Tracing the roots of the goddess and saint.
The goddess Brigit has been the object of reverence for thousands of years over a wide expanse of Western Europe. Even today, her devotees grow in number, among Neo-pagans and Christians alike. Although the intention of many of these devotees is to restore Brigit to her pre-Christian glory, the image of the goddess that is honored today is, in many ways. very different from the Brigit whom our Pagan ancestors knew.
Brigit belongs to a large and diverse group of Celtic mother goddesses. Her mythology and folklore bear unmistakable marks of her membership in this group, but there are many differences that set her apart as well. At least in part, these differences are due to the enthusiasm with which the Christians adopted her into their pantheon as a saint.
To understand the more ancient nature of Brigit, we trace her evolution, and that of the other mother goddesses, from a time before the Celts had become a distinct language group. Among the Proto-Indo-European people, the origins of the Celtic mother goddesses can b€ traced to two distinct figures: the transfunctional goddess and the virginal goddess. Of particular interest for our purposes is the inter. action of these goddesses with the principle of kingship.
The Transfunctional Goddesses
The transfunctional goddesses are first and foremost mother goddesses, embodied in the local rivers and lands through which they flow. As the very sources of life, their primary concerns are with the fertility and abundance of the land and the creatures that dwell there. An example of a transfunctional goddess is the Indic Sarasvati.
These goddesses were also sources of knowledge and wisdom. Theirs was the ultimate source of numinous wisdom flowing from the otherworldly well. They were venerated at wells, springs and rivers.
These goddesses are referred to as "transfunctional" because they usually transcend Dumezilian function to benefit the society at large. This behavior is in contrast to their male counterparts, who tend to be more class-conscious. One of the results of this transcendence is that many of the goddess that descend from these ancient deities possess three-fold aspects or personae. That triplicity is the result of the individual goddess's reflection in each of the three-fold divisions of traditional Indo-European (IE) society. Examples of these descendant triple goddesses are Brigit, Gwenhwyfar, Macha, and the Morrigan.
In terms of the transfunctional goddesses' relationship to kingship, the paramount role of these goddesses is as givers of sovereignty, the validation of the worthiness of a king. Traditionally, the very survival of a people depended upon the fitness of their king, as indicated by acceptance by the goddess of the land. Unlike the concept of sovereignty that was to arise in later Celtic cultures, this ancient predecessor did not involve sexual intercourse between the human male and the sovereignty goddess. For the purposes of this article, this is a key distinction.
The Perpetual Virgin
The second ancient goddess type I call the perpetual virgin. She is probably best represented in the tales of the Indic goddess Madhavi. In the Mahabharata, Midhavi, is willfully sold by her father to provide royal progeny for four kings. During the tale, she reveals that she is gifted with renewable virginity and thus was suitable to perpetuate the four royal lineages that would have otherwise ended childless.
This theme, the salvation and perpetuation of kingships by the carnal intercession of a virgin, is common in the IE family of cultures. In the Celtic world, for reasons that I will explore in a moment, the emphasis on virginity is obscured but the theme is prevalent nonetheless. Medb (from *Medus, the same root as Madhavi) had the same willful role in the continuation of a number of legendary Irish royal lines. The important distinction from the role of the transfunctional goddess above is that the perpetual virgin does not establish sovereignty, but rather provides for salvation of existing kingships.
The fragmentary remnants of these two types of goddesses may still be observed in Norse, Roman and Indic mythology. But, somewhere along the road, as the Celts emerged from the mists of time, these female roles became combined. This combination led to a unique new generation of hybrid goddesses with often contradictory attributes. The traditional struggles of chastity versus promiscuity, of asceticism versus sensuality, were recast among the Celtic divinity in terms of sexual power and jealousy.
Another important factor in this evolutionary change was the characteristic leveling of divine and human strata among the Celts. As these boundaries blurred, characters emerged who were no longer clearly divine or mortal. Combined with the crossbreeding of goddess roles, these changes yielded a sovereignty myth that, unlike the original, centered on the mating of mortal kings with divine beings.
The vast majority of Brigit's lore concerns the granting of fertility prosperity and inspiration.
These new hybrid mother goddesses virgins expressed their power by the ability to withhold sexual acceptance of the would-be kings. Validation of kingship became a matter of choosing sexual consorts, a choice usually based upon virtuous behavior of the male. This placed the females in a dominant position that was expressed as overt sexual and martial prowess.
In other cases, the virginal goddess's chaste nature, that had originally acted as a deterrent to sexual contact, became replaced by ugliness or shrew-like qualities. As a result, the classic Celtic tale of the sovereignty goddess disguised as a hag attempting to seduce heroes emerged. More often than not the actual mothering roles of these goddesses became incidental to their sexual exploits.
