Sunday, February 1, 2009

Imbolc and Là Fhèill Brìghde

Having Celtic roots, I have always had a fascination and respect for the Celtic Goddess Brigid, or Bríde as she is sometimes called. Today is Imbolc, also known as St. Brigid’s Day. I wanted to give readers a little background on today and what it means, plus share a little bit about why I find this particular Goddess and her namesake, St. Brigid, so interesting, and why I feel honored to have been blessed by their mercy and love.

The beginning of February marks the first of the Quarter Days. These Quarter Days, as they are called in Scotland, are the basis of the ancient agricultural calendar used by the Celts in Britain and Ireland. Some scholars believe the four-fold division of the year may be pre-Celtic in origin.

The four Quarter Days, in Scottish Gaelic, are Samhainn (Nov. 1), Là Fhèill Brìghde (Feb. 1), Bealtainn (May 1) and Là Lùnasdal (Aug. 1). Their English equivalents are All Hallows, Candlemas, May Day, and Lammas.

An early Gaelic name for the February festival is Imbolc or Oímealg, This name is well known to students of Celtic mythology, but the festival itself is universally known in the Gaelic world today as Là Fhèill Brìghde.

Là Fhèill Brìghde is the beginning of spring, the time when milk began to flow in the udders of ewes that would soon give birth to lambs. It was time to prepare for the farming and fishing that would resume after Bealtainn.

A variety of traditions are associated with Brigid’s day, but in most places Brigid herself was invited to come into the house and bless the household.

“Oh Brìde, Brìdeag, come with the wand to this wintry land; and breathe with the breath of Spring so bland, Brìde, Brìde, little Brìde.”

This traditional rhyme, a translation from Scottish Gaelic, is found in Sheila Livingstone’s Scottish Customs (Birlinn Ltd., Edinburgh, 1996). “Brìde” is a more modern form of the Gaelic name Brìghde, pronounced something close to “Bree-jah.” Similar rhymes are found in Ireland and the Isle of Man.

Now who was Brìde? Let’s start with St. Brigid, or Naomh Brìde, before turning to the identity of the more ancient goddess, Brigid. According to medieval sources, Brìde was born in Ireland about 455 A.D., near what is now the town of Newry, the daughter of a druid named Dubhtach.

Although raised pagan, she became a Christian and was ordained by Moel, bishop of Ardagh. During this time in Ireland, many pagans were brought into the Christian faith, as Roman Catholicism adopted or adapted many of the same festivals as the pagans they intended to convert.

She founded several religious communities, including the settlement at Kildare (Cill Dara, which means the Church of the Oak). Her popularity spread far and wide, reaching wherever the Gaels settled.

St. Brigid was known in Irish as Muire na nGael, or “Mary of the Gaels.” In Scotland a belief spread that she was present at the birth of Jesus, and assisted Mary as midwife, which might be how she came to be called the banaltrum or nursemaid of Christ.

My favorite story about St. Brigid shows her charity and kindness. Her father, angered by Brigid for constantly giving his possessions to the poor, and food from his table to stray, starving dogs, brings her to Dunlaing, the king of all Leinster, in hopes of selling her into the king’s service to work in the mill with other slaves. While waiting outside the royal estate, a leper and beggar comes up to Brigid and asks for alms.

Having no money, Brigid takes her father’s ornamented sword (which by custom had to be left in their carriage while he saw the king), and gives it to the beggar. Hearing the girl was outside awaiting her fate, the king suggests he should meet young Brigid before he agrees. He follows her father out to the carriage and it is then that her father notices the sword missing.

Brigid declares that she would gladly give all she had, all her father had, and all the king had in order to aid the destitute. Impressed by her piety, the king tells Brigid’s father he could not accept her as a bondmaid, as he could never pay a price worthy of her.

Released from her father’s rule and shunning his choice of husband for her, Brigid and seven companions founded the first female religious community in Ireland near Croghan Hill.
Up to that point, early Irish nuns had remained in their family’s house after taking their vows. When Brigid took her vows to become a nun, the presiding bishop was reportedly so flustered by her piousness that he read the wrong section of his book and consecrated Brigid as a bishop by mistake!

