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Thursday, March 8, 2012

St. Patrick's Day, snakes, and Irish-American pride

  Next week is Saint Patrick's feast day in the Catholic church, which is probably an odd thing for me to blog about, but the past couple years there has been quite the controversy among some pagans about this day. This year there are anti-Saint Pat's day events and such on Facebook created by people, very sincere people, who believe Saint Patrick to be some sort of super powered anti-pagan figure that drove out the Druids of Ireland and broke the back of paganism there. The general consensus by the people who share that thought seems to be that March 17th every year should be a day of black-clad mourning for Irish paganism or a day of protest against...well, against something. Now I have absolutely no issue with the way anyone wants to spend their March 17th, I generally favor wearing black, and I certainly agree that by and large Saint Pat's day in America is a hideous neon green tourist event, however I am something of a stickler for history - as some of you may have noticed - and I don't like seeing false history becoming mainstream, nor do I like my own actions on March 17th being judged as wrong because of someone else's views, as I have been told previously that my celebrating the day is offensive and disrespectful. So the last few years I have tried, in comments here and there, to point out the history and the Truth to give people a better understanding of how things really happened so that they can move forward and decide what to do with some solid information instead of emotion. This year I am just going to cut to the chase and dedicate a whole blog to it. I am not trying to change anyone's opinion or start a fight - I am only offering the history of who Saint Patrick really was, what he really did, how he interacted with the Druids, and what the bit about the snakes was about. I'm also going to talk a little about why and how I celebrate March 17, and what it means to me.
   So let's begin with a little history. Back somewhere around the end of the 4th century in Britain - no one knows exactly where, except that it was likely on the coast - a boy named Maewyn Succat was born to a wealthy Roman official named Calpurius (Awesome Stories, 2012). Maewyn was born into a Christian family but he didn't consider himself especially devout. When he was 16 he was kidnapped, along with many other people from his father's household, and taken into slavery in Ireland where he was made a shepherd (Saint Patrick, nd). Among the hills and sheep Maewyn found solace in his father's religion, before eventually escaping after 6 years and making his way, eventually, back to Britain where he joined the church (Awesome Stories, 2012). At some point Maewyn took the name Particius, later anglicized to Patrick, and decided that he had a calling from his God to return to Ireland to preach to the people there (Awesome Stories, 2012). Unlike the common belief though, Patrick wasn't the first Bishop in Ireland - there were several previous bishops including Pallidius who was sent by the Pope in 429 (O hOgain, 1999). At this point in the early 5th century Ireland already had a small but settled Christain population complete with churches, monasteries, priests and bishops (O hOgain, 1999). In any event Patrick returned to Ireland and traveled around trying to establish himself. He claims to have had some success and baptized "thousands" of people - of course he also had many difficulties including, apparently, being accused of accepting money for baptisms and other bribes as well as being beaten and robbed and repeatedly threatened with death (Saint Patrick, nd). Unlike the other Irish Christians of the time Patrick was an evangalist and did seek to convert people, but in his 30 years of ministry in Ireland he did not seem to have had any stunning sucess; probably because the Irish did not seem overly concerned with or threatened by Christianity and may have initially just incorporated it along with their pagan beliefs (Da Silva, 2009). After Patrick's death, most likely on March 17th 461, very little was written about him for several hundred years.
     Ireland remained pagan for another 8 or 9 generations before the population became mostly Christian - and that was when the tale of Patrick really took off. In the 7th century, about 200 years after Patrick died, his hagiography was written, the Life of Saint Patrick by Muirchu maccu Mactheni, and the Patrick of Muirchu's story was very different than the historical Patrick, so much so that modern scholars now differentiate between the two (Da Silva, 2009). Muirchu's Patrick was a bold, vindictive, confrontational wonder-worker who preformed mircales and was said to have destroyed the Druids in Ireland (O hOgain, 1999). This mythic Partick - unlike the humble historical Patrick who authored the Confessio - lost no opportunity to curse those who defied him or kill those who opposed him. In one of the stories in the Life of Saint Patrick, for example, the saint uses his God's "power" to crush a Druid's skull and calls an earthquake to kill many others (Da Silva, 2009). In another tale Patrick was said to have turned himself and his entire retinue into deer to escape pursuit. It should be pretty obvious that this is pure invention, something to appeal to a 7th century audience looking to hear about wonders and drama on par with the other Irish myths but not anything relating to actual events. In fact some scholars have pointed out that had Patrick actually gone in and tried to convert by the sword he would have ended up matryred for his trouble. To quote the excellent article by  Da Silva "It is clear that the pagan Irish would not have tolerated the behavior of the mythical Saint Patrick. There was no way Patrick could use coercion or the threat of force as part of his strategy to convert the pagans. E. A. Thompson writes that "the pagans were far too powerful and menacing . . . . And he was doubtlessly aware that if he gave any sign of trying to impose his views on the Irish pagans against their will, his mission would come to an abrupt and bloody end" (90)." (Da Silva, 2009).
  The point to all of this is that the Patrick we are familar with today is mostly a mythic figure, created by a great PR department. The historical Patrick didn't actually do very much and it wasn't until hundreds of years later, when politics in some of the churches he founded meant the need for a powerful figure, and the Church was looking to complete the conversion of the remaining pagans, that he was reinvented as the super-saint we know today. Many aspects of saint Patrick's story seem as well to involve the saint being inserted into older mythology, such as in some of the stories surrounding Lughnasa where saint Patrick takes over the role of Lugh in fighting off the forces of darkness and chaos to secure the harvest (MacNeill, 1962). This would have been a logical substitution over time as the new religion replaced the old. Beyond that I have my own idea about how a British born Roman ended up as the patron saint of Ireland, but that probably falls into the realm of a conspiracy theory so I'll leave it off this blog.
