Chapter One: The Celtic Goddess Brighde

<- Back to ToC

The Celts

Before entering into a discussion of a specific one of the deities of the Celts, it is important to understand who the Celts were, their history and their role in European history. Modern scholars using the term "Celt" are referring to a group of peoples who spoke similar versions of the same language throughout Europe from approximately the 6th century BCE. When the Celts ceased being a cultural group is a subject of great debate; some say that as long as "Celtic" languages are spoken (Irish, Scots Gaelic, Breton, etc.) there are still Celts; others believe that the idea of the Celts as a unified culture is an invention of 17th and 18th century anthropology, archaeology and linguistics.

Classical writers used the term "Celt" (Keltoi, Galatae, Celtae & Galli) to mean only the continental Celts, not the British or Irish (Insular.) It is doubtful that the speakers of the various "Celtic" languages had a group identity; rather, the peoples that spoke the Celtic languages were tribal and would not have necessarily recognized a speaker of another cognate language as part of the same culture. The areas that were settled and occupied by the Celts ranged from "Britain and Ireland...Spain and France, to southern Germany & the Alpine lands, Bohemia and later in Italy, the Balkans and even central Turkey." There were nine separate languages that fall under the Indo-European langauge group called "Celtic:" Hispano-Celtic, Gallic, Lepontic, Irish, Scots Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Breton and Cornish.

For many years scholars thought that there were two waves of Celts that spread west to east across Europe, bringing with them two separate versions of the Celtic language. Now, however, it seems more likely that the language just evolved differently in different areas. Which is why there are two distinct modern Celtic language groups, the "Q-Celtic" or Goidelic group, which is comprised of Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx, and the "P-Celtic" or Brithonic languages, Welsh, Cornish and Breton.

For the purposes of this discussion, I will use the term "Celtic" to mean anything of or pertaining to Gaelic language and mythology, from their earliest inception to modern times.

The Celtic Calendar

The reckoning of time is different for every culture. Celtic societies were generally agrarian, though by no means docile, therefore, the year was divided by seasons pertaining to the harvest cycle. The Celtic calendar had eight major festivals; the four primary seasonal/ agricultural festivals, called the "True Quarters", and the "Crooked Quarters,' which celebrated the four major solar events of the solstices and equinoxes.

The focus of the True Quarters festivals was on fire; fire rituals, symbols of fire and fire deities. These are still celebrated today, in semi-Christianized form, but in Ireland still retain much of their original pagan symbolism. Imbolc (February 1) is still today the traditional begining of spring, as Bealtaine (approximately May 1, also known as "May Day") is the first day of summer, Lughnasa (August 1) of autumn and Samhain (November 1) of winter.

The solar festivals of the Winter Solstice, Vernal Equinox, Summer Solstice (Midsummer), and Autumnal Equinox each mark the midpoints of the seasons, as well as the midpoints between the fire festivals. Traditionally, as today, celebration of all of these festivals were begun at sundown the night before the festival (or modern calendar date) and continued into the next day. As we will see this is also reflected in the worship of Catholic saints throughout history.

Although the modern Julian calendar has assigned permanent dates to the True Quarter festivals, the method traditionally used to decide when it was time for the festivals is not specifically known. However, there are many stone circles that are aligned to these quarters, rather than the more obvious solar dates, like Newgrange.

Imbolc

In pre-Christian Ireland, and in other Celtic areas, Imbolc was the festival in honor of the goddess Brighde (pronounced "BREED-ah"). Since the advent of Christianity, February 1 has become the feast day of the Catholic Saint, Brigid, also known as "Mary of the Gaels" and her ritual celebrations begin on January 31 and continue into February 1. It is no coincidence that the names of the saint and the goddess are the same, or that their festivals are celebrated at the same time of year, in the same location and with many of the same rituals and rites, as the rest of this paper will attempt to illustrate.

The festival of Imbolc, generally placed in the modern calendar as February 1 (though some sources give February 2 or even February 5,) is the first of the four Fire festivals of the year, and falls between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox. Imbolc or "oi-melg" means "ewe's-milk" which is indicative of the lambing season, when the sheep are born, and is also the traditonal beginning of spring. It is then obvious that celebrations of animal fertility, of the flocks and herds as well as of humans would take place at this time. Milk was ass ociated with this celebration and time of year as well. Originally ewe's milk was the milk of choice, but as cows replaced sheep as the primary domestic herd animal, cow's milk became the more significant. Another interpretation says it means "in milk" denoting a ritual bathing; in fact the root "februa" itself denotes "lustration" or a ritual cleansing. There is some further evidence that this might be a much older meaning of the word. As we will see, these festivals did not remain static, but changed as the culture and people's lives changed.

Also indirectly significant to the subject of fertility is the fact that Imbolc is exactly 9 months after the festival of Bealtaine, the primary function of which is the celebration of human fertility and sexuality in order to promote the fertility of the crops and fields. It is therefore likely that in pre-Christian Celtic society this was a common time for human births as well.

Attributes & associations

One can learn a great deal about the nature of the goddess by looking at who she is "related" to, the other mythological figures she is closely associated with. Brighde is often given as the daughter and sometimes mate of the Dagda, "The Good God" just as Dana is also the mother of the Dagda, but has no husband in any of the sources. Brighde is given as the mother of three sons by Tuireann, the three gods of craftsmanship: Brian, Iuchar and Iucharba (second 2 are also called Uar and Liuchar.)

Again, in some versions of Celtic mythology Dana is the mother of the three sons of Tuireann, which is yet another way in which Brighde is paralleled with Dana/Anú.

Continuing with the parallels to Greek mythology, Brighde’s sone Brian slew Lugh's father, Cian. This is very similar to the story of how Cronos was overthrown by his son,who was also his wife’s mate. Some sources give her as the wife of Senchán Tairpéist (a poet), also as the wife of Bres, the 1/2 Fomorii ruler of the Tuathan Dé Danaan, which again cements her place as the leader or consort of the leader of the Tuatha DéDanaan.

What exactly Brighde was the goddess of depends on which historian one reads. Because of the many shifts in Celtic religious culture, the names and forms of many of the deities were quite liquid, changing from one region, continent or time period to the next. Therefore the names may often change, and attributes may be many, but one can see that they are all merely facets of a much smaller number of deites than it would seem at first glance. For example, at least 400 Irish deities are listed in Most commonly she is referred to as the patroness of poetry, smithwork, and healing, and another popular trio is of hearth, healing and poetry.

Mother Goddess

According to some authors, the triune mother-goddess in pre-Christian Celtic society, to was equal in stature to that of Mercury, which is what Caesar called Lugos or Lugh, the most important of all the continental Celtic deities. Often Continental representations in sculpture and bas-relief of goddesses are in triads, which were for a time considered to be representations of different figures than those that appeared individually. However, when one looks at the objects associated with them, it is clear that "the two groups espress the same religious idea; only the representation of the idea varies." Some of the symbolic associations with the Celtic mother-goddess are the cornucopia, fruit, animals seated on her knee, and a child in her arms or next to her.

Interestingly enough, in continental represenations of Celtic deities, the goddess Julius Caesar called Minerva (who is now known to be Brighde) is often depicted in a triad with the male deities Mercury and Apollo, or Mercury and Vulcan. This is possibly a symbol of her immense importance in Celtic religious practices. In other representations, "Minerva" is depcited in the company of "Mars" which is what Caesar called Camulus, the same figure as Cumhail (father of Fionn Mac Cumhail, leader of the Fianna) a sky and war god of the Celts, both Insular and Continental.

In investigations of other pre-Christian Indo-European cultures, goddess worship is considerably older than the worship of male deities, dating back to ca 25,000 B.C.E. and is found geographically all over Europe. Though the Goddess was worshiped in many forms, and she presided over many areas of human endeavor, the most important role she had was that of the Great Mother, the ultimate symbol of fertility of humans, crops and animals.

