St. Patrick’s Day for Pagans?
I can’t reblog this, but please do go and read it. PaganCentric wrote a fantastic piece about the history of St. Patrick’s Day. A couple of passages that author Claire Mulkieran wrote that are both informative and heartbreaking.
If most people know anything about Saint Patrick, it’s that his one claim to fame is that he drove the snakes from Ireland. What most people don’t realize is that the snake is a Pagan symbol, and that the snakes referred to in the Saint Patrick mythos are not meant in the literal sense, but refer to Pagans; i.e., Saint Patrick drove the Pagans (specifically, the Celts) out of Ireland (although it could be said, and has been argued, that much has been done in Saint Patrick’s name, but that the man himself was relatively unimportant). So what is celebrated on Saint Patrick’s Day with drinking and much cavorting is, ironically, the spread of Christianity throughout Ireland and the subjugation and conversion of the Celts.
This, in particular, spoke to me. The rise of Christianity is a long and bloody one; with most indigenous religions and practitioners paying the price. My ancestors are (among others) Irish, but I have no way of knowing if they were affected by the Christianization of Ireland.
By way of remembrance, she shares a bit of her personal family lore and tradition; that of wearing a oak leaf pin passed down to her:
The significance of the oak leaf should be obvious to most Pagans. Greeks worshipped [sic] the oak as it was sacred to Zeus. It was a crime to fell an oak tree in Pagan Ireland. The ancient Celts wouldn’t meet unless an oak tree was present. The old expression “knock on wood” comes from the Celts, who believed in tree spirits. Both the Greeks and the Celts believed touching sacred trees would bring good fortune. They would knock on the oak tree to say hello to the tree spirit. And my family tradition holds that an oak leaf worn at the breast, touching the heart, will protect the wearer from all deception and the world’s false glamour. Oaks are protectors, and to me they represent strength and renewal; that spark of the old ways that can never be fully stamped out by Christianity, and which keep popping up in the least expected places.
Why not wear a shamrock? Simple. Legend credits Saint Patrick with teaching the Irish about the concept of the Christian Trinity by showing people the shamrock, using it to highlight the Christian belief of “three divine persons in the one God”. Wearing a shamrock to me is tantamount to wearing a Christian cross. I don’t begrudge those who do, but I know the meaning behind it, and I can’t follow you there. You might as well ask a Jew to wear a swastika.
is another perspective I hadn’t considered before, and it’s quite jarring to think about such a ‘fun’ holiday in this context. I do particularly appreciate the importance of family lore, and recognize the importance it has in shaping our identities.
But… is this a factual representation of the ‘truth’ of St. Patrick’s Day?
Maybe. But maybe not. Patheos also has a great article about the myths that surround St. Patrick’s Day, worth reading, especially if you’re swayed by the impassioned assertions of those who would ‘reclaim’ St. Patrick’s Day. Particularly this:
It seems the “snakes = Druids” metaphor is a relatively recent invention, as was the idea that Patrick “drove them out.” … P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, a Celtic Reconstructionist Pagan (and scholar) who has extensively studied Irish myth and folklore, had this to say on the subject.
“Unfortunately, this isn’t true, and the hagiographies of St. Patrick did not include this particular “miracle” until quite late, relatively speaking (his earliest hagiographies are from the 7th century, whereas this incident doesn’t turn up in any of them until the 11th century). St. Patrick’s reputation as the one who Christianized Ireland is seriously over-rated and overstated, as there were others that came before him (and after him), and the process seemed to be well on its way at least a century before the “traditional” date given as his arrival, 432 CE, because Irish colonists (yes, you read that right!) in southern Wales, Cornwall, and elsewhere in Roman and sub-Roman Britain had already come into contact with Christians and carried the religion back with them when visiting home.”
The simple fact is that paganism thrived in Ireland for generations after Patrick lived and died, and, as Lupus puts it, ” the ‘final’ Christianization of the culture didn’t take place until the fourteenth century CE.” There was no Irish pagan genocide, no proof of any great violent Druid purge in Ireland, it simply doesn’t exist outside hagiography.
I’m not a historian, by any means, so I defer to those who make such matters their life’s work. With credible historians backing this point of view, and a decided lack of factual evidence for the former claim, I tend to lean in this direction – that St. Patrick’s mark was negligible; though he may have played a prominent role in proselytizing and has been canonized for those efforts, he wasn’t the hammer that drove the first, or final, nail in the coffin of Paganism in Ireland.
So what’s a modern Pagan to do? Which point of view is correct? What should we believe?
Ultimately, that’s up to the individual Pagan. There is no right answer for ‘all’ Pagans. With most things, how you choose to celebrate (or not) is entirely up to what you feel is right for your path. Obviously, the Christian movement has a long and bloody history to atone for, and it is an undeniable fact that most indigenous Pagan religions were stamped out by aggressive Christian proselytizing and all-out war. The mindset is so pervasive that even today, to be an out-of-the-broom-closet Pagan can be dangerous in many areas of the world, including the United States, my own included. Considering that, on some levels, it seems ‘right’ to rally behind the idea that celebrating the rise of Christianity in a Pagan country is wrong, and that re-framing it in the context of ‘cultural genocide’ instead of ‘fun secular holiday’ is a more respectful way to approach it. On the other hand, for those of us with Irish roots (however deep they may be), without a concrete connection to our cultural identity as Irish descendants, St. Patrick’s Day in modern context (that is, more or less devoid of the religious context that it may have once held) is an important touchstone.
Like most holidays, irrespective of their origin or modern connotations, I approach it from several angles with my kids. From a ‘world religions history’ perspective, we take the factual (as much as possible) account of St. Patrick and his deeds, and the context (from world history) of the region of the time. From a spiritual perspective, which is admittedly biased by my personal beliefs, we discuss the possible effects that the Christianization of Ireland had on both the people, and religion of the country. And finally, from a secular perspective, we take what’s fun about it, and what might be connected to our family history, and celebrate where we feel moved to do so.
Sláinte, and Beannachtam na Feile Padraig!