St. Brigid

 
If we are to believe that there are some things inherent in our nature as humans, perhaps we should include in this list ethnocentricity. Whenever one delves into a study of mythologies, what becomes exasperatingly clear is our proclivity for syncretism. In our attempts to understand the history, customs, and beliefs of cultures foreign to our own, it seems we instinctually grasp for ideas that overlap our own to make an exotic set of values and ritual familiar and thus less threatening and even controllable. This was true just as much in the time of the Celts as now. In his his account of the conquest of Gaul, De bello gallico, Caesar observed the religious activities of the Celts and that they had a goddess very similar to Minerva of Roman mythology.

"They worship as their divinity, Mercury in particular, and have many images of him, and regard him as the inventor of the arts....Next to him they worship Apollo, and Mars, and Jupiter, and Minerva; respecting these deities they have for the most part the same beliefs as other nations"(Caesar,6.17).

This Minerva figure was none other than the triplicate Brigid, or Brigandio as she would have been known to Caesar's Gauls, the daughter of the Dagda, but above all, the most powerful goddess in the Celtic pantheon.

The existence of a Christian saint of the fifth century by the same name creates the temptation to make similar syncretistic judgements within the very culture of the ancient and early Christian Celts. Taken at face value one would be hard put to argue differently, but a closer look at the material evidence shows that the similarities between the goddess Brigid and the Saint point instead at a radically different phenomenon. Rather than mere projection and coincidental concurrence, St. Brigid and the goddess may be one and the same. It is possible that the saint is the goddess transformed, or reinvented in a manner less obscene to the new patriarchal monastic hierarchy. To support this we have the striking continuity of symbolism and the rarity of features that would blatantly distinguish the heroine of the Tuatha du Danann from the Patroness of Ireland.

Tuatha du Danann means "people of the goddess Anu or Danu, it is the name for the Celtic body of gods and goddesses (Smyth, 25). Brigid, or Dea Brigantia as she was known in Britain, is another name for this omnipotent fertility goddess and mother of the gods. The king of this otherworldly genealogy, known as the Dagda was the father of the goddess Brigid. However, ambiguity is probably more common in Celtic mythology than heroes. Brigid was one of many trifold entities within the pantheon, including her own sons and the three war-goddesses known as the Morrigna. Not only did she function as three separate entities as the patroness of smithwork and fire, fertility and poetry, but she appeared in three physical forms as well, as maiden, mother, and crone, the daughter, lover, and wife of the Dagda (Condren, 25). Marked sexual characteristics are the most significant feature of Celtic goddesses, especially Brigid. Boand, another local goddess, but most likely a derivation of Brigid, is a good example of some of the symbols associated with her role as a fertility goddess. This white cow goddess, whose name is given to the Irish River Boyne, was also a lover of the Dagda. Cows are one of the animals most often associated with Brigid along with serpents and vultures. According to legend, the different colors of the cows of Boand each symbolized a different phase of the moon (Smyth, 20). The Triple Spiral often representative of Brigid's trifold nature, is also a metaphor for the phases of the moon. It is possible that she was either a combination of a great number of goddess traits, or that the name Brigid was actually synonymous with the word for goddess.

Just as there are some questions as to the breadth of Brigid and her placement within the genealogy of gods, there is equal if not greater disagreement surrounding the history of the saint. The uncertainty about St. Brigid is in her existence as portrayed in the many versions of her lives. There is very little historical fact in regards to Brigid of Kildare (Farmer, 56). What we do have is a seemingly endless supply of information from hagiographers, the monastic authors of her lives, the earliest of these dating from at least one hundred years after her death. The specifics about her parents as well as the location of her birth vary from source to source but the date seems to be agreed upon as 453 C.E. Her parents' names were Dubthach and Brotseach, although whether or not Brotseach was her birth mother varies from story to story. In some examples, her mother was a slave driven from the house by Brotseach. In others it is Brigid herself who is the slave. The lives are also contradictory about the social status of her parents, some sources say she was of humble birth, others say she had noble blood and even go so far as to list the family names of her parents, her father may even have been a druid (Rolt-Wheeler, 29). Her birthplace is equally elusive, she may have been born in Faughart or even in nearby Kildare.

