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Saint Patrick’s Day

by Raven

Saint Patrick’s Day presents a difficult situation in my household. Do we celebrate the day as a recognition of pride for our Irish ancestors - such as many people do today? Or do we acknowledge the day as an official celebration of the triumph of Christianity over Paganism and thus forgo the festivities? Or do we search deeper into the meaning and origin of the day and celebrate it as a time liberty and renewal? More than any other holiday, this day represents the co-opting and redefinition of pre-Christian symbolism and teachings to serve a new cause - Christianity.

The Christian myth runs that Patrick lived in the 5th century - although his "autobiography" did not "surface" until four hundred years later. He is celebrated as the "saint" who "drove all the snakes out of Ireland". When you remember that the snake - a scaled down version of the dragon - was a very sacred symbol to Pre-Christian religions, you get a clear picture of the true "contribution" attributed to Patrick. Patrick’s very name (Pater) carries the meaning "father" or "priest". Through the writings of Patrick and other apocryphal "saints", the church was able to redefine many symbols, such as the shamrock and the grail. They also commenced to redefine and rewrite the old legends and stories that so long preserved the thoughts and teachings of the Druidic tradition. It was "Patrick" who decided which beliefs and practices could be kept, and which ones must be stamped out.

Patrick’s most famous teaching - the trinity which he illustrated by using a shamrock - might be our best clue to the true origin of this Christian Saint. It is said that Patrick used the shamrock with its three lobes attached to a single stalk to explain the Divine Trinity - not the Goddess’s aspects (Maiden, Mother, Crone) but a new interpretation (Father, Son, Holy Ghost). The shamrock however, was considered sacred long before Patrick’s famed lecture. The Irish god of the shamrock, Trefuilngid Tre-eochair ("Triple Bearer of the Triple Key"), was son-consort to the triple Goddess, Macha. Interestingly enough, the twelfth century Book of Leinster - an Irish codex used to verify stories from the ancient pagan tradition - claims Macha as Patrick’s mother. Could Patrick be a modern Christian reworking of Trefuingid?

If Patrick is a reworking of an old Pre-Christian deity, then why was a special day chosen amidst the Ides of March to celebrate him? It is likely that Saint Patrick’s Day dates back to the March 17th Roman celebration of the marriage of the God Liber Pater - translated to "Patricius" or "Patrick" in the British dialects - to the Goddess Libera. During this feast of Liberalia, the worshipers - "libertines" - feasted, drank wine, and enjoyed excesses of all sorts. On this special day of "liberty", slaves were allowed freedom and could act as if they were the masters. It is this celebration that our modern observance of Saint Patrick’s Day most closely resembles.

In every religion you can see, if you look closely enough, the roots of the old embedded within the new beliefs. Many holidays give us an opportunity to observe how symbols change to fit the current needs of the culture. Yesterday’s dragon, which represented the power of the elements in nature and in the human spirit, has now become a symbol of lust and greed. The cauldron of the Goddess, which was a symbol generation and renewal, has become the Holy Grail - a symbol of purity and faith. As the spiritual observance shifted from honoring the God and Goddess within man and woman to worshipping the God which art in Heaven - far removed from the Earth - so did the stories and symbolic associations shift to accommodate the new paradigm. Patrick’s Day gives us a prime opportunity to see this change in action. For that reason, if no other, Saint Patrick’s Day should be noted and observed.

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