Serpent Faith (2)

But, granting that the reptiles once roamed at large there, how came they extirpated thence?

Universal tradition in Ireland declares that St. Patrick drove them all into the sea; and various, as well as often humorous, are the tales concerning that event. The Welsh monk, Jocelin, in 1185, told how this occurred at Cruachan Aickle, the mountain of West Connaught; for the Saint "gathered together the several tribes of serpents and venomous creatures, and drove them headlong into the Western Ocean." Others indicate the spot as the sacred isle near Sligo—Innis Mura. St. Patrick's mountain, Croagh Phadrig, shares this honour.

Giraldus Cambrensis, who went over the Irish Sea with Henry II. in the twelfth century, having some doubt of the story, mildly records that "St. Patrick, according to common report, expelled the venomous reptiles from it by the Baculum Jesu"—the historical staff or rod. The Saint is said to have fasted forty days on a mount previous to the miracle, and so gained miraculous power. Elsewhere, Giraldus says, "Some indeed conjecture, with what seems a flattering fiction, that St. Patrick and the other Saints of that country cleared the island of all pestiferous animals."

As, however, there was the notion that there never were any but symbolical snakes, it was held sufficient to assert, that the Apostle absolutely prohibited any such vermin coming near his converts. An Irish historian of 1743 gives the following differences of belief about the affair:—"But the earlier writers of St. Patrick's Life have not mentioned it. Solinus, who wrote some hundreds of years before St. Patrick's arrival in Ireland, takes notice of this exemption; and St. Isidore, Bishop of Seville, in the seventh century, copies after him. The Venerable Bede, in the eighth century, mentions this quality, but is silent as to the cause."

The non-residence of snakes in the Isle of Thanet was accounted for by the special blessing of St. Augustine, who landed there on his mission to the Saxons. So also tradition ascribed the Irish deliverance to the blessing of St. Patrick. Yet, while Giraldus evidently treats the story as a fable, St. Colgan felt compelled to "give it up." Ancient naturalists relate that Crete was preserved from snakes by the herb Dittany driving them away.

In a work by Denis, Paris, 1843—Le Monde Enchante Cosmographie et Histoire Naturelle Fantastiques du Moyen Age—the following remarks occur—"Erin the green, the emerald of the sea, the country of the Tuatha Dedan, counts for little at that time, nor arrests the attention of the rapid historian. Yet there happened a wonder which ought not to be ignored by the rest of Europe, and Messire Brunetto relates it with a simple faith, which forbids any brevity in the narration. Now, you must know, that the land of magical traditions, this Ireland, is a region fatal to serpents; should some evil spirit carry them thither, all the reptiles of the world would perish on its shores. Even the stones of Ireland become a happy talisman which one can employ against these animal nuisances, and the soil upon which they are thrown will not be able to nourish the serpents."

But there are competitors for the glory of reptile expulsion. St. Kevin, the hero of the Seven Churches of Wicklow, is stated to have caused the death of the last Irish serpent, by setting his dog Lupus to kill it. This event was commemorated by a carved stone placed under the east window of Glendalough Cathedral, delineating the struggle between Lupus and the snake. This stone was stolen by a visitor on the 28th of August, 1839.

Again, the gallant conqueror of, or conquered by, the Irish Danes, King Brian Boroimhe, we are assured by an ancient MS., had a famous son, Murchadh, who destroyed all serpents to be found in Ireland. This is mentioned in the Erse story of the Battle of Clontarf.

St. Cado, of Brittany, was an expeller of serpents from Gaul; and Doué de Gozon expelled them from Malta. Even Colomba did the same good service for Iona, as others of his disciples did for Donegal. On the tombstone of the Grand Master of Malta, 1342, are the words, Draconis Extinctor. Among the heroes of serpent-destroyers were also St. Clement, the vanquisher of the Dragon of Metz; St. Marcel, the deliverer of Paris from the monster; and St. Romain, whose exploits were immortalized over the gargouille of Paris, not to speak of German, Spanish, Russian, and other Saints—Michael. The serpent is the Divine Wisdom of several lands.

One meaning, however, for these revelations of a miracle, has been found. Keating, the Irish historian, fancies the whole must be taken in a figurative sense, referring to the expelling from the converts of the old Serpent, the Devil. O'Neill, also, observes—"The conquest which the Irish Apostle of Christianity is said to have gained over the serpents of Ireland has been doubted, but if it means that he gained a victory over the serpent-worship, the story seems entitled to credit."