By Jacqueline Giesbrecht

Today is February 1st, the first day of the shortest month of the year.

It is also halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. For those who live in areas with Celtic history (such as Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man) and/or those who identify with the neopagan or Wiccan tradition, today marks the festival of Imbolc. This festival is one of the four annual Gaelic festivals (the others being Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain).

For Christians – especially those in Ireland – today is also the feast day of Saint Brigid (c. 452-524 CE). Saint Brigid, the abbess of Kildare, is a patron saint of Ireland, as well as the patron saint of milkmaids, midwives, and fire. Her monastery contained the legendary eternal fire of the goddess which remained lit until the Reformation (with a short pause in the thirteenth century) and was relit in 1992.

Photo by BÜNYAMİN GÖRÜNMEZ on Unsplash

The co-occurrence of these two events is by no means an accident. Nor is it a coincidence that Saint Brigid has remarkable similarities with a goddess of pre-Christian Ireland. The goddess Brigid (also known as Brig, Bride, or Brigantia) is associated with spring, fire, fertility, healing, and poetry – very similar to Saint Brigid. The Holy Woman Brigid – the nonpartisan name used to describe the persona of Brigid – is a prime example of the syncretism or continuity between ancient Celtic folklore and Christianity. For this reason, I chose Brigid as one of my case studies for my research into Celtic Christianity in Ireland (with Saint Patrick being the other). I viewed the history of Celtic Christianity as being a tree and the development of the hagiography and tradition of Brigid as tree rings that are markers of the growth and evolution of the tree.

I began first with Brigid’s pre-Christian beginnings. In Celtic mythology, Brigid was a Tuatha Dé Danaan (the Celtic gods or pre-Celtic people). When the Irish arrived in Ireland, the Tuatha Dé moved to or were made to go to the Otherworld. Once there, they began to be known as the sidh, the Little People or the Fae. The portals to this world were concealed doors in mounds, islands, hills, on the floor of lakes or the sea.[1] Interestingly, though Brigid would eventually become the main representative for these pagan gods, there is very little mention of her, even in later written Irish Celtic myths. Broadly, she is established as being the daughter of Dagda, the father of the gods. Her name is linked to the Gaelic word breo-aigit, meaning “a fiery arrow.”[2] She is described as a poet and the owner several supernatural animals.[3] In some cases, she is a member of a triple-deity sisterhood, made up of Brigid the poet, Brigid the physician, and Brigid the smith. She is also a mother, thus explaining her link to fertility and the spring season Imbolc.[4]

Hail, Brigantia! Keeper of the forge,
she who shapes the world itself with fire,
she who ignites the spark of passion in the poets,
she who leads the clans with a warrior’s cry,
she who is the bride of the islands,
and who leads the fight of freedom.

Hail, Brigantia! Defender of kin and hearth,
she who inspires the bards to sing,
she who drives the smith to raise his hammer,
she who is a fire sweeping across the land.

Author Unknown

If not for a saint by the same name, it is possible the goddess Brigid would have slipped into obscurity due to a lack of written evidence. This is because the Learned Class (made up of Druids, bards, and the filid or poets) chose to keep oral histories unwritten.[5] All hagiographies and mythologies were written within the context of an Irish monastery during the seventh to twelfth centuries. Thus, there has been much debate about the identities of writers of the ecclesiastical hagiographies and the pagan mythologies from this time. How pagan were those writing the hagiographies and how Christian were those writing the mythologies? What were their motives? Could a scholar be pagan and Christian at the same time? This debate is especially pertinent for the debate of Brigid’s identity, as this was the time that her pagan and Christian stories were being written. Though scholars have developed many different theories, there is no way of truly knowing. Thus, her two identities have become so interwoven that they are inseparable.

So who was Saint Brigid? Cogitosus (c. 650 CE), a member of the Brigidine community of Kildare, wrote the first Vita of Brigid. In this hagiography, Brigid does not have pagan origins – the only thing known about her background is that she grew up with her father, Dubhtach, and her mother, Broicsech, on their farm. Brigid is a stereotypical holy woman similar to those written about in Gaul or Rome: virtuous, humble, and compliant with male authority (unless their instructions disobey the will of God). She performs many miracles, many of them biblical (e.g., turning water into ale, healing a blind man).[6] Cogitosus emphasizes that she can do these things due to her strong faith which, like a mustard seed, can move mountains.[7] Cogitosus believed that, despite her gender, Brigid was the greatest saint (greater than her rival Saint Patrick) due to her faith and humility. She was not royal, male, or married; the only source of her status or authority was from God.[8]

