Beyond Feast Days: Worshipping Brigid in Everyday Life
<- Back to ToC
The assistance and patronage of St. Brigid is not only invoked on her Feast Day, but on many other occasions. Her persona as a pre-Christian goddess and Christian patron of Motherhood and Fertility, Hearth and Fire, Healing and Art made her the ideal figure to supplicate during difficulties of childbirth, crop planting, butter making, and many other times during daily living. She was a protectress against all that threatened the very existence of the rural Irish agriculturalist, and it is no wonder she was more widely worshipped throughout the Celtic lands than any other female figure.
It is important to understand the role of the Cult of St. Brigid in the context of pilgrimage practices, including locations and customs associated with the worship of a saint not just of St. Brigid, but in all medieval cults. In the earliest period she would not have been the same sort of cultic figure as the later Christian saint cults, rather, in this transitional phase Brigid would have been worshipped both as a goddess and a saint, and the rites observed would have been an ambiguous blend of the two traditions. One might argue that they still are today. As long as the people of Ireland were able to pray to the Mother figure, the protector of crops and animals, they did not care about the religious trappings of the rest of the religion.
The fact that the location most associated with the goddess Brighde did not lose its sacrality with the coming of the Christian era, and still did not lose its sacred designation even though all other aspects of the religion were banned. There is obviously continuity from one religion to another, but what is it about these places that make them sacred to both the pagans and the Christians? There are some places that are more likely to have these hierophanies, such as mountains, wells, and tree groves, among others, which are also places where supernatural acts are often performed. According to Eliade and other Indo-European folklorists, there are certain universal images and ideas that are sacred to all peoples who encounter them and are thought of in the same way. The "cosmic mountain" and the "pillar of the gods" (i.e. the sacred tree or standing stone) being two among them. Once these places are deemed sacred, by whatever group, this otherworldly aura remains with it through the people who pass down the stories relating the history of the place. In the case of the Fire Temple and Holy Wells of Brigid, it was the Christian monks and scholars who did this for a long period, until the memory passed into the the hands of the people.
Christianity in Ireland in the early middle ages was in some ways no different from the rest of Europe at this time. There were at least two distinct versions of Christianity practiced: that of the monks and that of the laity. The relationship between these two versions was often fluid and flexible, but generally remained distinct. The best way to illustrate this is through the Cult of St. Brigid.
The mother goddess who ruled over the hearth and fire, poetry and art, healing and the fertility of herds, humans and crops was too much of an important mythological figure to be supplanted by the intellectual, esoteric, paternalistic new Christianity. There was no one figure in the Christian mythos that fulfulled all these roles in the same way that the goddess Brighde did. The Christian God was a distant, paternal, occasionally vengeful, alien god who was not as real to the people of Ireland as was their own mother goddess Brigid who came and visited each household every spring.
Although the Christian God was supposed to be a god of all things, including those aspects of life supervised by Brigid, there was not the local flavor, the tangible evidence of the presence of this male god. The only ritual associated with this new god was the Latin Mass, which could not even be attended much less understood by the Irish people. Brigid had a fire temple, multitudinous holy wells, and a yearly festival that involved physical manifestations of her presence in each and every household. The Christian God had monks, books, and churches built on sacred land.
Another significant difference between Christianity and the old Celtic religion was the essential femininity of the goddess and of Ireland. As part of an agrarian culture, the Celts saw the land as female, evidenced by the fact that all of the ancient names for Ireland are female goddess names. The mother goddess Brigid was not a land goddess, but was responsible for the fertilty of the animals, the crops and the fire and smithwork used to make the iron tools for harvest as well as for war.
The cult of St. Brigid is really the continuation of the pagan cult of the goddess Brighde into the the Christian era. There seems to have been very little change, except for those elements of her worship that were a little too much for Christianity. For example, although it seems Imbolc and St.Brigid's feast is now more closely associated with the fertility of animals than people, there is evidence that would indicate there were at one time human fertility rites associated with the animals.
Imbolc is on the winter half of the year, whether you divide it at Samhain and Bealtaine, or at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. Therefore it has many outward similarities to the previous fire festival, Samhain. Both are celebrated primarily inside at the hearth fire, and involve protection from evil spirits, fairies, and the dead. Bealtaine and Lughnasa, on the other hand, are summer outside fire festivals whose focus are bounty and harvest, as well as marriage.
The people would not or could not stop worshipping the goddess, and there was no clear way to substitute a Judeo-Christian figure for her, as Mary did not yet have an important role in the Christian theology. St. Brigid is often associated with the Virgin Mary, and is equally important; it is likely she was much more significant than Mary in early medieval times, since the cult of Mary is relatively recent in Europe. In order to compensate for this, the Catholic Church simply adopted the worship of Brighde by inventing a saint with all of her attributes, stories and forms of worship. The legends were probably formed around a generic enough convert who had been a well-known person in the region of Kildare. Some think she may even have been named Brigid, or even a priestess of the goddess whose worship was centered at the Temple in Kildare. Many of the stories, customs and ritual practices became tied to the worship of this newly Christian figure, who was only formally accpeted into the Church tradition when her Life was written by Bishop Cogitosus more than 100 years after her alleged existance.
The Irish worshipped a pagan goddess in the accpetable format of the cult of a Christian saint. The worship of St. Brigid combined the monastic tradition of the written word as the Life of the saint, the elements of the by then well-established cult of the saint, and the charatersitics, attributes and asociations of the pagan Celtic goddess. The actual details of the meanings and associations changed very little. Even the date of worship did not change, but as long as the worship was focusted around the "Christian" traditions of relics and feast day, it was acceptable to practice the pagan traditions of the straw cross, the Bridóg with her "wand," the hearth rituals and others, including the various Well traditions.
Go to Bibliography.