Brigid – Celtic Goddess or Christian Saint?

by Emma Ní Dhulaing


“The hour of consecration having arrived, the veil was raised by the angels from the hand of Mac Caille, the minister, and is placed on the head of Saint Brigit… The bishop being intoxicated with the grace of God there did not recognize what he was reading from his book, for he consecrated Brigit with the orders of a bishop.[i]


Saint Brigit of Kildare was no ordinary medieval female saint.  Legend has her canonised with  Episcopal powers (see above).  She was often linked with St. Patrick and St. Columcille, as part of the ‘Triade of the Irish Conversion period’.[ii]  She is accredited with many miracles; healing lepers,[iii] deaf mutes,[iv]turning water into ale,[v]or milk, miraculous food production e.g., the opening miracle in Cogitosis’ Life, where she gave away all the butter she had churned to the poor, yet when she was called to produce a full yield, she was able to do so.[vi]  Along with St. Patrick, her devotions and customs have survived to the present day.

The 1st of Februrary, which is known as  Lá Fhéile Bríde (St. Brigit’s Day), or Imbolg, is still celebrated today as her feast day.  Imbolg or Oímelg means ‘lactation’ in Old Irish, and is based on a term used by husbandmen and pastoralists.[vii]  Food production is a central feature of her cult, both in her lives written in the early Medieval period and in the customs and folklore practiced around her cult up to the present day.  The fact that Brigit the saint has the same name as an earlier Irish Goddess has lead to people linking the two, and considering the Goddess Brighid to be the precursor of St. Brigit.  In other words, St. Brigit is seen as a christianised version of the pagan Goddess Brighid.

However, this approach is problematic.  For one thing, very little is known about this Goddess Brighid.  She is mentioned in a gloss by Cormac Mac Cuilennáin (a 9th Century glossator):

“Brigit, i.e. the poetess (ban-file), daughter of the Dagdae. This is Brigit the female seer or woman of insight… i.e the goddess whom poets (filid) used to worship… her sisters were Brigit the woman of leechcraft (bé legis) and Brigit the woman of smithcraft (bé ngoibnechta), i.e. goddesses, i.e. three daughters of the Dagdae are they.  By their names the goddess Brigit was called by all the Irish”[viii]

There is no direct connection between this Goddess and the food production aspect of the saint’s cult and worship.  It is too simplistic to declare that Brigit the Goddess was christianized into Brigit the saint.  For one thing, we are dealing with a historical figure – St. Brigit of Kildare.  Ó hÓgáin claims that this saint christianized an earlier Pagan sanctuary located near an oak tree; hence the name Cill Dara, or church/cell of the oak.[ix]

The name Brigit (lit. ‘Exalted One’)[x] could also be considered as a title of the leading lady, or abbess of Kildare.  As a saint, Brigit was closely associated with Mary,[xi] and was canonized as a bishop,[xii]  both signs of her exalted and special position.  It is tempting to see this exalted position as an inheritance of the position of the pre-Christian Goddess Brigit.  However, there was a political motivation for exalting the position of St. Brigit, the founding saint of Kildare Abbey.  From the early 7th Century, Kildare, being located strategically in a “…fulcrum of political power”,[xiii] and drawing upon it’s status as a historical religious site and Early Christian foundation, controlled substantial economic and political resources.[xiv]  At this time, Kildare was expanding, and claiming itself “…head of almost all the Irish churches with supremacy over all the monasteries and a paruchia which extended over the whole island reaching from sea to sea.”[xv]  Kildare was doing this at the same time that Armagh was claiming it’s own supremacy under the banner of St. Patrick.[xvi]

St. Brigit’s miracles of healing, food production, and her patronage of childbirth appear to be the functions of a Mother Goddess.  Perhaps St. Brigit did take over and Christianize these functions and aspects of female divinity.  However, there is no proof or evidence that the Goddess Brigit possessed these functions or powers.  The Brigit of leechcraft could be linked to the healing miracles, but leechcraft is a medicinal form of healing rather than a miraculous form.  There are biblical parallels for St. Brigits miracles of healing (i.e. the gospels) and food production,[xvii] as well as other aspects of her life, i.e. her bondmaid mother can be linked to Hagar, the slave girl of Abraham’s wife Sarah.[xviii]