This could suggest confusion between the birthday of the saint and the saint's feast day, which actually celebrates the death of the saint, her birth only in the sense that she was born into heaven on that day. More likely these conflicts occur because to lay claim to a saint would have beneficial rewards for the town involved. Brigid is usually described as having blonde hair and after becoming a nun at a very young age as wearing a white veil and cloak. She founded a double monastery at Kildare, Ireland, and may have been consecrated as a bishop. She died of old age in the early sixth century and was interred in the church of her own monastic community.

St. Brigid's miracles are limitless but the most famous and those that bear the closest resemblance to the cult of the goddess seem to be divided into two categories, one, those that involve milk and her maternal characteristics, and secondly those that concern fire. Perhaps the most intriguing of these are those where St. Brigid is called the Mary of the Gael or the Second Mary. The name comes from a vision of a bishop named Ibor the night before an assembly addressed by Brigid, the same Bishop may be the very same that inadvertedly made her a Bishop as well. (Peritia, 126). Some of her lives describe her as the sister of Mary, or even the midwife, they go so far as to say she suckled the child (Holt-Wheeler, 43). Time constraints seem to have little bearing on the actions of St. Brigid. Another tells how the Virgin Mary went to the Temple for purification and Brigid walked before her with lighted candles. This festival established by Pope Gelasius, is known as Candlemas and takes place in February, it also called the Feast Day of Bride of the Candles (Holt-Wheeler, 51). Quite typically, it falls on the same day as Imbolc, a pre-existing Pagan celebration. One of the eccentricities of the cult of the saint, particularly relevant in terms of her relationship to the goddess, was a prayer said to the serpent on the same day.

"Today is the Day of Bride,

the serpent shall come from the hole,

I will not molest the serpent,

nor will the serpent molest me" (Condren, 58).

In addition to having the serpent in common with the goddess, just as the four evangelists have specific attributes that identify their depictions, St. Matthew the angel, St. Mark the lion, so too does St. Brigid. She is either depicted with a cow, a shaft of flame, or a ray of sunlight, the very same elements that would have identified Brigid to the ancient Celts.

Where the goddess differs from the saint, apart from the obvious changes that inevitably fall from the fact that Brigid is human and the goddess is supernatural, is in her sexuality. Although the Celts were never a matriarchal society, women did hold a place in the society uncommon to their classical contemporaries. This claim is supported by mythology as well as by archaeology, although most information probably comes from early documentation from sources such as Diodorus or Caesar. Fertility rites were part of almost all of the major Celtic festivals especially Samhain, Lughnasa, and Imbolc. To insure the prosperity of kingdoms, Celtic myth holds that the king would take part in sacred marriages. The goddess would yearly come to him in her hag form and as a duty to his people, he had to have intercourse with her, she would resume her maiden form after his initial embrace (Condren, 23-24). Sex was not something the Celts shied away from in their literature or in their art. It was only with the advent of Christianity in the fourth or fifth century, the replacement of the Druids with Christian holy men and women, that sex became something to be avoided for sanctity's sake. So why then would a fertility goddess's attributes be found within the trappings of a virgin saint? There are several reasons.

First, we have to reflect on who actually recorded the lives of St. Brigid. The most important of her hagiographers was a monk living at the monastery at Kildare and writing towards the close of the eighth century, nearly two centuries after the supposed death of the saint in date. The other important source for information on St. Brigid is an Irish Franciscan Friar, Father John Colgan, who published a volume at Louvain in 1647 including six lives of the saint (Holt-Wheeler, 29). These two servants of the church represent the recognized sources although many others exist. The most important thing to remember is that these men and the writers of the other lives were hagiographers, and not historians. They were dedicated to making holy biographies to awe and impress the faithful, not true to life recollection of happenstance. To embellish the stories and depict the saints as the flag-bearers of purity and incredulous good deeds, they would often draw from native saga, continental vitae, and anything else handy, including other Irish saint's lives (Bitel, 11). The next question then, is to what degree was the incorporation of Brigidine myth a conscious effort. The other option being that the monks themselves as Irishmen were susceptible to confusion between the newly imported tenets of Christianity and the wealth of oral culture cultivated by thousands of years. Irish monasticism from the earliest developed as an entity quite apart from Rome. Images such as the Sheelagh-na-Gig, found in medieval churches as late as the eleventh century, indicate that the dividing lines remained blurred for years after Christianity's introduction to the Celts.

