The Serpent in Irish Mythology

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Ireland has no indigenous snakes. The story goes that they were banished by St Patrick. You would think he was rather busy converting the pagan masses, establishing monasteries and churches, and driving out demons, yet he still found time to save us from dangerous creatures.

According to a Welsh monk by the name of Jocelin (1185AD), Patrick gathered all snakes, serpents, and venomous creatures alike onto a mountain in West Connacht, where he had spent the previous forty days and nights fasting and gaining great power, and drove them from there into the sea. Croagh Patrick is said to be that illustrious mountain, and today thousands of pilgrims walk its rugged path every year in celebration of this event, and in penance, many in bare feet or on their knees. 

Of course, this story is the subject of controversy. It has been claimed that the tale was never meant to be taken literally, that the serpents referred to symbolised the Druids and their pagan religion. In modern Irish, the word for ‘snake’ is nathair, said to derive from the old Gaelic word naddred, meaning ‘serpent’. In fact, adding the letter ‘G’ turns the word into Gnaddr, meaning ‘serpent priest’. I am relying on other people’s translations here, not being fluent with the native lingo myself, so don’t have a go at me if I get this wrong. It gets interesting to me personally here, living just a few minutes away from a pair of lakes curled around each other in a rather sinuous and snake-like way, known as the Nadrageel Lakes… notice any similarity in the words? The serpent was important to the Druids for healing purposes, among others, and the ancient symbol of the serpent circle in which the snake devours its own tail symbolises the never-ending circle of life.

However, there are those more recently who argue that this version of the story is inaccurate, that Patrick openly lambasted the Druids and set out to convert them at every opportunity, that the stories are full of his (sometimes brutal) acts of doing so, most usually involving smashing their idols with his crozier, and disrespecting their customs with defiance, as when he lit the fire at Slane on the Eve of Beltaine. Why then, would he be so cryptic with his serpent banishing story?

Actually, Saint Patrick made no mention of this important and powerful event at all in his own writings, which begs the question, did it ever take place at all?

Apparently, he wasn’t the only Christian to have banished snakes in Europe; St Cado of Brittany banished snakes from Gaul; St Paul from Malta; St Columba from Iona; St Clement from Metz; St Marcel from Paris; St Romain from Germany, Spain and Russia… it was quite the popular past-time! And not only by saints; Irish High King Brian Boru’s son, Murchad, is also credited with destroying all the serpents in Ireland in one version of The Battle of Clontarf. A stone which used to sit under the east window of Glendalough church, depicted St Kevin’s dog, Lupus, in a mighty battle with the the last snake in Ireland. Needless to say, the holy hound was victorious. Mysteriously, the stone is reputed to have been stolen on the 28th August 1839.

For a land devoid of slithering creatures, we certainly seem to have a lot of stories about them. In one myth, Nial and Scota, a Pharoah’s daughter, had a son named Gaoidhial who was bitten by a snake while wandering in the wilderness. He was healed by Moses, and told that no serpent would flourish where he or his progeny lived. Of course, they were the Milesians, also known as the first Gaels, who later invaded Ireland, defeating the Tuatha de Denann, thus settling in our serpent-free land. This would imply that Ireland already had no snakes at that time. Confusingly, I came across a reference in Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions which tells of a ‘green God-snake’ known as Gad-el-Glas, but in the Lebor Gabála Érenn (an ancient manuscript documenting the Invasions of Ireland), Gadel Glas is another name for Nial and Scota’s son. The old Milesian standard was a snake wrapped around a rod, allegedly.

The truth is, snakes are cold blooded creatures, unable to live through extreme cold climatic conditions. When Ireland emerged from its last ice age, about fifteen thousand years ago, finally free and unfettered from its nearest land mass (Scotland), it is unlikely any snakes managed to survive. Certainly, they were no longer able to cross by land bridge. I know, it’s a lot less dramatic and somewhat disappointing compared with all the other stories.

