Brigit: "The Mary of the Gael"
Nuns are said to have kept an eternal flame burning there that was not extinguished until the Reformation. The custom may have been derived from ancient Druidic practice, since there appears to have been female druids residing at the spot long before Brigit's arrival. Their leader was a high priestess named Brigid or Brighid (pronounced Breed), which means "the exalted one," and she was deity of wisdom, poetry, fire, and hearth. The goddess, like many other Celtic goddesses who appear sometimes in groups of three, was associated with two sisters by the same name--one who was associated with the art of healing, the other with the craft of smithing. These attributes were eventually identified with the saint, whose feast day, February first, came to be celebrated on the same day as the pagan goddess. Edward Sellner, in his book Wisdom of the Celtic Saints, says "it is clear that St. Brigit stands on the boundary between pagan mythology and Christian spirituality."
The saint was called "the Mary of the Gael" and considered during the Middle Ages as the patron saint of travelers and pilgrims. In Ireland she is still prayed to as the guardian of farm animals, of healers, and of midwives. Only a round tower and a restored medieval cathedral are evidence of her presence at Kildare, however, her reputation as a spiritual guide remains. Her gifts of patience, prayerfulness, inclusivity, and compassion were the basis of her spiritual power and ministry.
Fact mingles with fiction and myth when it comes to the deeds of St. Brigit. One fact is that the deeds and myths attributed to the earlier goddess Brigid were subsumed into the cult and person of the saint. Within Scottish tradition, Brigit (both saint and goddess) is associated with the lambing season and the coming of spring. In pagan culture this equates with the ousting of the winter reign of Cailleach Bheur, or the Old Hag who comes with Samhain. At Imbolc (pronounced "IM-bullug" or "IM-bulk" with a guttural "k" on the end), the Old Hag is replaced by the Young Virgin (Brigid).
St. Brigit, in Christian myth, is credited with being the midwife to the Virgin Mary, also to playing the fool by distracting Herod's soldiers from the infant Christ child by wearing a crown of burning candles on her head. This crown of candles is also associated with the Scandinavian St. Lucia, and in some households in Sweden today, the mother of the house serves cakes and coffee to family members wearing a "Lucia crown." There are also aspects of the Yorkshire goddess Brigantia attributed to the Irish saint, particularly in wisdom, water, and pastoral activity.
Brigit was born the daughter of a Christian bondswoman and a pagan chieftain, Dubthach (the Dark One), of County Louth. When Dubthach's wife discovered the slave was pregnant, she threatened to leave and take her dowry if her husband didn't get rid of the slave. Dubthach took the bondswoman to a druid in Faughart, who, according to legend, gave a very angelic prophesy about the unborn child.
"The offspring of your wife shall serve the offspring of the slave, and the slave shall bring forth a radiant daughter who will shine like the sun among the stars of heaven."
Dubthach sold the slave to a poet because of his wife's jealousy, and the poet then sold the slave to a kindly druid, but not the child in the womb. Brigit was said to have been born on the threshold of the druid's house and washed in a vessel of milk carried by the slave. Further tales tell of special gifts bestowed on the young child.
On a certain day, Brigit's mother went out to milk the cows, while leaving the young Brigit asleep in her house. Neighbors saw the house on fire and raced over to rescue Brigit. When they got to the house, so the legend goes, the fire disappeared, and they saw it a a sign that the girl was full of the grace of the Holy Spirit.
When Brigit was about ten, she returned of her own accord, to her father and began to give to the poor much of the contents of the kitchen. Then she further irritated her father by insisting on returning to her foster home to help her ailing mother, where she took on her mother's dairy work. A story evolved that when she churned the butter, she sang a song beseeching Mary's Son to grant abundance, and the butter multiplied. So grateful was the druid that he freed Brigit's mother and allowed himself to be baptized.
As she grew to young womanhood, everything she touched increased. She tended sheep, fed the poor, satisfied birds, according to legend. Once when the druid was sleeping, he saw three clerics anoint the young woman with oil. The clerics, angels in disguise, told the druid in his dream that the girl's name was to be Sancta Brigida - Saint Brigit.
