Devil, Banshee and Lough Derg
Saint Patrick and the Great Owl
Irish History is richly laced with folk tale, superstition, myths, legends and religious account of events that defy logic. This is true of the stories found in the annals of the four masters. The legend of Saint Patrick's slaying of the serpent described in the famous Irish text Acallam na Senorach (Colloguy of the Ancients) is no doubt one of the most famous.
It was in this text that the name Lough Derg, a lake located in Donegal County, was coined as the red lake based on a translation of the word dearg being red. The lake of blood was said to have resulted from the blood spewing into the waters of Lough Derg when St. Patrick slew the last remaining serpent on Saints’ Island. This serpent was the mother and last of all the serpents in Ireland despite the fact that a later story tell of St. Fin-Bar’s drowning of another murderous winged dragon on Gougane Barra Lough located in Cork county. In either case both winged beasts appear to share similar behavior and habitats. The Serpent is not seen as a snake or dragon but typically as a winged creature as depicted in the tiled mosaics found in the altar railings of Saint Patrick’s basilicas along with the horned elks to its sides, perched atop the chancel’s hanging chandeliers.
The images of the winged beast flanked by two horned Elk can also be seen in a 3000 BCE copper relief of the monstrous lion-headed bird Imdugud of the Temple of the Goddess Nenbursag at Tell-al-Ubaid. This relief was thought to represent evil and demonic powers. Thus the story of Patrick's slaying of this or a like creature may be allegorical to his casting of the beast or devil down into the bowels of the earth.
There also appears to be a connection with the disposal of the remains of the winged beast, which was cast into a hole or cave, which drives a second interpretation of the meaning of lough derg found in the Annals of Ulster. These passages refer to Cillene, an abbot of locha Gercc in 721AD who lived on Saints’ Island. Here lough Derg and locha Gercc being translated Derc references instead the island’s pit or cave rather than the color of the lakes’ water. The cave or pit on Patrick’s Island can be better visualized in its depiction in a painted manuscript in the Biliotheque Nationale, Parris, where St Patrick is given by Christ the Bacall Iosa, his pastoral staff, and is shown purgatory which lies within the pit below.
These and other stories of St. Patrick and St. Fin Bar’s exploits in Ireland reveal images of something other than snakes or huge dragons roaming the countryside consuming maidens and knights. Put into perspective, neither Patrick nor Fin Bar were men of massive girth and in all likelihood were only armed with walking sticks in their encounters with these beasts. We can all agree that they would have been ill equipped to do battle with any 800 pound flying serpent.
Instead now picture an ominous flying creature tipping the scale at somewhere between 20 or 30 lbs. A creature of this size would be a fair fight for one or two emaciated monks clothed in ankle-length robes wandering the countryside. I’m not trying to limit or discredit these gentlemen’s heroic feats but both the written accounts and drawings of the era point to frightening and fearful creatures from hell small enough to spring forth from an opening in the ground not much bigger than a fox’s hole.
Recognizing it would have taken men of incredible faith and trust in the Lord to leave the safety of their fires in the pitch black of the night, given the stories of the marauding screeching Banshees’ roaming the countryside.
The Banshee has much more to do with the winged beast than may have been first thought. Banshees were believed to be the Celtic messengers of death often pictured as skinny women lurking in the shadows of the night. One legend describes a washwoman who died in childbirth as the origin of the crying banshee. Banshees could often be seen washing or preening next to pools or fjords in the forest singing a dirge or crying in the dimness of morning light. The banshees’ small figure was described as having narrow shoulders standing stooped or in a hunch over posture much like that of an old hag. Here the descriptions disturbingly don’t depict a human figure, quite the contrary the image becomes more like that of a bird with its head nestled between its wings bent forward pitching downward in an effort to drink from the waters passing before it.
Other accounts describe brief bounds into flight though the creature was generally confined to walking the land in the dark of night. These and other stories presented by the monks may have been greatly influenced by their knowledge of ancient religions and early depiction of Lilith, Adam companion before Eve.
Lilith is shown in a wall relief as a voluptuous female being crowned in feathered like hair and wings. Her owls like feet are perched atop two male lions binding them together by their waists (common lust). Both her breasts and her crotch are mirrored images of those of the two owls shown on either side of her. In this relief women are shown as raw and controlling creatures of the night. Lilith uses her beauty and beguiles to the weakness of her male adversaries by make them prisoners of their lustful desires. Hence they become her and her sister’s prey. Patrick’s propensity toward misogyny common amongst the clergy of that era would have naturally lead Him to the conclusion that his battle was with the devil.
In the words of Paul Harvey, “Now the rest of the story”
The beast or beasts destroyed by St. Patrick and St. Fin Bar were likely the last of an ancient species of ground burrowing Owls known as Ornimegalonyx Otero or the Cuban Giant Owl. This bird weighed upwards of 20 to possibly 30 pounds and stood between 36 to 46 inches in height. It wings might have been as expansive as 14 feet from tip to tip. Its behavior was most likely nocturnal possible diurnal because of its limitation to short flights and ground dwelling propensities.
By all standards this raptor’s nocturnal hunting of prey, screeching cry in the dead of night and silent flight allowing it to appear from nowhere would have struck fear in all but the most sound of heart. Seen from the backside in the fleeing light of night or early morning this creature would appear, with it’s skinny elongated legs, short pear shaped body and bushy head, much like an old woman fetching water or scrubbing laundry at the water’s edge.
In conclusion these birds would not have been a danger to man unless attack forcing it to defend itself before fleeing. Unfortunately in this world we often kill or destroy those things we don’t understand and in our regret rationalize our actions by making ourselves the hero rather then the villain. This magnificent species of bird appeared to have done all it could to remain out of the sight of man. Living on remote islands dwelling in subterranean caves this species remained safe until monks’ seeking solitude for prayer entered their habitats and that was the end of the story.
In the end we conserve only what we love, we love only what we understand and we understand only what we are taught” (Baba Dioum quotes)