Brigit's Forge Website
Brigit the Saint 

Charms & Prayers
Olive Branch

Musings from Gelli Fach
Storing Magic



St Brigit with lamp 


The Lives of St Brigit

The Sacred Fire at Kildare

Brigit's Miracles and her Connection With Ale

Ale and Sovereignty

 Brigit's Connection with Water

Brigit: Virgin, Mother, Spinster, Lesbian

Brigit in the Kitchen and Commanding Kings

Brigit in War and Peace

Brigit as Healer

Brigit Associated with the Number 8

Brigit Between the Worlds


The Lives of St Brigit
Most of the remaining picture of Brigit is made up of the legends and stories about St Brigit of Ireland in which, it has been assumed, there are elements of an underlying pagan deity.

It could be, however, that St Brigit never existed since there is no historical evidence to support that she did. The earliest reference we have comes from around 600 AD in an origin story for the Fotharta sept or clan, where it is claimed that she was one of the sept and is referred to as ‘truly pious Brig-eoit’, and ‘another Mary’. Dáithi Ó hÓgáin records that the rise of her cult was a result of the rise to power of a new sept in Leinster, the Uí Dhúnlainge. As the wife of the clan leader was a member of the Fotharta and his brother was the bishop of Kildare it was in his interest to promote the cult of Brigit.(5) The Vita Brigitae of Cogitosus is thought to have been written no later than 650 AD, at the request of the Kildare church which is described in it as “the head of almost all the Irish Churches with supremacy over all the monasteries of the Irish and its paruchia extends over the whole land of Ireland, reaching from sea to sea.” According to another scholar the leaders of Armagh were promoting St Patrick and had allied themselves with the ruling families of Meath in an attempt to dominate the whole island.(6) The promotion of Brigit and the see of Kildare rivalled this.

Although there is some controversy about it, the Cogitosus life (7) is now thought to be about a century earlier than the so-called first life of Brigit, Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae (Vita 1)(8). This makes it a very early text and it is distinguished by being the first hagiography (life of a saint) in Hiberno-Latin, although two lives of Patrick and one of Columbus also belong to the 7th c. Perhaps it was successful as a propaganda exercise and the lives of Patrick and Columbus were hurriedly composed to compete with it. So the early Christian church may have appropriated the goddess Brigit and dressed her in Christian clothes - although underneath, so to speak, she remained a pagan goddess - in order to win over the pagan Irish who loved Brigit so much. Certainly Cogitosus does not give an account of a real person although she had lived only a hundred years before. His Vita is made up of the many miracles she is said to have performed and stresses both her faith and her virginity. But it is also possible that she was a living person, a Christian woman called Brigit who was either a reincarnation of the goddess or was seen to be so by the Irish people.

We have seen little so far that depicts Brigit as a goddess of fire and the sun apart from the reference to ‘Caelestis Brigantia’, the folk etymology connecting Brigit with a fiery arrow, and her association with boars - all rather tenuous. In the lives of the saint, however, images of fire and sun abound. In Cogitosus’ Vita we hear the famous story of her hanging her cloak on a sunbeam, apparently a motif borrowed from an apocryphal Continental story about Christ as a child:

“As she was grazing her sheep in the course of her work as a shepherdess on a level grassy plain, she was drenched by very heavy downpour of rain and returned to the house with her clothes wet. There was a ray of sunshine coming into the house through an opening and, as a result, her eyes were dazzled and she took the sunbeam for a slanting tree growing there. So, she put her rain soaked clothes on it and the clothes hung on the filmy sunbeam as if it were a solid tree.”

The sun and fire are particularly stressed in the 8th c lives of the saint which were based on older sources and may reflect lore relating to the goddess Brigit.
The life of St Brigid in the Book of Lismore, which is generally the same as Colgan’s Tertia Vita and the life in the Lebar Brecc
(9) connects her strongly with them both. A wizard prophecies, on hearing the sound of Dubthach’s chariot, that Dubthach’s bondmaid Broicsech will give birth to a daughter “conspicuous, radiant, who will shine like a sun among the stars of heaven.” Later a holy man sees a flame and a pillar of fire coming from the house where Broicsech, pregnant with Brigit, is sleeping, and after she is born, the child Brigit is asleep in the house one day when her mother has gone milking and the neighbours behold it ablaze “so that one flame was made thereof from earth to heaven.” When they went to rescue her they found that nothing was burnt.

Later, when Brigit is a young woman and goes to take the veil from Bishop Mel, a fiery flame rises from her head to the roof-ridge of the church “and it came to pass that the form of ordination was read out over her.” Bishop Mac-caille declared that a bishop’s order could not be conferred on a woman but Bishop Mel replied that he had no power in the matter “That dignity has been given by God to Brigit.” So Brigit became an archbishop and appointed bishops herself. Her soul was said to be “like a sun in the heavenly kingdom” and at Doomsday she will rise “like a shining lamp in completeness of body and soul”.
The Life of Saint Brennain in The Book of Lismore asserts that Bríg
(10) was his own sister and that her foster-father used to see her countenance “as it were the radiance of the summer sun”. The hymn ‘Brigit Be Bithmaith’ (11) begins with a powerful invocation which describes her as the sun-:

“Brigid, excellent woman,
Flame golden, sparkling,
May she bear us to the eternal kingdom,
(She), the sun, fiery, radiant! "

Yet it must be said that it was common for saints to be associated with fire and sun imagery. The Life of Ciarán of Clonmacnois in the Book of Lismore also gives the story of a wizard who prophecies from hearing the noise of the chariot, “the noise of chariot under king,” that Ciarán, who is in the woman’s womb, will be a mighty king and “as the sun shineth among the stars of heaven, so will he shine on earth in miracles and marvels that cannot be told.” On the night of Brenainn’s birth the bishop Eirc saw a wood under one vast flame, and Patrick as a child was able to produce five sparks of fire from the five drops of water trickling from his fingers and thereby vanquish a flood and make the fire blaze once more. What we are seeing here is a general association between the sun, fire and beings of the Otherworld or of supernatural powers. This is in keeping with the observation that the word for 'god' in many Indo-European languages stemmed from IE deivos which is connected etymologically with the verb div, dyu,' to shine', indicating that early IE thought connected divinity with luminosity. However, this imagery is applied to varying degrees and Brigit does have it heaped upon her, so to speak, while Columbus, for instance, has almost none of it, at least in the Book of Lismore.

We must look elsewhere to overlay the thin layers of evidence that begin to build up into the vibrant and glowing picture of Brigit as sun goddess which is generally accepted today. Another layer is made up by Gerald of Wales’s account of his visit to Kildare in 1185.    Back to top

The Sacred Fire at Kildare

“In Kildare, in Leinster, which the glorious Brigid has made famous, there are many miracles worthy of being remembered. And the first of them that occurs to one is the fire of Brigid which, they say, is inextinguishable, but that the nuns and holy women have so carefully and diligently kept and fed it with enough material, that through all the years from the time of the virgin saint until now it has never been extinguished. And although such an amount of wood over such a long time has been burned there, nevertheless the ashes have never increased.
Although in the time of Brigid there were twenty servants of the Lord here, Brigid herself being the twentieth, only nineteen have ever been here after her death until now, and the number has never increased. They all, however, take their turns, one each night, in guarding the fire. When the twentieth night comes, the nineteenth nun puts the logs beside the fire and says: “Brigid, guard your fire. This is your night.” And in this way the fire is left there, and in the morning the wood, as usual, has been burned and the fire is still lighting.

This fire is surrounded by a hedge which is circular and made of withies, and which no male may cross. And if by chance one does dare to enter (and some rash people have at times tried it) he does not escape the divine vengeance. Only women are allowed to blow the fire, and then not with the breath of their mouths, but only with the bellows, or winnowing forks....

