The Goddess Brigid
Perhaps one of the most complex and contradictory Goddesses of the Celtic pantheon, Brigid can be seen as the most powerful religious figure in all of Irish history. Many layers of separate traditions have intertwined, making Her story and impact complicated but allowing Her to move so effortlessly through the centuries. She has traveled intact through generations, fulfilling different roles in divergent times.The pre-Christian Goddess who became a Saint. A member of the mythological Tuatha Dé Danann, Brigid is associated with the Spring, new life, poets and smithcraft among other things.
Brigid is the traditional patroness of healing, poetry and smithcraft, which are all practical and inspired wisdom. Brigid is also the Goddess of physicians and healing, divination and prophecy. One of Her most ancient names is Breo-saighead meaning fiery arrow, and within that name is the attribute of punishment and divine justice.
As a solar deity Her attributes are light, inspiration and all skills associated with fire. Although She might not be identified with the physical Sun, She is certainly the benefactress of inner healing and vital energy.
Also long known as The Mistress of the Mantle, She represents the sister or virgin aspect of the Great Goddess. The deities of the Celtic pantheon have never been abstraction or fictions but remain inseparable from daily life. The fires of inspiration, as demonstrated in poetry, and the fires of the home and the forge are seen as identical. There is no separation between the inner and the outer worlds. The tenacity with which the traditions surrounding Brigid have survived, even the saint as the thinly-disguised Goddess, clearly indicates her importance.
After Ireland was converted to Christianity, many of the old Pagan traditions were Christianised too. The same is most likely true for Saint Brigid, who shares many attributes with her Pre-Christian counterpart. This has made the story of Brigid quite complex.
The old stories once told of the Pagan Goddess likely came to be reattributed to an Irish nun, also named Brigid, who’s life and works were recorded by medieval "hagiographers" (writers who documented the lives of Saints). There is a lot of debate amongst scholars about the reliability of these writings, and there is even debate about whether a nun named Brigid really existed at all. Regardless of their origin, the stories are very interesting, and offer fantastic contemporary insights into life in Early-Christian Ireland.
Brigid is celebrated on the 1st of February. This festival is known as Imbolc in the Gaelic tradition, or St. Brigid’s day for Christians. The word Imbolc literally translates to ‘in the belly’, referring to the pregnant sheep who will soon give birth to their lambs. Both celebrations mark the beginning of Spring, and many of the symbols that are used in Christian celebration at this time of year are taken from Pagan traditions, such as eggs and lambs which are both associated with fertility.
Imbolc divides winter in half; the Crone months of winter are departing and the promise of the Spring Maiden is around the corner. This holiday eventually became modern day Candlemas with Saint Brigid’s Day and the Feast of the Purification of Mary being celebrated during this period of time. This celebration was definitely a feminine festival. Women would gather to welcome the maiden aspect of the Goddess as embodied by Brigid. Corn cakes made from the first and last of the harvest were made and distributed and this practice remains a part of Her celebration. During these festivities, She was commonly represented by a doll, dressed in white, with a crystal upon Her chest.
This doll, usually a Corn Dolly, was carried in procession by maidens also dressed in white. Gifts of food were presented to the Goddess with a special feast given by and for the maidens. Young men were invited to this feast for the purpose of ritual mating to insure that new souls would be brought in to replace those lost during the cold times.
The holiday has pastoral connections due to the association of the coming into milk of the sheep. Although Brigid is designated as an all-encompassing deity during Imbolc, She is honored in Her capacity as the Great Mother.
Brigid the Goddess was a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann. She was the daughter of the Daghdha, the famous father-figure of Irish mythology. In these tales she married Bres, an unpopular King of the Tuatha Dé Danann who was half Fomorian and half Tuatha Dé Danann. She had a son with Bres whom she named Ruadán.
She appears in several stories throughout Irish mythology, for example when her son Ruadán was killed during the second battle of Moytura she went to the battlefield to mourn him. This was said to have been the first tears shed in Ireland, describing her lilting, singing wails as keening.
Her associations with the Spring, fertility and new life are probably what are most strongly associated with her to this day. She ushers in the sun's warmth after the long winter months and calls the earth to bear fruits once again. It is said that Brigid leans over the cradle of every child.
Brigid the Saint
After the conversion of Ireland to Christianity, Brigid was likely adopted by the Church into Saint Brigid. This says a lot about how important she was to the Pagan Irish, as the Church went as far as to bring her stories and associations into their faith to make it less strange to the Irish who they were converting.
