by Susa Morgan Black
Bi Bride bhithe, bhana, leinn.
Brigit is the Celtic Saint and Goddess of Poetry, Healing and Smithcraft. She has been worshiped by the Celtic people as a Saint for over fifteen hundred years, and as a Goddess long before the Roman invasion of Britain and the birth of Christ. Her cult was so powerful that the Celtic Christian Church had to adopt her as a Saint, and the Roman Catholic Church followed suit, for her people would not abandon her. Along with St. Patrick, she is the patron Saint of Ireland. St. Brigit is often referred to as Muire na nGael ‘Mary of the Gael’. Mara Freeman states, ‘Brigit is the nearest thing we have to a Great Mother of the Celts.’
Lands of the Goddess
The name ‘Britain’ is a derivation of Brigit’s name. Britain was named for an ancient Celtic tribe, the Brigantes, who worshipped Brigit and were the largest Celtic tribe to occupy the British Isles in pre-Roman times. The tribe originally came from the area that is now Bregenz in Austria near Lake Constance. The word ‘brigand’ comes from this tribe of fierce warriors.
Her worship probably spread from the Continent, leaving place names behind, such as Brittany in France. Brigit place names are found in Brechin, Scotland, the river Brent in England, the river Braint in Wales, Bridewell in Ireland. Even London has a Bridewell.
The symbol of Britain – the Goddess Brigantia or Britannia, (still found on their fifty pence coin) is Brigid in her aspect as Goddess of Sovereignty or Guardian of the Land.
Names of the Goddess
There are many variations, pronunciations, and spellings of Her name, including:
Scotland: Bhrìghde, Brighid, Bride
Ireland: Brigid, Brigit, Brighid, Brìd, Brígh
England: Brigantia, Brittania
The name Brigit itself means either ‘Fiery Arrow’, ‘Bright One’, or ‘High One’ in the ancient Celtic language, referring to her solar aspect. In the old Celtic language, she was Briganti, which is connected to the old Indo European word, Bhrghnti. In Sanskrit, bhrati, or brihati means ‘exalted one’.
Brigit is a ‘pan Celtic’ goddess, who was worshipped by both the Goidelic and Brythonic Celts in the British Isles and beyond. She is a solar deity, who once hung her mantle on a sunbeam. In Celtic mythology, Brigit is the daughter of the Morrighan and the Dagda, the Good God and Chief of the Tuatha de Danaan, the ancient fairy race of Ireland, and the sister of Ogma, who invented the Ogham alphabet. She was the wife of Bres, King of the Fomorians (who were at war with the Tuatha de Danaan). Brigit was said to have been the mediator of peace between the two ancient warring tribes. She was the mother of the Three Gods of Danu – Ruadan, Iuchar and Uar. These three Gods were said to have married the three princesses of Ireland – Eire, Fodhla and Banbha. In other sources, Brigid is the daughter of Boann, the Goddess of the River Boyne in Ireland. Boann (bo fhionn) means ‘white cow’, an association she shares with Brigid. Brigit is primarily the patron Goddess of poets, healers and smiths. She is also a patron of other womanly arts – midwifery, dyeing, weaving and brewing, and the guardian of children and farm animals – particularly cows. The island of Ireland itself is said to be the green mantle of Brigit. She is also said to be the patron of travellers, sailors, and fugitives. She is specifically a patroness to the Druids in her aspects of poetry (Bards), healing and prophecy (Ovates) and blacksmithing (Druids).
Goddess of Poetry
Brigit is patroness filidhact (poetry and bardic lore) and the filid – (bards), who were the oral transmitters of the Celtic culture. This includes storytellers, folklorists, mythologists, balladeers, singers, composers, poets, musicians, particularly harpers, historians and clan genealogists. She provided the ‘fire in the head’ of poetic inspiration. The Bards are the surviving class of the Druids, keeping the ancient traditions alive until the present day. Bards were the honoured guests from cottage to castle, patronized and supported by a network of clientele. The Blind Harper, Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738), was one of the most famous bards in Ireland, and made his living as an itinerant harper. He was a formidable composer, who is said to have learnt some of his music from the faeries themselves.
The word file – poet, is related to the word, faic – to see. Poets are inspired by the Other World, and have the gift of fàisneachd (prophecy).
In the county of Limerick, Brigit visited the household of a chieftain, and asked that his foster father and his sons play the harps that were hanging on the wall. She was told that the chief’s bard was away, and the children did not know how to play. Thereupon, she blessed their hands, and they played the harp with such skill that they became famous harpers, and the bards of kings for generations.
Goddess of Augury
Goddess of Augury in Druid tradition, poetry (filidecht) was associated with augury (fiosachd or fàisneachd). So Brigit was also the patron of prophets and seers (fiosaiche). She was said to have foreseen the future of Christ when she was his nurse:
The augury Brigit made for her Foster son (Jesus)
She made a pipe within her palms:
‘I see the Foster son by the well’s side,
Teaching the people assuredly
I set the augury towards the well,
And truly that was righteous work,
The King of kings teaching the people,
Yonder I see Christ, assuredly.
