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The Feast Day of Brigid (Lá Fhéile Bhríde) and the ancient Irish festival of Imbolc




If you're Irish like me, you will know that today (February 1st) is the feast day of St. Brigid (Lá Fhéile Bhríde), a fixed date holiday honouring Ireland's matron saint. Imbolc (one of our eight indigenous wheel of the year festivals) takes place on February 4th, 2024 (astronomical Imbolc), and this ancient festival celebrates the Earth Awakening.


This article aims to clarify the difference between the two, and the connection too, and I highly recommend you read the other Brigid posts shared throughout the MUSINGS section which go into alot more depth on Brigid the saint, and Brigid the person.


Whether you celebrate Imbolc as being on Feb 1st or astronomically as I do, then this post will be a treasure trove for you where this sacred earth festival is concerned, and also shares alot of lore and associations so that you can get to know this festival, the energy it represents, the traditions, and Brigid - the Irish goddess most associated with this festival - a little better.


I first published this article in 2017 and while it's from both an Irish and/or Gaelic (Scottish) perspective, I also cover Celtic references in England, Wales and the Isle of Man.


Those who know me personally and those who have followed what I do for a while already know that I am very passionate about preserving oral traditions, ancestral ceremonial practice, sacred earth festivals, the Irish medicine wheel and the Celtic Wheel of the Year. I share this post today for those who wish to reconnect with the roots of Imbolc, this cross quarter festival that bridges the earth (north) and air (east) elements in the Celtic Wheel of the Year and Irish medicine wheel.


Before I begin, I want to mention that while most celebrate the Celtic festivals on set yearly dates for convenience (for instance, last year Samhain was Nov 7th yet most celebrate it on Oct 31st), my personal practice follows ancestral tradition of the feast days being celebrated according to their astronomical alignments and it is within this context I share this here today. The ancients celebrated and marked time at the sacred sites according to the position of the constellations, moon and the sun throughout the wheel of the year and this is a core aspect of my personal prayer expression.


ABOUT BRIGID

Brigid is the Irish saint and Goddess of Poetry, Healing and Smithcraft. She has been worshiped by the Irish (and Celts) as a Saint for over fifteen hundred years, and as a Goddess long before the Roman invasion of Britain and the birth of Christ. She was so powerful that the Celtic Christian Church adopted her as a saint, and the Roman Catholic church followed suit, for her people would not abandon her. Along with St. Patrick, she is the patron Saint of Ireland. St. Brigid is often referred to as Muire na nGael ‘Mary of the Gael’. Mara Freeman states, ‘Brigid is the nearest thing we have to a Great Mother of the Celts.’

There are many variations, pronunciations, and spellings of her name, including:


Scotland: Bhrìghde, Brighid, Bride

Ireland: Brigid, Brigit, Brighid, Brìd, Brígh

Manx: Breeshey

Wales: Ffraid

England: Brigantia, Brittania

France: Brigandu

The name Brigid itself means either ‘Fiery Arrow’, ‘Bright One’, or ‘High One’ in the Irish language, referring to her solar aspect - she is, after all, the feminine aspect of the Sun, therefore a solar heroine. In the old Irish, she was Briganti, which is connected to the old Indo European word, Bhrghnti. In Sanskrit, bhrati, or brihati means ‘exalted one’.


DRUID GODDESS

Brigid is a ‘pan Celtic’ goddess, who was worshipped by both the Goidelic and Brythonic Celts in the British Isles and beyond. She is a solar deity, who once hung her mantle on a sunbeam. In Irish Celtic mythology, Brigid is the daughter of the Morrighan and the Dagda, the Good God and Chief of the Tuatha de Danann, the ancient fairy race of Ireland, and the sister of Ogma, who invented the Ogham alphabet. She was the wife of Bres, King of the Fomorians (who were at war with the Tuatha de Danann). Brigid was said to have been the mediator of peace between the two ancient warring tribes. She was the mother of the Three Gods of Danu – Ruadan, Iuchar and Uar. These three Gods were said to have married the three princesses of Ireland – Eire, Fodhla and Banbha. In other sources, Brigid is the daughter of Boann, the Goddess of the River Boyne in Ireland. Boann (bo fhionn) means ‘white cow’, an association she shares with Brigid. Brigid is primarily the patron Goddess of poets, healers and smiths. She is also a patron of other womanly arts – midwifery, dyeing, weaving and brewing, and the guardian of children and farm animals – particularly cows. The island of Ireland itself is said to be the green mantle of Brigit. She is also said to be the patron of travellers, sailors, and fugitives. She is specifically a patroness to the Druids in her aspects of poetry (Bards), healing and prophecy (Ovates) and blacksmithing (Druids).


