Goddess and Saint: Brigit, Exalted One

Brigit was worshipped under various names in many parts of the Celtic world. Because of the longeivity of Her worship and the variety of people who honoured Her, She has taken on many attributes, some of which seem superficially to conflict, just as many aspects of life seem to conflict until they are more fully explored. In addition, scholarship differs on interpretations of evidence and Her relationship to St. Brigit of Kildare, and caution must be used in transferring the attributes of one to the other.

Believed by many to be a solar divinity, for whom a perpetual fire may have burned, Brigit is also associated with water, and was worshipped at healing wells and springs. Born to one people and married to a man of another, She has mediated between two peoples in times of war. She is Brigit of the Judgements, and the triple matron of crafts - - including smithcraft, brewing, weaving and dyeing - - of healers - - seers and doctors - - and of poets, those powerful women and men whose word held magic and who sat as equals to kings. She protected travellers, and women in childbirth, and extended that blessing to domestic animals, especially cattle. Her feast day - - Imbolc (In the Belly) - - has strong connotations of pregnancy and life, in this case the birth of lambs and the lactation of ewes, and was one of the four major festivals of the year. (This day, like all others in the Celtic reckoning, begins at dusk on the one day and ends at dusk on the next, so that Imbolc is properly celebrated from the evening of 1 February until the evening of 2 February.)

So important was Brigit to the people who followed Her that when Christianity replaced the old religion, Her worship was absorbed into the cult of a saint, and endured. St. Bridget established a monastery at Kildare (Cell of the Oak) in the 6th century. She embodied to early Christians:

lasting goodness that was not hidden;
minding sheep and rising early;
hospitality toward good men.

It is she keeps everyone
that is in straits and in dangers;
it is she puts down sickness;
it is she quiets the voices of the waves
and the anger of the great sea.

She is the queen of the south;

She is the queen of the south;
she is the mother of flocks;
she is the Mary of the Gael.

-Lady Gregory

It is generally accepted that in Christian times, the fire of the Goddess at Kildare continued to be tended, this time by nuns. Miranda Green suggests that the assumption that She was associated with fire may be a confusion of the saint's aspects into Hers. This idea implies that She may not have been a solar goddess at all, which presents intriguing questions for those of us whose devotion to Her rests in large part on Her solar and hearth symbolism. Nevertheless, the symbol is a powerful one that has been integrated into the practice of many modern pagans - - a Goddess who is at once touched by fire and by water. The fact of Her association with the smithy does lend credibility to the notion, as may the solar symbolism of the rush crosses made in honour of the saint at Imbolc (the most primitive being a three-armed cross - - alluding perhaps to her Triunity?) and the legend of Saint Brigit of Kildare, reported by Jean Markale, which says that her double monastery was founded on a pre-Christian temple site, wherein a perpetual flame was maintained by women.

a picture of saint brigit of kildare

This fire burned in a place sheltered by hedges and no men were allowed to enter therein. Even the women who tended it could not blow on it with their mouths, but had to use bellows or a fan. It was said that when the saint died, on 1 February 525 (eg on Imbolc: the festival sacred to the Goddess Brigit) the number of nuns who tended the fire remained the same (19) and that on the 20th day the saint herself kept it alive. No one knows when it was lit, but it was ordered extinguished in 1220 by the Archbishop of London to suppress superstition. It was rekindled and kept alight until the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1541).

O Thou Triune of grace!

As it was,
As it is,
As it shall be
O Thou Triune
Of grace!
With the ebb,
With the flow,
O Thou Triune of grace!
With the ebb,
With the flow.

collected by Alexander Carmichael
The Sun Dances: Prayers and Blessings
from the Gaelic.