The form of divination Brigit used is called ‘frìth Bhrighde (augury of Brigid)’, where she curled her hand into a ‘seeing tube’. Looking through this ‘hand-made tube’, she could find lost people or animals, report on the well-being of distant people, etc. In Scots Gaelic, frìth means ‘an incantation to find whether people at a great distance or at sea be in life’. Frìthir is another word for seer or diviner in Gaelic. Water and Fire are both associated with divination. Celtic Seers divine by both looking deeply into water (fàisnich uisge) or into the flames (fàisnich teine).
Brigit is sometimes referred to as a ‘Triple Goddess’, having two sisters, also named Brigit. More commonly, she is considered a triple aspect deity because she is the patroness of three primary skills in the Celtic world – poetry, healing and smithcrafting. In this image, one image carries a pair of blacksmith tongs and a sword, another image is handling two healing snakes, and a third image carries a wand with a crescent moon and a tablet.
Brigit rules the elements of Water (Uisge in Gaelic, Dwr in Welsh) and Fire (Teine in Gaelic; Tân in Welsh).
As Water deity, Brigit is the patroness of healers, with many healing springs and wells dedicated to Her throughout the British Isles. Water is also associated with psychic ability, music, and poetry.
Natural bodies of water were also sacred to her, particularly where three streams joined together. As a Fire deity, she is the patroness of blacksmiths and poets (a poet's ‘fire in the head’). The hearth is sacred to her in every home. Another name for her feast day is Candlemas, in which all the candles for the coming year are made and blessed.
Brighid is the Triple Goddess of Fire – the fire of poetic inspiration and divination, the fire of health and fertility, and the fire of metal working and crafts.
Water and Fire were important elements to the early Celtic civilization long before they reached the British Isles. The elements were especially venerated at the end of a long harsh winter – fire was welcomed as the returning warmth of the sun, and water was celebrated as the ice and snow melted
Patroness of Blacksmiths
She is the patroness of blacksmiths, the King of Crafts on which all other crafts depend. She is not a blacksmith herself, that niche is occupied by the Celtic deities, Goibnu and Govannon, but she inspires the creativity and artistry of the blacksmith craft just as she inspires the creativity of poets. Her eldest son, Ruadan, was a blacksmith. When Ruadan was killed, Brigit keened (caoine) in grief for him, thus initiating the Celtic custom of keening for the dead.
Blacksmiths were considered magicians and wizards themselves. And it was the excellence of Celtic metalwork that differentiated them from all other early cultures and brought them to prominence.
Goddess of Protection
In her aspect as Brigantia, she carries a spear, an orb of victory, and wears a war crown. The word ‘Brigand’ derives from this warlike version of Brigit.
In the British national anthem, ‘Hail Brittania, Brittania rules the waves. Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.’ Her warlike, protective characteristics are emphasized.
As a saint, there were many prayers of protection invoking Brigit, which have been collected by Alexander Carmichael.
Prayer of Protection
Thou Brigit of the kine,
Thou Brigit of the mantles,
Shield me from the ban
of the fairies of the knolls,
The faeiries of the knolls.
Brigit occurs in Christian tradition as Saint Brigit of Kildare, Ireland. In some legends, she was a Druidess before she was converted to Christianity. The Saint was born near Kildare, on February 1st in 453 AD, to a Druid father, Dubthach, and a bondmaid, Broicsech. Saint Patrick was still alive when she was born. Her father had a vision that his wife would ‘bring forth a daughter conspicuous, radiant, who will shine like a sun among the stars of heaven’. In the vision, the father was told to name his child after the Goddess Brigit. When the radiant child was born, she was immediately bathed in milk. She would tolerate no impure food, and was nourished on the milk of a ‘white skinned, red eared cow alone’. The attributes of white skin or fur with red ears on an animal (usually a cow, hound, or deer) is indicative of an ‘otherworldly’ or faerie animal in Celtic mythology.
In some legends, it was a Druid who foresaw her radiant birth and future status, and she was later fostered and raised by the Druid. Brigit was famous for her generosity, giving away all she owned to the poor, including some of her father’s possessions. This displeased her father, Dubthach, so much, he took her to Leinster to sell at the court of the king. He left her with his sword in the chariot to make arrangements, and while he was gone, Brigit gave away his sword to a poor leper. When her angry father reported this to the king, the King of Leinster said, ‘It is not meet for us to deal with this maiden, for her merit before God is higher than ours.’ So saying, her father was prevented from selling her into bondage.
Brigit grew into a beautiful young woman, described as ‘blond and slender’ but had no interest in a secular life. When her family tried to force her to marry, she plucked out her own eye to make herself less attractive. When her family relented, she replaced her eye, miraculously healed.
She was to be Ireland’s first nun. She took the veil from the Scottish Bishop, Mél, who broke Christian tradition and ordained her as a female bishop, saying ‘No power have I in this matter. That dignity has been given by God unto Brigid, beyond every other woman.’ (Perhaps this harks back to pagan traditions, when there were female Druids).
