Welcome to Part 2 of an attempt to gauge how much, if anything, we can actually derive about authentic Irish paganism from within the fifth century writings of the Historical Patrick.
The last time we left off, we had taken a look at some of the more (in)famous references to alleged pagan ritual within his texts; and how, when examined for biblical allusion and metaphor, it becomes readily apparent that the actions and events he depicts were firmly intended to be read and interpreted against a biblical background. As such, they cannot, and should not, be held up as being representative of any genuine elements of authentic Irish pagan ritual. However, there are further, lesser known, references to pagans in his writings, some of which have been utilized in the past to suggest a possible kernel of truth. And so, for the day that’s in it, lets take a deeper look.
Idols and unclean things
On two different occasions within his Confessio, Patrick appears to refer to the previous belief systems of those pagan Irish he had recently converted. Interestingly, he uses a similar term both times, that of idola:
qui mihi tantam gratiam donauit ut populi multi per me in Deum renascerentur et postmodum consummarentur et ut clerici ubique illis ordinarentur ad plebem nuper uenientem ad credulitatem, quam sumpsit Dominus ab extremis terrae, sicut olim promiserat per prophetas suos:‘Ad te gentes uenient ab extremis terrae et dicent: sicut falsa comparauerunt patres nostri idola et non est in eis utilitas’
Who has granted to me such grace that many people through me should be reborn to God, and afterwards brought to the highest perfection, and that clerics everywhere should be ordained for them, for a folk coming recently to belief, whom the Lord has taken up from the remote parts of land, just as formally He had promised through His own prophets: To you, gentiles will come from the remote parts of land, and they will say, our fathers established idols as false things, and there is no advantage in them…
Confessio 38 (Trans: Howlett, 1994)
Unde autem Hiberione qui numquam notitiam Dei habuerunt nisi idola et inmunda usque nunc semper coluerunt quomodo nuper facta est plebs Domini et filii Dei nuncupantur…
Whence moreover in Ireland those who never had notice of God, up to now they always worshipped nothing except idols and unclean things, how recently a folk of the Lord has been made, and they are named sons of God…
Confessio 41 (Trans: Howlett, 1994)
What appears to be references to the worshipping of idols is certainly interesting when one considers that some anthropomorphic figurines are known from apparent votive depositional contexts in Ireland, Britain and other parts of North West Europe in mid to late prehistory. However, before jumping to conclusions, one needs to look at Patrick’s language through the usual biblical lens. Although Patrick’s depiction of idols serves as a contrast between a pagan behavioral past and Christian present, in terms of direct biblical allusions, we have a very clear parallel to which he was using as a sub textual reference.
Compare Confessio 38 above with:
ad te gentes venient ab extremis terrae, et dicent: Vere mendacium possederunt patres nostri, vanitatem quae eis non profuit.
‘to you shall the nations come from the ends of the earth and say: “Our fathers have inherited nothing but lies, worthless things in which there is no profit’.
Not only that, but the very terms he uses, ‘idols’ and ‘unclean things’, come with extensive biblical usage and underlying meaning in a generic pagan sense: see idola here and immunda here. And of course, if you put the two together, like Patrick did, a learned Christian audience would have been in little doubt as to the biblical parallels he was infusing into his own words, in an overall general sense. See, for example:
Et contaminabis laminas sculptilium argenti tui, et vestimentum conflatilis auri tui, et disperges ea sicut immunditiam menstruatae. Egredere, dices ei.
Then you will defile your carved idols overlaid with silver and your gold-plated metal images. You will scatter them as unclean things. You will say to them, “Be gone!”
Et effundam super vos aquam mundam, et mundabimini ab omnibus inquinamentis vestris, et ab universis idolis vestris mundabo vos.I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.
Et erit in die illa, dicit Dominus exercituum: disperdam nomina idolorum de terra, et non memorabuntur ultra: et pseudoprophetas, et spiritum immundum auferam de terra.“And on that day, declares the Lord of hosts, I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, so that they shall be remembered no more. And also I will remove from the land the prophets and the spirit of uncleanness.
Read within its actual context, it is very clear that Patrick’s references to idols were meant in a religious rather than a literal sense. As a learned Christian writing to other learned Christians in a rhetorical fashion, his intention was to emphasize his successes as a missionary through the echoing of existing biblical language and the underlying sub textual framework of individual passages. Just as before, they cannot be taken as representative or indicative of authentic pagan Irish ritual.
