No country in Europe is so associated with the Serpent as Ireland, and none has so many myths and legends connected with the same. As that creature has furnished so, many religious stories in the East, and as the ancient faiths of Asia and Egypt abound in references to it, we may reasonably look for some remote similarity in the ideas of worship between Orientals and the sons of Erin.
That one of the ancient military symbols of Ireland should be a serpent, need not occasion surprise in us. The Druidical serpent of Ireland is perceived in the Tara brooch, popularized to the present day. Irish crosses, so to speak, were alive with serpents.
Although tradition declares that all the serpent tribe have ceased to exist in Ireland, "yet," as Mrs. Anna Wilkes writes, "it is curious to observe how the remains of the serpent form lingered in the minds of the cloistered monks, who have given us such unparalleled specimens of ornamental initial letters as are preserved in the Books of Kells, Ballymote, &c." A singular charm did the reptile possess over the imagination of the older inhabitants. Keating assures his readers that "the Milesians, from the time they first conquered Ireland, down to the reign of Ollamh Fodhla, made use of no other arms of distinction in their banners than a serpent twisted round a rod, after the example of their Gadelian ancestors."
And, still, we recognize the impression that Ireland never had any snakes. Solinus was informed that the island had neither snakes nor bees, and that dust from that country would drive them off from any other land. But the same authority avers that no snakes could be found in the Kentish Isle of Thanet, nor in Crete. Moryson, in 1617, went further, in declaring, "Ireland had neither singing nightingall, nor chattering pye, nor undermining moule."
Bishop Donat of Tuscany, an Irishman by birth, said--
"No poison there infects, nor scaly snake
Creeps thro' the grass, nor frog annoys the lake."
As to frogs, they were known there after the Irish visit of William III., being called Dutch Nightingales. Even Bede sanctioned the legend about the virtues of wood from the forests of Ireland resisting poison; and some affirm that, for that reason, the roof of Westminster Hall was made of Irish oak. Sir James Ware said, two centuries ago, that no snake would live in Ireland, even when brought there. Camden wrote, "Nullus hic anguis, nec venematum quicquarn." Though adders might creep about, no one dreamed they were venomous.
While it was popularly believed that the serpent tribe once abounded there, some naturalists contend that Ireland was cut off from the continent of Europe before the troublers could travel so far to the north-west An old tradition is held that Niul, the fortunate husband of Pharaoh's daughter Scota, had a son, Gaoidhial, who was bitten by a serpent in the wilderness. Brought before Moses, he was not only healed, but was graciously informed that no serpent should have power wherever he or his descendants should dwell. As this hero, of noble descent, subsequently removed to Erin, that would be sufficient reason for the absence of the venomous plague from the Isle of Saints.
But, granting that the reptiles once roamed at large there, how came they extirpated thence?
Universal tradition in Ireland declares that St. Patrick drove them all into the sea; and various, as well as often humorous, are the tales concerning that event. The Welsh monk, Jocelin, in 1185, told how this occurred at Cruachan Aickle, the mountain of West Connaught; for the Saint "gathered together the several tribes of serpents and venomous creatures, and drove them headlong into the Western Ocean." Others indicate the spot as the sacred isle near Sligo--Innis Mura. St. Patrick's mountain, Croagh Phadrig, shares this honour.
Giraldus Cambrensis, who went over the Irish Sea with Henry II. in the twelfth century, having some doubt of the story, mildly records that "St. Patrick, according to common report, expelled the venomous reptiles from it by the Baculum Jesu"--the historical staff or rod. The Saint is said to have fasted forty days on a mount previous to the miracle, and so gained miraculous power. Elsewhere, Giraldus says, "Some indeed conjecture, with what seems
a flattering fiction, that St. Patrick and the other Saints of that country cleared the island of all pestiferous animals."
As, however, there was the notion that there never were any but symbolical snakes, it was held sufficient to assert, that the Apostle absolutely prohibited any such vermin coming near his converts. An Irish historian of 1743 gives the following differences of belief about the affair:--"But the earlier writers of St. Patrick's Life have not mentioned it Solinus, who wrote some hundreds of years before St. Patrick's arrival in Ireland, takes notice of this exemption; and St. Isidore, Bishop of Seville, in the seventh century, copies after him. The Venerable Bede, in the eighth century, mentions this quality, but is silent as to the cause."