GODDESS OF POETRY

Brigid is patroness filidhact (poetry and bardic lore) and the filid – (bards), who were the oral transmitters of the Celtic culture. This includes storytellers, folklorists, mythologists, balladeers, singers, composers, poets, musicians, particularly harpers, historians and clan genealogists. She provided the ‘fire in the head’ of poetic inspiration. The Bards are the surviving class of the Druids, keeping the ancient traditions alive until the present day. Bards were the honoured guests from cottage to castle, patronized and supported by a network of clientele. The Blind Harper, Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738), was one of the most famous bards in Ireland, and made his living as an itinerant harper. He was a formidable composer, who is said to have learnt some of his music from the faeries themselves.


The word 'fili' – poet, is related to the word, 'feach' – to see. Poets are inspired by the Other World, and have the gift of fàisneachd (prophecy). In the county of Limerick, Brigid visited the household of a chieftain, and asked that his foster father and his sons play the harps that were hanging on the wall. She was told that the chief’s bard was away, and the children did not know how to play. Thereupon, she blessed their hands, and they played the harp with such skill that they became famous harpers, and the bards of kings for generations.


GODDESS OF AUGURY

Goddess of Augury in Druid tradition, poetry (filidecht) was associated with augury (fiosachd or fàisneachd). So Brigid was also the patron of prophets and seers (fiosaiche). She was said to have foreseen the future of Christ when she was his nurse. The form of divination Brigid used is called ‘frìth Bhrighde (augury of Brigid)’, where she curled her hand into a ‘seeing tube’. Looking through this ‘hand-made tube’, she could find lost people or animals, report on the well-being of distant people, etc. In Scots Gaelic, frìth means ‘an incantation to find whether people at a great distance or at sea be in life’. Frìthir is another word for seer or diviner in Gaelic. Water and Fire are both associated with divination. Celtic Seers divine by both looking deeply into water (fàisnich uisce) or into the flames (fàisnich tine).


TRIPLE GODDESS

Brigid is sometimes referred to as a ‘Triple Goddess’, having two sisters, also named Brigid. More commonly, she is considered a triple aspect deity because she is the patroness of three primary skills in the Celtic world – poetry, healing and smithcrafting. In triple aspect images, one image carries a pair of blacksmith tongs and a sword, another image is handling two healing snakes, and a third image carries a wand with a crescent moon and a tablet.


ELEMENTS

According to various research and documentation I've seen, Brigid actually resonates strongly with all five elements - air, fire, water, earth and spirit, however rules primarily water and fire. Water traditions on Brigids feast day relate with visiting ‘holy wells’ and fire traditions relate with the symbolic lighting of candles.


As Water deity, Brigid is the patroness of healers, with many healing springs and wells dedicated to her throughout Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. Water is also associated with psychic ability, music, and poetry. Natural bodies of water were also sacred to her, particularly where three streams joined together.

As a Fire deity, she is the patroness of blacksmiths and poets (a poet's ‘fire in the head’). The hearth is sacred to her in every home. Another name for her feast day is Candlemas, in which all the candles for the coming year are made and blessed. Brighid is the Triple Goddess of Fire – the fire of poetic inspiration and divination, the fire of health and fertility, and the fire of metal working and crafts.


Water and Fire were important elements to the early Celtic civilization long before they reached the British Isles. The elements were especially venerated at the end of a long harsh winter – fire was welcomed as the returning warmth of the sun, and water was celebrated as the ice and snow melted.

These natural cycles are why we celebrate Brigids festival and Imbolc as being the great awakening of the earth, and why the elements of water and fire relate with it.


PATRONESS OF BLACKSMITHS

She is the patroness of blacksmiths, the King of Crafts on which all other crafts depend. She is not a blacksmith herself, that niche is occupied by the Celtic deities, Goibnu and Govannon, but she inspires the creativity and artistry of the blacksmith craft just as she inspires the creativity of poets. Her eldest son, Ruadan, was a blacksmith. When Ruadan was killed, Brigid keened (caoine) in grief for him, thus initiating the Celtic custom of keening for the dead. Blacksmiths were considered magicians and wizards themselves. And it was the excellence of Celtic metalwork that differentiated them from all other early cultures and brought them to prominence.


