St. Patrick and the Serpent

Saint Patrick’s Day in the United States has devolved from what was once a Catholic feast day into something almost unrecognizable. As we have reexamined the way that Cinco de Mayo is celebrated across the country, people of Mexican and Latin American descent have advocated for a more respectful celebration of the holiday, without the sombreros and caricatures of the culture. St. Patrick’s Day is a celebration which could benefit from some of the same.

Images of drunkenness and one dimensional stereotypes are hurtful for people of all cultures. Since the early days of Irish immigration to the United States, one of the most common insults of Irish immigrants is that they were drunks. In this day Irish people have battled that image, and are assimilated and make up a large percentage of the American population — yet Irish culture to some is still synonymous with the overindulgence of alcohol.

Aside from green beer, there is the also the cocktail known as the Irish Car Bomb. it contains Guinness, Bailey’s Irish Cream, and Jameson Irish whiskey. The Irish Car Bomb brings up memories of violence and conflict for many and shouldn’t be ordered in Ireland or anywhere else. One way to put it into perspective is to imagine how Americans would feel to have a drink named after something like 9/11 — horrible, right? 

Those of us who venerate the Old Ways of various cultures such as the Celtic spiritualities and the African Diaspora religions have our own concerns surrounding Saint Patrick. Many people view the image of the serpents being driven out of Ireland as a representation of the destruction of the indigenous faiths.

Serpents are and have been powerful icons in cultures across the world throughout the ages.

Historically, serpents and snakes represent fertility or a creative life force. As snakes shed their skin through sloughing, they are symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. The Ourobouros is a symbol of eternity and continual renewal of life.

In Hinduism the Kundalini is a coiled serpent. The Vision Serpent is a symbol of rebirth in Mayan mythology. Aidophedo of the West African Ashanti people, Quetzalcoatl in Central America. The list goes on and on.

The African Diaspora faiths that evolved from the enslavement of their people during French and Spanish colonialism in the U.S., the Caribbean, and Latin America have survived by syncretizing their Spirits with the Catholic saints, so that their religions could be practiced in secrecy.

Damballah, one of the most beloved of the Lwa in Haitian Vodou is syncretized with Saint Patrick. His Fet, or Feast Day is March 19th, and so is celebrated very close to St. Patrick’s Day. He is commonly represented as a large white horned serpent.

Ya Sezi bo Oungan writes of his experience with Damballah:

“Damballah Wedo is the cosmic serpent divinity of wisdom, purity, coolness, education, reincarnation, birth rebirth and wealth, his counterpart and wife Ayida Wedo, is about the invisible world becoming visible, second sight, and the female side of the tasks Damballa oversees. Damballah and Ayida Wedo can be addressed in nature in several places. Waterfalls, Rivers,and giant ancient trees to name a few. Damballah is often envisioned as a giant white serpent, in some houses he is described as a horned serpent. No matter who he appears to and how he appears in spirit he is an extremely powerful force that is easy to underestimate. Damballah Wedo, among many other Lwa like Papa Loko, Sobo, Bade, and so on are called Racine Lwa, or Root Lwa, they represent the lwa that are the foundation of the tradition. Spirits that were brought from West Africa. Damballah was one of the first Lwa to make their presence known to me.

I used to attend highschool in the Niagara Region of upstate NY, I would often go to Goat island national park to watch the river, and see the falls. At this point in time my time spent with vodou was minimal, my knowledge of local folklore was pretty good though. The early Native Americans from the Hopewell societies worshiped a horned serpent that lived in the lakes, rivers, falls, and other similar areas. When the Iroquois made their way north, they destroyed many things associated with the serpent deities. The last two were said to have avoided destruction by hiding under the falls and under the whirlpool found a mile or so from the falls.

Standing at the falls on both the American and Canadian sides, letting the mist touch you, hearing the tremendous roar of the falls, and the peace that can be found in the crashing of water. It was here that I made a connection for the first time with Damballah. A space that was once the place of reverence for a serpent spirit was nice, but that’s not what was there that day for me. It is important that people seek out the Lwa in the land they are on, from here in New Orleans, to people in the deserts of Arizona, the tech cities of the West, everywhere, the Lwa exist everywhere. Haiti is where their worship is known, but borders are human, and the Lwa transcend human experience, they are bigger than we can comprehend. Vodou is a living religion, the spirits can be experienced by the seeker. There may be lwa that are only in Haiti, but we should ask ourselves the “Why” that has no answer.

The image below was put together by myself based on my experiences, and personal interactions, and painted by S. Alderney it depicts Damballah Wedo, as a horned serpent, above him Sobo, and to the right, Bade in the forms of rams draped in fire, in the mist other smaller horned serpents are seen Ayida Wedo as the rainbow spans the sky.”

As we approach Saint Patrick’s Day, the Spring Equinox, and the Fet Damballah, there is much to celebrate! How we choose to do so will be a reflection of our consciousness and respect for the cultures and traditions we hold.

It is claimed that Saint Patrick recommended partaking of “a wee dram of whiskey” in his honor, for those who are so inclined. Perhaps the wearing of the green – or for Damballah wear white. Honor the Spring as a time of joyously affirming the source of life as the sap rises and the flowers bloom, and the creatures of the Earth awake from Winter’s sleep.

Blessings of Spring!

Rev. Kathi Bonnabel

(cover photo at the top is Damballa Wedo by Haitian artist Andre Pierre (1916-2005)

2 thoughts on “St. Patrick and the Serpent”

  1. Thank you for framing St. Patrick’s Day in a sacred mantle, as it should be held. Serpent deities abound in many spiritual traditions, as you note. Driving out “serpents” by the Catholic priest could indeed represent abolishing indigenous religions, as the Church consistently did. And recall the serpent tempting Eve story too, to recount the negative symbolism that has persisted for centuries.

    Liked by 1 person

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