Mar 15, 2010

Out, Out... Damn Ye Snakes!

I'm sure nearly everyone has heard the story that Ireland has no snakes because St. Patrick got rid of them and  how he climbed the Hill of Tara, raised his staff and commanded all the snakes to leave the island. Legend has it that there was one snake in particular that was just too stubborn to leave.

So  St. Patrick made a box into which he invited the slithery little fellow to crawl, but the snake resisted, insisting the box was too small for his svelte but still impressively bulky form. This disagreement led to an argument that could only be solved when the snake agreed to crawl into the box to prove to St. Patrick that it was, indeed, too small for him to fit into. Of course, once he crawled in, wily old Patrick shut the door on the box and tossed the snake into the sea. And that's why there are no snakes in Ireland....but is this story really true?

So, why are there no snakes in Ireland...really? To put it plainly, they can't swim and don't like the cold. Nope, nothing to do with St. Patrick. I know this may come as quite a shock to many of you and the true reason may not be as fanciful and romantic as the legend but it is indeed quite interesting from a scientific standpoint. So, before you all start sending me nasty letters...let me explain.

Ireland isn't the only island without native snakes. New Zealand doesn't have any either (although it had a snaky reptile 20 million years ago). The only snakes near Hawaii are elusive sea snakes, and the island is pretty serious about keeping out the land varieties. We hear that Greenland and Antarctica are snake-free as well. According to NationalZoo, , there never were any snakes in Ireland and probably has more to do with the vagaries of geography than any neat tricks performed by St. Patty.

Ancient snake fossils are found only on southern continents, suggesting that snakes first radiated from Gondwanaland—a former supercontinent comprised of modern-day Antarctica, South America, Africa, India, and Australia. Migrating to Ireland wasn't an option at this time, as the area was completely underwater. The chalky sediments that would eventually become the 700-foot Cliffs of Moher on Ireland's west coast were being laid down at the bottom of the sea.

So where did the myth of St. Patrick and the snakes come from? Most scholars agree that snakes symbolize paganism, which St. Patrick is also credited for banishing from Ireland. Snakes as symbols of evil are prevalent throughout Judeo-Christian mythology, most notoriously in the Garden of Eden as a tempter of Eve. While not the first to bring christianity to Ireland, it is St. Patrick who is said to have encountered the Druids at Tara and abolished their pagan rites.


inannasstar said...

I see you read my previous comment and did some research.

Anna said...

great info, thanks for sharing :-)

ONe PiNK FiSH said...

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Anonymous said...

Lizzie, read this post. St. Patrick didn't banish paganism from Ireland because there were pagans in Ireland even after his death.

Also, the tale of driving snakes out of Ireland wasn't linked to him until the 10th century. The tale was lifted from the life story of St. Hilaire.