PROTECTRESS

In her aspect as Brigantia, she carries a spear, an orb of victory, and wears a war crown. The word ‘Brigand’ derives from this warlike version of Brigid. In the British national anthem, ‘Hail Brittania, Brittania rules the waves. Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.’ Brigid is hidden in plain sight in England as protrectress of the nation and her warlike, protective characteristics are emphasized. As a saint, there were many prayers of protection invoking Brigid, which have been collected by Alexander Carmichael, such as this one:


Prayer of Protection

Thou Brigit of the kine,

Thou Brigit of the mantles,

Shield me from the ban

of the fairies of the knolls,

The faeiries of the knolls.


CHRISTIAN SAINT

Brigid occurs in Christian tradition as Saint Brigid of Kildare, Ireland. In some legends, she was a Druidess before she was converted to Christianity. The Saint was born near Kildare, on February 1st in 453 AD, to a Druid father, Dubthach, and a bondmaid, Broicsech. Saint Patrick was still alive when she was born. Her father had a vision that his wife would ‘bring forth a daughter conspicuous, radiant, who will shine like a sun among the stars of heaven’. In the vision, the father was told to name his child after the Goddess Brigid.


When the radiant child was born, she was immediately bathed in milk. She would tolerate no impure food, and was nourished on the milk of a ‘white skinned, red eared cow alone’. The attributes of white skin or fur with red ears on an animal (usually a cow, hound, or deer) is indicative of an ‘otherworldly’ or faerie animal in Celtic mythology. A reminder too of the name given the Boyne earlier which too refers to a white cow.


In some legends, it was a Druid who foresaw her radiant birth and future status, and she was later fostered and raised by the Druid. Brigid was famous for her generosity, giving away all she owned to the poor, including some of her father’s possessions. This displeased her father, Dubthach, so much, he took her to Leinster to sell at the court of the king. He left her with his sword in the chariot to make arrangements, and while he was gone, Brigid gave away his sword to a poor leper. When her angry father reported this to the king, the King of Leinster said, ‘It is not meet for us to deal with this maiden, for her merit before God is higher than ours.’ So saying, her father was prevented from selling her into bondage.


Brigid grew into a beautiful young woman, described as ‘blond and slender’ but had no interest in a secular life. When her family tried to force her to marry, she plucked out her own eye to make herself less attractive. When her family relented, she replaced her eye, miraculously healed.


She was to be Ireland’s first nun. She took the veil from the Scottish Bishop, Mél, who broke Christian tradition and ordained her as a female bishop, saying ‘No power have I in this matter. That dignity has been given by God unto Brigid, beyond every other woman.’ (Perhaps this harks back to pagan traditions, when there were female Druids).


Brigid’s miracles include restoring the dead to life (as a baby, she breathed life into the stillborn son of the Queen of Conaille), causing a mystic blaze around herself, healing the mentally ill, sick, and blind, making the dumb speak, turning water to ale. Her shadow had healing powers. A man brought his consumptive mother to Brigid, and placed the woman in Brigid’s shadow, where she was immediately healed. Brigid gave her famous healing girdle to a beggar, who was able to make her living from it as a healer thereafter.

She also had the power to curse, and once cursed an apple tree to baroness when its owner refused to give apples to the poor. When refused the hospitality of ale at a feast, she cursed the proprietor’s stock, and the stock of ale disappeared.


Brigid was a seer and a visionary, and once told Saint Patrick her vision of the Ploughs of Ireland, which prophesied the spread of the Gospel. She was known throughout the land for her charity and could use up her stock of food and drink and it would replenish itself immediately. A starving hound once came to her door, and she gave him the stock of bacon. When her foster father asked what became of the bacon, she said, ‘Count them’, and all the strips of bacon were in the larder again.


The Life of Brigid in the Book of Lismore describes her, ‘She is the prophetess of Christ, she is the Queen of the South, she is the Mary of the Gael.' Although she does not appear in the Bible, she is an integral part of Celtic Christianity. Note that the direction of south relates with the element of fire in the Irish medicine wheel and the wheel of the year. Legend claims her to be the midwife to Mary and the foster mother of Christ. From the prayers gathered by Alexander Carmichael in the Scottish Highlands, Sloinnntireachd Bhride, The Genealogy of Bride: Is mi fo chomaraig mo Naomh Muire, is I mo chaomh mhuime Bride. (And I under the protection of my Holy Mary, and my gentle foster-mother is my beloved Bride.)


The legend states that angels came to escort Brigid to the manger where, as a midwife, she delivered the Christ child. This is an interesting legend considering she was born 500 years later. (This is another example of where the distinguishing line between the Saint and the Goddess is elusive.)


There is a story of how she used her sight to discover Jesus when he was lost as a child in the temple in Jerusalem and another legend of when she drew the attention of Herod’s soldiers to herself by wearing a crown of lit candles, so that Mary and Joseph could escape with their baby son to Egypt.


