A Simple Observation of St. Patrick’s Day

March 17th, 2012

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Snakes are a form of life that many people don’t like. I suppose it’s not that surprising. They’re not mammals, and therefore not warm and cuddly. They have a body shape that is much different than humans and seems strange and foreign. They’re slithery, scaly and cold blooded. They have a weird, somewhat creepy stare with eyes that don’t blink. They seem very creepy and cunning because they blend into their environment, hide in grass or are difficult to see as they climb trees. You might not notice that they are there until you step on one. They have a menacing hiss and a fork tongue that’s strange and scary looking. They have big teeth and produce a nasty bite. Many of them are venomous.

They may be the most hated and feared form of animal life for humans. This is not entirely universal, of course. Snaked do appear in a positive context in some mythology and religion, but in western religion, they tend to be seen in a very negative manner. In the Bible, the first evil entity introduced is Satan taking the form of a snake. Whether it’s the Biblical connotation of snakes or simply their unsettling appearance, snakes are often used as a metaphor for the sneaky, evil and dishonorable in Western society.

Yet, if you consider snakes more objectively, there’s really not much to dislike about them. A few species of snakes are venomous, but the vast majority of snakes are not venomous at all and are quite harmless. Of those which do have potentially lethal venom, most are shy and will try to escape if they encounter humans. There are a few varieties of snake which might be considered to be legitimately frightening animals, because they are both highly aggressive and venomous. But this hardly makes the entire suborder worthy of fear or dislike.

Moreover, snakes have quite a few major benefits to humans. The number one way in which snakes benefit mankind is by virtue of the fact that they primarily eat rodents. A population of field snakes can do a lot to keep the population of rats and mice down in an area. Rodents, of course, do harm human settlement quite a lot. They eat or contaminate food stocks and can be a vector for diseases like bubonic plague. In places like Northern Europe, rats commonly sought shelter in the poorly enclosed structures built by humans. They have historically been both a nuance and a major danger to public health.

It’s been said that Saint Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland. To this day I’ve heard the Irish say how he did a great thing because Ireland is free of snakes. This is rubbish, of course. There are no snakes native to Ireland and the climate of Ireland is simply not suitable for snakes to flourish. If introduced to Ireland, a group of snakes might make it through a few seasons, but ultimately it’s just too cool and wet for snakes to make it. The climate of modern Ireland is what keeps it snake-free, not a saint who drove them away.

But even if he had, why would this be something worth thanking him for? A relatively harmless animal driven from a land where people had lived largely in poverty with rodents causing far more harm than snakes. Had Ireland had snakes, it would have been more of a benefit than a problem. During the potato famine, starving rats consumed some of the few food stocks remaining for humans. They also tormented those too weak to fend them off, even gnawing on those in the throws of death. As was the case in much of Northern Europe, the rat was a source of intense misery – one snakes could have made quite a dent in.

I’m just pointing this out to show how ridiculous religious myths can be if you examine them. St. Patrick not only did not drive the snakes out of Ireland, but if he had, he’d be more a villain than a hero.

CORRECTION:

Upon doing some additional research, I have to correct the point that the climate of Ireland is not suitable for snakes. While it is fairly cold and damp, and therefore not the best place for many species of snakes, there are snakes in Scotland, Scandinavia and elsewhere which are capable of enduring the kind of climate Ireland has. It seems that they simply never had a chance to migrate to the island. It would have been far too cold and harsh during the glacial period and by the time the area had a more suitable climate for snakes, there was no way for them to migrate. The cold Irish Sea provided a barrier.

There is no fossil evidence of snakes ever existing in Ireland. They simply never arrived.


This entry was posted on Saturday, March 17th, 2012 at 7:33 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Culture, History, Misc, religion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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13 Responses to “A Simple Observation of St. Patrick’s Day”

  1. 1
    John ONeill Says:

    Scotland has weather just as manky as Ireland, and does have a few snakes. I vote we canonise the Irish Sea instead ( oops forgot you can’t vote on sainthood )


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  2. 2
    DV82XL Says:

    Of course the snake is considered evil largely due to its supposed role in the Fall of Man, (c.f. Genesis chapter 3) and thus in the wider theological inferences for all humankind as a consequence of Eve and Adam’s (supposed) original sin.

    You mentioned the benefit that snakes might be to keeping vermin under control, the same can be said of cats. However due to the misguided belief that they too were evil, and served as the familiars of witches, Europe destroyed almost all of its cats. This caused the rodent population to grow which served as a pool for the pathogen that caused the plague, and as a host for the lice that vectored it. It took decades before the cat was rehabilitated and reintroduced whereupon the waves of epidemic plague that regularly swept over the Continent abated.


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  3. 3
    Will Says:

    Strange… I thought “snakes” were a metaphor for the last vestiges of druidic and pagan elements in Ireland. I was under the impression that the story isn’t literal but that “St. Patrick” drove (or killed) the last pagan influences from Ireland thus cleansing it for Christianity from “Satanic” influences. That explanation always made sense to me because of the correlation in Christian mythology between serpents and Satan.


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  4. 4
    Rod Adams Says:

    The “Fall of Man” that DV82XL mentions came when Adam and Eve displayed their independence from their father/creator and ate from the tree of knowledge. That act made their creator realize that coddling in the Garden of Eden was no longer the appropriate way to treat his creation. He had made them too much in his own image for them to be satisfied with being given everything they needed without effort AND without any creative decision making allowed.

    He turned them out to seek ever greater knowledge in the unprotected, but far more interesting, land outside of the garden.

