Tag Archives: Druid

Was Saint Brigit a Druid?

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.

Dubthach Versus the Druid

much is made of your father

Dubthach

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

predominates

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

with sanctity

Bio:

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).


Modern Druidry and Priesthood

One of the most striking ideas in 20th century Paganism was that we could and perhaps should all be our own priests and priestesses. In many ways this is a wonderful idea: No submitting to someone else’s authority, no dogma, and the equality of all being able to speak to the divine on our own terms.

There are however, downsides. Being a priest or priestess is a lot of work. I’ve sauntered towards it in the past. What I notice is how often I wish there was somewhere I could easily, regularly go and just sit in, where showing up would feel meaningful. Sometimes, finding the ideas, energy and inspiration for maintaining your spiritual practice is hard. Sometimes guidance is needed, or just not having to carry the weight of the whole thing.

Of course historically, the people we tend to think of as Celts were not Druids – Druids were a group within that culture, performing specific roles. A Druid community made up entirely of people doing the Druid priest thing is going to have rather a lot of healers and diviners and all the rest of it, but perhaps not enough people focused on other things. It’s not easy being a Druid if you don’t have someone to be a Druid for. Historically, being a priest meant mediating between the divine and the people, it’s what defines that role. So, if we are all our own priests and priestess, what does that job even involve?

It’s not a question I find easy to answer. The thing about ministering is that we often need it doing for us – to be taught. To be guided through times of crisis. To be inspired and uplifted. To be healed when you need it, to be held and comforted by your path – these are really hard things to do for yourself.

Perhaps the answer is to aspire to be a part time Druid. Right now we need to re-skill and decarbonise, we need growers and makers and doers in all areas of life. To serve the earth or to serve your people or any deity associated with the natural world, I think you have to be considering climate chaos and the need to reduce consumption. We need the equality of having the right to stand as our own priests and priestesses and the right to be our own spiritual authority. That protects us all from dogma, and power gaming and gurus and all the problems that brings. But at the same time, we will all have days when we need ministering to, when we need someone else to be our Druid for a bit.

By not aspiring to be full time, and not aspiring to hold positions of authority, we might be able to have something egalitarian that is also supportive and that shares out all the different kinds of work that needs doing. I think that’s what I can see happening across the community – that full time Druids are rare and few people seem to aspire to that position any more.


Druid in nature

Many of the things we might do as Druids to connect with nature have serious impacts on nature. Walk on the bare earth in the winter and you’ll add to erosion. With more people seeking green spaces as an antidote to lockdown, paths get wider, wild plants are deprived of space, and popular spots suffer from erosion from all the footfall.

If you get off the path to really commune, the odds of doing damage increases. The wildflowers, plants and even the soil structures underfoot will suffer, so will anything trying to live in them. We’re less of a strain on wild creatures when we are predictable. Getting off the path means getting into the space where someone else is trying to live. Nature is pushed to the limits as it is, we should question how ‘Druidic’ it really is to get out there and take more of it for our own benefit.

How far do you drive your car in order to commune with nature?

If you light a fire without using a fire dish, you are going to harm the ground. Your smoke may cause harm. Your fire may scorch leaves and branches. If you’ve got a well tended and responsibly set up fire pit in an appropriate place, fair enough. Mostly, having a fire ‘out in nature’ is harmful.

If you leave offerings they really had better be of some use to the wildlife in the area and not an active hazard.  If you tie cloth to a tree it had better be 100% natural fibres, or it won’t break down for ages, and will constrict the tree’s growth. When it does eventually break down it will release plastics into the environment and it will hang about as a choking hazard. Tea lights and the empty cases of tea lights aren’t good for nature. Abandoned food items can be highly problematic. Anything in plastic… anything left in a jar or in a pot or shoved into a hole someone else may have called home… If you haven’t thought carefully about an offering, there’s a real risk what you’re doing is an act of vandalism.

Foraging can feel like a great way of connecting with nature. But how much are you taking? How much can the landscape afford to lose? By all means, eat a few blackberries, snack on a few leaves. But if you come through with a carrier bag to take a great stash of wild plants, you aren’t communing, you’re consuming. Nature is not endless bounty. Nature is something we’re pushing to breaking point and we have to stop imagining we can take anything we want.

How much noise do we take into wilder places for our rituals? How much light pollution do we cause around rituals at night and out of doors? How much do we take? How much do we take for granted? To what degree do we let our feelings of being special and spiritual override any consideration for the realities we’re imposing on the natural world?

Nature isn’t some abstract concept to be worshipped in whatever way appeals to our egos. Nature is living creatures and living landscapes, and suffering from human exploitation. We need to commune in ways that aren’t actively harmful. Don’t let your Druidry be part of the problem.


Talking to Anna McKerrow

I’ve been a fan of Anna McKerrow’s writing for many years now. So, when she asked if I’d like to do an interview with her, I managed not to go entirely into incoherent fan-girl mode, and I said yes.

It’s always tricky trying to talk about Druidry. I’ve spent the last twenty years trying to figure out what Druidry is, and I’m still not sure I know. We’re a large and diverse community, and I try and get that across as best I can, but inevitably what I think Druidry is gets coloured by my personal experiences.

The books I should have mentioned when talking about Welsh deities were

Gods and Goddesses of Wales – Halo Quin

Pagan Portals Rhiannon – Jhenah Telyndru

Pagan Portals Blodeuwedd – Jhenah Telyndru

Cerridwen, Celtic Goddess of Inspiration – Kristoffer Hughes


Druidry and Inspiration

I remember back in my twenties having a conversation with a Very Important Druid about how inspiration works for me. I had come to recognise that it depends a lot on relationship, but I was finding it hard to hold the kinds of relationships with people that enabled the flow of inspiration for me. The Very Important Druid told me that I should be seeking those relationships not with humans, but in the natural world and with the elements.

Twenty years later, I can say with total confidence that the key to creativity for me lies in my relationships with people. It’s when inspiration flows from one person to another that I do my best work. I make things for people. I make things in response to people. Without people to engage with, I do not create.

The hills are indifferent to me. The rain is disinterested. The ground barely notices my passing. The sky does not see me. I find solace in this, there is something oddly comforting about being irrelevant. I go out and I spend time with the land and the sky, but I don’t make anything out of that unless someone else needs me to. I can see how a person dealing with more personified aspects of nature, or working with deity might find it meaningful to create for them and offer that creativity only to them. But honestly, I’ve never found a pond that cared whether or not I wrote a sonnet about it.

I can do the most good with my creativity if I can take it to people and change something for them. If I can help someone else experience the land as alive and precious, then that might do some small thing to help the land. The water does not need me to throw words at it, but it might benefit from me persuading people to treat it with more care and respect.

Other people may of course have totally different experiences. What I’m for, is talking to people about stuff. If your bard path means that you sing to foxes, or dance for the moon, or make art with the falling rain and that works for you – excellent. But it’s not me, and it isn’t what I do.

Of course it was tricky being young, and new to all this and being told by a Very Important Druid that everything I thought about how my inspiration worked was pretty much wrong. But here I am. I make Hopeless Maine stuff with and for Tom Brown. I write Wherefore with and for Bob Fry, and Robin Treefellow. There are a number of people I write poetry for and because of. I’m exploring collaborations with Dr Abbey again. I write for steampunks. I write for people who give me feedback to say that what I do is helpful. I write for Patreon supporters. I write this blog for you, dear readers. All of you. For you and because of you. Because enough of you are subscribed, and leave comments, and like and share what I put up that I know it has value.

And I do not write anything at all any more for the Very Important Druid.


Books and blogs

As well as writing this blog, I also write books. Most of the Pagan ones are published by Moon Books, with the exception of Druidry and the Future, which is over on ko-fi – https://ko-fi.com/s/6f6d37772a

You may be wondering what the relationship between the books and the blog is. If you read the blog, is there any point reading the books, especially given that most of them are for sale (Druidry and the Future is free).

There are bits of my books on the blog, if you search for excerpts. There are ideas that started here and that I’ve since expanded on and developed. Those are scattered around. There is, for example, a Pagan Pilgrimage category where I occasionally play with ideas around this subject. At some point there may well be a book, but that will come from an assimilation of the experiences I’ve blogged about here, and there will be a lot more to it than these first forays.

At the moment I am writing a Druidry and the Darkness book over on Patreon, with new and otherwise unavailable content each month. https://www.patreon.com/NimueB That’s in the Bards and Dreamers category, which also gives you a poem every month and my singing the wheel of the year content. What goes up there is some of the first draft content, so there will be more in the final book. It’s also an opportunity to engage more in my writing process, get the finished pdf before anyone else (when we get there) make suggestions and the such.