Her evolution from Goddess to saint linked Pagan Celtic and Christian traditions much the same way the Cauldron of Cerridwen and the Holy Grail were combined in Arthurian legend. She acts as a bridge between the two worlds and successfully made the transition back to Goddess again with most of Her traditions retained. The worship of Saint Brigid has persisted up until the early 20th century with Her Irish cult nearly supplanting that of Mary. She is commemorated in both Ireland and the highlands and islands of Scotland.
In order to incorporate Brigid into Christian worship, and to insure Her survival, her involvement in the life of Jesus became the stuff of legend. According to the stories in The Lives of the Saints, Brigid was the midwife present at the birth, placing three drops of water on His forehead. This seems to be a Christianized version of an ancient Celtic myth concerning the Sun of Light upon Whose head three drops of water were placed in order to confer wisdom.
Further, as a Christianized saint, Brigid was said to be the foster-mother of Jesus, fostering being a common practice among the Celts. She took the Child to save Him from the slaughter of male infants supposedly instigated by Herod. She wore a headdress of candles to light their way to safety.
St. Brigid's Patronage is known far and wide and takes many forms, including Ireland, Leinster, farming, protection of the household and hearth, and protection of vulnerable children and babies. She is seen as Ireland’s second saint, with St. Patrick being the first.
The story of Brigid’s life as a saint is said to start when Dubhthach, a chieftain of Leinster, got her mother pregnant. He then sold Brigid’s mother while she was pregnant to a Druid at the behest of his wife. Her holiness is said to have manifested as an infant when she became ill if the Druid tried to feed her. It manifested in her later childhood in the form of extreme generosity as she gave all her father’s belongings away.
It is said that Brigid went on and founded a monastery in Kildare around the year 480. The story goes that is was founded on the site of a Pagan shrine to the Celtic goddess Brigid under a large sacred oak tree. A group of young women tended an eternal flame on the site which burns to this day. Over the course of her life, she would be a pioneer of clerical lives for women in Ireland, and a patron of the arts. She is also said to have enjoyed a close friendship with St. Patrick.
The shrine at Kildare is assumed to be a Christian survival of an ancient college of vestal priestesses who were trained and then scattered throughout the land to tend sacred wells, groves, caves and hills. These priestesses were originally committed to thirty years in service but, after this period, were free to marry and leave. The first ten years were spent in training, ten in the practice of their duties and the final ten in teaching others, similar to the three degrees of initiation found in most traditions.
These women preserved old traditions, studied sciences and healing remedies and, perhaps, even the laws of state. At Kildare their duties must have involved more than merely tending the fire. This perpetual fire at the monastic city was tended by nineteen nuns over a period of nineteen days. On the twentieth day, Brigid Herself is said to keep the fire burning.
The site for the monastery at Kildare was chosen for its elevation and also for the ancient Oak found there, considered so sacred that no weapon was permitted to be placed near it, with fines collected for the gathering of deadfalls within its area.
The word, Kildare, comes from ‘Cill Dara’, the Church of the Oak. The entire area was known as Civitas Brigitae, ‘The City of Brigid’. The preservation of the sacred fire became the focus of this convent. The abbess was considered to be the reincarnation of the saint and each abbess automatically took the name, Brigid, upon investiture. The convent was occupied continuously until 1132 C. E., with each abbess having a mystical connection to the saint and retaining her name.
There are many traditions all across Ireland that are associated with Brigid. The most famous of these is the making of a Brigid’s cross. These crosses are usually made by bending reeds into a cross shape, and have their origins in pre-Christian Ireland. They are made for protection from evil spirits and sickness, and to honor Brigid.
Another tradition is to leave a scarf called a brat bhríde outside on St Brigid’s eve on the windowsill or on a doorknob. It is said that Brigid would touch the scarf during the night and it would have healing properties, from a cure for infertility to an effective remedy for headaches for the rest of the year.
Other traditions include farmers turning a sod in their field to ensure a plentiful harvest, housewives preparing a festive supper, children going from door to door with a statue of Brigid, and marriage divination rituals.
For many lovers of Irish mythology and spirituality, Brigid is a particularly important figure. She is better known than many other figures from Irish mythology, in part because of her journey through the centuries from Paganism to Christianity. Perhaps unintentionally, the fact that she was adopted to the Christian Church has kept her Pagan roots alive more than any other God or Goddess.
Her association with Spring, and Imbolc celebrations are acknowledged around the world and she is seen as a motherly figure representing new life and fertility, along as a strong advocate for the poor and sick.
From just these few tales, it’s clear the Brigid is variable, adaptable, powerful, and inspiring. And for many pagan, Catholics, and others who celebrate her, she still is. So, light a candle for Brigid tonight if you feel like it, and take a spark of inspiration.
Many Blessings J
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