This is a revised, updated edition of a blog I wrote 5 years ago now with added Jocelin of Furness.
One thing that modern paganism struggles with is history, both its context and accuracy. Many things that are taken as fact in paganism today are not actually supported by historic material, and many things that are believed to be ancient are really modern. This isn't always a judgment on these things, but it points to the ease with which inaccurate information can be proliferated and believed, especially when it has emotional appeal. One prime example of this within the Celtic pagan community is the idea that saint Patrick was some sort of genocidal maniac who slaughtered Druids and that the snakes he drove out in his stories were a metaphor for Druids. So let's take a look at the actual history.
The historic saint Patrick was not actually Irish by birth. 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 was born to a wealthy Roman official named Calpurius (Awesome Stories, 2012). He was born into a Christian family but according to his later writings 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 he 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 he 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 Palladius 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 Christian population complete with churches, monasteries, priests and bishops (O hOgain, 1999). What distinguished Patrick was that unlike the other Irish priests and bishops he did feel that evangelizing was important. Patrick returned to Ireland and traveled around trying to establish himself. He claims to have had some success and baptized "thousands" of people, although it is impossible to confirm or deny these claims. He also had many difficulties including, apparently, being accused of accepting money for baptisms as well taking other bribes and being beaten and robbed and repeatedly threatened with death (Saint Patrick, nd). Unlike the other Irish Christians of the time Patrick was an evangelist and did seek to convert people, but in his 30 years of ministry in Ireland he did not seem to have had any stunning success; 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. The reality is, despite the later hype, he fell into relative obscurity.
Ireland remained pagan for at least another 200 years 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. The historic Patrick and the Patrick of Miurchu's writing were so different in fact that modern scholars now differentiate between the two (Da Silva, 2009). Muirchu's Patrick was a bold, vindictive, confrontational, wonder-worker who preformed miracles and was said to have destroyed the Druids in Ireland (O hOgain, 1999). This mythic Patrick - 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 martyred 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).
In the 12th century Patrick's story was written down again, this time by an English monk named Jocelin of Furness who specialized in writing hagiographies. He was known for taking existing material already written about saints and re-working it for the Anglo-Norman elite (Koch, 2005). His 'Life of Patrick' was written for several important Irish figures including the archbishop of Armagh and bishop of Down, and was typical of all of his works. It is in this book that we see for the first time the story of Patrick driving out the snakes, an idea which is strikingly similar to stories from the lives of other previous European saints particularly saint Hilare of France. As Jocelin claimed: "and by the power of his prayers he freed all these likewise from the plague of venomous reptiles. But other islands, the which had not believed at his preaching, still are cursed with the procreation of those poisonous creatures." (O'Leary, 1880). In other words Ireland doesn't have snakes because Patrick drove them out with his piety and his conversion of Ireland but since the rest of the world didn't listen to Patrick we all still have snakes. The reader should also note that according to Jocelin saint Patrick also found the staff of Jesus (yes that Jesus) while he was in Rome, and had a personal tete a tete with God himself in Jocelin's words "even as Moses" had and was assured that God would hear and answer all his prayers (O'Leary, 1880). I'll spare you the rest but let's just say it involves a lot of raising the dead - like a lot - a lot of Druids dying by Patrick's awesome prayers to God and tens of thousands of people converting. Which is my nice way of saying this is neither a trustworthy historical source nor one that shied away from Patrick slaying Druids with his mighty God-prayers, making metaphor really unnecessary.
The point to all of this is that the Patrick we are familiar with today is mostly a mythic figure, created by a great public relations 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 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, common versions of the legend today say that he drove out the snakes and toads (toads being very rare and snakes as we've established being non-existent) (Banruadh, 2006). Jocelin's version has him driving out all the venomous reptiles (O'Leary, 1880). 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 or 12th century stories were allegory. Quite frankly the rest of both of Patrick's hagiographies have him dueling Druids right and left, killing those who oppose him with callous righteousness, 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 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, a way to explain why Ireland has none and also to give a solid real world example of Patrick's power.
In saint Patrick's Confessio the man himself is pretty clear that he is uncertain if he had any real effect on Ireland, although he hopes that he did. It reads as a rather humble work written by a very normal person. The later hagiographies written 200 and 700 years after he died are utterly fanciful stories that re-cast the man into the role of a superhero for the Christian faith. They have Patrick murdering Druids with prayer, raising the dead, turning himself and his people into deer, and all manner of fantastic things, including the well known driving out of the snakes and the less well known casting out of demons. Later folklore would expand on this and eventually in the 19th century draw a direct link between the literal snakes and the literal historic Druids to create a modern metaphor that has gained enormous popularity. Its important to understand though that this metaphor is an entirely modern construction and that the history is layered and tells a very different story. As modern pagans I think we do ourselves a disservice to give too much attention to the myths of another religion, created as propaganda to both put down pagan beliefs long after the conversion and for complex political reasons within the Church itself.
Saint Patrick (n.d.) Saint Patrick's Confessio http://www.cin.org/patrick.html
O'Leary, J., (1880) The Most Ancient Lives of Saint Patrick Including the Life by Jocelin
B. Da Silva (2009) Saint Patrick, the Irish Druids, and Ireland Conversion to Christianity https://web.archive.org/web/20160304072255/http://www.strangehorizons.com/2009/20090727/da_silva-a.shtml
D. O hOgain (1999) the Sacred Isle
Koch, J., (2005). Celtic Culture vol 1
M. MacNeill (1962) The Festival of Lughnasa
W. Y. Evans Wentz (1911). The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries