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The heART of Ritual


Brigid: The Pagan Goddess(es) of Ireland?

Imbolc is a celebration of the returning light and Brigid herself is believed to be an incarnation of a Proto-Indo-European dawn goddess, according to some sources. She has parallels with many other goddesses celebrated at this time and is particularly associated with the hearth, healing, fertility, poetry as well blacksmiths and their work.

Brigid, as the elevated one, is also a goddess of eloquence and higher ideals in terms of insight and thought.

Accounts tell us that she had 19 hand-maidens who tended her eternal flame, which echoes the goddess Vesta. Perhaps the number 19 signified the moon cycle, which is the number of years it takes the moon to return to the same place in the sky in the same phase? That's my own observation, though, and not something I've seen mentioned elsewhere. Other historians see parallels to the goddesses Minerva and Athena.

While it is easy to get caught up in the arguments regarding whether the Christian St. Brigid is an overlay upon the various pagan Brigids, many often overlook the deeper and archetypal aspects of life-giving goddesses all similarly associated with this time of the year. Whether this means Brigid is seen as a later incarnation of Danu or a variant of other European spring goddesses the meaning is shared: the arrival of light and new life.

Even within the various strands of paganism there are often contradictory interpretations of who Brigid is.

I feel this piece from Monumental Ireland is incredibly important regarding how identities can become entwined over time, never mind the mix-up mentioned in the article. But why would Christianity want to associate with a pagan deity in the first place, though?

One of the most useful ways to increase the popularity of a particular holy site was to connect it to a saint. Since canonization was only used from the 10th century, the process of declaring sainthood before that date was one decided by public acclaim. Although this process was more popular and democratic, it lent itself to distortion, manipulation and added colour which didn’t always accurately convey legitimate history.

It also meant that by incorporating older pagan saints to a particular site or place a church settlement could insure pilgrims and income. (Ireland’s pre-Christian population was illiterate so there was no way to compare the written account of Christian saints with earlier pagan deities. This also lent itself to the continuation of traditional folklore and myths relating to the older, pagan deities which were worshipped at this time.)

The main effect of this was that when stories about Irish saints were written down by the monastic writers they were hagiographic accounts designed to inspire, win over and ultimately convert. Another aim and function of these monastic writings was to associate their sites and holy personalities with traditions and myths that the converts were already familiar with and could relate to.

Because the Druids did not make public their beliefs it is almost impossible to distinguish or separate what Christian monks were recording about the historical persona from the folklore and older mythology. In order to glean any remnants of the pagan deities we must instead look to the symbols within the stories that refer to constants such as the seasons, solar occurrences and how they impacted upon the lives of the people at the time.

The actual identity of the person who founded St. Brigid's monastery at Kildare is completely unknown. For us to accept St. Brigid's historical existence is a leap of faith, at least within the scholarly context, since we have no reliable evidence of her historicity. There are no writings by St. Brigid herself, nor is there any biography of her until 150 years after her supposed death, written around 650AD. The monastic annals from early Ireland list two birthdates (452, 456) and three different dates for her death (524, 526, and 528). According to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, "Historical facts about her are extremely rare; some scholars have even doubted her existence altogether."

All other sources of information on the saint derives from legends and folk tales collected after the 17th century, most in the 19th and early 20th centuries, almost all of which are also based on the earlier ‘lives’ creating a self-referencing loop that reinforces the initial reverential accounts.

Returning to the celebration of Imbolc, there are actually two days when Imbolc is celebrated here in Ireland. Astronomical Imbolc will occur on the 3rd of February (this year), but many people celebrate Imbolc as a fixed feast day on February 1st, based on the dating of the Gregorian calendar. The importance of astronomical Imbolc is that it is the halfway point between the winter solstice and the Vernal/Spring Equinox, which takes place on March 20th this year. Note that the ancients marked the Celtic wheel of the year festivals by the stars, not by the Gregorian calendar.

Although Imbolc is often cited as part of the Celtic traditions, being one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals along with Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain, here in Ireland the seasonal time was acknowledged thousands of years before the Celts arrived. Among the ancient Irish sites, the Neolithic Mound of the Hostages and Cairn L at Slieve na Calliagh demonstrate sunrise Imbolc alignments.

As I have written about many times here, cross-quarter days and the periods around them are strongly associated with fairies, the good people and ancestor veneration. In many cases this took the form of rituals relating to prophecy and divination but these liminal days are also considered to be when a person should be even more careful when venturing to these ancient places. A site associated with the aos sí was not necessarily somewhere you might want to be, all things considered!

There are many folklore customs relating to Brigid, some famous and some not so well known. A type of old Indo-European cross made from rushes became the famous 'Brigid’s cross' but less well known is the triple armed cross which is said to represent the tri-fold nature of this ancient triple-goddess.

In many Irish towns and villages a piece of cloth or clothing was left outside the house on Brigid’s Eve so as to collect the morning dew which transformed the cloth into one of protection for the year. If you were lucky enough to live near a hawthorn tree the cloth was placed upon its branches where it was seen to gather even more power. This was because Brigid was believed to travel the land on this night and was said to bless household items and offerings left out for her.

Although often associated with domestic animals, Brigid, is also often portrayed with serpents and wolves. An old Scottish verse tells us that,

“The serpent will come from the hole

On the brown Day of Bríde,

Though there should be three feet of snow

On the flat surface of the ground.”

In Ireland this period of late January, early February was referred to as Faoilleach, the first month, which means roughly in folk etymology, ‘time of the wolf’. Imbolc and the arrival of spring heralded the ending of this dangerous season. While researching another article about wolves I was surprised to discover that wolves are much more daring and desperate at the beginning of spring, following a hungry winter. This could be one reason for Faoilleach, the time of the wolf, extending into early February: starving wolves would have been much more likely to approach and threaten human settlements. As mentioned before, Ireland always had a huge wolf population and our last wolves ran wild until the end of the 18th century.

Here in Ireland Brigid is strongly associated with Holy Wells and natural springs. This is likely linked to the belief that the cross-quarter was a liminal time and contact with the Otherworld was easier achieved. Many of these rituals involve patterns and meditative walks whereas others will involve a focus upon healing and honouring Brigid and the return of spring. (C.) David Halpin.

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay


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