Today is a day that is marked in wider worldwide culture as an Irish-specific holiday; unfortunately, the wider culture doesn’t know how to do this outside of unfortunately reified stereotypes of Irish drunkenness and the parody of sense and style that assumes “Ireland = green things and leprechauns.” As someone who knows a great deal about Irish heritage and history, this is truly sad to me to see the “leprechaunification” of Irish culture on such a massive scale.
Unfortunately, the lack of good and decent information on Ireland, its history and folklore, which has come about due to embarrassment about Irish heritage that resulted from things like the English plantations of the seventeenth century CE, and particularly the Great Hunger (a.k.a. Potato Famine) of the late 1840s CE, has also infected modern paganism to a huge extent. There is the idea, recently given voice in Galina Krasskova’s article on this subject at Patheos.com, that St. Patrick drove out the snakes of Ireland, but that the snakes were really “the druids,” and that therefore some modern pagans and druids celebrate “Bring Back the Snakes Day.” Unfortunately, this isn’t true, and the hagiographies of St. Patrick did not include this particular “miracle” until quite late, relatively speaking (his earliest hagiographies are from the 7th century, whereas this incident doesn’t turn up in any of them until the 11th century). St. Patrick’s reputation as the one who Christianized Ireland is seriously over-rated and overstated, as there were others that came before him (and after him), and the process seemed to be well on its way at least a century before the “traditional” date given as his arrival, 432 CE, because Irish colonists (yes, you read that right!) in southern Wales, Cornwall, and elsewhere in Roman and sub-Roman Britain had already come into contact with Christians and carried the religion back with them when visiting home.
Though Christianization of Ireland did not take place in a uniform or complete manner immediately, and there were still druids teaching in Ireland at least in the mid-seventh century CE (if not later), and the “final” Christianization of the culture didn’t take place until the fourteenth century CE (several centuries after the Norman conquest!), and the loss of the prehistoric religion is to be lamented as deeply as the loss of any of the other religions of Europe and elsewhere due to creedal monotheism’s exclusive orthodoxy insistences, at the same time what we do know about Ireland and its pre-Christian heritage is also due to the entirely Christian-controlled technology of literacy, which the Irish took to like ducks to water. The monks in monasteries did not passively record the stories of the druids and native storytellers, as far-too-many modern pagans (including ones who should really know better, including many Celtic Reconstructionists) often think they did, but instead innovated, re-interpreted, harmonized the native materials with classical learning as well as biblical narratives, and very freely and fascinatingly rhapsodized with the materials available to them. Certainly, echoes of pre-Christian cultural constructs and mythological elements come through, but not in an unmediated fashion, any more than the Roman influences on Gaul and Roman Britain mean that the various deity-names we have from those regions are direct cultural survivals either in most cases that have come through unfiltered or “purely.” Thus, what comes through in the medieval Irish records is, to some degree, syncretistic. I’ve written about syncretism recently here, and about this issue of Roman influence here; to use the terms established in the former entry, what ends up happening in a lot of Celtic religious materials is that a more syncretic rather than syncretistic picture emerges, though one can sometimes easily, sometimes with more difficulty separate out the elements into a syncretistic framework for future practical, theological, and devotional usage.
But my intent today was not to discuss the matter of Irish culture as a lament for the losses that have occurred as a result of Christianity, so much as to draw attention to two holidays that can instead take place today: the Roman Liberalia, which was traditionally on March 17 and was an important social occasion in the coming-of-age of young men; and the hero-feast of Cú Chulainn, which is what I think should rightfully replace the significance of this day for modern pagans (particularly ones who draw from Irish or Celtic sources for inspiration).
So, first let us acknowledge Liberalia, which Sannion has already done on his blog today by posting Ovid’s piece from Fasti on the subject. Ovid’s explanation is more than sufficient for our purposes, so I highly suggest you go and read it. But let me observe something in relation to that occasion as well: as a festival of Liber Pater, commonly syncretized with Dionysos, there is a bacchanalian element to the observance, certainly. And, what is done on St. Patrick’s Day worldwide? Certainly not visiting church to go to mass (including in Ireland a lot of the time)! As Patricius was a Roman Briton, and some of his surviving writings indicate that he may have been more a solar monotheist in certain respects rather than an out-and-out Christian, praising Helios to be delivered from torments by Satan at one point in his Confessio (!?!), it’s very possible that he may have had colleagues who celebrated the Liberalia in the more “traditional” manner of drunkenness. If Patricius underwent the expectable rites of passage into manhood that most Romans would have, then he would have received his toga virilis on this day as well, since it would have been traditional to have done so. So, it seems possible that Patricius may have had some association with, and even investment in, this occasion even as a Christian.