The non-residence of snakes in the Isle of Thanet was accounted for by the special blessing of St Augustine, who landed there on his mission to the Saxons. So also tradition ascribed the Irish deliverance to the blessing of St Patrick. Yet, while Giraldus evidently treats the story as a fable, St. Colgan felt compelled to "give it up." Ancient naturalists relate that Crete was preserved from snakes by the herb Dittany driving them away.
In a work by Den is, Paris, 1843--Le Monde Enchante Cosmographie et Histoire Naturelle Fantastiques du Moyan Age--the following remarks occur--"Erin the green, the emerald of the sea, the country of the Tuatha Dedan, counts for little at that time, nor arrests the attention of the rapid historian. Yet there happened a wonder which ought not to be ignored by the rest of Europe, and Messire Brunetto relates it with a simple faith, which forbids any brevity in the narration. Now, you must know, that the land of magical traditions, this Ireland, is a region fatal to serpents; should some evil spirit carry them thither, all the reptiles of the world would perish on its shores. Even
the stones of Ireland become a happy talisman which one can employ against these animal nuisances, and the soil upon which they are thrown will not be able to nourish the serpents."
But there are competitors for the glory of reptile expulsion. St. Kevin, the hero of the Seven Churches of Wicklow, is stated to have caused the death of the last Irish serpent, by setting his dog Lupus to kill it. This event was commemorated by a carved stone placed under the east window of Glendalough Cathedral, delineating the struggle between Lupus and the snake. This stone was stolen by a visitor on the 28th of August, 1839.
Again, the gallant conqueror of, or conquered by, the Irish Danes, King Brian Boroimhe, we are assured by an ancient MS., had a famous son, Murchadh, who destroyed all serpents to be found in Ireland. This is mentioned in the Erse story of the Battle of Clontarf.
St. Cado, of Brittany, was an expeller of serpents from Gaul; and Doué de Gozon expelled them from Malta. Even Colomba did the same good service for Iona, as others of his disciples did for Donegal. On the tombstone of the Grand Master of Malta, 1342, are the words, Draconis Extinctor. Among the heroes of serpent-destroyers were also St. Clement, the vanquisher of the Dragon of Metz; St. Marcel, the deliverer of Paris from the monster; and St. Romain, whose exploits were immortalized over the gargouille of Paris, not to speak of German, Spanish, Russian, and other Saints--Michael. The serpent is the Divine Wisdom of several lands.
One meaning, however, for these revelations of a miracle, has been found. Keating, the Irish historian, fancies the whole must be taken in a figurative sense, referring to the expelling from the converts of the old Serpent, the Devil. O'Neill, also, observes--"The conquest which the Irish
Apostle of Christianity is said to have gained over the serpents of Ireland has been doubted, but if it means that he gained a victory over the serpent-worship, the story seems entitled to credit."
Ancient Ireland was certainly given to serpent-worship.
Allowing for the pre-Christian origin of some Irish crosses, we may understand why these were accompanied by twining serpents. "Is it not a singular circumstance," asks Keane, "that in Ireland where no living serpent exists, such numerous legends of serpents should abound, and that figures of serpents should be so profusely used to ornament Irish sculptures? There is scarcely a cross, or a handsome piece of ancient Irish ornamental work, which has not got its serpent or dragon."
The singular cross of Killamery, Kilkenny Co., exhibits thereon two Irish serpents. The font of Cashel illustrates the same mystery. The writer saw several stones at Cashel cathedral with sculptured snakes, one large specimen ornamenting a sarcophagus. The Crozier, or Pastoral Staff of Cashel, which was found last century, bears a serpent springing out of a sheath or vagina. The end of the sheath is adorned with wreathing serpents. in the handle a man stands on a serpent's head with a staff, at which the reptile bites. This staff was like that of a Roman augur, or of an Etruscan and Babylonian priest.
