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Brigid - The Goddess of Imbolc and Celtic Europe

Author: Gwydion

@copy 2001, Gwydion
All rights reserved.


Celtic Myth |
Ireland |
Britain |
Christianity |
A Myth






The Pagan goddess Brigid is perhaps one of the oldest goddesses of
Celtic Europe still recognized and worshipped. In fact, until the
mid-twentieth century in Scotland, she was still welcomed in at
Imbolc by the symbolic rekindling of the hearth fire after
the house had been cleaned from top to bottom for spring.

Brigid has been known by many names, mostly depending upon the specific
location or time period. Worshipped in Ireland, Wales, Spain, France,
and Britain, she was called Brighde in Ireland, Bride in Scotland,
Brigantia in Northern Britain, Brigandu in France, and also
known as Brid, Brig and Brighid. The name Bridget is the Christianization
of these pre-Christian goddess names as will be discussed below.
Her name is taken to mean "Power," "Renown" and "Fiery Arrow of Power."


Celtic Myth



In the Celtic myth cycles, she is an aspect of Danu, the daughter of
Dagda. She is a triple goddess. However, she is not of the
maiden, mother, crone variety; she has three different aspects which are all
parts of the same ageless goddess.
One aspect of Brigid is of poetess and muse, goddess of
inspiration, learning, poetry, divination, witchcraft, occult knowledge.
A second aspect of Brigid was as goddess of smithcraft,
carrying a famous cauldron for this purpose.
The third aspect of Brigid was that of healer, goddess of
healing and medicine. These three aspects were united through the symbol
of fire; thus here appellation as a fire goddess. In various places she
was also know as goddess of fertility, the hearth, all feminine arts and
crafts, and the martial arts. She was identified with the changing moon and
the ox, boar and ram. Her sacred number is 19 (the Celtic Great year --
the number of years it takes for the new moon to coincide with the
Sun's winter solstice).

Some clues to her association with fire, and possibly the Sun, can
be found in an Irish legend that states that in Winter Brigid was imprisoned
in an icy mountain by a one-eyed hag (Calleach, see below).
In some places, she presided over thermal springs
(i.e. water warmed by an underground Sun...?). But these are speculative.

Brigid may even pre-date the Celtic period,
being a remembrance of a more ancient seasonal goddess of Ireland and Scotland.
The relevant legends recall how Cailleach kept a maiden named Bride
imprisoned in the high mountains of Ben Nevis. But Cailleach's own son fell
in love Bride and they eloped at winter's end. They were chased by the
angry hag Cailleach who caused many a fierce storm. Finally Cailleach
turned to stone and the couple was free. This type of story, which may date
back to 2000 or 3000 BCE, recounts Brigid as a spring and summer goddess
who alternates her rule with a fall and winter hag. Also, the monuments
of Stonehenge and Avebury are constructed of massive sandstones
(called sarsens).
These stones are also known as Bridestones, suggesting that Brigid
may have been a primary goddess used in that area in the Neolithic,
the late Stone Age.


Ireland



Brigid had an extensive female priesthood at Kildare, Ireland and an
ever-burning sacred fire in her shrine. There were 19 priestess
representing the 19-year cycle of the Celtic "Great Year."
Each priestess tended the sacred fire in turn, through a 20-day
rotation. On 20th day of each cycle the sacred fire was said to be
tended by Brigid herself. Her shrine was likened to that of Vesta
tended by the vestal virgins in Rome. Its sacred flame
was kept burning even after the shrine became a Christian nunnery, until
1220 when Archbishop Henry of Dublin ordered it extinguished.

The Irish claimed that she brought "whistling" to the world,
which she invented one night when she wanted to call her friends.
She also invented "keening," the mournful song of
the bereaved Irishwoman, one night when her son was killed.

In 722 she appeared to the Irish army of Leinster, hovering in the sky
before they routed the forces of Tara, rather like the sun god El Gabel
had appeared to (the Roman) Aurelian in 273 and
as the Christian chi-rho sign had appeared to Constantine in 312.



Britain



Brigid was known as Brigantia in Northern Britain, and also as The Three
Blessed Ladies of Britain, and The Three Mothers. The name Brigantia
for the goddess arises from that of the ancient people that bore her name,
the Brigantes. She was worshiped especially in Yorkshire, and her
name is still echoed in the names of rivers Briant in Anglesey
and Brent in Middlesex. It is likely that the ancient Brigantes saw her
as the power of rushing rivers and the thrusting hills of the countryside,
rather than a personification of a triple goddess.



