Brigid was a goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann. She was a daughter of the chief of the gods, The Dagda, and was known as a goddess of healers, poets, smiths, childbirth and inspiration. Her name means "exalted one". This article by Branfionn NicGrioghair explores the story of Brigid and the later Christian Saint, St. Brigid, who is still honoured to this day, especially in Faughart, her birthplace, and Kildare, where she founded a monastery.
By Branfionn NicGrioghair
Brigid is the Daughter of the Dagda, one of the more universal deities of the pagan Gaelic world. She is known as the Goddess of Healers, Poets, Smiths, Childbirth and Inspiration; Goddess of Fire and Hearth and a patron of warfare or Briga. Her soldiers were called Brigands. Her name means "Exalted One." She is also known as Brigantia, Brid, Bride, Briginda, Brigdu, and Brigit. She is said to lean over every cradle. The lore and customs have continued to this day regarding Brighid, more vividly than all the other Gaelic deities combined.
In the middle ages, Brigid is in many stories. In one she is the wife of Bres, the half-Fomorian ruler of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Their son, Ruadan, wounded the smith god Giobhniu at the second battle of Magh Tuireadh but he himself was slain in the combat. Brigid then went to the battlefield to mourn her son. This was said to be the first caoine (keening), or lament, heard in Ireland. Until recent time, it was a tradition to hire women to caoine at every graveside. In another story, Brighid was the wife of Tuireann and had three sons: Brian, Iuchar and Ircharba. In the tale, The Sons of Tuirean, these three killed the god Cian, father of Lugh Lámhfhada when he was in the form of a pig.(2)
She was transformed by the Church of St. Brigid into St. Brigid about 453 C.E. Saint Brighid is known as the patroness of farm work and cattle, and protector of the household from fire and calamity. To this day, one of her most common names in Gaelic is Muime Chriosd, "Foster-Mother of Christ." St. Brigid was said to be the daughter of Dubthach, a Druid who brought her from Ireland to be raised on the Isle of Iona, sometimes called "The Druid's Isle."
"A fascinating link to the traditions of the saint Brigid is the fact that a woman called Darlughdacha appears in St. Brigid's community in Kildare as her close companion, sharing Brigid's bed. Darlughdacha, who became abbess of Kildare on Brigid's death, means 'daughter of Lugh' and the 'saints' lists' also give her feastday as 1st February...Mary Condren thinks that Darlughdacha might even be the original name for the goddess Brigid, presumably as Brigid (Exalted One) is a title rather than a name." (2)
It is said that by repeating the genealogy of Brigid, you will always be protected.
"This is the geneology 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 a cell, I shall not be wounded,
Neither shall Christ leave me in forgetfulness.
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." (1)
One of the most ancient rituals known is reflected in this piece. It is known as the Three-fold Death by burning, drowning and stabbing. This was usually the form of death of the Sacred King, after which time, he became one with his Land.
"Brigid is known in the Hebrides as the foster mother of Christ, and this clearly shows the mixing of Christian and pagan influence that is so common here. As foster mother she is of course exceptionally honoured, since in Celtic society the foster parents had special place, they ranked higher than the natural parents, the relationship being considered extremely sacred." (3)
"St. Brigid (in Gaelic pronounced sometimes Bride, sometimes Breed), St. Bride of the Isles as she is lovingly called in the Hebrides, has no name so dear to the Gael as "Muime-Chriosd", Christ's Foster-Mother, a name bestowed on her by one of the most beautiful of Celtic legends. In the isles of Gaelic Scotland, her most familiar name is Brighid nam Bhatta, St Briget or St. Bride of the Mantle - from her having wrapt the new-born Babe in her Mantle in Mary's hour of weakness. She did not come into the Gaelic heart with the Cross and Mary, but was there long before as Bride, Brighid or Brighid of the Dedannans, those not immortal but for long ages deathless folk who to the Gael were as the Olympians to the Greeks. That earlier Brighid was goddess of poetry and music, one of the three great divinities of love, goddess of women, the keeper of prophecies and dreams, the watcher of the greater destinies, the guardian of the future. I think she was no other than the Celtic Demeter - that Demeter- Desphoena born of the embrace of Poseidon, who in turn is no other than Lir, the Oceanus of the Gael, and instead of Demeter seeking and lamenting Persephone in the underworld, it is Demeter- Brighid seeking her brother (or, it may be, her son) Manan (Manannan), God of the Sea, son of Oceanus, Lir...Persephone and Manan are symbols of the same Return to Life." (9)
"Ó'Hógáin makes connections between the saint, the goddess, the sun, poetry, cows, Vedic tradition and the Goddess Boann (eponym of the River Boyne), who may have been the mother of Brigit, and whose name seems to come from bo/-fhionn (white cow, she of white cattle,) cognate with Sanskrit Govinda." (5)
"The epithet búadach, 'victorious'...is one commonly applied to Brigit...A national saint in her own right, Brigit has been somewhat overshadowed by Patrick, but the variants of her name current for Irish girls are in themselves evidence of her enduring importance: compare the forms Brigid, Breege, Breda, Breed, Bride, Bridie, beside the diminutive in -een. Behind the Christian saint of the hagiographers and the accounts of wonders ucriously performed, and behind the oral and literary traditions, one can spy the figure of a pre-Christian goddess. Brigit is represented in the early poetry as Mother of Christ and equal in rank to Mary, and as 'The Mary of the Gael". Hence the tradition of Brigit goes deeper as well as further back than that of the Briton, Patrick." (4) And from the same book on page 50, this poem:
Búaid na fine,
Siur Ríg nime,
Nár in duine,
Riar na n-oíged,
To this day there is the unusual blending of Brighid the ancient Goddess with the Saint and how typically Gaelic this is; this mixture of Christian and Old Celtic and pagan lore, exemplified in poetry like this:
|Is tu gleus na Mnatha Sithe,
Is tu beus na Bride bithe,
Is tu creud na Moire mine,
Is tu gniomh na mnatha Greuig,
Is tu sgeimh na h'Eimir aluinn,
Is tu mein na Dearshul agha,
Is tu meann na Meabha laidir,
Is tu taladh Binne-bheul.
