In the modern day, St. Patrick has become a figurehead to represent the whole of Irish culture as the official “Saint” of Ireland. Him and his, often inflated and exaggerated, life’s history inspired a modern holiday centered entirely around the celebration of that culture, originated in great part by Irish-American immigrants around the 18th century. But so many of his stories are patently false and in many ways, this holiday is one of the least pagan-friendly ones we celebrate today. Let’s do a bit of a dive into the man, the myth, and the legend:
Before we can talk about everything that’s TRUE, let’s first talk about the unedited versions of the stories that ARE out there. Without going into too much detail, many believe St. Patrick was a British or Irish bishop who was later canonized for his part to play in bringing Christianity to Ireland. Following a couple difference instances in which he believed he heard the “Voice of God” speaking to him (in dreams, mostly) he believed he was given a divine mission to convert the pagans of Ireland. He was credited with using existing pagan symbols to explain Christian concepts to the native pagans; the three leaf clover and the triquetra to symbolize the Holy Trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost if you are unfamiliar) and superimposing an image of the sun over the cross to create what is now known as the “Celtic Cross”, to name a couple. He is believed to single-handedly have brought Christianity to and eradicated paganism from Ireland ushering in a new era of Christianity and moralism.
One particularly well-known story is that there was one particular instance that St. Patrick gave a sermon that was so moving and inspiring that with it he banished all of the snakes from Ireland by herding them out to sea over the edge of a cliff where he had recently completed a 40 day fast. This awe-inspiring event was classified as a “miracle” and often cited as yet another reason for St. Patrick’s status as a saint.
There are so many things wrong with that version of events it’s hard to know where to begin! Firstly, though, St. Patrick was originally a citizen of Rome-occupied Britain (which actually makes him Roman, not British or Irish). He has a long history before becoming ordained as clergy that involved several years enslaved by Irish folks who had invaded and kidnapped him into slavery. After returning home, he did experience a vision that led him to return to Ireland and undergo studies to enter the clergy. He did receive a message in a dream that led him to “Spread the Word” to the Irish pagans using hybridized symbolism. However, this is where most of the truths stop.
St. Patrick, firstly, has never actually been canonized as a saint. However, the story of St. Patrick banishing the snake particulary inaccurate. The first hitch in this exciting, but mythological, tale is that snakes haven’t even existed in Ireland since prior to the most recent Ice Age. If there were no snakes — why does this story exist at all? For a while now, the prevailing theory among many scholars has been that the “snakes” were an allegory for the pagans and Druids that St. Patrick “drove” from Ireland. Some sources suggest this is unlikely due to the use of allegory and metaphor in storytelling of the time, but I would perhaps uneducatedly argue that symbolism and story have gone hand-in-hand since the beginning of time. Symbolism is the language of human consciousness. The association between snakes and pagans or Druids is often suggested in the way that snakes have long been paired with “evil” within the Christian context since the story of the Garden of Eden went widespread and Christianity became the “norm” within society. Since pagans and Druids did not worship the “One, True God” the only other alternative they could perceive was that their gods were evil and they were evil by extension.
Those sources that point out that the snake-pagan connection might be tenuous at best also point out that while St. Patrick’s efforts may have significantly effected the population’s balance of Pagans to Christians in favor of Christianity, paganism was still flourishing before and significantly after St. Patrick’s life and death. The Druid penchant for romanticized and exaggerated storytelling may very well explain how such a wild and fallacious fable became so well-known after St. Patrick’s death that it finally became accepted as fact until the Age of Information caught up with its web of lies.
When Irish immigrants came over to American in the 17th – 19th centuries St. Patrick’s Day celebrations started as a way to help cure their homesickness and pay homage to the culture that birthed them. Over time the holiday has gathered many traditions; some that are imports from its country of origin and some that seem mostly Irish-American in invention. (For example — corned beef? American. Mind blowing, I know.) What started as a solemn day commemorating the death of St. Patrick with traditional feasting — like every holiday — turned into the rambunction holiday of parades (also a primarily American tradition), day drinking, literally wearing green from the top of your head to the tip of your toes often incorporating face paint and foam fingers, and drinking weirdly green beer like a college football game.
However, many modern pagans don’t relish in a holiday that was literally built on the eradication (or, at the very least suppression) of another — their — religious and spiritual choice. Those that do, often choose to take a different approach by wearing snake symbols to represent what has come to also be colloquially referred to as “All Snakes Day”.
Do you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? Tell me what your holiday traditions are in the comments below!