Monday, March 10, 2014

Brighid – Celtic Triple Goddess for the Ancient and Modern World

My essay containing some of the latest research on my matron deity for my Goddess Mythology, Women’s Spirituality, and Ecofeminism course.

Figure 1. Four arm version, and most commonly known, St. Brigit’s Cross from:'s_cross

Though the standardized spelling of Her title in English is now Bridgid or Bridgit, and in oral narratives as Bride, this ancient Goddess is known in Gaelic languages as Brigit, Brighit, Brid, Briid, Brigid, Brighid, usually pronounced “Breed”; all stemming from the root of the ancient word Brig meaning “exalted”, “high”, “fire”, or conveying power or authority. Her name is usually translated as some form of “The Exalted One”, “High One”, “Bright One” or sometimes “Bright Arrow”.  Not simply an Irish Goddess, as She is currently known, Her influence is felt all over what was known as the Celtic world. She has been linked with Ffraid in Wales, Brigindo amoung Gauls, Brigandu in Celtic France, and Brigantia in Britain, and therefore the symbol of the island as Britiania itself. The Celtic tribe of Brigantes took their name from Her, and all over the ancient world, even surviving to the modern era, hundreds of places, wells, rivers, and centres of worship bear the remembrance of Her name or symbolism.

Brighid is rather unique in that She has survived relatively intact and still worshiped in the modern era. To that we must owe, ironically, the canonization and popularization of Her as a Catholic saint. In 633 CE, in Leinster, a new sept, Ui Dhúnlainge, rises to power. Its leader, Faolán mac Colmáin, was brother to the Bishop of Kildare and commissions the Vita Brigitae, or the Life of Bridgit, around 650 CE. This saint’s supposed biography is compiled a century after her alleged death by the monk Cogitosus, and is the “oldest surviving biography of any Irish saint”, according to Ó hÓgain, D. (1985). Focusing largely on her miracles, “a skillful combination of pagan and Christian elements”, it has very little real information about the historical Brigit, and is largely concerned with the claims of her church’s and therefore the sept’s power and jurisdiction. It succeeds brilliantly. In less than 50 years, Kildare reigns supreme in matters spiritual and secular, and the Fotharta, which claimed Bridgit as originally a member of their sept, retained power. However, we do owe a great deal of thanks to these machinations. The pronoun "Kil" or "Cil" indicates a sacred shrine in many parts of the Celtic lands and Kildare, or ‘Cill Dara’, meant Church of the Oak Tree, was already associated with the pagan Goddess for centuries earlier. Drawing extensively on extant legend and contemporary practices, the Life of Bridgit gives us a snapshot of some of the authentic beliefs, rituals, and stories of Her worship.

Domains of Influence

Bridgid is a triune, or triple Goddess, but not a typical Maid, Mother and Matron trinity, since aging is not a feature. Instead, as Monaghan, P. (1997) points out, Brighid and her sisters “were never construed as separate goddesses but as aspects of one divinity…they were identical”, linked in the symbolism of fire in what many propose as a remnant of a primary Neolithic Sun deity. However, one can make the argument that She did in fact represent the Creatrix, Preserver, and Destroyer sequence. As Creatrix, She was the Bright Lady of Flame, or Inspiration of poets and bards. Her symbol in this aspect was the caldron. Most other crafts are under Her auspices as well. As a Spring deity, She was also most associated with fertility (an aspect hard to overcome for the Catholic saint). She was responsible for agriculture, such as crops and cattle, and healthy babies. She was literally the Bride; the wedded one. As the Preserver, She is a Mother goddess and associated with healing and medicine, especially in midwifery, “who in Ireland was honoured for her ‘protecting care’”, as Ó hÓgáin, D. (1991) reports. As the “Bright Flame of Love”, Her sway was over sexual fertility and erotic love. Her specific totem plants were the mountain ash tree, the holly berry, and the shamrock, as a symbol of Her triple aspect. As the Destroyer, in another facet of fire, Brighid is matron of smithcraft and of smiths. Her symbol in this aspect is the forge. Although at first blush this seems to be related to Her creation and craft aspects, this is the one of the only crafts that is directly mentioned in stories. Some have gone further to associate Her further with war[1], the legendary female fighting arts trainers in Celtic lore, and brigands or medieval fighters outside Christian law, as Walker, B. G. (1983) notes. Her epithet of “Bright Arrow” lend support to this claim. The connection of “the fianna, a legendary group of warriors from Celtic mythology”[2] to St. Brigit’s primary seat of Kildare and whose symbol is a harp, one of the bardic instruments, who Brighid is matron of, also indicates that might be the case. If further investigation of these links yield more results, Brighid is also a warrior Goddess, in the manner of the triple Morrigan, with smithcraft as representative of Her solar fire on earth as well as Her patronage of warfare and the martial arts.

