Monday, March 18, 2013

Goddesses in the Dust: St. Patrick, Those Damn Snakes and Ostara

An archaeologist unearths the divine feminine, one archetype at a time...

So the story goes, a Christian missionary named Patrick chased the snakes out of Ireland and was made a saint for getting rid of those pesky and some consider - dangerous - creatures?

As is often the case, the truth is much deeper and more complex than the simple versions of stories that get handed down, diluted and distorted over the centuries. The snake was the symbol of the pagan peoples - the Celts and their spiritual elite, the Druids - who inhabited the island of Ireland long before the arrival of Christianity in the 5th century A.D. Because of the way the island's geography formed millions of years ago, it is actually one of the five major landmasses on earth with no native snakes. So when Patrick arrived, the only pesky and dangerous creatures to chase into the sea, as the old songs go - were the native Celts. 

There are still people in Ireland today who live close to the earth and in keeping the old traditions alive, do not celebrate St. Patrick's Day.  The date of March 17 falls near the Spring Equinox and coincides with the ancient celebration of Ostara, which comes from the pagan goddess Eostre and is the root of our modern word for Easter.

Let's not forget that, since ancient times, the snake is actually associated with the feminine.
Minoan Snake Goddess, ca. 1600 B.C., Heraklion Museum, Crete
So it's not surprising that the ancient Celts used it as their symbol. They lived their lives close to the natural cycles of the earth, and women were traditionally known as the keepers of these customs. When Christianity spread elsewhere in the world, the intention was not to gently persuade the local people to reconsider their beliefs, but often to destroy a former way of life that threatened the new religion. And what happens when a conquering group tries to make people submit to its new way of order? It drives people underground - exactly like snakes - which makes the symbolism of the metaphor that much more powerful. 

Dig a little deeper into all those Christian holidays and you'll find - just like St. Patrick's snakes - an older, indigenous, earth-centric tradition lingering just beneath the surface. 

P.S. I was in Ireland five years ago on St. Patricks Day and quite a few still DO celebrate the day, as these pictures from downtown Dublin show!


19 comments:

  1. Amanda, I had forgotten the relationship between Christianity and the native Druids. Yes, indeed, the truth, when inconvenient, is dressed up and sold in a new package.

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  2. Well, I'm glad there are no real snakes in Ireland because if there is one animal that creeps me out, it's the snake.

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  3. As much as I have heard about St. Patrick over the years I really find the celebration of Ostara much more interesting.

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  4. I love the way they took the old celebrations and turned them into Christian celebrations - very clever. Great post, I love it. and gee...I thought Boston took the cake on celebrating St. Paddy's day - it's practically a public holiday here.

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    1. it would be interesting to see who has the biggest st. pat's day celebration - dublin, boston or chicago? (they dye the river green there...!)

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  5. I've visited Ireland several times with students, and it's always interesting to hear tour guides describe St. Patrick's role, which is mostly about the Celtic cross, and how he retained the Pagan sun cross. But I think that is wishful thinking now that I've read your post and who the snakes were that he drove out. Wow. And the illustrations are wonderful.

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  6. I was still living in Dublin five years ago! We could have crossed paths on Paddy's Day and not even have known it!

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    1. sara, that would've been a blast to meet over a glass of guinness!

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  7. Montreal in Canada has a St Paddy's parade that goes back 190 years, the oldest St-Patrick day parade in North America. Erin Go Bragh.

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    1. 190 years? didn't realize there was such an irish presence in montreal!

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  8. Bragh hum bug.

    Interesting bit of ancient history!

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  9. Dear Amanda, I knew a bit about St. Patricks day as I once was in a relationship with an Irishman. Whose name was Patrick, coincidently.;)
    He always mused at the fact that so many pagan traditions have somehow found their way into Christianity, including Easter and Christmas.:)
    I hope you had a great St. Patricks day, here in Scandinavia it is not really observed, except for Irish bars that host big parties.:) Love that "butt" picture.;)
    Have a great weekend,
    xoxo

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  10. Interesting post! So we've gone from a pagan goddess to Patrick chasing Celtic snakes (love that symbolism!) to Irish Americans getting drunk and throwing beer cans in the street...some how the message got a bit mangled. Fun photos of Dublin!

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    1. sarah, the message does get pretty mangled - the evolution of these holidays reminds me of the old game 'telephone' where meaning gets completely distorted in transit -

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  11. Another so interesting post and wonderful pictures Amanda!!

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  12. Amanda, it's all fascinating stuff isn't it - current christian holy days - the more you read and uncover where the roots lay. Theft by amalgamation I'd say. I've read along the way that easter and christmas only came to being recognised because the christian converts had been pushing the pagans just a little too far too soon to drop their customs and they were fearful that if they went ahead to remove any more they might very well lose their toehold so with a little tweaking Ostara and Saturnalia festivals became Easter and Christmas. Saturnalia is an eye opener and an odd festival to tack the birth of christ to, and way too much for the puritans who banned Christmas in the 17th C for 17 years.

    Fascinating*!*

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    1. annie - did not know about that connection between saturnalia and christmas - you've given me some inspiration here. must go now and do a little research! :))

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  13. Interesting story. Delightfully told.

    However, Christianity didn't arrive in the fifth century. When Augustine and his Roman mission arrived in 597, they found the country was already Christianized. These were the Celtic Christians, originally from Ireland, who established a monastery in Iona (Scotland) in 563, and set out from there to share the faith with the locals in Britain. As you have already noted, the Celtic Christians brought Druidic customs into their understanding of the Christian faith. From the Roman view, they weren't really proper Christians. The matter was settled at the Council of Whitby (Northumberland) in 664, when the Roman church "won," and the Celtic version of the faith was driven underground. And so the Church moved from Samhain to All Saints, etc, as did the earlier Church from Saturnalia to Christmas. It has only been within the last century and a half that many ancient Celtic traditions have been "rediscovered" and become more public. (Though they were present all along on the edges of the Church's empire.)

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    1. I stand corrected - thank you, Rob, for this elucidation. And I would add that most likely Celtic traditions were present all along not only on the edges of the Church's empire, but 'underground' within its boundaries.

      Good to see you back! If you have emerged from your den, it must mean spring is not far away :)

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