Sunday, April 01, 2007

Brigit: an Indo-European goddess lost in a Christian desert

Upon its arrival in Ireland, Christianity had to reckon, not only with the warriors, but also with the most powerful female religious figure in all of Irish history: Brigit, a figure who achieved the distinction of becoming a Triple Goddess, a Virgin Mother, a Lawmaker, a Virgin Saint, and finally, a folk image whose shadows still move over Ireland.
Mary Condren, The Serpent and the Goddess p55.

When I was a child in primary school we would gather reeds on the first day of February to make St Brigit crosses. It was an activity which demanded enough dexterity and craft to appeal to the restless mind of a child. We were told that Brigit was a saint. I understood this to mean that she was a real being who could perform magic, good magic or what the Roman Church referred to as ‘miracles’. She was, we were told, a nun, the pagan daughter of an Irish king who converted to Christianity through her association with our ubiquitously revered Patron Saint Patrick. But our education in Irish culture was poor as the inculcation of a ‘Catholic Ethos’ was seen as more important that the exploration of one of Europe’s most ancient mythologies. It was always made clear to us that Patrick was the ‘main man’ was it were, and that Brigit was to be understood as an important though ancillary figure in Irish ecclesiastical history. Of course, the celebration of Brigit as a saint is a distortion of her origin and possible significance for world cultures.

Many of you will be familiar with the words ‘brigade’ and ‘briggant’ the latter denoting a warrior, a former a group of warriors. The word is also common in the Romance languages. ‘Brigantia’ in Latin came to signify ‘strife’. The Gaelic etymology of her name signifes ‘high’ or ‘exalted’ one. But Cormaic in his ancient dictionary derives it from breo-saigit, a fiery arrow. This would account for her association with fire but other etymologists connect it with the Indo-European root ‘bhregh’ meaning ‘swelling, increase, high’ The nuns of the convent in Kildare associated with Brigit continued to light fires in her honour before Pope Adrian IV ordered the Norman invasion in the 12th century.
Brigit was around long before the rise of Christianity. The Celtic genesis myth tells us that in the beginning there was darkness and primeval chaos. Out if this darkness, there arose the waters of the goddess Danu. Danu gave life to an oak tree named Bíle. Two acorns fell from this tree forming Dagda, the Good One and Brigit, the Exalted One. Brigit became the embodiment of the mother goddess Danu and it was she who sent her children to the land where the western sun sets, Inisfáil or the isle of destiny ie Ireland. Brigit is an Indo-European fertility goddess related to other goddesses such as Minerva, Juno, and Isis. She gave her name to the county Kildare, which means the Church of the Oak.

It is clear that the ecclesiastical scholars who wrote about Brigit tried to ignore her Indo European origins. This was simply the attempt by a new patriarchal religion to gain control over the potentially chaotic forces of nature. Henceforth, Brigit, the Mother Goddess, Brigit the warrior would become a passive and docile nun subservient to the will of the masculine church. Many of the stories about Brigit were expurgated from the Christian versions, such as when she made a woman’s foetus disappear. Another story recounts how a man came to her complaining about his wife’s frigidity. Brigit’s cure was so effective that ‘the wife gave exceeding love to him, so that she could not keep apart from him, even on one side of the house; but she was always at one of his hands’. She did hold high esteem in the Celtic Christian Church however, where it is said that she even became a bishop, though this was subsequently played down for obvious reasons. Now that the ideology of Patrick’s church has become more of an historical phenomenon than a contemporary one, the gods and goddesses of Irish mythology may offer us invaluable insights into the ways in which man has related to the earth and to himself in the form of imagined deities. In terms of her dynamic, immanent and multi-faceted nature, Brigit towers over St Patrick and it is a shame that 1st of February is not celebrated as the national day. For it was Brigit who told the Tuatha de Danaan, children of Danu to head for inisfáil, the isle of destiny, Ireland. and the Tuatha de Danann are a potent reminder to us all that Ireland is founded on immigration. She herself lies scattered throughout world cultures, a truly multi-cultural multi-ethnic symbol of human imagination. St Brigit’s Day or Lá Fhéile Bhríde in Irish, was known as Imbolc in pre-christian Ireland. Imbolc means ‘in belly’ and refers to the fertility of mother earth in spring. As the global womb now swells warmer each year, perhaps Brigit, as the ‘fiery arrow’ of human activity, may yet reveal her meaning to us. But by then, of course, we will have returned to darkness.

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