The Brigit phenomenon: the revival of a pre-Christian goddess, or an old saint in new clothes?

by Sharon Blackie

Brigit is one of the most-loved of the divine or semi-divine females who appear in medieval Irish literature, and one of the most poorly understood. A quick internet search will reveal all kinds of statements about her: she’s a fire goddess, a sun goddess … or, hang on a moment – was she ever a goddess at all, or just a saint? And if she was both, where then did the goddess end and the Christian saint begin?

The nature of the problem is perfectly represented in a page on the website of the Order of Bards and Druids, which states that: ‘She is a solar deity, who once hung her mantle on a sunbeam.’ The story about hanging her mantle on a sunbeam actually occurs (and only occurs) in one of the early hagiographies (written ‘biographies’) of Brigit i.e. it comes firmly from the Christian tradition – and I should think the Catholic Church would have a major fit of apoplexy if it heard its saints being referred to as ‘deities’. There’s only supposed to be one God, you see. (This particular page goes on to make many other statements which are unattributed and have no real foundation in the old sources, including a statement that she is a fire goddess and a water deity as well – busy lady, this one – in addition to being a goddess of protection, goddess of augury, goddess of poetry, healing, ‘druid goddess’, and patroness of blacksmiths. Phew.)

To understand Brigit, and to understand my frustration at statements like this, we have to step back and look closely at what the original sources say. And then we have to decide whether the divine archetypal energy which we label ‘Brigit’ today bears any relationship to the Brigit who inhabits those old sources. If she doesn’t, that’s all just fine – but it’s important that we’re clear and honest about exactly what it is that we’re saying. Is the information we’re putting forward based on the old sources in any meaningful and accurate way, or is it simply a personal revisioning which we think is better suited to our own lives and times? And does it really matter, anyway?

 

Brigit the goddess

In the tenth-century Sanas Cormaic (Cormac’s Glossary – Cormac was a bishop, as well as a scholar and king of Munster) – we find the following reference to Brigit:

Brigit, that is, the female poet, daughter of the Dagdae [the leader of the Otherworldly beings who we now call the Tuatha Dé Danann]. This is Brigit the female seer, or woman of insight, i.e. the goddess whom poets used to worship, for her cult was very great and very splendid. It is for this reason that they call her the goddess of poets by this title, and her sisters were Brigit the woman of leechcraft and Brigit the woman of smithcraft, i.e. goddesses, i.e. three daughters of the Dagdae are they, from whose names almost all the Irish used to call Brigit a goddess.

The description of Brigit is unusual in Irish literature, in that it implies specific ‘functions’ associated with her. This is unusual because, generally speaking, it simply isn’t accurate to assign functions to Irish deities; we don’t have the same kind of easily classified pantheon as do the Greeks, say, or the Romans. We don’t have ‘sun gods’ or ‘goddesses of wisdom’. Instead, we have a bunch of characters, some of whom star in several completely different versions of their own stories, depending on where those stories are told; some of whom are related to each other but in a way that isn’t always entirely clear, or which differs in the different stories in which they appear; and most of whom are characters in extremely complicated tales in which they have no role which could be described as anything remotely like, for example, ‘god of war’.

In spite of this unusually clear description of Brigit, she doesn’t actually appear as a character in any narratives – except for the 9th-century Cath Maige Tuired (Second Battle of Moytura). There, she is called Brig, is described as the Dagda’s daughter, and was married to the half-Fomorian king Bres; they have three children described as ‘The Three Gods of Skill’. In this account, Brigit laments the killing of her son Rúadán, and in the process invents the practice of keening. The text further states, ‘Now she is the Bríg who invented a whistle for signalling at night.’ And that’s it.

There is an even more shadowy Brig who appears in old legal texts as a judge – however, there’s no evidence that this one was associated with the Tuatha Dé or with Brigit the Dagda’s daughter.

There are various speculations that Brigit might have been related to the Romano-British goddess Brigantia. She may or may not; there’s little concrete evidence either way, other than a similarity in name.

