Serpent Faith

From Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions, 1894

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No country in Europe is so associated with the Serpent as Ireland, and none has so many myths and legends connected with the same. As that creature has furnished so many religious stories in the East, and as the ancient faiths of Asia and Egypt abound in references to it, we may reasonably look for some remote similarity in the ideas of worship between Orientals and the sons of Erin.

That one of the ancient military symbols of Ireland should be a serpent, need not occasion surprise in us. The Druidical serpent of Ireland is perceived in the Tara brooch, popularized to the present day. Irish crosses, so to speak, were alive with serpents.

Although tradition declares that all the serpent tribe have ceased to exist in Ireland, "yet," as Mrs. Anna Wilkes writes, "it is curious to observe how the remains of the serpent form lingered in the minds of the cloistered monks, who have given us such unparalleled specimens of ornamental initial letters as are preserved in the Books of Kells, Ballymote, &c." A singular charm did the reptile possess over the imagination of the older inhabitants. Keating assures his readers that "the Milesians, from the time they first conquered Ireland, down to the reign of Ollamh Fodhla, made use of no other arms of distinction in their banners than a serpent twisted round a rod, after the example of their Gadelian ancestors."

And, still, we recognize the impression that Ireland never had any snakes. Solinus was informed that the island had neither snakes nor bees, and that dust from that country would drive them off from any other land. But the same authority avers that no snakes could be found in the Kentish Isle of Thanet, nor in Crete, Moryson, in 1617, went further, in declaring, "Ireland had neither singing nightingall, nor chattering pye, nor undermining moule."

Bishop Donat of Tuscany, an Irishman by birth, said—

"No poison there infects, nor scaly snake
Creeps thro' the grass, nor frog annoys the lake."

As to frogs, they were known there after the Irish visit of William III., being called Dutch Nightingales. Even Bede sanctioned the legend about the virtues of wood from the forests of Ireland resisting poison; and some affirm that, for that reason, the roof of Westminster Hall was made of Irish oak. Sir James Ware said, two centuries ago, that no snake would live in Ireland, even when brought there. Camden wrote, "Nullus hic anguis, nec venematum quicquam." Though adders might creep about, no one dreamed they were venomous.

While it was popularly believed that the serpent tribe once abounded there, some naturalists contend that Ireland was cut off from the continent of Europe before the troublers could travel so far to the north-west. An old tradition is held that Niul, the fortunate husband of Pharaoh's daughter Scota, had a son, Gaoidhial, who was bitten by a serpent in the wilderness. Brought before Moses, he was not only healed, but was graciously informed that no serpent should have power wherever he or his descendants should dwell. As this hero, of noble descent, subsequently removed to Erin, that would be sufficient reason for the absence of the venomous plague from the Isle of Saints.

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