Brighid, Goddess or Saint??

“A match flares to life, and a woman’s voice speaks:

In Brighid’s name, I light my flame …

 Alone at her kitchen table, she tenderly applies match to candle, and the twilight-darkening room is illuminated in a golden glow.

 Brighid is my protector; Brighid is my maker of song …

 Lifting a cup in a ritual gesture, she sips pure sweet milk in grateful communion.

 Brighid is my sword and my shield; Brighid is my guide …”

(Tending Brigids Flame, Lunaea Weatherstone, Llewellyn Publications)

As the time of Imbolg or outside of Éire, Imbolc, draws near it is time to reflect on the seasonal change in the Northern Hemisphere as the land begins to warm and nurture new growth for the upcoming cycle of Nature. Symbolically, the deity Brighid is born under the flame of the rising Sun and is nursed by an Bó Bán (the White Cow) who resides between both worlds. Traditionally, February 1st has been  just a Catholic church holiday in Ireland but after the recent pandemic, it was declared a public holiday in remembrance of those who passed from the virus and complications that arose from the infection ( COVID-19 Deaths and Cases Statistics – CSO – Central Statistics Office ). It is a fitting symbol of healing whether your belief system be Pagan or Christian (maybe even a mix).

Andrew/ Filtiarn will be celebrating Imbolc and more importantly, the deity Brigantia, with his Grove in Northern England and I will be celebrating the deity Lasair at Imbolg in North county Cork at the Tobair Eoighan Naomha. Both are deities that share similar archetypes as Brighid and have the same feast days. I will leave the history and mythologies relating to Brigantia for Filtiarn to discuss as this written piece is a more in-depth exercise of Brighid and her associated mythologies compared to other lesser known Irish goddesses that share similar archetypes. This is also comparable to Patrick who has feats/legends that other lesser-known saints had accomplished but were later attributed to the Irish Catholic Patron saint.

Firstly, I will start with the mythos of Lasair. Tobair Eoighan Naofa is a sacred well found near the summit of Sliabh Mushra in the barony of Duhallow in North county Cork. At the time of the Summer Solstice, a Catholic pattern is held there in honour of St. John and it has a healing ritual done there. This particular John had three sisters as well; Lasair, Inghe Bhuidhe and Latiaran who were nuns. These nuns all have miraculous legends of healing bandages and blacksmith forge incidents associated with them among others. Archaeologists have investigated that the three were agricultural Goddesses associated with the sacred well and the names were associated with seasonal change. Lasair is also Irish Gaelic for ‘flame’ and was associated with the first season of growth. The time for Imbolg is also indicated by some larger liathciorcal (stone circles) such as Dromnagorteen in county Kerry and Drombeg in West Cork. In the following passage from the website https://historicgraves.com/ where John Tierney hosts a collection of localised folklore you can see a legend based on the healing bandages of a revered local nun or a former local goddess that is similar to Brighid:-

“Saint Latiaran does not appear on our calendar of saints but folklore instead has handed down to us the story of Saint Latiaran and the Blacksmith. Smith’s history of Cork together with other Journals refer to her but of course local tradition by the people of Cullen is very strong. In Cullen this ancient site which is a holy well has a pattern day on the nearest Sunday to her  feast dayon July 25th. Saint Latiaran and the holy well go back as far as the fifth century. She may well have been a member of a community. Tradition has it that Latiaranand her sisters met for prayer or mediation weekly in difficult times environmentally and that on one occasion a group of angels appeared to them and prepared  path for them to follow between Cullen, Dromtarriffe  and Kilmeen. 

We are told that Latiaran went to the local forge  each  morning  to take live coals from the fire in her apron or habit to her cell to start a fire. Because of her great holiness she was able to take these red hot coals in her apron without getting burned in any way. It must be said that other a number of other Irish saints are also credited with this miraculous power. One morning the Blacksmith watching the saint lifting her habit to collect the red hot coals complemented her on having a nice pair of legs. Latiaranwas so much taken in by the Blacksmith’s compliment that she looked down and did agree that she had nice legs.

Next we know her apron was on fire and she completely lost her head and cursed the poor Blacksmith for the compliment he paid her .She prophesied that the sound of a smiths hammer would never again be heard in Cullen. Apparently this is the case. After this incident at the forge folklore tells us that Latiaran disappeared down through the ground and ended up in her cell. This spot is marked by a heart shaped stone where she entered the ground, but others would say that this stone marks her grave. This stone is at the holy well. Nearby ruins show where a church once stood and a tree from which items can be hung to so that their ailments can be taken away. Many cures are recorded as  having  taken place there. Crippled  people  walking away cured leaving behind their crutches and sticks.”

This is local folklore, and you can find the same, if not similar, story with a lot of localised nuns/ female saints. It’s important to note that a lot of these “nuns” are not officially recognised by the Vatican as with Brighid. A lot is recorded in Annals by monastics from the 10th Century CE onwards. Other lesser known would be Cranat of Fermoy, North Cork who shares a similar story of self-mutilation to Brighid as described in the medieval works Bethu Brigte ( The Life of Brighid {old Irish/ seangaeilge}) and Vitae Prima Sanctae Brigitae (Scared Life of Brighid). The story of Cranat rejecting the 6th Century Munster king, Capre Crom, was monastically recorded in Betha Cranatan  as:-

“… ro chinn ina menmain na raghadh go fer 7 nach millfedh a hoige… Ocus ro bhen a dí súil asa cinn 7 dosfucc i llaimh na dí chailleach battar ina farradh .i. Maelbracha 7 Laithche. …she made up her mind that she would not go to a man and that she would not ruin her virginity…. And she struck her two eyes out of her head and she put them into the hands of the two nuns, Máel Bracha and Laithche, who were in her company”

(I need to point out that in early Irish medieval script, 7 was the shorthand symbol used for “and”)

Travelling up to Sligo, we recount another 5th Century CE female saint, Attracta of Killaraght. Her legend was first written by the Cistercians in the 12th Century CE. The 17th Century CE book Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae (The Acts of Irish saints) compiled by John Colgan has a more detailed account of Araght of Killaraght. He writes :-

“On learning that her parents did not approve of her decision to lead the monastic life and wanted her to marry (the girl was beautiful and had several suitors), the young Attracta left her parents’ home, taking two companions with her. First the saint moved to south Connacht. Then she lived as an anchoress in Killaraght in south-east Sligo, on Lough (Lake) Gara, and later—at Drum (subsequently renamed Drumconnel because her brother, Bishop Conel, also worked there) not far from Boyle in what is now County Roscommon. The holy woman founded communities for nuns in these places, which grew into famous convents; although according to tradition, the convent at Killaraght was purposely built by St. Patrick who made her abbess there. (It was written that when St. Patrick tonsured Attracta a veil fell on his breast from heaven. Patrick gave it to Attracta and told her to wear it as a special blessing of God till her death. Feeling unworthy of this, she reluctantly agreed only after much persuasion).

The venerable mother also established a number of churches and monastic communities on the territory of the modern Irish counties of Sligo and Galway (on the west coast in the province of Connacht). St. Attracta may also have served as abbess of the convents she had founded there. Notably, the ascetic chose crossroads (“where seven roads met”) as the places to build her convents, because many wayfarers and strangers would pass by them. In all her convents special attention was devoted to care for the sick, and hospitality was extended to everybody. There is ample evidence that numerous healing miracles were performed in these monastic settlements through St. Attracta’s prayers. There were many accounts of cases of healing of paralytics, and in one case the holy abbess raised a drowned man from the dead by her fervent prayer. According to another popular story, St. Attracta by the sign of the cross and a touch of her staff destroyed a “monstrous beast” that used to steal the livestock of rural residents of the Lugna district and terrorize the population.”

