Even though snakes never inhabited Ireland, as in the rest of the ancient world both the serpent and the dragon were ancient symbols of life, fertility, wisdom and immortality for the Celts. Ancient Celtic ornamental work is entwined with serpents and dragons. The Celtic Knot can be seen as a never-ending serpent. A large stone with a carved serpent is found at the sacred cairn sites of Knowth. The megalithic structure of Brug na Bóinne (Newgrange) has multiple serpent-like spirals on the entrance stone.
In Scotland there is the earthen serpent at Glen Feochan, Loch Nell. The Pictish Aberlemno Serpent Stone is engraved with a serpent and other symbols. The torque collar, a symbol of kingship and status was created in the form of a hybrid horned dragon/snake. The serpent was connected to healing pools and springs and the Druids believed the serpent had healing powers together with a certain type of egg shaped stone called a “serpent’s egg.”
The primal connection of Goddess to serpent to earth was alive all across the ancient world. Corra, the Great Serpent Goddess of Ireland and Scotland, was probably there before the Milesians (the ancestors of the current day Celts) arrived. She was probably there before the Tuatha de Danaan arrived. Corra, whose name is almost forgotten today, embodied the Earth, calling forth the serpents of life, death and rebirth to twine the magic of eternity around the lives of our ancestors.
Corra is of the earth and yet She can also transform into a crane, symbolizing the transformation of body to spirit on our journey through the great circle of life.
Her ancient stories are lost to us today. The only story that survives is the one in which St. Patrick kills Her and drives the snakes from Ireland. Since there were no snakes in Ireland this story is most certainly a mythopoetic one, illustrating the triumph of Christianity over the Old Religion, the Druids, and the worship of Corra.
In the story St. Patrick chases Corra all across Ireland to the final battle at Lough Derg. Lough Derg was an important religious site for the Old Religion with several islands in the lake. A prehistoric mound is visible on Station Island where today a Christian basilica and popular retreat sanctuary are prominent. The more northerly island, Saints Island, was the most important site of pilgrimage for the early Christians. It was a Purgatory Center and housed the original priory of the lake.
In one version of the story when Corra faced down St Patrick at Lough Derg She swallowed him whole. As Mircea Eliade noted in Rites and Symbols of Initiation, being swallowed by the snake can be seen as a return to the womb and – “a complete regeneration of the initiate through his gestation and birth by the Great Mother.”
St Patrick passed two days and two nights within Corra cutting his way out and killing her in the process. The water of the lake turned red with Her blood and Her body turned to stone. These stones were seen jutting out of the lake near to Saints Island and became part of the penitent experience of Purgatory.
The cave of the purgatory reflects yet another pagan association with the story. It corresponds to the long-practiced, Old European tradition of “incubation” or “temple sleep.” A far cry from purgatory where the dead go to suffer from their sins before being allowed into heaven, sacred caves were used by initiates to enter the Otherworld, meet their ancestors and gain knowledge and wisdom to bring back to a renewed life. Generally serpents were associated with these caves and with the initiation experience. The cave of St Patrick’s Purgatory might well have been a dream cave used in pagan initiation ceremonies. It might well have been a cave where worshippers of the Old Religion went to meet the Celtic Great Serpent Goddess, Corra, thus gaining wisdom and deep knowledge of the never-ending cycle of life.
Corra calls you to honor your place as a child of the Goddess, to rejoice in the beauty of physical life on Earth, to dive deep and then to surface and to accept the ever changing, transformative nature of life as you move through its cycles from birth to death to rebirth.
Judith Shaw, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, has been interested in myth, culture and mystical studies all her life. Not long after graduating from SFAI, while living in Greece, Judith began exploring the Goddess in her artwork. She continues to be inspired by the Goddess in all of Her manifestations. Originally from New Orleans, Judith now makes her home in New Mexico where she paints as much as time allows and sells real estate part-time. She is now in the editing stage of her deck of Celtic Goddess Cards, which should be released soon. Give yourself the gift of one of Judith’s prints or paintings, priced from $25 – $3000.