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Happy St. Patrick’s Day, friends.
It’s a global celebration of Irish culture on March 17 that remembers Saint Patrick, one of Ireland’s patron saints, who ministered Christianity in the fifth century.
One of the legends tied to him is that he stood atop a hillside and banished snakes from Ireland, but in reality, research suggests that there were no snakes for him to banish, so we’re going to ignore that one.
St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in countries with people of Irish descent, including South Africa, although most swigging green beer and dancing around to The Dubliners aren’t entirely aware of its history.
In fact, there’s a whole other side to the celebration that has remained mostly under wraps because of its pagan origins.
According to CNN, if you do some searching in Ireland, you’ll discover statues and carvings of Sheela-na-gig, who played a big part in what used to be a three-day festival.
Irish mythology is full of female figures, from warrior queens to deities, and sacred hags, in tales that have been passed down through the generations.
“Sheelah is one folk manifestation of what we call female cosmic agency,” says Shane Lehane, an archaeologist, folklorist and historian at Cork’s CSN College of Further Education who has been instrumental in reviving interest in Sheelah in recent years.
“Think of her as the consort of the male, that great mythological tradition of the king and the goddess. She represents the land.”
There are two competing theories for how to interpret Sheelahs. The one is that she promoted “chaste living” and “a taboo on sexuality in the Middle Ages”.
Looking at her, that doesn’t make much sense, which is why the second interpretation, popularised in the 1930s, identified her as a fertility deity.
Lehane, one of these revisionists, tells CNN Travel that, “Sheelah has been the subject of a strong misogynistic perspective for a long time. They were seen as being symbols of evil, symbols of lust, symbols of eroticism.”
He argues that Sheela-na-gigs celebrate “the female who has custodianship over birth and over death. Sheelah is an icon of that great human concern.”
Moving on to The Hill of Tara in County Meath, the ancient seat of Ireland’s High Kings.
This will all makes sense in a minute.
Tara’s Lia Fáil, a phallus-like standing stone, played an important part in coronations. If you were going to be king, you sat on top of it and symbolically mated with the land. If you were the right king, the Lia Fáil would screech.
Whereas in Christianity, power was bestowed upon the king by God, in Celtic traditions, it was believed that the goddess who represents the land determined sovereignty, usually through copulation.
When a king falls out of line, the goddess who represents the land transforms into a withered old woman, similar to the Sheela-na-gig, known as the Cailleach.
“For the new king to come along, he must embrace this dangerous hag,” says Lehane, “and she reforms into this beautiful, bountiful, kind figure again.”
St Patrick was trafficked to Ireland as a slave from Roman Britain in the fifth century. He wrote his own story in two Latin works – Confessio and Epistola.
“The one thing that very few people disagree about is that there was someone called Patrick and he wrote what became the first story of Ireland,” says Tim Campbell, director of the Saint Patrick Centre in Downpatrick, County Down. “The history of Ireland literally begins with him.”
He makes reference to old Celtic traditions when he writes that he refused to show subjugation to another man by sucking his nipples.
The god Lugh is the deity most associated with kingship and represents “the perfect male”. When Christianity came along, the legend of St. Patrick overtook the god, and at Patrick’s side was his wife – Sheelah.
Many countries have pre-Christian springtime festivals and Ireland is no different. The three-day celebration of Patrick and Sheelah — from March 16 to 18 — falls just before the spring equinox. The license to cavort and disregard the strictures of Lent is Ireland’s version of Carnival.
You were expected to let your hair down, go wild, and embrace chaos.
Christian influence dulled it down, got rid of Sheelah, and it became the event we celebrate today.
Sure, folks still go wild, but it isn’t quite the same.
Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona duit to you all.
I’ll leave you with a popular Irish ditty to get you into the spirit of things:
And, raise a glass to Sheelah, will you?
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