Most surprising of all to me, is Fionn mac Cumhall‘s involvement in all this. Yes, that’s right, your eyes do not deceive you. According to a poem called The Pursuit of Sliabh Druim, found in a book known as the Duanaire Finn (c. C17th), the great hero himself slew many huge serpents as big as mountains called péista (meaning ‘beast’ or ‘pest’) which lived in lakes. Caoilte, Fionn’s nephew, relates how the monsters were slain at Lough Cuilinn, Lough Neagh, Lough Rea, Lough Corra, Lough Laoghaire, at Howth, at the Glenn Inny, and the River Bann. Is this a ploy to show Fionn in a Christian light, doing God’s work by destroying the pagan priests? It’s intriguing, because the way into the Otherworld lies through water; were these serpents seen as Guardians to the gates of Tir na Nog, and by his violent actions, was Fionn putting these entrances out of action, denying the Sidhe access to the new Christian Ireland?

Enough speculation; I’m going to leave you with my favourite Irish serpent myth…

Иллюстрация к греческому мифу, монотипия.

Fergus mac Leti was a King of Ulster who fell asleep one day on the beach. Three little sprites called lúchorpáin (meaning ‘little bodies’) came up out of the water and tried to steal him away. The coldness of the sea awoke him, and he lunged at the creatures, catching one in each hand and crushing the third to his chest. They promised to grant him one wish if he let them go, to which he agreed, and asked for the power to be able to swim deep under water without having to surface for air. They gave him magical herbs with which to plug his ears, but warned him not to swim under Lough Rudraige (Dundrum Bay). Being a King, Fergus was used to doing as he liked, so of course he disregarded their advice, and encountered a massive, fearsome sea-serpent called Muirdris. His terror caused a facial disfigurement, which his people kept secret from him, as a king must be whole and perfectly formed. One day, seven years later, a spiteful servant girl revealed the truth after he beat her unfairly. Shocked, Fergus decided to confront Muirdris once again. They battled for a night and a day, the sea turning red with blood about them, but Fergus emerged onto the shore victorious, bearing the great brute’s head. Fergus’s good looks were restored, but he immediately collapsed and dropped dead from his efforts.

You can expect to see more of this story in my third book…


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33 thoughts on “The Serpent in Irish Mythology

  1. Hey there. I found your article very fascinating.

    Only recently I’ve started looking into “St,” Patrick and few other things. Might just be me but I don’t believe the whole banishment story. Here’s why:

    There is absolutely nothing (that I know of) to indicate that snakes have ever inhabited Ireland. If they did we would have some sort of a proof in form of fossils.

    “St.” Patrick was never a saint, like somebody mentioned earlier. His title did start with the letter ‘S’ but it stood for scumbag and not saint.
    I strongly believe that Patrick was a faith breaker, something a Catholic Church will never own up to. And I also believe his mission in Ireland was to destroy any pagan religions and turn Ireland into a Christian realm. You can look faithbreakers up, however I’m having a difficult time finding any reliable info anywhere.
    It’s either they’re very good at hiding things from us, or I’m just plain crazy.

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    1. Interesting, Audrey! I’m not up on other country’s myths either, but I do know that there was a lot of serpent banishing across Europe by the early Christian saints, so no doubt that would form part of it.😊

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  2. I’d always assumed that as you say, snakes either never made it to Ireland once continental drift separated it from mainland Europe or they died out in the cold of the last Ice Age. But you’d think that Ireland was cut off at the same time as the rest of the British Isles and they have snakes. The other funny thing is that if there’s a word for snake in irish, it means the Gaels had snakes, and they haven’t been in Ireland all that long, arriving long after the Ice Age anyway. Which leaves only one explanation—getting so pissed off with Patrick’s venimous anti-snake diatribes they all hitched a lift with Brendan and emigrated to the US.

