Brigid, the Exalted One - J Craig Melia
'Brigit, excellant woman, sudden flame, may the bright fiery sun take us to the lasting kingdom.' 1
Known by many names across the Celtic speaking world, Bride, Bridgit (Brigit, Brighid):, Brigantia, Brigidu, Brigan; Bricta, Brixia, Bricia, Berecyntia, Brigandu and by the names St Bride or St Brighid in Christian times. The root of her name 'brig' means 'high' or 'exalted', and is found throughout Celtic lands.
The daughter of the Dagda, and the River Goddess Boann, whose
name is a reference to white cattle. Although the usual medieval
translation of her name Fiery Arrow 'breo-aigit', her name most
probably means 'most high' or 'exalted one'.
Triple Goddess, she is sometimes shown as three sisters, each bearing the name Brigid. It may be that they are a representation of the three main areas of her influences, namely Smithcraft, Poetry and Healing. This three-fold nature is also seen in her relationship with fire, the fire of the forge, the fire of inspiration and the fire of the hearth.
She was the wife of Bres the Beautiful, and in the Battle of Magh Tuiredh, she appears as a mediator between the Tuatha De Danann (her own people) and the Fomorains (who are the people of her husband).
She had three sons by Tuireann, son of Ogma, named Brian, Iuchar and Uar.
Unlike most of the other deities of the Gaelic Mythological Cycle, Brigit survived not only in name but also in function. In her new guise St Bride kept her areas of influence. In the Hebrides their are tales of her acting as mid-wife to Mary and as the forster-mother of the infant Christ.
In her haliography she is said to have been the daughter of the Druid Dubtach, and her mother was a dairymaid. There appears to be a great deal of liminal symbolism associated with her birth. She was born at dawn as her mother crossed the threshold carrying milk into the home of the Druid who had taken her mother in. In some texts he is called her foster-father. As an infant she could not drink the milk of cows, so her father had to procure an Otherworld cow, white with red ears, to provide her with sustenance. In Connaught, the oyster-catcher was known as Giolla Bride, Bride's Page, whilst both linnets and larks are also known to be associated with her.
According to tradition nineteen women tended to a perpetual fire that burned in her honour at Killdare, each taking turn over a nineteen day period. On the twentieth day is was said that Bride herself tended the flame. Killdare means 'cell of oak' which perhaps hints at an older tradition.
As St Ffraid, the Goddess made a return to Wales under another name. She is said to have crossed the Irish Sea on a boat made from a sod of earth and to have landed on Holy Island, where her 'boat' became the mound upon which stood a church which beared her name, Capel San Ffraid.
Though little remains to us now of the mythology surrounding Brigantia a number of things are clear. She was seen as the tutelary goddess by the Brigantes, a 'confederacy' of tribes who held sway over modern day Lancashire, Yorkshire, County Durham, Cumberland, Westmoreland and part of Derbyshire, Cumbria and across into the Borders of Scotland.
"According to the Egyptian geographer Ptolemy, the Brigantian confederation held sway across Northern England "from sea to sea". There are conflicting opinions about the composition of this league of clans, and conflicting evidence from coins; but it seems that a predominantly Celtic aristocracy had imposed itself upon earlier settlers and sought to unite them in a miniature nation." 2
Whatever the nature of the Brigantian confederacy it is clear from inscriptions and altars that their chief goddess was Brigantia, though it is highly probable that she was much more martial than her Gaelic counterpart. It is interesting that Ptolemy's map of Ireland shows a tribe of Brigantes living in Leinster, where St. Brigid would be the Abbess of Kildare.
Imbolc is one of the four major Celtic festivals. In the modern calender it is dated as February 2nd. It is also called Oimelg which is thought to mean 'first milking', and is linked to the spring lactation of ewes. Sheep milk in early spring made a welcome supplement to their diet after the harshness of winter. To the Celts as an agrarian peoples knowledge of the changing seasons could mean the difference between life and death. In the Irish tradition it is the festival of Brighid, in Wales it is Gwyl Fair y Canhwyllau (The Candle Festival of Mary) from the Christianized interpretation of the festival, Candlemass. The ceremonies performed at these festivals all deal with fertility and protection of crops and livestock. Feasts, cleansings and offerings all took place.
In Christian times the date continued as the feast day of St Bride. Many of the customs and folklore associated with her would appear to stem from the pre-Christian pagan traditions of the goddess Brigid. Processions, carrying a decorated doll called the Bride Og, would be led throughout the village. Brigid's Crosses, an equal armed solar cross which are plaited from rushes, were carried sunwise three times around each home. These crosses can still be found throughout Ireland, hanging over door thresholds and stables. Candles, linking to the modern Christian festival of Candlemas, were placed in the window.
'Early on Bride's morn, the serpent will come from the hollow; I will not molest the serpent, nor will the serpent molest me.' 3
An alternative version involves a peat effigy of a snake, and links the snake to Bride. 'Early on Bride's morn, the Queen shall come from the mound, I will not touch the Queen nor will the Queen touch me'. Actually, all native British and Irish Reptiles hibernate until March and early April, so perhaps this is more to do with symbolism, the serpent shedding its skin to begin anew, just as the spring heralds a new year and the rebirth of the land.
It is debatable whether the saint was a Christianised version of the goddess, or an actual person who assumed much of the cult of her namesake.
Daithi O'hOgain, in 'The Sacred Isle' states :-
'That her cult from an early date took on the nurturing aspect of a mother-goddess is clear form the tribute paid to her
in the earliest references which we have. In that reference, from about the year 600, 'the truely pious Brigeoit'
is described as 'another Mary'. This is the nearest thing a Christian writer could go to assigning divine status to her.' 4
Agricultural activities that were part of the customs of the goddess, became attached to the Saint who bore her name. It is highly probable that a symbolic first ploughing took place. It also possible that a mini 'baby boom' took place, as Imbolc lies nine months distant from the rites of Beltaine, when, until recent times, young couples would take themselves off to the woods. Brighid, besides her role as the Goddess of the Poets, Ironworkers, and various agricultural practices, was called upon by women in childbirth.
During the Vatican II modernisation program it was decreed that there was not enough proof of Brigid's sanctity nor of her historical existance, and so she was de-canonized. But not even this could extinguish her flame from the hearts of the Gael, and she remains, along with St Patrick the most beloved of the Irish saints.
Of the four Celtic festivals, Imbolc is doubtlessly seen as the most 'feminine'. It is a time to honour the Great Mother, Goddess of the Land, Fertility Goddess, Mother of the Tribe. Offerings of food were placed around an image of the Goddess, which would have formed a central feature of the days feasting. A special feast was held by maidens, and it was not until the men had asked permission to pay homage to the Goddess that they were admitted to the festivities.
Due to the time of year the feasting would have taken place indoors, the family gathered about the hearth, the sacred fire of the Mother. This flame is central to the gift of the Goddess. It is the hearth of the home, the flame of the forge that creates the plough, the fire of poetic inspiration. It is the flickering of the candle in the window, inviting the Great Mother into our homes.
1 - Ancient Gaelic prayer.
2 - John Burke - 'Roman Britain'
3 - 'Moch maduinn Bhride, thig an nimhir as an toll; Cha bhoin mise ris an nimhir, Cha bhoin an nimhir rium.' - Ancient Gaelic prayer.
4 - Daithi O'h'Ogain - 'The Sacred Isle'