Brash's Sculptured Crosses of Ireland refers to one cross, at Clonmel, having four serpents at the centre, coiled round a spherical boss. Several instances were known in which the serpents have been more or less chipped away from off such crosses.
A serpent occupies a large space on the beautiful Irish sculptured stone, Clwyn Macnos, or Clon Macnois. Not long ago, a stone serpent was discovered, with twelve
divisions, marked as for the twelve astronomical signs, reminding one of the Babylonian serpent encircling the zodiac. Several ancient Irish fonts have upon them sculptured serpents. Glass snakes of various colours have also been frequently turned up.
When the author was at Cashel some years since, he saw, among a lot of fragments of the ancient church, a remarkable stone, bearing a nearly defaced sculpture of a female--head and bust--but whose legs were snakes. This object of former worship was not very unlike the image of the Gauls, that was to be. seen in Paris, though that goddess had two serpents twisted round her legs, with their heads reposing on her breasts. The Caribs of Guadaloupe were noticed by the Spaniards worshipping a wooden statue, the legs of which were enwreathed by serpents. Auriga is sometimes represented with legs like serpents. The Abraxis of the Christian Gnostics of the early centuries had serpents for legs.
Rude carvings of snakes adorn the pyramidal stones overlooking the plains of Dundalk in Louth County. This is on Killing Hill. The marvellous megalithic temple of New Grange, one of the finest antiquities of Ireland, has its curled serpentine monument.
The legends still floating about among the peasantry of the country parts of Ireland have frequent reference to the Piastra, Piastha, Worm, or Serpent This creature is always in some lake, or deep pond. The Fenian heroes are recorded in ancient songs to have killed many of them. Fionn, in particular, was the traditional dragon-killer of, Ireland. Of one monster in a lake, it said:--
"It resembled a great mound--
Its jaws were yawning wide;
There might lie concealed, though great its fury,
A hundred champions in its eye-pits.
Taller in height than eight men,
Was its tail, which was erect above its back;
Thicker was the most slender part of its tail,
Than the forest oak which was sunk by the flood."
Fionn was inquisitive as to the country from which the reptile had come, and what was the occasion of the visit to Erin. He was answered--
"From Greece, to demand battle from the Fenians."
It seems that it had already swallowed up a number of Fenian warriors, and finished by gulping down Fionn; but the Hero cleverly opened the side of the Piast, and released himself and the imprisoned men, and then killed it. After this the poet added--
"Of all the Piasts that fell by Fionn,
The number never can be told."
Fionn elsewhere figures in The Chase of Sliabh Guilleann, being after one in Lough Cuan.
"We found a serpent in that lake.
His being there was no gain to us;
On looking at it as we approached,
Its head was larger than a hill.
Larger than any tree in the forest,
Were its tusks of the ugliest shape;
Wider than the portals of a city
Were the ears of the serpent as we approached."
He destroyed serpents in Lough Cuilinn, Lough Neagh, Lough Rea, as well as the blue serpent of Eirne, and one at Howth. He killed two at Glen Inny, one in the murmuring Bann, another at Lough Carra, and beheaded a fearful creature which cast fire at him from Lough Leary.
"Fionn banished from the Raths
Each serpent he went to meet."
Another poet left this version--
"A serpent there was in the Lough of the mountain,
Which caused the slaughter of the Fianna;
Twenty hundred or more
It put to death in one day."
It demanded a ration of fifty horses a day for meals.
Croker, in his Legend of the Lakes, gives a modern allusion to the myth, which relates to Lough Kittane of Killarney. A boy is asked--
"Did you ever hear of a big worm in the lake?
"The worm is it, fakes then, sure enough, there is a big worm in the lake.
"How large is it?
"Why, then, it's as big as a horse, and has a great mane upon it, so it has.
"Did you ever see it?
"No, myself never seed the sarpint, but it's all one, for sure Padrig a Fineen did."