What I don’t do, have never done and will never do is take content from the blog and recycle it into books and then charge for it. The books are written as books, with a considered structure and the kind of oversight and integrity that you can’t have if things are cobbled together in 500 word chunks off the cuff. Blogs are, by their nature a bit limited and superficial, there’s always more to say. A book is the better vehicle for digging in to a subject and exploring it in more depth and breadth. For some readers, an easily digestible thought is much more helpful than a hefty tome, and for others, the digging in is preferable so hopefully this mixed approach works for more people.


Becoming a Druid

I started along the Druid path in my twenties, drawn in by a longstanding attraction to the title, by a crush and a set of odd coincidences. I found out early that modern Druids are not carrying on ancient Celtic traditions, and I got over that. When I started studying with OBOD I realised that I had in many ways been on the Druid path my whole life. I just hadn’t known that was the word that turned my various interests into a coherent way of being in the world.

I was so very serious as a student of Druidry. I read hard, practiced hard, and strived a lot. I never really got into kit and presentation – I find it hard to feel comfortable in what Cat Treadwell aptly calls ‘Druid Drag’. If I try to look like anything, I always feel fake. A few years into all of this, and people started showing up who wanted to learn, and undertake ritual. I didn’t have the experience to do it, but there was no one else willing to try, so I tried, and we muddled along.

Finding you are doing things you don’t feel ready for because someone else needs you to, is a rite of passage. It is one that can happen many times. First student. First ritual. First handfasting. And the hardest one – first funeral. Becoming the person who will step up and do what needs doing is, I think, an important part of what it means to become a Druid.

I took my service very seriously in my twenties and thirties. I sacrificed time and energy. I spent time at the Druid Network, and back then there was a culture of sacrifice and a clarity that it should cost, it should be hard. I made myself ill repeatedly, giving more of myself than I could afford, taking on voluntary work and responsibilities that were not sustainable. Sacrifice may be powerful, but you can’t live there.

It’s taken me a long time to learn how to be softer in my Druidry. How to be more like flowing water. How to say no to things. I don’t try hard any more. I show up every day in all sorts of ways to do things that are part of how I understand my path. I’ve become much more interested in beauty, kindness and how we lift each other and a lot less interested in opportunities to hurt myself.


Druidry and Magic

Recently I encountered a chap who said that the only magic in Druidry is communing with the ancestors. I offered a counter list – communing with the land and the old Gods, the magic of inspiration, or beauty, spirits of place, and so forth. He said that was magical, not magic. I have no problem with disagreeing, but it struck me as curious.

I know there are Druids who go in for spells – Kris Hughes talks about it, inspired by the magician Gwyidion, from the Welsh myths. Druidry is certainly not short of polytheists, and a prayer to a God is most assuredly an act of magical intent. I know for many Druids, magic is less about ‘doing’ and more about connection, about the numinous experience and a sense of wonder created by encountering wild beauty. You don’t have to believe in anything much to be a Druid. Magic can be found in the transformative power of ritual – whether you think that’s woo-woo magic or a simple consequence of showing up and doing the things.

The magic I have most deliberately sought it the magic of inspiration. I know no more powerful or glorious feeling than the moment when it crashes into me.

There are many ways of defining magic. Which is excellent. There are many ways of experiencing magic, feeling something as magical and feeling like a participant in something magical. There is however a world of difference between saying ‘this is what magic means to me’ and insisting that your take on magic is the only one available. Magic is personal, Druids are diverse, Druidry is full of possibilities. There is more wonder and delight to be found by being open to other people’s experiences than by insisting that yours is the only real one.


Druidry and the New Year

New years create an obvious focal point for reflecting on where we’ve been and thinking about where we are going. Life is full of such opportunities – birthdays are another, and we could equally do it at full moons, dark moons or simply at the end of each day. For me, reflection is an important part of Druidry. This is the path of a life lived consciously. It’s why I get grumpy when people instead advocate for living purely in the moment. I think we need to be engaged with our immediate lives, but that we need to balance this with reflection and time spent deliberately looking back and looking forward. A life lived only in the moment is an unconsidered life, and to me that’s not Druidry.