Thine is the skill of the Fairy Woman,
**Literally "honey-mouthed" (9)
"...And I was putting another word to it, for her, fair Foster-Mother of Christ, when she looked at me and said, "I am older than Brighid of the Mantle...I put songs and music on the wind before ever the bells of the chapels were rung in the West or heard in the East. I am Brighid-nam-Bratta, but I am also Brighid-Muirghin-na-tuinne, and Brighid-sluagh, Brighid-nan-sitheachseang, Brighid-Binne-Bheule-lhuchd -nan-trusganan-uaine, and I am older than Aone and am as old as Luan. And in Tir-na-h'oige my name is Suibhal-bheann; in Tir-fo-thuinn it is Cú-gorm; and in Tir-na-h'oise it is Sireadh-thall. And I have been a breath in your heart. And the day has its feet to it that will see me coming into the hearts of men and women like a flame upon dry grass, like a flame of wind in a great wood..."
"The other names are old Gaelic names: Brighid-Muirghin-na-tuinne, Brighid Conception of the Waves; Brighid-Sluagh (or Sloigh), Brighid of the Immortal host; Brighid-nan-sitheachseang, Brighid of the Slim Fairy Folk; Brighid-Binne-Bheule-lhuchd-nan-trusganan-uaine, Song-sweet (literally: melodious mouth'd) Brighid of the Tribe of the Green Mantles. She is also called Brighid of the Harp, Brighid of the Sorrowful, Brighid of Prophecy, Brighid of Pure Love, St. Bride of the Isles, Bride of Joy and other names. Aona is an occasional and ancient form of Di-Aoin, Friday and Luan of Diluain, Monday."
"Tir-na-h'oige (commonly anglicised as Tirnanogue) in the Land of (Eternal) Youth; Tir-fo-thuinn is the Country of the Waves and Tir-na-h'oise is the Country of Ancient Years. The fairy names Suibhal-bheann, Cú-gorm; and Sireadh-thall respectively mean Mountain-traveller, Grey Hound and Seek-Beyond...."
"...that older Brighid of the West, Mother of Songs and Music - she who breathes in the reed, on the wind, in the hearts of women and in the minds of poets...Banmorair-na-mara, the Lady of the Sea...a woman of the divine folk, who was called the Lady of the Sea, and was a daughter of Lir, and went lamenting upon the earth because she had lost her brother Manan the Beautiful, but came upon him at last...and wooed him with songs and flowers and brought him back again, so that the world of men rejoiced, and ships sailed the seas in safety and nets were filled with the fruit of the wave...that passing world of songs and beauty, of poets' dreams and of broken hearts, that even now...is loved again by Brighid the White..."
"(And with you for guidance be)
The fairy swan of Bride of flocks,
The fairy duck of Mary of peace." (9)
In her earliest incarnation, as Breo-Saighit, she was called the Flame of Ireland, Fiery Arrow. She was a Goddess of the forge as well, reflecting on her fire aspect. Legend says that when She was born, a tower of flame reaching from the top of her head to the heavens. Her birth, which took place at sunrise, is rumored to have given the family house the appearance of being on fire.
For many centuries, there were 19 virgins (originally priestesses and later nuns) who tended Her eternal flame at Kildare. There they are said to have sung this song (until the 18th century):
"Bride, excellent woman,
may the fiery, bright sun
take us to the lasting kingdom."
These women were the virgin daughters of the Fire and were called Inghean au dagha; but, as fire-keepers, were Breochwidh. The Brudins, a place of magical cauldron and perpetual fires, disappeared when Christianity took hold. "Being in the Brudins" now means in the fairies. Brigid's shrine at Kildare was active into the 18th century. It was closed down by the monarchy. Originally cared for by nineteen virgins, when the Pagan Brigid was Sainted, the care of her shrine fell to Catholic nuns. The fire was extinguished once in the thirteenth century and was relit until Henry VIII of England set about supressing the monastaries. (8) Sister Mary Minchin, a Brigedian nun at Kildaire relit the flame on Febuary 2, 1996 and the intention is to keep it burning perpetually once again.
