Pagans and Paganism in the Writings of (St) Patrick [Part 1]

A man in a goat mask, with hairy cloak holding a staff

Image: Billy Mag Fhloinn (Used with permission)

Introduction

The writings of the Historical Patrick are quite honestly remarkable.  As the earliest surviving documents known to have been written in Ireland, they represent the very start of recorded Irish History itself. As the only primary sources from either Ireland or Britain for the entirety of the fifth century AD, they contain the earliest historical articulation of a collective Irish Identity alongside a complex and fluid sense of Insular Romano-‘Britishiness’ and Imperial ‘Romanitas’.

Its not perhaps always appreciated, despite the obvious, that Patrick’s writings also represent the earliest – the only – contemporary historical source from a Christian actively engaging with Insular Irish Pagans in late prehistory. As someone who had spent several years as a slave in Ireland as a youth, and who then returned to evangelize as a missionary in later life, Patrick’s writings also represent a unique textual witness to the start of the end of Irish prehistory, and what I like to call: ‘honest to gods’ authentic Irish paganism.

Perhaps even more remarkable is that, unlike some other Christian sources, Patrick provides us with a profoundly respectful, and altogether realistic treatment of insular Irish pagans and their society. Patrick speaks of regularly going out of his way so as not to bring the new religion, or any of its practitioners, into disrepute among those pagans he was continually living and working alongside. He mentions paying over the odds to local judges to allow him access new territories in peace. He references entering into alliances with local pagan kings and the deliberate hiring of their sons as traveling bodyguards, for both physical (and perhaps more importantly, social) protection. As someone whose mission was perilously existing on the fringes of insular Irish society Patrick seems to have gone to great lengths in all his dealings with actual pagans, ever conscious of not offending them in any way, appearing to intrude on their territories, or causing them to react with hostility to his missionary activities. 

Over the years, some scholars have occasionally tuned their attention to this aspect of Patrick’s writings in order to seek out tidbits of information as to genuine pagan Irish beliefs and practices – all of them with varying levels of success. Some of this has even permeated into popular culture and consciousness and is occasionally regurgitated uncritically by modern authors, bloggers and journalists. Much of it, if not all, is complete and utter bullshit.

And so, for the day that’s in it, and in keeping with blog tradition, I thought I’d take a deep dive on the very same subject and ask the eternal question: How much, if anything, can we actually derive about authentic Irish paganism from the writings of the Historical Patrick?

A moody picture of a sheepskull on a stick set against a desolate background

Image: Author

Preface

Before jumping in though, and for anyone approaching Patrick’s writings for the first time, there are a few things worth bearing in mind.

Patrick writings take the form of letters intended to be open bulletins to multiple audiences and recipients. He was primarily writing for elite Christian audiences in Britain, but he sometimes changes focus within and addresses some of his Irish based converts and supporters. As modern readers, its helpful to be aware of whom he was addressing at any one time as certain themes or episodes would have made little sense to one or the other. His multiple audiences in Ireland and Britain, despite being under a shared umbrella of Christianity, knew little to nothing of each others daily cultural or political realities. Nor would they have particularly cared.

As a Christian missionary, writing about and defending an unorthodox and unpopular Christian mission, Patrick can and needs to be read via several layers of meaning. There are the actual words that he used; and there are the words/phrases within those words that are designed to hint or reference certain biblical passages that would resonate among his elite Christian audiences. Throughout his writings, Patrick uses sub-textual references to reinforce his arguments, his sense of righteousness and sometimes, as an sub-qualifier or comment on his own text. In a lot of cases, it is these biblical metaphors, allusions, and their expansions, which are key to understanding his underlying meaning.

A prime example would be how he refers to pagans in general. The main term he uses (a total of sixteen times) is that of genti; i.e. tribes/clans/gentiles, or in latin biblical usage terms ‘nations’. This is not how the pagan Irish would have called themselves. For the purposes of Patrick’s audiences, this was an appropriate biblical term with copious metaphorical baggage to denote insular pagan peoples. As someone who was actively looking to bring knowledge of God to gentiles at the farthest extremities of the known earth (Ireland); he saw himself as echoing similar textual biblical imagery and metaphor within Old Testament and Pauline frameworks. (If nothing else, take note of the genti/gentiles/nations motif. It will crop up again).