    Why does all this matter to me? Well, for one I have always felt strongly that bad history does paganism no favors. For another thing I can't see any purpose to feeling outraged today over something that didn't even actually happen 1560 years ago, or for that matter demonizing someone who didn't actually do very much. I just don't see any point in buying into another faith's mythology in a way that creates feelings of anger and negativity in my own. I am an Irish-focused pagan and I am a Druid and I know from studying history that both Irish paganism and Druidism went on well after Patrick, that his life as we know it today is just a fancy story made up to replace older myths, and that in the end Patrick has no more meaning to me than what I give him. Why should I give him power over my life by believing he was greater than he was? I admire his devotion to his own faith and his courage in going back to a country where he had been taken by force as a slave, but beyond that he's just another historical figure in a sea of historical figures.
   Now on to the snakes. Another big aspect of Saint Patrick's day for pagans is the idea that the story of Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland was actually an allegory for his driving out of the Druids. This idea is pretty well integrated into media and common belief; many people repeat it and there are even modern celebrations of "All Snakes Day" in honor of the triumphant return of the modern Druids. Now,  I am all in favor of the snake as a modern symbol of Druids - plenty of wonderful symbolism there since snakes are energized by the sun and "reborn" each spring out of the earth after hibernating, eat little fluffy things, often are passed by unseen, not to mention the more obvious associations with wisdom and the historic Gaulish Druid's eggs -  and I think the idea of a modern All Snakes Day is pretty cool. The history though just isn't there for any connection either of Saint Patrick with snakes or of the story being about Druids. Firstly, Ireland hasn't had snakes since before the last ice age, so there never were any snakes to be driven out by anyone (National Zoo, n.d.). Second of all, and more importantly, the actual legend says that he drove out the snakes and toads (toads being very rare and snakes as we've established being non-existant) (Banruadh, 2006). For people living in Ireland after Patrick this story would have been a great explanation of why those animals weren't in Ireland, because there is no reason to think the 7th century story was an allegory. Quite frankly the rest of Patrick's hagiography has him dueling Druids right and left, killing those who oppose him with callous righteoussnes, so why would the story suddenly get cryptic about him driving the Druids out? Every other page was proclaiming it proudly! No, this particular tidbit - which is suspiciously exactly the same as a story from the life of a French saint - was always meant to be literal. The earliest reference I have found to anyone thinking the snakes meant Druids (and thanks to the friend who helped me find it) is in the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries from 1911 where someone states that he believes based on a story that because a certain place was where the Druids last stronghold was and also the place Saint Patrick drove the snakes that the snakes must represent the Druids, but it's just faulty logic (Evans Wentz, 1911). The snakes in the story were just meant to be snakes, just as the toads were toads and Saint George's dragon was a dragon.
    So why do I celebrate Saint Patrick's day? Thats' a good question, since I am certainly no Catholic. But the truth is that I have celebrated a secular version of St. Patrick's day for my entire life; in my family it was a celebration of our Irish heritage, a day when we told stories about the family, ate traditional Irish-American food and enjoyed each others company. I have been pagan since I was 11, but I never questioned the validity of celebrating my heritage with my family. Sure my heritage is what it is every day of the year, but that was one special day when the whole family celebrated together. My father and I would go out and enjoy a show together, the Wolfetones one year, the Irish Tenors several times, a wide array of different Irish step dancing groups. When I was young we would go out to dinner and after my grandmother moved up here we would go to her house and she would cook for everyone. I have so many wonderful, happy memories of all the Saint Patrick's days I've had with the people I love and that is why I celebrate it, and why I will continue to - because its a family tradition. One I hope to pass on to my own children. We're Irish-Americans every day of the year, but March 17th is the one day when we are most aware of it, of our roots, of our history. Of our traditions.
   This year my family, my husband and daughters and I, will be going to eat corned beef and cabbage at my grandmother's house. She is 94 now, but she still cooks on St. Patrick's day all the same. We'll tell stories about the family and about past celebrations, and when we get home my daughters and I will light candles on our ancestor altar in honor of the family that isn't with us physically any more. And on the 18th I will go with my oldest daughter to see Celtic Woman in concert (the first time since my dad died I've gone to a show for Saint Patrick's day, but that's a tradition that needs continuing). It may be a weird Irish-American thing to do, but it's something ingrained in the diaspora, outside of any religion.
  Now in a modern setting we have All Snakes Day as a pagan alternative to St. Pat's day; I don't generally celebrate it only because it tends to emphasize the snakes=Druids idea, although not everyone who celebrates it believes that, to be fair. Another alternative that is gaining popularity is to call it something like Irish Heritage Day becuase the emphasis of the day to Irish pagans is to celebrate that and that certainly captures the spirit of the holiday for most Americans. I rather like that one, and sometimes use it myself. Finally there has been a movement - and I'm sorry becuase I've had no luck finding any links from last year - to celebrate the 17th of March in honor of great Irish mythic heroes like Cu Chulainn. I find that idea intriguing and intend to look into it more.

Saint Patrick (n.d.) Saint Patrick's Confessio
 B. Da Silva (2009) Saint Patrick, the Irish Druids, and Ireland Conversion to Christianity
D. O hOgain (1999) the Sacred Isle
M. MacNeill (1962) The Festival of Lughnasa
W. Y. evans Wentz (1911). the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries