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St. Patrick Banishing Ireland's Snakes
So why, when any natural historian will tell you that there are now and never were any native snakes in Ireland, did St. Patrick banish the serpent from the island of Ireland? Not only that, but he wasn’t even Irish! Ireland’s premier patron saint was most likely a Brit! Although he might have been a Welshman or even the son of Roman citizens exiled to the coldest outpost of the empire.
It wasn’t uncommon to take hostages and slaves in the fifth century medieval world. Patrick is said to have been snatched from either Cumbria on the northwest coast of England or Wales. The stories tend toward making him well born but monks were not beyond a bit of PR puff piece writing even in the 10th century.
Having escaped capture, Patrick made his way back home and became ordained as a priest with a mission. The mission was to Christianize Ireland; some monks had already arrived, but he had the big vision to vanquish the Druids.
Here’s where the serpent comes in. In some translations, it is suggested that the Druids, or pagan priests, were also known as adders. So while Ireland may not have had any native snakes, it certainly had adders in the shape of Druid priests. Patrick’s mission was to rid Ireland of the pagan religion. In a symbolic gesture, Patrick traveled to Tara, the ancient seat of the High King. There he extinguished the sacred flame of pagan worship and ignited a Pascal flame at Easter. It was no easy matter and there were plenty of backsliders. But what was extraordinary about the conversion of Ireland was that martyrdom was not involved.
Having been used to the idea of the Triple Goddess – the cailleach or crone, the maiden and the mother - the Trinity was not huge leap of imagination to the medieval Irish mind. There is some thought that the cult of the goddess was waning at the time. Patrick was sufficiently exercised by the traction of the Crom Cruich cult to come to Fermanagh and Cavan himself to Christianize the local population. Then St. Brigit, the matron saint of Ireland, herself the daughter of a slave and a nobleman, founded a monastery at the cult site to consolidate the conversion in this region. This sort of belts and braces operation was carried out all over Ireland during the Christianizing of the island.
Of course, Patrick, being a man, paid attention to the male priests. Yet the real serpent in Ireland was the Goddess. The serpent, a symbol of healing, forms the emblem of the medical profession, the caduceus. St. Brigit, taking her name from the goddess of healing of the same name, was the subversive relict of the pagan past that was never completely banished in Ireland.
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