Besides March Madness and freakish temperature changes, March in Chicago is about everyone becoming a little bit Irish. For Saint Patrick’s Day, the river goes green and enjoying a libation or two is definitely permitted. But besides celebrating the legacy of Irish-Americans and the beginning of spring, the day is a nod to its namesake Saint Patrick and his outsize influence on Irish history and culture.
One of Saint Patrick’s most celebrated achievements is banishing snakes from Ireland. Depending on your point of view, snakes are either terrifying or inspiring. Eve was tempted by the serpent in the Garden of Eden and in Nordic mythology Jörmungandr, the massive serpent that circles the world, is predicted to bring about the end of days by poisoning the air with his venom.
To be fair, snakes have some redeeming features. Across many cultures, snakes are held up as symbols of fertility and life because of their regular shedding of skin and constant "rebirth." Take a look at your health insurance card and chances are you'll see a staff with a coiled snake—in ancient Greece, Asclepius, the god of medicine, held a staff with a snake as a symbol of wellness and healing.
Taking into account the good (a symbol of life and health) and the bad (venom, temptation, and vengeance), I definitely agree with Saint Patrick's sensible policy of banishment rather than co-habitation or extermination. Hindu deity Krishna exercised a similar strategy—after the vicious snake Kaliya attacked the deity, Krishna defeated the serpent but agreed to spare him provided he went into exile.
Whether you find snakes creepy or cool, Saint Patrick's Day is a great time to consider the symbolic importance of serpents or, who am I kidding, have a hops-based beverage with friends while watching the river turn shamrock green.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Adam and Eve, 1638. Etching on ivory laid paper; 162 x 116 mm (plate). Gift of Marjorie Blum Kovler Foundation Collection and the Harry and Maribel G. Blum Foundation Collection.
God Krishna Dancing on the Head of the Snake Demon Kaliya (Kaliyamardana), Vijayanagar period, 14th century. Indian. Bronze; 67.5 x 28.6 x 21.7 cm (26 9/16 x 11 1/4 x 8 9/16 in.). Kate S. Buckingham Fund.