Brigit’s miracles include restoring the dead to life (as a baby, she breathed life into the stillborn son of the Queen of Conaille), causing a mystic blaze around herself, healing the mentally ill, sick, and blind, making the dumb speak, turning water to ale. Her shadow had healing powers. A man brought his consumptive mother to Brigit, and placed the woman in Brigit’s shadow, where she was immediately healed. Brigit gave her famous healing girdle to a beggar, who was able to make her living from it as a healer thereafter.
She also had the power to curse, and once cursed an apple tree to baroness when its owner refused to give apples to the poor. When refused the hospitality of ale at a feast, she cursed the proprietor’s stock, and the stock of ale disappeared.
Brigit was a seer and a visionary, and once told Saint Patrick her vision of the Ploughs of Ireland, which prophesied the spread of the Gospel.
She was known throughout the land for her charity and could use up her stock of food and drink and it would replenish itself immediately. A starving hound once came to her door, and she gave him the stock of bacon. When her foster father asked what became of the bacon, she said, ‘Count them’, and all the strips of bacon were in the larder again.
The Life of Brigid in the Book of Lismore describes her, ‘She is the prophetess of Christ, she is the Queen of the South, she is the Mary of the Gael.’
Although she does not appear in the Bible, she is an integral part of Celtic Christianity. Legend claims her to be the midwife to Mary and the foster mother of Christ. From the prayers gathered by Alexander Carmichael in the Scottish Highlands, Sloinnntireachd Bhride, The Genealogy of Bride: Is mi fo chomaraig mo Naomh Muire, is I mo chaomh mhuime Bride. (And I under the protection of my Holy Mary, and my gentle foster-mother is my beloved Bride.)
The legend states that angels came to escort Brigit to the manger where, as a midwife, she delivered the Christ child. This is an interesting legend considering she was born 500 years later. (This is another example of where the distinguishing line between the Saint and the Goddess is elusive.)
There is a story of how she used her Sight to discover Jesus when he was lost as a child in the Temple in Jerusalem and another legend of when she drew the attention of Herod’s soldiers to herself by wearing a crown of lit candles, so that Mary and Joseph could escape with their baby son to Egypt.
A stone head of Brigit was discovered in a Neolithic tomb Drumeague, County Cavan, and brought into a local church. The head was canonized as Saint Bride of Knockbridge.
Alexander Carmichael spent years in the Highlands of Scotland around the turn of the last century, gathering folklore, customs, practices, and prayers from the oral tradition of the country folk who lived in those remote areas. Much of their worship was devoted to Saint Brigit, and many prayers and invocations such as the above, were dedicated to Her. Carmichael published over six volumes on this subject, the Carmina Gadelica, Hymns and Incantations, in Gaelic with English translations.
Traditional Scottish Gaelic Supplication of Saint Brigit
Brighid nighean Dùghaill Duinn
‘Ic Aoidh ‘ic Cuinn ‘ic
Criara ‘ic Caibre ‘ic Cais ‘ic
Carmaic ‘ic Cartaich ‘ic Cuinn
Brighde nam brat,
Brighde na brig,
Brighde nan cleachd,
Brighde na frìth.
Brighde nan gealachos,
Brighde na bìth,
Brighde nan gealaphos,
Brighde na nì.
Brighde bean chomainn,
Brighde na brig,
Brighde bean chobhair,
Brighde bean mhìn.
Brighde ciabh Moire,
Brighde Moime Chrìosd, -
Gach latha agus gach oidhche
Nì mi Sloinntearachd na Brighd,
Cha mharbhar mi
Cha ghuinear mi,
Cha charachar mi,
Cha ghonar mi,
Cha spaltar mi,
Cha spùillear mi,
Cha saltrar mi,
Cha rùisgear mi,
Cha reubar mi,
Cha mhó dh’fhàgas
Crìosd an dearmad mi.
Cha loisg grian mi,
Cha loisg teine mi,
Cha loisg ial mi,
Cha loisg gile mi.
Cha bhàth uisge mi,
Cha bhàth sàla mi,
Cha bhàth lighe mi,
Cha bhàth burn mi.
Cha laigh bruaill-brì orm,
Cha laigh suan-dubh orm,
Cha laigh druaill-drì orm,
Cha laigh luaths-luis orm.
Tha mi for chomraig
Mo Naomh Moire;
‘S I mo chaombh chomainn
Brighde. Brigit daughter of Dugall the Brown
Son of Aodh son of Art son of Conn b
Son of Criara son of Cairbre son of Cas
Son of Cormac son of Cartach son of Conn
Brigit of the mantles,
Brigit of the peat-heap,
Brigit of the twining hair,
Brigit of the augury.
Brigit of the white feet,
Brigit of the calmness,
Brigit of the white palms,
Brigit of the kine.
Brigit of the peat-heap,
Brigit, woman mild.