Christianity



The Christians converted the goddess Brigid along with the people of the area.
They fabricated an entire history for this "Saint Bridget."
She was said to be the daughter of a Druid, who was baptized by
the great patriarch St. Patrick. Bridget apparently
took Christian religious vows, and was canonized upon her death
by the church. She was given sainthood by Pope Gregory I.
The Pope told Augustine in the sixth century that Brigid should
be co-opted rather than having the Church destroy the pagan sites and customs of the
"newly Christian" pagan peoples.

The Chruch added Bridget to the the nativity scene, calling her
Mary's midwife. They also renamed Imbolc to Candlemas, to disguise
this holiday's pagan origins. Bridget was attributed a curious list of
qualities that were coincidentally identical to those of
the earlier goddess. She was said to have the power to
appoint the bishops of her area, an unusual power for
an abbess. This was made stranger by her apparent requirement
that her bishops also be practicing goldsmiths (hearkening to the second
aspect of the goddess described above).
This Christian saint was also invoked as muse and healer (the first and
third aspects described above).



Queen of Four Fires



This is a myth of Brigid taken from The Storyteller's Goddess
referenced Below. It well described the qualities of the goddess Brigid.


A long time ago, near the beginning, at the
first crack of pink in a young morning, near
the waters of the magic well, the goddess
Bridget slipped into the world and the
waiting hands of the nine sisters who
swayed and crooned in a great circle around her. The waters of the
magic well burbled their joy.

Up rose a column of fire out of the new goddess's head that burned
to the very sky. Bridget reached up her two hands and broke away a
flaming plume from her crown of fire and dropped it on the ground
before her. There it leapt and shone, making the hearth of the house of
the goddess.


Then from the fire of her hearth, Bridget used both hands to draw
out a leaping tongue of heat, swallowed it, and felt the fire burn straight
to her heart. There stood the goddess, fire crowning her head, licking
up inside her heart, glowing and shooting from her hands, and dancing
on the hearth before her.

The nine sisters hummed and the waters of the magic well trembled
as Bridget built a chimney of brick about her hearth. Then about the
chimney, she built a roof of thatch and walls of stone. And so it was that
by the waters of the magic well the goddess finished the house in which
she keeps the four fires which have served her people forevermore.

Out of the fire on Bridget's hands baked the craft of bending iron.
Out of the fire on Bridget's hearth and the waters of her magic well
came the healing teas. Out of the fire on Bridget's head flared out
writing and poetry. Out of the fire in Bridget's heart spread the heat of
compassion.

Word of the gifts of Bridget's fires traveled wide. People flocked to
learn from Bridget the secret of using fire to soften iron and bend it to
the shapes of their desires. The people called bending iron smithcraft,
and they made wheels, pots, and tools that did not break.

All the medicine plants of the earth gathered in the house of the
goddess. With their leaves, flowers, barks, and roots, and the waters of
her magic well, Bridget made the healing teas. She gave a boy with
weak teeth the tea of the dandelion root. She gave a young woman the
tea of the raspberry leaf to help her womb carry its child. An old man,
a cane in each hand to help him walk, took from Bridget wintergreen
bark for his pain and black cherry juice for the rheumatism. She gave
comfrey to a girl with a broken leg and blue cohosh to bring her bloods
without cramps. Bridget brewed motherwort, licorice root, and dried
parsley for a woman who was coming to the end of her monthly bleeding.
"Cup a day," said Bridget, "that you stay supple and strong."

The people wanted Bridget's recipes. "But we can't remember which
plants for which healings, where to gather them or how long to steep
them," they told Bridget.

The fire on Bridget's head blazed bright. She took up a blackened
stick and made marks with it on a flat piece of bark."These are the talking
marks," She said. "They are the way to remember what you don't
want to forget."

The talking marks also let the people write down the stories of
her wisdom.

Once two men with terrible stories of leprosy came to Bridget.

"Bathe yourself in my well." said Bridget to the first man. At every
place Bridget's waters touched, the man's skin turned whole again.

"Now bathe your friend," said Bridget.

Repulsed, the man backed away from his friend. "I cannot touch him,"
he said.

"Then you are not truly healed," said the goddess. And she gave the
first man back his leprosy and healed the second man. "Return to me
with compassion," she said to the first man. "There find your healing."

Every year at midwinter the people than Bridget for her well of wisdom
and her fires of hand, hearth, head and heart. "Thank you,
Bridget, for the simthcraft, for the healing teas, the talking
marks, and compassion. May you dwell with your fires in your house by
the waters of your magic well forever."





References




Suggested Pdf Resources

From the Editor...
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