In the above passage, we read that Araght possesses a sacred veil and has healing powers similar to Brighid as well as her origins being of 5th Century CE. Similar to Lasair and Cranat, she is a part of a trio. Again, these stories have been passed in the oral tradition up until an account had been written by the medieval monastics.

Going north into Ulster we have Saint Cinnia, a former daughter of a prominent chieftain, Eochaidh, during the 5th Century CE and as well as having similar legends of healing, she even shares her feast day with Brighid  on the 1st of February. Very little is mentioned of her but there is a legend of her surviving in the book Orthodox Saints of the British Isles, John Hutchinson-Hall, Eadfirth Press. It mentions that to avoid marriage, it was agreed that she was to be given the veil by Patrick upon receiving her holy orders.

Before we go to the Lagan or the old territory of Leinster, I want to take you to Mide which was the fifth provence of old Ireland and was home to the seat of the Ard Rí. This is the county of Meath and Tara. Ireland has no shortage of Tobair Naofa and it has been discussed numerous times that these were dedicated to Irish goddesses before the advent of Christianity. There is one that is of particular interest and this is Tobar Damhata.

“In the seventh century Dympna, Damhnait in Irish, was the daughter of an Irish chieftain. Some stories state that her father was a pagan and her mother was a Christian. Her mother died when Dympna was young and the little girl was raised by a nurse. Dympna grew up to be a beautiful girl and a rich chieftain sought her hand in marriage. Her father favoured the advantageous match. Dympna regused the offer of marriage as she wanted to dedicate her life to the service of God and so fled her home. Accompanied by her teacher, St Gerebernus, Dympna and her little band came to Kildalkey before fleeing to the continent. At Gheel, in what is now Belgium, they set up an altar to worship God and began to work with the sick and the poor. Her father followed the group to the continent and searched until he had found them. St Gerebernus was seized and instantly beheaded. The king tried to persuade his daughter to come back to Ireland but she refused and so was beheaded by her own father as his soldiers refused to carry out the deed.”

This narrative differs slightly as it is based in the 7th Century and instead of self-imposed mutilation to avoid marriage, the ‘nun/saint’ is martyred because of refusing to marry a chosen suitor (another chieftain more than likely). In the Annals of the Four Masters, it is recorded that a great plague had ravaged the island of Ireland and called the year 664, Buidhe Connail (Yellow fever of 664-666 CE) and a large number of monastics and chieftains had died as a result (Concise History of Ireland, S Duffy, Gill and MacMillan ). It can be argued that the legend of Damhnait is a narrative with a hidden meaning (which the romantic monastics of the 11th Century onwards held poetic licence to doing) which describes the failure of the marriage between the Ard Rí and local Goddess of Nature. This ancient custom also relates the highest ranking chieftains of  the next territories such as Connachta, Muin, Lagan and Ulaid. In the Ulaid Cycle and in particular the saga The Intoxication of the Ulaid, Concubhar asks the local chieftains (Cu Chulainn is one) for their vote for his succession as the Rí of Ulaid. He is given their vote but Cu Chulainn warns his old friend that should the crops fail, Concubhar’s head would join his trophy room in the Red House. This is also the century of the last Ard Fhéis of the region of Tara where St. Adomnán proclaimed that women were ‘freed’ from military service and he made illegal for them to accompany to the battlefields on a national level ( Adomnán of Iona: Life of St Columba, Richard Sharpe, London Press).

If I was to make a full list of local Goddesses/ venerated nuns, this essay would become a book. It can be argued that a lot of these ‘saints’ are not officially recognised by the Vatican and never existed as a lot of Wiccan and neo-Pagan narratives are pointing out in the past few years on saint Brighid herself. The few of the earliest written texts in relation to Irish gods and goddess are found in the 11th Century CE Irish medieval manuscripts onwards and one of the earliest of these is the Lebor Gabala Erenn. This famous text on the pseudo logical and biblical legend of the different races who had conquered the island has been rewritten and added to, up until the epic 14th Century CE version. Copies of the original manuscript can be found in the Celtic Heroic Age, John T Koch and J Carey, Celtic Studies Publications. The Lebor Gabla Erenn which itself is only an 11th Century CE manuscript written by the Four Masters (monastics themselves who painted a Christian narrative) based on the Historia Brittonum written in the 9th Century (828 CE) by the Welsh monastic Nennius. Up until the end of the 10th Century CE monastic manuscript work mainly consisted of poetry praising the lineage of the chieftain depending on which tuatha the cleric lived in as well as gospels for the monastary. In a previous 6 part series of essays, Irish Pseudohistory and Lore of the Master Poets Part 1 – Home | Order of Celtic Wolves (wordpress.com) , I explored this.

