Serpent Faith (6)

From Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions, 1894

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It must be remembered that even traditions bear testimony to a variety of races in the Island. The Celts were among the later visitors, coming, certainly, after the Iberian, whose type remains in south-west Ireland. One of these early tribes brought the knowledge from afar; or, what may rather be conjectured, some shipmen from the East found a temporary sojourn there.

Dr. Phené justly remarks—"The absence of such reptiles in Ireland is remarkable, but their absence could certainly not have originated a serpent worship through terror; while everything artistic or religious in old Irish designs, from the wonderful illuminations in the Book of Kells to the old Celtic gold ornaments, represent the serpent, and indicate, therefore, some very strong religious idea being always uppermost in connection with it."

A Cyprus amulet gives a goddess, nude and winged, having serpents for legs. A Typhon has been seen, with its extremities two twisted snakes. A Buddha has been indicated with two twisted snakes for appendages. The Greek poet also describes the "divine stubborn-hearted Echidna (mother of Cerberus) half nymph, with dark eyes and fair cheeks, and half a serpent." The mother of an ancient Scythian hero was a serpent maiden. A story was told, in 1520, of a Swiss man being in an enchanted cave, and meeting with a beautiful woman, whose lower part was a serpent, and who tempted him to kiss her.

As recently reported from France, a lady has there a familiar in the form of a serpent, able to answer her questions, and cleverly writing down replies with the point of its tail. There is no saying how this marvellous creature may enter into future theological controversies.

A book published in the reign of Charles I. had this story—"Ireland, since its first inhabitation, was pestered with a triple plague, to wit, with great abundance of venemous beastes, copious store of Diuells visiblely appearing, and infinit multitudes of magitians."

The Saint's share in the trouble is thus described—"Patrick, taking the staffe or wand of Jesus with his sacred hand, and eleuating it after a threatning manner, as also by the favourable assistance of Angels, he gathered together in one place all the venemous beastes that were in Ireland, after he draue them up before him to a most high mountaine hung ouer the sea, called then Cruach-anailge, and now Cruach Padraig, that is St. Patricks mountaine, and from thence he cast them downe in that steepe precipice to be swallowed up by the sea."

The Druids, or Tuaths, or other troublers, fared nearly as badly as the snakes; as the author affirmed—"Of the magitians, he conuerted and reclaimed very many, and such as persisted incorrigible, he routed them out from the face of the earth."

From the Book of Leinster we gather the intelligence that three serpents were found in the heart of Mechi, son of the great queen. After they had been killed by Diancecht, their bodies were burnt, and the ashes were thrown into the river Barrow, "which so boiled that it dissolved every animal in it."'

As tradition avows, St. Kevin, when he killed one of the remaining serpents, threw the creature into the lake at Glendalough, which got the name of Lochnapiast, or serpent loch. Among the sculptures on impost mouldings at Glendalough is one of a dog devouring a serpent. Snake-stones have been found, consisting of small rings of glass. The ammonite fossil is known as the snake stone.

Windele, of Kilkenny, shows the persistence of ancient ideas in the wilder parts of Ireland. "Even as late as the eleventh century," says he, "we have evidence of the prevalence of the old religion in the remoter districts, and in many of the islands on our western coasts.—Many of the secondary doctrines of Druidism hold their ground at this very day as articles of faith.—Connected with these practices (belteine, &c.), is the vivid memory still retained of once universal Ophiolatreia, or serpent worship; and the attributing of supernatural powers and virtues to particular animals, such as the bull, the white and red cow, the boar, the horse, the dog, &c., the memory of which has been perpetuated in our topographical denominations."

The Irish early Christians long continued the custom of entwining their old serpent god around the cross. One has said, "The ancient Irish crosses are alive with serpents." Their green god-snake was Gad-el-glas. The word Tirda-glas meant the tower of the green god. The old Milesian standard, of a snake twisted round a rod, may seem to indicate a Phallic connection with the Sabh.

The Book of Lismore asserts the same distinguished power of serpent expulsion on behalf of St. Columba, as others have done for St. Patrick, or any other Saint; saying, "Then he turned his face westward, and said, 'May the Lord bless the Island, with its indwellers.' And he banished toads and snakes out of it."

Thus have we seen that Ireland, above most countries of the earth, retained a vivid conception of ancient serpent worship, though some of the myths were naturally and gratefully associated with the reputed founders of a purer faith.

"Search where we will," says Kennersley Lewis, "the nuptial tree, round which coils the serpent, is connected with time and with life as a necessary condition; and with knowledge—the knowledge of a scientific priesthood, inheriting records and traditions hoary, perhaps, with the snows of a glacial epoch."

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