Brigit, own tress of Mary,
Brigit, Nurse of Christ,
Each day and each night
That I say the Descent of Brigit,
I shall not be slain,
I shall not be wounded
I shall not be put in cell,
I shall not be gashed,
I shall not be torn in sunder,
I shall not be despoiled
I shall not be down-trodden
I shall not be made naked,
I shall not be rent
Nor will Christ
Leave me forgotten
Nor sun shall burn me,
Nor fire shall burn me,
Nor beam shall burn me,
Nor moon shall burn me.
Nor river shall drown me,
Nor brine shall drown me,
Nor flood shall drown me,
Nor water shall drown me.
Nightmare shall not lie on me,
Black sleep shall not lie on me
Spell sleep shall not lie on me,
“ Luaths-luis” shall not lie on me.
I am under the keeping
Of my Saint Mary,
My companion, beloved
a. Carmina Gadelica, Volume III, by Alexander Carmichael
b. 0 Conn is also the progenitor of Clan Donald, one of the clan sept names is MacBride
Brigit of Kildare
The King of Leinster granted Brigit land for a monastery in Kildare (Cill-Dara: Church of the Oak), around 470 AD. Brigit was the Abbess of the first convent in Ireland, and after her death, a perpetual flame was kept in her honour. It was a centre of learning and art, including metal work and goldsmithing; its most famous illuminated manuscript being the Book of Kildare (which no longer survives). Only women were permitted to enter the hedge enclosure with the Eternal Flame, which was fanned by a bellows. There were originally nineteen nuns who kept vigil at the fire, one each night. On the nineteenth night, the nun would say, ‘Brigid guard your fire, this is your night’.These Nuns may have been a continuation of a sect of Druids, the ‘Sisters of the Galliceniae’, who performed sacred female rites. According to Cogitosus, who wrote in 650 AD, Kildare was a ‘double community’ of monks and nuns, presided over by an abbess. Brigit’s relics were kept in the abbey until the Viking raids in the Ninth Century. King Henry VIII of England, during the Reformation, dissolved the assets of the Catholic Church in Ireland and destroyed the abbey in the Sixteenth Century.
All that remains of the Medieval building are a high cross and a round tower. The remains of what might be the original communal hearth from the time of Brigit were discovered in 1996. About a mile away from the remains of the abbey, the original stone well still exists, with a cloutie tree (a Larch) nearby. The Larch’s branches are still hung to this day with strips of cloth, bandages, ribbons, etc. in prayer to Saint Brigit for healing.
In 1993, Sister Mary Minehan, a Brigidine Nun, relit St. Brigid's flame in Kildare. They have set up a Solas Bhride, a Christian Community Center, ‘for Celtic Spirituality in the spirit of Brigid of Kildare’. They hold a festival, Feile Bhride, at Imbolc in Kildare each year. They are raising funds to establish a permanent building to house the perpetual flame. Membership in Cairde Bhride (Friends of Brigid) can be obtained by writing Sister Mary Minehan at Solas Bhride, 14 Dara Park, Kildare, Ireland, telephone 045-522-890.
Brigit of the Mantle
In the legend of Saint Brigid’s Cloak or Mantle, she found the perfect spot to found her abbey in Leinster, in a place called Kildare. There was an old oak, sacred to the Druids on the premises, making it a holy site. She went to the King of Leinster with four of her maidens and asked him to donate the land for an abbey. The King refused to give her the land. Brigid prayed to God for help, then asked if she could have just the amount of land that her mantle would cover. Laughing in derision, the king agreed. Each of the four maidens took a corner of the cloak, and walked East, North, West and South, the cloak stretching as they walked until it encompassed the parcel of land she desired for her abbey. They king, seeing the miracle, fell to his knees, and could deny her nothing, converting then and there to Christianity. Brighid built her church there, under the shade of the old oak, not far from a well, also dedicated to the saint. A cathedral was built on the site in the thirteenth century, but the original foundations of Brigit’s church still exist!
An Irish blessing: Faoi bhrat Bhríde sinn. May you be under Bride’s mantle. Ireland itself is sometimes described as the ‘green mantle of Brigit’, and the colour green is also associated with the faeries, which links her to her original status as a Goddess among the Tuatha de Danaan.
An Irish prayer to Bride:
Dear to me is Erin,
Dear to me each land,
Praise be to it!
O, white flame of Leinster
Enlighten the whole land.
Chief of Erin’s maidens
Chief of finest women.
Dark the bitter winter
cutting its sharpness
But Bride’s mantle
Brings spring to Ireland.
Brigit, the Healer
Brigit is the patroness of healers, using the elements of fire and water to heal. She taught the properties of herbs, and blessed many springs and wells across the land, that are still venerated today. Her girdle and mantle had healing properties, which she shared with others. A drop of water from her mantle created a healing lake.
As a solar deity, she also taught that sunlight and water could be used for healing, especially the eyes. She advised sufferers to find a clean, clear spring, or fast moving body of fresh water, sparkling with sunlight, and lathe it on sore eyes for a restorative cure. In Catholic tradition, they pray to Saint Brigit for eye maladies.
