When We Heart Villains, Does It Matter If They’re Pretend?

Tomorrow, as every year, I will tweet out and re-share my article Fuck Saint Patrick. Then I will get a slew of criticism missing my point.

My point is, of course, that we shouldn’t praise people who do bad things, no matter what our religion. Patrick legendarily defiled temples in order to get his foothold in Ireland, and that’s just not someone I raise a pint for.

I can understand why some Christians would ignore that little snag (though I would suggest that immoral acts remain immoral even if you’re on the winning side). But it seems you don’t have to be a crusader for Christ to stand up for Patrick. Pagans and the non-religious have been kind enough to tell me over and over that the green bishop is totally great and his violent methods are no big deal. Why?

Because maybe they’re imaginary.

John wields bookkind.

John wields bookkind.

The Hagiography Defense

Even Pagan blogger Alison Leigh Lilly offers a version of this argument:

I like how the hagiographic (read:mythic) stories about a single man more than a thousand years ago weighs… on the minds of modern Pagans

She’s not the only one—this is the single most common reply I get (other than grateful high fives from other polytheists). After all, the stories of Patrick’s life come to us from medieval manuscripts written long after his time. They may not be accurate.

To which my reply is: and?

For starters, many Christians for many centuries took those stories as fact; they were happy to praise him believing the stories were true.

More to the point, I don’t know that celebrating a mythical villain is really any better than celebrating an historic one. (Note the difference from fictional; I’d gladly attend a Darth Vader Day.) Figures of myth are powerful symbols, and this one is tied up in forceful conversion. If we’re willing to celebrate that it should raise serious questions.

It’s worth noting that even if the scenes from Patrick’s life in his medieval biography are fictionalized, it’s unlikely that he was more tolerant. The biographies weren’t written by his enemies, trying to make him look bad, but by fellow Christians. They could have made him seem as peaceful as they wanted to. They chose to depict him as someone who would interrupt blessings, wreck holidays, smash religious statuary and desecrate temples.

But that’s long over; frankly it doesn’t get my blood up. What I find deeply uncomfortable is that people today continue to celebrate a man famous for such alleged acts—and then shame anyone who refuses to join in.

I’m not interested in playing the victim. The acts wreaked against my religion 1600 years ago do very little to affect my life today. And I don’t begrudge the wild partying; I’ll likely be out at a pub myself. But when I do I’ll be wearing black, my small non-violent, non-confrontational gesture of objection to what the myth named Patrick stands for.

Every year, this approach gets people asking questions, and when I answer calmly and unjudgingly, every year it turns into great, thoughtful conversations.

Please join me in wearing black, not green, on Patrick’s Day.

"Cadenas" by SpejoBlancoNegro


24 thoughts on “When We Heart Villains, Does It Matter If They’re Pretend?

  1. I’m afraid I won’t be joining you. I am the daughter of an Irish woman and respect the living traditions of my beautiful land. I am tired of Pagans who treat the living Gaelic culture as the enemy while exalting their Gaelic heritage. This, to me, has very little to do with Christians. It has everything to do with Ireland.

    I don’t share the ‘American’ approach to this holiday either. Like most of the Irish, I won’t be doing anything to mark tomorrow. I may open a Guinness for the old gods, to remind them that they’re remembered by some on this day, as every other. But that will be all.

    But I wish you well in your crusade.

    – Sophia Catherine

    • I am tired of Pagans who treat the living Gaelic culture as the enemy while exalting their Gaelic heritage.

      If I ever meet one I will pass on your remarks, Sophia. For myself, I relish the present-day and early modern traditions, have gladly attended Catholic mass given entirely in Gaeilge, visited Christian holy sites in Ireland and followed the present-day folk practices, and have made a point of building strong relationships with primarily Catholic Irish cultural organizations in Minnesota and elsewhere.

      But I don’t believe present-day Irish culture is perfect, nor Irish customs beyond critique. I resent the idea that taking a peaceful, symbolic position of objection to one custom is somehow anti-Irish, or that I somehow don’t “respect” my heritage.

      I don’t object to you celebrating St. Patrick’s Day; I haven’t criticized you for it or interfered in any way. I’d love it if I got the same respect in return. Please stop shaming those who won’t celebrate this holiday – we don’t deserve it.

      • I don’t celebrate it. It’s much more of an American celebration than an Irish one nowadays, IMO.

        I apologise if it sounded like I was shaming you – this was not my intention. I do not think you, personally, are one of the Pagans I mentioned. However, there are a lot of them out there among Celtic Pagans and polytheists, and it’s often people who have never been to Ireland nor met members of living Gaelic culture.

        I don’t think that *you* don’t respect your heritage. But I do think an awful lot of the people who make a fuss about this holiday don’t.

        Again, apologies for sounding like I was shaming you. It’s a bit of a ‘trigger’ issue for me (along with how Pagans talk about Christmas and Easter – for very different reasons). I should not have taken that out on you. Again, apologies for my tone and anger.

        • Thank you Sophia, that means a lot. I should have added – and will now, belatedly – that your presence here at Rogue Priest is much appreciated and very welcome. I’m glad to know you, and I understand that many polytheists and Pagans view this issue differently than I do.

