The Goddess Brigid

"To understand Brigid, the Christian saint one needs to look briefly at the ancient beliefs that prevailed in Ireland prior to the coming of Christianity. Male and female deities, one of which was Brigid were revered and worshipped… Brigid the saint inherits much of the folklore associated with the goddess Brigid, a dimension which contributes to her popularity."1 "It seems reasonably certain that behind this alleged holy woman… stands a pagan goddess of the same name."2

The Goddess Brigid is one of the deities of Pagan Ireland. These deities were not seen as creators but much like ancestors. Cormac's Glossary describes her as, "A poetess, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit the female sage, or woman of wisdom, i.e. Brigit the goddess whom poets adored, because very great and very famous was her protecting care. It is therefore they call her goddess of poets by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit the female physician (woman of leechcraft,) Brigit the female smith (woman of smithwork); from whom whose names with all Irishmen a goddess was called Brigit."3 It is not clear whether one goddess is described here or three, all bearing the same name but with individual spheres of influence. It was certainly common for one goddess to be represented as three.

Brigid is a poetess, daughter of the Dagda, whose titles include: Good God, Great Father and Red Fire of All Knowledge. In Irish myth Dagda is a leader of the Tuatha dē Danann. One of their four great treasures was the Cauldron of Dagda which provided an endless supply of food. Dagda mated the wise woman, protectress and war goddess, Morrigan (Great Queen) so it is possible that she is Brigid's mother. Morrigan is said to have owned a herd of white cows with red ears, creatures also associated with the nurture of the infant St. Brigid.

Brian Wright lists the qualities of Brigid's parents that she inherited. From Dagda: magic, healing, knowledge, producing an abundance of food, control of the weather and environment, fire. From Morrigan: fertility, foretelling the future, animal husbandry, association with fire, protection of her people.4

Brigid the poetess is also mentioned in Lebor Gabāla Ērenn (The Book of Invasions) that claims to be a history of Ireland from the creation to the Middle Ages. "Brigid the poetess, daughter of The Dagda, she it is who had Fea and Femen, the two oxen of Dil, from whom are named Mag Fea and Mag Femen. With them was Triath, king of the swine, from whom is Tretherne. Among them were heard three demon voices in Ireland after plunder, to wit, whistling and outcry and groaning."5 Here Brigid represents the land of Ireland and when the land is plundered her three magical animals keen6 for it.

Hail Brigit7 is an old Irish poem which tells of the disappearance of the pagan world of Ireland and the triumph of Christianity, as exemplified by the deserted ruins of the ancient hill fort of Alenn contrasted with the flourishing state of neighbouring Kildare. It begins: "Sit thou safely enthroned, triumphant Brigit, upon the side of Liffey far as the strand of the ebbing sea! Thou art the sovereign lady with banded hosts that presides over the Children of Cathair the Great. God's counsel at every time concerning virgin Erin is greater than can be told: though glittering Liffey is thine to-day, it has been the land of others in their turn. When from its side I gaze upon the fair Curragh the lot that has fallen to every king causes awe at each wreck." It ends: "Oh Brigit whose land I behold, on which each one in turn has moved about, thy fame has outshone the fame of the king — thou art over them all. Thou hast everlasting rule with the king apart from the land wherein is thy cemetery. Grand-child of Bresal son of Dian, sit thou safely enthroned, triumphant Brigit!"

Brigid's Fire

Brigid is a Fire Goddess associated with smithcraft and possibly a fire cult.8 Brigid's Cross is in the form of a solar wheel so she may also be a Sun Goddess. "A perpetual flame burned in Kildare in pre-Christian times and was kept alight by Brigid and her nuns, possibly up to the sixteenth century. It was relit by Mary Teresa Cullen, the then leader of the Brigidine Sisters in the Market Square, Kildare, at the opening of a justice and peace conference."9 It has even been suggested that St. Brigid may have been a priestess of Brigid before her conversion to the Christian faith.