 

Brigit the saint

What we know about Brigit the saint – St Brigit of Kildare – comes from a series of hagiographies – written saints’ lives – which were composed (usually in Latin) by Christian monks across several centuries. I’ll focus here on the two earliest of those lives, written in the seventh century, because they were composed less than a century after the events they describe rather than being much later revisionings of them. Although her historicity has occasionally been disputed, according to the Annals of Ulster, Brigit was born in the year 452, and the date of her death is variously recorded as 524, 526 or 528. The earliest of her Lives was written in Hiberno-Latin by Cogitosus, who seems to have been a member of the male monastic community of Kildare; it is believed to date from around 650. The exact date of the second Life, the anonymous Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae, has been disputed, and strong arguments have been made for both a mid-seventh-century and a mid-eighth-century origin. Although the Vita Prima frequently presents rather loftier miracles than those featured in the more domestically and agriculturally focused Life of Cogitosus, several of the episodes and miracles described are the same.

Both of these early Lives present Brigit not just as a powerful and charismatic Christian saint, but as an examplar of perfect Christian behaviour. That is the purpose of all hagiographies; they were, above all, propaganda exercises – fictional constructions whose purpose was more political and doctrinal than historical. We see Brigit, as abbess of Kildare, not only responsible for the spiritual guidance and nourishment of her nuns, but also as the person directly responsible for the day-to-day running of her monastery, for ensuring its survival – including taking charge of pragmatic details such as gathering in the harvest from her fields – and for providing hospitality to visitors. We see her travelling out in the world with a group of nuns on missionary work. We see her and her fellow nuns caring for the sick, both at Kildare abbey and in their homes; we see her displaying Christian virtues and instructing her nuns in those virtues (washing the feet of the old and sick, lending clothes to lepers, generosity, hard work, chastity …). We see her praying constantly.

We also see some interesting and unusual aspects of Brigit which have transferred over into popular conceptions of her today. In the Life of Cogitosus in particular, Brigit’s miracles are often in the domestic sphere: the first of the stories that we are offered about her relates to churning butter. As a girl, one day she gives away the milk and butter she has been asked to make to the poor and to guests, but when she is asked to ‘hand in what the cows had yielded’, miraculously, the butter is restored, and nothing is missing from her day’s work. Later, we are told that in order to provide for the needy, she was able to milk the same cow three times in one day. Indeed, Brigit’s patronage over the production and supply of milk and other dairy products is a major feature throughout her hagiography. The foundations for her associations with milk are laid down in her childhood, where they undoubtedly helped to establish her purity, and so to elevate her status as a saint. In addition, because the intensely agricultural Irish economy of the day was so dependent on cattle and dairy produce, then by depicting Brigit as a master of such a crucial element of the economy, her cult was able to claim both status and land. Reflecting the ties to agriculture that would have predominated among the people at the time, Brigit is often shown intervening in other matters relating to farming: for example, Cogitosus depicts her as a shepherdess, ‘in the field intent upon her pastoral duty beside the flock of sheep to be fed’.

In both Lives, Brigit is depicted as having a particular affinity with, and sometimes power over, the natural world. Cogitosus tells that, when she was receiving the veil from Bishop Mac Caille, Brigit touched the wooden base on which the altar rested with her hand. As a result, ‘this wood flourishes fresh and green to the present day as if it had not been cut down and stripped of its bark but was attached to its roots.’ One day, as she is grazing her sheep, ‘she put her rainsoaked clothes on to [a sunbeam] and the clothes hung on the filmy sunbeam as if it were a big solid tree.’ A river rises up ‘like a wall’ to prevent the theft of Brigit’s cattle. Similarly, in the Vita Prima, the River Life floods and prevents the theft of cattle which then spontaneously run to Brigit at her church. A river diverts its own course to please her, and to allow a road more easily to be constructed.

She is also depicted in close association with wild animals. She blesses a wild boar which, terrified, finds itself among Brigit’s pigs; it subsequently remains with her. Wild wolves round up and drive pigs which are destined for Brigit across the hills to her. She finds a wild fox to replace a king’s tame fox which had been killed, and ‘The animal came running very fast across the plains, reached the chariot of the most blessed Brigit, nimbly jumped up and entered the chariot and, placing himself under the shelter of Brigit’s cloak, sat quietly with her in the chariot.’ She drew wild ducks to her, ‘touched them with her hand and took then in her arms and, after doing this for some time, she let them go back flying into the air on their own wings.’ When she had no honey to give a man who asked, all of a sudden the sound of bees was heard under her floor; honey was found there. When there was nothing to drink, she told some men to dig the ground in a particular spot, and a spring rose up there. From all this, Cogitosus tells us, ‘the whole of nature, beasts, cattle and birds, was subjected to her power.’

