I’ve never set foot in Ireland. I mention this because the title of this blog is “A Sense of Place,” and I have no sense of that particular place. I do have some Irish ancestry, however; my maternal grandmother’s family was from County Cork. There are several places I feel called to visit in my life, and Ireland is certainly among them. Perhaps one day I will have a better sense of Ireland the place.
But the cultural legacy of Ireland endures, and the St. Patrick’s Day holiday is one of the prime examples. The story of how the day evolved from a modest religious celebration for Catholics into a global expression of Irish heritage is, in itself, a compelling look at the process of colonialism and what happens to a people when they are conquered. This post, like A Pagan Short History Of Valentine’s Day I wrote last month, will explore some of the historical and philosophical aspects of this holiday.
The Straight Face Test, and Colonialism
The first aspect of St. Patrick’s Day to explore is the common myth that St. Patrick “drove the snakes out of Ireland.” Obviously, this statement, if taken literally, is not true since we know that snakes have not existed in Ireland since before the last Ice Age. As a friend of mine noted recently, this story “fails to pass the straight face test any longer.” Yet, the myth endures. Why? And What does it mean for us, given that we know it isn’t true yet the story is repeated?
The most common interpretation of the myth is that the snake image is a symbol of Druids and Pagans, and therefore that St. Patrick drove the Druids and Pagans out of Ireland. This interpretation has been discussed in these pages before, and it turns out that this interpretation is not particularly accurate either. The Druids were an ancient priest class of Ireland, and among other roles they were the stewards of tradition and the stories of the tribes who lived there. They listened to the land, and safeguarded the Irish people. Furthermore, St. Patrick himself was foreign, having been born in England, and his theology was also foreign having come from the distant shores of Rome, where Christianity had become the official state religion about a century before Patrick’s birth. Therefore, this interpretation of the myth of St. Patrick is in some sense a celebration of colonialism, in which the deified and sanctified English/Catholic invader destroys the prevailing indigenous culture and religion of Ireland.
The Snake is the Truth-TellerWe must also take a look at the image of the snake, which is foundational to Judeo-Christian mythology. Indeed, the snake makes its debut early in Genesis (Chapter 3) as the main antagonist in the Garden of Eden. Interestingly, the snake is the one who sets the record straight, assuring Eve that eating the forbidden fruit would not in fact result in their death, as Yahweh had admonished, but rather that it would instead elevate their consciousness and make them “like the gods,” knowing the difference between good & evil. Sure enough, when they partook of the mind-altering fruit, the snake was vindicated, the furious Yahweh cast Adam & Eve out of paradise, and Yahweh condemned serpents to crawl on their belly and be close to the earth for eternity.
So if we extend the metaphor further, then not only did St. Patrick (and by extension, Christianity) drive the Druids and Pagans from Ireland, but also he drove Truth and the wisdom of mind-expansion from Ireland.
Anybody want a green beer yet?
Solemn Christian Holiday, or Dionysian Frenzy?
Speaking of beer, why do modern celebrations of St. Patties Day look more like the Dionysian festivals of old than a traditional holy day of Christianity? Perhaps the paganism hasn’t been stamped out after all, as this common St. Patrick’s Day Invocation seems to warn:
Saint Patrick was a gentleman, who through strategy and stealth
Drove all the snakes from Ireland, here’s a drink to his health!
But not too many drinks, lest we lose ourselves and then
Forget the good Saint Patrick, and see them snakes again!
Indeed, paganism isn’t far from St. Patrick. The Breastplate of St. Patrick, which is the prayer associated with St. Patrick’s victory over the Druids, begins with a pagan Invocation of the elements:
I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun,
Splendor of fire,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.
All the elements appear: fire, air, water, and earth. These are the “words that shield” St. Patrick. His protection is rooted in the elements, which is the very ideology his hagiographers claim he drove from Ireland.
So while mead is my preferred alcoholic beverage of choice, and while green food coloring will never be anywhere near one of my fermentations, on this day I will raise a horn, not to Patrick or any other saint, but rather to the snakes, the Druids, the Pagans, the guardians of indigenous tribal lore all over the planet, and the Speakers of Truth who have been marginalized, colonized, driven from their sacred homelands, and silenced under pain of torture and death.
Hail to the Truth-Speakers!