Later, after founding several small monasteries, Brigid asked the King of Leinster for land to build her motherhouse on. He agreed, but only granted her the land that could be covered by her cloak. She spread her cloak on the ground and it eventually grew in size to cover all of Curragh. (Brigid also took this same cloak, legend tells, and hung it on a sunbeam to dry).

The large monastery she then built at Kildare, became a focal point for Brigid and for the spread and growth of Celtic Christianity. It housed both men and women, which seems unusual by today’s standards, but was acceptable at that time. Only women, however, tended to the holy fire that burned ceaselessly during Brigid’s rule. A group of women dedicated to the Goddess Brigid and to the blessed St. Brigid still tend an eternal fire upon a hill to this day, almost 1,500 years after the Saint’s death.

Not surprisingly, many of the attributes of St. Brigid can be traced directly to the goddess Brigid, indicating that the saint absorbed the traditions of the followers of the goddess at a very early date. This transferal was not uncommon.

In The Festival of Lúnasa, Máire Mac Néill argues that St. Patrick in legend received many of the attributes of Lugh, one of the chief Irish gods.

Both saint and goddess are associated with fertility — St. Bridget most notably as the nursemaid or foster-mother of Christ — and creative activity. Brigid is the patroness of smiths and poets. She is also a healer.

The Pagan goddess came in triplicate — the three Brigids, or three aspects of Brìghid, adored by poets, smiths and healers. In Irish literature the goddess is the daughter of the Dagda, whose name means the “good god.”

The Welsh-Norman writer Giraldus Cambrensis in the 12th century reported that a perpetual fire tended by nine virgins had been kept burning in Kildare since the saint’s time, probably a survival of druidic custom relating to Brigid.

Brigid has been equated with an ancient goddess well known in early Celtic Britain, Brigantia. Brigantia was the patron goddess of the Brigantes, a confederation of tribes that occupied what is now northern England. She was a river-goddess, associated with the River Braint in Anglesey, Wales, and the River Brent in Middlesex, England. Brigantia was sometimes associated with the Roman goddesses Victoria and Minerva. Her name means “High One.”

In Scottish Customs, it was believed that Brigid spent the winter imprisoned within Ben Nevis by the Cailleach, or Hag. She was rescued by Angus, or Oengus mac Óc, the young god, who was her brother. Brigid is able to defeat the Hag, who had held her prisoner since Samhainn, ending the rule of winter and bringing on the beginning of spring.

It is important to secure the saint’s blessing on her day. In Ireland the woman of the house, a young woman, or even a man representing Brìde would come to the door and ask to be let in.

In County Tyrone, a young girl carrying rushes in her hands would knock on the door three times and say, “Téighidh sibh ar mhur nglúna, déanaidh sibh umhlaíocht, agus ligigidh Bríd Bheannachtach isteach.” (“Go down on your knees, do homage, and let Blessed Bridget inside.”)

In some areas a “Brídeóg,” a straw dolly representing Brìde, would be carried around by young people who would sing and dance and ask for money.

In Scotland the “Brìdeag” was a straw dolly that was used by young women in a marriage diviniation ceremony.

On this, Brigid’s Day, I thank the women who tend the flame and keep it burning bright.
Brigid, Goddess of the hearth and of fire, of healing, caretaker of animals, patron Goddess of metalsmiths and blacksmiths, Seer and Goddess of divination and prophecy, Goddess of inspiration to poets and writers all, your daughter welcomes you home for another year, to bless my home, my body and spirit, to inspire my words and to forever keep the flame of hope and love alive. I honor you on this, your day and happily say, Fáilte! Croeso! And welcome!

2 comments:

Sally Painter said...

Wow! What a wonderful article. I learned so much. Such a well written article.

Cassandra said...

Thanks, Sally. I feel very close to the story of both Brigid and St. Brigid, as you could probably tell. St. Brigid was a remarkable woman, even if she likely wasn't a midwife at the birth of Christ.