There is in Wexford County a Lough-na-Piastha. O'Flaherty calls one known in Lough Mask, the Irish crocodile. No one would dream of bathing in the lake of Glendalough (of the Seven Churches), as a fearful monster lived there. There was a Lig-na-piaste in Derry. The present Knocknabaast was formerly Cnoc-na-bpiast in Roscommon. Near Donegal is Leenapaste. A well of Kilkenny is Tobernapeasta. A piast was seen in Kilconly of Kerry. Some names have been changed more recently; as, Lough-na-diabhail, or Lake of the Devil.
The Dragon of Wantley (in Yorkshire) was winged, and had forty-four iron teeth, "with a sting in his tail as long as a flail," says an old ballad.
Scotland, as the author of its Sculptured Stones shows, furnished a number of illustrations of the like Dracolatria. Among the score of megalithic-serpent Scotch monuments, some have crosses as well. There is, also, the well-known earthen serpent of Glen Feochan, Loch Nell, near Oban, in
view of the triple cone of Ben Cruachan, being 300 feet long and 20 high. Professor Blackie noted it thus
"Why lies the mighty serpent here,
Let him who knoweth tell;
With its head to the land, and its huge tail near
The shore of the fair Loch Nell?
Why lies it here? Not here alone--
But far to the East and West;
The wonder-working snake is known,
A mighty god, confessed.
And here the mighty god was known
In Europe's early morn;
In view of Cruachan's triple cone,
Before John Bull was born.
And worship knew, on Celtic ground,
With trumpets, drums, and bugles;
Before a trace in Lorn was found
Of Campbells and Macdougalls.
And here the serpent lies in pride,
His hoary tale to tell;
And rears his mighty head beside
The shore of fair Loch Nell."
Visitors to Argyllshire and to Ireland cannot fail to recognize this old-time symbol. The mound on the Clyde in Argyllshire, is the head remains of a serpent earthwork. A lithic temple in serpentine form is seen west of Bute. Some connect the cup and disc superstition with this worship. Forlong, however, thinks of a relationship in the spectacle-ornament with the phallic, though one form of inscription is decidedly draconic. Serpent stones put into water, were, until lately, used in the Hebrides to cure diseased cattle.
The Great Serpent mound of the North, at Ach-na-Goul, near Inverary, was opened by Mr. Skene. Serpent worship was common in Argyll, as that part of Scotland was Irish by contiguity and racial descent. Keating tells us that the Gaedhal, derived from Gadelius, got the name of Glas,
or green, from the green spot on his neck caused by the bite of the serpent in the days of Moses.
South Britain can still exhibit vestiges of serpent worship. Among English fonts bearing reminiscences are those of Stokes-Golding, Alplington, Fitzwarren, Tintagel, East Haddon, Locking in Somerset, and Avebury. The three first represent George and the Dragon, or, rather, Horus of Egypt piercing the monster, In the last case, the serpent's tail is round the font. The Vicar of Avebury remarks:--
"On the ancient Norman font in Abury Church there is a mutilated figure, dressed apparently in the Druidical priestly garb, holding a crozier in one hand, and clasping an open book to his breast with the other. Two winged dragons or serpents are attacking this figure on either side. May not this be designed to represent the triumph of Christianity over Druidism, in which there was much veneration entertained for this serpent and serpent worship?"
In interviews with the late Archdruid of Wales, a man full of curious learning and traditional lore, the writer heard much of serpent adoration in Ancient Britain. Whatever the race or races might have been, the mystic creature had friends in the British Isles, though chiefly in Ireland. Long ago Bryant's Mythology taught that, "The chief deity of the Gentile world was almost universally worshipped under the form of the serpent."
A rapid glance may be taken over fields, ancient and modern, illustrating human respect for the serpent. This devotion is not confined to the Old World, being found in the New. It is not limited by time, ranging over all periods. It is not peculiar to any race or colour.
Aboriginal races, so called, have from remote antiquity
honoured the serpent. All over Africa, the vast regions of Tartary and China, the hills and plains of India, the whole extent of America, the Isles of the Pacific, alike in sweltering tropics and ice-bound coasts, is the same tale told.
Civilized man,--whether beside the Nile, the Euphrates, or the Indus,--on the deserts of Arabia, the highlands of Persia, the plains of Syria, or the Islands of Greece,--among the tribes of Canaan, the many named peoples of Asia Minor, the philosophers of Athens and Alexandria, the mariners of Phnicia, or the warriors of Rome,--bowed to the serpent god. All religions, past and present, recognize the creature.