Brigit is about as close to a pan-Celtic deity as they get. According to Ptolemy, she was the tribal goddess of the Brigantes who resided in north Britain and south Leinster. To the British, she was 'Briganti'. In Romano-British times she was Brigantia ("The High One"). The Irish usually call her Brid (an epithet meaning "Exalted One") and alternate spellings of Bridget, Brigid, Bride and Breed can be found. The Welsh call her Brigantu and among the Gauls she was Brigindo or Bergusia. Her Dame also survives in the river Brent in England and the river Braint in Wales.
Her closest classical cognate is Minerva Belisama ("Brightest") and her name was once identical with the Sanskrit feminine adjective brhati ("great" or "lofty"). Like Brigit's famed sanctuary at Kildare there was a temple dedicated to Minerva) with an "eternal flame" in Britain in the 3rd century BCE. Minerva is a goddess of wisdom and the originator of arts and crafts who is often depicted as a warrior woman as is her cognate Athena. Brigit can also been seen, as a cognate of Artemis, who is closer to the virginal Madhavi in character
There are a few accounts of Brigit that confirm the broader extent of her pre-Christian character. In Cath Almaine, "The Battle of Allen," Brigit appeared as a battle specter floating over the heads of the army of Leinster, and thus terrified their enemy, the army of Leth Cuinn. Also, in the tale of the Borama, "The Tribute," Mo Ling protected himself from his enemies by praying to Brigit.
In Brigit's case, it is abundantly clear that the qualities of mother goddess and goddess of wisdom have been retained through all of these changes. The vast majority of her lore concerns the granting of fertility, prosperity and inspiration. In some tales she is depicted as an equivalent to Danu, the mother of the Gods.
As an expression of her transfunctional nature, Brigit is both one goddess and three, sometimes linked with two eponymous sisters. The triple Brigit or three sisters of Brigit are goddesses of poetry, smith-craft and healing.
Despite her obviously substantial role in the minds of the ancient Celts, there are very few references to her in the tales recorded by the monastic scribes. Where she is present, it seems that she has been greatly diminished. In the Lebor Gabala Erenn, ("Book of Invasions of Ireland") all of the female characters are in the background of the tale. Despite that, the sheer volume of folklore that has been passed down to us concerning Brigit lends much greater testimony to her high status.
What the monastic writings do relate is that Brigit is the daughter of the Dagda and she was among the Titatha de Danann who migrated to Ireland. She had, at one point, borne a son by Bres (named Ruadan) and three sons by Tuireann. Ruadan was slain during the second battle of Mag Tuired while attempting to kill the God Goibniu. When Brigit came later to the battlefield to bewail her son, it was the first time crying and shrieking were heard in Ireland.
Brigit As Christian Saint
Brigit is one of the few Pagan deities to make a smooth transition from goddess to Christian Saint. Unlike the usual pattern of overlaying the Pagan deity with a pre-existing Christian icon, Brigit was simply christianized, name and all. She is known in Ireland as St. Brigit (St. Ffraid in Wales) and in popularity is second only to St. Patrick.
The tales of St. Brigit make efforts to fabricate a story of a. living human saint but the parallels between the accounts and what we know of the goddess, along with the magical symbolism of the tales, leave no doubt of her true origins. According to the Rennes Dinnsenchus, she was the daughter of a druid, Dubthach, and a woman named Broiseach. She was born around 455 AD at Faughart when her mother was delivering milk into the druid's house. Her mother gave birth as she crossed the threshold of the doorway, thus being born neither in nor outside of the house.
She was reportedly raised on the milk of magical otherworldly cows, and as a young girl was said to have presided as a midwife over the birthing of Christ. In the southern Hebrides, Christ is known as Dalta Bride "the foster son of Bride" and she is sometimes called "Mary of the Gaels" by the Irish. In the light of the l-E concept of the perpetual virgin mother of kings, it is not at all surprising that the Celts could easily make such a substitution.
There is a great deal of intense fertility goddess symbolism in the tales of her life. Even though she herself was a virgin, she supplied limitless food without her larder ever dwindling. She could provide a lake of milk from her cows, which were milked three times a day, and when she presided over ale brewing at Easter, one measure of her malt made enough ale for her seventeen churches.
St. Brigit's feast day takes place on the first day of February, which coincides with the original pagan festival to the goddess Brigit. She is said to travel about the countryside on the eve of this festival to bestow her blessings on the people and their animals.
She is recorded as founding her first religious, settlement at Kildare (cill-dara "church of oak"). In this monastery, there was a perpetual fire that was guarded by nineteen virgins and no man could approach her shrine. She reportedly died in her monastery in about 525 AD and the flame was maintained until it was ordered extinguished during the reign of King Henry VIII. Today, a new flame has been kindled at Kildare and it has been passed all around the world. Many pagan folk, including some of our groves, are involved in the effort of devotion to keep-the flame of this mighty goddess alive once more.
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