Celtic scholar Lisa Bitel* points out that this close association with the natural world is very likely to be a reflection of and extension of the strong association between Irish goddesses in pagan times and both animals and the landscape. She suggests that the early hagiographers made use of this association, which still would have been prominent among Irish pagans who were targets for conversion to Christianity, to establish Brigit as a character they could identify with. However – again, it’s important to understand that, no matter how plausible, these are speculations, and we simply do not know. Nevertheless, both the Vita Primae and a slightly later hagiography which is distinguished by the fact of having been written in Irish rather than Latin (Bethu Brigde, from the 9th century) seem to offer a bridge between the pagan past and the Christian future by describing Brigit’s mother as a slave who was sold to a druid; her mother gives birth to Brigit while standing over the threshold of the druid’s house, having just milked his cows, and bathes the new-born baby in the cow’s milk. The druid was watching the stars for portents, as druids generally did – but instead he saw a column of fire rising from the house that sheltered the baby. In the Christian tradition, fire and flames signified a direct spiritual connection to God, but the column of fire would also remind Irish audiences of the loan ldith – a kind of radiant halo – which would sometimes shoot from the heads of saga heroes.* Similarly, fireballs came from Brigit and headed skywards at several points during her childhood. It’s notable too that Brigit would not eat food prepared in the druid’s house, but would only drink milk from a red-eared white cow – a colouring which was common in Irish mythological literature, and which signified that the creature was Otherworldly.

Bitel has this to say about St Brigit’s association with attributes of the divine feminine in pre-Christian Ireland:

‘Brigit’s talents were similar to the tricks of spellbinding women from secular tales. Like druids, she could see across distances and through time to events past, present, and future. Like queens of the otherworld, she could manipulate late visible landscapes and move among realities. She could glamour travelers and animals according to her desires, leading them astray or home as she pleased. … Brigit also reigned over the natural features of the landscape and the weather. … Her constant safe travel across the lands of Ireland, her ability to interpret and control the landscape and the skies, and her power to protect or destroy men on the move all pointed toward a mastery of nature and territory that even Patrick could not claim. … The writers of [the Vita Primae] and [Bethu Brigde] also used Brigit’s affinity with her territory to cast her as a protecting spirit of the Leinster people when invaded by their enemies, especially the troublesome Ui Neill. … Thus, like the territorial goddesses who had preceded her in literature and religion, Brigit ruled the land of her kin and protected its kings, at least according to her hagiographers.’

Although until recently most scholars have assumed that these qualities associated with St Brigit of Kildare suggest that her character is based on a pagan goddess called Brigit who was then appropriated by the Christian church, not everyone agrees. Bitel, for example, goes on to suggest that it’s likely that Brigit wasn’t ever actually an Ireland-wide goddess, though there might once have been a deity (or several) called Brig. She argues that, instead, Brigit’s hagiographers – the monks who wrote her story – used pre-Christian motifs of feminine territoriality – ie motifs associated with other goddesses – to ‘reconstruct’ St Brigit of Kildare. By the year 900, she suggests, this reconstruction of the saint had also resulted in the construction of the goddess called Brigit who was described in early medieval literature (such as in Cormac’s Glossary, referred to above).

This whole debate is, of course, profoundly chicken-and-egg – who came first: the goddess or the saint? – and I’m describing it here simply to point out how little we actually know, and how utterly impossible it is to make the kind of categorical statements about Brigit the goddess which we see everywhere on the web today.

 

And Imbolc?

In the Tochmarc Emire – which was probably written in the tenth or eleventh centuries – Emer (wife of the great warrior Cú Chulainn) names the main annual calendar points as they appeared in the Irish literature of the time. One of those was ‘Imbolc, when the ewes are milked at spring’s beginning’. Imbolc, Imbolg or Óimelc appears in several other old Irish manuscripts. There’s been a lot of debate over the etymology/ meaning of the word, but all that can be agreed upon is that it likely involves milk. (The common belief, based on an entry in Cormac’s Glossary, that it originally meant ‘sheep’s milk’ is now dismissed by modern Celtic language specialists).

In the Roman calendar (which the Irish were using at the time) the date of Imbolc was given as February 1. The festival is likely to have been pre-Christian in nature, but we don’t know anything about the pre-Christian traditions. Most of the seasonal ‘quarter-day’ festivals reflected the cycles of the agricultural year – though clearly Samhain, for example, had other associations and significances, but that’s a story for another day. What we do know is that February 1 was later dedicated to St Brigit by the Catholic church. This might have had something to do with her association with milk (mentioned above) or it might have been reflected a pre-Christian Brigit’s association with Imbolc. Or it might have been quite random; we just don’t know. What we do know is that we don’t know of any association between a pre-Christian goddess called Brigit and the festival of Imbolc.