Aside from this, he occasionally utilizes the term incredulus (i.e. unbelievers).  Somewhat surprisingly (or not, given his empathy and identification with Irish peoples) he use the term Barbaras (i.e. Barbarians) only once.

With all that said, lets take a look at the matters at hand.

A man dressed in pagan-esque straw mask and costume, holding up a lit flame

Image: Billy Mag Fhloinn (Used with permission)

Nipplegate

Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) example of ‘insular pagan Irish custom’ traditionally trotted out by scholars in the past is the reference to his refusing to suck the nipples of pagan sailors. Indeed, this is still churned out by certain modern scholars as being an inference to a pagan practice/public display of breast suckling to symbolically demonstrate entering into a temporary alliance with, or under the protection of, a superior.

It occurs in the portion of the text that depict his escape from Ireland after being enslaved for six years. Patrick recounts how, after traveling hundreds of miles across the island to a port, he attempts to secure passage on a ship that was leaving. After initially being rebuffed, he is eventually called back by the crew and allowed on board.

‘Ueni, quia ex fide recipimus te; fac nobiscum amicitiam quo modo uolueris’ Et in illa die itaque reppuli sugere mammellas eorum propter timorem Dei. Sed uerumtamen ab illis speraui uenire in fidem Iesu Christi, quia gentes erant…

‘Come, because we are receiving you on faith, make friendship with us in whatever way you will have wished’. And on that day, to be sure, I refused to suck their nipples on account of the fear of God. But nevertheless, I hoped to come by them to the faith of Jesus Christ, as they were gentiles…

Confessio 18 (Trans: Howlett, 1994)

Although its perhaps understandable why this reference would have caused people to raise an eyebrow in the past and to attempt to explain it away as a pagan custom – it doesn’t bare up under logical scrutiny. Lets assume for a second that it does reflect some sort of pagan practice. Even if Patrick had submitted to it, why would he go out of the way to a) deny it; and b) outline such physical detail to his own detractors in Britain? Why mention it at all? On the most basic level, it doesn’t do him any favours, and if anything, would have caused him to look even worse in their eyes (and he was not looked upon favourably in the first place). Lastly, in a text which is famous for its lack of incidental detail, seeing it as a fleeting reference to pagan practice comes across as exactly that – an incidental detail that contributes nothing to what he was actually saying at that moment. As someone who chose and structured his words carefully and deliberately, this does not tally with Patrick’s own agency and authorial intent.

Such simplistic antiquarian reasoning suffers from a basic failure to appreciate the literary and biblical context of Patrick’s ecclesiastical audiences. For anything written by Patrick, down to individual sentences and words, one needs to check whether its a sub textual allusion to biblical precedence and metaphor. In the case of the above nipple sucking, (or more correctly ‘breast suckling’), the biblical connections are readily apparent. 

A man dressed in a fur cloack and goat skull mask

Image: Billy Mag Fhloinn (Used with permission)

Lets Get Biblical

Almost the exact same term (sugentes mamillas illorum) is to be found in a Vetus Latina fragment of Hosea 14:1 in the Codex Bobiensis. Compare also the wider context of Isaiah 60 and the future glory of the ‘nations’/genti. In particular,

et suges lac gentium, et mamilla regum lactaberis ; et scies quia ego Dominus salvans te, et redemptor tuus, Fortis Jacob.

You shall suck the milk of nations; you shall nurse at the breast of kings; and you shall know that I, the Lord, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.

