Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Patrick the Shape-Shifting Saint

Sometimes it's surprising what you turn up on our databases!

I thought I'd research St. Patrick for today's blog, so I started poking around in our databases to see what I could find. I found an informative article from the Columbia Encyclopedia on Credo Reference. That wasn't surprising of course. Credo Reference is a good, general reference database that's very quick and easy to search. I found many basic facts about his life, some of which I knew and some of which I didn't.

The Apostle of Ireland is considered one of the most successful missionaries in history, and he certainly camer from humble beginnings. He was born around 365 A.D. to a Christian family of Roman citizenship, and first saw Ireland when he was captured by marauders at the age of 16 and brought to its shores as a slave. Supposedly he heard a voice which prompted him to escape his captors and head for the Continent. In Gaul (modern-day France) he became a monk. Later Patrick returned to his native Britain. It was there he had a vision calling him to return to Ireland to Christianize it. His mission was successful; according to this article, Ireland was almost completely Christian by the time of Patrick's death in 461.

The article only hints at the many legends attached to his name. Of course there is the famous one about his driving the snakes out of Ireland, which is symbolic of his driving the "demons" out as there probably weren't any actual snakes there to begin with.

However, when I checked my favorite folklore database, Daily Life Online, I learned about a legend I'd never heard before. An article from World Folklore and Folklife, written by Cassandra Eason, tells this story:

It is told that Saint Patrick and his men were travelling to the king’s court, when he discovered that the Druids (Celtic priests) had prepared an ambush for him. As they walked, the saint and his followers chanted the sacred Lorica, or Deer’s Cry, that later became known as the St. Patrick’s Breastplate Prayer, claimed, again with some uncertainty, to have been created by the saint. According to the myth the Druids did not see the saint and his followers pass, but saw only a gentle doe followed by twenty fawns.

Eason goes on to explain that there may have been deer present, and that Patrick either distracted the Druids and slipped away, or the Druids may have been so intently watching the deer, a sacred animal to them, that they didn't notice the saint and his followers slipping by them. Many stories of the amazing deeds of Christian saints, Eason suggests, were probably created to win over pagan worshippers by convincing them that the Christian God was more powerful than their old ones. The Celts had myths of their own about goddesses shape-shifting into deer.

If you're interested, I suggest you look up the Deer Cry. It's a very beautiful prayer. And if you're out drinking Irish whiskey or green beer as part of your St. Patrick's Day celebrations tonight, please have a designated driver, and do watch out for the deer...

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

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