A guest blog from Mael Brigde
I suppose I will jump right in here with both feet. I could call this post Unpopular Opinions.
I don’t think she was.
There are a few ideas about the Irish goddess Brigit that are popularly accepted as ancient but which appear to be modern in origin, often arising from the unsupported speculations of Victorian thinkers, and which have fallen out of favour among Irish scholars. One is that Saint Brigit is an outgrowth of the goddess, that the cult of the goddess was either absorbed into the saint’s, or the saint was herself a druid who, with her sisters in druidry, was a disciple of the goddess. In this role it is conjectured that she took on the goddess’s name, perhaps as a title. Under pressure from mounting Christianity, say some versions of the story, they converted to that faith but retained their goddess in the traditions and practices that they carried forward in her saintly guise. Thus, the two cults ran seamlessly together.
I have been a devotee of Brigit since the early 1980s. At that time, I didn’t hear that she might have been a druid. But I did absolutely accept that the cult of Saint Brigit had absorbed major aspects of the goddess’s, and that Saint Brigit and her sisters tended a perpetual flame that was not extinguished until the Dissolution of the Monasteries, over a millennium after she lived. That last idea both excited and enraged me – how wonderful to have such a communal veneration, and how terrible to have it destroyed. It was this story that inspired me to start the Daughters of the Flame in 1993, to bring Brigit’s fire back to the world.
Ever since I first met Brigit she has beguiled me. I’ve made a point of reading everything about her that I can in order to expand my understanding and help me deepen my connection with her. So it was with some discomfort that I began to read things which made me question my view of the goddess to whom I was devoted. My concern kicked into high gear with Erynn Rowan Laurie’s fine essay, “Queering the Flame – Brigit, Flamekeeping, and Gender in Celtic Reconstructionist Pagan Communities.” Erynn did the work of digging into the whole idea of Brigit and her flame, in part because of a dispute between different practitioners over whether men should tend it. I will refer to her article again below, but first I want to address the idea of a druid sect being forced to convert in Brigit’s day, and the place of perpetual flames in the Irish landscape.
At the time of Saint Brigit, Ireland was very early in its transition from pagan to Christian. She is credited with travelling the country and establishing religious communities, but these were not simply additions to an already flourishing network of Christian monastic houses; they were among the first seen in Ireland. Until this change, women religious stayed with their families while practicing their faith. Though Palladius and others had come to tend the scattered faithful, Christians were few, and there is no evidence of the kind of brutal forced conversions that happened in other areas of Europe. It seems highly unlikely, especially at such an early time, that any druidic or pagan community would have felt such pressure to convert.
We know the Sisters of Saint Brigit tended a perpetual flame. How likely would the Sisters of Goddess Brigit have been to do so?
Classical writers, when speaking of the Celts, nowhere mention the tending of perpetual flames. Considering the importance of the perpetual flame in the rites of the Vestal Virgins in Rome, and the Roman habit of equating or assimilating local deities into their own, it is unlikely that such a practice would have gone unnoticed. But the Romans never reached Ireland. Might such fires have been unique to that land? Most of us will be aware of the large bonfires kindled on three of the four Quarter Days in Ireland. But were there instances of sacred flames tended all year round?
The best known, of course, belongs to Kildare. Saint Brigit lived in the 5th and 6th centuries, yet no mention of a perpetual flame at Kildare appears until the last years of the 12th century. The many Lives, prayers, masses, and so on written about or to her in the centuries between are silent on the topic. One Life, written by Cogitosus, presumably a monk of Kildare in the 7th century, describes her church in detail, but makes no mention of a fire temple or perpetual flame. We first read of Saint Brigit’s perpetual fire in the Topography of Ireland by Gerald of Wales, more than seven hundred years after Saint Brigit’s birth. He tells us that it had been tended originally by the saint herself and that now, when she has long since gone to heaven, she keeps it lit miraculously on the twentieth day of every cycle.
This is a good time to return to Erynn’s essay. It was there that I learned that Brigit’s monastery in Kildare was not the only Christian establishment in Ireland tending perpetual flames at the time, and that all of the others were tended by monks. (Erynn counted three. I have since learned that there were seven at least.) This information struck me hard, especially when coupled with the very late reporting of Brigit’s fire. It became difficult to avoid the idea that the perpetual flame was both late in origin and Christian, not an ancient holdover from the cult of a goddess. And as Erynn points out, the name itself, Kildare – Cill Dara – is a specifically Christian name, referring to the church (cell, or cill) of the oak (dara). In addition, there is no reference to it in the Dindshenchas, that repository of place names with sacral significance to the pre-Christian Irish. If it had been an important sanctuary for the goddess, she argues, it would be mentioned there.
That there was a goddess named Brigit, or Brig, perhaps several, I do believe. That Saint Brigit was modelled on her, or was her devotee, I sincerely doubt. This is not to say her cult wasn’t influenced by the themes of Irish goddesses, but which ones, and in what way, we don’t know.
Thus, I have had to adapt my own devotion, my own understanding of the goddess I have given my life to. This was not easy at first. Letting go of my original view of her felt threatening, as if my faith was a lie, which I knew it could not be. Over time, I realised that I was losing nothing. Or, in vernacular terms, I wasn’t losing a goddess, I was gaining a saint. The two2 Brigits now live side by side in my awareness. I give to the saint what is the saint’s, and to the goddesses what is theirs.
much is made of your father
how you lived with him and worked
in his dairy
how you gave away his splendid things
his gold his sword
his butter and meat
but what of the druid
who bought from him
your pregnant mother
your birth on his threshold
his care as you grew
was he not the true father
of your childish heart
did not his love of gods
obedience to sun and earth
his store of lore and genealogy
shape your vision of your world
give you perfect apprehension
of this sacred pagan place
if in time you drank
from another cup
where a Son
were you not still at ease
in flesh and heart
among the spirits
of land and beasts
so the oaks embrace you
you know the fox’s speech
the snowdrop lifts its head
where you have trod
in you they recognise
the blood of one
who lives upon the limen
walks in bright accord
Mael Brigde is a devotee of the Irish goddess and saint, Brigit, and the founder of the Daughters of the Flame, which has tended Brigit’s flame since Imbolc 1993. She publishes a general interest Brigit blog, Brigit’s Sparkling Flame, and a Brigit poetry blog, Stone on the Belly. She teaches courses and webinars on Brigit, including Journey with Brigit, Goddess of Poetry, an intensive class that explores reading and writing poetry as a sacred act. Her book, A Brigit of Ireland Devotional – Sun Among Stars is now available for pre-order.
Mael Brigde lives in Vancouver, Canada.
1 Laurie, Erynn Rowan. “Queering the Flame: Brigit, Flamekeeping, and Gender in Celtic Reconstructionist Pagan Communities,” The Well of Five Streams: Essays on Celtic Paganism. Megalithica Books [Stafford, England] (2015).
This essay is by far the most comprehensive examination of the topic that I have yet seen.
2 – or four, if you count all three goddess sisters, the daughters of the Dagda – and possibly more, if you count other Brigs in the literature, but we aren’t going there…
3 For more on these ideas and the background to support them:
Bitel, Lisa M. Landscape with Two Saints: How Genovefa of Paris and Brigit of Kildare Built Christianity in Barbarian Europe. Oxford University Press (2009).
Harrington, Christina. Women in a Celtic Church: Ireland 450–1150. Oxford University Press (2002).
4 The poem “Dubthach Versus the Druid” is from Mael Brigde A Brigit of Ireland Devotional – Sun Among Stars, pg. 163. Moon Books (1 September 2021).