Happy St Patrick’s Day: The Return of the Snakes

by Elizabeth Cunningham

On St Patrick’s Day I shall, of course, wear green. I will also wear snake earrings big enough to alarm herpephobes.

According to legend, St Patrick drove the snakes out or Ireland or as Dr. George Johnson’s mother put it more poetically, “charmed them into the sea.” With some regret, Dr. Johnson explains that snakes in Ireland did not survive the ice age. By the time the glacier receded, Ireland was an island. And terrestrial snakes, he says, cannot migrate by water.

But then perhaps the snakes Patrick charmed were sea serpents?

Many people contend that these herpe non grata were actually the druids who were known to wear serpent’s eggs as amulets. You might ask, if there were no serpents in Ireland, how the druids got these eggs, but apparently there are snakes in Scotland, a hop, skip, and a puddle jump away.

Saint Brigid, a fellow patron saint of Ireland along with Patrick and Columba, actually heard St. Patrick preach when she was young. Brigid the saint inherited her mantle and much of her lore and iconography from Brigid the goddess. Given the banishment (or extinction) of snakes in Ireland, it’s curious that on St. Brigid’s feast day, February 1, people sang the below song (or variations of it) at least into the 19th century when Alexander Carmichael compiled Carmina Gadelica:

Early on Bride’s morn
The serpent shall come from the hole,
I will not molest the serpent,
Nor will the serpent molest me.

Bride is the Scottish version of Brigid’s name, so perhaps this serpent is also Scottish and never encountered St Patrick. Still it is noteworthy that Bride’s serpent, like many in myths and legends the world over, is associated with a goddess. And Patrick was representing a religion that took a dim view of such associations. See Genesis 3. Although Moses did have a staff that he could change into a serpent , and Jesus once admonished his disciples to be “wise as serpents and gentles as doves.”

Serpents and birds, both of which appear in Celtic knotwork, are revered by many peoples as creatures that can go between the worlds, symbolically and literally. This St Patrick’s day, the weather promises to be mild. Just before noon I will go to a nearby spring where garter snakes emerge on the first warm days to sun on the small rock ledge and drink with their tiny flickering tongues from the pool. Many Springs I have sat with the snakes in this place. I have seen their writhing mating dance (the origin of the druid serpent egg) and I have sat long enough that some have glided over my feet without fear. Once I found a dead snake. I buried it under the leaves, and lit some incense. As I sat, maybe twenty snakes from all directions came to sit with me. We sat together till the light and warmth waned and they went their way to their own world.

I had to write about the snakes this week, but next week I promise to deliver on Seven Sex Secrets for Spring. (Or something alliterative like that.) Of course snakes and sex are not unrelated. For more on that relationship, I refer you to “Beneath Bride’s Breast: Chapter Six of Magdalen Rising. There definitely are snakes on Tir na mBan!

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Elizabeth Cunningham March 16, 2010 - 9:39 pm

Maeve here, wishing you a happy celebration whatever you want to call and who and whatever you want to celebrate. If you like snakes and haven't read Magdalen Rising yet, go out and get that book immediately. If you don't like snakes, you might want to skip portions of chapter six. As for St Patrick I never met him. I am descended from Brigid, so my mother's tell me, and she was the foster mother of Jesus, which is why I sometimes refer to him as my foster brother.

faerian March 17, 2010 - 4:29 am

we are snake free in New Zealand – unless you count the politicians (not all of them – green ones seem less reptilian)…and are heading into autumn…

i love to think of you ELizabeth, with the snakes coming to honour their fallen with you…

and if you haven't read Magdalen rising and don't like snakes JUST BUY IT ANYWAY!

DavidASosa March 17, 2010 - 10:46 am

I can only tolerate touching or holding the Gartner Snakes of New York. I find snakes fascinating and at the same time they put me a little on edge, as does most wild life. I must say I much prefer the story of Brigid than Saint Patrick. I just had a discusssion he other day and someone told me the 4 leaf clover is faux and not a relic to the irish, that instead the three leaf clover is appropriate for the trinity and high Catholic population. I told him there were Gods and Goddeses long before Catholicism and that the four leaf clover was much prefered on my end along side the Leprchaun or Fey creatures.

Anonymous March 17, 2010 - 1:27 pm

Hurray for snakes and shamrocks and touching, inspiring, informative blogs like this one! Thank you for sharing your lore and wisdom, dear Elizabeth.

Unknown March 17, 2010 - 1:28 pm

Snakes are your friends.

My father made it one of his life's goals to get every child he taught to be comfortable with snakes. He'd get them to pick up his pet snakes: garters, water snakes, pilot snakes, milk snakes, black racers, and for a short time an unidentified snake he smuggled back from the Bahamas in my mother's pocketbook.

Snakes do eat things we'd just as soon they eat, like the milk snake and mice.

And the re-emergence of snakes is a harbinger of warm weather coming, so I always welcome them. I've never seen a poisonous snake near home.

I didn't thought Patrick's banishment of snakes was a good idea, either symbolically, or ecologically. I'm glad to learn that the ecological version was probably not carried out by Patrick. I can imagine that cold-blooded creatures did find the ice age impossible.

Anonymous March 18, 2010 - 1:52 am

I saw a snake today, coiled and probably sunbathing. i didn't know it was alive until it flicked its tongue. happy st. paddy's, happy spring equilux, and bless the snakes!

Man Named Kim March 21, 2010 - 9:17 pm

i like it here. i learned some things – and now i want a snake. well, not really – but kinda…

thanks for dropping by my place and leaving a comment!


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