Snakes Have Nothing to Do With It

On Monday I offered my usual quiet, respectful protest to Saint Patrick’s Day by wearing black instead of green, and daring to point out that the good saint is famous mostly for smashing Irish temples and traditions. One reader pointed me to an interesting defense of Patrick, which makes a line of argument I haven’t seen before.

The article, written in 2012 by Pagan journalist Jason Pitzl-Waters, essentially makes two points:

  1. Patrick’s fame for “casting out the snakes of Ireland” is often misunderstood;
  2. And therefore Patrick is a totally swell guy, and worthy of our reverence.

If you’re not familiar, the story of Patrick driving out the snakes is a fairly late piece of folklore, often interpreted as a metaphor for driving out the druids. Neopagans have seized on this mini legend, and those few who dare to abstain from Ireland’s anointed holiday often make reference to snakes.

Some of these references are kind of clever. (I’ll always be fond of a friend’s “The snakes are back” T-shirt showing a Celtic knotwork snake burping up a miter). Others are just ludicrous, like this one Pitzl-Waters chooses to quote:

“The “snakes” that Patrick drove out of Ireland were the Druidic priests, who had serpents tattooed on their forearms. Celebrating him is like celebrating Stalin or Hitler.”

(That’s both historically inaccurate, and preposterous.)

Most snake-centric approaches are somewhere in the middle. Some Pagans celebrate March 17 as “All Snakes Day,” essentially trying to reclaim the holiday while still getting drunk and wearing green. I’ve never been much for All Snakes Day, and I generally avoid reference to the snake story at all because it’s one of the weakest lines against Patrick.

But it is a fair approach. Even though the “snakes” story is over a thousand years more recent than Patrick himself, it’s pretty much always been interpreted as a reference to the conversion. And regardless of snakes, Patrick’s earliest and friendliest biography is very clear that he destroyed Irish sanctuaries and festivals. So the snake issue is kind of irrelevant to the (very reasonable) decision of some polytheists and Pagans not to celebrate a conversion saint.

But those interviewed for the article consider it an oddly strong case. Quoting two Celtic reconstructionists, Pitzl-Waters frames Patrick’s hostility as “debunked” by discrediting the snake myth. But one of the quotes directly contradicts that:

“…the rest of Patrick’s hagiography has him dueling Druids right and left, killing those who oppose him with callous righteousnes [sic], so why would the story suddenly get cryptic about him driving the Druids out?”

Why indeed. And how does a killer of druids “right and left” now seem any more druid-friendly? That may undermine the snake myth, but it doesn’t make me think druids should start toasting the Green Bishop.

As a good reason to celebrate St. Patrick’s day, the article fails. It touches on some of the many good reasons to dislike St. Patrick, but then tells us to ignore those reasons and celebrate him because (shock) Neopagans got their history wrong. Of course, the article closes with my personal favorite chastisement: that there is no other way to stay in touch with modern Irish heritage than celebrating this one holiday. If you don’t like Patrick, you aren’t Irish enough.

Why I don't celebrate St. Patrick's Day

Someone who’s in touch with Irish heritage.

It used to baffle me why, of all people, Pagans and polytheists would find such strange reasons to be pro-Patrick. I understand when Irish Christians put peer pressure on me to celebrate the holiday, but why polytheists? Why get so attached to the celebration of a man who actively worked against our religion—and why use such ridiculous arguments for doing so?

Nowadays, however, it doesn’t surprise me. The Patrick apologists never present serious arguments, because they don’t really care about the hagiographic picture of Patrick at all. They don’t care if he was a good guy or a bad guy. They’re only pro-Patrick because they grew up enjoying his holiday, and they’re going to keep enjoying it even if doing so requires intellectual gymnastics. Accuracy or integrity isn’t the issue here, and neither is cultural pride.

The issue is rationalization.

It’s just easier to go with the crowd than it is to abstain from a minor holiday. Even a holiday that’s essentially about a bigot—in legend and, likely, in reality—against your own religion.