I usually take the turning of the year as an opportunity to reflect and plan. 2020 has been so strange that I’m not sure I can do that. Hugely important things happened to me around my sense of self, possibilities of enchantment, rediscovering magic, love, heartbreak, and confusion. All of it feels too raw and immediate and I still don’t know how I feel about this year. It will take time. Equally, with the world so unstable and uncertain, and the virus still rampaging in the UK, it is hard to make plans or set goals. But, here’s what I’ve got…

I need to focus on my mental and physical health and whatever the coming year throws at me, I’m going to try and make that the most important thing.

I’ve learned this year that intellectual stimulation is super-important for me, and that lack of brain workouts have been contributing to my depression. In answer to this I’ve started learning Japanese, and I mean to carry that forward in a dedicated way.

I’m going to be rethinking lots of things around how I work and what I do, how I organise my life, and a lot is changing in at least one of my key relationships and that’s all good. I can’t draw a map at this point, because the way forward will require experiment and co-operation and it makes no sense to try and set specific intentions this early in the process. My dedication is to the process and being open to wherever the journey takes me.

Life has always been unpredictable, 2020 just made that a good deal more obvious. Whatever else there is going forwards, we all need more kindness, more hope, and a more sustainable way of life.


About Re-Evolution

I first met Connie Reed as a Druid blogger many years ago. So, when I heard she’d started writing fiction, I asked her if she’d like to do a guest blog here. If you like your fiction with a dash of Druidry, this may well be for you!

Over to Connie…

In the beginning there was the world, and it gave me nightmares.  It wasn’t a nightmarish world although it was a dangerous one, on the contrary it was a very wonderful world. The nightmares came from how we arrived there. This world I dreamt of was our future and the trip was brutal. 

The idea for this world stayed with me and I wanted to write stories about it but I was never sure which story to tell first – past, present, or future? Who should I focus on? Which characters should I highlight? Eventually I did what all authors must do and nailed down the Who, What, Where, When, and How. I had my story. I outlined it. I began to write. I broke my tale into five parts.  Four are written, one is in progress.  Each part is two novels. I’ve accomplished a lot, have more to go, and I’m enjoying the whole process. I’m pleased with how the stories have turned out, those who’ve read them keep asking for more. I consider this excellent progress. 

It’s also been a wonderful learning experience about how a story can take you to completely unexpected places whether you are reading or writing. I had intended to merely create a fun read.  Action and adventure.  Swords and sorcery.  Friends and lovers plus good guys versus a variety of bad guys, you know, the normal stuff: cue dramatic action movie music! We all win and go away feeling happy, etc. Basic story. And yet, although I was aiming for a simple adventure, the harsh realities of the world I was creating insisted there be more depth. A number of my characters brought their faith into the equation, the local military got more involved as events progressed, love and family complicated things. I even created a religion – a nature based, elemental religion. It’s only part of the background noise, but I was surprised at how easily it wove itself into my story telling, making itself an important part of events without my actually planning for it.

Without giving too many spoilers, the tale I’ve chosen to tell is of a modern woman who is tossed into a drastically evolved future and what she learns there will help her survive her own swiftly changing present. In the first part of the series she is lost and unaware of what is happening, as the series progresses, she gains more awareness. As Lori struggles to make her way in Eaglefall, she gains friends and allies who help her try to find herself. She becomes embroiled in misadventure in the capital city of Riverton as local mafia and dark mages plot nefarious deeds against the kingdom.

Crime done in the name of greed – for money and power – threatens to disrupt human civilization as well as upset the very balance of nature itself, something which has attracted the attention of the mysterious Live Oaks. Lori, of course, finds herself tangled up in all of it. Her quest to save herself becomes a matter of life and death for many of the non-human tribes of the kingdom as well as the well-being of the intelligent Trees. Saving herself takes a backseat to protecting her friends and the people she grows to love, and she becomes aware of how the actions of a few can upset the balance of nature and threaten everyone.

My first two novels, parts 1 & 2 of Book 1, are now available on Kindle, ebook and paperback. Both are currently available free to read via kindle unlimited. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the process of bringing this series to life and I hope readers will like the characters and adventure. And for those worried about human impact on the future of our planet? Well, I’m sorry. I went ahead and destroyed the world later in the series, but this is a tale of bringing it all back to life again too, better and balanced. I hope you approve of my vision of a re-evolved Earth.   

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08L86KF1S  – website for the series