Isaiah 60:16

Along the same lines, see a little further on in Isaiah 66 within the context of the Lord nourishing and comforting the faithful as a mother:

ut sugatis et repleamini ab ubere consolationis ejus, ut mulgeatis et deliciis affluatis ab omnimoda gloria ejus. Quia hæc dicit Dominus : Ecce ego declinabo super eam quasi fluvium pacis, et quasi torrentem inundantem gloriam gentium, quam sugetis ; ad ubera portabimini, et super genua blandientur vobis.
 
that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious abundance.” For thus says the Lord: “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees
 
 
Suck Off With Yourself
 
Viewed within its biblical context, Patrick’s reference of refusing to suckle from the breasts of pagans has nothing to do with any insular pagan practice. Such a depiction, and its usage of biblical language was of course meant to resonate metaphorically with his elite Christian audiences. In utilizing the biblical language and imagery, Patrick was intimating that he was already being spiritually ‘suckled’, cared and nurtured by God, and therefore had no need for pagan support or assistance. While this may seem a little overdone, the particular biblical allusion is part of an even bigger metaphorical picture and needs to be viewed against the wider portion of his text outlining his escape from Ireland, and indeed, his very reasoning for writing his Confessio.
 
Patrick’s main document, the Confessio, is essentially a defense of his life and missionary activities against detractors in Britain who seem to have charged him with having ulterior motives for returning to Ireland. In defending himself against such accusations, Patrick’s account of his escape from, and subsequent return to Ireland is framed as something entirely derived and inspired from God. He repeatedly states that he had no overt plan and that he was guided only by divine faith manifesting in dreams and timely luck. 
 
As if to really hammer home the message, the entire section outlining his escape from captivity and subsequent journey in a ‘desert’ (Confessio 17-22) is to set out in numerous biblical terms that mirrors biblical precedence. This is why its the most problematic and obscure portion of his writings. As an extended metaphor, it was not meant to make literal sense, and certainly doesn’t fit in with the somewhat more linear narrative throughout the rest of his writings. To fixate on one particular portion of it in isolation is to completely miss his point. 
 
To really get to grips with what Patrick was alluding to, its perhaps more helpful to look at Deuteronomy:

“He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him as the apple of his eye. Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him, no foreign god was with him. He made him ride on the high places of the land, and he ate the produce of the field, and he suckled him with honey out of the rock

Deuteronomy 32:10-13

This is what Patrick’s refusing to suckle from pagans is actually about. Its an express allusion to being guided and sustained by the divine, with no help or assistance from a foreign god, or their pagan followers, for that matter. Its a biblical retort to any accusation that he couldn’t have escaped without being in some sort of cahoots with pagans. Its a forshadowing of events to come, literally, biblically and most impressively, textually within his own writings – but in order to really appreciate the full effect of this subtextual referencing, we need to jump forward towards the end of the portion of his account detailing his subsequent adventures with the crew.

Someone dressed in sheep fleece cloack with a wicker mask resembling a bull

Image: Billy Mag Fhloinn (Used with permission)

Honey, I’m Home

Following on from being let on board the ship by its pagan crew, Patrick voyages with them for some days, and then accompanies them on an even longer journey through a ‘desert’. They run out of food and things are looking pretty bleak. The pagans exhort him to pray to his God, and when he does so, a herd of wild pigs miraculously appears over the horizon. They are naturally pleased with this turn of events, eat their fill and Patrick is looked upon honorably. Just after this, Patrick tells us:

etiam mel siluestre inuenerunt et mihi partem obtulerunt et unus ex illis dixit: ‘Immolaticium est’; Deo gratias, exinde nihil gustaui.

they even discovered [came upon] forest honey, and they offered a part to me, and one of them said ‘ It is a [pagan] sacrifice’. Thanks be to God, I tasted nothing from it.

Confessio 19 (Trans: Howlett, 1994)

Scholars in the past have grappled with this portion of the text. Some have even tried to use it to pinpoint a regional location for Patrick’s desert wanderings on the European continent. Again, let assume for a moment that it is reflective of some sort of reality, and ask, what does it actually tell us about late antiquity paganism? That they dedicated/offered food to higher deities? If so, then this is nothing we didn’t know already from archaeological evidence and classical texts.

Why does he mention such specific detail here at all? Because, just as before, he is utilizing several different biblical metaphors to underline his point. On one level, its quite obvious and straightforward. Compare it with St. Paul’s own words:

Si quis autem dixerit: Hoc immolatum est idolis: nolite manducare propter illum qui indicavit, et propter conscientiam

But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience

1 Corinthians 10:28

Or if you prefer to go a little deeper, compare it to Leviticus:

Omnis oblatio quæ offeretur Domino, absque fermento fiet, nec quidquam fermenti ac mellis adolebitur in sacrificio Domino.

