Brigid: Celtic Goddess and Catholic Saint
Brigid, Goddess and Saint
Brigid: Patron Goddess of Ireland
How is it possible that Brigid, the Pagan Goddess of Ireland, became the revered Catholic Saint Brigid? Well, lads and lassies, Ireland is a land where fairies and wee folk live in the astral planes, and one finds that their minds are open to many of life’s mysteries. Only a bit of blarney from people who lived off, loved, and worshiped the land, helps one to discover that the woman now worshiped as a Saint, is also the Goddess who symbolizes survival against all odds, Brigid.
Celtic and Pagan people think all of nature is sacred and powerful, such as wells, rivers, lakes, flowers and mountain ranges. But the mighty oak tree is the most sacred of all. Brigid was supposedly born in Kildare, meaning “church of the oak.” The two great influences on Irish spirituality are Christianity and Paganism. The biggest differences are the places where actual worship takes place. Christians prefer to worship indoors, where the unbelievers are outside of the building’s walls. The Celts found holiness anywhere they could feel nature’s power, and the Druids, or Pagan Priests, always looked for an oak tree in a grove to hold a ceremony.
Brigid: Bridge Between Pagan and Saint
Pilgrims rediscovering their Irish roots, or Pagan groups wanting to celebrate Goddess rituals in Ireland, can find that Irish people may not wish to acknowledge Brigid’s Celtic past. Others will be more forthcoming, with an “Ah, wasn’t she a Goddess before ever she was a Saint?” For most, the Saint’s identity as Pagan and Saint blend together, and it is not a problem. It’s actually part of her appeal. It allows Pagans to embrace Brigid, yet still remain within the Christian community. The Irish call such people, “light green pagans,” because they want to enrich their Catholicism with the feminine energies of the Goddess. The Roman Church was quite tolerant of different beliefs when it aided them in overtaking land with people living on it. It has even been tolerant of Mary worship, because how can they fight those who wish to honor the Mother of Jesus?
Paganism and Catholicism are joined together in Ireland in a way that is impossible to separate, and they need each other to survive. Brigid's sanctuary in Kildare was a temple in ancient times and a convent in Christian times. Today it is a place where people gather to bridge the differences which have stayed alive between Ireland’s Catholics and Protestants, between Christians and Pagans, and between men and women. The word Brigid means “bright one” or “high one,” and all the old shrines to the Goddess were called by names with “bridge” in them.
Brigid Celebrates Nature as Religion
Pagans who visit Ireland and expect to find Beltane fires and the like are sometimes disappointed. This writer met author Patricia Monaghan at a book signing, and was able to hear her lively discussions about her trips to Ireland as a follower of Paganism. They are coming back into existence, as is goddess worship. But these primitive rites that have survived are kept a bit secret, one must know where to go to find like minded people to celebrate them. The Irish are annoyed by “witches” traipsing through their countryside who do not really understand the seriousness with which they love their land. Still, the Irish keep the old polytheism. Psychologist David Miller explains, “monotheism inclines toward either/or thinking: something is divine, or it’s not. The sacred and mundane are separated by an unbridgeable chasm, and dualistic world view, leading to exclusivity. Polytheism encourages a both/and approach. A flowing brook is both a body of water and a Goddess. The Goddess is both internal and external, immanent and transcendent. Instead of duality, we have multiplicity; Ireland’s Goddess Danu on one hand, Brigit in another, Mary in the third. With such a polytheistic world view, it is possible to be fully Catholic and fully Pagan at the same time.”
Brigid is the Celtic Triple Goddess
Brigid was depicted as a triple goddess, or as three sister goddesses who shared the name. She was the ruler of transformation, goddess of metal smith, of illness to health, as a midwife and goddess of healing. The triple Brigid was the daughter of the Earth god, and shares his powers of abundance. She ruled ideas into art as goddess of poetry. She was connected to a magical cow that never ran out of milk, with fire, as in the sun and the hearth, and with water, especially the kind found in healing springs. Although Kildare is associated as the center of worship for Brigid, there are no Pagan records of a temple there. But this is not unusual, as the Celts had only a rudimentary written language, and most of their history is remembered in songs or oral stories. In other countries, destruction of the Bards (Druids) who sang these tales could wipe out generations of history. But when the Irish monks mingled with the Christians, this provided most of the written history which can be found about Celtic mythology.
It has been said that Brigid was baptized by St. Patrick, and took this so seriously she decided to become a nun. Her father was unconverted, and quickly arranged a marriage which Brigid thought unsuitable for herself. So she performed her first, very odd, miracle. She made her eyes pop out of her head to make herself undesirable to a husband. It worked, and then she put her eyes back, and crossed Ireland with a band of nuns to Kildare, to find a place to build a convent. She found a place near a large, holy oak, but had to trick the owner of the land into giving her what she needed. She claimed she needed only as much land as her cloak could cover. But then she performed miracle two, and the cloak or mantle expanded to cover many miles of beautiful countryside.
