Goddess and Bishop – Brigid

Art by Simeon Solomon, 1800’s

St Brigid is also known as Mary of the Gael or Muire na nGael. She is one of the three Patron Saints of Ireland, along with St Patrick and St Columcille. Her feast day is celebrated on February 1st; which coincides with the festival of Imbolc (Imbolg) and marks the beginning of spring. It is a Cross Quarter Day, midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox on the Celtic Calendar. Brigid has many incarnations and has been celebrated since ancient times. There were many women who bore the title of Brigid, but two Brigid’s emerge, the ancient pre Christian goddess one and the modern Christian saint one. Both have been spliced together into one entity, the Brigid we celebrate today.

Brigid is highly regarded as one of the most supreme Irish female deities and the first Irish born saint. She is both Druid and Bishop. Her name translates as ‘Exalted One’; and her presence is powerful. She is the great healer and protector and is said to lean over every cradle and cow shed. She is revered by poets and smiths of all kind. So much myth and legend surround Brigid that she traverses history and myth effortlessly and remains fascinating.

The ancient Goddess Brigid is known as “the goddess whom poets adored” along with her two sisters: Brigid the healer and Brigid the smith and thus is considered a triple Goddess. We are told from the Lebor Gabála Érenn that she was a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

The Tuath Dé or “tribe of the gods” were a supernatural race in Irish mythology and from where the main deities of pre Christian Ireland spring. Brigid is said to be a daughter of the Dagda, and half-sister of Cermait honey-mouth, Aengus, Aed and Bodb Derg (all key players in Irish myth.).

Dagda was a giant of a man who wore a hooded cloak and had a God like status. He was given the Cauldron of Inspiration. He controlled the seasons among other things and was capable of making the sun stand still for nine months, causing his son to be conceived and born all on the same day. He was said to dwell in Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange).

Brigid was the wife of the High King Bres, the half-Fomorian ruler of the Tuatha Dé Danann who was without blemish, with whom she had a son named Ruadán who was slain by the great smith Goibhniu at the second battle of Moytura. Brigid was so bereft at the loss of her son that she wept bitterly and her wailing was such that it started the tradition of keening (caoine), used ever since at Irish wakes. We know him as Ruadán of Lorrah. They had two other sons; Luchar and Uar.

This Brigid was also patron of warfare or Briga. Her soldiers who were male and female were called Brigands and are the first peace keeping force in Ireland. Brigand derives from the Gaelic word “bríg” meaning strength or valour. She is said to have invented the night whistle an instrument used to see in the dark.

She was also known as “Mistress of the Mantle” and “Fiery Arrow”. She is synonymous with the warrior-maiden, Brigantia and is said to have inspired Merlin. It is said that her visions reach to the end of the solar system. She is considered sacred to livestock, especially cows and could purify water and imbue it with healing qualities. Three rivers are named for her, the Brigit in Ireland, the Braint in Wales and the Brent in England. She holds the status of a Sun Goddess and hangs her cloak upon the rays of the Sun. She is said to radiate fire and light.

It is said that when she was born flames reached from the top of her head to the heavens resulting in her red hair. She is said to have kept an eternal flame lit beneath the oaks of Kildare a Druidic shrine. Nineteen other priestess women presided over this flame. Brigid’s sacred number was nineteen, representing the nineteen-year cycle of the Celtic Great Year, or the time it took from one new moon to the next to coincide with the Winter Solstice. These women were known as the Daughters of the Fire. According to the Irish Text “The Book of Dunn Cow,” on the twentieth day of each cycle Brigid herself would tend the flame. Brigid is said to have been the owner of oxen, sheep and pigs.

Legend tells us of her two oxen named Fe and Men after whom Magh Femhin in Co Tipperary is named, where upon they grazed. . She also possessed the king of boars, Torc Triath, who appears in Arthurian legend. This boar is said to have had poisonous bristles, and carried a pair of scissors, a comb and a razor on his head between his ears. King Arthur’s dog Cavall is said to have pursued this boar to retrieve said implements for the purposes of a hair cutting ritual of the gentle and fragile Olwen, another sun associated goddess and daughter of a giant. Brigid also owned Cirb, a powerful ram who was king of sheep from whom Mag Cirb is named. Cirb was a castrated ram who was king of all the flocks of sheep in Ireland, including the seven famous magical sheep owned by the sea god Manannán. These sheep, it was said, could produce enough wool to clothe every man, woman, and child the world over.

The modern Saint Brigid was born around 450 AD in Faughart near Dundalk in Co. Louth and is another powerhouse of a Brigid. . It is believed that she was present at the birth of Jesus anointing his head with three drops of water. She became his foster mother, weaving a mantel to protect him and wearing candles on her head to escape in darkness. Fostering was a common practice among the Celts. She took the baby to save Him from the slaughter of male infants, instigated by Herod.

