Corra – the serpent Goddess of Ireland
by Cheryl Straffon & Lana Jarvis
During a recent research trip we made to Northern Ireland (for a forthcoming book on The Goddess in Ireland), we came across a Goddess we had not heard of before – not something that happens very often in Ireland, where most of the Goddesses are known from Celtic legend and early texts. As it so happens, this was a rather special Goddess – perhaps a Goddess from the pre-mythic days of Ireland.
The first clue came in the far west of Co.Donegal, when we were exploring some of the megalithic sites in the area. One of these was at Cloghacorra, where two standing stones were said to mark either end of a ‘giant’s grave’, but are probably the remains of a much collapsed portal dolmen.
The name Cloghacorra interested us, as it appears to mean ‘stones of Corra’. It turns out that Corra was the name of the great serpent Goddess of Ireland, who predated Christianity.
The legend of St.Patrick’s arrival in Ireland includes the story of how he drove all the serpents from the island. The location for this banishment is traditionally thought to be at Clencolmcille, which is just a few miles up the road from Cloghacorra. Of course the legend is really a mythopoeic story to explain the ‘triumph’ of Christianity over the native pagan religion of Ireland, a paganism that was clearly Goddess-celebrating. Another version of the story has St.Patrick chasing the Corra further north to Lough Derg, which then became a great centre of Christianity.
Lough Derg is a site of Christian pilgrimage today, undoubtedly the most sacred lake in Ireland for Catholicism. There are several islands in the lake, and on the nearest one to the shore, Station Island, a basilica and retreat sanctuary has been built. Catholic pilgrims come here by boat from all over the world for one and three day retreats. However, in the past (from at least the 12th to the 16th centuries), the more northerly island, Saints Island, was the place of pilgrimage. It was a Purgatory Centre, and contained the original priory of the lake. As Michael Dames says: “Purgatory was, in the first instance, a negation of the pre-Christian earth goddess. The new religion from the Middle East had denounced the feminine all the way from Eve in Genesis to the Whore of Babylon in Revelations, while Old Testament railings against the Goddess in her many guises permeates the writings spread by a celibate priesthood and came into conflict at every level with native Irish traditions”.¹ And, as we discovered, it was here that marked the final confrontation between St.Patrick and the great serpent Goddess, Corra.
The Irish scholar Mary Condren points out in her book The Serpent and the Goddess: women, religion and power in Celtic Ireland, that the symbol of the serpent was the one most widely used to represent the Goddess of the Near East, and to depict, or mediate, the relationships between goddesses and human culture, and “even before this symbol arrived in Ireland, the essence of serpent or Goddess religions was to be found”.² The image of the serpent, because of its association with life, rejuvenation, fertility and regeneration, was a symbol of immortality, and as such was opposed by the incoming Christian church, with its doctrines of duality and salvation through Christ alone. The Goddesses of Ireland, of which there were many, had to be subdued, negated and minimised, and the greatest threat of them all would have been the serpent Goddess, who had to be defeated by their foremost champion St.Patrick. Thus we have the story of St.Patrick chasing Corra, the serpent Goddess, through northern Ireland to the scene of the final confrontation at Lough Derg.
So it was to Lough Derg that we drove in search of Corra. We knew that there would be no trace of memory of her at the present-day Station Island Pilgrimage Centre, so instead we drove around the lake until we reached a spot with a good view of the more northerly Saints Island, the location of the original priory, and the spot where St.Patrick was supposed to have come in pursuit of Corra. According to Cary Meehan³, the legend tells of how she swallowed him whole, after which it took him two days and nights to cut himself free, killing her in the process. The water around turned red with her blood and her body turned to stone. These stones were to be seen, jutting out into the lake from the island, and as part of the penitent experience of Purgatory on the island, Christian pilgrims would stand on the stones, presumably to symbolise Patrick’s ‘victory’ over the serpent Goddess and to confront their own fears of her.
But as we know now, it was something of a pyrrhic victory for the Christians. Corra may have been killed, and there are certainly no serpents in Ireland (probably there never were), but the serpent energy of the Goddess cannot so easily be eliminated. It reasserted itself in the Celtic knot work that was such a feature of Celtic art made by the early monks and scribes, and it has continued to be popular ever since.
But more than that, Ireland has seen a huge revival of interest in her mythic history and the celebration of her festivals; and the original pre-Christian Goddesses are once again celebrated, loved and invoked in their native land. We thought of all this as we gazed out over the lake to the stones of Corra, glistening in the morning sunshine, and softly chanted the name of this powerful serpent Goddess of Ireland.
Image Publications, 2002]