Picts R It Didn’t Happen
While there may be little of substance as to pagan ritual or belief in his writings, there are other fleeting references to the behavior of non Irish pagan peoples. As a Briton, Patrick seems to have been exposed to pagans other than the Irish at various stages of his life. In his Epistola, he refers to Pagan Franks at one point, however, he does so only to contrast their behavior against some of his fellow British Christians. Even at that, it contains nothing as to their beliefs or rituals – only that they occasionally engaged in the kidnapping of Christians in the expectation of ransom.
Elsewhere in the Epistola, he singles out the Picts in a similar vein, but intriguingly, appears to do so with much invective. The extent of his particular dislike of the insular peoples of modern day Scotland (who he blamed as being involved in the enslavement of his own recent Irish converts, and also, an apparent transportation network of slavery beyond Ireland) suggests that he had long standing personal experience of such behavior. It may even provide us with a hint as to his own upbringing somewhere in the North West Romano-British frontier. Those who seek to place Patrick’s home further south within Britain do not tend to factor in his apparent familiarity with, and prejudice against, the Picts – something that doesn’t make much geographical sense the further south one wishes to place him.
In any case, what is worthy of note is the manner of his qualification of certain Picts, who he accuses as being involved in the enslaving of Irish Christians. Here’s how he presents them in his writings:
non dico ciuibus meis neque ciuibus sanctorum Romanorum sed ciuibus daemoniorum, ob mala opera ipsorum. Ritu hostili in morte uiuunt, socii Scottorum atque Pictorum apostatarumque…
I do not say to my fellow citizens, nor to fellow citizens of the holy Romans, but to fellow citizens of demons because of their evil works. By hostile behaviour they live in death, comrades of Scots and Picts and apostates…
Epistola #2 (Trans: Howlett, 1994)
Longe est a caritate Dei traditor Christianorum in manus Scottorum atque Pictorum.
Far off from the charity of God is the betrayer of Christians into the hands of Scots and Picts
Epistola #12 (Trans: Howlett, 1994)
Quapropter ecclesia plorat et plangit filios et filias suas quas adhuc gladius nondum interfecit, sed prolongati et exportati in longa terrarum, ubi peccatum manifeste grauiter impudenter abundat, ibi uenundati ingenui homines, Christiani in seruitute redacti sunt, praesertim indignissimorum pessimorum apostatarumque Pictorum.
On which account the Church cries and bewails its own sons and daughters whom so far the sword has not killed, but removed afar and deported to far-off places of lands where sin openly, oppressively, impudently abounds; there freeborn are given for sale; Christians are reduced to slavery, particularly among the most unworthy worst apostates and Picts.
Epistola #15 (Trans: Howlett, 1994)
In biblical terms, Patrick use of the term apostarum would not have left his Christian audience in any doubt as to his negative meaning. Of the three occasions he singles out Picts as being complicit in the slave trade of Christians, he closely associates them with (Christian) apostasy, twice. Considering that he was involved in the Christianization of pagan Scotti (Irish), it does not make much sense that the accusation of apostasy should include them. Indeed, as part of Epistola 14 previously mentioned, he specifically objects to his fellow Britons selling Christians ‘to remote gentile (pagan) peoples who have no knowledge of God’.
Patrick’s outrage wasn’t directed at slavery as a concept in general. By his perspective, people who should really know better – people with knowledge of the Christian God – shouldn’t be enslaving and trafficking Christian people in the first place, let alone selling them on to pagan peoples in far off lands. If some of those people in far off lands, (presumably far from Western Ireland, where he was writing from) had been exposed to Christianity at some point (i.e. Pictish territories north of the Romano-British frontier zone) such activity would have been particularly odious to his Christian mindset. In his eyes, those people, whom he associates with Picts, were especially unworthy because of their apostasy – a behavior perhaps made worse by their continued activities and proximity to Christian peoples in Romano-Britain.
While this is an interesting inference in its own right (not least when one thinks of the early evidence for Christian identities and possible avenues for conversion in frontier areas such as the likes of Whithorn and Kirkmadrine)– it nevertheless tells us nothing of insular pagan beliefs or practices. If anything, it suggests that the religious conversion of insular pagans was not always straightforward, and that cosmological complexity, agency and economics likely played a part in such processes, even when they were in relatively close proximity to long standing Christian communities in Roman Britain.