She was anointed a Bishop and founded a dual monastery for men and for women. She was daughter to a woman called Brocca, a Christian Pict slave who had been baptized by Saint Patrick. Her father is thought to have been Dubhthach, a chieftain of Leinster and a Druid who brought her from Ireland to be raised on the Island of Iona, sometimes called “The Druid’s Isle.” Brigid’s monastery at Kildare (Cill Dara: “church of the oak”), was built on the site of a pagan shrine to the Celtic goddess Brigid, served by a group of young women who tended an eternal flame. The site was under a large oak tree on the ridge of Drum Criadh.

As a child she was very charitable to the lesser well off and it is said that she prayed to be ugly so as no man would wish to marry her. God granted her wish and caused half of her face to be poxed. Her father relented and allowed her to set up a church by allowing her to have as much land as her cloak would cove. She laid her cloak on the ground and caused it to spread and spread until it covered the entire Curragh of Kildare and it is said it is here she founded her church. It is said that her beauty was restored is said as soon as she was consecrated a Bishop. Brigid set up a double monastery, for men and for women and it was renowned throughout the Holy Roman see.

Brigid performed miracles, including healing and feeding the poor. She gave away her mother’s store of butter and her father’s precious jewels. Everything given was immediately replenished twofold.

Brigid is credited with founding a school of art, including metalwork and illumination, overseen by Conleth. This scriptorium made the Book of Kildare, which drew high praise from Gerald of Wales, who felt it surpassed any works he had ever seen and was in fact “the work of angelic, and not human skill”

St Brigid sat by the sick bed of a dying Druid, possibly her father, soothing him with stories about her faith. She told him about Christ on the Cross, picking up rushes from the ground to make a cross. Before his death, the chieftain asked to be baptised. People continue to make similar crosses to hang over the door of their homes to ward off evil, fire and hunger and that is how the making of a Brigid’s cross began. This cross which takes the form of a swastika is in fact a much older symbol representing the sun.

According to myth, Saint Brigid travelled to Glastonbury and set up a small chapel on a place called Bride’s Mound. A papal charter of 1168 CE refers to it as one of the seven islands in the Glastonbury Abbey’s estate, these being Avalon, Beckery, Marchey, Godney, Meare, Panborough and Nyland. It dates from the 5th Century and is known as Little Ireland because it was a well-known site to Irish missionaries. St. Brigid visited Glastonbury in 488 CE and spent time at Bride’s Mound. Relics of hers, including a spindle and a bell, were displayed in the chapel dedicated to her, which had a special opening in the southern wall that healed those who passed through it.

She is particularly renowned for healing women’s ailments. According to historic scriptures, she performed Ireland’s first recorded abortion being the first to “help a woman in a difficult situation”.

“Brigid, exercising with the most strength of her ineffable faith,

blessed her, caused the feotus to disappear without coming to birth,

and without pain.”

She continued her mission until her death in 525 CE, when she was laid to rest in her abbey. In 835 CE, her remains were moved to protect them from Norse invaders and interred in the same grave that holds the remains of St. Patrick and St. Columcille at Downpatrick.

St Brigid is said to have been given the last rites by St Ninnidh when she was dying. Afterwards, he reportedly had his right hand encased in metal so that it would never be defiled, and became known as “Ninnidh of the Clean Hand”. Tradition says she died at Kildare on 1 February 525.

There is a whole school of thought that cites “Brigid or Exalted One” as being a title conferred, as opposed to it being the embodiment of one person, or an amalgamation of several women. This would certainly account for so many personalities emerging beneath the Brigid banner. Brigid’s successor, a woman called Darlughdach, often cited as Brigid’s companion, who was so close to her that they shared the same bed, celebrates her feast day also on February 1st. She is said to have picked up the Baton of Brigid and was present at the founding of a church in Abernethy in Scotland dedicated to Brigid, built by the King of the Picts.

Relics of Brigid can be found all over the world, there are parts of her skull in two sites in Portugal as well as in Co Dublin. There is a portion of her tooth in Sydney and another tooth in Germany. Portions of her renowned cloak or mantle can be found in Bruges Cathedral and her slipper can be found in the National Museum.

The ever living fire of Brigid was the dominion of women and tended by women. It was kept burning in a cell and was surrounded by a circular fence made of twigs, within which no man was permitted to enter. Her flame burned brightly in Kildare for centuries. It was extinguished in 1220 by Henri de Londres, a Norman Archbishop of Dublin. On February 1st, 1993 a flame was relit in the Market Square in the town and is now kept burning at Solas Bhride, by the Brigidine Sisters. Let us hope her flame lives on.

Further Reading

1. Brigid: Goddess, Druidess and Saint by Brian Wright.

2. The patrons of Ireland, or, Some account of St. Patrick and St. Brigid by James Henthorn Todd

3. Life of St. Brigid, Virgin by John O Hanlon

4. St. Brigid, Patroness of Ireland by Joseph A Knowles

5. Brigid’s Way: Reflections on the Celtic Divine Feminine by Bee Smith

6. In search of St. Brigid, foundress of Kildare by Mary E Pollard

7. The Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion and Power in Celtic Ireland by Mary Condren

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