 

Making sense of it all

After having been largely ignored since the early Middle Ages, the goddess Brigit began to have something of a resurgence from the second half of the 19th century onwards. Her goddess-saint duality made her especially popular with people embracing ‘Celtic Christianity’ (and whether or not there is such a thing is a question for another day); she also became central to Celtic paganism when the saint’s attributes, deeds and associations were transferred over to the goddess, creating a more rounded divinity who reflected the feminist, ecological, and ecofeminist concerns of the day.

That, then, is how we got where we are today, and how Brigit came to be conceived of in the way she is, in contemporary Celtic spirituality. The obvious question which follows is – does it matter whether this idea of the goddess Brigit is ‘real’ (i.e. supported by the old sources) or not?

All I can offer here is my own perspective. I believe that what we call ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ are in fact archetypal (i.e. universal) energies which may be expressed in different ways in different places. Let’s take an example other than that of Brigit, and extrapolate. The Old Woman of the World might be expressed as Grandmother Spider by certain indigenous American peoples; she may be expressed as the Cailleach in the Gaelic tradition. The Old Woman of the World archetype/energy carries with it different associations today, because the world is different today from the world our ancestors inhabited, and we are different from our ancestors. We know more, and at the same time we probably know far less. When we think of The Old Woman of the World, we come to that archetype with different histories, different needs from those of our ancestors; we see different connotations, visualise different images. Archetypes, remember, are potentials. They’re not ‘real’ until they’re expressed. Expression can be different not just across different places (e.g. the fact that the archetype expresses as Grandmother Spider in America, and as the Cailleach in Scotland and Ireland) but across different times. If we now imagine, and need, a Brigit who is different from the Brigit who may (or may not …) have been honoured by our ancestors, then I have no problem with that; in fact I think it is a fine thing. It’s the basis of my own approach to spirituality, for sure.

But I also think it’s really important that we are honest with ourselves and with each other about where the basis for our beliefs originates. I think it’s important that we don’t misrepresent what’s in the old sources, or declare things to be true that are not. Our ancestors, and the lands we and they live in, deserve no less.

 


*Lisa M Bitel, Landscape with Two Saints: How Genovefa of Paris and Brigit of Kildare Built Christianity in Barbarian Europe.  (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)

If you’re interested in accurate, up-to-date information about Celtic myth and tradition, and in exploring what an authentic contemporary spirituality – one which has its roots in the old traditions of those countries, but which makes sense in a very different world – might look like, you might enjoy The Hedge’s School’s year-long programme of study, Celtic Studies: Myth and Tradition.

3 Replies to “The Brigit phenomenon: the revival of a pre-Christian goddess, or an old saint in new clothes?”

  1. thank you! as a long believer in proper research who has not had access to cited sources to parse this for myself, and as a believer in the modern brigit archetype, i feel more grounded in my daily life for this ‘exposé. brava!

  2. I like the way that modern druidic types divide the year into 8 segments and celebrate the way each has a different ‘feel’ as the day length and temperature changes and as the natural and agricultural cycles turn. Thus I love seeing the first snowdrops and the daffodil buds beginning to swell. I am happy for people to pick a story to associate with each festival and to tell it in a way that is meaningful to them, adapting it and tweaking it or even giving it a dramatic re-working to suit their own time and experiences. But like you (if I have understood you correctly) I wish they would just describe it as ‘a story that makes sense to me’ or ‘this is a story my mentor shared with me’ rather than pretend it is ‘true’ in a wider sense because of sone academic verification (whatever that would be). Thank you for doing the research I have neither the time nor the inclination to do and challenging the nonsense.

  3. One of the problems with ANY sort of research into paganism is that the ‘pagans’ of whatever persuasion did not actually write. All of our sources for pagan ritual and deities is Christian, and Christianity had its own agendas, as you rightly point out about hagiography. A pre-literate society and belief system has no way other than oral to perpetuate itself. I don’t, myself, see a problem with ‘re-acquiring’ what are called the Old ways, as long as we understand that they are guesses, not fact. But this is actually the case even with the Gospels, which were written at least a generation or more after the death of most of the characters involved.

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