Introduction to Brigith
The many goddesses that still exist today are worshiped by modern Wiccans and pagans. They are ancient, powerful beings of the Celtic mythos that have survived the test of time and religious infection. The Celtic pantheon is many-layered with its Dagda, mother goddess, and the Tuatha De Danan.
The history has been lost over time with the conversation of the Celts all across the globe to Catholic Christianity. Many places of Celtic worship are also far more ancient than we can fathom. What we have left are stories, myths, and legends.
The ones to have survived longest are the deities that were translated over into the coming, and soon to be dominant, Christian religion the Romans brought to Ireland in their conquests. The Celtic people were not segregated to just Ireland, Scotland, and the surrounding area such as Wales. The Celts were also a Germanic, Slavic, and Greek people with tribes also in modern day Spain (Expedia).
They were most active in around 4000 B.C. and well into the Bronze Age. But for this project, I will focus on the Irish Celts.
Common knowledge among some is the wide range of female deities the Celts worshiped. No matter the tribe, it can be safely assumed that most if not all Celts worshiped the Mother Goddess, Danu, and the Dagda in some form another.
Ancient statues of goddesses have been found as evidence of female worship and symbolizing fertility in many other cultures as well. One of these worshiped and long loved goddesses was Brigith. She has many other names over time and landscape, but for the purpose of minimal confusion, I will refer to her as Brigith.
Brigith was thought to be the daughter of the Dagda, but not the Mother Goddess Danu as she has no surviving myths or texts. Brigith was not just a goddess, though, she was part of the Tuatha De Danan who were the good spirits of nature from the Otherworld.
Their enemies were typically the bad spirits of nature the Fomorians. In the absence of Danu, Brigith is often credited as the Mother Goddess herself as she is also a triple goddess: maiden, mother, and crone. In some stories, she has two sisters who take on her other personalities and meaning, but for the most part, Brigith is one goddess with a triple self.
She is of the Tuathea De Danan and is, therefore, Otherworldy. She is a spirit goddess of earth and fertility in this respect. As a daughter of the Dagda, the All-father, she may also be aligned with the Mother Mary in the Christian stories who also holds some power and respect as the mother of a mortal God. As a saint, Brigith also holds Christlike powers that will be discussed as well.
In short, however, Brigith both the saint and the goddess, were powerful female figures as were many Celtic women. In an article by Lisa M. Bitel, the author Kim McCone is quoted from her book Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature saying that Brigith is the most powerful female religious figure in all of Irish history, and that she is “a suitable patron for the Irish women’s liberation movement” (Bitel 209).
Looking into the stories of the goddess Brigith and the Celtic equality shared by men and women we will see a new definition of feminism. The Celtic women of history will prove that men and women were equal and that the Celts, unlike many religions ancient and new, saw women as equals and as being worthy of divine worship.
Then we will examine the life and images of Saint Brigid. Scholars have done a fair amount of research on her and most tell the same stories with the same argument: she was powerful because she was a woman. She was calm and waited for the opportune moment to reveal her plans for justice. In all ways, Brigith and Saint Brigid are ideal role models for feminists who wish to be taken seriously today.
The Celtic Woman
Unlike our modern day belief, the Celts worshiped women and there was next to no discrimination among them. The ancient Irish, and others, understood the value and necessity of the female population. They sometimes worked in government and were also spiritual leaders and community heads or tribal leaders.
There are two well-known warrior women from the Celtic past who prove that women were not shunned or put away to thought lowly of as opposed to the Greeks who, despite having goddesses are not recorded as having been allowed in roles of leadership.
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Sgathach was a warrior woman from Scotland who lead many men to war while the Romans invaded. Boudicca is by far the more famous of the two as she has two statues in Europe created for her glory. Her daughters were also well-known women of rank even were named heirs to their father’s estate.
Sgathach was a women warrior who ran a training school in what is now Scotland. Women were recorded as having taken part in the final battle against Caius Suetonius Paulinus when he advanced upon the druid stronghold on what is now the Isle of Skye. She is credited with having trained the most famous and powerful of Celtic men Cúchulainn (Green 31).
He was thought to be the incarnation of the god Ildanach because he was so powerful. She was also thought of as a prophetess, which author Miranda Green says has links to power and female warriors. She quotes Strabo the ancient scribe saying that there were women who would enter a military camp with gray hair and sword in hand, spill
the blood of a prisoner and foretell the future of the battle to come. Strabo and Tacitus both say that the Germans whom they witnessed had a particular sanctity about them (Green 148). We will see in other articles that scholars agree with this notion of female power as well such as Lisa Bitel and Edward Sellner.
Boudicca (or Boadicea) was the best known woman of this class. She is honored to the present for leading the last major revolt against the Romans in Britain. She was the wife of Prasutagus who was a client-king of the Iceni tribe in Norfolk (Green 31). A client-king was someone who had established diplomatic relations with the Romans (Texas Coritani).
When her husband Prasutagus died, she became ruler of the Iceni. Prasutagus had established diplomatic relations with the Romans following their invasion of the island. He decided to submit to the Romans, and in his will he left a large portion of his land to the Romans but named his two teenage daughters as his heirs.
Boudicca was designated as the regent until they should come of age (Texas Coritani). However, Boudicca was not satisfied with that and proclaimed herself the tribal leader of her Inceni people. None of the scholars or historians I read mentioned why she did this. If she was enraged at her husband’s placidity or was just biding her time are unknown.
She challenged the imperial authority and was flogged and her two daughters were raped for their treason (Green 32). According to Green and other sources, Boudicca amazed an army, lighting a fire under them though speeches and proclaiming the unfair taxes and land grabs, and marched on Camuldunum, London, and Verulamium before she was finally defeated near her own home.
Green and many online scholars show us through a historical look at female leaders that there was little to no discrimination. German and Irish governments held many prophetesses among their ranks for guidance. Brigith, being associated with poetry, is also therefore linked to prophecy.
Prophets are normally seen as men, but that was rarely the case in ancient Ireland and Germany (Green 147-148). These women display liminality just like Brigith. They are part of two worlds, acting in both.
Boudicca is still honored in the Europe today with this statue by the river Thames. The chariot is armed with scythe-wheels, made for mowing down footmen, horses, and anyone else who dare get too close. In the back of the chariot, we can see her daughters riding with her.
It is worth noting that Boudicca and her daughters are depicted as feminine in this statue. With long flowing hair, smooth arms, and garbed in gowns, they are not armored like a man. Boudicca bears a spear but does not take on a man’s dress or a man’s style to lead her armies.
As is evident in the stories of Sgathach and Boudicca (just two of at least five well-known Celtic warrior women) women were on equal footing with men in all that mattered, as tribal leaders, warriors, and land-holders. Even in marriage, since it was not strictly a religious act as it is today, women were able to leave a man with no lawful or spiritual consequences.
After what is called a handfasting ceremony, the women and men were considered partners. Handfasting is misconceived as a marriage. In the old days, it was a temporary marriage that held for one year. After that, if the man and woman decided it was right, they would become officially married.
Only after the Romans took over did the woman become the property of the man and not able to leave a man she deemed unfit. Historian Jean Markale explains that this was because “Celtic marriage was essentially contractual, social, not at all religious, but based on the freedom of the husband and wife” (Texas Coritani).
Julius Caesar wrote that he noticed Celtic men having power over the life or death of their wives. The evidence actually suggests otherwise, that women held powerful roles in society.
As we can see, women were tough, fierce, and powerful. But it wasn’t all swords, warfare, and women taking on what we would call men’s roles. No, these women were female, and they gloried in that. Today, women are told, and believe, that they have to take on a man’s appearance or mannerisms or toughness to be taken seriously. Or to take away a man’s manliness in order for her to feel equal.
Sgathach did no such thing. She did not attack men’s training schools or castrate men in the hear of battle. Boudicca did not defy her husband when he submitted to the Romans and called him a coward. She brought people to her side by a want for freedom from the invaders. She bided her time and then rose up, taking back what was hers—and her husband’s.
Brigith is our prime example of female and feminine strength as embodies even more so the power of feminine traits. She does not take up the sword as the women who worshiped her did, but she does not bend a knee to men or overlording powers.
She is the power, and her power comes from her femininity as Sellner says; she does not have the typical female saint back story—she is not royal she is a peasant. Most female saints have to come from a noble background, and she does not. She is not a male saint, so she does not have the Christian patriarchal powers.
Her power, Sellner says, is in mercy, healing, generosity, and compassion—all typically female traits (414).
Brigith as Goddess: Maiden, Mother, Crone
Like most Celtic deities and histories, Brigith was eventually taken and changed under Roman rule. She started out as a triple goddess, a mother goddess of the land and the people, and was adapted to a mortal saint. However, even the Christian Brigid is not one to be crossed and looked down upon as a sweet, passive saintly woman. She is associated with fire for a reason.
There are not really any origin stories for the goddess other than her father being the Dagda and her mother being the elusive Danu. Much of what we know about the goddess is quite likely heavily influenced by modern Wiccans and Pagans who follow the Celtic pantheon.
As is evident throughout most histories, the side that wins is often the one who writes the histories, and much of Celtic myth and legend is left over from the oral traditions since many of their teachings were wiped out. And as with most mythological figures, pinpointing the source for most stories is difficult.
But there are a few elements most storytellers agree on. Druidry.org says she is perhaps the most complex and contradictory goddess of all the Celtic deities. But this is also what adds to her liminal power and makes her one of the strongest figures in all Celtic myth.
Celebrated as one of the creators of Earth, Brigith heard Earth crying in an abyss and convinced her fellow deities for the venture into the darkness to find the source of the weeping. Earth told Brigith that it longed for beauty and so Bright sung Ireland into being (Johnson-Sheehan 236).
She is thus sometimes called the Mother Goddess as the head of all the pantheon, but not all worshippers believe that. She is one of the many, albeit the one who convinced the other gods, who created the earth and it was her persuasion that led the others to follower into the darkness to save Earth.
Brigith is a triple goddess, representing the three stagers of womanhood: the maiden (young girl), mother (caretaker and healer) and crone (authority). She is also the goddess of healing, poetry, and smithcraft. This is of note as Brigith a liminal figure, standing both in the dangerous and war-arts but also as a poet and healer.
She has many names as well over the years as she has been taken on by many tribes (including the Picts and the Vikings). One modern day priestess wrote this on her website dedicated to Brigith to give us a sample of all of her names:
“Variant forms of her name include Brid, Bride, Brighid, Brigit, pronounced either as "breed" or with a softened "g" sound. She is also known as Brigantia, Briginda, and Brigdu. Her Welsh name in Ffraid. Her modern name is Brigit or Bridget as derived from her Christianization into St. Bridget.
Her name, Brighid, thought to be derived from Bhrati in Sanskrit, is originally an epithet meaning "exalted one." The Romans equated Brighid with Minerva, and she can be similarly equated with the Greek Athena” (Chow).
She has many names, spanning many countries. This affirms her liminality eve more, across a wider range of cultures. She has so many sides to her liminality that it is too expansive for anyone essay or book even. The cultures have a large impact and would change the meaning of her liminality. But her liminality is strengthened by this range of names.
Brigith’s triple goddess form allows her to be loved by a woman or worshiper in all stages of her life. She is a girl of arts and words, a mother of healing, and a crone of war and weapons. Her poetry is not just words of love or art, but also allow her to be a goddess of prophecy which we will see in her saint form.
Women are often prophets in myth and lore and the goddess and her priestesses were no exception. She is also sometimes called the Sister of the Mantel, in which is represented her virgin state. A maiden virgin was sacred in many ways to the Celts in that they were pure and not of this physical world.
They were closer tied to the Other or the Tuatha De Danan. But this was just a phase that would disappear with age and experience. It was not a symbol of shame to not be a virgin to the Celts. That meant that you were ready to bear children, also seen as one of the most sacred acts.
As the goddess of healing, she is linked with fertility and childbirth as well. In some stories of Brigith, a sacred white cow with red ears is a symbol of her blessing. Her blood (the red ears) was a healing force and the milk was pure and gave strength to any who drank it. February first is also Imbolg (later Saint Brigit’s Day).
As a goddess of smithcraft, she is associated with fire, which we will also see in her saint form. She was charged with guiding the forge fire, which would, in turn, strengthen the weapons of those she favored in battle. Often altars would be built in honor of Brigith before battle in legendary tales and the fire would be maintained until victory. For her flaming symbol, she is often called the Bright One.
Lastly, she is also the warrior goddess later called Brigantia. She was “venerated not only as justice and authority in that country, but also as the personification of Britain as is seen on the coin of the realm” (Druidry.org). There is also a modern-day statue of the warrior goddess at Plymouth Hoe where she is so Roman it is hard to image it was ever the Celtic Brigith.
She is not holding anything to symbolize her pagan roots and is instead wearing a Corinthian helmet and holding a trident, standing next to a lion. But her name, Brigantia, is inscribed underneath her. She may look Roman, but she maintains her liminality with her name.
Brigit the Mortal Saint
According to some scholars, around the seventh century AD a monk by the name of Cogitosus wrote a piece called Vita Brigitae or The Life go Brigit. In it, Cogitosus writes of her miracles and a little about her upbringing. Although no one can decide on when Saint Brigit was living, it is usually agreed on between the fourth and seventh centuries.
Literally every source will tell you a different date. The dates become confusing because some say that her monastery at Kildare was built in roughly 490 AD. But since the original building was destroyed in the twelfth century, we cannot know.
According to a free sheet provided to tourists to Kildare Cathedral, it was continuously rebuilt but always devastated again; supposedly 16 times before the people of Kildare gave up on it.
Before the temple, however, there was a slave woman who was impregnated by her master. She gave birth to the child whilst passing through a doorway and then washed (in some stories) the child in the milk from a white cow with red ears.
“Irish Christianity preserved and incorporated many practices of Celtic culture and religion” Johnson-Sheehan tells us in his article on “Rhetoric on Myth, Magic, and Conversion: A Prolegomena to Ancient Irish Rhetoric” (234).
In her translation to Christian legend, Brigit’s rhetoric comes into play. She is basically an Irish hero, according to Johnson-Sheehan’s idea that there are four core values to being a hero: courage, generosity, loyalty, and beauty (238).
Looking at the life of the saint, we can see all four of Johnson-Sheehan’s tropes but also what the figure of Brigit is saying about liminality.
According to Green, after Brigit was born, she was given away by her ashamed father to a druid who raised her. This is also a show of her liminality because she was a Christian woman raised by a druid. But the druid’s food made her ill and had to be fed instead the milk from a white cow with red ears.
Green notes this significance because colored animals were only symbolic to the Otherworld (the Tuathe De Danan) (Green 199). This could show either the Celtic influence in the saint’s life or that Brigit the saint was also liminal, living in two worlds at once.
Cogitosus starts his life of Brigit off with a small line about her liminality was well: “The woman of whom I tell, then, grew in virtue, remarkably, and the fame of her good deeds attracted innumerable people of both sexes to come from all the territories of Ireland and gather to her willingly making their votive offerings” (Cogitosus).
The monk knew well that Brigit was admired and worshiped by both sexes, there being little no discrimination among the deities in old Celtic religion. This was happily leaked over into the Christian story as well.
Men did not look down on Brigit and when they dared to try her in her life stories, they ended up begging her for forgiveness. Most scholars cite Cogitosus and so shall I for reference to Brigit’s miracles.
Green goes on to discuss Saint Brigit’s liminality on page 199. “Brigit’s liminal imagery is intense and manifests itself in various ways. She belonged to both pagan and Christian worlds; she was born at sunrise, her mother straddling a threshold at the precise moment of her birth; one parent…was of noble lineage…her mother was a slave…this increases her symbolism as a being linked to two words”.
Although some scholars say her father was not of noble rank (as most saint’s parents were) he was at least a man of some wealth as he had slaves.
Cogitosus does not write much on Brigit’s birth but his telling of her life is divided up by miracle. Brigit’s miracles were Christlike and no other female saint has performed so similarly to Jesus. Yes they are very “female” miracles but they are equal to that of a god or man.