It seems likely that although both may have played a role, the former is the likelier resolution. If it is true that we have a weakness for syncretism, then what better way to make believers out of a people than to use their own mythology against them. The monks were ruthless in their pursuit and protection of relics, snatching bodies before they were cold, dying for a shard of tooth, so why should we believe that they would abandon this zeal in their missionary efforts? Christian churches were almost always built directly over sites already possessing rich spiritual histories. This is not only true of churches in Ireland but throughout Europe. Possibly the thought was that certain spaces were inherently spiritual centers and because there was only one God they must be sacred to Christians. More likely, however, is that they thought to displace and dominate the local gods by systematically assimilating their sites and festivals. In other words, they would convince the native peoples that their own religion and Christianity were one and the same so that they would listen to their message, and hope that in time paganism would fade into the past. .

Of course there are other issues at hand as well, converting Pagans was not the only goal of abbots, abbesses and their monks and nuns. Hagiography was literature by and for monastics. No doubt another motive for incorporating the goddess stories into the Vitae of St. Brigid was the glorification of the community at Kildare among its peers both in Ireland and in Rome. To be associated with a figure like St. Brigid brought with it increased respect and esteem. Along with Patrick and Columcille, Brigid was one of the three most significant Irish saints. The more outstanding her accomplishments, the better. Even the things we consider fact, that Brigid established a double monastery, were exaggerated by Cogitosus. The great urban center that it became in his own life time was by no means the situation in the fifth century (Farmer, 56-57)

If aligning the saint with the goddess was a conscious effort on the part of the early Christians in Ireland, it was probably a major step in the right direction for their purposes. Although socially the people of Ireland must have been ready to accept the new patriarchal religious order Christianity represented, it was probably not so easy to let go of the spiritual residue of their more female-friendly mythology. As a virginized saint, Brigid could almost hold an equal position among a hierarchy of men. By denouncing earthly marriage, in a sense she forfeited her womanhood and sexuality, but in exchange, she could be the leader of a great monastic center, attend Synods, and even become a bishop, (although this story tends to be downplayed by another that says she was mistakenly consecrated by a bishop inebriated with her glory)( Peritia, 126). The Celtic people could still pay their devotion to a protective mother figure, and yet consider themselves Christians. If we look at the lives of St. Brigid, she is still very much a maternal being, the patron saint of pregnant women. Only now she is not directly involved in the fertility rites, she remains chaste while helping others to conceive.

This is not to say that the Saint did not exist as a living, breathing, human woman, that she was a construct of Celtic monasticism and her Vitae. When reading a novel, one of the first things students are told is to be aware of the many different levels of consciousness inherent in the process. There is the realm of the reader, the physical author, the author as narrator, the characters, and so on. The same kind of multi-layered conundrum is what lends to St. Brigid a degree of mystery that has absolutely nothing to do with her holy nature. If a woman named Brigid was born in the fifth century and founded the monastery at Kildare her life story has not been recorded. Once canonized, the Saint and her unattainable holy existence obscured the woman. The division is finely demarcated but there may also be some element of separation between St. Brigid of the Church, the contemporary of St. Patrick, and St. Brigid of the people, she who is invoked for the protection of home and harvest. In the end, the only definitive thing that can be said is that there is indeed continuity between the legendary daughter of the Dagda and the Mary of the Gael. Nonetheless, it is a metamorphosis of more than a thousand years, and to come to clear-cut conclusions about when, how, and why it happened would be presumptuous. What we are left with are many possibilities.
 

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