A stone head of Brigid was discovered in a Neolithic tomb Drumeague, County Cavan, and brought into a local church. The head was canonized as Saint Bride of Knockbridge. Alexander Carmichael spent years in the Highlands of Scotland around the turn of the last century, gathering folklore, customs, practices, and prayers from the oral tradition of the country folk who lived in those remote areas. Much of their worship was devoted to Saint Brigid, and many prayers and invocations such as the above, were dedicated to Her. Carmichael published over six volumes on this subject, the Carmina Gadelica, Hymns and Incantations, in Gaelic with English translations.


BRIGID OF KILDARE

The King of Leinster granted Brigid land for a monastery in Kildare (Cill-Dara: Church of the Oak), around 470 AD. Brigid was the Abbess of the first convent in Ireland, and after her death, a perpetual flame was kept in her honour. Note that Oak is the Celtic tree relating with the fire element and Sun. This convent was a centre of learning and art, including metal work and goldsmithing; its most famous illuminated manuscript being the Book of Kildare (which no longer survives). Only women were permitted to enter the hedge enclosure with the Eternal Flame, which was fanned by a bellows. There were originally nineteen nuns who kept vigil at the fire, one each night. On the nineteenth night, the nun would say, ‘Brigid guard your fire, this is your night’. Note that the number 19 is said to be the number sacred to Brigid. These Nuns may have been a continuation of a sect of Druids, the ‘Sisters of the Galliceniae’, who performed sacred female rites. According to Cogitosus, who wrote in 650 AD, Kildare was a ‘double community’ of monks and nuns, presided over by an abbess. Brigid’s relics were kept in the abbey until the Viking raids in the ninth Century. King Henry VIII of England, during the Reformation, dissolved the assets of the Catholic Church in Ireland and destroyed the abbey in the sixteenth Century.


All that remains of the medieval building are a high cross and a round tower. The remains of what might be the original communal hearth from the time of Brigid were discovered in 1996. About a mile away from the remains of the abbey, the original stone well still exists, with a cloutie tree (Larch tree) nearby. The Larch’s branches are still hung to this day with strips of cloth, bandages, ribbons, etc. in prayer to Saint Brigid for healing.


In 1993, Sister Mary Minehan, a Brigidine Nun, relit St. Brigid's flame in Kildare. They have set up a Solas Bhride, a Christian Community Center, ‘for Celtic Spirituality in the spirit of Brigid of Kildare’. They hold a festival, Feile Bhride, at Imbolc in Kildare each year and are raising funds to establish a permanent building to house the perpetual flame.


BRIGID OF THE MANTLE

In the legend of Saint Brigid’s Cloak or Mantle, she found the perfect spot to found her abbey in Leinster, in a place called Kildare. There was an old oak, sacred to the Druids on the premises, making it a holy site. She went to the King of Leinster with four of her maidens and asked him to donate the land for an abbey. The King refused to give her the land. Brigid prayed to God for help, then asked if she could have just the amount of land that her mantle would cover. Laughing, the king agreed. Each of the four maidens took a corner of the cloak, and walked East, North, West and South, the cloak stretching as they walked until it encompassed the parcel of land she desired for her abbey. They king, seeing the miracle, fell to his knees, and could deny her nothing, converting then and there to Christianity. Brigid built her church there, under the shade of the old oak, not far from a well, also dedicated to the saint. A cathedral was built on the site in the thirteenth century, but the original foundations of Brigid’s church still exist.


BRIGID THE HEALER

Brigid is the patroness of healers, using the elements of fire and water to heal. She taught the properties of herbs, and blessed many springs and wells across the land, that are still venerated today. Her girdle and mantle had healing properties, which she shared with others. A drop of water from her mantle created a healing lake.


As a solar deity, she also taught that sunlight and water could be used for healing, especially the eyes. She advised sufferers to find a clean, clear spring, or fast moving body of fresh water, sparkling with sunlight, and lathe it on sore eyes for a restorative cure. In Catholic tradition, they pray to Saint Brigid for eye maladies. In folk tradition, a girdle (belt) is woven of straw at Imbolc, wide enough for people to step through three times in a healing ritual. Stips of cloth or ribbon are also left out to be blessed by the saint on Imbolc, imparting the healing properties of her own cloak to them.


GODDESS OF THE HEALING WELLS

Wells throughout the Celtic lands are named after Saint Brigid. There are many legends that the saint had stopped by a well in her travels, and blessed and healed people at the site. ‘Clooties’ are often tied to the trees (often Hawthorne) overhanging the wells, with healing wishes. These wells were probably dedicated to the earlier Goddess, Brigid, with a presiding priestess or Druid.


