Calvin University's official student newspaper since 1907

Calvin University Chimes

Since 1907
Calvin University's official student newspaper since 1907

Calvin University Chimes

Calvin University's official student newspaper since 1907

Calvin University Chimes

Tales and legends of St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland

St. Patrick is probably the most prominent Catholic saint in contemporary American culture who isn’t found taking gift requests from children at malls.

Mention the holiday named after him, and it’s hard not to hear Irish reels playing in the background while imagining the refreshingly minty taste of a Shamrock Shake.

But St. Patrick lived a life far beyond his influence in the world of seasonal fast food desserts.

Many famous pieces of that life, like teaching the newly converted Irish about the Trinity with a shamrock and driving all of the snakes out of Ireland, are parts of a celebrated mythology that has grown up around Ireland’s patron saint.

The tale of St. Patrick’s using the shamrock (or three-leaf clover) to describe the Trinity stems from a botanical catalogue published in 1726 by Caleb Threlkeld. According to Threlkeld, it was with the shamrock that St. Patrick “emblematically set for to [the Irish] the Mystery of the Holy Trinity.”

Earlier sources, like engravings on English and Irish coins and written accounts of St. Patrick’s life, connected the shamrock to Patrick without mentioning the Trinity concept.

Perhaps the most famous story about St. Patrick’s missions work in Ireland is his expulsion of all snakes from the island. Scholars, however, hold that there never were snakes on the island, even before St. Patrick, since the land bridge between Great Britain and Ireland disappeared thousands of years before snakes arrived on the former island.

The more likely explanation is that the snake story is a metaphor for St. Patrick’s success in spreading Christianity, either using snakes as a symbol for evil in general or perhaps referring to specific serpent-worshiping druidic religions.

Other popular ideas about St. Patrick include stories such as him running into Irish mythological figures and teaching them about Christianity to his jawbone being preserved and used to heal illnesses.

A Protestant group in Northern Ireland called the Orange Order claims that St. Patrick wasn’t actually Roman Catholic and that his true beliefs have been obscured by history and tradition.

It is true, at least according to his own short autobiography, the “Confessio,” that captivity by raiders in his adolescence was critical in his conversion to Christianity and that he managed to escape enslavement in Ireland and eventually return home to Britain.

He later went back to Ireland and did great missionary work, especially with the upper classes.

St. Patrick developed the Celtic cross, a cross symbol surrounded by a sun-like circle. The circle in the symbol is similar to the sun images used in many pre-Christian Irish religions.

According to different accounts, the Celtic cross was either designed to signify the importance of the cross to potential converts by connecting it with their respected sun or to illustrate Christ’s ruling over even the sun.

The famous myths and popular stories that have arisen from St. Patrick’s life reveal his importance in the minds and memories of Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, Irish and otherwise.

“The Rune of St. Patrick,” possibly written by Patrick himself, includes the famous words in which the speaker places “all Heaven with its power … between myself and the powers of darkness.” This is another legend that emphasizes Patrick’s reputation for fighting against evil with truth.

These words from a letter, however, are 100 percent Patrick:

“If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples, even though some of them still look down on me.”

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