        • I’ll check it out :)

          I also wrote a follow up post at Celtic Polytheism. I used your quote but not your name, since it’s not really aimed at you – I get this kind of pushback from Pagans a lot. Funny enough, I think you and I share the view that Pagans & polytheists need to take the culture seriously and try to help preserve/nourish it in some way. If I’m reading you right :)

  2. I do make a point to drink a green beer on March 17. Wherever I am. And I wear a smidgin of green, lest I be pinched. But other than that I was completely unaware of the history/myths surrounds St. Patrick. Thanks for the lesson. Although I will likely enjoy my beer a little less tomorrow.

      • I like my Alexander Keiths for that, or some local dark brew ( <3 micro breweries). Haven't had a drink for a month and now you've got me wanting a cold one *shakes head* I like to reserve my drinks for gatherings so I'll be waiting on that one.

  3. Susie says:

    I am so impressed with your writing and especially about St. Patrick. I am curious if you could write about other saints also. I’ve always been interested in the saints because I was raised Polish-Catholic which I’m sure as you know is a great combination of Pagan with a dash of Old Catholic. I’m just hoping you have some more saint truths you could enlighten me with. Thank you, Susie.

    • I probably won’t write about saints because I’m not Christian and have very little interest in them. Many saints however were aggressive converters and some were specifically sainted in large part because of the conquests, conversions, or crusades they led.

  4. I couldn’t agree more with your comments above. I’ve been aware of St. Patrick’s dubious history of egregious acts, real or mythic, I really dislike St. Patrick so much that I refuse to use his image on my Danbala altar. I use Moses holding the 10 Commandments.I’ll wear some black tomorrow.
    Yes, Fuck St. Patrick!

    • Thanks Travis. I pretty much shy away from using any saint on my Vodou altar. I don’t feel they’re strictly necessary though once in a while you will see a St. Peter or St. Anthony candle for Legba. But then, I tend to be much more averse to Christian elements than other Vodouisants (or polytheists) and not as syncretic.

      I will say I can get behind Moses, though.

  5. Pingback: Fuck Saint Patrick |   Rogue Priest

  6. Sheri McPherson says:

    about 1o years ago I learned what St. Patrick really did was drive out the pagans, being a witch that really ruined my enjoyment of the day. here in Mn we have a pagon group called Bring Back the Snakes and many of us celebrate that instead. I think that you are a very interesting man and thanks for being out there with your beliefs

  7. Pingback: St Patrick and the ‘Snakes’ | Léithin Cluan

  8. Sophia and Drew. Interesting points from both of you, and yes I usually wear Black with sometimes a white shirt, but I know what you mean. And I have not celebrated Patrick’s day for many years, and yet (in England) I see loads of people suddenly wearing green facepaint, because that is all it is to be Irish, do not think so. If we changed it to National Irish Day, and what it means to be Irish,(or Irish Decent, like me) and see if there is any change with the kiss me quick hats and green face paint.

    But in the UK we have a strange habit of celebrating this type of person, I mean Bonfire night on 5th November. Sophia going to have a nose at your blog now.


    • Thanks Dave. It’s always interesting to hear how this holiday looks in UK. Very different in some ways from the US and yet in others it sounds like the issue is very much the same.

  9. I know a lot of folks who do the ‘All Snakes Day’ in response to St. Patrick’s. I just ignore it, going about things as if its just any another day. I often find myself surprised when the day goes by, as I genuinely didn’t notice. There are other celebrations I rather spend time on anyway.

  10. Mara says:

    Can you further explain why you think it’s okay to celebrate fictional villains? I don’t see how that’s any different than celebrating anyone else (real or mythical) who oppresses, kills, &/or conquers.

    • Sure.

      Situationally, I think it could be in very poor taste. “Fictional” is no excuse to mock, belittle or harm real people.

      I also feel that fiction exists for a reason. There is a reason we like great villains, a reason we like anti-heroes, and a reason we are thrilled by stories where horrible things happen (such as a zombie apocalypse). In addition to letting us experience excitement and drama without real-world damage, these stories also serve to help us explore our feelings about horrible things in a safe way. For instance, the panic and chaos of a pandemic or the brutality of a dictatorship can be experienced through books, film, manga etc. and help us confront our own ethics, our own values and our own reactions to these scenarios.

      Drs. Phil Zimbardo and Zeno Franco, who study the psychology of heroism, actually feel that these kinds of fictions help us develop a “heroic imagination” – an ability to cast ourselves in the role of the hero – that helps us take real heroic action in the face of actual unethical behavior. Of course, for these stories to have much of an impact the villain needs to seem “real” (multi-faceted and believable) as well as posing a serious threat (e.g. blowing up a planet rather than just stealing a puppy).

      Thus, I think there are good reasons why healthy, balanced, ethical people would like, and even playfully celebrate, fictional villains in a way that would be wholly inappropriate to celebrate real criminals and dictators.

  11. Pingback: Double Shot for Saint Patrick’s Day |   Rogue Priest

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