The Rev. Dr. D'Eremao, in the Serpent of Eden, sees direct serpent worship in "the worship of the serpent as a god, in himself, and for his own sake"; but indirect worship in "the use and veneration of the serpent, not for himself, but merely as the symbol or emblem of some one or more of the gods." He esteems the Egyptians indirect worshippers. The Greeks had it as a symbol of Apollo, Minerva, and Juno. The Ophites, of early Christendom, saw in it a symbol of Christ, or the mundane soul.
The creature spoke from under the tripod of Delphi; it moved about the holy bread on the altar of the Gnostics; it was a living and moving symbol in Egypt; it had a place of honour in the temples of Tyre, Cyprus, Babylon, and India; it crawled in the sacred cave of Triphonius, and its eyes glistened within the shadows of Elephanta.
As the Apophis, pierced by the god Horus, and as the emblem of Typhon, it was the evil spirit of Egypt; but in the uræus of Osiris, it was the good one. The Egyptian faith several thousand years before Christ also included serpent worship. The serpent symbol distinguished Sabaism. It was in Egypt the illustration of a new birth, as it cast its skin, and thence gave to man a hope of the Resurrection. In the Book of the Dead, and other Egyptian
Scriptures, it is frequently mentioned. The great serpent on human legs was a solemn mystery. The Agathadæmon was the Guardian of the Dead.
Flinders Petrie, in Ten Years Digging in Egypt, when referring to the fact that the oldest pyramid, Medum, was erected on the principle of the Mastaba or tomb; declared that in the architecture of that very ancient structure "there was the cornice of uræus serpents, which is familiar in later times." This points to an era of, perhaps, seven thousand years ago.
The neighbouring Assyrians paid no less devotion to. It is known that in the land of Canaan there was the same Ophiolatreia, as the Hebrew Scriptures testify. Cypus and Rhodes, not less than all Phnicia, abounded in Christianity was early affected by it in Gnosticism. Epiphanius, relates that the Gnostics kept "a tame serpent in a cista, or sacred ark, and when celebrating their mysteries (the Eucharist), piled loaves on a table before it and then invoked the serpent to come forth." The Ophites (serpent worshippers) were derived from the Gnostics.
The Chinese for the lunar period represents a serpent. The word for an hour, Sse, is the symbol of the serpent. The dragon still presides in China. Persia, which supplanted, Assyria, copied thence much of its serpent ideas; so the Semitic conquerors of Babylonia, at an earlier period receive their theology and letters from the Akkadians The Zendavesta three-headed serpent had to yield to the Sun god. Ahi, the great serpent, was in opposition to Zoroastrian deities. Bel and the Dragon have a place in Oriental literature. Bel and the serpent may be discerned in excavated Pompeii. Clemens Alexandrinus remarked, "If we pay attention to the strict sense of the Hebrew, the name Evia (Eve) aspirated signifies a female, serpent."
India, however, is down to our time the high seat of Ophiolatreia.
The Maruts, Rudras, and Pitris are esteemed "Fiery dragons of wisdom," as magicians and Druids were of old. Abulfazl states that there are seven hundred localities where carved figures of snakes are objects of adoration. There are tribes in the Punjaub that will not kill a snake. Vishnu is associated with the reptile in various ways. Sesha, the serpent king, with one hundred heads, holds up the earth. The Nagas are given up to this peculiar worship. The Buddhist poem Nagananda relates the contest between Garuda, king of the birds, and the prince of the Naga or snake deities.
India beyond the Ganges has, as in Cambodia, magnificent temples in its honour. The soul of a tree in Siam may appear as a serpent. "In every ancient language," writes Madame Blavatski, "the word Dragon signified what it now does in Chinese, i.e. the being who excels in intelligence." The brazen serpent is in the East the Divine Healer. Æsculapius cannot do without his serpent. In the Hell of the Persians, says Hyde, "The snake ascends in vast rolls from this dark gulf, and the inside is full of scorpions and serpents." In the poem Voluspa of the Edda we read--"I know there is in Nastzande (Hell) an abode remote from the sun, the gates of which look towards the north.--It is built of the carcases of serpents."
