St. Patrick Should Have Used Science to Banish Snakes


While St. Patrick’s Day may appear to be a day designed to celebrate beer and dye rivers green, it’s actually a commemoration of the time Christianity arrived in Ireland by way of a missionary known today as St. Patrick. The 5th-century bishop, who supposedly died on March 17, is also known for one very famous event: Driving snakes off of the chalky cliffs of Ireland and into the sea. It’s a great story, except that it didn’t happen. But if it did, St. Patrick could have made it happen using science instead of hoping for a miracle.

There have actually never been snakes in Ireland because the timing of the Ice Age and the subsequent flooding of the land bridge between the Emerald Isle and Europe prevented snakes from migrating over when the climate was right. But if that environmental change happened differently and snakes could have made it to Ireland, St. Patrick may have had a shot at driving at least some of them out anyways. In this version he could have skipped out on the miracles, and tried science out instead.

Consider snake charming: While it may appear that a charmed cobra is hypnotized by the sounds of music, control is actually rooted in the movement of the human and instrument in front of the snake. Herpetologist Robert Drewes explained to Popular Science that snakes rise up in front of charmers because they are in a defensive pose, and their swaying is dependent on the object moving in front of them. Snakes don’t have ears, despite what a snake-charmer’s flute my suggest, so their stimuli are hyper-visual.

This would matter to St. Patrick because he may have been able to take control of what some scientists think is happening here: hypnosis. It’s important to note that this isn’t a widely tested theory, but a popular neurophysiological theory in the 20th century suggested that animals, like snakes, could be entranced into a state of “profound immobility and relative unresponsiveness.” The technical term for this animal hypnosis is an “immobility reflex,” and it was thought that different forms of sensory stimulation — like a man swaying in front of a snake — could reduce animals to this state.

St. Patrick could have, hypothetically, used his bod and bishop staff to hypnotize snakes into a vulnerable state, thus comprising a semi-effective step one of a snake evacuation plan. Luckily, today people who wish to rid their land of snakes don’t have to rely on hypnosis or a miracle. They can just drop parachute-clad mice stuffed with acetaminophen as a poisonous snack to the unsuspecting reptiles below.

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