In Honor of Imbolc: Brighid from the Past

Brighid has also been known as Brigit, Lady Bride, Bridget, Brighde, Ffraid, Breda, Bree, Breeshey, Brigdu, Brigantia, and Braganca.

Long ago, the culture we now call the Celts worshiped this goddess. In fact, history records the worship of her as early as 16th century BCE. Linguists state that Brigit means “the Exalted One,” and for centuries she was. Not only did the ancient peoples known as Picts and Brigantes consider her their divine guardian, but her followers ranged in lands as diverse as Ireland, Austria, Iceland, Portugal, and Italy. Over the centuries, people of disparate professions worshiped her. She was the patron deity of blacksmiths and craftsmen, poets and artists, healers and midwives. In fact, She touched all aspects of life beginning with the celebration of the newborn and ending with the mourning of the dead.

While Christianity gradually encroached on the British Islands, goddess worshipers knew her as Fire of Inspiration, Forge of the Forest or She Who Kindles the Hearth, while churchgoers called her the Irish Mary, Our Lady of Peace, or Bridget of the Cows. By the late Eighth Century, she was canonized as Saint Bride or Saint Bridget. Yes, the Roman Catholic Church sainted Brighid, but the story isn’t that simple. Was the sainted woman a high priestess of the goddess Brighid or the goddess herself? Was she the charitable daughter of a chief in Fifth Century Ireland? Was she the foster-mother of Jesus, Mary’s midwife or a powerful Catholic Abbess? At one time or another, scholarly works have supported all of these theories. In fact, there are at least five disparate but official church biographies of this saint’s life.[1]

Thousands of years of worship meant that mythology shifted as stories were passed down through the generations, creating regional transformations. Yet, the memory of the  legendary exploits of this goddess could not be ignored. As an example,  the life of the first Abbess of Kildare, called Brigid of Ireland, was as legendary as the tales handed down about the goddess. “She had the power to increase the milk-yield and to help with butter-making, to change water to ale and stone to salt, and was called ‘the All-Giving.’ . . . There seems good reason to believe that here we have scattered traces of a once-powerful goddess, whose cult was important for the community as a whole.”[2]  Moreover, this Abbess was considered as much a miracle-worker as the goddess Brighid. “Some say that by simply stepping into her shadow you would be instantly healed.”[3]  Seems to me that goddess mythology was rewritten so the lady could fly undercover.

By the way, another holy Catholic martyr, Saint Blaze, was named for this goddess. In a few regions, people considered Saint Blaze a female, which has caused more uncertainty with cataloging the stories into a neat and tidy history.

Today, the enigma remains. Is she a Pagan goddess or a Christian saint?  Catholicism definitely borrowed a popular ancient holy day when it created Candlemas, ostensibly honoring the presentation of baby Jesus at the temple. The holiday has many similarities to the Pagan sabbat of Imbolc, most notably the blessing of candles. Yet, Brighid is not that easily limited to one day a year. Especially in Catholic regions of Ireland, church services also incorporate ceremonies commemorating Brigid in Spring and at Winter Solstice, just as their non-Christian ancestors might have. The Catholic Prayer to St. Brigid is a common supplement to the service.[5]

Prayer to St. Brigid (excerpt)

May the mantle of your peace cover those who are troubled and anxious, and may peace be firmly rooted in our hearts and in our world. …Brigid, you were a voice for the wounded and the weary, strengthen what is weak within us. Calm us into a quietness that heals and listens. May we grow each day into greater wholeness in mind, body and spirit.

Of course, with a feast day on February 2, we can’t ignore the secular event of Groundhog’s Day.  This popular day evolved from the custom of predicting weather during Candlemas (which you recall arose from Imbolc). An old traditional English song, of which several versions exist, seems an obvious precursor to the modern practice.

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again. (Anonymous)

In spite of the confusion about her past, St. Brigid remains one of the most popular saints worldwide. According to the Catholic Forum, in current times, she is the patron saint of people as diverse as nuns and fugitives, poets and sailors, dairy workers and travelers.[4] Certainly, many non-Christians happily continue to honor their lady Brighid, especially at Imbolc.

 

—- Footnotes —-

 

[1] Grattan-Flood, William. “St. Brigid of Ireland.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. (Robert Appleton Company, 1907) online at New Advent  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02784b.htm (accessed August 3, 2008).

[2] Davidson, Hilda Roderick Ellis. The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe (Routledge, 1993) pg 112-113.

[3] Soror Ashera. The Peace Beads “Our Lady of Peace St. Brighid (Irish Catholic)” online at http://www.thepeacebeads.com/ourlady/stbrighid.htm (accessed December 1, 2008).

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About Lillith ThreeFeathers

Lillith ThreeFeathers is a shamanic healer, author, medium, and priestess.
This entry was posted in General Musings, Spirituality & Religion, Stories from long ago and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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