Patrick: Transforming the Green Serpent
Nothing seems to
be more Irish than St Patrick. Nothing seems to be more Christian
than the life of this saint. But at the same time, it are his
legends that provide an inroad into the way Ireland was before
and at the time of Christianity’s arrival.
Patrick is a veritable mountain, rising 762 metres above sea level.
The old name for the mountain is Croghan Aigle, which some translate
as the Eagle's Peak. The word Croghan in Irish usually refers
to a conical shape, which normally implies that such type of hills
were normally set out for specific reverence, because of their
When I visited, despite the fact that this was officially summer,
the mountain was nevertheless completely – and I mean completely
– shrouded in clouds, or rather one gigantic cloud. Even
driving onwards to the next village did not allow any glimpse
of this formidable hill. Therefore returning to the car park,
it was clear that this was no time to be heroic – no-one
else in the visitor centre was either. Instead, literature and
audio-visual aides were there to turn explorers into armchair
detectives. Yet, three days later, the cloud cover had apparently
lifted as, while driving elsewhere in Ireland, several radio programmes
were interviewing those that were ascending the mountain in the
mountain is central to the religious experience of the Irish –
whether that is Christian or pagan. The accounts state that St
Patrick came here to fast for forty days, as a token of his covenant
with God so that he would be allowed to judge the Irish people
at the Last Judgment.
The Catholics make a big deal out of this endeavour. They link
the mountain with Mount Sinai and call it the Holy Hill of Ireland.
It is said he stayed here in imitation of Moses remaining for
forty days on Mount Sinai. But unlike Mount Sinai, Ireland is
wet and windy, and Saint Patrick apparently only had a small cave
or recess to hide from the fury of the elements. The stone on
which he rested is sometimes still pointed out.
It seems logical to assume that Croagh Patrick was indeed the
sacred mountain of the pagan Irish, their “Mount Olympos”,
the residence of their gods. And if St Patrick wanted to conquer
the minds of the Irish pagans, he would have to climb the mountain,
remain there, and return, thus proving to the people that the
gods had agreed with his mission, and that he was rightfully their
religious leader. That was most likely his mission, and in the
final analysis, that was the mission he accomplished.
Catholic perspective, the pagan gods that resided on the mountain
were therefore turned into “demons”, who “mustered
all their strength to tempt the saint and disturb him in his solitude,
and turn him away, if possible, from his pious purpose. They gathered
around the hill in the form of vast flocks of hideous birds of
prey. So dense were their ranks that they seemed to cover the
whole mountain, like a cloud, and they so filled the air that
Patrick could see neither sky nor earth nor ocean.” But
praying to God, the demons eventually left.
Patrick did not remove the mountain’s importance from the
people. He knew that the local villagers climbed the mountain
at the end of July, i.e. the festival of Lughnasa (August 1).
Rather than abolish this tradition, in which the Celtic god Lugh
was at the centre of worship, Saint Patrick kept the tradition,
but instead dedicated the pilgrimage to the Christian God, and
held it on Garland Sunday (the last Sunday in July), thus close
to the ancient festival of Lughnasa, as well as St Patrick’s
than a pagan ritual to the sun god, the huge snaking crowd now
holds a Christian Eucharist on the summit. Its pagan origins were
almost too faint for archaeologists, but excavations did uncover
a large asymmetrical enclosure at the top, predating Christianity.
If the pagans considered this to be a holy mountain, little archaeological
remains will be found, as sacred mountains were often left “natural”;
would anyone dare to build where the gods dwelt?