Famous wells in Ireland dedicated to the saint include: Kilbride parish, Co. Mayo; Chiffony, Co. Sligo; Faughart, Co. Louth; Ardagh, Co. Longford; Buttevant, Co. Cork; Castlemanger, Co. Cork; Dunteer, Co. Louth; Inismagrath parish, Co. Leitrim; Killinagh parish, Co. Cavin; Kilranelagh parish, Co. Carlow; Liscannor, Co. Clare; Marlerstown ,Co. Louth; Mullingar, Co. Westmeath; Tully, Co. Kildare; and Outeragh parish, Co. Leitrim


BRIGID THE MIDWIFE

Brigid is the patroness of midwives. She was the midwife of Mary, bringing Christ into the world. She is the guardian of every newborn child, their cradles often protected with a woven Brigid’s Cross (see photo below). Upon the safe birth of the child, it was ‘sained’ by the midwife, with three drops of water on the child’s forehead, dedicating the child in the name of the Trinity. A candle was also carried around the bed sun-wise three times. All these are elements from the Goddess Brigid, who was a solar deity also associated with healing wells. Could saining be from an older tradition of putting the newborn child under Brigid’s protection? For those of you unaware of the term ‘saining’, this is the practice of sacred fumigation and cleansing through herbal smoke. This is known as ‘smudging’ to many worldwide, but ‘saining’ is the term used by the Celts for this form of ritual fumigation.


BRIGID OF THE FIRE

Brigid is also associated with the teinntean (the fireplace) especially in Gaelic Scotland, which is why Brigid doll’s are placed near the hearth on her feast day. The doll is usually dressed in white, with ribbons, lace and even jewellery added. A slat geal (white wand) is often placed in the leaba Bride (Brigid’s bed) with her image, as a fertility charm. She is the patron of agricultural, pastoral, and domestic fertility and abundance. An offering of grain and milk products is left for her – bannocks, cheese, cream, butter, milk. The Bridie doll is kept throughout the year near the hearth, hung on a wall, or near the door, as a talisman of protection, then burnt in the next year’s fire.


BRIGID AND ANIMALS

Brigid had a way with animals, and could call birds to her hand. A hunted boar once found its way to her courtyard, and was granted sanctuary from its pursuers, remaining at the monastery for the rest of its life. A white skinned red eared fairy cow is associated with her. This fairy animal provided the only sustenance she would accept as an infant – its pure white milk. This cow is said to be her favourite companion.


She saved a man’s life who had accidentally killed the King’s pet trained fox. The king condemned the poor peasant to death for his offense. Brigid replaced the animal with a wild fox from the woods who performed the same tricks that the king’s fox had performed. The fox disappeared back into the woods as soon as the peasant was set free by the king. Brigid is also associated with a white snake, and with fish that sometimes appear in her healing wells.


Brigid, the Milk Maid:

Cattle, milkmaids and milk were sacred to Brigid, ‘Thig a Bhride mhor na loin, Thig, a bhanachaig Iosda Criosda (‘Come, great Bride, the beauteous, Come thou milkmaid of Jesus Christ.’) ‘White Brigid’s Day’ is another name for her feast day, referring to her association with milk, a vital food product to the early pastoral Celts. Milk was left out for her overnight, or poured out on the ground as a libation to her. She is associated with pastoral and agricultural enterprise – especially sheep and cows, during lambing and calving season, and thus a Goddess of animal fertility. She is particularly associated with milk and dairy products. She is thus a Mother Goddess with strong associations with Danu or Anu.


BRIGID SHRINES

There are many shrines and wells dedicated to Brigid throughout Ireland. In Faughart, the place many believe her to be born, there is an outdoor shrine where people come for healing. Cloths, bandages, ribbons, rosary beads and other items are tied to bushes around the shrine. A stream flows nearby with stations of the cross marked for pilgrims to honour her, usually the first Sundays in February and July. In Killmagh, there is a ‘bullaun’ (stone block with cup like depressions). Supplicants ask the saint for help, and turn smaller rocks within the depression.


FEAST DAY AND TRADITIONS

The Catholic Church celebrates Candlemas on Brigid’s feast day (which is also celebrated as the ‘Purification of the Virgin Mary’). This is appropriate, because Brigid is a patroness of light. In her earlier version, she was a solar deity. On Candlemas, the members of the parish carry their lighted candles in a procession around the church, then the priest blesses the candles. The candles are then taken to their homes and used in protection from storms, demons and evil. February 3rd is the feast of Saint Blaise, where two crossed candles are placed at the throat to protect the person from throat ailments.


