The distinction between myth and folk-tale isn’t always all that clear. Many myths incorporate folk-tale motifs, and many stories are simply narratives that just happen to have a god or goddess as protagonist. We can see this in Brigid of Ireland, a religious symbol with multi-vocality that links one sphere of reality with others. This shouldn’t be surprising, for it has been said that the Irish nature is rooted in a pagan heart and a Christian soul.1 This juxtaposition of seeming opposites at the beginning of the new millennium drew me to Ireland, to celebrations of an ancient goddess and a Catholic saint, both called Brigid, both celebrated on the same feast day. She is a figure positioned both in and between two worlds. If she is a decolonized goddess, she is simultaneously a colonized one.
Little is known for certain about pre-Christian beliefs in the Goddess Brigid, as the Irish had no written alphabet and what has been handed down was written by Christian missionaries after the 5th century c.e. She was called Brigit. Brigid , Brede, Brid, Brigida, and Bride, and was the daughter of the Daghda, the Good God, the Good Father or the All-Father. She was one of three sister goddesses, all named Brigid. They were Brigid Goddess of Healing, Brigid of Poetry, and Brigid of Metal Smithing. The number three was significant to the Celts, suggesting potency, and groupings of three were common in Celtic symbol and myth. Brigid was also associated with nurture, fire, and especially fertility, as she was called upon to protect and multiply the herds and provide a fruitful harvest. It was said that Brigid breathed “life into the mouth of dead winter,” and the Celtic festival of Imbolc held on February 1st was sacred to her and considered the first day of spring. The word Imbolc has been translated into ewe’s milk and parturition, and women still call on Brigid today when giving birth.
Unlike other preCeltic deities, Brigid transcended territorial boundaries from the beginning. In one saga, she is of the indigenous tribe of Danu and married off to Bres of the Fomorians, the mythic invaders of ancient Ireland. Their son is taught how to make weapons by his maternal kin. But having learned, he turns on his mother’s people, and is killed by their sacred metal smith. Brigid mourns the deaths and it is said that this was the first time crying and shrieking were heard in Ireland. Although scholars have yet to agree on whether Brigid was in Ireland before the Celts arrived or if she was a Celtic deity they brought to Ireland with them, she acts as a bridge for the two warring peoples.
It is almost impossible to tease apart the stories of the Goddess and the Saint. Celtic scholar Nigel Pennick is among many who believe that an individual priestess of the goddess Brigid became identified mythically with the goddess herself. Having adopted Christianity, the priestess became the focus of devotion rather than the more abstract female deity. The qualities once ascribed to the goddess Brigid were now ascribed to St. Brigid, whose sacred places were maintained as Christian shrines.
The earliest surviving Life of Brigid was written by the monk Cogitosus within 150 years of her reported death in the 6th century.2 This forms the basis for the Brigidine hagiography. Stories of her grew in scope, spread widely, and were finally collected in the Book of Lismore in the latter half of 15th century, 800 years after her reported death. Although there is no concrete evidence that the woman who became Saint Brigid ever really existed, this is what the stories from her hagiography tell us.
Brigid was born at dawn on the threshold of her home, between night and day, between house and field. Her mother, a Christian bondmaid or slave, was returning to the house from the milking when she went into labor and delivered Brigid right there on the doorstep. The women of the house immediately bathed the infant with milk from her mother’s pail. (Milk, incidentally, was used for baptism up until the 12th century in Ireland.) Brigid’s father was a pagan nobleman or local chieftan whose jealous wife had made him sell the pregnant slave who was Brigid’s mother. He did not, however, sell the unborn child. A Druid had told him that the child would be “a daughter conspicuous, radiant, who will shine like a sun among the stars of heaven.”3 News of the blessed child-to-be traveled, reaching two Christian bishops in Scotland, who crossed the sea to bless her before her birth. Thus her coming was foretold by both pagan and Christian holy men. A different Druid from the one who had prophesied the birth bought the pregnant slave and eventually became Brigid’s foster-father and mentor, a highly significant act, as fostering relationships were often more significant than blood in early Ireland. Shortly after Brigid was born, her mother returned from the field to see a pillar of fire rising from the roof of her cottage, only to find the baby sleeping peacefully in her cradle, untouched by the flames. There are many such stories that associate Brigid with columns of flames or a fire that does not burn her.
One night her Druid foster-father awoke to see three angels disguised as priests baptizing the infant. The angels told him to name her Brigid, the name of the ancient Goddess that means the Exhaulted or Sublime One.4 At one point, the infant could not keep down any food and was wasting away. Her foster-father brought home a red-eared white cow, from which she drank milk eagerly. The description of the cow is significant, as folklore tells us that animals with this coloring belong to the Otherworld or Land of Faery. The Irish believed that the soul passed from mother to infant through breast milk, and “ties of milk” were so significant that early Irish law forbade brothers of the same mother, but not the same father, to fight each other. Thus the belief that “Faery Milk” was the only food the human infant could digest speaks directly to her link to both worlds.
Stories of her generativity and compassion follow Brigid’s growth. Everything she set her hand to would increase. Sheep had multiple births, cows could be milked three times a day, and Brigid could churn endless hampers of butter from a few milkings. Aided by her Druid foster-father, Brigid returned to the home of her biological father as a teen. There she was welcomed, until her generosity extended to giving away some of her father’s prize possessions to the poor. He decided to marry her off when she reached 14 years of age, but Brigid was determined to take the veil and plucked out her own eye to render herself unmarriageable. Successful in convincing her father, she healed her eye and traveled to the Bishop Mel for ordination. However, the story tells us that Bishop Mel became intoxicated with the grace of God and mistakenly consecrated Brigid as a bishop. While he was doing this, a fiery column ascended from her head. This “mistaken ordination” gave Brigid considerable power, including the right to appoint her own bishops.