Still, it is quite likely that pilgrimages to the home of the
gods occurred, at least from Celtic times onwards, when many sacred
mountains that were previously strictly off-limits did become
accessible as part of the religious life of the communities. Peter
Dawkins suggests that the original route was along the spine,
and therefore not following the present path. His interpretation
is in favour with other researchers, who feel that that this route
is in line with the old pilgrimage path, which took the pilgrim
from Cruachain in Roscommon to Caher Island in the west.
connection between the mountain and the sun god may seem odd,
but we note that elsewhere in the ancient world, the connection
between conical mountains and sun gods is well-established. Though
made of pre-Cambrian quartzite, the mountain is known to contain
gold deposits, a metal that is often linked with the sun. Some
of this gold has been used by the ancient Celts for their gold
ornaments – a discovery which came as some surprise to the
scientists making it, as the mountain was not considered a likely
source. Like gold, the crystalline structure absorbs and refracts
light, its conical shape adding to the majestic towering effect
the hill has over the surrounding landscape. These properties
therefore seem to have made it an ideal candidate to become the
sacred domain of Lugh, the sun god, and his festival Lughnasa.
Patrick as a sacred mountain is not unique in Ireland. Brandon
Mountain, Ireland’s second highest peak (3127ft), located
in Co. Kerry, is linked with St Brendan and his alleged voyage
to an island in the West, believed by some to be a voyage of discovery
to America. Perhaps it is more likely that the island in question
was the mythical Isle of the Blessed.
There are traditions about this mountain that provide further
detail on what happened at the festival of Lughnasa. Marie Mac
Neill, author of The Festival of Lughnasa, states that there was
an old Lughnasa assembly on the top of Brandon Mountain, which
saw a harvest outing that involved climbing the mountain and going
down into the village of Cloghane for a festival. No doubt, such
a festival occurred after the climbing of Croagh Patrick wa swell.
The festival has been revived and even the theft of the stone
head of Crom Dubh, which was to be seen in the old graveyard in
Cloghane until it was stolen in 1993, did not discourage the locals
from making a replica head and celebrating the festival annually,
“primarily a gathering for the local community and an attempt
to rekindle the original spirit of the event”.
MacNeill has studied 180 Irish sites where the Festival of Lughnasa
was celebrated. She has concluded that all of these were “purely
pagan and earth-oriented in context”. Though 180 might seem
much, she felt that originally there had been many more. Based
on this and similar research, she concluded that Lughnasa was
the biggest of all “Fire Festivals” – outperforming
the traditional “Beltane Festival” which often saw
bonfires lighted on hill tops. As MacNeill and others have observed,
though, the large number of festivals did not mean that the festival
lived on in folklore.
solar aspect of the mountain can also be seen 6.5 kilometres to
the east of Croagh Patrick, where there is a remarkable stone
outcrop, the Boheh stone, decorated with prehistoric inscriptions.
The site has a “solar light show” which plays with
sacred mountain in the background. Amateur archaeologist Gerry
Bracken detected that on April 18 and August 24, the setting sun
hits the top of Croagh Patrick and instead of setting behind it,
slides down the northern slope, as if “rolling” down
the hill. This phenomenon of a double sunset is similar to the
double setting of the sun around the Paps of Jura, a holy mountain
in Western Scotland.
Patrick is not the only site dedicated to the Irish saint that
was transformed from a Celtic sanctuary. St Patrick’s Purgatory
is now notorious as a pilgrimage site – and was even more
so in medieval times. Medieval maps showed it as a site as important
as Dublin, indeed it was sometimes the only location identified
in Ireland on some Mediterranean maps. Today, it is a non-existent
community, whose existence only comes about in the summer,
when the monastery opens to receive its annual visitors.
If you do not know it exists, you will have a hard to time locating
it on a map, and there is no chance that anyone chances across
the location by accident while driving through Ireland; the nearest
main road is miles away from the road towards the pier to the
island in Lough Derg, in the general area of Donegal. Though it
was July, I did not go on the three day pilgrimage, though there
was still a steady stream of particularly middle aged Irish women
who made the voyage, often dropped off by the rest of the family,
who went their separate ways.