At Kildare an archer of the household of earl Richard crossed over the hedge and blew upon Brigid’s fire. He jumped back immediately, and went mad. Whomsoever he met, he blew upon his face and said: “See! That is how I blew on Brigid’s fire.” And so he ran through all the houses of the whole town, and wherever he saw a fire he blew upon it using the same words. Eventually he was caught and bound by his companions, but asked to be brought to the nearest water. As soon as he was brought there his mouth was so parched that he drank so much that, while still in their hands, he burst in the middle and died. Another who, upon crossing over to the fire, had put one leg over the hedge, was hauled back and restrained by his companions. Nevertheless the leg that had crossed perished immediately with its foot. Ever afterwards (while he lived) as a consequence he was lame and an imbecile.”

This account points to a more ancient site where there may have been a temple of the goddess Brigit in which an eternal flame was tended by 19 priestesses and dedicated to women’s mysteries, forbidden to men. The power and veneration of the site is certainly attested to by the fact that the flame was kept alight for so many centuries. It was extinguished in 1220 by Bishop Henry of Dublin in an attempt to stamp out pre-Christian practises, and the abbess was raped and unable to continue in her role. However the flame was eventually relit and all continued as before until the Reformation of the 16th c when the flame was put out and the monastery destroyed. All that remained of the flame house next to St Brigid’s Cathedral in Kildare was the foundations, until recently when it was rewalled to show where it had been. However, in 1993 Sister Mary Minehan of the Order of Brigidine Nuns (established in 1807) relit Brigit’s flame in Kildare.
The name Kildare, or Cill Dara, means ‘Church of the Oak’ and this association of the site with the sacred oak of pagan Ireland is an important indication that there was once a pre-Christian sanctuary there.     Back to top

Brigit's Miracles and Her Connection with Ale

The many miracles St Brigit performs are reminiscent of those of Jesus. She turns water into ale and stones into salt; she makes a little food become enough to feed all the people present; she performs many healing miracles; she looks after and heals lepers and the poor, giving away her father’s wealth, even his sword. This accords with her divine status, in a sense raising her to the same level as the son of God - the goddess Brigit was, after all, the daughter of the father god, the Daghda. It is interesting to note that two of the miracles recount her turning water into ale - unlike Columba who turns water into wine - and there is one miracle in which she ensures enough ale for 17 churches even though there has been a dearth of corn and malt.
Saint Brigit or Santes Ffraid who is commemorated in Wales in a 16th century cywydd (Welsh poem in a special metre) by Iorwerth Fynglwyd seems to be an amalgamation of several St Brigits - Brigit of Cill-Muine, Brigit of Kildare, the Swedish saint and a Brigit from Gwynedd in North Wales. In Wales, there was apparently a custom of ‘cwrw Sant Ffraid’ (St. Brigit’s Ale) mentioned in the Red Book of Asaph (‘quadam consuetudo vocata Corw Sanfrait)(13), and St Brigit’s Day in Wales is connected with ‘drink’ -

“Digwyl san ffraid ydoedd fenaid
i bydd parod pawb ai wirod.” (14)
(St Brigit’s day it was, my soul, everyone will be ready with his drink.)

Lady Gregory gives the following ‘Wishes of Brigit’ in which ale features:

“I would wish a great lake of ale for the King of Kings; I would wish the family of Heaven to be drinking it through life and time.”
“I would wish the men of Heaven in my own house; I would wish vessels of peace to be giving to them.
I would wish vessels full of alms to be giving away; I would wish ridges of mercy for peacemaking.
I would wish joy to be in their drinking; I would wish Jesus to be here among them.”

Travelling in Ireland recently, I noticed several pubs in Co. Clare had Brigit’s crosses hanging behind the bar.

Shrine at Faughart
St Brigit's Shrine at Faughart  

It is interesting to connect this emphasis on ale with the folklore view of the Irish poet as someone who could not make a song when sober. Intoxication is connected with a state of being excited or elated beyond the normal and the imbibing of certain liquids is one way to achieve this. There may be an echo behind these folklore traditions of ancient Irish ideas that poetic skill was obtained by drinking or eating substances which contained imbas forosnai, knowledge which illuminates. Many ancient texts connect poets with the word meisce which can mean ‘in a mental ferment’ as well as ‘intoxicated’, and often describe them as being heated or having inflamed faces while composing. (15)    Back to top