It is worth mentioning that Brighid does not turn up in the lineage and sagas of the Tuatha Dé Danann in the original 11th Century CE text but does in the later manuscripts such as the 14th Century CE Leabhar Buidhe Leacáin (Yellow Book of Lecan) and Book of Ballymote. However, She is described in Sanas Cormaic (Cormac’s Glossary) by the 10th Century CE Cormac mac Cuilennán, Ard Rí of Munster(some claim him to be a bishop but this has been disproved historically), as such in his many footnotes:

“Brigid, that is, the female poet, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit the female seer, or woman of insight, i.e., the goddess whom poets used to worship, for her cult was very great and very splendid. It is for this reason that they call her the goddess of poets by this title, and her sisters were Brigid the woman of leechcraft and Brigit, the woman of smithcraft, i.e., goddesses, i.e., three daughters of the Dagda are they. By their names the goddess Brigid was called by all the Irish.”

 Saint Brighid of Kildare has a manuscript dedicated to her life in a 9th Century text named Vita Prima Sanctae Brigidae. It is also just as important to mention that this was first penned in Germany not Ireland. Also a more detailed tome was compiled by the same Order of Benedictine monks called Vita beate Brigitte virginibus in the 14th Century BCE. This is easily explained as second hand information or tales from travelling monks coming from Ireland as missionaries would have been passed on to the various Orders around Europe.

Brighid, one legend of the Saint:

“There is much debate over her birthparents, but it is widely believed her mother was Brocca, a Christian baptized by Saint Patrick, and her father was Dubthach, a Leinster chieftain. Brocca was a slave, therefore Brigid was born into slavery.

When Dubthach’s wife discovered Brocca was pregnant, she was sold to a Druid landowner. It is not clear if Brocca was unable to produce milk or was not present to care for Brigid, but legend states Brigid vomited any food the druid attempted to feed her, as he was impure, so a white cow with red ears sustained her instead.

Many stories of Brigid’s purity followed her childhood. She was unable to keep from feeding the poor and healing them.

One story says Brigid once gave her mother’s entire store of butter, that was later replenished after Brigid prayed.

When she was about ten-years-old, Brigid was returned to her father’s home, as he was her legal master. Her charity did not end when she left her mother, and she donated his possessions to anyone who asked.

Eventually, Dubthach became tired of her charitably nature and took her to the king of Leinster, with the intention of selling her. As he spoke to the king, Brigid gave his jeweled sword to a beggar so he could barter it for food for his family. When the king, who was a Christian, saw this, he recognized her heart and convinced Dubthach to grant her freedom by saying, “Her merit before God is greater than ours.”

After being freed, Brigid returned to the Druid and her mother, who was in charge of the Druid’s dairy. Brigid took over and often gave away milk, but the dairy prospered despite the charitable practice, and the Druid eventually freed Brocca.

Brigid then returned to Dubthach, who had arranged for her to marry a bard. She refused and made a vow to always be chaste.

Legend has it Brigid prayed that her beauty be taken so no one would want to marry her, and the prayer was granted. It was not until after she made her final vows that her beauty was restored.

Another tale says that when Saint Patrick heard her final vows, he accidentally used the form for ordaining priests. When the error was brought to his attention, he simply replied, “So be it, my son, she is destined for great things.”

