Introduction to the Cult of St. Brigid

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What do I mean by "cult?"

The modern usage of the word "cult" has taken on a negative, obsessive, almost demonic connotation. This is not what what I am referring to by the "cult" of St. Brigid. Rather, I refer to more of the religion-within-a-religion that is the rites, beliefs and history behind the practice of the veneration or worship of the Irish Catholic Saint, Brigid of Kildare. It is not an abberrant part of the society, nor are there secret doctrines that specifically go against the teachings of the Catholic Church. But the full complexity of the role of St. Brigid in the Irish Church is so vast, I believe it could be maintained as a religion in its own right.

How did the Cult of St. Brigid develop?

The purpose of this paper is to discover the answer to this very question. A year ago I went to Kildare, Ireland and saw the Fire Temple that once held an eternal flame tended by 19 nuns. Why would a Christian virgin-saint have a fire temple? It did not take long to find out that there was a pre-Christian goddess in Ireland who displayed many of the same characteristics as the Catholic saint. I thought it was possible that the worship of these two holy women would have some things in common, though I never believed it possible that they could be the same figure. I discovered five basic elements of the history of Christianity in Western Europe that made this fact possible.

First, I began research on the goddess Brighde, demonstrating the importance of the Goddess in Celtic religion, defining her roles and manifestations. Also relevant to this was the establishment of the Celtic social and religious worldview in order to compare its changes (or lack thereof) with the introduction of Christianity.

Before I could move on, it was important to understand the urbanized, Roman-influenced atmosphere of the first few centuries of Christianity in Continental Europe and Britian. This included understanding the cult of the saints, early monasticism, relics and pilgrimage, and sacred spaces and how they changed or were changed to adapt to Christian concepts through time.

With this knowledge behind me, I then set out to define and describe Early Celtic Christianity, and specifically the differences between it and the rest of the Western European Church. The Irish Church was primarily monastic, and the model it followed was that of the Egyptian aescetics of the 2nd and 3rd centuries more than any of the contemporary Continental forms of Christianity or their monastic models, such as the Rules of St. Basil or St. Benedict. The Irish monastic ideal was even more harsh than the Benedictine, with much more emphasis on self-negation and pilgrimage into the wilderness.

Once I understood I could begin to look at the Life of St. Brigid, the various versions of her life, and investigate her identity and potential historical veracity. However, my final assessment is that the reason so many of the stories about her are conflicting, and that so very little is known of the actual foundation of the monastery at Kildare is because at some unknown date in the late 5th century, the convent of priestesses dedicated to the Goddess Brighde became Christian. It is possible that this happened under the guidance and authority of one or more historical women named Brigid, and perhaps one of these women was ordained a Bishop in the much more feminist Irish church.

Regardless of how it came about, I was still interested in the actual practices of the rituals of Brigid's feaast day. How is the goddess worshipped today? I realized how very little the themes and symbols have changed in the Irish devotions to Brighde/Brigid. I thought it important to note, along the way, the fact that several major political and religious upheaveals had taken place between the advent of Christianity and the collections of anecdotes and folk tales regarding the modern 20th century practices of Brigid's feast day. My conclusion, after carefully researching these upheaveals, is that they had only minor effects, and that the secularization and Americanization of Ireland in the past 40 years has done more damage to the integrity of the worship of Brigid than all of Cromwell's army.

Why did I structure my Div 3 this way?

It was important to illustrate that the cults of the many Christian saints as an ecclesiastic structure evolved in various ways, depending on the saint and the culture that venerated her or him. I also wanted to point out that different Celtic versions of saint-cults and monasticism varied from each other, and how these all varied greatly from the other "mainstream" versions that were more influenced by Roman Churches.

What kinds of sources did I use?

I would like to have done more research in Ireland, collecting ethnographic accounts of the activities of the Feast of St. Brigid, and stories of her life, however, I was unable to return to Ireland for financial reasons. Instead, I focused on reliable secondary sources, archaeology and the reports of others' ethnographic inquiries and field research. I used original medieval texts where available in English, and limited firsthand fieldwork in Kildare at the original monastic site, as well as the large holy well.

It is my goal to to fully convince the reader that there has been a continuous practice of the worship of the Celtic goddess Brighde from pre-Christian era of the first and second centuries, through to today. I will explain how this was made possible by the form of Celtic Monasticism in Ireland, the acceptance of the cult of the saint in Roman Catholicism, and the ever-present need for a mother-figure, a healer, an artisan of words and metal and a fertility goddess in agricultural Ireland.

On to Chapter One.