St. Patrick and the Snakes: the Forging of an Ancient (and Modern) Myth

Kilbennan_St._Benin's_Church_Window_St._Patrick_Detail_2010_09_16
Patrick from a church in Co. Galway, Ireland. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

It’s become somewhat of a modern journalistic tradition for several articles to come out around St. Patrick’s Day that attempt to shed light on the various legends that have emerged over the centuries concerning the well-known patron saint of Ireland, who’s lent his name (and perhaps also, according to certain folk traditions, his penchant for drink) to the holiday.

A particular point of fascination has been the origins of the legend of Patrick’s having driven all the snakes out of Ireland—surely one of the most ubiquitous and memorable tales attached to the saint.

Although to the best of scholars’ knowledge, the historical Patrick lived sometime between the 4th and the 5th centuries, the legend of the expulsion of the snakes is a latecomer, far removed from this time: its first appearance is in the later medieval Topographia Hibernica (Topography of Ireland), written by Gerald of Wales in the 1200s. But I think it’s still worth taking a look at this legend, to try to pinpoint its genesis—however late and ahistorical it may be.

A common theory that attempts to explain how the story came about is that it actually owes its existence to a misunderstanding, or too literal reading, of earlier tales of the saint’s expulsion of pagans from Ireland.

One article published in the Irish Independent mentions a theory that it was the story of St. Patrick’s conflict with a group that venerated the Irish deity Crom Cruach—a tale recorded in the early Irish Dindsenchas, a text relating legends associated with various Irish locales—that eventually evolved into our current tale of snakes. However, the article offers no evidence of how this happened, other than to suggest that a “botched translation” is responsible.

Another article, from Huffington Post, suggests that the story originally referred to druids—a broad group that came to be associated with particular Irish religious practices—that had tattoos of snakes on their arms. Based on this, then, it’s suggested that “[a] contemporary would understand the ‘snake’ symbology for what it represented (the Druids) instead of actual serpents. When that link disappeared into the mists of time, so did the symbolic meaning of the myth.”

Our own Dwight Longenecker over on the Patheos Catholic channel repeats several of these things as well:

The pagan druids featured serpents in their worship and were tattooed with serpents. Furthermore, the serpent, in many pagan nature religions, is the symbol of the “earth powers”.  To put it bluntly, Patrick was an effective exorcist. He drove out the pagan religions and with it drove out the Great Serpent Satan

Yet there’s little to no evidence of any of these things. (On Patheos, Jason Pitzl-Waters has critically addressed some of this in his post “Saint Patrick, Druids, Snakes, and Popular Myths.”)


Although these explanations have a certain appeal in terms of a kind of (seemingly) intuitive folk logic we might have about how stories can evolve, there’s a much more obvious route of explanation for the genesis of snake-expulsion motif, that avoids the various historical pitfalls here.

For example, if we were to find earlier legends of other famous figures expelling snakes from an area, this would surely give us a better lead in our quest for the St. Patrick legends under discussion here: here, we wouldn’t have to resort to speculative ideas about an alteration or corruption of a story already specifically involving Patrick, but can simply suggest an appropriation of the same motif as was applied to earlier figures.

As it turns out, there are indeed multiple instances of this: exact or nearly exact analogues of the snake-banishing motif, found elsewhere in European/Mediterranean traditions—and traditions which were popular long before even the time of the historical Patrick.

The ridding of snakes by divine or heroic figures is in fact recorded by several ancient Greek and Latin authors, ascribed to a few different figures from mythological antiquity. For example, the 1st century Greek geographer and historian Strabo reproduces a fragment of Hesiod—himself typically placed around the 8th or 7th century BCE—in which Eurylochus, a figure known from the Homer’s Odyssey, expels a monstrous snake from Salamis.

Similarly, in the Fables of Hyginus, the Greek Medea—best known as the wife of Jason (of Argonauts fame)—is said to have helped free the people of a certain Absoris from a great multitude of snakes by shutting them in a tomb.¹ Further, the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus preserves a tradition of Hercules driving out the snakes from Crete, along with other wild creatures.

In truth, there’s no telling how ancient the well-springs of such legends are. Certainly, the motif of a hero’s battle with a dragon or otherwise threatening monster/creature goes back to a few millennia before the Common Era, at minimum.²

More relevant to the Patrick legend itself, these motifs also appear in the early hagiographies of other Christian saints—in tales which, again, predate that of St. Patrick. There’s a possible early variant of this in the Dialogues of Pope Gregory I, where a certain Boniface of Ferento dramatically banishes the caterpillars who have ruined his garden. Specifically in Britain, a century later Adomnán, abbot of the island of Iona, records that Saint Columba rendered the snakes of Iona powerless to hurt both humans and livestock—provided that the inhabitants retain their Christian faith.

Further into late antiquity, the expelling of snakes is ascribed to many other figures in Christian hagiography: St. Hilary of Poitiers in France, Julius of Novara in Italy, St. Adalbert in Silesia.³

So from where did authors like Gerald of Wales or Adomnán adopt these traditions? Did they rely on earlier hagiographic traditions, themselves indebted to Greek or Latin traditions similar to the ones mentioned above?


To be sure, tales like these can become severely twisted over time. (Speaking of the Hesiod fragment mentioned earlier—vis-a-vis the druid/snake tattoo theory mentioned above—in later euhemerizing interpretation, the Homeric Eurylochus was understood only to have banished a man with the nickname “Snake” from the island.⁴)

Yet in light of the totally unclear connection between the traditions that appear in texts like the Dindsenchas, on one hand (Patrick’s interfaith conflict with Irish pagans), and the traditions of medieval hagiography on the other (in which Patrick simply acts as reptilian exterminator⁵), the best theory available to us is that the banishing of the snakes motif was first popularized in Greco-Roman tradition, which was then adopted by early Christian authors who were familiar with these sources (or through an unknown mediator, now lost to history), and eventually finding their most popular mythological “host” in Saint Patrick.

Throughout the Middle Ages, this tradition was recycled, and applied from figure or saint to another through natural processes of syncretism—a reflex of a phenomenon attested worldwide, in nearly every culture on the planet, of the transference of characteristics from deity to deity, saint to saint, and person to person.


Finally, in regard to the suggestion that the tale of St. Patrick’s expulsion of the snakes—or, again, similar tales ascribed to other saints before him—was meant to portray the Christian triumph over Satanic forces and so on: from everything that we can infer from the way that this expulsion motif was expressed and how it ddeveloped, it seems like the intention here wasn’t so much to metaphorically illustrate the idea of the overthrow of nefarious supernatural forces. At the very least, the fact that this motif had clear Greek and Roman precursors shows that it didn’t have its origin in such a Christianized conception of the demonic.

In fact, there might not be a much deeper “why” behind the Christian adoption of this motif, beyond the fact that those like Patrick were remembered as significant, almost heroic figures. Now, it’s certainly possible that one of the factors that influenced Christians to adapt this for their own revered figures in the first place was because they interpreted this earlier motif—whatever its original function in Greco-Roman myth and its interpretation—through the lens of a kind of Christian demonology. (Though, again, this element doesn’t seem to make itself obvious in the Christian tales themselves.)

Conversely, however, it could have also been understood along what we might call therapeutic lines: a tale that could used to illustrate and communicate the Christian understanding of how great figures like Patrick, through their missionary efforts, simply brought peace and relief to certain populations, helping minimize the trials and nuisances of everyday life (a la caterpillars infesting gardens, snakes, etc.); and that, because of this, their arrival was to be celebrated.

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(Footnotes can be found on the next page here.)

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