The Celtic dragon and serpent were ancient symbols of fertility, wisdom, and immortality. A hybrid horned dragon/snake figure was connected to the torque collar, a symbol of kingship and status, and to the horned deity Cernunnos. The serpent was related to the dragon, and was connected with healing pools and springs. The Romans observed that the Druids especially revered the serpent for healing, and that they ascribed the same powers to the “serpent’s egg,” a particular sort of egg-shaped stone. A number of old tales feature magical treasure-guarding serpents who reside in wells- a common motif is the horned snake who guards a golden torque, a reference to divine authority.
The dragon represents the untamed forces of nature, and often dwelt deep within the earth or sea. A red protector dragon has been a symbol of Wales for more than a thousand years, and dragons of various sorts featured heavily in late heroic tales, especially those of the exploits of Merlin. After the advent of Christianity, the dragon was more likely to symbolize chaos, and many tales of the saints pit the holy men against rampaging dragons who cause natural disasters, stories in which the dragons are not too subtle analogies of the pagan religions- Christians who came to evangelize the Druids took the sacred serpents as sure signs that the Druids were devil worshipers.
|Pictish carving||Serpent capital from the Book of Kells|
One of the best known tales of St Patrick is the driving of the serpents from Ireland, a myth that purports to explain Ireland’s lack of snakes, but also carries overtones of religious conflict. If one views the snakes as the emblems of the Druids, the tale takes on another level of meaning, namely, that the serpents are not animals, but the Pagan way of life. This interpretation is borne out by many other references to battles with dragons or serpents undertaken by the saints, which invariably occur on sites formerly sacred to the Druids. This is not to say such battles necessarily took place at all, but may be poetic license to deal with the embarrassing reality of many a church sited on former Pagan holy grounds, which may have mattered much more as the centuries passed.
More Celtic Symbols