Emerald Isle

Serpent Cults in Ancient Ireland

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Fenian Cycle

The slither of scales in the darkness

Those monks who recorded the mythologies and folklore of Ireland which had previously been passed down by word of mouth from bard to druid to bard for countless generations were, by their very nature, devout Christians. As Christians they were dedicated to not only God and His Church, but to the people who bore and nurtured them, and everywhere they endeavoured to preserve the ancient stories of their homelands. And for this we owe them a great debt of gratitude.

Naturally enough, being Christian, they felt and had no obligation to preserve superstitious pagan beliefs, and they removed most mentions of such beliefs whenever they found them, or may have confused ancestor-reverence with a different kind of religion.

Yet we may still glimpse some of the strange beliefs held by the pre-Christian people of Ireland, who freely and willingly gave up those practices for the light of the Christian faith.

Saint Patrick’s most famous feat was in driving all of the snakes out of Ireland – but few believe he actually drove limbless reptiles into the ocean! Mind you, so rare and unheard-of were snakes in Ireland that during medieval times it was believed that wood from an Irish tree was able to repel serpents, and any attempt to bring a snake into the country would cause its death. Even  being near an Irish stone was believed to kill snakes.

An old tradition at the time held that Niul, the husband of Pharaoh's daughter Scota, had a son, Gael, who was bitten by a serpent in the wilderness. Brought before Moses, he was not only healed, but was told that no serpent should have power wherever he or his descendants should dwell.

As this hero subsequently moved to Eireann, that would explain the absence of the venomous plague from the Isle of Saints. Yet even writers like Solinus who came to Ireland centuries before Saint Patrick noticed the absence of serpents.

So what did the great Saint cleanse from Ireland? None other than the snake cults of old.

Throughout almost all ancient pagan lands there were certain common spiritual threads, such as the mother of monsters, the worship of ancestors, and the adoration of the serpent idol. Everywhere we look in the ancient world these can be found, and still they can be found in modern day China and India, in the form of dragon-gods and Rivaan, king of the serpents.

In South America these creatures were represented by an entity called "Pachamama", often depicted as a huge dragon that caused earthquakes when displeased, and demanding human sacrifices.

Other accounts of these serpent cults can be found in early Christian writing, as in St Justin Martyr's First Apology, chapter 27 - Guilt of exposing children, where he details the hair-raising practices of these groups:

"and they refer these mysteries to the mother of the gods, and along with each of those whom you esteem gods there is painted a serpent, a great symbol and mystery"

When armies marched to war in ancient Ireland they would carry the banner of the serpent before them. Some believe that early Irish spiral and curling motifs found in place like Newgrange represented the serpent, or as they were known at the time, the péists or god-worms who lived in lakes and deep holes or wells.

These creatures were worshipped by cultists and magicians in secret, for they demanded fell sacrifices and strange rituals, and plagued the land wherever they arose. Whispered rumours followed after their wending trails, that they were of the mighty Nephilim who had somehow survived the cleansing flood. Dark knowledge did they grant to their followers, the better to trouble mankind.

Long before Saint Patrick came to Ireland, Fionn Mac Cumahaill had songs sung of his hunts for these mighty menaces

“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.”

And 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.”

More were scourged before his blade in Lough Cuilinn and Lough Neagh, in 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.

“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.”

Important to this cult was the serpent-stone, a flinty circle which was used to cure illness or cast spells. One such was used by the druid Mogh Ruith in his battle against King Cormac, when he cast it into the river after praising it most worshipfully and it turned into a fiery snake, strangling his enemies.

Briefly were the red altars returned when the Vikings came to Ireland aboard their dragon-ships, marked with the sign of the serpent upon their prow and telling tales of Jörmungandr the world serpent, ouroboros, who would destroy the earth if he ever awoke, but good king Brian Borúmna saw them off after long years of depredations.

And yet there are rumours that vestiges of the old serpent cults persisted late in rustic parts of Ireland! A man called Windele, of Kilkenny, wrote:

“Even as late as the eleventh century, 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 practices (belteine, &c.), is the vivid memory still retained of once universal Ophiolatreia, or serpent worship, and the attributing of supernatural powers and virtues to particular animals, 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.”

Perhaps the reason there are no snakes in Ireland is because natural serpents can sense the nearness of their less canny kin. So be careful should you stray into the unpeopled parts of old Ireland and find there a deep and watery hole, for who knows what may lurk yet in its gloomstruck depths!

Loughrea, where one of these dread monsters of the old world was slain, is marked on the map below!

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