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!