Little is known about Saint Brigid’s life after she entered the Church, but in 40 she founded a monastery in Kildare, called the Church of the Oak. It was built above a pagan shrine to the Celtic goddess Brigid, which was beneath a large oak tree.

Brigid and seven friends organized communal consecrated religious life for women in Ireland and she founded two monastic institutions, one for men and one for women. Brigid invited a hermit called Conleth to help her in Kildare as a spiritual pastor.

Her biographer reported that Brigid chose Saint Conleth “to govern the church along with herself.”

She later founded a school of art that included metalwork and illumination, which Conleth led as well. It was at this school that the Book of Kildare, which the Gerald of Wales praised as “the work of angelic, and not human skill,” was beautifully illuminated, but was lost three centuries ago.

There is evidence that Brigid was a good friend of Saint Patrick’s and that the Trias Thaumaturga claimed, “Between St. Patrick and Brigid, the pillars of the Irish people, there was so great a friendship of charity that they had but one heart and one mind. Through him and through her Christ performed many great works.”

Saint Brigid helped many people in her lifetime, but on February 1 525, she passed away of natural causes. Her body was initially kept to the right of the high altar of Kildare Cathedral, with a tomb “adorned with gems and precious stones and crowns of gold and silver,” but in 878, during the Scandinavian raids, her relics were moved to the tomb of Patrick and Columba.”

Brighid the Goddess;

According to the various translations of Sanas Cormaic and Lebor Gabála Érann , the three goddesses, Brighid were born under the fiery sunrise at Brú na Bóinne who suckled the white cow that exists between both worlds.  Their parents were the Tuatha Dé Danann, an Dagda, the good God and Boann/Boind ( Bó ind is also seangaeilge for ‘white cow’) of Ségais and learned the art of the filid, the art of smithingand the art of the healer at their feet. She bore the smith Ruadán while married to Brés of the Fomorans. He fell at the hands of the smith Goibnú of the Tuatha Dé at the second Caith Maige Tuiread. There She keened a lament for her fallen son.

There isn’t a lot of actual written data in relation to Brighid as a Goddess found in the early manuscripts. What is intriguing is that Cormac mac Cuilenán writes about 3 separate Bríg’s; the poet/seer, the healer and the smith. In seangaeilge or old Irish, bríg literally means ‘force’ or ‘power’ and from this we have three separate titles; bríg filidacht (power/force of poetry/insight), bríg liacht (power/force of healing), and bríg gabhacht (power/force of smithing). Cormac isn’t writing about one named person here but three separate entities or deities in his Glossary (Sanas Cormaic is one of four known ‘Glossaries’ written by medieval scholars). There is no actual name used. Usually in these texts a title would have a name to accompany it such as an Dagda whose name is Eochaid . Boind I described in the previous paragraph is a title also. There are some manuscripts that claim the Goddess Macha to be the mother of Brighid as well but it is important that the sagas were recorded by different monastics over the medieval time period in Ireland.

From the evidence gathered, it would be safe to assume that Brighid is just a title of a sovereign goddess of Nature herself. She has also been called Mhuire na nGael or ‘Our Lady of the Gaels’. A lot of Scared Wells are named after various saints and their apparent sisters but the ones not given a male patronage are named Tobair Mhuire Naofa and these have always been associated the Earth Mother in the preChristian era. You could argue until the stars fell out of alignment about who Brighid is, is She Pagan or Christian in origin, etc., etc. Does it really matter? From the above research, Brighid is, to me personally, an honoury title for the Goddess of Nature of my/ your Tuatha. She is the Goddess of Nature whom I choose to honour on Imbolg this coming Bank Holiday Weekend on 4-6th February in Éire.

“Seo é an t-am Imbolg,

Tá tú lasair na filidacht,

Tá tú lasair na liacht,

Tá tú lasair na gabhacht.

Tá tú an brig i mo ceann,

I mo corp agus i mo chroí.”

Le meas,

Seán Ó Tuama.

Advertisement

One thought on “Brighid, Goddess or Saint??

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: