The Serpent in Irish Mythology
Updated: May 8
Ireland has no indigenous snakes. The story goes that they were banished by St Patrick. You would think he was rather busy converting the pagan masses, founding monasteries and churches, and establishing his new religion, yet he still found time to save us from dangerous hissing, slithering creatures.
According to a Welsh monk by the name of Jocelin (1185AD), Patrick gathered all snakes, serpents, and venomous creatures alike onto a mountain in West Connacht, where he had spent the previous forty days and nights fasting and gaining great power, and drove them from there into the sea.
Croagh Patrick, from the Irish Cruach Phádraig, meaning ‘Patrick’s Stack’, and also known as ‘the Reek’, is said to be that mountain, and today thousands of pilgrims walk its rugged path every year in celebration of this event, and in penance, many in bare feet or on their knees. It may not come as a surprise to find Croagh Patrick was already a high holy place before the Christians made it theirs, and in those days, its name was Cruachán Aigle, which perhaps bears some relation in its name to the pagan Irish deity Crom Cruach.
Of course, this story is the subject of controversy. It has been claimed that the tale was never meant to be taken literally, that the serpents referred to symbolised the Druids and their pagan religion.
In modern Irish, the word for ‘snake’ is nathair, said to derive from the old Gaelic word naddred, meaning ‘serpent’. In fact, adding the letter ‘G’ turns the word into Gnaddr, meaning ‘serpent priest’. I am relying on other people’s translations here, not being fluent in Irish myself, so forgive me if I get this wrong.
Personally, I find this intriguing, since I live just minutes away from a pair of lakes which curl sinuously around each other in an undeniably snake-like way; they are known as the Nadrageel Lakes… notice any similarity in the words?
The serpent was important to the Druids for healing purposes, among others, and the ancient symbol of the serpent circle in which the snake devours its own tail symbolises the never-ending circle of life.
However, there are those more recently who argue that this version of the story is inaccurate, that Patrick openly lambasted the Druids and set out to convert them at every opportunity, that the stories are full of his (sometimes brutal) acts of doing so, most usually involving smashing their idols with his crozier, and disrespecting their customs with defiance, as when he lit the fire at Slane on the Eve of Beltaine.
Why then, would he be so cryptic with his serpent banishing story? Saint Patrick made no mention of this important and powerful event at all in his own writings, which begs the question, did it ever take place at all?
Apparently, he wasn’t the only Christian to have banished snakes; it was a phenomenon which was happening right across Europe at that time. St Cado of Brittany banished snakes from Gaul; St Paul from Malta; St Columba from Iona; St Clement from Metz; St Marcel from Paris; St Romain from Germany, Spain and Russia… it was quite the popular past-time!
Nor was it restricted to saints; it was also the sport of Kings. Irish High King Brian Boru’s son, Murchad, is credited with destroying all the serpents in Ireland in one version of The Battle of Clontarf.
Neither is it particular to humans. A stone which used to sit under the east window of Glendalough church, depicted St Kevin’s dog, Lupus, in a mighty battle with the very last snake in Ireland. Needless to say, the holy hound was victorious. Mysteriously, the stone disappeared, some say it was stolen, on the 28th August 1839 and it was never seen again.
For a land devoid of slithering creatures, we certainly seem to have a lot of stories about them. In one myth, Nial and Scota, a Pharoah’s daughter, had a son named Gaoidhial who was bitten by a snake while wandering in the wilderness.
He was healed by Moses, and told that no serpent would flourish where he or his progeny lived. Of course, they were the Milesians, also known as the first Gaels, who later invaded Ireland, defeating the Tuatha de Danann, thus settling in our serpent-free land.
This would imply that Ireland already had no snakes at that time. Confusingly, I came across a reference in Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions which tells of a ‘green God-snake’ known as Gad-el-Glas, but in the Lebor Gabála Érenn (an ancient manuscript documenting the Invasions of Ireland), Gadel Glas is another name for Nial and Scota’s son. The old Milesian standard was a snake wrapped around a rod, allegedly.
The truth is, snakes are cold blooded creatures, unable to live through extreme cold climatic conditions. When Ireland emerged from its last ice age, about fifteen thousand years ago, finally free and unfettered from its nearest land mass (Scotland), it is unlikely any snakes managed to survive. Certainly, they were no longer able to cross by land bridge. I know, it’s a lot less dramatic and somewhat disappointing compared with all the other stories.
Most surprising of all to me, is Fionn mac Cumhall‘s involvement in all this. Yes, that’s right, your eyes do not deceive you. According to a poem called The Pursuit of Sliabh Druim, found in a book known as the Duanaire Finn (c. C17th), the great hero himself slew many huge serpents as big as mountains called péista (meaning ‘beast’ or ‘pest’) which lived in lakes.
Caoilte, Fionn’s nephew, relates how the monsters were slain at Lough Cuilinn, Lough Neagh, Lough Rea, Lough Corra, Lough Laoghaire, at Howth, at the Glenn Inny, and the River Bann.
Could this be a ploy to show Fionn in a Christian light, doing God’s work by destroying the pagan priests? It’s intriguing, because the way into the Otherworld lies through water; were these serpents seen as Guardians to the gates of Tir na Nog, and by his violent actions, was Fionn putting the Otherworld entrances beyond reach, denying the Sidhe access to the new Christian Ireland, or mortals a non-Christian way into heaven?
I’m going to leave you now with my favourite Irish serpent myth…
Fergus mac Leti was a King of Ulster who fell asleep one day on the beach. Three little sprites called lúchorpáin (meaning ‘little bodies’) came up out of the water and tried to steal him away.
The coldness of the sea awoke him, and he lunged at the creatures, catching one in each hand and crushing the third to his chest. They promised to grant him one wish if he let them go, to which he agreed, and asked for the power to be able to swim deep under water without having to surface for air.
They gave him magical herbs with which to plug his ears, but warned him not to swim under Lough Rudraige (Dundrum Bay). Being a King, Fergus was used to doing as he liked, so of course he disregarded their advice, and encountered a massive, fearsome sea-serpent called Muirdris.
His terror caused a facial disfigurement, which his people kept secret from him, as a king must be whole and perfectly formed. One day, seven years later, a spiteful servant girl revealed the truth after he beat her unfairly. Shocked, Fergus decided to confront Muirdris once again.
They battled for a night and a day, the sea turning red with blood about them, but Fergus emerged onto the shore victorious, bearing the great brute’s head. Fergus’s good looks were restored, but he immediately collapsed and dropped dead from his efforts.
You won’t find many Irish myths that don’t end in tragedy!