Brigid is particularly associated with the first stirrings of Spring as the days begin to lengthen, the snowdrops bloom, and the ewes begin to lactate. In a Scottish story, Bride is taken captive by Beira, the Queen of Winter. Some say her winter prison is the mountain, Ben Nevis. Before the fire of the sun can warm the earth again Bride has to be freed. So a spell is cast borrowing three days from the heat of August. As Bride walks free light fills the earth and the land turns green again.10

Brigid's Fire is truly the fire of creativity. It is responsible for the kindling of the earth in early Spring, the kindling of passion, the kindling of the body in healing, the kindling of the heart in poetry and song, the kindling of the mind in science and craft.

Until very recently the hearth formed the centre of every home and the fire burnt all year round. It was at the hearth that the women of the house practiced the magic of cookery. It was around the hearth that wisdom was passed from one generation to the next and the old stories were recited. For the more adventurous, the hearth was also a focus of divination. What do you see in the movement of the flames, what do you hear in the crackle of the logs, what marks are left in the ashes of the fire? What is Brigid saying to you?

Today we tend to take for granted the many highly sophisticated technical tools that we use in our daily lives. So, we can hardly imagine the awe in which the smith was held in ancient times. Smithcraft was seen as the epitome of magic, for only through such power could a mortal take the unassuming ore from the earth and fashion it into tools, weapons and jewellery that shone with patent beauty. The smith's craft was an intrinsic part of every aspect of life. Tools, agricultural implements, weapons for protection, clasps and jewellery for adornment, shining metal mirrors to see not only the living but to glimpse the otherworld and divine the future.

Good stories, music, and art have long opened us to wonder, magic and awe. Before there was any written word or musical notation every story and song had to be committed to memory. Those who could recount tales of wisdom, history, and mythology were held in high regard as were those who could sing us alive and lead us to ecstasy with their drumming and dance. Brigid is the Goddess of the creative arts, ancestral memory and the oral tradition.

A note about Brigantia

Living in Yorkshire I am familiar with the goddess Brigantia who was the titular goddess of the Brigantes, the largest tribe in Celtic Britain, who occupied much of northern England. "The Brigantes probably 'saw' their High Goddess and the evidence of her power in the landscape of their tribal territory."11 During the Roman occupation many altars bearing latin inscriptions were raised. These include, among others,  a sandstone altar at Adel (now a suburb of the city of Leeds) inscribed, "DEΛE BRIGΛN D CINGETISSA P" (To the Goddess Brigantia a dedication placed by Cingetissa). Another at Greetland near Halifax inscribed, "D VICT BRIG ET NVM AVG T AVR AVRELIANVS D D PRO SE ET SVIS S MAG S" (To the goddess Victoria Brigantia and the divine spirit of the emperor, Titus Aurelius Aurelianus dedicated this offering for himself and his family, while Master of Sacrifices". Another at South Shields inscribed, "DEAE BRIGANTIAE SACRVM CONGENNCCVS VSLM" (To the sacred goddess Brigantia. Congenniccus willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow).

Some see Brigid and Brigantia as the same goddess. They certainly share the appellation "Brig" which means High One. The Romans identified Brigantia with their own goddess, Minerva; a goddess of crafts and skills. But maybe it is best to see them as related in some ways.

  1. Rekindling the Flame, Rita Minehan CSB, Solas Bhrīde Community 1999 pp11-12
  2. The Stations of the Sun, Ronald Hutton, Oxford University Press 1996 pp134-135
  3. Cormac's Glossary translated by John O'Donovan, edited by Whitley Stokes, Irish Archaeological and Celtic Society 1868 p23 website
  4. Brigid Goddess, Druidess and Saint, Brian Wright, The History Press 2009 p29
  5. Lebor Gabala Section 344
  6. Keening is a traditional vocal lament for the dead. In Ireland it is customary for women to wail or keen at funerals. The goddess Brigid is said to have keened at the death of her son Ruadan.
  7. Edited and translated by Kuno Meyer, Dublin 1912 website
  8. The Festival of Brigit Celtic Goddess & Holy Woman, Sēamas Ō Cathāin, DBA Publications 1995
  9. Rekindling the Flame, Rita Minehan CSB, Solas Bhrīde Community 1999 p14
  10. The Coming of Angus and Bride website
  11. Brigid Goddess, Druidess and Saint, Brian Wright, The History Press 2009 p13