On a day of Irish heritage, unsurprisingly my thoughts have turned to the sacred isle, a homeland from which some of my ancestors came, a somewhat otherworldly locale, and therefore a symbolic one.
Something that stands above controversies about what the Romanized Briton missionary Patrick actually did pale beside his historic symbolic freight. After all history is a narrative. Snakes are culturally-loaded animals, a snake is never simply a member of the reptilian suborder Serpentes. Symbolically, Patrick is playing very heavily into one of the foundational platforms of the biblical mythos, for snakes are serpents and serpents partake of that primal mover of Christian mythos, Satan the adversary who in snake form in the garden of Eden so successfully engaged with Eve, thereby setting the expulsion from the garden: that whole spiraling into history (a basic job of myth is to give insight into that). So back to Patrick, the Christ-bearing hero, who in defeating that evil serpent, rids the emerald isle of the serpent, and performs a basic heroic function. So peeling this back reveals there is something even larger going on here, for in a sense Patrick is being Celticized in this version of the story, whatever its historical and lateness of provenance (apparently 11th century). He is the hero or demi-god from whom the serpents flee, so he is like those figures on the Jupiter columns of ancient Gaul or Conall Cernach defeating/taming the serpent …And here we are in a field of narrative at least as wide as that of the Indo-European reach, the crushing of dragons, defeat of chaotic watery darkness….Really snake, dragon, worm, eel myths are world wide .
And then striding on I slip in the fog, in the muds of early spring and I see ahead the young boy hero Setanta slaying Cu’’s hound, and becoming CuChulainn the hero of Ulster.
But where does that take us? Or leave us? One thought that arises here like a gleam of sunshine on a mostly rainy day is that the Christian tradition tries to freeze the defeat, fits it into a Manichaean framing, emphasizes black and white at the expense of all the blurriness, the greys and myriad other muted tones, to say nothing of the glistening rainbow hues that flash, both along the scales of the reptile and upon the hero’s raiment, multi-colored hair and flashing eyes. The absolute need for chaos is forgotten, yet the pagan hero is full of it, berserk on the battlefield, heating up with warp spasms and crazy madness; blood spouting from the crown of his head he is like the super-hound in fury himself. Indeed he even at times moves like a dimly seen serpent in a chasm. The queer hound of Ulster has plenty of chaos in him.
To put it succinctly, you cannot have cosmos without chaos. A cosmos will harden, then petrify, ossify and probably crack brittle, and fall to toxic dust without sporadic flashes of chaos. Sound familiar? There’s a big difference between taming a serpent and driving it away or crushing it.
Finally,, let’s not forget the real snakes, many of whom are being abused in the international pet trade (I just ‘happened’ upon a PBS program on that today!).
Hail CuChulainn, the Sacred Isle and the snakes!