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“St. Patrick was born in Britain to wealthy parents near the end of the fourth century,” says this St. Patrick bio. At the age of 16, it is said he was taken prisoner by a group of Irish raiders who took him to Ireland where he spent six years in captivity. He turned to his religion for solace. A voice–which he believed to be God’s–told him to flee back to England. So he did. Then an angel in a dream told him to return to Ireland as a missionary.
The legend goes that since Patrick was already “familiar with the Irish language and culture, a he incorporated traditional ritual into his lessons of Christianity instead of attempting to eradicate native Irish beliefs. For instance, he used bonfires to celebrate Easter since the Irish were used to honoring their gods with fire. He also superimposed a sun, a powerful Irish symbol, onto the Christian cross to create what is now called a Celtic cross, so that veneration of the symbol would seem more natural to the Irish.”
However, in this history of the Celtic cross, another writer suggests that the image of St. Patrick as a really talented religious icon designer is pure folklore.
“There is a legend of how St. Patrick, when preaching to some soon-to-be converted heathens, was shown a sacred standing stone…marked with a circle…symbolic of the moon goddess. Patrick made the mark of a Latin cross through the circle and blessed the stone, making the first Celtic Cross. This legend implies that the Saint was willing to make ideas and practices that were formerly Druid into Christian ideas and practices… These, and many other stories and beliefs are the sort of folklore history that cannot be substantiated by the academic convention… “
Sort of like George Washington and the cherry tree (also probably false.) But we can’t be sure. How craftsmen came to superimpose the cross over the Druid’s circle may never be known. But what remains today is an exquisite symbol. Here’s a lovely page of Celtic crosses I’d never seen before. And here’s the surprisingly vast collection of Celtic crosses currently for sale on Ebay.