In the past, pilgrims included Alfred of Northumbria, as well
as Harold, who was to fight the Normans as King of England. Famous
visitors accounts come from a knight Owein, as well as the Aragon
noble Ramon de Perillos. Each of these visited the original cave,
which was so popular that often 1500 visitors in a single day
were counted. Some visitors apparently went insane, and some allegedly
disappeared altogether. It should therefore not come as a major
surprise that the cave was closed by papal decree in 1497, with
the Purgatory moving to nearby Station Island, which had its own
cave, but where the pilgrims’ health apparently was not
endangered. This island has continued to be the centre of the
pilgrims for the past five centuries.
site is obviously linked with St Patrick, but is also linked with
Croagh Patrick. The legend states that Patrick was drawn here
by the triple goddess Corra, a pagan goddess who apparently tried
to reclaim Ireland to the pagan gods after Patrick’s recent
success at Croagh Patrick. On his flight – indeed –
from Croagh Patrick, he looked down, and saw that she had taken
the form of a serpent, lying in the water of Lough Derg –
the Red Lake, though Some recent authorities prefer to read Derg
as a form of the Irish deirc, “the lake of the cave”.
Descending to investigate, she swallowed him whole. It took Patrick
two days and two nights to cut himself free, killing her in the
process. The water turned red with her blood and her body turned
to stone, forming the islands in the lake.
story is once again full of pagan imagery: Patrick had somehow
achieved the ability to fly, which is a very shamanic quality.
It is also in line with the imagery of the holy mountain, i.e.
the eagle. The goddess Corra abducted him into the Otherworld,
but he was able to escape. As such, Saint Patrick has once again
succeeded another test, which proves his agility to instil a new
religion over Ireland.
The connection between an eagle and a serpent is common mythological
theme, written down by Aesop as a fable under that name.
“An Eagle swooped down upon a Serpent and seized it in his
talons with the intention of carrying it off and devouring it.
But the Serpent was too quick for him and had its coils round
him in a moment; and then there ensued a life-and-death struggle
between the two.”
It was said that once Patrick was victorious over Corra, all serpents
disappeared from the island – and none exist today. It is
clear that the story needs to be read allegorically, in which
we can thus see that once Patrick had succeeded this test, the
pagan gods had finally been conquered: Ireland was now Christian.
story also shows that the lake, in pagan times, was a major religious
site. On Station Island, there is a prehistoric mound visible.
The cave of the purgatory equally has clear pagan overtones. It
fits within a long, European tradition, of “incubation”,
or “temple sleep”, in which initiates arrived in a
temple and were allowed to enter the Otherworld, either through
sleep deprivation, hallucinogenic drugs or other mind-altering
techniques. The serpent Corra is a clear indication of this, as
the serpent was specifically connected with such sanctuaries;
in those Mediterranean temples where incubations were practised,
snakes were allowed to roam free.
The practice of “incubation sleep”, involving a descent
into the Otherworld to meet the ancestors, was a common practice
throughout pagan Europe, and specifically famous in Greece and
its colonies. But when the Romans conquered the Europe, they definitively
closed these sanctuaries, stopping the practices. Often, even
the sites of these underground temples was lost over time. But
Ireland was never conquered by the Romans. And thus, it seems
likely that when Saint Patrick came to the island, he found these
“incubation temples” intact. The
“dream cave” of Lough Derg was thus merely transformed
into a Christian site; the Otherworld was transformed into Purgatory.
But it is clear that the pagan methods that instilled a descent
into the Underworld remained to be used until the late 15th century,
when, just like the Romans 15 centuries before, it was felt that
the practice was too dangerous. Thus, the only official site of
“temple sleep” in Europe was closed off.
Patrick’s Purgatory still describes itself as “One
of the oldest places of pilgrimage in the Christian world and
one of the few remaining penitential pilgrimages”, but in
truth, it has lost both the site and the technique where and how
penance was done and access to Purgatory was granted to the pilgrim.
But its truly pagan roots are now on a small and abandoned island
elsewhere in the lake, where few visitors come… and where
even fewer people realise the pagan origin of the site and the
experience… just like the annual pilgrims at Croagh Patrick
are often unaware of its pagan roots.