I have written on what I’m about to detail previously, on our Winter Solstice celebration of Antinous Epiphanes, but it bears some review here at present. Cú Chulainn was conceived three times, and born twice, which makes him a lot more like Dionysos/Zagreus than many other figures in European-wide mythology. Thus, if there is a possible connection between him and Dionysos, it also seems at least possible that this particular date might be one further connected with him. But the fact is, he has several connections to St. Patrick, and to Emain Macha, the provincial capital of the old cóiced (“province,” literally “one-fifth”) of the Ulaid (a.k.a. Ulster). There are several hills on or around Emain Macha, and one of them is known as Ard Macha, anglicized as Armagh, which is where the ecclesiastical foundation most associated with St. Patrick exists, and which is now the primatial see of Ireland. I witnessed several occasions on which St. Patrick’s antics in a chariot near that site were confused with the stories of Macha running against the king’s horses in terms of how the debility of the Ulstermen, from which only Cú Chulainn was exempt (and women and children), and from which the name of Emain Macha was derived (in at least one version of the story), were freely confused and intermingled in the minds of many Irish people. There is absolutely no certainty as to when Patricius existed, and even whether or not he was one person or two people; yet, as far back as we have record, Patrick is celebrated on March 17. Is it possible, therefore, that Patrick’s feast-date simply usurped a festival that was observed locally in the area of Armagh and Emain Macha? And if so, could it have been a festival for Cú Chulainn, the protector of Emain Macha?
Further, in Síaburcharpat Con Culainn (“The Phantom-Chariot of Cú Chulainn”), a story about the conversion of Ireland via its high king of Tara, Lóegaire meic Néill, Patrick summons the shades of Cú Chulainn and his charioteer Láeg from hell to tell Lóegaire of his deeds but also of the punishments awaiting him if he does not allow himself to be baptized. For his assistance in this regard, Cú Chulainn was said to have been given release to heaven as a reward. Thus, as far as Irish reckoning is considered, Cú Chulainn is himself a saint! Unfortunately, no dies sancti survives for him in Irish records…though, far more fantastical characters in Irish literature not only were considered saints, but had celebrations in the calendar (e.g. on January 27, the long-lived shape-shifting partially-aquatic female Lí Bán/Muirgelt/Muirgéin is celebrated as early as the earliest martyrologies that have survived from Ireland). Therefore, why not take the dies sancti of Patrick as Cú Chulainn’s own date for hero-cultus?
On Imbolc, I suggested it might be appropriate to observe Cú Chulainn’s fatal single combat with his foster-brother and lover Fer Diad. On Winter Solstice, I suggested it would be appropriate to observe Cú Chulainn’s dies natalis. What, therefore, would be a good occasion to celebrate on March 17 in relation to Cú Chulainn, which can be linked to something in his surviving narratives? While the story of his slaying of the hound of Culann that earned him his heroic name might be a possibility, that may better be located in August, after the end of the dog-days of summer, simply for symbolic reasons. What I would suggest is that, given that Patricius may have usurped a local festival of Macha in the area around Armagh, perhaps what could instead be celebrated is the date that Cú Chulainn first took up arms, upon which he did so in order to fulfill a partial prophecy he heard that whomever took up arms for the first time on that day would be famed forever after; he only learned later that the rest of the prophecy revealed that the famous hero would only live a very short life, to which he responded that it would be better to live but one day and one night in the world if everlasting fame were to be attached to him. This active taking up of the heroic life and all of its responsibilities, including death (most likely on behalf of one’s people, as a warrior), was the date on which he became the protector of the people of Ulster and thus of Emain Macha and his uncle Conchobor mac Nessa’s kingship. What more appropriate occasion, therefore, to celebrate the hero-cultus of Cú Chulainn than on the day that he decided to take up the heroic life? But, there’s more to it than even that! At the end of his martial adventures on that day, and his near-destruction of his own people in his warp-spasm, he was dunked into vats of water three times to cool down his ardor, and then was dressed in adult clothes for the first time and recognized as a warrior by his people. The giving of the toga virilis and the taking up of all that it implies in Roman culture on March 17, therefore, is a most appropriate occasion on which to observe Cú Chulainn’s feast date, therefore.
