Aspects of St. Patrick that you may not know
There are many tales of St Patrick, the celebrated patron saint of Ireland, some of which even include him practicing magic. In one such story, Patrick vied with the High Druid of Ireland in a contest to see who could cast the strongest enchantment, a tournament that Patrick won.
He was not above dabbling in curses as well. If you visit St. Patrick’s museum in Armagh, Northern Ireland, you will find, displayed prominently in a glass case, his Bell of the Blood. Patrick enchanted this bell so that its ring was lethal and he used it to collect tithing due to his church.
St. Patrick also engaged in several battles with demons, such as the one on a mountain in County Mayo that subsequently came to be known as Croagh Patrick. Perhaps his most famous demon fight is the one retold in the short story below. This version of the tale includes appearances of the Morrígna, a Goddess that made brief physical visits to Ireland in the form of a red wolf (when not making longer visits as reincarnated twins); and the Sidhe, Celtic faeries.
The First Magic of St. Patrick
A Reinterpreted Legend
In the fifth century, long before he was remade into a Saint and people worldwide would raise their cups on his feast day, Patrick’s name was known in only a few kingdoms of Ireland. Many believed him to be just another madman washed-up on their shores spouting Christianity.
Patrick knew he was not crazy because he was terrified and true madmen, he felt certain, did not know when to be scared and when not. He could feel his rough, brown wool robe becoming damp with sweat even in the dawn chill. His sandaled feet shuffled down the woodland path, which was barely visible in the first traces of light.
Christ, his God, had forged Patrick’s strength in the crucible of slavery. Taken from Britton at sixteen by raiders, left naked in the Irish highlands to tend goats, Patrick had to learn to make his own clothing and shelter. Before being kidnapped, he had given little thought to the Christianity of his people, but it was only fervent prayers that had kept him warm. Having found his faith, when it was strong enough, God showed him how to escape to home — then led him back to Ireland to spread His word.
Once returned to Ireland, Patrick had stood stoic in the face of indifference, insults, beatings – even an attempted stoning – growing his small following. But I have become too proud of my holiness, he chastised himself as he skirted a patch of mud on the path, recalling how rashly he had accepted the challenge leveled at him during the previous night’s feast. He had realized too late it was a trick. The test had been issued by the Druid of the Kingdom of Munster, one of many compact kingdoms on this island of ever-shifting political alliances, nominally controlled by a High King in Tara.
His sandal caught on a tree root and he fell, picked himself slowly up, and brushed the dirt from his robe, sighing deeply. Why hadn’t he laughed off the challenge as he had so many others? Now, he was trapped. He would not survive this day. The dark hours of the morning had been spent alone in the woods in prayer, yet a cloud of fear or pride had prevented him from hearing God’s whispers, or perhaps it was just his humanity.
The faint glow of the sunrise through an overcast sky brought no lightness to his spirit as he resumed his journey. On his death, he did not know if his soul would find salvation. When consumed by a demon, would his soul be free to soar to heaven? Or would it be bound by the evil former angel, eternally in anguish?
Patrick became aware of someone walking behind him. He was in no mood for conversation so he increased his pace. No use dallying toward my doom if it is inevitable, he thought.
“You know the answer,” said a woman in a resonant voice. “The demon will eat you and you will suffer, bound forever into its gut. Unless you are not you.”
Patrick spun around, expecting to see a witch or Celtic faerie who had read his mind. Instead, he stood eye-to-eye with a giant she-wolf, its coat silky and deep red. He did not step back. He supposed that he was already so full of fear that there was no room for more.
“To survive, you must use magic,” said the wolf. “Just as Moses did to defeat the pharaoh’s sorcerers in his efforts to free the Israelites.”
The creature’s use of a biblical reference startled him, but not so much as the fact that its mouth had not moved. Yet the words were in his ears as if she had uttered them a half second earlier.
“Are you a messenger of God or Satan? Reveal yourself!” Patrick demanded. He had assumed the wolf was a faerie cloaked in animal form, but now he doubted that.
“Are those the only two possibilities?” Asked the wolf. “You claim an infinite God, yet you put such limits on its being.” The she-wolf cocked its head and studied him.
