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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Brigid: Irish Saint / Celtic Goddess

Saint Brigid of Kildare
Saint Brigid of Kildare

February 1st is the feast day of St. Brigid, one of Ireland's two patron saints (St. Patrick, of course, is the other). In Ireland, St. Brigid is co-equal to Patrick. She is utterly loved (that’s a wee bit of a pun because cattle were so important to the ancient Celts, so utterly and udder—okay, I’ll save it for another post). Some scholars claim that Brigid actually is a goddess from pagan Irish mythology who was Christianized (and demoted) to a saint once Christianity came to the island. Other scholars say there was a historical, later legendary, woman on whom the saint is based but that details about her life and achievements have blurred into stories about the goddess. I believe the latter thesis. This post is about the goddess, the saint, the folk customs for St. Brigid's Day, and a brief introduction to Imbolc, a Celtic celebration which also starts on Feb.1st. Enjoy!

The Saint

-- Brigid is the co-patron saint of Ireland along with Patrick (which totally fits the Celtic worldview / theology of the co-equal pairing of male and female. Really. It’s a thing. And a post for the future).

-- She also is the patron of midwives, cattle, dairymaids, Irish nuns, and newborns and seven million other things (admittedly that is Celtic hyperbole but really it’s a long list).-- She is the daughter of a pagan chieftain and his slave, who was Christian.

-- Dad’s wife was not happy about this so, while Mom was pregnant, the wife had Dad sell Brigid’s Mom to someone else.

-- Brigid was born into slavery. Her new master was a Druid.

-- For some reason—yet to be explained—Mom didn’t or couldn’t nurse Brigid so the Druid (kind soul!) tried to feed her but everything he gave her, she vomited up because he (according to www.catholiconline) was impure.

-- So little Brigid got nourishment from (specifically) a white cow with red ears. I understand the white, which represents purity. I don’t get the red ears, so anyone who does, please explain it to me in the comments. Thanks.

-- Brigid, from early childhood was a bloody pain in the neck—oh, I’m sorry—she was such a saint that she constantly, charitably, gave things away. Unfortunately, not all of those things belonged to her.

-- She gave away her mother’s entire supply of butter. BUT, in her defense, through prayer, she replaced it.

--She gave away so many of her master’s things that he finally gave her back to her dad, but after she gave away his stuff too, he tried either to marry her or sell her (stories conflict) to either (stories conflict) the King of Leinster or Ulster.

-- While Dad and the king were negotiating, Brigid gave the king’s jeweled sword to a beggar. Now you might think the king was angry, but—lucky thing—he was a Christian. And so was Brigid. Her mom (you may or may not remember) was a Christian too. Brigid didn’t want to marry anybody, king or not, as she had already made a vow to belong to Jesus alone. The king—good Christian that he was—saw Brigid’s holiness and ordered that her father set her free. Yay! Happy ending.

County Kildare, Ireland
County Kildare, Ireland

-- No. Wait there’s more! Back to the story.

-- Brigid was gorgeous and, going back in the story a bit, had vowed never to marry but to belong to Jesus alone. She had prayed for God to make her ugly so no one would want to marry her and she could become a nun. God granted her prayer but once she made her final vows as a nun, she became even more beautiful than ever before.

-- I read that story in a very, very, very thin book called Heroines of God, which is about female saints and, at the age of seven, made the same prayer not realizing that I had ever been cursed with Brigid’s beauty. But back to Brigid.

--She asked the King of Leinster (or Ulster) to give her land in which to found a monastery. He basically laughed and said, “Yeah. Right.”

--Brigid, in true crafty Celtic fashion, said, “Well, only as much as my cloak will cover.”

-- The king (who should have known better because he was a Celt too) laughed and said, Oh, well then, sure.”

--Brigid got a few female companions to help her and, as she laid down her cloak on the land, they pulled it until it covered over 100 acres. The king, being a good Christian and a Celt—and both of those matter here—kept his word (irked though he may have been) and gave Brigid the land.

-- The place where she founded her monastery was cil-dara, now known as Kildare. The name means “place or church of the oak.” The oak was one of the two royal trees in the Celtic pagan tradition and it was particularly important to the Druids. Oh yes, and the place where Brigid founded her monastery just happened to be over a shrine to the goddess Brighid of Celtic mythology. Coincidence? You decide.