In folk tradition, a girdle (belt) is woven of straw at Imbolc, wide enough for people to step through three times in a healing ritual. Stips of cloth or ribbon are also left out to be blessed by the Saint on Imbolc, imparting the healing properties of her own cloak to them.
Goddess of the Healing Wells
Wells throughout the Celtic lands are named after Saint Brigit. There are many legends that the Saint had stopped by a well in her travels, and blessed and healed people at the site. ‘Clooties’ are often tied to the trees (often Hawthorne) overhanging the wells, with healing wishes. These wells were probably dedicated to the earlier Goddess, Brigit, with a presiding priestess or Druid.
Famous wells in Ireland dedicated to the Saint include: Kilbride parish, Co. Mayo; Chiffony, Co. Sligo; Faughart, Co. Louth; Ardagh, Co. Longford; Buttevant, Co. Cork; Castlemanger, Co. Cork; Dunteer, Co. Louth; Inismagrath parish, Co. Leitrim; Killinagh parish, Co. Cavin; Kilranelagh parish, Co. Carlow; Liscannor, Co. Clare; Marlerstown ,Co. Louth; Mullingar, Co. Westmeath; Tully, Co. Kildare; and Outeragh parish, Co. Leitrim
Brigit the Midwife
Brigit is the patroness of midwives. She was the midwife of Mary, bringing Christ into the world.
Chainig thugam cobhair,
Moire gheal is Bride;
Mar a rug Anna Moire,
Mar a rug Moire Criosda
Mar a rug Eile Eoin Baistidh
Gun mhar-bhith dha dhi,
Cuidich thusa mise ‘m asaid,
Cuidich mi a Bhride!
Mar a gheineadh Criosd am Moire
Comhliont air gach laimh,
Cobhair thusa mise, mhoime,
An gein a thoir bho ‘n chnaimh;
‘S mar a chomhn thu Oigh an t-solais
Gun or, gun odh, gun ni,
Comhn orm-sa, ‘s mor m’ othrais,
Comhn orm a Bhride!
Bride the Aid-Woman
There came to me assistance
Mary fair and Bride;
As Anna bore Mary,
As Mary bore Christ,
As Eile bore John the Baptist
Without flaw in him,
Aid thou me in mine unbearing
Aid me, O Bride!
As Christ was conceived of Mary
Full perfect on every hand,
Assist thou me, foster-mother,
The conception to bring from the bone;
And as thou didst aid the Virgin of joy,
Without gold, without corn, without kine,
Aid thou me, great is my sickness,
Aid me, O Bride!
As patroness of midwives, she was invoked at the door of the home where the woman was giving birth, by the midwife.
“Bride, Bride, come in!
Thy welcome is truly made,
Give thou relief to the woman,
And give thou the conception to the Trinity.
She is the guardian of every newborn child, their cradles often protected with a woven Brigit’s Cross. Upon the safe birth of the child, it was ‘sained’ by the midwife, with three drops of water on the child’s forehead, dedicating the child in the name of the Trinity. A candle was also carried around the bed sun-wise three times. All these are elements from the Goddess Brighid, who was a solar deity also associated with healing wells. Could saining be from an older tradition of putting the newborn child under Brighid’s protection?
Brigit of the Hearth
Brighid is also associated with the teinntean (the domestic hearth) especially in Gaelic Scotland, which is why Brighid doll’s are placed near the hearth on her feast day. The doll is usually dressed in white, with ribbons, lace and even jewellery added. Mine has a green (handkerchief) mantle, with a Brigit’s Cross made out of a piece of Irish peat.
A slat geal (white wand) is often placed in the leabe Bride (Brigit’s bed) with her image, as a fertility charm. She is the patron of agricultural, pastoral, and domestic fertility and abundance.An offering of grain and milk products is left for her – bannocks, cheese, cream, butter, milk. The Bridie doll is kept throughout the year near the hearth, hung on a wall, or near the door, as a talisman of protection, then burnt in the next year’s
Togail an Teine
Mar a thogadh Muire.
Caim Bhride ‘s Mhuire
Air an tula ‘s air an lar,
‘S air an fhardaich uile.
Kindling the Fire
As Mary would.
The encirclement of Bride and Mary,
On the fire, and on the floor
And on the household all.
Smalaidh mis an tula
Mar a smaladh Muire;
Comraig Bhride ‘s Mhuire
I will smoor the hearth
As Mary would smoor;
The encompassment of Bride and of Mary.
Air an tula ‘s air an lar,
‘S air an fhardaich uile. On the fire and on the floor,
And on the household all
Smooring the fire
The women of the household rake the embers into a circle and divide them into three sections with a small boss in the middle. Three peats are placed in the spaces and ashes scattered over all so that the fire is banked down for the night and easily rekindled in the morning. I have my own tradition, where I light a candle for Brigit and ask her blessing on my house:
I kindle this candle in the name of Brighid,
Goddess of Smiths.
I sain this house in the name of Brighid,
Goddess of Healers.
I smoor this candle in the name of Brighid,
Goddess of Poets.