In an ancient Irish text Giraldus Cambrensis, she and nineteen of her nuns took turns in guarding a sacred fire which burned perpetually and was surrounded by a hedge within which no male might enter. In this, Brigid is like the Gaulish 'Minerva'." In Minerva's sanctuary in Britain there was also a perpetual flame. According to the Irish Text "The Book of Dunn Cow," Brigid's sacred number was nineteen, representing the nineteen-year cycle of the Celtic Great Year, the time it took from one new moon to the next to coincide with the Winter Solstice. It was believed though, that on the twentieth day of each cycle Brigid herself would tend the flame.
Of this fire, it was said, during the time of the Norman conquest, that although it was fed the sacred wood of the hawthorn over a long period of time, "yet the ashes have never increased." The area was said to be twenty feet square with a roof. The sacred fire was sometimes called a "need-fire." Alexander Carmichael, the author of Carmina Gadelica, states that "teine éiginn was last made in Uist about 1829, in Arran about 1820, in Helmsdale about 1818, and in Reay about 1830." (1)
The household fire is sacred to Brigid. The fire should be kept going, and each evening the woman of the household would smoor the fire, (cover it over to keep the fire overnight), asking for the protection of Brigid on all its occupants. The following is from volume 3 of the Carmina Gadelica:
Smúraidh mi an tula
Mar a smúradh Brighde Muime.
Ainm naomh na Muime
Bhith mu'n tula, bhith mu'n tán,
Bhith mu'n ardraich uile.
I will smoor the hearth
As Brighid the Fostermother would smoor
The Fostermother's holy name
Be on the hearth, be on the herd
Be on the household all. (1)
As patroness of Smiths, there is the mention of a forge in a Old Irish poem in praise of Brigid. The poem contrasts Brigid's lasting strength to the passing glory of the Fortress of Alenn, where once were witnessed:
Glés a hindeón cotad cúar,
clúas a dúan do thengthaib bard,
bruth a fer fri comlann nglan,
cruth a ban fri oenach n-ard.
The ringing of its busy bent anvils,
the sound of songs from poets' tongues
the heat of its men at clean contest,
the beauty of its women at high assembly.
Beannachtaí ar an gCeárta -- Blessings on the Forge! (5)
In a Druidic ritual, Brigid is honored with a central well containing candles. It was common in olden times to dress the well with flowers and greenery. Often coins and other silver objects were offered to the well. Many of Brigid's Holy Wells still exist, some sacred to Her for thousands of years. Her waters were said to heal all manner of disease. (5)
"I live in the Hebrides, in one of the many parishes of Kilbride that you find all over the islands. I've also visited several of her sacred wells in Ireland, where you find all sorts of votive offerings laid out (and no-one ever touches them). The best site was a kind of grotto, at Kilfenora in Co. Clare - it's a very important shrine to Saint Bride, and it is looked after by nuns. The feeling there was wonderful." Lorraine Macdonald. (3)
On Imbolc, in Ireland, they make Bride's Cross. Brigit's cross is usually three-legged; in other words, a triskele, which has been identified as an ancient solar symbol. It is sometimes also made as an even-armed cross woven of reeds. Rites for Bride have been preserved to this day by the women of the Outer Hebrides. At La Fheill Brighid, the women gather and make an image of the Goddess as Maiden. They dress her in white and place a crystal over her heart and place her in a cradle-like basket. Bride is then invited into the house by the female head of the household with sacred song and with chanting. (6)
There is also the tradition of leaving a loaf of bread, pitcher of milk and a candle out for Brigid. the villagers of Avebury in Wiltshire climb the earthen mound called Silbury Hill to eat fig cakes and sugar and water. They also climb Cley Hill to play a game within the earthwork at the summit. (6)
The references in the Carmina Gadelica to the serpent coming out of the mound on Latha Fheill Bride from these older associations; that she may be a Fomorian Earth goddess. (3)
In support of this, there is an ancient rhyme which is still said in the Western Highlands:
"Early on Bride's morn
The serpent shall come from the hole.
I will not molest the serpent
Nor will the serpent molest me. (7)
1. Carmina Gadelica, by Alexander Carmichael
2. Celtic Women by Peter Berresford Ellis ISBN 0-8028-3808-1
3. Dal Riada Celtic Heritage Trust, Registered Scottish Charity, Isle of Arran, Lorraine Macdonald.
4. Dánta Ban: Poems of Irish Women Early and Modern - A Collection
5. Email from "Donncha, Dennis King.
6. Fire Worship in Britain by T. F. G. Dexter
7 The Folklore of the Scottish Highlands by Anne Ross, ISBN 0-87471-836-8
7. Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions by James Bonwick
9. Winged Destiny by Fiona MacLeod
Copyright © 1997 Branfionn NicGrioghair. Internet and other uses allowed so long as text is used in full, for educational purposes without profit, with all credits given, links provided to Branfionn NicGrioghair and this copyright tag attached, all other rights reserved. Branfionn NicGrioghair email@example.com. P.O. Box 602696. Cleveland OH 44102.