    I, for one, am very happy that Adam and Eve sampled the tree of knowledge on the advice of the serpent. Humans have had a pretty decent run outside of the Garden – we’ve come a long way, baby.

    Accumulating knowledge is a a worthy pursuit of creative creatures made in the Creator’s image. I believe he/she is genuinely interested in seeing what we will do next. We have countless generations in which to continue the pursuit.

    (I hope no one minds a bit of early morning reflection from a guy for whom “enabled creation” is perhaps more descriptive of my personal philosophy of the origin of life than “intelligent design”.)


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  5. 5
    Matte Says:

    Hmmm, Ireland is not that cold so I find it hard to belive that snakes don’t thrive there due to the climate. Here in Scandinavia we have lots of snakes and belive me, our climate is a bit harsher than Irelands!


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  6. 6
    paulmc Says:

    “To this day I’ve heard the Irish say how he did a great thing because Ireland is free of snakes. This is rubbish, of course. “

    Yes it is rubbish, not for the reasons that you list, but because no-one I know has ever said such a thing. Almost everyone knows it’s a fairytale and that it isn’t true.

    I don’t think that our climate has anything to do with the fact that there are no snakes on the island of Ireland. More likely is that there were never any snakes to begin with. As other commenters have said, there are plenty of snakes in Scotland and Sweden – countries which have much harsher climate than Ireland’s.

    The most common theory for the reason that there’s no snakes in Ireland is that the land bridge between Ireland and the UK was gone by the time snakes had reached the UK. (Personally, I’m a bit skeptical of any theory that involves land-bridges – it’s the default fallback theory when nothing else seems to work.)


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  7. 7
    BMS Says:

    Personally, I think someone should make a movie of the story of St. Patrick, with Samuel L. Jackson in the role of St. Patrick.

    “Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherf***ing snakes on this motherf***ing island!”


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  8. 8
    drbuzz0 Says:

            DV82XL said:

    You mentioned the benefit that snakes might be to keeping vermin under control, the same can be said of cats. However due to the misguided belief that they too were evil, and served as the familiars of witches, Europe destroyed almost all of its cats. This caused the rodent population to grow which served as a pool for the pathogen that caused the plague, and as a host for the lice that vectored it. It took decades before the cat was rehabilitated and reintroduced whereupon the waves of epidemic plague that regularly swept over the Continent abated.

    Of course that’s true too. Europe would have been very much better off with a healthy population of snakes and cats.

            paulmc said:

    “To this day I’ve heard the Irish say how he did a great thing because Ireland is free of snakes. This is rubbish, of course. “

    Yes it is rubbish, not for the reasons that you list, but because no-one I know has ever said such a thing. Almost everyone knows it’s a fairytale and that it isn’t true.

    Well… I’d assume most Irish probably know this is rubbish, but I’ve still heard it said as if it were somehow a good thing. Now granted the ones who said it were my 86 year old cousin who has a shelf full of figures of St. Patrick and St. Brandon and also my grandmother.

    Also, I was taught it was true in the literal sense during Sunday school when I was a little kid.


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  9. 9
    DV82XL Says:

            Rod Adams said:

    The “Fall of Man” that DV82XL mentions came when Adam and Eve displayed their independence from their father/creator and ate from the tree of knowledge. That act made their creator realize that coddling in the Garden of Eden was no longer the appropriate way to treat his creation. He had made them too much in his own image for them to be satisfied with being given everything they needed without effort AND without any creative decision making allowed.

    As a full unregenerate atheist, I can only be amused with attempts like this to reinterpret scripture in this way. The problem, of course, is the issue of Original Sin which proceeds from this supposed event which hardly shows any benign intention. Given that this blood guilt is central to Christian theology it is difficult to see how one can see this as anything else but vindictiveness taken to the extreme.

    I cannot see this story as anything but Bronze Age fiction, illustrating Bronze Age moral and ethical standards. Yes we have come a long way since then, is it not time to see these myths for what they are and stop trying to rehabilitate them to reflect modern thinking?


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  10. 10
    Anon Says:

    While in some ways fundamentalism may be more intellectually honest* I’d still rather any religious people# to not be fundamentalists and to reinterpret the bible no matter how far a stretch their interpretations may be so as to conform to morality.

    * Of course it does turn out that the fundamentalists only claim to follow the literal word of the bible, they ignore the parts they don’t like every bit as much as the wishy-washy liberal Christians do.

    # Yes, I’d prefer everyone be an atheist (or at least not religious) but that doesn’t look like it’ll happen soon.


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  11. 11
    L.Long Says:

    Fear and hate of snakes is rather complicated ranging from phobia to bat-schite crazy stupid with the stupid side being the largest number. I have respect for their abilities but even so if I must go down a dark ally one has deadly snakes and the other has randomly selected people hiding, I would take the snake ally every time my chances of making it thru are better with the snakes.


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  12. 12
    hanmeng Says:

    “snakes have quite a few major benefits to humans”

    So, perhaps someone should consider introducing snakes to Ireland. There may be a sainthood in it!


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  13. 13
    drbuzz0 Says:

            hanmeng said:

    “snakes have quite a few major benefits to humans”

    So, perhaps someone should consider introducing snakes to Ireland. There may be a sainthood in it!

    Well, I am not sure that the rodent problem is like it was in the middle ages when rats and mice brought such misery to human civilization.

    I’d always be weary about introducing new species to an area they do not inhabit, such as an island. Historically, this has caused a lot of unforseen problems.


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