- The Exalted One
'Brigit, excellent woman, sudden flame,
may the bright fiery sun take us to the lasting kingdom.'
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
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
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.
J Craig Melia 1997
1 - Ancient Gaelic prayer - Carmina Gadelica
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 - Carmina Gadelica
4 - Daithi O'h'Ogain - 'The Sacred Isle'