The extensive fire symbolism and the fire miracles around St. Brigit are the strongest link between the shadowy triple Goddess mentioned in the glossary, and the virginal saint.  One of the three Brigits was “…Brigit the woman of smithcraft…”  Fire is necessary to smith metals; not only is fire necessary, it is necessary to control fire to produce objects from seemingly impalpable ores and rocks – an apparently magical process.  The symbolism of fire in St. Brigit’s life can be considered both as signs of earlier Pagan practices which had been absorbed into her cult, and as Christian symbols in themselves.  The first fire miracle appears in Bethu Brigte: Broiscech, Brigit’s mother, goes out to milk and leaves Brigit alone in the house sleeping.  The house goes on fire, yet when people rush to rescue the girl, both she and the house are found intact.[xix] St. Ita[xx] and St. Daig[xxi] also endured the same ‘trial by fire’.  This imperviousness to fire displays the saints control over the element of fire; here the connection with smithcraft is evident.

The famous perpetual fire of St. Brigit at Kildare Abbey (mentioned by Cambrensis)[xxii] is another example of the uses of fire in Brigit’s cult.  The four even-armed cross, which is central to her cult, has from ancient times symbolized the sun, or a Solar deity.[xxiii]  In the vast body of customs built up around St. Brigit, fire, or the hearth take a central role.[xxiv]  A bed set up for Bríd beside the fire[xxv], and a practice of prayer to Bríd whilst covering glowing turf embers with ashes to save the fire over night, called ‘smooring the fire’ are some of the rituals and observances carried out at the time of Lá Fhéile Bríde.[xxvi]

McCone and Ó Catháin view the fire symbolism (amongst other factors) as Pagan in origin.  Fire, being essential to survival, was a very important symbol and aspect of divine manifestation to the pre-Christian inhabitants of Ireland.  This is evident from the story of St. Patrick lighting the Easter Fire at the Hill of Tara, Co. Meath.  He is depicted as using and perverting the historically established Pagan rites and practices of Tara to proclaim the supremacy of himself and his god over the Pagans of Ireland.[xxvii]

Fire was also deeply symbolic in the Christian tradition.  It symbolizes the power and presence of The Holy Spirit,[xxviii] an elusive and ill defined part of the quasi triple god of the Christian montheon.  In both Pagan and Christian cosmologies, fire is representative of the illumination of mind and spirit and of divinity.[xxix]  In the process of it’s development and metastazisation, Christianity absorbed many local Pagan customs, practices and beliefs.  Christian writers and clerics tried to eradicate these many times over the centuries.  However, they would have tolerated or encouraged anything which did not run counter to their beliefs, or lay within their own core cultural and personal beliefs.[xxx]  The continuation of fire symbolism is one example of this,  The continuation of the art of poetry is another example.  It must also be remembered that the monks and scribes, although Christian, were culturally Irish.  They would have been unable to reject their entire cultural heritage, even though they wished to Christianize the world they lived within.

There was definitely a Goddess called Brigit.  It is also glaringly evident that there was a continuation of Pagan practices hidden under a Christian veneer.  However, the powers and attributes of St. Brigit are not necessarily a reflection of the Goddess Brighid.  St. Brigit may have inherited or absorbed her Mother Goddess aspects from a different Mother Goddess (e.g. Anú), and also from her association with the Christian hidden Goddess Mary.[xxxi]  Her connection with milk production, butter and the protection of herds,[xxxii] although it reflects the dairy dependent medieval pastorial economy, may also in symbolic and cultural motifs derive from the cult of an earlier bovine aspected Goddess (such as Bóannd, Goddess of the Boyne Valley and River – is Gaelic for a cow).  That is not to say that the cult of St. Brigit deliberately absorbed ritual practices and attributes of rival deities, although this is not implausible.  It is evident from a study of the figure of St. Brigit, that she was involved in many different stages of life; i.e. as a hospitaller, a helper of kings on the battlefield,[xxxiii] a protectress of women during child birth,[xxxiv] a healer and a preacher[xxxv] etc.