The above sculpture is one of the most beautiful images of Cú Chulainn I’ve ever encountered, and it is one that I own and that is on my shrine as my primary representation of him. I acquired it on my very first trip to Ireland, around Winter Solstice of 1996, and it has been in my constant possession ever since. I also have a coin that I obtained more recently that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, with Pádraig Pearse’s portrait on one side (he is an Ekklesía Antínoou Sanctus) and a representation of the famous GPO Statue of Cú Chulainn on the other (depicted below), which I carry with me along with the other Antinous, Hadrian, and other coins and small objects as a constant material reminder of my devotions to these wonderful divine beings.
In terms of activities that can be done today in observance of Cú Chulainn’s hero-cultus, you might consider visiting Galina Krasskova’s hero-shrine to pagan heroes (where you’ll find several other familiar figures as well!), toward the bottom of which is a long description of Cú Chulainn that I recently wrote, in absence of anything else. If you can, read his stories–preferably aloud, and to others, but silently on your own is certainly an additional option. Make him the traditional hero offerings of milk and honey (which the Irish would have appreciated just as well as the Greeks and Romans!), or consider having a shared feast with your friends of boar (or pork) or salmon, which he would have appreciated for various reasons. And, perhaps most importantly, speak his praises anew, in your own words and your own language, rather than just relying on the excellent and wonderful words on him that have been written in the past, by people in other cultures and other languages, who may not have intended their words to be the praises of a figure they would have thought sacrilegious to consider divine in any manner. Here are some words I wrote on him last year.
My dear cúán and céile and cara cridecáin, Cú Chulainn…
There was never a greater hero who lived in Ireland;
there was never a more famous or more virtuous man who lived there,
who was yet not a man though far more than a mere man;
there was never a greater loss to Ireland than his death and his destruction and his dark-lying upon the plain of Muirthemne.
He was the stag of flood in every ford;
he was the salmon of valor in every stream;
he was the giant on the plain;
he was the pillar of battle and the splitter of shields;
he was a god in his chariot, and a demon in his fury, and an angel in his prophecy,
and a bird of melodies for his singing,
and a fine-formed phrase for his poetry,
and a pure strain on the harp for his sweetness,
and a prize among fine jewels for his beauty.
A drink of red mead was every glance at his face for intoxication;
a shower of new milk the whiteness of his teeth;
a summer sunset on the vast ocean was his hair.
Lightning does not strike with the swiftness of his spear;
the ancient oak of the forest is not as steadfast as his shield-arm;
the rivers and streams of Ireland not as full nor as turbulent as his blood when aroused to anger or to passion.
A full cauldron for every eye that remembers him;
a trained pet crane for every eye that scrutinizes his deeds.
The Hound of the Feats was too young,
he was too bold,
and he was too beautiful–
and may those who have these gifts never shy from sharing them lavishly and fearlessly,
as the Hound of Ulster did on his first foray in arms,
and upon his wooings of Emer and Derbforgaill and Bláthnait and Fedelm,
and his tutelage with Scáthach (who is called Búanann) and Úathach and Aífe,
and his loving fosterage with Fer Diad,
and his steadfast friendship with Láeg and Conall Cernach,
and his honoring of his bonds with Fergus mac Róich and Conchobor mac Nessa,
and his winning of the two horses Liath Macha and Dub Sainglenn,
and his vigilance upon his foray in the Táin,
and his courage as he went to his death at the hands of the Clann Calatín Dána and Lugaid mac Con Roí.
The Hound of the Smith was born
of the line of Conchobor mac Nessa through his mother, Dechtíne,
and the line of Fergus mac Róich through his father, Sualtaim mac Róich,
and the line of the Tuatha Dé and the Fomoiri through his father Lug mac Ethlenn;
never was a hound before nor after born twice and conceived in three lyings.
As long as the sun rises and sets,
and there is an island called after the goddesses Ériu, Fótla, and Banba,
and as long as one person of the blood of Ireland draws breath enough to continue living,
may the memory of Cú Chulainn never be erased from the face of the earth,
or the words of praise of humans,
or the writings of poets in books,
or the eternal fame of the heroes and gods.
May Liber Pater, the intoxicating Dionysos, be praised on this day! Felix Liberalia!
May Cú Chulainn, greatest hero of Ireland, be praised on this day! Bendachta Dé ocus An-Dé ocus Chon Culainn foraib!
And may Antinous, hero in his own right, inundate in abundance of praises for these gods and heroes, and enjoy their presence in his blessed company! Ave Ave Antinoe!
Haec est unde, Haec est unde, Haec est unde vita venit!