Brigit and Animals
Brigit had a way with animals, and could call birds to her hand. A hunted boar once found its way to her courtyard, and was granted sanctuary from its pursuers, remaining at the monastery for the rest of its life.
A white skinned red eared fairy cow is associated with her. This fairy animal provided the only sustenance she would accept as an infant – its pure white milk. This cow is said to be her favourite companion.
She saved a man’s life who had accidentally killed the King’s pet trained fox. The king condemned the poor peasant to death for his offense. Brigit replaced the animal with a wild fox from the woods who performed the same tricks that the king’s fox had performed. The fox disappeared back into the woods as soon as the peasant was set free by the king.
Brigit is also associated with a white snake, and with fish that sometimes appear in her healing wells.
Brigit, the Milk Maid
Cattle, milkmaids and milk were sacred to Brigid, ‘Thig a Bhride mhor na loin, Thig, a bhanachaig Iosda Criosda (‘Come, great Bride, the beauteous, Come thou milkmaid of Jesus Christ.’) ‘White Brigid’s Day’ is another name for her feast day, referring to her association with milk, a vital food product to the early pastoral Celts. Milk was left out for her overnight, or poured out on the ground as a libation to her.
She is associated with pastoral and agricultural enterprise – especially sheep and cows, during lambing and calving season, and thus a Goddess of animal fertility. She is particularly associated with milk and dairy products. She is thus a Mother Goddess with strong associations with Danu or Anu.
Shrines and Pilgrimage
There are many shrines and wells dedicated to Brighid throughout Ireland. In Faughart, the place many believe her to be born, there is an outdoor shrine where people come for healing. Cloths, bandages, ribbons, rosary beads and other items are tied to bushes around the shrine. A stream flows nearby with stations of the cross marked for pilgrims to honour her, usually the first Sundays in February and July.
In Killmagh, there is a ‘bullaun’ (stone block with cup like depressions). Supplicants ask the Saint for help, and turn smaller rocks within the depression.
The Catholic Church celebrates Candlemas on Brigid’s feast day (which is also celebrated as the ‘Purification of the Virgin Mary’). This is appropriate, because Brigid is a patroness of light. In her earlier version, she was a solar deity. On Candlemas, the members of the parish carry their lighted candles in a procession around the church, then the priest blesses the candles. The candles are then taken to their homes and used in protection from storms, demons and evil. February 3rd is the feast of Saint Blaise, where two crossed candles are placed at the throat to protect the person from throat ailments.
Imbolc, Feast of Saint Bride
Imbolc, or Óimelc, occurring the first of February, is one of the four major Celtic festivals in the year, going back to Druid times. The other three are Beltaine (the first of May), Lughnassad (the first of August), and Samhain (the first of November.)
The important Celtic feast of Candlemas fell on February 2 nd. It was held to mark the quickening of the year. In Ireland and the Highlands, February 2 nd is, very properly, the day of St. Brigit, formerly the White Goddess, the quickening Triple Muse.
Imbolc, Là Fhéill Bhrìghde, was a festival of the original herding culture – where lambs are born and ewes are in milk. The milk provided drink, butter, cheese, and whey after a long, hard winter when the stocks of food were low – a matter of life and death to early Celtic people.
The rite of Imbolc is a women’s ceremony, where the coming of Spring is celebrated with Brighid’s feast (Maiden aspect of Goddess), and the waning of the Cailleach’s winter power is acknowledged (Crone aspect of Goddess). It is at the other side of the wheel of the year from Lughnassad, which is a male rite, celebrating Lugh, the God of Light. The struggle for power between the Cailleach and Brighid is the turning of the seasons from winter to summer. Early February marks the time when winter first begins to lose its power and the light can be seen to increase, thus it is also called Candlemas, when candles are blessed. In the myths, Cailleach brings winter snows while Brighid brings the first spring rains.
A tradition in the Highlands and Ireland is to put a strip of cloth or ribbon outside your door on Imbolc Eve (Jan. 31 st) for Brigit to bless. This cloth represents her mantle and can be used for healing throughout the year. Children are encouraged to notice if the cloth has grown the next morning, as Brigit’s mantle did!
I’ve designated a tree in my own backyard as a ‘clootie tree’, which has been used in many a healing ritual for my family and friends.
The ceremony is also a rite of purification, and homes and barns are cleaned out and blessed, after the dregs of winter. Imbolc rites solicit the return of light and warmth, the beginning of a new season of growth and abundance, planting, fertility and health.
Imbolc is also a traditional time to do divination. Looking into the ashes in the hearth the next morning one might find symbols of the coming year, or perhaps the very footprint of Brigit herself.
In Wales, Saint Brigit is called Saint Ffraid. There are many churches called Llansantffraid which were dedicated to her. A Medieval Welsh traveling prayer, ‘Saint Ffraid, bless us on our journey.’
Brenin, the Welsh word for King, means consort of Brigantia.
Each Pictish king was given a Bruide name (a throne name), in his manifestation as the consort of Brigantia. The Picts are thought to be an early Brythonic tribe of Celts who settled in Scotland.
