The Snakes and the Slaves

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.

As I ponder on this day, I am reminded that it, like Columbus Day, can elicit a radically different response from people, based on their world-view and value system. Columbus Day for Euro-Americans was traditionally a day of celebration and commemoration of “discovery,” but for Native Americans and those who share concern for the plight of indigenous people who face the brunt of colonialist expansion, Columbus Day has become the symbol of loss. As one pundit put it, “Columbus didn’t discover America, he invaded it!”

St. Patrick’s Day, likewise, means different things based on whether a person’s interest in Celtic spirituality tends toward the Pagan or the Christian end of the continuum. For Christians, Patrick brought the new faith — hence, enlightenment — to this “island at the end of the world.” But Neopagans re-interpret Patrick not as a liberator, but as an oppressor. The arrival of Patrick’s mission marked the beginning of the end of the old ways. I remember back in the 1980s, in Nashville at a Wiccan bookstore, the first time I saw a leaflet for Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship: It said “Bring back the snakes! Ireland was better off Pagan.”

So when Patrick expelled the snakes from Ireland, was this a mythic way of saying he brought about the end of the native, druidic religion? It might be easy to interpret things that way, and I suppose many, both Christian and Pagan, would agree with this way of reading history. But I am not so sure. I think indigenous Irish spirituality did not so much vanish under Christianity as adapt and evolve. The old gods and goddesses may have retreated undergone and became the fairies of myth and lore, but many practices associated with them — from the veneration of holy wells to the Imbolc ceremonies Christianised under devotion to St. Brigid — have lived on, into the present day. Indeed, when I participated in a Brigid’s Eve Ritual in Co. Kildare in 2005, I quickly lost any sense of orientation as to whether what I was doing was primarily Catholic or Pagan in its focus.

Purists on both side of the Christian/Pagan divide will not like this very much, but I think this is the glory of Irish spirituality — and the true legacy of Patrick. Neither Pagans nor Christians are going to go away, so we can choose to hate each other — or we can decide to live together peacefully, and perhaps even joyfully. I opt for the latter. And I think the folk traditions of the Celtic lands are some of the best tools we have for learning how to be good neighbors with one another.

One other thought about St. Patrick. He first came to Ireland not as a missionary, but as a slave — and escaped several years later as a runaway. Much of the drama of his story came from his sense that he needed to return to the land of his own captivity as a spiritual emissary. Part of his legacy as the apostle to the Irish was his work against human trafficking. Now, there’s nothing within Celtic paganism that mandates the owning of slaves, and likewise we know that many Christians over the centuries have been slave owners, so it is a mistake to assume that because Pagan Ireland was a slave state, and the coming of Christianity brought also the fight against slavery, that this makes Christianity automatically morally superior to Paganism. That argument just doesn’t hold water. But what is worth considering is this: perhaps the “snakes” that Patrick expelled were not the Druids, but the slave traders and slave owners. By bringing an ethic of human dignity and respect to Ireland, Patrick brought a character that the best expressions of both Paganism and Christianity can celebrate.

Perhaps Pagans will always lament the coming of Patrick, and Christians will always celebrate it. In some ways, we will simply always be different. But if we can both agree that slavery is a bad thing and that freedom is good, perhaps we can see in this a call to freedom of religion, and the possibility of true interfaith spirituality and peaceful co-existence that will liberate us to work together for the common good. After all, human trafficking is still with us, and other problems (like the environmental crisis) exist where Neopagans and Christians can work together to achieve a common goal. In this way, everyone wins. Except for the snakes.

Do You Need a Spiritual Teacher?
Seamus Heaney reads "St. Kevin and the Blackbird"
Five Approaches to InterSpirituality
Our Words, Our Breath, Our Bodies, Our Spirit
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Yewtree

    Hi Carl, happy St Patrick’s Day, and also Happy Astarte’s Day (also today).

    That old chestnut about Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland does seem a somewhat tenuous quote on which to base an accusation that he drove paganism out of Ireland. As you say, it went underground, and was most likely driven there by the entire power structure of the church and the higher echelons of society who had embraced Christianity because everyone else in Europe was doing it.

    But it’s a great shame that Christianity decided to abolish the old deities (or at least, the ones it couldn’t assimilate as saints). When Buddhism arrived in new countries, it simply declared deities irrelevant to its message and let people carry on honouring them.

    I agree with your conclusion that everyone should work together for the eradication of slavery and the promotion of social justice.