-- Brigid became renowned as a healer. Her monastery also established a school for children and for the arts.

Saint Patrick presided at the ritual for Brigid's final vows as a nun and "accidentally" ordained her.  Oops!
Saint Patrick presided at the ritual for Brigid's final vows as a nun and "accidentally" ordained her. Oops!

-- According to Catholic Online, St. Patrick presided over the ritual for her final vows and "accidentally" used the words to ordain a priest, then when his mistake was pointed out to him, he replied, "Oh, well. She's destined for great things." Blarney! There was a Celtic Catholic church (before it was voted out of existence at the Synod of Whitby in 663 A.D., a story for another time). In Celtic Christianity, monastic communities could include both men and women and women could preside as prioresses or abbesses. The prioress had more authority than a bishop in regards to her own community. This is in full continuity with pagan Celtic practice of female Druids and pagan and Christian Celtic (especially Irish) law which gave women the right to be warriors, ambassadors, heads of schools, queens in their own right, and so forth.

-- A perpetual fire was maintained at the monastery, something which hearkens back to the worship of the goddess (see below) until it was extinguished under the reign of Henry VIII of England his suppression (desecration) of monasteries. The flame was relit in 1996 by Sister Mary Minchin in devotion to St. Brigid. I’d argue that the practice has to do with the goddess (again, see below).

The Goddess

-- Popular goddess of Celtic mythology who not only was revered in Ireland but across Celtic lands, especially in Scotland and Brittany.

-- Daughter of Dagda, chief god in Celtic mythology and often referred to just as the Father.

-- One of the Tuatha Dé Dannan (the children of the goddess Danu) who are the legendary founders of Ireland.

-- Her name means “exalted one.”

-- goddess of healers, smiths, poets, inspiration, and childbirth.

-- Also goddess of fire, the hearth, and war

Brighid, the Celtic goddess of fire, is the daughter of Dagda, father of the gods, and she is a member of the Tuatha De Dannan, the legendary founders of Ireland.
Brighid, the Celtic goddess of fire, is the daughter of Dagda, father of the gods, and she is a member of the Tuatha De Dannan, the legendary founders of Ireland.

-- One story tells of Brighid going to the battlefield to mourn over her slain son. This is known by the Irish as keening—wailing over the dead. This puts me very much in mind of the Irish Banshee who wails over the dead and dying, although I have not come across a connection to the goddess and the faeries. Brighid is said to have been the first woman in Ireland (keening is always done by women) to have keened. Later, it became a profession.

-- There was a sacred place at Kildare dedicated to the goddess and, during pagan times, it had an eternal flame which was tended continuously by virgins consecrated to her service. The shrine was taken over and the flame continued to be tended by Catholic nuns until Henry VIII shut it down. The firewood always was Hawthorn wood from a tree quite important to the Celts.

-- Brighid also was worshipped on Imbolc, one of the four major Celtic fire festivals by people tending to sacred wells. These wells, on Imboc (Feb. 1) were dressed with flowers and greenery. Often, candles also were lit at the site. This practice carried over into Christian Ireland as a devotion to St. Brigid.

-- The water from these wells is said to heal people of diseases.

A Saint Brigid Cross
A Saint Brigid Cross

Folk Customs

In addition to dressing the wells, St. Brigid’s Day has a few folk customs associated with it.

-- People weave reeds into St. Brigid’s crosses and hang them in the house for good luck.

-- Women dress corn dolls as brides and parade them through the house to welcome Brigid (saint or goddess). The doll is then put to bed (in a basket or such) with a white wand tipped with an acorn which represents her groom, an obvious throwback to a pagan fertility ritual.

-- A white cloth is placed on a tree branch at night so that Brigid can pass by and bless it. The cloth then is used to cover an ill family member who will be comforted and healed.

-- In true Celtic custom, a cake and a glass of milk are placed outside for Brigid to partake of as she passes by.

As mentioned above, the Celtic fire festival, Imbolc, one of the four major feast days of the Celtic year, takes place on St. Brigid’s Day. Next week’s post will be about it. See you then.

I hope you enjoyed the post. If so, please LIKE and SHARE it. Also, please SUBSCRIBE and comment below. Subscribing is FREE! Until next week, Happy St. Brigid’s, Happy Imbolc and slan!

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