Isle of Man
In Manx legend, Saint Brigid came to the Isle of Man to receive the veil from Saint Maughold. Her feast day is known as Laa’l Breeshey in the Manx language, (which is similar to Irish and Scots Gaelic.) The lady of the house placed rushes by the hearth for a bed for the saint, then called out, ‘Brede, Brede, tar gys my thie tar dyn thie ayms noght Foshil jee yn dorrys da Brede, as ihig da Brede e heet staigh’ Translation: ‘Brigid, Brigid, come to my house, come to my house tonight. Open the door for Brigid and let Brigid come in.’
In St. Ives, Cornwall, Saint Ea day is celebrated around the first of February with music and guising. Saint Ea was said to have floated to Cornwall from Ireland on an ivy leaf. They dress the Saint’s well, which is famous for curing diseases, especially of the eyes. Heated pennies are thrown to children from the balcony of the town hall. A silver ball is passed around until noon, and whoever has it when the bell strikes, is rewarded. The pennies and the ball are solar symbols. Thus, the themes of fire and water are acknowledged in the ceremony.
Oíche Fhéile Bríde, the eve of the Feast of Bride in Ireland was celebrated by bands of children carrying a Bride doll from home to home. Women brought out cake and ale and invited neighbours in for a ceilí, to welcome Brigit. Milk products – butter, cheese and milk, were always served. The Saint herself was said to be abroad that night with her sacred white cow, blessing farmsteads and homes. People left out a piece of cloth, representing the brat Bríde, a piece of her sacred mantle, for the saint to bless as she passed by, which would be used to heal people and animals, especially in giving birth, the coming year. An offering of food for the saint and her cow was left in exchange.
In the Leitram – Donegal area of Ireland, families gather on St. Brigid’s Eve. Rushes would have been gathered and left at the door until the ceremony began, at midnight. At the appointed time, a designated person covers her or his head and knocks at the door. The Bean an Tighe (woman of the house) welcomes Brigid, saying ‘Fáilte leat a Bhríd’ (Welcome Brigid), to which the newcomer replies, ‘Beannacht Dé ar daoine an tighe seo.’ (God bless the people of this house.) Holy water is sprinkled on the rushes, which are then brought into the house. All participate in making new Brigid’s crosses or Celtic crosses for the year, and burning the ones from the previous year.
St. Bride’s Day, Scotland
In the Scottish version, the Cailleach, the old Goddess of Winter, transforms herself into Bride on this day by drinking from the Tobar Og (Well of Youth). With her white wand, she touches the ground and the flowers of spring emerge. In her aspect as Cailleach at the onset of winter, her blackthorn staff shrivels the growth into barren winter.
'Bride with her white wand is said to breathe life into the mouth of the dead winter and bring him to open his eyes to the tears, and the smiles, the sighs and the laughter of Spring. The venom of the cold is said to tremble for its safety on Bride’s Day, and to flee for its life on Saint Patrick’s Day , 'Chuir Bride miar ‘s an abhuinn la na Feill Bride' (Bride put her finger in the river on the Feast Day of Bride ).
In another legend, the Cailleach Bheur (the old woman of winter the highlands of Scotland) ended summer with her blackthorn staff, banging it on the ground three times to signal the beginning of winter. With her severe presence came the winter gales and icy storms. The snow was her white mantle. Angus Og, the Celtic God of Love, was the handsome son of the Cailleach.
The Cailleach kept the Maiden of Spring, the Goddess Brighid prisoner, as her slave, making her life wretched with the hard work. Angus, who lived in the land of Everlasting Youth, saw Brighid one day in a vision, fell instantly in love, and was determined to marry her. But the Cailleach, his mother, knew that if he married Brighid, who in reality was the Sovereignty of the Land, Angus would become king, and would no longer be ruled by his mother, who would be deposed.
It was still winter, and travel was impossible. Yet Angus was determined. He borrowed three days from the summer months and the sun appeared and melted the snow, and he travelled to the Grampian Mountains, his mother’s abode. He searched and searched, but could not find his maiden, until he heard her sad voice singing in the forest near his mother’s castle as she gathered wood. When he found her, she looked up at him and she, too, was smitten with love. The day he found her was February 1st, and was known as Bride’s Day from that day forth, the beginning of Spring. In her footsteps the early spring flowers, snow drops, emerged from beneath the snow.
His furious mother had her vengeance on the couple. She mounted the forces of winter against them, borrowing days from the harsh mid-winter, causing devastation to the newly emerged flowers and young animals. But her power was waning and the love between Angus and his Bride were too strong for her. The Cailleach withdrew from the landscape, and turned to into a large grey stone, biding her time until the other side of the year when the Queen of Winter would reign again.