In all Her aspects, She is most associated with fire and light; and with healing or ‘lucky’ wells, especially wellsprings, thermal waters, and most particularly milky artisan wells; especially in Her physical places of worship.

Festivals and Rituals


Brighid’s main festival is Imbolc; also spelt Imbolg, Óimelc, Oimelc, and Oimelg, on Febuary 1st. A pastoral festival, it is best translated as “parturition”, the usual explanation relating to the dropping of lambs. Even in Britain, however, spring would not yet be fully evident, so the signs of spring, such as animal births and generation of milk, do not strike our unagrarian eyes as sufficient reason for a fertility festival. Mac Killop, J. (1998) suggests that “the visibly perceptive lengthening of the light, and therefore the anticipation of spring” is a more satisfying explanation, but there is another. Imbolc, as one of the four Great Celtic high feasts, is also on the opposite end of the calendar from Lammas or Lughnasa, or First Harvest festival on August 1st. In the four quarter solar symmetry of the Celtic world view, all of these reasons together would be more than enough to denote a sacred time and appropriateness of spring worship.

In the Christian attempt to claim of the power of Brighid as a saint, they renamed the festival “Candlemas’, meaning “Mass of the Candles”, including therefore the symbolism of the coming of light. Some modern traditions retain the link to the holiday only through the Saint, such as the Scottish Gaelic name of  Lá Féill Bhríde, and the Irish Lá íl Bride, but others are completely converted to the Candlemas form and associate it with the Christian Mother of God. There is some logic to this. Brigid as Mother Goddess never truly lost her supremacy in her native lands and St. Brigit is widely known as “Mary of the Gaels”, with many stories associating Her with the Christian Blessed Mother and Son. Sometimes St. Brigit is seen directly as Mother of the Savior, sometimes as midwife at the Nativity and foster mother of the Christos, sometimes as compatriot and assistant to Mary. In fact, the Festival of the Purification of the Virgin, which takes place 40 days after Christmas, is on February 2, the day after Imbolc. It celebrates when the Blessed Mother is Churched, or purified after the spiritual pollution of giving birth, so many stories, explanations, and confusion of the holidays, as well as the two figures, abound.


Current traditions of Brighid in Her native lands are largely in the context of St. Brigit, though obvious parallels to Her original Goddess origins can still be found in past and extant examples. Origins of Her fertility cult and Mother aspect were notable in practices and legends. Men were originally banned from coming past the hedge at Her shrine at. Even when Christianised, Her orders retained many traditions from Her former incarnation.  St. Brigit’s bishops,  Monaghan, P. (1997) reports, had to be practicing goldsmiths, an unusual requirement, harking to Brighid’s domain of crafting, smithing, and embodiment of Fire.

