Sunday 25 February 2018

Legends of saint provide vital clues about pagan Ireland

Saint Patrick
Saint Patrick
Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

The creation by early Christians of the St Patrick lore inadvertently helped preserve knowledge of ancient pagan Ireland.

Much of what academics now know about the traditions of pre-Christian Ireland have been gleaned from the myths built up around St Patrick.

A University College Cork (UCC) study has found that many of the legends surrounding the Welsh-born missionary and his conversion of Ireland to Christianity offer fascinating glimpses of the pagan culture he helped supplant.

UCC Department of Religion Studies academic, Dr Jenny Butler, pointed out that the lore surrounding St Patrick - including the legend of him banishing snakes, chasing monsters into lakes, being tormented by a black bird on Croagh Patrick and preaching the Gospel near holy wells and groves - offer an insight into ancient pagan traditions.

"St Patrick is the archetypal missionary saint, whose appearance is equivalent with Christianity's arrival," she said. "As a mythic figure, he is synonymous with Christianity."

But she stressed that interwoven into the myths surrounding St Patrick are clues as to the traditions and values of pagan Ireland.

She explained that the famous story of the saint ridding the island of Ireland of snakes can be interpreted as symbolic of the new religion of Christianity superseding the older pagan religion, adding: "Snakes and serpents are found in many indigenous cultures as symbols of ancient pagan deities."

St Patrick is supposed to have defeated the 'Caoránach', a female serpent the saint is described as pursuing from Croagh Patrick to Lough Derg.

She explained that these two locations, the mountain in Mayo and the lake in Donegal, may have been sacred in the indigenous religion.

The legend of him climbing Croagh Patrick also contains the story of him being tormented by a black bird.

The black bird refers to the shape-shifting Celtic war goddess 'the Morrígan' in Irish mythology.

Irish Independent

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