Original Art by Marika Veith

Brigid, woman of earth and of fire, be our inspiration
Brigid, woman of contemplation and of action, be our inspiration
Brigid, woman of peace and of justice, be our inspiration
Brigid, woman of faith and of hope, be our inspiration
Brigid, woman of compassion and mercy, be our inspiration
Brigid, woman of expansive inclusion, be our inspiration
Brigid, woman of Gospel living, be our inspiration
Brigid, woman of strength and gentleness, be our inspiration

The Brigidine Sisters

Throughout Irish Christian history, the stories of Saint Brigid were in constant competition with those of Saint Patrick, an almost ecclesiastical war between their churches. While the burial location of Saint Patrick is unknown, hers is known. Additionally, she receives a mantle that represents all of the land in Ireland. In a way, she the becomes Ireland. When, in the seventh century, Saint Patrick is portrayed as being the ultimate Druid, Brigid’s association with early Celtic lore also increased. She is first established as being a servant of a Druid, then is eventually seen as being the daughter of a Druid. As well, her birth becomes associated with many miracles, including a column of fire appearing to come from her head,[9] thus symbolizing the Holy Spirit and the lúan láith, a radiant halo that shot from the heads of Irish saga heroes.[10]

There are many more interesting details regarding Saint Brigid’s continuity with the goddess Brigid. However, I will just add one more that is especially significant. When Saint Brigid was born, some stories say that she was born in the threshold of a farmhouse.[11] In many ways Brigid herself is a threshold: between women and men, rich and poor, human and divine, Druid and priest, hero and saint, myth and history, eternal and temporal, folkloric and ecclesiastical, vernacular and Latin, pagan and Christian.[12] Therefore, Brigid is both a symbol of syncretism and continuity; she represents the paradox that is Celtic Christianity, which is neither one thing nor the other. [13]

Where is Brigid now? Since the competitive writings of her hagiographies, the function of her identity has changed. Following the Norman Conquest of the eleventh century, Brigid became a symbol of Irish identity. When conflicts arose within Ireland, Brigid became a symbol used to try to promote unity. To modern Celtic pagans and Christians alike, she is a symbol of the Celtic spiritual heritage and a link to the land – more specifically, a link to an uninvaded and unpolluted land. Chiefly, Brigid is significant because of her history – not her meager recorded history, but her perceived history. Was she a goddess or a saint first? There is absolutely no way to know.

Photo by Nils Nedel on Unsplash

If you enjoyed this article, hear Jacqueline discuss more about Brigid in this podcast.

This is the second post in a series that details Jacqueline’s undergrad thesis research.
Portions of this entry were taken from Jacqueline’s undergrad thesis.

Jacqueline Giesbrecht is an MA student in Religious Studies. She completed her Bachelor of Arts with an Honours in Biblical and Theological Studies and a minor in Psychology at Canadian Mennonite University in 2018. Jacqueline’s research interests include vernacular religion and material religion; folklore and group formation; and disability, religion, and spirituality.

[1] Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (Oxford UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1992), 177–84.

[2] John O’Donovon, trans., “Brigit,” in Cormac’s Glossary (Calcutta: O. T. Cutter, 1868).

[3] R. A. Stewart Macalister, Lebor Gabála Érenn: The Book of the Taking of Ireland, vol. IV (HardPress Publishing, 1941), 133.

[4] Elizabeth A. Gray, Cath Maige Tuired (Cork, IRL: Corpus of Electronic Texts, 2003), 57.

[5] Jane Stevenson, “The Beginnings of Literacy in Ireland,” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 89C (1989): 143.

[6] Cogitosus, “Life of Saint Brigit,” trans. Sean Connolly and Jean-Mitchel Picard, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 117 (1987): 12–13.

[7] Cogitosus, 17.

[8] Lisa M Bitel, Landscape with Two Saints: How Genovefa of Paris and Brigit of Kildare Built Christianity in Barbarian Europe (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), 138–39.

[9] Donnchadh Ó hAodha, trans., Bethu Brigte (Cork, IRL: Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition, 2008), 20,; Sean Connolly, trans., “Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae,” Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 119 (1989): 15.

[10] Bitel, Landscape with Two Saints, 178.

[11] Connolly, “Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae,” 15.

[12] Liliane Catherine Marcil-Johnston, “The Transformative Nature of Gender: The Coding of St . Brigit of Kildare through Hagiography” (PhD Thesis, Montreal, QC, Concordia University, 2012), 75; Carole M. Cusack, “Brigit: Goddess, Saint, ‘Holy Woman’, and Bone of Contention,” Sydney Studies in Religion 6 (2007): 97; Michael Howard, Angels & Goddesses: Celtic Christianity & Paganism in Ancient Britain (Freshfields, ENG: Capall Bann Publishing, 1994), 100.

[13] Marcil-Johnston, “The Transformative Nature of Gender,” 75.