The ancient Greeks borrowed their serpent notions from older lands through the medium of Phnician traders. Hesiod's monster, the Echidna, was half "a speckled serpent, terrible and vast." The Atmedan of Constantinople, showing three brazen serpents intertwined, was said to have been taken by the Greeks from the Persians at Platæa. Apollo, the Greek Horus, fights the Python of darkness, as a sun-god should do, but owns a serpent symbol. Euripides
notes that in processions "The fire-born serpent leads the way."
Etruria, of which Rome was a colony, probably borrowed its serpent worship from Egypt. It was there, as elsewhere, a form of sun-worship, as the reptile hybernates to renew its strength, and casts off its slough to renew its youth, as the sun is renewed at spring. And yet Ruskin says, "The true worship must have taken a dark form, when associated with the Draconian one."
Africa is well known to be still under the cruel bondage, of serpent worship, and that of the evil Apophis kind. The negro's forefathers appear to him as serpents. Over the Pacific Ocean, the serpent, carved in stone, was adored Tales, in Fiji Isles, spoke of a monster dragon dwelling in a cave Samoa had a serpent form for the god Dengie. Even in Australia, though in ruder style, the serpent was associated, as in Oceana, with some idea of a creator.
America astonished Spaniards of the sixteenth century with its parody of their own faith. The civilized Aztecs and Peruvians adored serpents Vitzliputuli of Mexico held, like Osiris, a serpent staff Cihuacohuatziti, wife of the Great Father, was an immense serpent The name of the goddess Cihuacohuatl means the female serpent.
But the wilder North American Indians bowed to the serpent, as may be known from Squier's Serpent Symbol. A serpentine earthwork in Adam's County, Ohio, upon a hill, is 1000 ft in length Mounds in Iowa, arranged in serpentine form, extend over two miles A coiled serpent mound by St Peter's River, Iowa, is 2310 ft. long. In the desert of Colorado have been reported lately the remains of a temple. It is said that the capitals for the two remaining pillars are stone serpents' heads, the feet of the columns look like rattlesnakes The pillars seem to be rattlesnakes standing on their tails.
Europe was, doubtless, indebted to travelling "dragons of wisdom" for this mystic lore; how, or under what circumstances, we know not. Whether the older, and long passed away, races were thus learned is a question; but that peoples, far removed from our era, or but survivals of remoter tribes, were acquainted with it may be believed, if only from serpentine mounds, or piles of stones in serpent form.
Rome carried forth the serpent in war, since one of its standards was the serpent on a pole. Long after, in the church processions on Palm Sunday, the serpent figured, mounted on a pole. Scandinavia had its Midgard, encircling the globe with its body. The Norse serpent Jormungandr had a giantess for mother, and the evil Loki for father. Muscovites and Lithuanians had serpent gods, while Livonia bowed to the dragon. Olaus Magnus records serpents being kept in sacred buildings of the North, and fed on milk. Thor was able to kill a serpentine embodiment of evil, by striking it with his tau, or hammer. In pagan Russia the serpent was the protector of brides. St. Hilarion, of Ragusa, got rid of the dangerous snake Boas by lighting a great fire, and commanding the reptile to go on the top to be burnt. One of the symbols of both Hercules and the Celtic Hu was a serpent. The German white serpent gave wisdom to the eater of it.
In Gaul it was reverenced. Nathair was a serpent god. Priests, Druidical or otherwise, had a caduceus of two serpents embracing one another. A Gaulish goddess had, in like manner, two snakes about its legs and body. Druids kept live serpents for pious purposes. A French writer notices one twisted round a lingam, as can be seen now, also, in Pompeii. Gaulish coins represent a serpent under or over a horse, the sun emblem.
As the Koran informs us, Eblis was brought to Eden
in the mouth of the serpent. The Pythia, or Serpent of Delphi, was the priestess. Snake offerings were made to Bacchus. The phallic character exhibited in the serpent at Mayence, with the apple of love in its mouth, upon which creature the Virgin is represented as treading.