One of the most telling ancient practices was the sacred Fire at Kildare itself. Cultural archeology and folklore has produced intriguing evidence of practices that indicate the Fire may have continued for centuries before St. Brigit is alleged to have lived, tended by the original pagan nuns occupying the shrine far in advance of the advent of Christianity. Reported in the Life of Brigit as already being old, it was still being maintained in 1184, as Giraldus Cambrensis records the “inextinguishable vestal fire tended by nuns”. Even at this time, men were still not allowed near the fire itself. It was also considered miraculous, in that it produced no ash in the centuries it had been burning. Contemporary accounts number nine or, more usually, nineteen priestesses tending the Fire. Both are sacred numbers of traditional Goddess worship – nine being the Triple Goddess tripled, such as the Muses, and 19 representing “the cycle of the Celtic ‘GreatYear’” – the mating of the solar and lunar calendars, as Walker, B. G. (1983) explains. Each nun was responsible for tending the sacred fire for one day at a time, and on “the eve of the twentieth day the last nun would place logs by the fire with the prayer: ‘Brigid, guard your fire, this is your night.”… In 1220, some forty years after Gerald’s visit, the Norman-appointed Bishop of Dublin grew angry at the exclusion of men from the Abbey at Kildare, as well as the obvious paganity of the sacred flame[3] and demanded they open the Abbey, claiming nuns were subordinate to priests. After their refusal, his men forced their way into the Abbey and extinguished the fire. Under Henry VIII’s Reformation, the archbishop George Browne of Dublin ensured that the flame stayed dead. However, in “1993, the flame was re-lit by Sister Mary Teresa Cullen, then the congregational leader of the Brigidine Sisters” [4], ensuring a modern order of nuns to again take up the duties and mantle of their ancient sisters.

Along with Her main shrines, such as the one at Kildare, hundreds of ancient healing wells and sacred spaces dot the landscape all over Ireland and many other parts of the Celtic world that are associated with Her name or titles. They are so numerous that many are largely unknown, except by locals, and attempts are being made to catalog them all. Many are still visited and favours are still sought in traditions that clearly go back centuries. Most closely linked with the milky white artisan springs, invoking Her as lactating Mother; other forms can include wells and caves with pure water.

The most well known ritual of St. Brigit is of course the “Cros Bhride” or Brigit’s Cross. Traditionally made out of reeds or straw, again harkening to Her fertility and agriculture patronage, it is become the most popular and recognizable symbol of the saint, and used in most ceremonies, invocations, and even heraldry.  It was “placed under the rafters of the dwelling house so as to ensure health and good fortune”, and occasionally in the cow byre to protect the animals, according to Ó hÓgáin, D. (1991).  Though the most common versions are based on the solar number of four or a lozenge shape, an authentic version is also a triskelion, harkening to Her trinity aspect as the Goddess, as demonstrated by Matthews, C. (2008). The lozenge and triskelion shapes indicate that the Cross pre-dates the Christianized saint and is an ancient symbol and rite for Brighid.  

Figure 2: How to make a Brigit’s Cross from:


Major Stories

With such an early medieval emergence of the saint with the ancient Goddess, many stories have clearly been Christianized. However, we do have some very obvious indications of the traditional domains, attributes, and original responsibilities of the Goddess through less altered or edited versions.

One of the most famous oral tradition stories points to Her most ancient form. Brighid, in her guise of Bride, in a trial of servitude and cunning, defeats the Old Woman of Winter, the Cailleach, by turning Her to stone. Bride also steals the secret of Immortality and Youth, by using a triskelion cross of rushes in a well, and uses it to revive the land from winter, invoking all her traditional symbolism and ritual. Bride is also assisted by a druid in the form of a bird, specifically an oystercatcher, known as Gille Bridhid, or Bride’s Servant, much like a totem animal. She also obtains a birch wand and vows to use it assist any who need Her help, instructing listeners to invoke Her when they require Her aid. In this story, Bride is in essence Spring itself, which is perfectly in line with Brighid’s sacred day of Imbolc and indicates Her extreme antiquity as a representation in the wheel of the seasons itself. However, the Cailleach is also portrayed as much older, and originally one of a sisterhood herself in her youth, indicating that, as ancient as Bride is, She is still a more recent incursion.