She healed lepers, turned water into ale, healed broken women, multiplied food, and most like Christ, her blood healed as well when she was wounded. She also parted a river. While journeying with some female companions, they came to a river in a rival land and the army refused to help them cross so Brigit parted the waters and left according to some scholars.
According to Cogitosus though, she moved a river to wash over thieves who had stolen her cattle (213).
She never did preach like a man or administer the Eucharist, but she never complained about it and it never daunted her followers. No one cared that she couldn’t do what a man could do, because men were not doing what Brigit was doing.
However, she often spoke to crowds and had her own monastery at Kildare. Preaching is still largely a man’s field and owning land is almost unheard of during Brigit’s time inside most Romen-esqu civilizations. Her commanding crowds showed that her follows saw her as a liminal, powerful figure.
She did not have the claim to royalty like her fellow female saints. She didn’t get status by marriage either. These were two normal ways gained influence. Brigit did it all herself through her own abilities, not taking on the roles of men.
She was also equal with Patrick and was his partner in some stories. But Patrick did not have Brigit’s powers. Not even close. He often took Brigit with him so she could interpret nature and perform miracles (Bitel 219, 221).
While Patrick was busy expelling snakes, Brigit was taken into wars and battles, most notably the invasion of the Ui Neill. With Brigit’s staff held out before them her pillar of fire shooting to heaven, the King of Leinster was able to win 30 battles (Bitel 222).
The saint’s liminality is shown mostly in her images. We’ve seen the change in her image also made by the Romans when they took Brigith as their own as well. When the Christians adopted Brigith, they kept her meaning and triple goddess form. She is always depicted with some form of a flame.
As we have said, this was the image of the fire-forge/smithcraft goddess. In this image, we can see she is surrounded by crops as well, showing her power over the Earth and her abundance. The book in her arm is most likely the Holy Bible, and that can be equated back to her goddess form of poetry.
Also, the saint’s cross is liminal. For the pagan cross, we see it has three points. This is also to represent the triskelion, a magic symbol used to represent the goddess (or the three top gods depending on the celebration and use of cross). But this cross is Brigith’s alone.
When it transferred to Christian religion (it now has four points, like most Christian crosses, and also symbolizes the cross of Jesus. However, Saint Brigit’s cross is also a sun cross or solar cross. This was a symbol used in many ancient religions in astronomy and astrology.
It may have also been a symbol of a chariot wheel of many sun gods. However, the tie to Brigith lies in that the Celts tied the symbol around their crops for protection (Green 199).
Lastly, Brigith and Brigit are prophets, wise teachers normally seen as men. Brigith and her poetry are often associated with prophecy. As Sheehan-Johnson says in his article, the druids were teachers of poetry and orality. They were also practitioners of magic and divination.
They believed that power was in their words. Green calls the poet-seers filidh and not druids, however. In her young age, Saint Brigit would mutter prophecies in her sleep, and the druid who raised her and the holy men who brought the news of her sacredness to her adopted father pointed the omens and portents that showed her future as a holy woman.
The Liminal Gathering
Victor Turner wrote a book in 1974 called Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors. In this work, Turner shows how liminality is a cultural manifestation of communitas, or an unstructured community. In this work, he relates liminality from where he says it started (in ritualistic cultures) to modern day communities.
We know from study that the Celts had very structured societies and governments but their gods and goddesses came from a much more unstable world perhaps. So instead, Turner says that these communities had marginality. He emphasizes, however, that marginality should be concerned with being a true outsider.
He says that outsiders are not liminal; they are not straddling the line. They are outside. True outsiders in our day are “shamans, diviners, medium, priests, those in monastic seclusion, hippies, hoboes, and gypsies” (Turner 233). This can be seen in both versions of Brigith and Brigit. She is not just one or the other.
Even the woman herself is both immortal goddess and the mortal woman. Turner’s definition of liminality is on page 237:
...liminality represents the midpoint of transition in a status sequence between two positions, outsiderhood refers to actions and relationships which do not flow from a recognized social status but originate outside it…
What Turner is saying is that liminality originates within a societal community. Brigith originated inside the Celtic religion and at some midpoint transitioned into Christian story as well. She is not an outsider, whom Turner says must start outside the community. An Outsider is not recognized in a certain society, but both societies recognize Brigith. She is not an outsider. According to Turner, she is a liminal figure.