France was not without its snake destroyers. In Brittany St. Suliac, watching the emergence of a great serpent from its cave, put his stole round its neck and cast it into the sea. Up to 1793, a procession of the clergy of St. Suliac annually took place, when a Silver cross was lowered into the serpent cavern of La Guivre.
M. About tells of a serpentine dance he witnessed in Greece. A number of women and children formed th tail of a serpent, Which incessantly revolved round itself without the extremities ever Joining In ancient ornaments an egg is seen with a serpent coiled round it, as if to fertilize it.
All readers of Welsh Druidism are aware of the pail played therein by this creeping creature It was the Celtic dragon Draig. It was the gliding god. Ceridwen is associated with a car and serpent. Abury, gives us the serpent of the sun. The Glain neidr, or serpent's egg, was a great mystery of the Druids.
Serpent worship has been taken up to the heavens where constellations have been named after the creeping silent creature. There is the Hydra killed by Hercules but not till it had poisoned him by its venom. There an the voluminous folds of Draco. There is that one held by Ophiuchus, which sought to devour the child of Virgo There is the seven-headed Draco, each head forming a star in the Little Bear. Thus we may exclaim with Herschel "The heavens are scribbled over with innumerable snakes.'
Classical mythology tells of a Python, which sought to devour the offspring of Latona, whose child, Apollo, became
the eternal foe of the would-be destroyer. Jupiter himself became a dragon to deceive Proserpine. Minerva carried a serpent on her breast. Medusa bore snakes for curls on her head.
What is the meaning of it all?
Betham mentions the fact that the Celtic word for a serpent is expressive of its wisdom. The same meaning is in other languages, and the legends are of various nations. A knowing man, one versed in the mysteries, was called a serpent. Was it the silence which distinguished it in the animal creation that brought this reputation, and made it a fitting emblem of the esoteric system?
It was the symbol of productive energy, and was ever associated with the egg, symbol of the progressive elements of nature. The male was the Great Father; the female, the Great Mother.
O'Brien, and others, see a close connection between Solar, Phallic, and Serpent worship, the author of The Round Towers of Ireland, saying, "If all these be identical, where is the occasion of a surprise at our meeting the sun, phallus, and serpent, the constituent symbols of each, occurring in combination, embossed upon the same table, and grouped under the same architrave?"
The connection of the serpent with the starry host has been observed. Its scales resemble revolving stars. Like them, it moves swiftly, but noiselessly. The zodiacal girdle appeared like a serpent devouring its own tail, and it was always deemed of a fiery nature.
Some have supposed the stories of monstrous reptiles--the object of dread and conflict--to have originated from traditional records of gigantic and fearful-looking Saurians or serpents that once lived on earth, and some lingering specimens,, of which might have been seen by early tribes of mankind. The Atlanto-Saurus
immanis was a hundred feet long, with a femur two yards in diameter.
The serpent was certainly the token or symbol of an ancient race celebrated for wisdom, giving rise to the naming of the learned after dragons or serpents. The Druid of the Welsh Triads exclaims, "I am a serpent."
According to J. H. Baecker--"The three, five, seven, or nine-headed snake is the totem of a race of rulers, who presided over the Aryan Hindus.--The Snake race was that of the first primæval seafarers.--The faring-wise serpent race became at the earliest stage of tradition rulers and civilizers." And Ovid sang--
"As an old serpent casts his scaly vest,
Wreaths in the sun, in youthful glory dress'd,
So when Alcides' mortal mould resigned,
His better part enlarged, and grew refined."
It must be remembered that even traditions bear testimony to a variety of races in the Island. The Celts were among the later visitors, coming, certainly, after the Iberian, whose type remains in south-west Ireland. One of these early tribes brought the knowledge from afar; or, what may rather be conjectured, some shipmen from the East found a temporary sojourn there.
Dr. Phené justly remarks--"The absence of such reptiles in Ireland is remarkable, but their absence could certainly not have originated a serpent worship through terror; while everything artistic or religious in old Irish designs from the wonderful illuminations in the Book of Kells to the old Celtic gold ornaments, represent the serpent, and' indicate, therefore, some very strong religious idea being always uppermost in connection with it."
