When one thinks of St. Patrick’s day, the images that usually come to mind are the clichéd college boy antics that non-Irish people take on a type of Dionysian regression from cultural norms for a day (i.e. an excuse to get drunk. And hey, we’re not judging).
But if you know more about the cultural context that St. Patrick comes from and the complicated history the saint leaves behind, then what may come to mind when you think of St. Patrick’s Day is how he drove the snakes out of Ireland (the snakes being a symbol of the Druids and the Pagan people before St. Patrick came and Christianized the country).
For some pagans, the image of St. Patrick is associated with all sorts of terrible things, a reminder of how lifeways and cultural systems were (almost) lost forever.
Put simply, St. Patrick’s history is a messy history and means different things to different people. As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, we’ve put together 6 things we bet you didn’t know about St. Patrick. Enjoy!
1. His Name Wasn’t Patrick. And He Wasn’t Irish, Either
St. Patrick was born in Roman Britain sometime in the late 300s AD and was named Maewyn Succat (he also went by 3 other names in his life, but we’ll just call him Patrick). Both Patrick and his parents were Roman. His is father was a deacon in the early Christian church but didn’t have much luck winning over the heart of the young Patrick. He was not a believer until later on in his life, when a series of events lead him to convert to Christianity as an adult.
2. He Was Either Captured and Enslaved by Pirates
As a teenager, Patrick was captured by pirates and taken to Ireland as a slave. For 6 years, he worked as a shepherd herding sheep and pigs. During this time, he began to pray to God and turned to religion for solace. The whole experience deeply changed him, because once Patrick was able to escape his captors and went home to Roman Britain, he returned a Catholic and, after many years of study, decided to become a priest and returned to Ireland as a missionary.
3. Or, All of That Is a Lie
Which is quite possibly true. In recent years, another theory around Patrick’s origins has emerged based on a Cambridge University study. The theory is that “St. Patrick fled to Ireland deliberately to avoid becoming a Roman tax collector and took up a job as a slave trader instead.”
Dr Roy Flechner, who conducted the study, states “the traditional story that Patrick was kidnapped from Britain, forced to work as a slave, but managed to escape and reclaim his status, is likely to be fiction.
The traditional legend was instigated by Patrick himself in the letters he wrote, because this is how he wanted to be remembered.
It may seem strange that a Christian cleric of Patrick's stature would own slaves, but in late antiquity and the early middle ages the church was a major slave owner -- early medieval Irish legal texts regulate the church's ownership of slaves.
4. He Was Not the First Christian to Convert the Irish
Much of the popular lore surrounding St. Patrick have him travelling all around, preaching the gospel left, right and center, and converting (or killing) the Celts and Druids of Ireland. Although he was responsible for many conversions of the Irish people, he probably wasn’t responsible for as much as popular history has made claim to. According to P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, a Celtic deconstructionist and Pagan scholar:
“St. Patrick’s reputation as the one who Christianized Ireland is seriously over-rated and overstated, as there were others that came before him (and after him), and the process seemed to be well on its way at least a century before the “traditional” date given as his arrival, 432 CE…”
5. He Used Irish-Pagan Symbols to Help His Conversion Efforts
Legend has it that Patrick was familiar with Irish language and culture and definitely used this to his benefit.
It’s said that St. Patrick used the symbol of the shamrock as a way to teach his converts the concept of the holy trinity. Given that the shamrock and number 3 was already sacred to the Celts, the teaching stuck.
Additionally, St. Patrick took the symbol of the sun and superimposed it on the Christian cross, which is where we get the image of the Celtic cross today. Doing so, Patrick helped make the transition towards worshipping a new god smoother but also more familiar for the Celts as it mapped onto their existing spiritual customs.
6. The Metaphor of Driving out the Snakes From Ireland Isn’t 100% Accurate (Or Is It?)
The surviving records that we have of St. Patrick and his deeds do indicate that he “cast the serpents out” of Ireland and that the snakes are a metaphor for the Druids (as serpents aren’t native to Ireland).
However, because hagiographies of St. Patrick do not include this part of the St. Patrick story until much later on (around 700 years after his death), some scholars claim that this depiction of the saint has more to do with Christians wanting a heroic symbol for their conquest over the country, and less to do with what actually happened when St. Patrick was in Ireland. As Jason Pitzl-Waters states:
The simple fact is that paganism thrived in Ireland for generations after Patrick lived and died, and, as 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, it simply doesn’t exist outside hagiography.
Despite this lack of correlation between history and hagiography, there are other stories that point to a connection between snakes and the native Celts, along with his extensive missionary work. In fact, the lore and legends surrounding St. Patrick and how he banished snakes, chased monsters into lakes, and preached the Gospel near holy wells is more than just old legends blown out of proportion. These stories offer insight into the ancient pagan traditions of Ireland that would otherwise be lost.
Fact or Fiction? We’ll Never Know
So who exactly was St. Patrick? As you can see, “the truth is rarely pure and never simple” as history is never objective or straightforward. Many forces and influences shape what we have left of these histories, and these forces and influences are never without their own motives.
But what do we know? That the Irish Christian traditions and legends mentioned above contain remnants of the old religion in them that would otherwise have been lost. History, whether accurate or not, can still be a useful source of information for those interested in Pagan culture, religion, and history (as sometimes, partial histories are all we have left).
What do you think? Do you have strong feelings for/against St. Patrick? Do observe him in your Wheel of the Year (or at all)? What do you make of the legends and lore that come from a Christianity infused with Paganism? Share your thoughts in the comments below!