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In researching the Celts, their beliefs, practices and religion, we face a number of difficulties. The ancient Celts themselves wrote down almost nothing about their religion and so we have to rely on other sources - the Classical authors of Rome and Greece, the Christian scribes who recorded the stories and myths, archaeological evidence and folklore.

Yet examining these sources is like picking up a pile of sand and watching it disappear between our fingers. We have to remember that the Classical authors may have had their own agenda of portraying the people they conquered as barbarians to justify themselves, and that they did not always understand the beliefs and customs of the Celts but tended to interpret them by reference to their own beliefs. The Christian scribes did not always know with certainty the myths and beliefs they were recording and they sometimes had their own agenda of promoting Christianity and undermining pagan practices. As for archaeology, this is dependant on what has survived and been found - there are vast areas where nothing is known. Also the archaeological evidence has to be interpreted by the experts who, like the Classical authors, have sometimes made the mistake of interpreting according to the preconceptions of their own culture. In the past, for instance, skeletons found with jewellery were assumed to be female because in the society of the archaeologists’ time only women wore jewellery.
Although folklore in many instances reflects ancient beliefs and practice, it is virtually impossible to say with certainty for customs and beliefs are easily transmitted and spread between communities and countries without documentation or authentication of their earliest forms.

However this very lack of hard evidence is, in a strange way, consistent with something we do know of the Celts - that they lived comfortably with ambiguity and a lack of stated facts. Diodorus Siculus (8 BC) writing about the Gauls said that “In conversation they use few words and speak in riddles, for the most part hinting at things and leaving a great deal to be understood.” Although it’s possible that Diodorus, being from another culture, was simply not privy to verbal and non-verbal cues that could have been understood by the Gauls themselves, there is other evidence which gives weight to his observation. We know that riddles and puns played an important part in Celtic tales and that the poets were said to possess a ‘dark’ language which the ordinary person was unable to understand. Many names can be interpreted in two ways - the name Morrígan, for instance means ‘phantom queen’ or possibly, ‘queen of the slain’. Again, much of Celtic art is abstract; forms change one into another, birds, animals and human forms are dimly glimpsed through designs of intricate lines and foliage. The place-name lore of the early Irish gives more than one story explaining the name of each place and does not choose one over the others as though the author is quite comfortable with multiple realities. And the Celtic languages, unique among those of the Indo-Europeans, use mutations so that words with the same meaning in certain places, in certain relationships to other words, change or shift their form and sound. The early poetry makes much use of alliteration and assonance which gives connections between words whose meanings are not connected, making what in Welsh tradition is called cerdd dafod or tongue music. (1)

The information we have about Brigit, both as goddess and saint, is subject to all the difficulties outlined above, except that she is not mentioned by the Classical writers. There is a little archaeological evidence in the form of statues and inscriptions, a few small references to her as a goddess in the glossaries and tales, several lives of the saint and a body of folklore, mainly Irish and Scottish. However the archaeological evidence tells us very little about her beyond her name and the fact that the Romans equated her with Minerva, and the references to her as a goddess were not written until centuries after Ireland had become Christian. In fact it is rather anomalous that these references to the goddess were not written down until two hundred years, and in one case, five hundred years, after the earliest lives of the saint.

As for Saint Brigit, there is no evidence that she actually existed as an historical person and the Lives are not about a real woman but are a series of miraculous acts and happenings. In spite of this, the person of Brigit, half-glimpsed through the shimmering light of innuendo, inference and illusion, is one of the best-loved figures in Celtic lore. We have an inscription to heavenly Brigantia; we are told that as a goddess she was much loved because of her protecting care; we see that as a saint her worship grew so that she became one of the three patron saints of Ireland. Even today, she is much-loved and still much in evidence as both a deity and a saint.

In the following essay, I have endeavoured to make my research as accurate as possible and to quote from the original texts and the poems in order to go to 'y llygad y fynnon', the eye of the well, the source of the information about Brigit. In doing so I shall give some evaluation of its relevant background, politics and so on, that have a bearing on the way that the mythology about her has evolved, but my overall aim is to bring to light the poetry of Brigit. For a poem is made up of layers of meaning; the symbols and images woven into it have a greater effect on the psyche than mere logic-carrying prose, and like rhythms and patterns of sound and form, engage both the senses and the spirit as well as the rational mind.


© Hilaire Wood 1999


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