I learned so much about Ireland reading about Patricia Monaghan's many trips to her native country. She studied Goddesses all over the world, but having Irish heritage myself, I loved listening to her. I saw her speak at several Celtic Spirituality events. Sadly, she passed on about 2013.
Followers of Brigid are Brigantines
According to the Irish, Brigid brought several useful things to humanity. She invented whistling one night to call her friends. She invented keening, the distraught, crying sound a completely devastated person makes when grief is unbearable, as when a loved one dies. One day she came in from the rain and could find no place to hang her cloak. She hung it on a beam of sunlight, which became stiff and hard until the cloak dried. In another tale, Brigid restored sight to a blind friend, who asked to be made blind again so her soul would not be tempted from the beauty of nature. It is likely this story which makes the connection of Brigid as the goddess said to cure eye diseases.
An ancient worship of the fire goddess continued almost into modern times, where nineteen virgins tended an undying fire, and on the twentieth day of a cycle, left it to be tended by Brigid herself. For more than ten centuries, Brigid was invoked as a Saint rather than Goddess, her attendant’s nuns instead of priestesses. Even after Christianity came to Ireland in the fifth century, and the shrine became a convent, the ancient rites were undisturbed. But 600 years later, Henry de Londres, archbishop of Dublin, understood the Pagan meaning of those flames. The fires were put out, but in 1993, the sisters of St. Brigid, called Brigandines, relit the sacred fire of Kildare and it now blazes continually, as a symbol of peace and healing.
People Search Ireland for Brigid's Holy Wells
Water is also considered holy and a symbol of the goddess. At one time almost 30 sacred wells gushed forth near Kildare, and the largest is still in use today as a healing shrine. Sacred wells still have a place of great importance and power in Ireland, because of their sources from deep within the Earth. They are thought to contain the energy of the night sun, and the way water captures all sunlight, like bright eyes. Eyes themselves are a symbol for this goddess, and the straw crosses that are made to honor her are called “ojos de dios” or “eyes of god.”
The first time Patricia Monaghan, author of The Red Haired Girl From the Bog, went searching for Brigid’s wells, she was shocked to find a tiny well, with one candle flame, and three other visitors. She spoke to a local man near the tiny shrine they found and he said, “You’re not Irish. I find not many of your American countrywomen are very interested in spirituality. But it was our spirituality that held the Irish together during the hard times.” He speaks of the potato famine, when the Irish were starving, and the British actually took their cows, the only source of milk for the children, and seized their land. The world is filled with such cruelties, and it remains a mystery why others will let a country starve or worse, and not try to help.
Travelers Come to Ireland at Imbolc to Worship Brigid
Monaghan met several Brigidines, who never envisioned a revival of the relighting of the sacred fires. Spirit works in mysterious ways, especially in Ireland. Now people come continuously throughout the year to visit the holy wells which remain. Patricia Monaghan is thrilled that large numbers of Brigid worshippers come out for the rituals now. The Imbolc, or mid Winter/Spring rituals are the busiest. Now many people, Christian, Pagan, men and women, have once again begun to celebrate these sacred rites, as the priestesses and nuns did centuries before. Monaghan speaks of “feeling the miracle of Brigid’s presence.” To her, it meant the power of building bridges between people, religions, cultures and sexes. Sometimes we make one small change, and it has unexpected and great consequences. When people get in touch with the inner roots of their land, it touches them in places they never realized it would. And at the end of her last visit there, she heard joyous singing about Spring’s return. Whether it was Christian or Pagan didn’t matter at all, the voices could not be distinguished. Nor should they be when all worship and celebrate as one.
The primary feast of Brigid, the day the Goddess emerged from the Underworld where she spent winter, was celebrated on February 2nd and called Imbolc by the Celts. This day was changed to Candlemas by the Christians. She emerged then, as did Spring, or at least the very beginning of it. This tradition was changed once again, by American folklore, as Groundhog Day. It seems unusual that the country waits for an Underworld divinity to emerge, either with the news that winter is almost over, or whether it will take longer for Spring to appear, and it is in the form of a Groundhog. It has not been established how this festival is connected with the Celtic one, but as Brigid is the Goddess of survival against all odds, here she is in such a good disguise that only the very observant will recognize her. Sure, isn’t Brigid really bril, to pull a stunt like that?
Brigid, gold-red woman,
Brigid, flame and honeycomb,
Brigid, sun of womanhood,
Brigid, lead me home.
You are a branch in blossom.
You are a sheltering dome.
You are my bright precious freedom.
Brigid, lead me home.
© 2012 Jean Bakula