A Road Less Traveled: Living Pagan in a Christian World
Explores the challenges of living and practicing Paganism in a Christian-dominated culture.
Why I Still Celebrate All Snakes' Day
Celebrating “All Snakes’ Day” March 17 as a protest against St. Patrick’s Day has become a sort of tradition among many of us Neo-Pagans. “He didn’t drive us all out!” is the sentiment, referring to the assumption that the “snakes” St. Patrick drove out were really symbols for the Druids. However, unlike most religions, Neo-Pagans are a relentlessly self-examining lot; we’re keenly interested in historical and archeological findings that may support or undermine the assumptions we’ve built our beliefs and practices upon. As a response, there’s a growing counter-movement to All Snakes’ Day based on two arguments: 1) St. Patrick wasn’t in fact the cruel, genocidal destroyer of Druids he’s been portrayed as, and 2) the snakes he allegedly drove out didn’t stand for anything; it’s just a fairy tale explaining why there aren’t any real snakes in Ireland.
Let’s start with Patrick’s reputation. Many Neo-Pagans see him as a sort of Hitler figure, responsible for the destruction of ancient temples, groves, and even many people who practiced the Old Ways. This is understandable, given that the mythology of St. Patrick credits him with battling, cursing, and killing non-believers in a heroic (or barbaric) way (depending on your perspective).
However, these myths have little factual basis, and seem to have been created long after Patrick’s death – a common impulse among hero-makers. As Jason Pitzl-Waters points out in The Wild Hunt blog, “Paganism thrived in Ireland for generations after Patrick lived and died, and, as [Pagan scholar P. Sufenas Virius] Lupus puts it, ‘the ‘final’ Christianization of the culture didn’t take place until the fourteenth century CE.’ There was no Irish pagan genocide, no proof of any great violent Druid purge in Ireland…”
So, it seems, Patrick wasn’t really all that. If anything, the fact of Patrick’s much-smaller role in Christianizing Ireland should be a reason to do away with St. Patrick’s Day, not All Snakes’ Day. Yet, Irish and Irish-descended people, along with plenty of non-Irish people, continue to celebrate his myth every March. Why? Because myths have power; when they are amplified through many voices and many years, they gain even more power.
The second, and probably more relevant, argument is that the whole “snakes = Druids” concept is bunk. Pitzl-Waters quotes Lupus that no mention of Patrick “driving out snakes” appears until the 11th Century, some 300 years after his death, and nowhere does the record explicitly state that those snakes represented Druids (or anything else). Another Pagan scholar, Morgan Daimler, states that the “snakes = Druids” meme wasn’t explicitly spelled out until 1911, in Evans-Wentz’s The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, and Daimler contends it was based on “faulty logic.”
This is where it gets slippery; we’re treading into the realm of myth and symbol, which is notoriously “faulty” and not at all “logical.” That those who created the myth of Patrick - probably Medieval monks, aided and abetted by story-telling commoners – assigned the man who supposedly Christianized Ireland with also cleansing it of serpents isn’t a random coincidence. Neither was it thrown in as some secondary superpower, like making roses bloom in the desert; the snake is a very powerful, significant symbol in Christianity. Of course there isn’t an explicit connection between snakes and Druids in the literature. That’s precisely because snakes were already understood symbols that listeners could infer what they stood for: Druids, soothsayers, or whatever other un-Christian group is currently in the Church’s crosshairs.
So, in summation, the whole St. Patrick myth is just that – mythology. He didn’t convert the whole island to Christianity all by himself and Ireland never had any snakes to begin with. Again quoting Daimler, “Bad history does Paganism no favors.” I agree. So what does all this have to do with modern-day Pagans and All Snakes’ Day? It has to do with power: specifically, the power of myths and symbols. As commenter Crossing the Abyss states on Daimler’s blog, “mythological histories are far more significant psychologically than actual historical events.”
Some Pagans, knowing the historical facts, step out of the St. Patrick’s Day fray altogether. Others substitute some other, less controversial Irish hero to honor on March 17: Cú Chulainn. That is all well and good; Paganism honors and encourages the individual to find what resonates with him- or herself and to follow it fearlessly. You can talk yourself blue in the face trying to educate your fellow St.-Patrick’s-Day revelers about how it’s all just a myth and that we should really be celebrating Cú Chulainn, but you’re likely to get about the same reaction that you would if you were standing on a street corner with a Bible and a sign saying “Sinners Repent.” Sometimes extremism is worse than silence.
On the other hand, we have a great example of a similar scenario with our Native American brothers and sisters. The first Monday in October is formally known as “Columbus Day,” yet many find it offensive to celebrate because of his legacy of murder and oppression. Christopher Columbus, like Patrick, wasn’t responsible for all the crimes committed to America’s native peoples, but he stands as a powerful symbol of them. Today, many communities and individuals have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day or Native American Day. What was once an unquestioned glorification of a genocidal conqueror is being transformed into an important discussion of truth and inclusion.
All Snakes’ Day is no different. Patrick “driving out the snakes” represents, factually or not, Catholicism’s conquest over Paganism in Ireland. To transform March 17 from glorifying the conqueror Patrick, we should step into the drunken, green-dyed fray, bedecked in our sacred snakes. Many St. Paddy’s Day revelers will, having heard the “snakes = Druids” meme, surmise that we’re followers of the Old Ways, and thereby be disavowed of the notion that we don’t exist anymore. Some of them may even approach us wondering why in the world we’re wearing snakes, creating an excellent opportunity to reach out and educate people about our beliefs and/or the real history of St. Patrick, while still speaking the language of symbolism that non-Pagan-scholars can understand.
For me, then, I will continue to celebrate All Snakes’ Day. Why? To fight myth with myth, symbol with symbol. The myth of Patrick might not be factually true, but, like any good myth, it has power. Rather than stand outside its orbit, or fight against it head-on, I employ a bit of symbolic jiu-jitsu and use that power for my own ends – that is, celebrating my Irish Pagan heritage and educating my community about modern-day Pagans – all while enjoying a bit of good craic.
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