Imbolc, generally accepted as occurring the first of February, is one of the four major cross quarter festivals in the year in the Celtic wheel of the year, going back to Druid times. The other three cross quarters are Bealtaine (commonly celebrated on the first of May), Lúnasa (commonly celebrated on the first of August), and Samhain (commonly celebrated overnight on October 31st - November 1st.)

The important Celtic feast of Candlemas fell on February 2nd. It was held to mark the quickening of the year. In Ireland and the Highlands, February 2nd is, very properly, the day of St. Brigid, formerly the White Goddess, the quickening Triple Muse.


Imbolc, Lá Fhéile Bhríde, was a festival of the original herding culture – where lambs are born and ewes are in milk. The milk provided drink, butter, cheese, and whey after a long, hard winter when the stocks of food were low – a matter of life and death to early Celtic people.


The rite of Imbolc is a women’s ceremony, where the coming of Spring is celebrated with Brigid’s feast (Maiden aspect of Goddess), and the waning of the Cailleach’s winter power is acknowledged (Crone aspect of Goddess). It is at the other side of the wheel of the year from Lúnasa, which is a male rite, celebrating Lugh, the God of Light. The struggle for power between the Cailleach and Brigid is the turning of the seasons from winter to summer. Early February marks the time when winter first begins to lose its power and the light can be seen to increase, thus it is also called Candlemas, when candles are blessed. In the myths, Cailleach brings winter snows while Brigid brings the first spring rains.


A tradition in the Highlands and Ireland is to put a strip of cloth or ribbon outside your door on Imbolc Eve (Jan. 31 st) for Brigid to bless. This cloth represents her mantle and can be used for healing throughout the year. Children are encouraged to notice if the cloth has grown the next morning, as Brigid’s mantle did. The ceremony is also a rite of purification, and homes and barns are cleaned out and blessed, after the dregs of winter. Imbolc rites solicit the return of light and warmth, the beginning of a new season of growth and abundance, planting, fertility and health.


Imbolc is also a traditional time to do divination. Looking into the ashes in the hearth the next morning one might find symbols of the coming year, or perhaps the very footprint of Brigid herself!


Wales

In Wales, Saint Brigid is called Saint Ffraid. There are many churches called Llansantffraid which were dedicated to her. A Medieval Welsh traveling prayer, ‘Saint Ffraid, bless us on our journey.’ Brenin, the Welsh word for King, means consort of Brigantia.


Picts

Each Pictish king was given a Bruide name (a throne name), in his manifestation as the consort of Brigantia. The Picts are thought to be an early Brythonic tribe of Celts who settled in Scotland.


Isle of Man

In Manx legend, Saint Brigid came to the Isle of Man to receive the veil from Saint Maughold. Her feast day is known as Laa’l Breeshey in the Manx language, (which is similar to Irish and Scots Gaelic.) The lady of the house placed rushes by the hearth for a bed for the saint, then called out, ‘Brede, Brede, tar gys my thie tar dyn thie ayms noght Foshil jee yn dorrys da Brede, as ihig da Brede e heet staigh’ Translation: ‘Brigid, Brigid, come to my house, come to my house tonight. Open the door for Brigid and let Brigid come in.’


Cornwall

In St. Ives, Cornwall, Saint Ea day is celebrated around the first of February with music and guising. Saint Ea was said to have floated to Cornwall from Ireland on an ivy leaf. They dress the Saint’s well, which is famous for curing diseases, especially of the eyes. Heated pennies are thrown to children from the balcony of the town hall. A silver ball is passed around until noon, and whoever has it when the bell strikes, is rewarded. The pennies and the ball are solar symbols. Thus, the themes of fire and water are acknowledged in the ceremony.


Ireland

Oíche Fhéile Bríde, the eve of the Feast of Brigid in Ireland was celebrated by bands of children carrying a Bride doll from home to home. Women brought out cake and ale and invited neighbours in for a ceilí, to welcome Brigid. Milk products – butter, cheese and milk, were always served. The saint herself was said to be abroad that night with her sacred white cow, blessing farmsteads and homes. People left out a piece of cloth, representing the brat Bríde, a piece of her sacred mantle, for the saint to bless as she passed by, which would be used to heal people and animals, especially in giving birth, the coming year. An offering of food for the saint and her cow was left in exchange.