A Cyprus amulet gives a goddess, nude and winged, having serpents for legs. A Typhon has been seen, with its extremities two twisted snakes. A Buddha has been
indicated with two twisted snakes for appendages. The Greek poet also describes the "divine stubborn-hearted Echidna (mother of Cerberus) half nymph, with dark eyes and fair cheeks, and half a serpent." The mother of an ancient Scythian hero was a serpent maiden. A story was told, in 1520, of a Swiss man being in an enchanted cave, and meeting with a beautiful woman, whose lower part was a serpent, and who tempted him to kiss her.
As recently reported from France, a lady has there a familiar in the form of a serpent, able to answer her questions, and cleverly writing down replies with the point of its tail. There is no saying how this marvellous creature may enter into future theological controversies.
A book published in the reign of Charles I. had this story--"Ireland, since its first inhabitation, was pestered with a triple plague, to wit, with great abundance of venemous beastes, copious store of Diuells visiblely appearing, and infinit multitudes of magitians."
The Saint's share in the trouble is thus described--Patrick, taking the staffe or wand of Jesus with his sacred hand, and eleuating it after a threatning manner, as also by the favourable assistance of Angels, he gathered together in one place all the venemous beastes that were in Ireland, after he draue them up before him to a most high mountaine hung ouer the sea, called then Cruachanailge, and now Cruach Padraig, that is St. Patricks mountaine, and from thence he cast them downe in that steepe precipice to be swallowed up by the sea."
The Druids, or Tuaths, or other troublers, fared nearly as badly as the snakes; as the author affirmed--"Of the magitians, he conuerted and reclaimed very many, and such as persisted incorrigible, he routed them out from the face of the earth."
From the Book of Leinster we gather the intelligence
that three serpents were found in the heart of Mechi, son of the great queen. After they had been killed by Diancecht, their bodies were burnt, and the ashes were thrown into the river Barrow, "which so boiled that it dissolved every animal in it."
As tradition avows, St. Kevin, when he killed one a the remaining serpents, threw the creature into the lake at Glendalough, which got the name of Lochnapiast, or serpent loch. Among the sculptures on impost moulding at Glendalough is one of a dog devouring a serpent. Snake-stones have been found, consisting of small ring of glass. The ammonite fossil is known as the snake stone.
Windele, of Kilkenny, shows the persistence of ancient ideas in the wilder parts of Ireland. "Even as late as the eleventh century," says he, "we have evidence of the prevalence of the old religion in the remoter districts, and in many of the islands on our western coasts.--Many of the secondary doctrines of Druidism hold their ground at this very day as articles of faith.--Connected with these practice (belteine, &c.), is the vivid memory still retained of one universal Ophiolatreia, or serpent worship; and the attributing of supernatural powers and virtues to particular animal such as the bull, the white and red cow, the boar, the horse, the dog, &c., the memory of which has been perpetuated in our topographical denominations."
The Irish early Christians long continued the custom entwining their old serpent god around the cross. One has said, "The ancient Irish crosses are alive with serpents Their green god-snake was Gad-el-glas. The word Tirda-glas meant the tower of the green god. The old Milesian standard, of a snake twisted round a rod, may seem to indicate a Phallic connection with the Sabh.
The Book of Lismore asserts the same distinguished
power of serpent expulsion on behalf of St. Columba, as others have done for St. Patrick, or any other Saint; saying, "Then he turned his face westward, and said, 'May the Lord bless the Island, with its indwellers.' And he banished toads and snakes out of it."
Thus have we seen that Ireland, above most countries of the earth, retained a vivid conception of ancient serpent worship, though some of the myths were naturally and gratefully associated with the reputed founders of a purer faith.
"Search where we will," says Kennersley Lewis, "the nuptial tree, round which coils the serpent, is connected with time and with life as a necessary condition; and with knowledge--the knowledge of a scientific priesthood, inheriting records and traditions hoary, perhaps, with the snows of a glacial epoch."