Figure 3:  Triple armed Brigit’s Cross

Since the Church was almost exclusively responsible for literature for nearly 1000 years, the written stories are almost entirely about the Christianized St. Brigit. However, even with those, we are given insight into the previous Goddess incarnation. St. Brigit is said to have invented both whistling and the death keening, easily linked to a Goddess of bards and warfare. Her father is demoted from the Dagda, and becomes the druid Dubthach. The saint herself is reduced to founding the Abbey at Kildare and therefore made its patron. She is still portrayed, however, as having the ability to multiply “butter, bacon, and milk, to bestow sheep and cattle, and to control the weather”, as Ó hÓgáin, D. (1991) tells us. Most of her stories involve healing, or generosity in the form of giving food and cows to the needy. Some involve the dispensing of justice, especially as a trick to the wicked. As ancient protectoress of her people, St. Brigit was said to favour Lienstermen in time of war. There were said to be nineteen churches dedicated to her all over the British Isles on the eve of the Reformation, harkening back to the traditional number of priestesses at Her shrines.

One of the most well known Christianized tales pertains to the founding of her abbey. When St. Brigit asks for land for her convent, a powerful local bureaucrat, usually a chieftain or a bishop, refuses to give her any more land than her cloak will cover. In response, she lays out her cloak on the ground and it begins to spread, taking up so much land that he begs her to stop before he loses everything. In another version, she takes apart the weave of her cloak and encircles the area with the thread. In either case, it offers the spiritual and physical foundation for her abbey. In form, it is from a traditional Irish folk tale, where the trickster makes oxhide into strips to draw out a large area of land.

We also run into the problem of the confusion of the pagan Mother Goddess, the subsequent saint, and the imported Mary, Mother of God. Not only are their feast days equated, but many stories justify that association. In one story, Mary confesses that she is ashamed to be churched after the birth of the holy child and doesn’t want to be stared at. Brigit eases Mary’s fears by taking it upon herself to don garish attire, making it impossible for anyone to look at anything else, and precedes Mary down the aisle. Mary is so grateful that she permits Brigit’s feast day to precede her own ever after. There are similar stories to justify the order of the feast days, and they usually involve Brigit in her Sun deity aspect – lights in her hair or headdress, or garb that no one can look at, or can stare only at her.

Later versions are more problematic, however. St. Brigit, in her association with the sun, light, fire, and other pre-Christian attributes, manages to become entangled in symbolism from other saints from the Continent, largely Christianized deities themselves, complicating the problem of what ancient Brighid would have actually represented to Her people. We can make some educated guesses, however. St. Lucy, in particular, as the original Goddess Lucia of the reborn Light at Solstice, has her properties intermingled with the stories of St. Brigit as each of their cults gain influence. Lucy, as the Sun, becomes patron saint of eyes and eye diseases, and many of her stories and attributes are reflected in later Christian miracles of Brigit. She, like Lucy, plucks out her eyes to be less attractive to a suitor, though her healing aspect later restores her sight. Her mother is said to have an eye disease, and several of her stories feature eyes and sight, including actually giving eyes to a ‘flat faced man’. The lighted headdress mentioned in some stories, and occasional rituals for Brigit, especially seems to come from traditional Lucia worship.

Narratives also include St. Patrick, or the Father god. Though he is often dependant on Brigit’s perception, trickster qualities, mercy and justice, he is still able to instruct her, to demonstrate his pre-eminence.


Possible IndoEuropean roots

In Kildare, and in other sacred shrines of St. Brigit, the order of Brigantine nuns that tended the eternal flame were called kelles or Calliechs.   The term kelle, Kelly as a first name, O'Kelly as a last name and Kelly Green as a clan colour has also been linked (for they are often interchangeable with various forms of Calliech in the old records) as is The Book of Kell(e)s itself. The term "kelle' is still used in India in the meaning of "prostitute', and in conjunction of Mary Magdalene, often described as a temple prostitute. Like the holy houris of the ancient world, the 'kelle's may have performed a similar role. These primary priestesses would have remained unmarried to mortals and their children therefore were gifts of the Goddess and could only be of the Kelly clan, or O'Kelly, in a practice very similar to the Indian Goddess Cunti, who gave children as a gift without requirement of wedlock. It would explain why the O'Kellys were the spiritual, financial and sole caretakers of the shrine at Kildare and other shrines until fairly recently. Many scholars have linked these practices to the Indo-European shrines and temples from which they may have been imported. [5]The similarly of language and concepts cannot be overlooked, and could possibly lead to further depth of understanding.  In particular, Goddess worship in the Indus Valley and Fertile Crescent areas and highly probable links to the Calliech and Kali Ma are numerous, as are the practices and structural organization of Her Priestesses.