In the Leitrim – Donegal area of Ireland, families gather on St. Brigid’s Eve. Rushes would have been gathered and left at the door until the ceremony began, at midnight. At the appointed time, a designated person covers her or his head and knocks at the door. The Bean an Tighe (woman of the house) welcomes Brigid, saying ‘Fáilte leat a Bhríd’ (Welcome Brigid), to which the newcomer replies, ‘Beannacht Dé ar daoine an tighe seo.’ (God bless the people of this house.) Holy water is sprinkled on the rushes, which are then brought into the house. All participate in making new Brigid’s crosses or Celtic crosses for the year, and burning the ones from the previous year. The below photo shows what a traditional Brigids cross looks like when freshly made.


St. Bride’s Day, Scotland

In the Scottish version, the Cailleach, the old Goddess of Winter, transforms herself into Bride on this day by drinking from the Tobar Og (Well of Youth). With her white wand, she touches the ground and the flowers of spring emerge. In her aspect as Cailleach at the onset of winter, her blackthorn staff shrivels the growth into barren winter.


'Bride with her white wand is said to breathe life into the mouth of the dead winter and bring him to open his eyes to the tears, and the smiles, the sighs and the laughter of Spring. The venom of the cold is said to tremble for its safety on Bride’s Day, and to flee for its life on Saint Patrick’s Day , 'Chuir Bride miar ‘s an abhuinn la na Feill Bride' (Bride put her finger in the river on the Feast Day of Bride ).


In another legend, the Cailleach Bheur (the old woman of winter the highlands of Scotland) ended summer with her blackthorn staff, banging it on the ground three times to signal the beginning of winter. With her severe presence came the winter gales and icy storms. The snow was her white mantle. Angus Og, the Celtic God of Love, was the handsome son of the Cailleach.


The Cailleach kept the Maiden of Spring, the Goddess Brighid prisoner, as her slave, making her life wretched with the hard work. Angus, who lived in the land of Everlasting Youth, saw Brighid one day in a vision, fell instantly in love, and was determined to marry her. But the Cailleach, his mother, knew that if he married Brighid, who in reality was the Sovereignty of the Land, Angus would become king, and would no longer be ruled by his mother, who would be deposed.


It was still winter, and travel was impossible. Yet Angus was determined. He borrowed three days from the summer months and the sun appeared and melted the snow, and he travelled to the Grampian Mountains, his mother’s abode. He searched and searched, but could not find his maiden, until he heard her sad voice singing in the forest near his mother’s castle as she gathered wood. When he found her, she looked up at him and she, too, was smitten with love. The day he found her was February 1st, and was known as Bride’s Day from that day forth, the beginning of Spring. In her footsteps the early spring flowers, snow drops, emerged from beneath the snow.


His furious mother had her vengeance on the couple. She mounted the forces of winter against them, borrowing days from the harsh mid-winter, causing devastation to the newly emerged flowers and young animals. But her power was waning and the love between Angus and his Bride were too strong for her. The Cailleach withdrew from the landscape, and turned to into a large grey stone, biding her time until the other side of the year when the Queen of Winter would reign again.


On the night of Imbolc Eve, the women of the household make a brìdeag, or dealbh Bride, a corn dolly of wheat, rushes, or grain from the last of the harvest. She is decorated with shells, stones, ribbons and early spring flowers, such as snow drops and primrose. A crystal is sometimes put over the heart to represent the ‘Guiding Star of Bride’. The doll is placed in a ‘Bride’s bed’ of woven wheat, a basket, or a cradle, which was placed near the front door of the cottage with a white candle burning nearby all night. In some traditions, the bed is put near the hearth. A white wand (birch, willow) is sometimes placed with the dolly to represent the wand of Brigit in legend. The woman of the house goes outside and cries out, ‘Brigit, Brigit, come in. Thy bed is ready.’ three times. In other traditions, she exclaims ‘Brigit is come! Brigit is welcome!’ Candles are often left out overnight for the Saint to bless. Also strips of cloth, representing the cloak of Brighid, which are used for healing throughout the year. An offering of a bonnach Bride (bannack) was left for the saint.


In a more public ceremony, the village girls, all dressed in white, carried the brìdeag in a procession throughout the town. The townspeople were required to give the group a gift of flowers, food (Bannocks, butter, cheese), in gratitude to the Saint for the year’s bounty. They finally gathered at the end of the day in a particular home, to put the Bride to bed and prepare for the feast the next day. Young men would come to pay their respects to the Bride, and there would be a ceilidh, with dancing and singing. At dawn, the group would sing a hymn to Brighid, and distribute the food to the poor.


In Barra, Scotland, fisherman cast lots for fishing banks after church services on Bride’s Day. The priest ‘recited the virtues and blessings of Bride, and the examples to be drawn from her life.’


