The Serpent and the Man who Drove Them Out.
March 17th is St Patrick’s Day. It is also the Feast of Damballah. The only thing these traditions seem to share is the date, a fascinating history, and snakes. In honor of this, during March we are running a special on Damballah Voodoo Lather. So what are these fascinating histories, and how are they intertwined?
St Patrick’s and His Day
First let’s look at the primary patron saint of Ireland and why people have celebrated him for the past 1,000 years.
St. Patrick’s Fascinating history
St. Patrick lived in the 5th century. He grew up in Roman Britain. The precise location of his birth is under much debate. Some claim his birthplace to be in modern day England. Others place it somewhere in Scotland, or even Wales. At the tender age of 16 he was kidnapped and taken to Ireland as a slave. During his enslavement he found his spirituality and converted to Christianity.
Six years later, he began hearing a voice that told him how to escape. After a rather arduous journey, he returned to his family. He then further dedicated himself to his Christian devotion. Now this story could end here and would make a very satisfying movie. It does not, however, end here.
A few years after returning home, St. Patrick began having a vision of a man that came from Ireland. This man was calling him back to the land of his captivity. The man told him to spread his faith amongst the Irish natives. St. Patrick followed these instructions and returned to the Emerald Isle as a missionary. He was so successful he later became a bishop in Ireland. Now, he shares the honor of being the patron saint of Ireland with St Brigid of Kildare. Why hasn’t Hollywood taken this story up yet?
St Patrick’s Day
The first St Patrick’s Day parade occurred in 1601 in a Spanish colony down in Florida.
For over 1,000 years the Irish have celebrated St. Patrick’s Day as a religious holiday. March 17th is the presumed anniversary of St. Patrick’s death. To them, on St. Patrick’s Day, the morning is spent in church followed by an afternoon feast. This is very different from how America observes St. Patrick's Day.
Today in America, St. Patrick’s Day means the green beers and rivers flow freely. People, of Irish descent or not, celebrate Irish pride. For Americans, St. Patrick’s Day is far more about being Irish than being Catholic. It happens that there is a very good reason for this.
Upon arrival in America, Irish immigrants were not treated very well. As the Irish population in the States increased, they began using their numbers to improve their standing in politics and society. St. Patrick’s Day parades were a display of Irish solidarity. They were a display of the increasing power they had in their communities. With this show of power both their stature in society and treatment improved.
St Patrick’s Legacy
Despite the differences in celebrating St Patrick's Day, the legends surrounding him remain the same. Many legends surround St. Patrick. There is a story of how he used the three-leaf clover to explain the Holy Trinity to the people.
The most famous legend is how St. Patrick led the snakes out of Ireland. There have never been any snakes in Ireland. Snakes were, however, a common symbol for pagans. So yes, in a way St. Patrick did drive the snakes out of Ireland.
Poor snakes. They have gotten a bad rap, at least amongst the Abrahamic religions. The whole garden of Eden thing and being the symbol for the embodiment of evil don’t look good. Not all word views see the snake as evil though.
Snakes in religion
At its most ancient core, serpents are a symbol for death, life, rebirth, and fertility. The shedding of skin signifies continuous renewal. We see this symbology around the world from different cultures and throughout time. One of the most prevalent cross cultural images of this is the Ouroboros.
Whether you’re familiar with the term Ouroboros or not, you’ve seen the symbol. This is the image of a serpent eating its own tail. It represents the wholeness of creation. It is the continuous circle of life, death, rebirth and fertility. The oldest record of this symbol was a text located in the grave of Tutenkhamen dating from the 14th century BC. This symbol is also found in Roman, Norse, Greek, Germanic, South American, and Indian cultures.
Positive snake references are also seen in Buddhist texts, the Hindu Vedas, Hellenistic, Assyrian, Sumarian, Minoan, Aborigonal, Mayan, African, and Native American mythologies. See? Not all snakes are bad. Some are even seen as creators. Damballah is one example of a creator serpent.
Danballah, Damballah or Damballah-Wedo is the oldest and most powerful god in Vodou. He is the primordial creator, not only the world, but all the other gods as well. He is often depicted as a great white serpent. People seek Damballah’s aid in matters of wealth, prosperity, good health, and fertility.
Damballah is ancient, wise, and patient. He is so old he is not bothered by trivial human experiences. The daily trials of man are of no concern to him. His very presence is peaceful. He is a connection to our ancient heritage, and the assurance that no matter what, life will go on. Damballah is so old he predates speech. He does not communicate in spoken language.
Damballah is married to Ayida Wedo. She is the rainbow serpent. Together they make the serpent and the rainbow of Vodou. They maintain the balance of forces, as the yin and yang of Eastern traditions do.
Damballah is all about purity. His color is white and offerings to him should be white. His preference is an egg on a bed of flour. Strong scents are offensive to Damballah. Tobacco and strongly scented cleaning products are top offenders. Cleanliness is important to Damballah, just don’t use Lysol.
So how did the Saint that drove the snakes out if Ireland become associated with the great white serpent of Vodou?
Snakes are the only thing St. Patrick and Damballah have in common. Damballah is also associated with Moses for the simple reason that Moses’ staff turned into a serpent. It seems like a weak connection, but again, there is a good reason for it.
Damballah and Christianity intersected when the French brought African slaves to Haiti. In Haiti, the Catholic-French outlawed anything to do with African religions. The ruling French feared the slaves, and demonized anything to do with their home culture. This served to weaken the slaves' culture. It undermined the slaves’ community and made them easier to control. Practicing Vodou was punitive, but converting to Christianity was worthy of praise.
In Haiti, Vodou remained illegal to practice until 1972. In 2003 it was made an official religion in Haiti.
The Haitian slaves were not stupid, nor were they going to let their heritage die. To keep their own traditions alive they worshipped their own deities under the guise of Catholic saints. Due to the serpent connection Damballah took on the guise of St. Patrick. It’s funny, considering Damballah is a serpent, and St. Patrick was the man who banished serpents.
Damballas purity and simplicity was the inspiration for one of our Voodoo Lather vegan soaps. He is the only unscented, essential oil free product we make. The only scent is from the natural shea, coconut, and sal butters. It has a subtle, soft, clean, fresh scent. It leaves you feeling clean, fresh, and nurtured. Damballah approves. The nutritious plant fats used in this formula are highly nourishing and hydrating. This formula is gentle enough for even the most sensitive skin.
The Damballah formula also contains pumice. This helps you, like Damballah, shed your skin. Proper exfoliation increases circulation and sloughs off dead skin cells. This reveals young, smooth, and radiant skin.
Dambalah is becoming my favorite Lather to use. Sure, I like to spice things up with Maman Brigitte, or the Baron. You cannot go wrong with Marie Laveau or Papa Legba either. There is just something powerfully simple and soothing in the Damballah formula.
To honor Damballah and to encourage everyone to give him a try, this month take 15% off our Damballah Lather.