Patrick felt a twinge of hope. “Magic, you…said? I am no exorcist. I know no words of power, no spells.”
The wolf padded down the path and Patrick trotted to catch up. “Do you know why a sorcerer uses words when he works an enchantment?” the wolf asked. “Yet an angel, or demon, or Goddess does not?”
Patrick did not know what to say to that.
“Because a sorcerer has to focus his connection to the Other World, to remind himself of the power residing there, to draw it into this world, and direct its intent.” The she-wolf glanced at Patrick and bared its teeth in a smile. “Make up your own words, Patrick of the Christ.” Her voice carried a laughing tone. “I sense an Other World connection is already strong in you, use it.”
“Why tell me this, why come to me?”
“One day, some years from now, you are to deliver my message to High King Lóegaire in Tara. When you have taken his heart and survived the last of his schemes, tell him that the woman he turned away from his camp last winter, who died in the sleet without fire or shelter, was bearing my twins, though even she did not know it yet.”
A riddle, thought Patrick. Of course, a giant wolf speaking in riddles, not something I should be surprised at in Ireland. The trail left the woods and Patrick attempted to ask another question but the creature was gone.
Ahead he saw the low dome of the mountain referred to in the annals as Sliabh Ailduin and locally as Mount Elie. Rocky outcroppings were interspersed with clumps of trees, wisps of mist clinging to their upper branches like dragon’s breath. Waiting for him was the Druid who had issued the challenge, Cairche the Blue, named for the brilliant hue of her eyes and her ever present matching cloak. Next to her stood King Aengus of Munster, along with a cluster of warriors, lords, ladies, and gawkers.
Talking with Cairche were three faeries — called Sidhe by the Celts — all of them a head taller than any human present. Patrick recognized one as a Skeaghshee, a tree Sidhe, by his long oak brown hair and sharp features. The other two, women, wore robes of such an intense emerald green they glowed, signaling that they were Adhene, the current ruling clan of their homeland, the Middle Kingdom. Patrick had not found a way into the land of the faeries, existing somewhere parallel to Ireland and connected with hidden doorways, yet he had hoped to preach there.
“Christian,” Cairche called out to Patrick. “All you have to do is walk to the top of the mountain and return.”
Patrick straightened his shoulders. “When I do you’ll owe me a recompense, Druid.”
“He’s within his rights to demand it,” confirmed the King. “And it’ll be a bit more fun if you also have something to lose. Your life perhaps?” Laughter rolled through the crowd.
“Of course,” said Cairche. “If you survive I’ll take your meager God as my own.”
“Fair enough,” replied Patrick.
One of the Adhene Sidhe put her palm to her mouth and whispered across it. The words rolled up into a ball of glowing green light. It leapt from her hand, soaring in a graceful arc before disappearing into the black mouth of a cave close to the summit.
“Be careful Christian, someone may’ve awoken the demon,” said Cairche.
The Sidhe exchanged what must have been a joke in a language Patrick did not understand. But the humans present were stealing concerned glances up at the cave. Patrick could tell many were reconsidering the wisdom of being this close to the coming spectacle.
Patrick walked briskly up the slope. Dark clouds thickened around the mountaintop. A malevolent black haze billowed from the cave mouth. Unless you are not you, the wolf had said. Patrick stopped and removed his robe, sandals, and the strip of old white cloth he had wrapped around his loins. He arranged his clothes on the ground in the shape of a limbless, headless man. Power resides in the Other World, the wolf had said; home of the Father, thought Patrick, source of the Holy Spirit. Make up your own words. Patrick hesitated. A wisp of white mist blew by, momentarily engulfing his naked body. He suddenly noticed the cold and shivered. How could he create words of power?
The black haze had merged with the clouds and an animal shape began to materialize. The demon in that cave was rumored to be Samael. Patrick dearly hoped not, hoped it was some minion that lied about its rank. The wolf’s voice echoed in his head: a sorcerer has to focus his connection to the Other World to remind himself of the power residing there, to draw it into this world, and direct its intent. He concentrated, tried to open his mind to the Holy Spirit. The only word that came to him was “walk,” so he mumbled it to the clothing, then again with more confidence. A third time, “Walk!” he shouted. Following a sudden compulsion, he bent and exhaled into the robe, kept blowing until his lungs were drained and he collapsed heavily onto the ground. When he gathered enough breath to lift his head, he watched his clothing sprint up the mountain, looking very much like himself.