Ale and Sovereignty

But ale is also connected with the giving of kingship and more than one scholar has suggested that Brigit is a Christian version of Queen Medb of Connacht, whose name means ‘she who intoxicates’.(16) Brigit is said to have been born at Faughart

 which had associations with Medb (the Cooley Peninsula may be seen from the old hilltop graveyard at Faughart where there is a well dedicated to Brigit). Medb has mythic associations with the goddess of sovereignty; in the stories she has many lovers and it appears that sexual union with her confers kingship upon them. But also in the old Irish tales kingship is sometimes conferred by drinking dergfhlaith, red ale or red sovereignty (there is a pun on the Irish word for ale, laith, and sovereignty flaith) so it is possible that Brigit’s connection with ale points not only to her functions as a mother goddess of plenty and fertility and a goddess of poetry, but to her function as sovereignty goddess. It has been convincingly argued that the Welsh word for king, brenin, originally meant consort of the goddess *Briganti and that its first use was in reference to the male leaders of the Brigantes. The title occurs on a Continental Celtic coin (17) which depicts a veiled female head on one side and a bull with laurel crown on the other.

The goddess of sovereignty very often has two guises - that of a hag and then when the young hero agrees to have sexual union with her, that of a beautiful young woman. There are tantalising traces of this dual nature in lore relating to Brigit. Lady Gregory says of the goddess Brigit that she had two faces, one that is young and comely and one that is old and terrible. In Scottish folklore Bride, the bringer of Spring, is closely associated with the hag, the Cailleach of the stark Winter, and some people assert that they are two sides of the same being.

More than one of the lives of the saint describe an incident in which Brigit plucks out her own eye rather than marry - by this act making herself not only unattractive, but also haglike (although she is able to heal herself by using the waters of a well.) Although the Irish scholar Dáithi Ó hÓgáin asserts that this motif was borrowed from Continental hagiography about St Lucy, another saint connected with light, it is still interesting that it is associated with Brigit.     Back to top

Her Connection with Water

We have looked at Brigit's connection with fire and the sun, but she is also connected with water. Celtic goddesses are often connected with rivers and Brigit is no exception. The British goddess Brigantia of the Brigantes of northern Britain was linked with river and water cults and her name is remembered in the Braint on Ynys Môn (Anglesy), the Brent in Middlesex and rivers in Munster in Ireland.

Many sacred wells are dedicated to her and are still used and venerated today. At Faughart, her birthplace there is not only a well but also a sacred stream which now has the stations of the cross positioned along it.

At Liscannor on the Burren a pilgrimage to the well used to be undertaken at Lughnasad, this has now moved to August 15th.

 At Kildare there are two wells dedicated to her - one still very much in use, the other, by the side of the road, is rather neglected although a few rags on the trees behind it give evidence that it is still being visited [in 1999].

Lesser known Brigit's Well at Kildare        

Eyes were connected with both the sun and with water (the sun on and in water was seen as a powerful healing agent), and not surprisingly many wells had the reputation of curing eye problems.
The preface to the hymn Brigit Be Bithmaith gives one of the suggested authors as Columcille and said that he composed it when he went over the sea and was caught in Breccan’s Cauldron, a dangerous expanse of water. It was to Brigit he turned, beseeching her that calm might come to him, thus acknowledging her superior power over that element.
In the life in the Book of Lismore (18)
a river rises up while two lepers, one haughty and one humble, are driving a cow she has given them across. Brigit herself may have caused the river to rise up and certainly, through her blessing, the humble leper is saved. Cogitosus gives a story in which she, (through God’s will and power, of course) diverts a river. The people of her weak tuath who had been forced by a strong and arrogant tuath to work on the most difficult stretch of road-building through a place where a river ran, found their work made easier when the river is miraculously moved.
Another aspect of her power over water has already been mentioned in Gerald of Wales’ account of his visit to Kildare. He tells of the archer who blew on Brigit’s fire which was forbidden to men and then goes mad, running through the town blowing in the faces of people he met. After he is caught and bound he asks to be taken to water to satisfy his thirst but his mouth is so parched that he cannot stop drinking and dies by bursting in the middle. We are reminded of the cupbearers in the Second Battle of Maigh Tuired who also possess magical powers connected with water and use it against the enemy:

“And you, cupbearers,” said Lugh, “what power?”
“Not hard to say,” said the cupbearers, “We will bring a great thirst upon them, and they will not find drink to quench it.”