Brigit incurred the wrath of her father when she took his sword from his house and gave it to a leper who begged something in God's name. Her furious father took her to the king to sell her, but Brigit's explanation that "the Virgin Mary's Son knows, if I had your power, with all your wealth, and with all your Leinster, I would give them all to the Lord of the Elements." The king told Dubthach: "It is not right for us to deal with this young woman, for her merit before God is higher than ours."
Brigit accompanied several virgins to Bishop Mel to take the veil. She held back so the other young women should be first, but legend states that a "fiery pillar rose from her head to the roof of the church" and the bishop decreed it a sign she should be first. Then the form of ordination for the bishopric was read over her--whether intentional or by miracle--and she became the first female bishop. When challenged by Bishop Mel's assistant, the bishop said the dignity had been given by God, not by him, and it was irreversible. From that day onward, the people of Ireland have given episcopal honor to Brigit's successors.
Many more stories are told of the saints healings, even when she herself was severely wounded. What is known is that Bishop Mel gave her what is now the city of Kildare as lands for a monastery. How she obtained these lands is less clear. One story tells that when the local king refused her request for the land, she told him she would be content with whatever her mantle could cover. When spread, the mantle covered the entire of what was to later be known as the Curragh. At the edge of her grassland, she built a church and convent. The area was probably an ancient Druidic site, as previously mentioned, because the nuns retained the pagan practice of the sacred fire. This fire burned continuously until extinguished in 1220 by Henry de Londres, the Anglo-Norman archbishop of Dublin. Later rekindled, it was finally quenched upon the Dissolution.
Cogitosus, a seventh century biographer, described Brigit's church as being a spacious timber building with a high roof, many windows, and frescoed walls. Hanging linens divided the sanctuary from the rest of the church.
The convent thrived under Brigit's capable and generous leadership, and eventually she invited a bishop to take up residence at Kildare. Under this man, Conleth, a monastery grew, where monks crafted chalices, missal covers, shrines and other beautiful metal objects for religious use. Conleth and Brigit supervised the double monastery as coequals.
Brigit had many admirers in the clergy. Before Finian built his monastery at Clonard, he visited Brigit to learn the art of organizing such an operation. And Brendan the Navigator, returning from his voyage, stopped to visit Brigit. The folk tale tells that she came in from her sheep pasture to welcome him and hung her cloak on a sunbeam to dry.
There are many similarities between Brigit the saint and Brigid the goddess. Brigid is the Goddess of physicians and healing, divination and prophecy. One of her ancient names is Breo-saighead which means fiery arrow. She is associated with the cow (relating to the festival of Imbolc), also with ewes (the lambing season), and milk. Imbolc involves the lighting of fires (Candlemas?), purification with well water (there are many Brigid wells in Ireland today), and the ushering in of the new year (Spring) by a maiden known as the Queen of the Heavens. The Catholic Feast of the Purification of Mary is celebrated at this same time. Brigid is here honored in her capacity as Great Mother.
The goddess Brigid is a triple goddess, replaced by a Trinity. Her role as Mother Goddess was never completely erased and appears throughout her career as a Catholic saint. As St. Brigit, rays of sunlight come from her head, exactly as her goddess role. Themes of milk, fire, sun, and serpents follow the goddess Brigid and the saint Brigit, and both display the attributes of compassion, generosity, hospitality, spinning and weaving, smithwork, healing, and agriculture. Fires are raised in the morning and smoored at night by prayers to St. Brigit.
The Brigit's cross, a crafted cross of rushes, is actually a widdershins, a counterclockwise swastika, a symbol of the sun. It made its way to Ireland in the second century and hangs today in Irish Catholic houses and in Wiccan homes as a symbol of protection.
The early church could not stamp out pagan practices and chose to make Christianity more palatable by combining the Old Ways into Christian tradition. In doing so, they made Brigid's transition from goddess to saint complete. The protective mantle of Mary of the Gael is still invoked against danger. St. Brigit is the secondary saintly protector of Ireland, after Patrick.
Until next time.
Copyright © 1997-2012 Suzanne Barrett and licensors. All rights reserved.