(Originally published in Druid's Progress 12)
One of the liveliest Goddesses of our Pagan revival is the Irish/Celtic Brigid. She is honored throughout American Paganism as one of the most popular subjects of worship outside of the Greco-Roman-Egyptian spectrum. She is worshipped as a Goddess of creativity, of artists, healers, poets, and craftspersons. Sometimes the mother, sometimes the maiden, even a crone, she supports a multitude of worshippers.
This article will look at the history of the Goddess Brigid, her roots in Celtic Paganism both British and Irish. We will see how she became identified with/as St. Brigid of Kildare and discuss her cult among the folk in medieval and modern times.
The Celts regularly formulated triads, perhaps as an expression of extreme potency. Early post-Roman vernacular Irish literature contain many references to triads of female divinity. Many of these Goddesses had a maternal function and were closely identified with the land. Brigid is a prime example of this type of deity which is associated with the sacred number three, the triple aspect of the divine. Brigid is the daughter of Daghda, the God of Great Knowledge. They belong to the Tuatha De Danann, the Tribe of the Goddess Danu. According to Cormac's Glossary, a 10th century compilation from oral tradition, she is said to be 'a Goddess whom poets worshipped' and to have two sisters, also named Brigid who are patrons of healing and smithcraft. She was venerated not only as Brigid, but also as Bride, Briginda, Brigidu, and in North Britain as Briganda, which can be translated as 'High One or Exalted One'. Other titles include; 'Ashless Flame', 'Flame of Two Eternities', and 'Mother of All Wisdom'.
The Book of Invasions tells us that Brigid was the wife of Breas and had a son named Ruadan. Legend has it that the Fomoire sent Ruadan to kill Goibniu, the smith. Ruadan was able to wound Goibnui with a spear, but was himself slain in revenge. Brigid came to bewail her son, which was the first time crying and shrieking was heard in Ireland, the first keening.
As her name implies, one of the most potent symbols of Brigid is fire. Her triple nature relates to the fire of the hearth and smithy, the flame of life and healing, and the flame of divine inspiration. In many ancient traditions the hearth is connected to the sun, the source of warmth and light. It is the focus of the home and integral to every day functions. As the patroness of filidhact, bardic lore, she guides the flame of inspiration, poetry and divination. Heroes who set off on magical or spiritual tasks would also request protection and guidance from Brigid. Thus she is connected with the three key functions of Indo-European society - bounty, poetry and, through the forge, warfare.
Another important symbol of Brigid is water, which in all its forms was venerated in the Celtic world. Sacred springs, many associated with Brigid, were a focus for Celtic cult practices. Spring water symbolically unites the underworld and the upper world by rising out of the darkness of the earth and reflecting the light of the heavens. Hot springs, in particular, provide a link between fire and water, Brigid's key symbols. All springs and wells remain powerful sources of inspiration, healing, and a means of both physical and spiritual purification. Several rivers, most particularly in Munster, bear Brigid's name, reinforcing her connection with the fertility of the land.
One legend which connects Brigid with water, tells how a crystal drop from the mantle of Brigid touched the earth and became a deep and clear lake. This was said to be a lake from Tir-Na-Moe 'Land of the Living Heart' and there was healing in it for all weariness and battle wounds.
The worship of Brigid continued into the Christian era as one of the most popular saints of the Celts. Historical references to Saint Brigid begin in the seventh century. She was worshipped in an Irish convent at Kildare or Cill Dara, which means the church of the Oak-tree. This was also the site of an ancient temple in which had burned a perpetual flame, an ashless fire, which suggests it was a sort of lamp, perhaps fed by oil, tallow or butter. In later Christian times, when the nuns kept the fire burning using wood, the ashes were said to miraculously vanish. In 1220 A.D., the Archbishop of Dublin decided that the fire-cult was 'pagan' and ordered the flame to be extinguished. After his death the nuns rekindled the flame until the Reformation when the entire convent was suppressed.
In Gaelic-speaking Scotland the Goddess was remembered as another saint, St. Brigit of the Isles. To this day she is remembered as patron saint of the family hearth, originally a peat fire that was kept burning in her honor. In the Highlands she was known as the foster-mother of Christ, the mid-wife or aid-woman who comforted Mary.
The first day of February, dedicated to Brigid, is known as Imbolg, meaning 'of/in the womb'. Another name connected with this celebration is Oimelc, a Germanic word meaning 'ewes-milk' or 'lactation', which is a direct reference to the birth of young animals in the spring. According to Celtic tradition Imbolg was the first day of spring and stock who had been penned in for the winter were allowed out. Brigid, the guardian-Goddess of domestic animals, is said to have two oxen, Fea and Feimhean and Triath, King of the Swine. These sacred animals would cry out after rapine had been committed in Ireland.
On Brigid's Eve in parts of Ireland it was customary for groups of young girls, who were either disguised or clad in white, to go from house to house singing and dancing. The householders would give the girls a gift for Brigid, usually either eggs or money. The leader usually was a girl who would carry a 'brideog', little Brigid, into the fields. The brideog was fashioned from rushes or oats and decorated with colored shells, spring flowers, greenery and ornaments. The best and brightest of ornaments were attached over the heart and called reul-iuil Bride, The 'Guiding Star of Brigid'. In other parts of Ireland, a maiden was chosen to represent Brigid. She would dress in white and wear a crown of rushes and carry a Brigid's Cross.
Older women prepared a Brigid's Bed which was made of an oval basket filled with rushes. A straw image was placed in the basket which was put on the hearth. Then the main door was opened and the men said a prayer invoking and asking Brigid to come in for her bed was ready. Brigid was believed to travel with her white milk-cow on her festival and bring blessings to each household. In some areas of Scotland and Ireland offerings of food and grass were left on doorsteps for her cow.
There are many other customs connected with Brigid, such as leaving a piece of cloth out doors From sunset to sunrise on the eve of Imbolg to confer on it protective and curative powers. This was known as 'brat Bhride', Brighid's mantle or cloak, and was kept in the house for the following year. It was particularly good for healing sick animals. Also, rushes or straw were left outside the house on Brigit's Eve. At nightfall, a young girl went out, brought the bundle to the door, knocked three times while asking in the name of Brigid to be admitted. Using this material, crosses were woven and then placed in the innerside of the thatched roof to provide protection. Another ancient custom concerned the throwing of a sheaf of oats or cake of bread against the doorstep on the eve of Imbolg to drive away hunger during the coming year. A second cake was often placed outside the window as an offering.
The cult of Brigid is very much alive today. She is the patron Goddess of many who honor her in ceremony, song and art. Brigid is a great eternal being who, like the flame of life itself, keeps alight and rekindles hope and inspiration. The sacred power of Brigid can act as a catalyst for us in many ways, awakening creativity, compassion, and skill.