Some mythological beings don’t make it far in their original form like Brigith has. They are more marginal and don’t have the weight and meaning of liminality on their shoulders.
According to Turnr, marginals are to not be confused with what he calls liminers or liminal entities. “Marginals like liminars are also betwixt and between, but unlike ritual liminars they have no cultural assurance of a final stable resolution of their ambiguity” (Turner 233).
This is the kind of liminality Brigith and Brigit are. There is no resolution an they have not faded away. They have a very strong cultural assurance. Both existed in two different kinds of mythos, but both are ambiguous. Especially if one wants to know which act was Brigith and which act was Brigit. The stories intermingle and spread over continents, assuring her place of power and memory.
He also says, “it is the analysis of culture into factors and their free recombination in any and every possible pattern, however weird, that is most characteristic of liminality” (Turner 255). He says that if we investigate a cutler, we can see the influence from other cultures and how the ideas have been combined to create the society we see now.
He says that is the true characteristic of liminality. Where today, keyboard warriors would call that approbation, researchers and open-minded investigators would call it liminality. Some might think, and even hate the fact, that the Christians “stole” (and the Romans) the Celtic gods and goddesses, holidays, and stories. That can be argued.
However, let’s us say instead that the deities are liminal. After all, Brigit is still the saint of crops, fire, and poetry. She hasn’t changed much. The recombination in any and every possible pattern is what makes a new society, no matter how strange, Turner says.
Brigith and Brigit have lasted through Romanization and Christianization and the test of time (considering the lack of writing the ancient Irish did), coming out as even more liminal than before. She is a pied puzzle of many places, people, and times. We can only really understand her through liminality.
Conclusion: Say Liminal, Don’t Say Appropriation
Liminality means endless structures, endless ideas, and societies to be made. Like a storyteller gathers ideas from life, other stories, songs, or ancient legends for one single narrative, so a society may gather parts of other societies.
Turner repeated that liminal communities are gathered from unstructured societies, but that is not necessarily true in all cases as we see with the Celts, they were a very structured society.
It could instead be said that liminality is the gathering from structured communities into an unstructured community (of ideas) in order to create a new one. This sharing of ideas opens up new ideas, and lets learners see through various lenses.
There is no harm or malice in Brigith’s liminality. She was always liminal; between two ideas, two religions, two gender roles. She has given willingly to many cultures. Rather than saying she is appropriated, we can say that she is liminal. As we have seen, her liminality has been displayed through even her goddess life.
She was not stolen or appropriated. She is liminal: between and among, belonging to both, created from the societies she has belonged to. She shared her culture rather than condemning those who wanted her. Liminality helps societies be more understood and more easily accepted. It also opens the doors for greater knowledge and shared ideas.
Ancient Irish history shows us that women had power typically associated with men before the Roman invasion and the Christianization. Some of the ancient power has survived through Boudicca, the living St. Brigit, and the pagan worship of Brigith in modern times.
The goddess Brigith was liminal in her power, wielding fire, prophecy, and fertility. The symbols of her life show how she is between the fairy world and the physical one. St Brigit is Celtic and Christian, her powers going with her to the side of the church. She also owned land and spoke to crowds, leading men and going into war.
Her liminality shows us that societies can merge, barrow from one another, and still remain strong. Liminars are not polluted ideas, not appropriated, but are just mixed, creating something new.
- Aldhouse-Green, Miranda J. Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins, and Mothers. New York: G. Braziller, 1996. Print.
- Bitel, Lisa. "Body of a Saint, Story of a Goddess: Origins of the Brigidine Tradition." JSTOR. Textual Practice. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.
- Bridge, Mael and Cogitosus. "Brigit's Sparkling Flame." : Vita Sanctae Brigitae: Cogitosus's Life of Brigit. Blogger, 30th Jan. 2015. Web. 5 Mar. 2016.
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- Walker, Stephanie. "Brigit Of Kildare as She Is: A Study of Biographical Image." JSTOR. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.