Here Comes The Sun
At this stage, you’re probably wondering if there is anything at all within Patrick’s writings that could shed any light on Irish paganism. If there is, then ironically, it may just take the form of light itself. At the end of his Confessio, his long defense of his life, motivations and missionary activity in Ireland in response to Christian detractors and critics in Britain; Patrick changes focus and addresses those Irish converts of his who may be future recipients of the finished letter. Despite extreme pessimism towards the overall success of his mission, he nevertheless attempts to provide encouragement and solace to his Irish supporters via a metaphorical contrasting of the power of the sun, with that of Christ. Here’s how he presents it:
Nam sol ipse quem uidemus <ipso> iubente propter nos cotidie oritur, sed numquam regnabit neque permanebit splendor eius, sed et omnes qui adorant eum in poenam miseri male deuenient; nos autem, qui credimus et adoramus solem uerum Christum…
For this sun which we see rises daily on our account, with Himself ordering it, but it will never reign, nor will its splendor remain forever, but even all who adore it will come badly to the punishment of the pitiable. We moreover who believe and adore the true sun Christ…
Confessio #60 (Trans: Howlett, 1994)
Once again, in terms of biblical fluency, an educated Christian audience would have readily understood what he meant by the term adorant/adoramus, as can be seen by its wide usage within. In a specific sense, his exact phrase adoramus solem uerum is found in Psalm 96:7 which focuses overall on triumph over pagan peoples and adoring the splendor of the Lord. While his biblical inference and background is clear, one cannot help feeling that Patrick’s contrasting of those adoring the ‘actual sun’, to his Christian believers adoring the ‘true sun’, was also intended to resonate with his fellow Irish Christians living as a minority in an otherwise pagan society. Such a specific comparison is unlikely to have made ritual sense to fellow Christians back in Britain. If so, then his reference may just provide an actual fragment of genuine information on Irish paganism in late prehistory – that of the existence of some sort of solar based ritual activity.
And yet, even if it does, the question arises as to whether it actually tell us anything we didn’t already know at this extreme distance? The place and importance of solar movements and overt solar symbolism has long been readily apparent from archaeological evidence throughout Irish prehistory – from the orientation of Neolithic tombs to the imagery found on Bronze Age decorated ornaments and pottery. Despite Patrick’s fleeting reference, we are not any more or less informed as to its involvement and inclusion, whatever its actual meaning, within prehistoric Irish belief systems.
As previously stated in Part 1, tackling Patrick’s writings seriously is not something that can be undertaken lightly. Nor is it something that one can just cherry pick from, in modern translation, in the hope of ascertaining genuine 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. Despite being the one person who really could have informed us as to what genuine Irish pagans actually believed and practiced, Patrick tells us practically nothing. He was writing to a Christian audience in Britain who knew nothing of Irish pagans – in addition to Irish Christians, who knew too much and were all too familiar. Neither author nor audiences had any need for, or interest in, such details.
If we cannot usefully infer anything substantial from his unique and contemporary textual witness to the start of the end of Irish prehistory – then we certainly cannot infer anything else from the much later early medieval textual sources that purport to reference residual traces of Irish paganism. These are products of their later times, authored by elite Christians who were actively seeking to construct a re-imagined pagan past utilizing a myriad of classical sources within a global biblical framework. Like Patrick, their work more often than not contains significant biblical parallels, allusions and references – and was intentionally written to be received and understood, in conjunction. To seek anything else within them, in isolation, misses their entire point.
What little we think we know, or what little we may ever know about genuine Irish pagans and paganism in prehistory, always has, and always will come, from archaeology.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day, wherever you are.
Original photos have been augmented via Prisma for stylistic effect.
My thanks and appreciation to Professor Aidan O’Sullivan, UCD, for permission to use his fantastic photograph from a joint 2017 experimental archaeology workshop at the UCD Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture with The Pallasboy Project team, under Dr. Benjamin Gearey. You can read more about the construction of the anthropomorphic figurines on the day here, and about the fascinating project itself here.
I touch on some of the above and more in the latest episode of the Amplify Archeology Podcast with the wonderful Neil Jackman of Abarta Heritage, where we discuss what evidence we have of Patrick, the Ireland of the 5th century AD, and what his writings can tell us about the earliest days of Christianity in Ireland.
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.
Boyle, Elizabeth. (2021) History and Salvation in Medieval Ireland, London and New York: Routledge.
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.
Saint Patrick’s Confessio Hyperstack (Royal Irish Academy)