Brigid is one of Ireland’s favourite women. Regardless of what you think about the veracity of the accounts of the various miracles she performed, there can be no doubt that the narrative of Saint Brigid is based upon the story of a formidable woman.
The reasons she has become such an icon for the women of today whose wish is to be treated as equals among men and who work with every ounce of their will to bring equality into a world that has been constantly lopsided in favour of men throughout history, even down to the modern day, are quite clear.
Even though she is known as a Christian figure (whose story probably emerges from an earlier, pre-Christian deity), people who admire her are able and willing to see beyond the church propaganda and doctrine, and it seems clear they are able to disentangle her narrative from the ecclesiastical and political milieu which it is given in the hagiographies.
Of course it may be convenient for some modern pagans that there was a goddess called Brigit, and undoubtedly there are some among that body of people who are uncomfortable with the church’s supposed procurement of her character in pursuit of an agenda that is ultimately pro-patriarchal, who can truly say that they are based on the same archetype? We know so little about the goddess Brigit, and we know a huge amount about the saint. Maybe they were always two completely separate figures who happen to share some common traits.
In any case, the disdain for a church or belief system should not serve as a major motivation for pursuing an alternative belief. Live and let live. It should not be forgotten that our immediate ancestors – just one generation ago – widely venerated Saint Brigid and celebrated her feast day by making Brigid’s crosses, among other customs.
While I do tend to treat the stories with a pinch of salt, so to speak, I look deeper at the allegorical and metaphorical truths concealed within her narratives and one cannot but have admiration for the archetype of the strong woman who resisted attempts to silence or subdue her which emanated mostly – even exclusively – from a particular male caste.
She is admirable in her pursuit of independence, and of course for her constant care for the sick, poor, disabled and those who have been downtrodden in society. Regardless of the religious complexities around the character of Saint Brigid, she engenders a huge following and worship in her various guises to this day. What other deity from the pagan mists of time survived to be rejuvenated or reinvented as a Christian figurehead, garnering such widespread worship today? Is there a single other?
Fire in the head
The column of fire that emerges from her head and shoots skyward in several anecdotes is a sign of the enormous spiritual and intellectual power of the woman. Is this the same ‘fire in the head’ referred to in the Song of Amergin?
I saw something yesterday shared by my friend Laura Murphy about Mary Robinson’s image being projected on a public building for Saint Brigid’s Day, and I thought about how Robinson was absolutely a modern day Brigid, who made a firm stand against the repressive influence of the patriarchy (represented in this case as much by politicians as religious leaders) and stood up for the autonomy and independence of women all over Ireland. She became Ireland’s first female president in 1990.
It is not difficult to see why Brigid should continue to be a shining example to women not just in Ireland but all over the world, regardless of the church’s earlier attempts to narrate her story.
I think something of the power of the woman will always remain outside the control of any body, or any man. And that is one of the most alluring things about her. When the men tried to control her or subdue her, through various means, direct and indirect, she let it be known that she was going to remain wholly independent, even to the point of disfiguring herself to retain her sovereignty.
The fact that she stood up for the destitute and the infirm is confirmation of her role as a surrogate mother to those who feel as if society has abandoned them.
It is somewhat ironic, but not entirely discomfiting, that of all the Irish ‘church’ figures, she probably has the largest devotion – whether that comes from people of Christian faith or pagan worship or no particular belief system at all.
The archetype is extremely powerful, and Brigid continues to have significant influence for people today, even if the Christian/Catholic customs around her have waned.
Today, millions of people around the world will call out her name, will invoke her in ceremony and will leave a little something outside for her to bless as she passes by. In a western world saturated in secularism, it is truly a wonder that one deity/figurehead should command such a wide following, and such an earnest one too.
For a long time I felt no particular affinity with her, but the events around the discovery of the Brigid’s Way alignment changed all that – it was as if she knocked on my door and kept knocking until I not only acknowledged her presence, but invited her in.
The singularly remarkable alignment of sacred sites including Tara, Slane and St. Brigid’s Well at Faughart was itself fascinating – but that whole happenstance took on a distinctly personal resonance when I discovered that the alignment passed through the property at Bridge Street in Dundalk (beside the bridge over the Castletown river, representing a threshold between worlds) where my grandmother – whose name was Brigid – had lived for a number of years. It is interesting too that my granny helped her father run a cobbler’s business, because the Brigid’s Way alignment is now a pilgrimage, and I like to think there is a Brigid in the hearts of everyone who undertakes a pilgrimage, waiting by the roadside to caress their weary feet and lift their spirits.
It was a remarkable twist in a truly extraordinary tale. How could one experience such incredible happenings and not feel personally called by the deity/saint?
One of her most remarkable aspects is her ability to speak to you directly, so that you can have little doubt as to her presence. For a time, I may have heard the door knock, but ignored it. Brigid seems persistent to the point of knocking louder and louder until she knocks the door off its hinges and reveals her presence whether it is convenient for you to acknowledge it or not!
At that point, you have little choice but to let her in, but she is a welcome guest.
I wonder if the powerful males with whom she came into contact in her hagiographies also experienced this very direct, powerful and personal interaction with her.
I think it can only be a good thing that she is so powerfully and vividly alive and present for people today. Secularism chokes and stomps upon the mystical and transcendent, and does not allow for the fanciful and archaic spiritual practices of old, and C.G. Jung in his work rightly claims that modern man is much impoverished as a result.
Brigid stands at the threshold of the old and the new and refuses to budge. And we should be glad that that is the case.
She was born at the threshold of a home and that is a significant metaphor for what she represents.
She is a woman of two worlds, of two states of mind, of two ways of seeing the world. Who among us shares her holistic vision?
The world needs that right now.
She is Dé Danannesque in her ability to stand between worlds and show us different perspectives on particular situations where we might be instinctively inclined to see things from just one point of view.
Brigid is blessed among all the deities of old in that she retains an ability to be relevant in a world that is filled with scientific dogma, absolute mantras or blind faith, such that she possesses an agency that transcends the sensitivities of our faith, or lack of it.
With Brigid, it is less a case of believing, and more a case of experiencing.
Believing that she is an agent of the goodness that resides in each and every one of us, she invites us to totter on the brink of doubt and absolute belief and asks that perhaps we envision a third perspective, another possibility. We should not blindly fall either side of the threshold, but see it as an invitation to behold the two sides of the story that are presented to us – faith and secularism – and remain comfortably between the two. She seems to hold no particular demands of my agnosticism.
Perhaps it is the case that Brigid tells us that our agnosticism is where true humanity can not just exist, but thrive.
I am grateful to have had her presence in my journey through myth and landscape (the myth and landscape of the soul too) especially as that presence has been accompanied by such magic and awe that one can only surmise that she is the rare personification of the otherworldly agency that can persuade us to become the whole person that we were born to be.
Thank you, and Happy Saint Brigid’s Day!
1st February 2022