March 17, 2015

Oilliphéist

        Saint Patrick, as everyone knows, drove all the snakes from Ireland back in the fifth century.  As a snake-loving child living in Ireland I could never forgive him - and now I learn that he was even worse than I had realized.  Because of Saint Patrick, Ireland not only no longer has snakes, but also no longer has the Oilliphéist.  The Oilliphéist (meaning “great worm/beast/monster”) was a dragonish sort of creature who must have lived on Cuilcagh Mountain, because when it heard that Saint Patrick was driving out all members of the serpent family, its escape to the ocean carved out the path that became the River Shannon.
        Interestingly, the water that filled the channel the Oilliphéist carved comes from a spring called Shannon Pot, created when Sionna, a granddaughter of a sea deity, ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge there.  As she took a bite the waters of the pool welled up, pulled her in, and proceeded to flow away, obviously taking advantage of the convenient channel left by the Oilliphéist.  And this implies that the Oilliphéist must have been living in the vicinity of the Tree of Knowledge when it heard the bad news of Saint Patrick.
        I can’t help speculating that the dragon must have eaten some of that fruit of knowledge, maybe what had fallen onto the ground, if nothing else, and therefore it was presumably pretty wise.  And if it was indeed so wise, then I think there’s a good chance that when it heard Saint Pat was coming for it, and all its little brothers and sisters, it wouldn’t just flee blindly headlong into the ocean.  After all, if it had, it would surely have reached the sea at the nearest point, at Sligo not 25 miles away.  No, instead, the River Shannon flows 224 miles right down through the whole middle of Ireland to Limerick, and this can mean only one thing.  I believe that the Oilliphéist had a plan.  It must have deliberately raced through as much of the country as it could, gathering up all the snakes of Ireland as it went.  Only then did it slither into the sea, taking all the snakes safely with it.  I like to think that the Oilliphéist and Ireland’s snakes are happily living even now somewhere on one of the mysterious western isles with which Celtic mythology is so well stocked.
        There is one footnote to the story.  Apparently on its way the Oilliphéist accidentally swallowed a drunken piper named O’Rourke.  O’Rourke was either too drunk even to notice he’d been swallowed, or was too laid-back to mind, and he kept right on playing in the Oilliphéist’s stomach.  You can imagine that a drunken piper would be quite a belly-ache, so the Oilliphéist, once again demonstrating its wisdom, spat O’Rourke back out before leaving Ireland for paradise.

[Picture: Snake and river, woodcut from Sancti Epiphanii ad Physiologum, 1577 (Image from University of Victoria).]

3 comments:

  1. What a delightfully Irish mix of pagan and Christian mythologies. The Oilliphéist must have happened first to carve the Shannon channel, then Sionna to provide the waters of the river. But St. Patrick came even earlier in order to frighten the Oilliphéist, which certainly suggests that Eve and Adam had happened much earlier. So Sionna was still in the Garden of Eden, as a granddaughter of a sea deity, long after the humans got chased out. Wait, I'm getting confused. No wonder the gift of Blarney has been given to the inhabitants of this fabled island. Thanks for a great St. Patrick's Day blog post.

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  2. I don't think this was the same Tree of Knowledge as in the Garden of Eden. Trees of Knowledge (not necessarily Knowledge of Good and Evil) have apparently grown in many parts of the world in mythical times.

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