No grain offering that you bring to the Lord shall be made with leaven, for you shall burn no leaven nor any honey as a food offering to the Lord.

While we’re at it, why not go for an expansion on the same:

You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my rules and do them, that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them. But I have said to you, ‘You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the peoples.
 

Leviticus 20, 22-24

And just for kicks, compare Patrick’s own depiction with that of the defeat of Philistines in Samuel:

Now when all the people came to the forest, behold, there was honey on the ground. And when the people entered the forest, behold, the honey was dropping, but no one put his hand to his mouth, for the people feared the oath
 
A man dressed in ahairy hide cloack and sheep skull mask

Image: Billy Mag Fhloinn (Used with permission)

Land of Milk and Honey

On a surface level, Patrick’s mention of refusing honey offered in sacrifice is deliberately echoing biblical metaphors along the lines of all the above. However, as per usual with Patrick, there is even more going on on deep down. It is no coincidence that both examples of his refusal to partake in or be associated with ‘pagan ritual’ bookend the entire section outlining his escape. At the start, even before leaving Ireland, we have metaphorical ‘milk’ (from suckling breasts); and at the end, having been delivered out of captivity in Ireland, and also out of subsequent wanderings in the ‘desert’ – literal honey in the wild.

Patrick is presenting his younger self to his Christian detractors as someone being delivered out of slavery, through no action on his own part, by keeping faith with God and not resorting to fear, or appealing for help or support of pagans. Not only is it divinely inspired destiny at work, echoing biblical precedence and setting up Patrick’s eventual return – it is also tied up and packaged, with a biblical ribbon for good measure, with the yoking together of ‘milk and honey’.

If that sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because its supposed to be seen against the backdrop of Exodus and its broader context of the chosen people, being delivered out of slavery journey through the wilderness and are ultimately rewarded for their faith:

and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…

Exodus 3:8

and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.”’

Exodus 3:17

Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey;
 

Conclusion

As you can see, tackling Patrick’s writings is not something that can be undertaken lightly. Nor is it something that one can, or should, cherry pick from – in translation – so as to shoe-horn into amateur pseudo-anthropological approaches to ‘ascertaining’ fragments of authentic Irish paganism. To seek to do so, not only completely misunderstands Patrick’s own intentions, meaning and agency – but is also, essentially, a misappropriation of genuine Christian allegory and metaphor from late antiquity.

Patrick’s example of refusing to suckle the breasts of pagans has nothing whatsoever to do with insular pagan Irish practices. Nor was it ever intended to be seen as such. Anyone who continues to do so is – at best, academically lazy – and at worst, talking out of their crustafarian, shamrock stuffed, lentil-stained arses.

By the by, all this has been an exploration of just two examples of references to paganism in Patrick’s writings. There are more to come. As to how much, if anything, can we actually derive about authentic Irish paganism from the writings of the Historical Patrick? – that would be an ecumenical matter.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, wherever you are.

 

To be continued…

 

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My thanks and appreciation to Dr Billy Mag Fhloinn for permission to use his fantastic photographs from his Pagan Rave Project. Original photos have been augmented via Prisma for stylistic effect. 

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Bieler, L. (1979) The Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh. Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 10. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Borsje, J. (2015). Celtic Spells and Counterspells. In K. Ritari, & A. Bergholm (Eds.), Understanding Celtic religion: revisiting the pagan past. (pp. 9-50). (New approaches to Celtic religion and mythology). Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Charles-Edwards, T. M., (2000) Early Christian Ireland, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Howlett, D. R. (1994) Liber Epistolarum Sancti Patricii Episcopi. The Book of Letters of Saint Patrick the Bishop. Dublin.

O’Loughlin, T. (1999) St Patrick: The Man and his Works. London.

Saint Patrick’s Confessio Hyperstack (Royal Irish Academy)

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