We continue our journey through the Irish mythological landscape for awe-inspiring women and Celtic goddess Brigid, a symbol of feminine power and compassion, who transcends religion or spirituality, instantly comes to mind.
The Goddess Brigid is one of the deities of Pagan Ireland. These deities were not seen as creators but much like ancestors. In Irish Mythology, Brigid (or Brighid, Brigit or Brid meaning exalted one) is the daughter of The Dagda (the Good God) and the wife of Bres, a king of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
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.Cormac’s Glossary (written by Christian scribes in the 9th century)
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.
The marriage of Brigid to Bres was essentially an alliance to bring peace between two warring factions. She was of the Danu and he of the Fomorians. Ruadan, Brigid’s eldest son, used the knowledge of smithing given to him by his maternal kin, the Danu, against them by killing their tribe smith Giobhniu at the second battle of Magh Tuireadh. This smith killed Ruadan before dying himself. Slain in the combat, Brigid 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.
Brigid and Spring
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. She was central in the celebration of the ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc, meaning “in the belly” and referring to the stirring of new life, of the earth awakening and life-force emanating that is palpable during this time.
She is known as the goddess of healing, poetry and arts and crafts, especially blacksmithing. As a healing goddess she was believed to be present to watch over the birth of every child. Her healing wells can still be found in Ireland to this day.
Brigid the Fire Goddess
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.
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 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 Goddess and the Saint
In the Middle Ages, some argue that the goddess Brigid was syncretised with the Christian saint of the same name. According to medievalist Pamela Berger, Christian “monks took the ancient figure of the mother goddess and grafted her name and functions onto her Christian counterpart,” St. Brigid of Kildare.
According to legend, Brigid travelled around the country founding convents and performing miracles, and news of her popularity filtered back to Leinster. She was offered any site in the province, and chose a place near the River Liffey where an old oak tree stood. This is the site on which Kildare town is now built. Kildare comes from the Irish Cill Dara, which means ‘the Church of the Oak’. The trunk of the oak could not be cut with a sword or a knife, imbued with special powers.
She is among the first fruits of Irish Christianity. Her life (c. aD 455-525) spans the years between St Patrick’s mission and the spectacular rise of monasticism in the sixth century. Furthermore, Brigid was not only a holy woman, but the foundress of what is probably the
earliest known monastery in Ireland, Kildare. Although the monastic movement in the church of the fifth century was vibrant on the continent, there is no Irish monastery going back to that century with the possible exception of Kildare. The Brigidine story, coming as it did at the dawn of Irish Christianity, presented Ireland with an entirely new model of womanhood and the Irish loved her for it.