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Now THIS is one hell of a story… err, sorry, poor choice of words. Know that pastoral staff or crosier (also spelled crozier) that St. Patrick is often depicted with? According to hagiographic literature—including the “Life of Patrick,” written at the end of the twelfth century—St. Patrick’s iconic staff, which he used to banish snakes and baptize Ireland, was none other than the Bachal Isu:
The Staff of Jesus.
But the story gets better, because Patrick didn’t just happen to find Jesus’s staff in the back of a closet; he found it on an island in the care of some age-defying inhabitants. As Seumas MacManus tells it:
“Sailing to Rome, [Patrick] stopped at a house on an island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, says the story, a new house of a young married couple, who had children and grandchildren, old and decrepit. The lanamain, the young couple, had been married in the time of Jesus, who passed that way immediately after they were married and received their hospitality—for which he blessed them and their house, and said that they and it should remain new and young till the Judgement Day. In their care He left His Staff, with the injunction that it should be kept for Patrick…”source: The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland
Here, we reach a fork in the story of how Patrick received Jesus’s staff. In one version of events, the eternally youthful man simply gives the staff to Patrick and passes on word from Jesus that Patrick is to “go and preach in the land of the Gael.”
In another version, Patrick refuses the staff, citing that he would only take it if “it were given him by Christ himself.” And that’s exactly what ends up happening. To quote American writer and abolitionist minister Moncure D. Conway:
“[Patrick] was then led into a mountain by his familiar angel, where Christ met him, gave him the staff, and ordered him to go to Ireland. This Patrick did, taking no counsel of any Roman Catholic flesh and blood. He was the divinely authorized British pope and…the earliest mention of him is under that title.”source: “The Saint Patrick Myth” from The North American Review, Oct., 1883, Vol. 137
This second ending has some very interesting implications, which we’ll revisit in later posts. But for now, let us ruminate on the fact that it’s unlikely Patrick ever traveled to Rome in the first place, which means neither version of his staff’s origin story—without even mentioning the supernatural elements—really holds water. And then, of course, there’s the fact that nowhere in the New Testament does it mention that Jesus ever actually owned a staff, which leads me to a new train of thought:
What if I started out by asking the wrong question? What if Patrick never actually had a staff?
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, there is no mention of bishops wielding staffs as symbols of their holy authority until the fourth Council of Toledo—that was in 633 CE, after Patrick’s time. So maybe the whole Patrick-holding-a-staff thing is an anachronism: Once shepherd’s staffs, or croziers, became important symbols in Christianity, artists made it a point to retroactively put one in the hands of St. Patrick, as well as in the hands of other saints (and Jesus).
But here’s where this story takes one final, serpentine (sorry, Patrick) twist. Because while the symbolism of the pastoral staff is obvious—it’s the tool of a shepherd, used to tend to one’s flock, its hooked end, or crook, used to reign in those wandering astray—Patrick wasn’t merely a metaphorical shepherd. St. Patrick was an actual shepherd.
Want to learn more about Saint Patrick? Check out…
Saint Patrick in Your Pocket
Separate man from myth, fact from folklore, in this small but mighty pocket guide dedicated to uncovering lesser-known facts about Ireland’s most beloved patron saint. Armed with answers to these 20 tantalizing questions, you’ll be the smartest reveler in the room at your next Saint Patrick’s Day party. Learn more…
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