So, it is Saint Patrick’s Day once again, a curious religious-turned-secular celebration which in its modern incarnation owes far less to fact than fancy. Still, it gives those who need it an excuse to hoist a pint and dream of leprechaun gold and other Hibernian stereotypes which have little if anything to do with a saint who wasn’t even Irish. The facts are, Patrick—aka Patricius—was, as his name attests, a well-born Romano-Briton, kidnapped from Wales and raised as an indentured shepherd across the Irish Sea. When he escaped his captivity, he became a priest, in time returning to Eire as bishop and evangelist to the heathen Celts.
Arguably the most famous bit of blarney connected with Patricius is the story of him driving all the Irish snakes into the sea. That there never were any Irish snakes in the first place proved a minor inconvenience to the hagiographers. It was the Dark Ages, after all. They were dealing in myth and metaphor, in selling the Faith to the masses with broad strokes and simple symbolic tales.
Never let the truth get in the way of a good sales pitch.
But, in the truth they so blithely ignored lay something far more insidious. To understand exactly what was going on, we must take a step back, to a time before the one God replaced the Many. A time when Druids held sway and Dragons ruled.
Learned men and women, the Druids were the moral compass of the people. They were also blessed with the ability to converse with all manner of creature, including Dragons. They looked into Dragon eyes and saw a part of the oneness of nature: as with tree and spring, deer and human, so too with Dragons. They recognized the Dragons were old before time with spirits indwelling and immortal. Like the stones beneath their feet, they could roar with joy, speak, and sing. As keepers of their people’s justice, faith, and wisdom, Druids formed an intimate bond with the Dragons of Prydain, Cymru, Brittany, Eire, and the outer isles, receiving both guidance and instruction from their long-lived associates. The Druids shared their knowledge with kith and kin, and, in the process, Dragons became the most powerful creature in all Celtic lore. They represented the entirety of creation, from the rolling solidity of hill and mountain to the sinuous turn of river and stream. To a people who honored the eternal unity of the universe, no being could be more magnificent.
When Constantine obliterated the separation of Church and State in the 4th century, any previous laissez-faire attitude towards Pagans vanished, and the Christian notion of Dragons as demons straight from Hell was fine-tuned into the strictest article of faith. To Medieval minds, draconic physique not only made them perfect models for Lucifer’s minions but also linked them to Satan in his Serpent garb, tempting humanity to sin. (Note: A look at Genesis suggests that the Serpent was actually a Dragon—certainly a legged reptile—who only lost his limbs after that little kerfuffle with the apple. Gnostic texts, particularly On the Origin of the World, are much kinder, casting him as the descendent of Zoe [Life], the “instructor,” and “wisest of all creatures.” This more pro-Dragon take may have affected the Church’s decision to label Gnostics as heretics. But that’s another story.)
To anatomy and temperament add their association with the God-less Pagans and Dragons became the peerless targets of an increasing number of fanatics. Would-be saints and tin-pot heroes were lining up around the block, scripture and swords at the ready, as Dragon slaying became a quick—if dangerous—path to fame, fortune, and heavenly reward.
This was the stage upon which Patricius played, the script which informed his legend. No real snakes in Eire? No matter. There were Druids and Dragons, beings as figuratively serpentine as Satan himself. For the Patrician mission to succeed and the Church to claim ascendancy, one way or another both had to be eliminated. So Druids and Dragons fell under siege, their sacred springs and blessed woods seized in the name of the new God. No one knows how much blood was spilt in their defense—record-keeping gets a little sloppy when fighting for one’s life—but tales from sidhe and weyr speak of the Dark Times, “when rivers ran red.” Among the survivors, a band of adventurous Dragons emigrated to the New World (“driven into the sea”), while others retreated beyond the veil, dwelling in the land of the fey until the human madness passed. For centuries, the only reminder of Ireland’s rich draconic history lay in the verdant hue of her hills. From a dracophile’s perspective, Patricius left the isle much poorer than he found it.On March 17th, take a moment between sips of emerald lager and think back on the dear price our scaly friends paid—and continue to pay—simply for being themselves.