
its reptiles and amphibians fifteen to twenty thousand years earlier. Most of
the plants and animals of the British Isles had been killed or driven south as
the ice cap grew. When the glacial sheet waned they began to come back. But
before they could reach Ireland the melting ice raised the water level, and
the land bridge that had connected Wales and Ireland during the Ice Age was
broken by the re-creation of the Irish Sea... The only animals that got back
to Ireland were those that could swim or fly... Two amphibians and one reptile
made it; the natterjack toad, the smooth newt and the brown lizard, all
innocuous little creatures. Ireland's snakelessness was commented on as early
as the third century A.D. by the grammarian Gaius Julius Solinus: 'In that
land there are no snakes, birds are few, and the people are inhospitable and
warlike.'... It was his (Patrick's) twelfth-century biographer, Jocelyn,
credulously reverent, who chose to explain his country's odd deficiency by
tacking yet another legend to the top-heavy halo surrounding the saint."
There is much about St. Patrick that will never be known for fact. There is
much that might be left to faith among the Christian or heavily Church
indoctrinated. The facts are that there was a man named Patrick who served as
a missionary to Ireland. He is credited with forming the Church of Ireland and
was canonized for his service. In terms of the snakes of Ireland and Patrick,
the lesson is clear that history and the recording of history is subject to
the predisposition of the historian. Patrick, it would appear, did little more
than any other missionary of Christianity did for his charge. Patrick, like
many missionaries, is guilty of the destruction of historical artifacts and at
the same time should be credited, in part, with bringing literacy to Ireland.
These are the sins and accomplishments of a man who followed his faith and the
calling of his "true God." The corruption of his story and his religion were
largely not his doing.
385 Probable birth year
431 Palladius to Ireland
432 Patrick to Ireland, Palladious' death
444 Native clergy and an episcopal see at Armagh
457 Patrick resigned as head of the Church of Ireland
461 Patrick's death
1 "Confession" Saint Patrick, the date of this document is still in contest.
All quotes used are form Confession unless otherwise footnoted.
2 Several twentieth century historians have proposed that Palladius and
Patrick were one and the same. They base this generally on chronology and
specific interpretation of the legends surrounding both men.
3 "The Life and Acts of St. Patrick Jocelyn, Monk of Furness (date unknown).
4 "The Flowering of Ireland" Katherine Scherman, Little, Brown & Co. 1981.
This article was not written to defend Patrick just as it was not written
to be specifically pagan sympathetic. I researched and wrote this article to
answer a question for myself and as such, was primarily interested in fact of
history. I am not justifying or defending anything that Patrick or the
expansion of Christianity or, specificaly, the church did. I just wanted to
know where the nonsense about the snakes came from.
In researching the subject I found for every non-ecclesiastical history
there are several by church scholars and more by wanna-be historians with no
credentiuals except "faith."
I also found that the magickal acts attributed to various saints including
Patrick is really heady stuff. These guys are supposed to have done stuff that
makes the best of the current crop of magick users look like toddlers. This
raises the question of how did the church differentiate between the magick
performed by these ancient saints and that attributed to witches. Of course
the answer is the Saint called down a miracle and the witch was in league with
the devil. I guess it would be wise then if challanged about an act of magick
to claim it was a miracle. Who knows, it might lead to a new high paying
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