As the Pagan Irish culture changed into a Christian culture, the Christian body of belief, customs and ritual would have had to adapt to accommodate the needs of the culture and economy it found itself within.  People still turned to and needed the presence of a strong female divinity; without mother Goddesses, they would have transferred this to Mary.  The Pagan Gods and Goddesses who oversaw the multifarious aspects of day to day life would have left huge gaps in their wakes, hence the incorporation of Pagan practices within Christianity.

It is worthwhile to consider the observation of Dorothy Ann Bray.  She contends that the familiar figure of the Goddess Brigit was redefined in terms familiar to the now emerging Christian culture.  She compares the development of St. Brigit’s cult to the development of the cult of the Virgin Mary.  She is worth quoting at length:

“Like the Virgin Mary, Brigit is a complex figure invested with the image and attributes of ancient deities, but interpreted within Christian tradition, and this development illustrates the tendency to interpret the world according to that which is familiar to a culture.”[xxxvi]

St. Brigit’s pre-eminent position amongst the female saints of Ireland made her a focus for worship of female divinity; in a culture based on tribal loyalties, her local origins also led to her exaltation to a position beside Mary.  To conclude Brigit was both a Pagan Goddess and a Christian saint, but it must be remembered that the saint was a very different figure from the Pagan Goddess.

[i]        Ó hAodha, Donncha, Bethu Brighte, Dublin, 1978, pp.  24.

[ii]      (Szöverry, J.’Some Stages of the St.Columba Traditions in the Middle Ages’, Medieval Notes and Extracts from the Archives from Medieval Poetry.7. Publications of hte Archives for Medieval \poetry: Second Series. Boston/Randolph, Mass., 1998. pp. 1- 28.) from Ó Catháin, Séamus. The Festival of Brigit. Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman. Blackrock, Dublin,1995, pp.132

[iii]      Ó hAodha, pp. 25.

[iv]      Connolly, Séan and Michael Picard. ‘”Cogitosis’ Life of St. Brígit, Content and Value”. Journal of the Royal        Society of Antiquities of Ireland, 117 (1987), pp. 16.

[v]      Connolly & Picard, pp. 15-16; Ó hAodha, pp. 24-25.

[vi]      Connolly & Picard, pp. 13.

[vii]     Ó hÓgáin, Dáithi. The Sacred Isle: Belief and Religion in pre-Christian Ireland. Cork, (1999)., pp. 199.

[viii]    McCone, Kim. Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature. Maynooth, 1990, pp.162.

[ix]      Ó hÓgáin, pp. 202.

[x]      Ibid.

[xi]      Bray, pp.108; Ó Catháin, pp.’s 8-10, 54-5, 68, 132, 146-147; Ó hÓgáin, pp.202.

[xii]     Ó hAodha, pp. 24.

[xiii]    Ó Cróinín, Dáibhi. Early Medieval Ireland. 400 – 1200. London and New York: Longman, 1995, pp. 157.

[xiv]    Ibid.

[xv]     Connolly & Picard, pp’s. 7, 11.

[xvi]    Ó Cróinín, pp’s 154-156.

[xvii]    Bray, pp.’s 105,107; McCone, pp.s 174-175.

[xviii]   Bray, pp. 109.

[xix]    Ó hAodha, pp. 20.

[xx]     Bray pp.106.

[xxi]    McCone, pp.164.

[xxii]    McCone, pp.164.

[xxiii]   Bray, pp.106..

[xxiv]   Ó Catháin, chap 3. (see also Ó Caitháin, Séamus. ‘Hearth Prayers and Other Traditionsof Brigit: Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman.’ Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquities of Ireland, pp. 122 (1992), 12-34).

[xxv]    Ó Catháin, pp.54-55

[xxvi] . Ó Catháin, pp.53

[xxvii]. Ó hÓgáin, pp.’s 198, 200-201.

[xxviii]  Bray. pp. 105.

[xxix]   Ibid.

[xxx]    Ó hÓgáin, pp. 201.

[xxxi]   Bray, pp. 108.

[xxxii]  Ó Catháin, pp.249.

[xxxiii]  McCone, pp. 161.

[xxxiv]  Bray, pp. 107.

[xxxv]  Connolly & Picard, pp.9.

[xxxvi]  Bray, pp. 108.

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