In the Outer Hebrides, women meet to make an image of the Maiden aspect of the Goddess, or Brighid. The doll is dressed in white, and a crystal is placed over its heart. She is placed in a cradle. Brighid is invited into the house by the female head of the household, and sacred songs and chants are sung in Her honour. Alexander Carmichael states that 'Dedications to Bride are common throughout Great Britain and Ireland. From these traditional observations, it will be seen that Bride and her services are near to the hearts and lives of the people. In some phases of her character, she is much more to them than Mary is.'


SACRED SYMBOLS AND CORRESPONDENCES

The Serpent

One of her symbols is a white snake that spirals upon a wand. ‘La Bride breith an earaich, thig an dearrais as an tom.’ (The Day of Bride, the Birthday of Spring, the Serpent emerges from the knoll. 'Moch maduinn Bhride, Thig an nimhir as an toll; Cha bhoin mise ris an nimhir, Cha bhoin an nimhir rium' - translated as 'Early on Bride’s morn, the serpent will come from the hollow. I will not molest the serpent, nor will the serpent molest me'. Note the Greek Caduceus also has a snake motif for a healing symbol.

19 is her sacred number. There were nineteen virgins who kept her perpetual flame in the monastery at Kildare. Prayer beads are made from 19 milk-white stones dedicated to the saint. Spells invoking Brigit are said to take 19 days. For instance, lighting a special candle dedicated to her for 19 days along with prayers of supplication. 3 is also a sacred number, as Brighid is a ‘Triple Goddess’.


Colours

White (geal) is her colour, and symbolizes purity. It is also the colour of her sacred food – milk and milk products. White also brings to mind the pristine snowy landscape during her festival in early February.


Red (ruadh) is also her colour, the colour of the hearth fire.

Blue (gorm). In Christian tradition, her mantle is blue, which is also associated with the Virgin Mary. Energetically, this shade of light blue is the color that represents the sacred feminine aspect of the whole.

Green (glas). Her mantle is also said to be green, a colour associating her with faeries. Ireland is sometimes described as her green mantle.


The Swan

According to Robert Graves, one of her symbols was the White Swan;

'Black the town yonder,

Black those that are in it,

I am the White Swan,

Queen of them all.'


Cloak or Mantle

Brigid wore a healing cloak that she once hung on a beam of sunlight. Perhaps that is the inspiration for the traditional blue cloaks nurse’s once wore.


White Candle

Brigid’s feast day is also called Feill-Brìde, Candlemas, a time when candles are blessed by the Saint. A white candle should be dedicated specifically to the Saint and kept on her altar. Better still, a white candle with three wicks.


Anvil

As patroness of Blacksmiths, the anvil, or any blacksmith’s tool, is an appropriate symbol of the Goddess and Saint.


The Raven

Raven is associated with Imbolc, the Feast of Saint Brigid, because it is the first bird to nest in the Highlands, around the beginning of February. ‘Cuirear fitheach chon na nide’, (The raven goes to prepare his nest).


Sacred Trees

Both the Goddess and the Saint are reputed to own a white wand, made of birch or willow. Note that Willow is the tree of February in the Celtic tree calender, the very month that celebrates Brigid. Willow is a tree that relates with the water element and emotional body. According to her prayer card, in Catholic tradition, her sacred wood is vine. She is also associated with oak, as her church at Kildare was built in a nemeton, a traditional Druids’ oak grove.


Brigid’s Cross

While tending a dying Chieftain, the saint prayed and wove an equal arm cross from the rushes on the floor. When the dying man asked her about it, she told him about the salvation of Jesus Christ, and he agreed to be baptized before he died. In more ancient times, this was her symbol as a solar deity. Brigid’s crosses can be made with either three or four legs.


The cross is usually hung above the front door of the home to protect it. Children’s crosses are hung above their beds. Crosses were hung in the barn over the byre. The old cross is burned in the hearth fire on Saint Brigid’s eve, while the new one is made for the saint to bless for the new year.


Traditional prayers in Irish recall Ireland’s devotion to Brigid and it is fitting to end with one:


A Naomh Bríd a Mhuire na nGael, scar orainn do bhrat,

A Naomh Bríd a chroí na féile, stiúir sinn ar an mbóthar ceart,

A Naomh Bríd gheanúil ghrástúil,ar ár namhaid cosain sinn,

A Naomh Bríd a bhean rialta álainn,ar uair ár mbáis glaoigh orainn.


To view a selection of Brigid's Crosses created here over the years, click here.

To view last year's Herstory light show in Galway (featuring a great Bishop Bríd), click here.

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