Patrick scampered over and hid within a clump of scrubby trees. Peering out he saw the clouds had taken on the shape of a lion’s head almost half as large as the mountain itself. Lighting snaked through and gathered into brilliant white fangs. The smell of ozone stung his nostrils. The naked Patrick willed himself not to flee; this was no minion, this was an Archdemon. Its red eyes turned toward the robed version of Patrick, which seemed to be intent on charging the creature. Thunder roared from the demon’s gaping mouth as rain drooled out.
The demon lunged. The fake Patrick dove into a rabbit hole, becoming vapor and leaving his robes behind. With of look of surprised fury in its eyes, the creature chomped down on the mountain face. It’s fangs shattered in an explosion of sparks. The demon reared up in pain, ripping out a mouth full of solid granite the size of a hill. The rock tumbled through its broken teeth and fell south, over the horizon. To the squeals of a million wounded rats, the demon streamed back into its cave tearing a hole in the cloud cover.
Patrick stepped out from his hiding place, felt the warmth of the sun on his skin, and for the first time allowed himself to believe that he was going to survive. He broke into a run toward the summit, not knowing how long the demon was going to sulk and needing to finish his challenge.
On the way down, after skirting the cave from which sporadic grumbling still emerged, Patrick allowed his pace to slow to a walk. The countryside stretched out before his eyes, sunbeams dancing between clouds, spots of cattle and sheep, smoke drifting from distant village cooking fires. And there was something else, something underlying it all, in the manner of magma under a volcano, what the Irish called Ardor. It was as if he had stepped through a doorway into a new land; this was not the Ireland of his slavery or the Ireland of his evangelism, this was the Ireland of magic. In the past, he had seen Sidhe and Druids work enchantments, heard stories of the power of Ardor, and thought it all part of the country’s Paganism, separate from the faith he taught. He had been blind to the truth.
Patrick fell to his knees in prayer. He felt his God, stronger than ever, the Holy Spirit filling him; he felt the Ardor of Ireland with its power to work miracles, and detected no difference between them.
On returning to the base of the mountain, only King Aengus and his Druid Cairche were waiting for him. Patrick wondered when the others left – on witnessing his victory, or on the appearance of the demon? He was sorry the Sidhe had gone, there was so much he wanted to ask them.
Seeing that Patrick was naked, Cairche whipped off her blue cloak and wrapped it around him, took his hand and kissed it. “Tell me more about your God,” she said.
In subsequent years, the torn mountain was so commonly called Devil’s Bit that it appeared on maps as such. The chunk bitten from the mountain fell twenty miles to the south and King Aengus built the principal castle of Munster on top of it, along with a monastery for Patrick. Thus it was known variously as The Rock of Kings, The Rock of Cashel, and to the Christians, Patrick’s Rock.
While the King of Munster did not convert to Christianity, he was intrigued by the stories Patrick told and eventually declared that he respected any God who allowed himself to be born human so that he could die well.
Cairche the Blue became a loyal acolyte and converted her two sisters, Eithne the Fair and Fedelm the Red. The three of them were the beloved daughters of Ireland’s High King Lóegaire, the subject of the giant red wolf’s scorn. Just as the she-wolf predicted, they broke their father’s heart when they renounced his old Gods, then turned their love from him completely after he unsuccessfully schemed to kill Patrick. Lóegaire became ill and died not long after Patrick visited his bed chamber, on the night of a new moon, and whispered the words of the she-wolf in his ear.
Lóegaire, seeking his own revenge, left instructions that his body was to be interred within the walls of Tara, the Irish capital, in the hope that his ghost could protect it from the new God.
Patrick went on to become the most powerful Christian sorcerer Ireland has ever known. Perhaps it was his experience on the mountain that inspired him to bind a demon, a junior one, into an iron bell to create a weapon. The Bell of the Blood exists to this day.
Elements of this short story appear in the novel The Last Days of Magic, now out in paperback from Penguin. MarkTompkinsBooks.com