There are also many indications that Brighde was also a mother goddess figure responsible for the fertility of both the tame herds of sheep and cattle (and therefore dairy) as well as that of the field and of people. The continental Celts represented the mother goddess in one of several ways. It is believed by some scholars that any artistic representation of a triune goddesses, with or without characteristic attributes, almost always represents the mother goddess. However, the triad is a defining characteristic of Celtic religion and mythology, and not all female triads in the Irish tradition, at least, are as clear symbols of the Mother Goddess. These symbolic attributes include: cornucopia, fruit, animals on the figure’s knee, or a child in her arms or at her side.

Donál Ó Cathasaigh believes Brighde is clearly a mother-goddess figure based on her representations in Gallic art and Caesar’s interpretations of the gods of the Celts as well as by the traditions associated with her that have carried over into the Christian era. Caesar named only a few Celtic deities, renaming them as their Roman counterparts; thereby Brighde became Minerva in Classical literature. Much of the French and other continental European scholarship on Celtic mythology and religion refers to "Minerva," rather than "Brighde" or Brigid.

Brighde was also the goddess of the tame herds and had a strong relationship to humans/ human life as an important part of the human agricultural world. This is obvious since her festival marks the begining of the lamb and milk season. Fire and livestock were two of the most important aspects of human life, especially women. In proto-Celtic society, as well as other Indo-European cultures, as humankind turned from hunting and gathering to agriculture, the role of the woman in the cultivation and preparation of food became more and more significant. It would then follow that the deity chosen to rule over all of the aspects of human sustenance would also be female. This is found in many cultures besides that of the Celts, and seems to be a common Indo-European cultic element.

The name of Brighde is also invoked during childbirth, even into the modern era under the guise of the Christian saint. This and her multitudinous associations with milk clearly define her as a mother goddess. Celticist T.W. Rolleston describes Brighde as identical to the goddess Danu, the Mother Goddess of all the Celts, who has a very similar role in the Celtic pantheon as Gaia had to that of the Greeks. The name of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the mythological race of god-men who inhabited Ireland means "the folk of the god whose mother is Dana."

Fire Goddess

Brighde served two primary functions in her various forms as a Celtic, and possibly pre-Celtic deity. Depending on the source, Brighde's name can mean one of several things: Lady Gregory says her name means "Fiery Arrow;" while another source says her name implies "a bright and shining light." Another common meaning attributed to the name Brigid is "the high goddess" or "the exalted one." Cormac's Glossary equates her name with the word "goddess." From the myths and stories associated with both her and the saint, it is clear that one of her primary roles was that of the fire or sometimes sun goddess. This function is shown through her associations with the hearth, as well as smithcraft, both of which are clear symbols of fire. She is also associated in mythology with the sun-god Lugh, as well as the sky-god Cumhail (who was also known as Camulos in British and Continental mythology.)

There is a separate deity associated with smithcraft as well as bees and honey, called in some places Gobnait, but also known as Gobniú or Gobán. It is interesting to note that the gender of this deity changes from continent to isles, and from one part of ireland to another. In the Christian era, a St.Gobán is still worshipped in Ireland. This Christianized deity is female, with the feast day of Febrary 11. The date of the festival is close enough to Imbolc (which had no fixed date) that it can be inferred that this deity is indeed the same as the goddess Brighde.

There are many customs that are practised in modern Ireland that have clear associations with fertility, fire, hearth and herds as well as the figure called Brighde or Brigid, however nearly all of these have been subsumed into the Christian cult of the Saint, and cannot be discussed separately. It is a common theory that the Fire Temple which burned an eternal flame at the seat of St.Brigid’s worship in Kildare, is merely a hold-over from an identical practice carried out in honor of the goddess. It has even been suggested that the semi-historical figure of the saint was at one time a priestess of the goddess, which is why she chose that particular site to found her all-female monastery. I think it is more likely that the practice of the worship of the goddess was merely continued in the name of Christianity until the pagan elements had been completely submerged into Christian practice, and that the figure of the goddess and the saint are one in the same, which will be the focus of the next chapter.

On to Chapter Two.