Brigit is here able to use the destructive power of both fire and water. And having this power, she also has the ability to give protection against death by fire and water. The Genealogy of Bride from Scottish tradition refers to this ability of Bride to give protection from the threefold death described in early Irish literature.

The Descent of Bride

The genealogy of the holy maiden Bride,
Radiant flame of gold, noble foster-mother of Christ.
Bride daughter of Dugall the brown,
Son of Aodh, son of Art, son of Conn,
Son of Crearer, son of Cis, son of Carmac, son of Carruin.

Every day and every night
That I say the genealogy of Bride,
I shall not be killed, I shall not be harried,
I shall not be put in cell, I shall not be wounded,
Neither shall Christ leave me forgotten.

No fire, no sun, no moon shall burn me,
No lake, no water, nor sea shall drown me,
No arrow of fairy, nor dart of fay shall wound me,
And I under the protection of my Holy Mary,
And my gentle foster-mother is my beloved Bride.  

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Brigit: Virgin, Mother, Spinster, Lesbian

Although the goddess Brigit is, as we have seen, a mother goddess, in the life of the saint she is decidedly single and her virginal state is stressed, particularly in the life by Cogitosus. Christianity, while restricting and degrading of women in many respects (there was a debate in Macon in 900 as to whether women had souls or were like animals and the single vote which tipped the outcome in women’s favour was said to have been cast by the Celtic bishops) did give them an alternative to having to undergo the rigours of childbirth and the rearing of many children. Brigit’s stepbrother remarked to her one day that “ill-used was her eye” that it would not lie next to a man on the pillow. Her father decided to marry her to a man she did not like and rather than do so she plucked her eye out so that it hung on her cheek. Her father and brothers were horrified and declared that she would never have to marry anyone she didn’t want to, whereupon she put her eye back in its socket and it was healed. This story illustrates that Brigit was her own woman, not willing to submit to marriage and the dominance of a husband.

Yet people do speculate in our time about whether Brigit remained single and some like to think that she had a secret relationship with Conleth, her bishop. Perhaps it is the glowing description that Cogitosus gives us of their union that provokes this speculation:

...she sent for Conleth, a famous man and a hermit endowed with every good disposition through whom God wrought many miracles, and calling him from the wilderness and his life of solitude, she set out to meet him, in order that he might govern the Church with her in the office of bishop and that her Churches might lack nothing as regards priestly orders. Thus, from then on the anointed head and primate of all the bishops and the most blessed chief abbess of the virgin governed their primatial Church by means of a mutually happy alliance and by the rudder of all the virtues. By the merits of both, their episcopal and conventual see spread on all sides like a fruitful vine with its growing branches and struck root in the whole island of Ireland. It has always been ruled over in happy succession according to a perpetual rite by the archbishop of the bishops of Ireland and the abbess whom all the abbesses of the Irish revere.

On a more cynical note it may be suggested that the imagery of a fruitful union was used purposely to promote the see of Kildare (much as present-day political leaders in the West like to promote an image of a happy family). Cormac's description of the goddess Brigit "whom all poets adore" rather echoes the description of St Brigit as one "whom all the abbesses of the Irish revere".

