Sunday 1 October 2017

Fasting against god

Fasting  is typically a religious act; an individual deprives themselves of food to concentrate the mind better on God. However, in ancient Ireland, fasting was not only religious. It also had another purpose. The ancient Irish law books explain that a person could fast against a man who had injured him in some way and who was of a higher social rank.

The wronged individual went to the wrong-doers house and sat outside from dawn to dusk refusing to eat. By so doing he brought bad luck or ‘pollution’ to his opponent. The one fasted against then had two options. He could either admit his wrong and redress it – the fasting would stop and social harmony would be restored. Or he could counter fast to ward off the curse.

There is a story recorded in the Tripartite Life of St Patrick which describes how the saint forced God to grant him his requests through an act of ritual fasting. 

Patrick's requests were:

1. That the Irish people would not live permanently under oppression
2. That the country would be submerged seven years before the end of the world and so be spared the final devastation
3. That Patrick himself would be allowed to judge all the Irish people on the Last Day.

When Patrick asked God to grant him these wishes, God originally refused. The saint then, following the ancient Irish law, decides to fast against God, in order to force him to change his mind. 

St Patrick went to Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, the holy mountain of Ireland. There he climbed to the top, sat down and told a passing angel that he would not leave the mountain "till I am dead or until all my requests are granted".

The Tripartite Life of St Patrick then goes on to say that Patrick stayed on top of the Croagh Patrick without drink and without food, "with much badness of mind" and "singing malicious psalms" when God decides to test him, from Shrove Saturday to Easter Saturday. 

At the end of these forty days and forty nights God, faced with his servant’s fasting, gives in and grants Patrick his wishes...

Do you know of any similar customs involving fasting?

Now here is an interesting bit. According to the ancient Irish law: "The wronged individual went to the wrong-doers house and sat outside from dawn to dusk refusing to eat." Patrick went to Croagh Patrick, the mountain which was holy to Crom Dubh, the pre Christian Irish god. So technically Patrick was fasting in front of Crom Dubh's house...

Why? Who was Patrick really fasting against?


  1. There is that 'forty' again. Why did it captivate our ancestors so? I've heard it signified 'maturity' at the age of forty, but suspect there is more than that at work. Especially since 'Anu' (the god of heaven)'s number was 'forty', in Mesopotamian lore.

    1. (Sorry for my brain fart, it was 'Ea's number:

  2. Sounds like a form of theurgy combined with a low-grade magical superstitious practice/manipulating supernatural powers. My guess would be that through this story some smart cleric Christianized a form of folk superstition.

  3. I haven't heard that story before, but I'm not surprised. Ireland's conversation to Christianity seems to have been quite peculiar, even half-hearted. Old deities became new saints, Bridget being only the most famous example; old sacred wells became "Holy Wells"; old forms of marriage continued (easy divorce); the church was organised on clan lines around clan monasteries. It's surely significant that conversion took place without any martyrs.
    I wonder how many of the first monastery abbots were ex-druids.

  4. What injury did the author imagine that God had done Patrick?

    1. He didn't give Patrick what he wanted, which is to be the judge of the Irish instead of god...