Original Contexts

Brighid was clearly a trinity Goddess of great antiquity, with shrines and cult centres all over the ancient Celtic world. In the earliest written records, we find Her aspects associated with Minerva and Vesta. With links to the Indo-European Goddesses, She is slightly younger than the deities already occupying the British Iles, but She is readily embraced as the approaching Sun, the Spring, the Healer, the fertile Mother, and even as consuming and just Death, as She takes over some of the aspects of the Old Woman herself, the Cailleach. Brighid is appealed to for aid, with the expectation of assistance, bestows generosity to those who require it, and unlike most other trickster figures, does not vindictively punish Her enemies, displaying kindness and mercy. Even as a trinity, She is the young and vigorous Mother from which all good things came, such as the technology, knowledge, and culture Her people needed to survive and thrive. She symbolized the land itself; and its people saw it as good, healing, warm, generous, just, and with enough for all. She also embodied Her people, as is shown by some tribes actually taking their name from Her.  Perhaps, then, that we can conclude that the peoples who embraced Brighid as their Mother also saw the world as a beautiful, bountiful place, worth celebrating, with kindness and justice as ideals that could be manifest in each other, offering a death with peace or righteously fighting to achieve it.  

Contemporary Women

Modern Irish women in particular are embracing Brigit as their matron saint, but also with echoes of the earlier Goddess being deliberately included. In 2014, in one of the many ceremonies at Imbolc, for example, Louth County celebrated the 7th Brigid of Faughart Festival. Incorporating the Goddess’s traditional symbolism and aspects such as bard and protectress of the land, workshops in Brigit’s cross making, circle dance, poetry, painting and organic gardening took place, as well as a professional bardic night.[6]  Healing pilgrimages and more Christianized activities also featured, demonstrating the fluid nature of the Celtic Goddess with Her saintly counterpart in the eyes of many of Her worshipers.  With modern nuns and lay orders such as Cháirde Bhríde or “Heart of Brigit” taking up the care of her sacred flame, shrines and wells are now being attended, decorated, and maintained by a new generation of Celtic women.

Wiccans, a very recent and highly popular neopaganism tradition, have embraced Brighid and Imbolc especially. As one of their Eight Great Sabbats, Imbolc is viewed as the quickening of Inspiration, new ventures, and cleansing of energies and preparation.

With Her warmth, strength, justice, bounty and independent power as a Mother and a woman, She is a model that is in sore need in an era of patriarchy, war, capitalism, and ecodestruction. Brighid still has the ability to inspire women today. As one attendee said of Her ceremonies: “I have never felt more Irish than I did that night. I felt an atavistic sense of blood connection, an awareness that I was celebrating in ways that had been part of my heritage for generations and generations. I felt as though my body were temporary, almost illusory, existing only to trace ancient sunwise paths around a holy place. As though my body reflected, like wellwater reflecting countless candles, the bodies of others -- women of Irish blood, women like me -- who had celebrated at that very place, on that very night, down through the centuries.”[7]


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Appendix I

Websites consulted:

[1] “In the past twenty years, scholars have cast Brigit as a pre-Christian tripartite hospitaller, lawgiver, and warrior based on the British goddess Brigant”
[5] "Sergeant Vithana beat her with a baton saying, "Go, prostitute girl, find your brother" ('Palayan vesa kelle, ayyawa gihin hoyapan')."  Sri Lankan language.