There is also speculation that she had a lesbian relationship since she was said to have shared her bed with a pupil of hers called Darlugdach. Peter Berresford Ellis, in his book Celtic Women, asserts that she showed intense jealousy towards her in that when Darlugdacha became attracted to a young warrior, she punished her by making her walk in shoes filled with burning coals. Ellis does not cite his source for this and in trying to track it down I have not been able so far to find a published translation of a Life in which the story appears, but the incident is referred to by R.A.S. Macalister, translator of the Book of Invasions of Ireland, in an article in Man 63 (August 1919). His version is this:

Brigid had a pupil, Dar-Lugdach by name, who used to sleep with her. The eyes of Dar-Lugdach chanced one day to fall on a certain man, for whom she was smitten with unholy love. Waiting till her superior was asleep, she rose to join him; but she was suddenly oppressed with a great perturbation of mind, between love and fear. In her distress she prayed, and an angel came down with the following counsel, which she followed: To fill two shoes with hot coals, and to walk shod therewith. So the fire extinguished the fire of her ardour, and the pain conquered her pain; and she returned to her couch. On the morrow Brigid commended her, promised her exemption for the future from the fire of desire in this world and the fire of hell in the next; then she blessed her feet, and the burns were healed leaving no trace.

In this version, whatever the truth about their relationship, Brigit is cleared of forcing Darlugdach to walk with coals in her shoe as a punishment. I wonder if Ellis actually found this story in Mary Condren's The Serpent and the Goddess, which he does cite, and misinterpreted her when she said "...Darlugdacha was said to be 'Brigit's pupil, who used to sleep with her' and who committed the great sin of looking at a soldier. As penance she filled her shoes with hot coals..." Condren here gives Macalister as her source so presumably she does not intend to mean that Brigit imposed this penance, the 'she' she refers to being Darlugdacha herself.

Whatever the truth may have been about Brigit's private life, what is interesting here is her universality and the way that people are moved to speculate about her and, perhaps, to read into the stories things about her with which they may identify. In this way she is brought closer to us, and is able to serve in many respects as a role-model. A lover of women, a strong single woman, a woman in happy and fruitful relationship with a man - she becomes all things to all women.

Even though a virgin saint, she still manages to take on the attributes of a mother. There are stories of her being the fostermother of Jesus: in Scottish tradition she is said to have been present at his birth and to have blessed him with three drops of water on his brow. The fosterparent was very important in Celtic society, almost more important than the actual parents, and commanded obligations and duties. No wonder it was said that whatever St Brigit asked for from God was granted! In another story it is said that in order to divert Herod’s men away from him so that he could make his escape to Egypt with his mother, Mary, she put a crown of candles on her head and dancing away, led them in another direction. The motif of this story does not appear elsewhere in folklore and appears to have been told to explain why her festival on February 1st comes before Mary’s on February 2nd. However, the poem Brigit Be Bithmaith already mentioned actually calls her the mother of Jesus:-

“she, the branch with blossoms,
  the mother of Jesus!”

and the 7th c St Broccan’s Hymn to Brigit refers to her again in this way -:

“Brigit, mother of my high King,
   Of the kingdom of heaven best she was born,”

In this perhaps can be seen the influence of Brigit as a mother goddess of the Gaels, finding her way back into the Christian Life of the saint through the words of the poet.     Back to top

Brigit in the Kitchen and Commanding Kings

In keeping with her motherly attributes as nurturer and provider for her people, the stories of the saint show her at homely tasks such as the provision of food and give us as a backdrop not only churches and the land, but also the kitchen. One poem in the Book of Lismore gives Brigit’s request for God to bless the kitchen:

'Mo cule-se
cule Fiadat find,
cule robennach mo Rí,
cule conni ind.’
Et dixit iterum:‘
'Ti Mac Mare mo chara
do benna chad mo chule!
fiaith in domain co immel
ro[n] be immed la sude.’
 Et dixit tertio:
‘Ammo ruri-se
connic na hule-se
bennach a De, nuall cen geiss,
dot laim deis in enle-sa!'

 My kitchen!A kitchen of fair God.
A kitchen which my King has blessed,
A kitchen with somewhat therein.
And she said again:
May Mary’s son, my Friend, come
To bless my kitchen!
The Prince of the world to the border,
May we have abundance by Him!
And she said a third time:
O my PrinceWho canst do all these things!
Bless, O God - a cry unforbidden,
With Thy right hand this kitchen.

We see again in the life of the saint associations with the figure of Brigit as a Celtic goddess of the land, able to grant kingship. Even though this emphasis may have been a cynical and political invention to gain power for the sept, it made sure that echoes of the goddess endured. In one story, Brigit goes to Aillil, the King of Leinster to ask for the sword of Dubthach, her father, and the freedom of a slave. In return she promises him excellent children, the kingship for his sons and heaven for himself. He is not satisfied with that, and asks instead for length of life in his realm and victory in his conflict with the northern half of Ireland. This Brigit grants. When she wants stakes and wattles to build her house at Kildare she sends her maidens to ask Aillil for them. On his refusal she strikes down his horses, takes the stakes and does not release the horses until Aillil agrees to give her a hundred horseloads to build her house. He also fed the builders who built her great house and paid them their wages. In return, Brigit left as a blessing that the kingship of Leinster should be till doomsday from Aillil.

This last story is interesting because it typifies Brigit as a strong character who does not tolerate not getting her own way even when dealing with the high king. Her actions are of a goddess dealing with lesser mortals, confident in her superior powers and then generous with her supernatural gifts when she has what she wants. It contradicts what the author of the Life in the Book of Lismore says about her later on:

 “Now there has never been anyone more bashful or more modest, or more gentle, or more humble, or sager or more harmonious than Brigit. She never washed her hands or her feet or her head among men. She never looked at the face of a man. She never would speak without blushing...”

There are other female saints who command because they assume the authority of God, but it is tempting here to see the Christian idea of the perfect woman overlaying the pre-Christian figure of the powerful goddess.     Back to top

Brigit in War and Peace

Although some of the stories, like that of her encounters with Ailill, depict her as a goddess-like figure able to grant victory in battle there are others where a different ethos seems to be at work, one in which the avoidance of conflict and war are seen as virtues. Possibly this reflects a moving away from the earlier values of a warrior society into the Christian era. She often appears as a mediator and in one story in the Liber Hymnorum, when two brothers in conflict ask her for her help in battle, she puts a film over their eyes so that they are unable to recognise eachother and thus conflict is avoided. In this depiction she is on the side of peace and promises her protection, not in battle this time, but if weapons of war are abandoned. The 8th century Bretha Crólige (19) (a collection of legal material relating to medical provision) gives a list of 12 women whom the rule of nursing in Irish law excludes (they are instead compensated by a fee being paid to their kin). One category is 'a woman who turns back the streams of war' and a gloss on this states 'such as the abbess of Kildare or the female aí bell teoir, one who turns back the manifold sins of war through her prayers.' Whether or not this duty was ordained in Brigit's time we cannot know, but it was obviously one of the functions of the abbess of Kildare during the years when the sacred flame was tended there.    Back to top

Brigit as Healer

Brigit's function as a goddess of healing is also documented in the Lives. The blood from a gash on her head heals two dumb women, she brings a stillborn baby back to life by breathing on him. In one rather controversial story in the early life by Cogitosus she helps a young nun who has become pregnant by restoring her to her former state. She restores lepers to health - in one story she sends a leper to bring her some rushes and from the place where he has taken them a well appears; he bathes his face in the water and is cured. There are several connections of Brigit with water and healing, not only in the holy wells as we have seen but also the river she falls into which is stained red with her blood has the power to heal. The water she has bathed in has a similar healing power . It is not uncommon for the Celtic saints to be associated with healing wells (wells are also liminal places where the water appears out of the earth) but unique to Brigit, and reminiscent of Brigit the goddess, is that she had a magical girdle which could heal, and this she gave to a poor woman who came to beg from her so that thereafter the woman was able to make her living from it. This girdle reappears in the folklore connected with Saint Brigit. The Crios Bríde was woven from straw at Imbolc and men and women would step through it three times, kissing it and stepping through it right foot first, as a symbolic act of rebirth in order to ensure health and protection for the year ahead. While doing so they recited the following:

Crios, Crios Bríde mo chrios,
Crios na gceithre gcros;
Muire a chuaigh ann,
Agus Bríd a tháinig as;
Más fearr sibh inniu,
Go mba seacht fearr a bheas sibh
Bliain ó inniu.

The Girdle, the girdle of Brigit, my Girdle,
The girdle of the four crosses,
Mary entered it,Brigit emerged from it;
If you be improved today,
May you be seven times better
A year from today. (20)                                             Back to top

Brigit Associated with the Number 8

Brigit is associated with the number eight in her life in the Book of Lismore. The author emphasises that “On the eighth of the month Brigit was born, on a Thursday especially: on the eighteenth she took the veil: in the eighty-eighth (year of her age) she went to heaven. With eight virgins was Brigit consecrated, according to the number of the eight beatitudes of the Gospel which she fulfilled, and it was the beatitude of mercy that Brigit chose.” Exactly what the significance of the number eight was is hard to say. It may have been simply that it was the number of the beatitude of mercy. Eight is not normally a particularly significant number in Celtic religion. We do find it, however, in the Eight Parts of Man, medieval texts found in Irish and Welsh, which assert that man is made from the elements of the sun, the sea, stone, earth, clouds, wind, the Holy Spirit and Christ, thus signifying human wholeness. It was the eight sons of Míl who invaded Ireland and the ancient Irish and Welsh board games are thought to have had eight opposing pieces on either side. These again convey a sense of eight being a complete and forceful number. Rees and Rees point out that eighteen seems to be a completion of seventeen (a significant number itself, connected with times of transition and division of land) and note that Fergus uprooted the forked tree at his eighteenth attempt and that Maeldúin himself made up eighteen on his Voyage.

In Europe of the Middle Ages eight is given as the number of return, soul and body, or reincarnation and we might note that the ability to return seems to be an attribute of Brigit. In our time numerology assigns eight as the number of completion. It is sometimes said to represent the two spheres, heaven and earth, joined and touching, which is reminiscent of the flame seen to come from the house where the child Brigit was sleeping, which joined heaven and earth - an illustration of the liminal imagery connected with Brigit.   Back to top

Brigit Between Worlds

In fact there are many associations of Brigit with liminality, with being on the threshold between two places or times. This was a powerful concept in the Celtic imagination since the places and times between the worlds are full of potential, of magic, of power - they are not limited or restricted since they are neither one thing nor the other but are connected to dynamic states of transition. The keywords connected with liminality are, in fact, transition, interconnection, power and dynamism. We might consider nuclear physics when thinking about liminality. Subatomic particles have a dual nature - they may be particles or waves; they exist in a state of dynamic potential, of probability, not certainty. Moreover, to quote Fritjof Capra, “Quantum theory has shown that subatomic particles are not isolated grains of matter but are probability patterns, interconnections in an inseparable cosmic web that includes the human observer and her consciousness.” And again - the properties of matter’s basic patterns, the subatomic particles, “can be understood only in a dynamic context, in terms of movement, interaction and transformation.”(21) We could say, therefore, that in liminal times and states matter is fluid and its shape and form may be influenced by those who observe them.

Liminality occurs as I have said, where two times or places or things meet, such as sunset and sunrise, the turn of the seasons, the turn of the century, the millennium. Liminal places are the shore which is neither land nor sea, boats which are neither land nor sea, bridges which are neither one place nor the other - or of course the threshold, which is neither in the house nor outside the house. Stories, an important part of Celtic oral culture, may cast a liminal spell since the characters, events and places in them exist and yet do not exist. Adolescence and the menopause are liminal states, times of transition when one is neither child nor adult, neither mother nor crone. In these states, at these times, in these places one is powerful, unstable and therefore fluid, sensitive to the call of the Otherworld. At Samhain, the meeting of autumn and winter, the veil between the worlds is thin and the dead step through. So at Brigit’s festival of Imbolc, the meeting place of winter and spring, the veil is thin and perhaps the spirits of those yet to be born step through, as the seeds start to germinate in the still hard earth.

Brigit is born at sunrise as her mother is stepping onto the threshold carrying a bucket of milk and she is bathed in the milk. She is an intermediary between the king and someone he is about to punish with death in two of the stories. Being unable to eat the druid’s food, she is fed on the milk of a red-eared cow - in other words, an Otherworldly cow. She is the child of a king and a slavewoman; her stepfather is a druid but she becomes Christian. And thus she is between the world of the two religions and becomes a powerful link between them.  Back to top


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