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Snakes Through the Ages Or “Fear & Loathing in Celtic World”

By Mary A. Hylton

Why do snakes instill such fear in humans? The Greek term for “fear of snakes”, Ophidiophobia, is one of the most common “specific” phobias. While many anxiety disorders often don’t take hold until adulthood, specific ophidiophobia and arachnophobia [fear of spiders] often go back to early childhood, because they relate to the types of dangers that were common threats to our ancestors. The ancestral component is intriguing, to say the least.

That being said, why isn’t societal fear as strong towards man-made hazards such as planes, trains and automobiles, which are much more likely to cause our demise than spiders or snakes? It seems that natural dangers pose more of a threat because they have existed far longer than the man-made dangers and so are too recent to have imprinted onto our genome. Fascinating!

Hold on now as we detour onto a different, but loosely related, path. As you are reading this, we are well into the month of March. Thoughts turn to Spring and to our favorite patron saint of March and of Ireland, St. Patrick! Although he is often connected to Ireland, Patrick was actually not of Irish descent. He was a fifth-century Romano-British Christian missionary who served as bishop of Ireland. Irish culture is filled with myths and legends but none so prevalent as those connected to St. Patrick, and how he banished all of snakes from the Emerald Isle. According to legend, Patrick was fasting for 40 days atop a hill when he was attacked by snakes. He reacted promptly by waving his staff and in so doing, miraculously drove all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea.

(An 1872 illustration depicting St. Patrick banishing snakes from Ireland. (Credit: Library of Congress/Public Domain)

Generally speaking, Ireland--like New Zealand, Hawaii, Greenland, Iceland, and Antarctica— has no snakes. (I say “generally” because, as we all know, exceptions are the rule! ) No fossil records of snakes inhabiting Ireland exist. According to National Geographic, snakes never inhabited Ireland. To understand why, consider the last ice age. During that period, the entire country would have been extremely cold for reptiles to exist. When the climate began warming, Ireland was cut off from everything around it as glaciers began melting which, in turn, resulted in rising sea levels. After the ice retreated, two land bridges were revealed: one connecting Ireland to Britain, and the other connecting Britain to the rest of Europe.

Around this time, a number of new species of reptiles, including three separate snake species colonized Britain. They include: the Common European Adder (only venomous species in Britain), Barred Grass Snake, and Smooth Snake. But as melting glaciers caused sea levels to rise further, the land link to Ireland became impassable — some 2,000 years before surrounding seas cut off the bridge to Britain.

The prevailing theory is that snakes simply didn’t have enough time to make the last slither of the journey to the Emerald Isle. To this day, the island has only a single native terrestrial reptile: the common or Viviparous Lizard, which must have arrived sometime in the past 10,000 years, following the end of the ice age.

It was only in the 1970s that the Irish Times reports a type of Legless Lizard (Slow Worm) that was discovered flourishing in the Burren, likely a newcomer as its origin is unknown.

So, if there were never any snakes in Ireland to begin with and ancient writers and historians knew that, why does everyone think there was an overabundance of snakes in Ireland?

One theory is that since snakes were often symbols of evil in Judeo-Christian tales, they simply represented something else. Patheos says it's sometimes claimed the "snakes" were early pagans, and St. Patrick drove them out of the country and converted others to Christianity. But some historians have offered strong arguments proving otherwise: Ireland's conversion from pagan worship to Christianity began prior to St. Patrick’s arrival, and it continued for centuries after he left. Some scholars even date the "final" push of Christianity into Ireland to the 14th century.

The story connected to St. Patrick works best, perhaps, as an allegory. Snakes were a symbol of paganism and Patrick was given credit for driving the pagans out and bringing Christianity to the Emerald Isle--regardless of the facts.

Another possible inspiration for the story could be found in a recent translation of a sixth-century text (via the Independent), which tells of a cult who worshiped the Crom Cruich. They were equal parts powerful and bloodthirsty, and they practiced a terrifying bit of human sacrifice. According to the texts, every year on Samhain (Halloween) it was expected that a first-born child would be sacrificed to guarantee a good harvest.

According to the text, the cult and the annual sacrifice ended when St. Patrick and his followers stormed their sites, destroyed their idols, and blessed the area. No retribution from an angry pagan god ever came, and the cult faded into obscurity. The symbol of the cult was a snake, so it's entirely possible that the destruction of the Crom Cruich was the source of the legend, and those were the snakes St. Patrick drove away.

Now for the “exception”. The 21st century has now revealed that—technically—there are snakes in Ireland. Why say, “Technically”? Apparently, Ireland has become a haven for snake enthusiasts. During the period of economic prosperity referred to as the “Celtic Tiger” (mid-1990s to late 2000s), numerous individuals began keeping snakes as pets. They’re also found in zoos, including the National Reptile Zoo in Kilkenny City, the country’s only reptile zoo. According to The New York Times, because of their association with St. Patrick and their rarity, snakes became a status symbol. However, when that period of economic prosperity abruptly ended, many owners could no longer afford to keep their snakes and they began releasing them into the wild. There were so many of them that sanctuaries were set up to care for them. On the topic of released or “runaway” snakes, surprisingly little fear exists that these snakes will become invasive. Because the creatures are cold-blooded and unable to keep themselves warm, they rely on heat from the sun — something that’s too rare to sustain a healthy snake population in the Emerald Isle.

On that note, including here a comment from one of the sources to sum it up nicely, “There’s no need for a modern-day, snake-slaying St. Patrick … for now, at least.”



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