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  3. Another fantastic piece Ali. Peoples awareness is slowly starting to increase. Patrick and the snakes is just common sense. Our climate was never hot enough for snakes to live here, (well except for Leinster House, that is 🙂 )
    What many don’t realize is that old Patrick was never a saint! Their is no mention of him ever becoming a saint in the Vatican. The error comes from a translation of the Irish word Naomh/Naofa which means holy, not Saint. Their was never a word in the Irish language for Saint, and so I guess they misinterpreted it over the years.
    The snake was a powerful symbol to our ancestors and is still used today by the medical profession, you can still see it outside Pharmacy’s and hospitals today.
    As most of our history was never recorded until the early Christian monks started to write down out story, It can be quite hard to seperate the sheaf from the wheat. Obiously they added their own twist to various stories. I seriously doubt that Fionn would have sided with the Christain over the Sidhe. But that is not to say he did’nt kick some nasty beasts in his day. I love the king Fergus story, had’nt heard it before.
    As always, thanks for sharing 🙂

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    1. LMAO!!!!!!!!

      He was never a saint? Fantastic, I never heard that one! Yes, the Druids revered the serpent for healing, didn’t they, so that would make sense, but to be honest I never noticed it in use today… which shows how blind we have become to symbolism… or at least, how blind to it I am, lol! I will have to look into that. My hubby is a consultant in the pharmacy industry, so he will be very interested in this!

      I agree with you about Fionn, but the Christians had a habit of claiming all things pagan to suit their needs, from ancient sites of worship, to gods and Godesses (Bridget), and Kings (Cormac), so why not the most famous of all Irish heroes, as well?!! In terms of the symbolism of the story, that was what made sense to me… what do you think?

      I love the story about Fergus and Muirdris, it’s one of my fave Irish myths, and will be making a more detailed appearance in my next book.

      Thanks for your very interesting comments, and glad you enjoyed reading the post!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. An absolute pleasure, I would have to concur with everything you said. I guess plagiarism should be seen as a compliment? These early christian monks were notorious for it, lol. Croagh Patrick was actually a sacred place associated with Crom. The church demonized him as they did.
        I also forgot to mention about Scota, the Egyptian princess. It seems that Scotland was named after her. 🙂

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  4. Hey Ali, Fascinating post. I knew about the ST. Patrick story, but not the other ones! I really love the circle of life image of the snake biting it’s tail. That’s definitely a pagan symbol, and I’d probably keep speculating along with you that snakes were a metaphor for people who practiced older religions. I also just thought about, from an entirely different part of the world, the serpent tempting Eve. Even in that story the serpent could represent the temptation to return to paganism. So much knowledge and wisdom was lost in all that conversion and control.

    I’ve got two other comments for you.

    First, Climbing up a mountain on your knees? I’m aware that it happens, but how absolutely absurd and unnecessary! What on earth are they trying to prove? There really should be a line drawn between difficult tasks to prove yourself and stupid tasks to prove you worship suffering. And everyone is worth more than that when they are born.

    Second: Fionn destroying portals to Tír na Nóg… for the record, no. It absolutely did not occur. Unfortunate and sad story, that one. No one would be violent in excess of reason or turn against kin. It was not done.

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    1. Just reporting interesting stories I came across, Éilis… you know I have an interest in, and a soft spot for Fionn! I couldn’t believe it when I came across this reference to him during my research for this post! And the funny thing is, I have a download of that manuscript on my laptop, but I haven’t read it all the way through… I guess, I just didn’t find it convincing and compelling enough! I don’t for one minute believe that he did it. It’s a metaphor for something, and judging by the rest… well, you can see for yourself! The Christians claimed most things pagan and twisted them to suit their own needs, they were very clever at it, and that’s what I think happened here. Fionn was revered almost throughout history, they had to claim him as a Christian, if they couldn’t denounce him! The same with Cormac, but that’s the subject of a different post, lol!

      Yes, there are lots of injuries on the annual pilgrimage up Croagh Patrick… not to mention the damage it has done to the mountain… there is a path as wide as a highway up the side of the mountain through erosion from walkers, you can see it from miles away, and its getting worse and worse. Thing is, no one dare do anything about it. Conservationists do their best, but the silly practice really needs to stop… I doubt it ever will.

      Glad you enjoyed the post!

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  5. Snakes can swim, so if there had been any in the neighborhood of the land bridges, they might have swum across before the sea levels got too deep and wide, but apparently not. Ireland does have legless lizards, though, to take their place. I wonder how that happened.

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