Origins and Meanings of
St. Patrick's Day Symbols
Once again, happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone! On this day, the good deeds of Ireland's favorite missionary (and slave) are hailed by one and all (except for some Protestants) by wearing green, clipping on a shamrock lapel pin, and drinking Guinness Beer. And while most know the general story surrounding dear St. Patrick, few these days are aware of the origins of many of its popular symbols.
As is the case with most other popular holidays (click here and here), many of the symbols of St. Patrick's Day are heavily rooted in pagan origins. And of course the most popular St. Patrick's Day symbol is the shamrock. Often associated with Christian symbolism (many suggest that St. Patrick himself used the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the Trinity) the special nature of the shamrock is actually much older. In Celtic lore, the number three is a significant and holy number. Instead of representing the three parts of the Christian Trinity, the shamrock held pagan significance for its representation of sky, earth and underworld. In addition, it's important to point out that Celtic symbolism was highly dependent on number sequences. Also, the pagan goddess Brigit, whose sacred number is often either 3 or 9, had special significance when it came to the shamrock. Celtic beliefs were also deeply dependent on magic enchantments and lucky charms. And since the shamrock was easy for both the rich and the poor to obtain, it became a popular "lucky charm" to carry around (incidentally, this helps to explain why a 4-leaf clover is/was seen as popular. It was a rare gem that represented even greater luck).
And of course, what would St. Patrick's Day be without Leprechauns! Originally (at least according to Celtic lore) leprechauns were sometimes considered to be sea creatures that would grant three wishes (there's that #3 again) to anyone who could catch them. Later, however, the leprechaun evolved into a mischievous, miniature fairy who made shoes, protected pots of gold and, interestingly enough, wore RED!
But to really understand the origins of the leprechaun, we have to look at the Celtic tales of Tuatha Dé Danann. In Celtic mythology, the Tuatha Dé Danann are a race of gods who not only controlled Ireland but much of the heavens. It was believed that a rainbow was their bridge between this world and the world beyond, and that if one could get to the end of a rainbow before it disappeared a common person could join their ranks. Over time, and with the appearance of Christianity, the Tuatha Dé Danann were replaced with Christian deity (and saints like St. Patrick) and the magical, enchanting gods of Celtic mythology disappeared...or at least evolved into the more modern form: a leprechaun.
Contrary to popular belief, the shamrock is not the official symbol of Ireland. The harp has that all-important distinction. In Medieval Ireland, the harp took on special significance, since it was believed that its music could commune with the gods. As a result, harp players were usually from the nobility and carried tremendous importance in Irish society. In addition, since the harp's music was considered the language of the gods, many harp players had their eyes removed, since it was believed that looking upon god was unacceptable.
So the next time you take a look at one of these "lucky charms" remember that you are in good company. They go back a long way indeed and carry powerful "magic." No wonder the Irish always get mad about "people after me lucky charms!"
And why all the green? Check out this post for that answer.