On the night of Imbolc Eve, the women of the household make a brìdeag, or dealbh Bride, a corn dolly of wheat, rushes, or grain from the last of the harvest. She is decorated with shells, stones, ribbons and early spring flowers, such as snow drops and primrose. A crystal is sometimes put over the heart to represent the ‘Guiding Star of Bride’. The doll is placed in a ‘Bride’s bed’ of woven wheat, a basket, or a cradle, which was placed near the front door of the cottage with a white candle burning nearby all night. In some traditions, the bed is put near the hearth. A white wand (birch, willow) is sometimes placed with the dolly to represent the wand of Brigit in legend. The woman of the house goes outside and cries out, ‘Brigit, Brigit, come in. Thy bed is ready.’ three times. In other traditions, she exclaims ‘Brigit is come! Brigit is welcome!’ Candles are often left out overnight for the Saint to bless. Also strips of cloth, representing the cloak of Brighid, which are used for healing throughout the year. An offering of a bonnach Bride (bannack) was left for the saint.
In a more public ceremony, the village girls, all dressed in white, carried the brìdeag in a procession throughout the town. The townspeople were required to give the group a gift of flowers, food (Bannocks, butter, cheese), in gratitude to the Saint for the year’s bounty. They finally gathered at the end of the day in a particular home, to put the Bride to bed and prepare for the feast the next day. Young men would come to pay their respects to the Bride, and there would be a ceilidh, with dancing and singing. At dawn, the group would sing a hymn to Brighid, and distribute the food to the poor.
In Barra, Scotland, fisherman cast lots for fishing banks after church services on Bride’s Day. The priest ‘recited the virtues and blessings of Bride, and the examples to be drawn from her life.’
In the Outer Hebrides, women meet to make an image of the Maiden aspect of the Goddess, or Brighid. The doll is dressed in white, and a crystal is placed over its heart. She is placed in a cradle. Brighid is invited into the house by the female head of the household, and sacred songs and chants are sung in Her honour.
Alexander Carmichael states that,
Dedications to Bride are common throughout Great Britain and Ireland. From these traditional observations, it will be seen that Bride and her services are near to the hearts and lives of the people. In some phases of her character, she is much more to them than Mary is.
One of her symbols is a white snake that spirals upon a wand. ‘La Bride breith an earaich, thig an dearrais as an tom.’ (The Day of Bride, the Birthday of Spring, the Serpent emerges from the knoll.
Moch maduinn Bhride, Thig an nimhir as an toll; Cha bhoin mise ris an nimhir, Cha bhoin an nimhir rium.
Early on Bride’s morn, the serpent will come from the hollow. I will not molest the serpent, nor will the serpent molest me. (The Greek Caduceus also has a snake motif for a healing symbol.)
19 is her sacred number. There were nineteen virgins who kept her perpetual flame in the monastery at Kildare. Prayer beads are made from 19 milk-white stones dedicated to the saint. (I have a necklace of 19 white quartz beads, with a Brigit’s cross attached.) Spells invoking Brigit take 19 days. For instance, lighting a special candle dedicated to her for 19 days along with prayers of supplication. 3 is also a sacred number, as Brighid is a ‘Triple Goddess’.
White (geal) is her colour, and symbolizes purity. It is also the colour of her sacred food – milk and milk products. White also brings to mind the pristine snowy landscape during her festival in early February.
Red (ruadh) is also her colour, the colour of the hearth fire.
Blue (gorm). In Christian tradition, her mantle is blue, which is also associated with the Virgin Mary.
Green (glas). Her mantle is also said to be green, a colour associating her with faeries. Ireland is sometimes described as her green mantle.
According to Robert Graves, one of her symbols was the White Swan.
Black the town yonder,
Black those that are in it,
I am the White Swan,
Queen of them all.
Cloak or Mantle
Brigit wore a healing cloak that she once hung on a beam of sunlight. Perhaps that is the inspiration for the traditional blue cloaks nurse’s once wore.
Brigit’s feast day is also called Feill-Brìde, Candlemas, a time when candles are blessed by the Saint. A white candle should be dedicated specifically to the Saint and kept on her altar. Better still, a white candle with three wicks.
As patroness of Blacksmiths, the anvil, or any blacksmith’s tool, is an appropriate symbol of the Goddess and Saint.
Raven is associated with Imbolc, the Feast of Saint Brigit, because it is the first bird to nest in the Highlands, around the beginning of February. ‘Cuirear fitheach chon na nide’, (The raven goes to prepare his nest).
Both the Goddess and the Saint are reputed to own a white wand, made of birch or willow.
According to her prayer card, in Catholic tradition, her sacred wood is vine. She is also associated with oak, as her church at Kildare was built in a nemeton, a traditional Druids’ oak grove.
While tending a dying Chieftain, the Saint prayed and wove an equal arm cross from the rushes on the floor. When the dying man asked her about it, she told him about the salvation of Jesus Christ, and he agreed to be baptized before he died. In more ancient times, this was her symbol as a solar deity. Brigit’s crosses can be made with either three or four legs.
The cross is usually hung above the front door of the home to protect it. Children’s crosses are hung above their beds. Crosses were hung in the barn over the byre. The old cross is burned in the hearth fire on Saint Brigit’s eve, while the new one is made for the saint to bless for the new year.