Later, she decided to establish a monastery, and asked the king of Leinster for land. She was told she could have all the land she could cover with her cloak or brat, so she took off her brat and spread it on the ground near a great oak tree, a tree sacred to Druids. The cloak grew miraculously until it covered all the land around the town that is now called Kildare, which means Church of the Oak. On that spot, Brigid established a religious community and college for both women and men. The heads of the College of Kildare were believed to be the Goddess incarnate, and always took the name of Brigid. Goddess incarnate or not, the woman who would be canonized a saint became the most powerful abbess in Ireland, if not the world, and her monastery commanded considerable stature and influence. For her first bishop, she appointed a monk who was a skilled metal smith.
Behind her church, was the “Fire-house,” where an “inextinguishable” fire was kept. Contemporary Brigidine nuns, who still guard Brigid’s fire in their Kildare center, suggest that in pre-Christian times, priestesses used to tend ritual fires here invoking the Goddess Brigid to protect the herds and provide a fruitful harvest. It was believed that the priestesses would tend the fire for 19 days, and on the 20th, Brigid herself would keep the flame. No man was ever allowed to enter the fire sanctuary. It is said that once, a reckless youth did step over the hedge of thorns surrounding the area, and as his leg touched the earth, it shriveled and left him lame as well as witless. In 1220, Archbishop Henry of London ordered the fire extinguished because he believed it was pagan. The nuns rekindled it shortly after his death, and it continued to burn until Henry VIII of Britain closed the monasteries in the 16th century. It is keep alive today by the Brigidine nuns throughout the year, and relit in the fire sanctuary on Brigid’s Feast Day.
In 2000, I decided to visit Ireland again and learn more about Brigid first-hand. Tobar Bride,in Kildare, is a considered one of her sacred site. It consists of a well, several “mediation stones” set in a straight line from the well to where the water appears again, springing up from under the ground to flow in a stream under a stone arch, past a small “island” where stands a flaming brazier, and on out of the garden. On one side of the arch’s key stone is painted a Christian cross, on the other the solar wheel called Brigid’s cross.5
Immediately under the arch are set side-by-side two oblong stones that have been laboriously carved. On my previous visits to Kildare, during the summers of 1993 and 1997, the water had flowed under these stones, it was this night as well. But as I studied the two stones that the nuns refer to as ‘Brigid’s shoes” it was clear that water had once flowed freely through the two hole laboriously drilled in the ‘toes.’ These stones can’t be anything but breasts, full of nourishment and generativity like the Goddess Brigid Herself.
On February 1, 2000, Tobar Bride was lit with candles in glass jars and paper lanterns, torches, and small peat fires. A sapling oak had been planted there, and next to it a stone marker saying that this “millenium oak” had been planted that same morning by the parish priest. Clooties, small weavings similar to the American Indians’ Eye of God, hung from bare branches in petition of and thanks for blessings. We were directed to circle the well and spring three times as a woman sang, “We are standing on holy land.” Sister Mary of the Brigidene nuns began the ceremony by talking about the four elements, air, fire, water, and earth, and explaining how Brigid was related to all four. The well was a pre-Christian sacred site, she told us. “In pre-Christian times, wells were associated with the presence of a goddess and were seen as the entrance to the womb of mother earth, the source of life,” says the small book written and published by the Solas Bhride Community. A cloaked dancer moved down the space between the stream and its source. Her blue Brat Bride bellowed behind her in the night air. She carefully laid it on the grass for Brigid’s kiss. As part of the evening, Sister Mary read a letter from Kosovo refugees in Kildare. We were asked to send our “energy” out to people who needed it. She said, our “energy” not our prayers.
There were multiple references to the sacred manifested all around us, in the water, in the land, the fire, and even in the cold wind that cut through our coats. The Divine was immanent and the interconnection of all life seemed to be a given, a platform from which Sister Mary spoke. We sang and circled the well and sang again. At last we were told to take “the earth of Ireland” back home with us, and each person took a small piece of peat from a bowl in front of the fire. As we left, the nuns locked the garden’s gate behind us and led us back to the parking lot, where we were served sandwiches and hot mulled wine.
They told me I must be sure to go to Suncroft, a small village outside Kildare, where a new statue of Brigid stands. Originally designed by a local priest who was also a talented sculptor, the grouping had been completed by a local woman when the sculptor died. She had never carved stone before in her life, but decided to finish the project. As she was finishing the last bit, polishing the large cross that lay on Brigid’s breast, a fossil began to emerge from the limestone, until there, in the very center of the pectoral cross was a perfect crescent moon, a symbol of the female divine. The nuns take it as a modern miracle. “It’s the presence of Brigid,” Sister Mary told me.
“The earth is calling us to awaken,” reads the Solas Bhride book (38). “People are looking for a spirituality that is inclusive of all creation. St. Brigid is emerging once again at a time of transition in the universe. . . In a new hymn, she is invoked to ‘heal our wounds and green our Earth again.’ . . .She is a potent symbol of womanhood, showing us, in so many ways, the feminine face of God.” (54)
1 National Geographic in 1996).
2 It has been suggested he was a Brigidine monk (Minehan 1999.)
3 Sellner in IFR 2000:412
4 The root is brig – meaning ‘power, strength, vigour, force, efficiency, substance, essence, and meaning’ (Dames in IFR 2000:247).
5 Even the nuns suggest that the symbol may have originated as a solar symbol (Minehan 1999).
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