Brigit
Also: Brigid, Brighid, Bríg, Bride, Brigindo, Brigandu, Brigan, Brigantia, Brigantis, and (improbably) Breo Saighead.

Celtic goddess of widespread worship; patroness of poetry, smithing, medicine, arts and crafts, cattle and other livestock, and Spring. Her feast day was called Oimlec (modernized Imbolc), celebrated around February 1. Much of her legend has since been subsumed into the figure of Saint Brigit of Ireland.


The name Brigit probably derives from the older form *Brigantī meaning "Sublime One" or "Exhalted One"; Latinized as Brigantia in Roman Britain, which gave name to the rivers Braint (Anglesey) and Brent (Middlesex), as well as possibly Bregenz in Austria and Brechin in Scotland. Cormac's Glossary gives the improbable etymology of "Breo Saighead"--"fiery arrow."

In the form of Brigantia, she is equated with the Roman goddesses Victoria, Caelestis, and on a relief found in Birrens (southern Scotland) with Minerva, though decked in the wings and crown of Victoria. Her worship was widespread, in Ireland, Britain, and Gaul, most likely due to being the tutulary goddess of the Brigantes federation of tribes, which lived in all three areas. A similar goddess is Minerva Belisama, worshipped in Lancashire; Belisama, meaning "firey one", may be another title for Brigit, or a distinct goddess.

According to Cormac's Glossary, Brigit was a set of triplets, daughters of the Dagda, all of the same name: a goddess of poetry, a goddess of smithing, and a goddess of leechcraft. Now, poetry was the province of bards, one of the learned classes, those imbued with wisdom, and so, her identification with Minerva--goddess of wisdom and goddess of arts and crafts--is unsurprising. Smithing was believed to be imbued with magic, and smiths were seen akin to wizards. The following segment of "Faidh Fiadha" seems directed at Brigit and her worshippers, which is interesting, given the later subsuming of Brigit's elements into the legends surrounding Saint Brigit of Ireland:

I summon today all these powers between me and these evils...
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of women and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that endangers man's body and soul.

--"Faidh Fiadha" (The Deer's Cry, or, St. Patrick's Breastplate)

Also, it is significant that she is the daughter of the Dagda "the good god", one-time king and druid of the Tuatha de Danann and of Ireland, and keeper of the cauldron of plenty and a club which can not only take life, but restore it. Her brothers are Oengus mac ind-Og, god of love and youth, equivalent to Mabon ap Modron/Apollo Maponos, and Bodb Derg, king of the Tuatha de Danann after they are driven underground into the sidhe.

In one rescention of Lebor Gabala Erenn1, Brigit is said to have owned two royal oxen, called Fea and Men, which gave their names to the plain of Feimhean. She is also said to own Torc Triath, the king of boars. Now, cattle were the prime source of wealth in early Ireland, while Torc Triath is cognate to the supernatural boar Twrch Trwyth in Welsh mythology--and both animals are associated with the Otherworld, particularly swine. According to The Book of Invasions, "{w}ith them were, and were heard, the three demoniac shouts after rapine in Ireland, whistling and weeping and lamentation." This is reminicent of the tradition that Brigit was the inventor of keening:

"Bríg came and keened for her son. At first she shrieked, in the end she wept. Then for the first time weeping and shrieking were heard in Ireland. (Now she is the Bríg who invented a whistle for signalling at night.)"

--The Second Battle of Magh Turedh

This also links her to the figure of the Bean Sidhe, which brings to mind her tutelary aspect. She was also likely another aspect of the Goddess of Sovereignty, whom all kings must marry, for she was married off to Bres the Fomorian (really only half Fomorian) when he became king of Ireland over the Tuatha Dé Danann, Brigit's people. Bres became king after the Dé Danann king Nuada lost his arm; however, like other kings of Ireland, it is likely that he could only become king after marrying Brigit, who acted in the role of Goddess of the Land, evidenced by her triple nature.

