We celebrate Saint Patrick on March 17 — Ireland’s patron saint. Even as we consider all the tales, mysteries, unknowns, and superstitions perpetrated in his name — holy or otherwise.
Credited by myths with bringing Christianity to the Irish and driving the snakes out of Ireland — does us all a disservice.
According to legend Saint Patrick (circa 387–460 or 492 AD) banished all snakes from Ireland, chasing them into the sea after they attacked him during a 40-day fast atop a hill.
Today we suspect that snakes never lived in Ireland, likely because Ireland is an island surrounded by a frigid ocean inhospitable to these creatures.
Still, banishing or removing snakes from any environment is a bad idea, says James Murphy, curator in the Reptile House at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.
Snakes are representatives of earth’s incredible diversity and important pieces of its ecological puzzle. Those of us who work with snakes are bewildered by the widespread fear and loathing directed toward them by humans.
People are afraid of snakes because they are so much different than we are. They don’t have limbs, they don’t have eyelids, they aren’t very tall, they don’t scream from pain, and they don’t have the kinds of human characteristics comforting to us. Anything that is so unusual, humans are just unsettled by.
The abnormal fear of snakes is called ophiophobia — after Ophion, the great serpent of the waters in Greek mythology, who mated with Eurynome — the goddess of all things.
Eurynome took on the appearance of a bird, laid a giant egg, and Ophion coiled around and incubated the egg until it hatched, producing all living creatures.
Eurynome and Ophion made their home on Mount Olympus, where he incurred her wrath by claiming to be the author of the universe. With her heel, she kicked him in the head, knocking out his teeth — banishing him to the dark caves of the underworld.
Modern humans behave like Saint Patrick — driving many animal species, including snakes into extinction. A recent study published in January in the journal Elsevier predicts that nearly one in five reptilian species are threatened with extinction due in part to human-induced habitat loss and animal harvesting.
Murphy says. “What we are watching today is basically an extinction event that includes many snakes, as well as a number of other reptiles and amphibians. An unprecedented number of animals are disappearing from the planet.”
Humanity may be the newest species on Earth but we are also the most invasive and destructive. If left uncheck we will succeed in causing our own extinction.
Martyr, man, or myth — let us hope we all do better for our collective future.