The Common Good

Saint Patrick, Druids, and the Snakes: The Truth is in the Middle

I love St. Patrick’s Day.

St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland. jordache / Shutterstock.com
St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland. jordache / Shutterstock.com

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The one day of the year when, for better or worse, Western culture allows me to claim my non-existent inner Irishman.

Kiss me, baby.

Okay. I’m done.

There are many stories and legends about the fascinating life of St. Patrick. One of the most famous legends recounts how this great 5th century saint banished all of the snakes from Ireland. Bad snakes. Bad.

My work at the Raven Foundation during the last few years has taught me to be suspicious of such legends. In fact, we might call them myths. Myths cover up scapegoating of human beings by telling the story in a more innocuous way. So, instead of saying we banish humans, we say we banished snakes.

Interestingly, the last glacial period (some 10,000-100,000 years ago, depending on whom you ask) beat St. Patrick to the snake banishing. But, Christian tradition has given Patrick all the credit. So, if there weren’t snakes around during Patrick’s day, what’s with the legend?

We do know that St. Patrick was a missionary to Ireland. His goal was to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity. From all accounts, he was very successful. We know the pagans of Ireland as the Druids. Their symbol was … the snake.

Today, Christians assert that St. Patrick only banished a sacrificial Druid religion, an expulsion symbolically represented by the banishment of snakes. Pagans, on the other hand, claim that St. Patrick forced Christian conversion with the threat of violence, and actually killed many Druid priests who refused to convert.

It sounds to me like one side glorifies St. Patrick as a peaceful man doing the Lord’s peaceful work while demonizing a corrupt Druid culture by accusing it of practicing child sacrifice, and the other side glorifies Druid culture as livingin innocent harmony with nature while demonizing St. Patrick by accusing him of being a violent missionary.

I’m not interested in glorifying or demonizing either side. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Maybe the best we can learn from the tradition of St. Patrick and the Druids is that we humans have a long tradition of scapegoating one another. We continue to demonize our scapegoats. Republicans and Democrats, Christians and Muslims, rich and poor – we tend to think that we are the good guys and they are the bad guys.

All the while neglecting that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.

Photo: St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland. jordache / Shutterstock.com

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