Now, there is a curious problem regarding Brigit, namely that we do not have a mother for her. We know that Oegnus, her brother, is the son of the Dagda and Boand. We do not know who Brigit's mother is. We do, however, know that she married Bres, son of Elatha. In one of the recensions of the Lebor Gabala, we have this (rather confusing) statement:

Those are the Tuatha De Danann: gods were the people of art, but non-gods were the three gods of Danu, from whom are named the husbandmen, .i. the gods. These were the three gods of Danu from whom they were named, to wit the three sons of Bres son of Elatha, or the three sons of Tuirell Biccreo, Brian, Iuchar, Iucharba.

The above statement follows the section about Brigit and her animals. Now, in The Fate of the Children of Turenn, we learn that the three sons of Danu are Brian, Iuchar, and Iucharba; Danu is also the mother of the gods, the Tuatha Dé Danann. If Brian, Iuchar and Iucharba are the sons of Danu, but also the sons of Bres, could they be the sons of Brigit? And would that mean that Danu and Brigit have the same mother-goddess status? The evidence is too scanty. This is likely a confused writer's attempt to cobble together a theogony of Ireland and instead ending up with an ill-fitting patchwork.

The legends of Saint Brigit of Ireland have heavily mythological overtones, likely borrowed from the goddess Brigit. The saint was said to be daughter of Dubthach the Brown, who may have been a druid (the text is unclear--if not, then Brigit was fostered by a druid until she was old enough to work); the goddess was said to the the daughter of the Druid-god the Dagda. Both are associated with fire (the saint often survives burning buildings), the saint could only be sustained by a white, red-eared cow, the markings of an otherworldly animal, and the saint could magically (or miraculously) provide a feast for all, regardless of how much food was at hand (remember that the goddess's father had a cauldron of plenty). The list could go on, so I'll save it for another w/u.

At any rate, the saint is thought to have begun a community at Kildare: Cille Dara, the Church of the Oak. Here there was an eternal flame kept by nine vigins2, up until the twelfth century, when a bishop thought it smacked of paganism, and had it dowsed. The nuns relit the fire, and it burned until Henry VIII of England destroyed it in his purges. It is possible that this Catholic community was built on an existing pagan shrine to the goddess Brigit, also associated with fire. The oak was, of course, considered sacred by the Celts, particularly by the Druid class, and may have been associated with Brigit, daughter of the patron god of Irish druids.


NOTES

  1. This, ¶ 317 in MacAlister's edition, is found only in the Book of Fermoy version of Lebor Gabala Erenn. In the Book of Leinster version, these attributes--the cattle, the boar, etc., are attributed to a woman named Flidais. Of Flidais, it is also said that "her four daughters were Ardan and Be Chille and Danann and Be Tete." Danann may be Danu/Anu; this would then refer back to the problem of Brigit's patronage. Of Danann, it is said she is a "farmerwoman".

  • "eternal flame kept by nine virgins": this is highly reminiscent of the Vestal virgins, dedicated to the goddess of the hearth. Now, the cult of Vesta was ancient, even in Rome's day, supposedly going back to at least 700 BCE. Both cults--that of Brigit and that of Vesta--may have a common origin, or the Celts may have borrowed from the cult of Vestia during their long contact with the Romans.

  • SOURCES

    Anonymous Texts:

      Bethu Brigte ed. & transl. Donnchadh Ó hAodha. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies Dublin, 1978. Online at http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T201002/index.html

      Lebor Gabála Érenn: The Book of the Taking of Ireland, Part IV. ed. & trans. R.A. Stewart MacAlister. Irish Texts Society, Vol. XLI. Dublin: The Irish Texts Society, 1941.

      "On the Life of St. Brigit" Lives of Saints from the Book of Lismore. Ed. with a transl. and notes, by Whitley Stokes. 1890. Online at http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T201010/index.html

      "The Second Battle of Magh Turedh". Ancient Irish Tales. ed. & trans. Tom P. Cross and Harris Slover. Dublin: 1936.

    mac Cuilennan, Cormac. Cormac's Glossary. ed. & transl. Whitely Stokes, 1868.

    Maier, Berhard. Dictionary of Celtic Religion and Culture. trans. Cyril Edwards. Rochester, NY: Boydell, 1997.

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