  • Carl McColman

    You’re right that Christianity has done a terrible job historically at tolerating other faiths, cults, and devotions. I Corinthians 10:20 is the culprit here: where Paul wrote that the Gentiles worship demons (from the Greek daimon or spirit). Alas, once daimons were interpreted as demons or “evil” spirits, Christians have ran with the idea and demonized pretty much anything and everything that fell outside the Christian cult. We still see the sad consequences of this today. If only the word “demon” could be replaced with the less freighted word “daimon” — and we Christians could just learn to accept the fact that non-Christians worship the spirits they choose to worship, without immediately classifying them as evil. That, at any rate, is my hope. I think we should only label as “demonic” that which is clearly and truly evil (like slavery, racism, sexism, and ecocide).

  • Ellen Duell

    Thank you! This insight is good, and enlivens my faith in Goodness in our “green land” of Ireland–the “little bit of heaven [that] fell from out the sky one day”, to quote the song. My heritage, as told to me by my father, is “English, Scotch, Irish and German”. Today I celebrate the Irish! There is good, and all the virtues, to be found in every land on our beautiful earth.

  • Shadwynn

    An interestng take on the Patrick controversy. Your mention of the slogan of modern Druids: “Ireland was Better Off Pagan–Bring Back The Snakes” brought a smile to my face and a good chuckle. I remember having that very slogan as a bumper sticker 20 years ago. I’ll never forget how funny it looked, with a whole chorus line of dancing snakes with big smiles at the bottom!

    Whether true or not, my understanding was that “driving out the snakes” was a veiled reference to Druids, since the serpent was one of the symbols of their native wisdom. From what I understand Ireland has never had any real snakes, so we know the myth in all probability has a symbolic reference.

    Your reference to slavery is an interesting conjecture. However, it would be worthwhile to see if under Christian rulers in Ireland certain kinds of slavery or servitude was still part of the social fabric. If so, then your theory might face an obstacle.

    • Carl McColman

      I really can’t make any claim for the historicity of the snakes = slaveowners idea. I wouldn’t even call it a hypothesis, more of a bit of Irish blarney that, hopefully, makes a spiritually salient point.

  • Laura

    I have been seeing different comments from my friends all day about St. Patrick and it is only Noon!

    However, today I celebrate all things Irish. The holiday has lost, or at least hidden, a lot of the religious symbolism for the most part. Today people will drink beer, wear giant green hats and generally be happy. I can get behind that holiday.

  • Byron Dickens

    I find the neo-Pagan’s handwringing somewhat amusing since the inhabitants of the British Isles took to Christianity like ducks to water when it was introduced.

  • Paul Rack

    I have learned that the symbol of the Celtic cross — cross and circle — is intended to be a lend of Xian and pre-Xian themes. It is indicative of the Celtic church’s style of evangelism, which was to incorporate and embrace, while evolving beyond, the faith they found already among the people. There was few if any Irish martyrs in this early period mainly because so many appear to have through of Xianity as not incompatible with Druid religion, but a forward movement. In other words, the later Roman style of wiping out the former faith in order to replace it with something alien — a matter of “destroying the village in order to save it” — was foreign to the Celtic mission. (And the same can be said of the Eastern Orthodox style of mission. (See “Orthodox Alaska” by Michael Oleksa.))

  • Ali

    Really enjoyed this post! Thought you’d be amused to know that The Wild Hunt, a widely-read Pagan news blog, had a post today basically dismissing the modern-day myth that the “snakes” St. Patrick drove out were an allegory for pagans (apparently the hagiographies didn’t tend to be heavy on allegory in general?).

    Personally, though I enjoy St. Patty’s Day as much as the next Irish girl, the day also happens to be my anniversary with my partner Jeff, so all that mushy love-dovey stuff trumps gross green beer and pots of gold. Today we’re spending the afternoon in Phipps Conservatory, where there’s enough greenery to satisfy anyone’s holiday needs! :)

  • Brian Doyle

    For those who may be interested, I posted my own essay (via FB) on the changing meaning of St. Patrick’s Day. I don’t address the Pagan aspect but there are strong undertones of spiritual contemplation:

    Beannachtaí na féile dhaoibh!

    Is mise,
    Brian’Ó Dubhghaill

  • Steve Hayes

    We used to have Van Riebeek’s Day, the equivalent of Columbus Day, I suppose. It’s now been abo;ished, and not before time. The man came to plant a vegetable garden, and some saw him as the founder of a new nation,

    I don’t think St Patrick can be compared tio either Columbus or Van Riebeeck, but I like what you said about him.

  • jodiq

    Carl, maybe you can enlighten me a bit. From what I understand, there were Druid prophecies that St Patrick fulfilled….hence, the peaceful change from paganism to Christianity.

    Also, when did you convert to Christianity? In our county’s library, the only books with your name on them are neo-pagan and/or magick books…no Christian books…boo hoo…

  • Carl McColman

    You can read the story of my journey from Paganism to Catholicism here: After the Magic.

  • jodiq

    thanks for the link. I read it and better understand your journey.