The first day of February is upon us, and the instantly recognisable cross of St. Brigid is appearing everywhere in honour of her feast day.
So how did the Irish pagan festival of Imbolc and the goddess of Fire lead to the story of St. Brigid with one of the most recognisable crosses in the world?
BRIGID THE GODDESS
The deity Brigid was said to have been born at dawn’s first light with a crown of fire glowing from her head. One of the supernatural race of the gifted known as the Tuatha Dé Danann, she was the goddess of the Spring, arts, crafts, poetry, medicine and the humble smith.
Her name came from the old Irish ‘Breo saighit’ meaning fiery arrow and where Brigid walked flowers and shamrocks grew and she radiated inspiration, knowledge and healing with the light that surrounded her.
Brigid married Bres, a king of the Tuatha Dé Danann but one at war with her own clan. It was hoped their marriage would calm the tension between the warring families, however hostilities just increased.
Her son Ruandan lost his life in battle and so distraught was Brigid that as she sang and wept over her son’s body, her harmonic cries heard throughout the length and breadth of Ireland and so began the tradition of keening at the wakes of the dead.
Brigid then became devoted to healing and following the death of her child became the protector of children and childbirth. Her shrine was created by an ancient druid oak in Kildare that was so sacred no weapon could be brought into it. Her priestesses took care of her perpetual flame, the sacred fire of Brigid, one each day for nineteen days and on the twentieth day Brigid herself would attend the flame.
This pagan festival marks the beginning of Spring and is at the start of February, midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The meaning is said to have come from the old Irish meaning ‘In the belly’.
It has been documented in detail in the earliest of Irish Literature and is affiliated with the goddess Brigid.
Brigid was said to visit homes at this time and a bed would be made and food and drink laid out to welcome her and invite her blessings. Items of clothing would also be laid out to receive her divine touch.
Like the other festivals, the date of Imbolc pertains to the alignment of megalithic monuments with the sun such as the Mound of Hostages on Tara.
Feasts were had and fires lit as a part of the celebration and divination of Imbolc. Candles and fires were lit in recognition of Brigid’s perpetual light and it was a time to look for portents of the future.
The wells of the goddess would be circled in the direction of the sun as prayers were given for good health. The water was then taken for livestock, family and to bless the home.
BRIGID THE SAINT
Brigid was said to have lived from the mid-5th to the early 6th century, born into a druid family. Her mother was converted to Christianity by St. Patrick himself and young Brigid was reared on the milk of a cow that appeared to her, a story also told in respect of Brigid the Goddess.
Brigid was a blessed and religious child, so it was no surprise that she pledged her life to God and began her path of healing. After receiving the veil from St. Macaille, she went to Kildare and built a monastery for the monks and one for her nuns, becoming the first Abbess of Ireland in the late 5th century.
It is said that she chose this place to follow on the work of the goddess, taking on the perpetual flame as a symbol of the light of new Christianity which was still so alien to the Irish.
In another nod to the fire goddess, St. Brigid founded a School of Art specialising in metalwork and illumination, from which came some of the most impressive work of the time including the legendary Book of Kildare.
Brigid was revered largely due to her work with the poor and the sick, particularly women and this in turn lead to her veneration and sainthood. There are wells throughout Ireland known as Brigid’s wells and the waters are said to be miraculous and promote healing and good health. Pilgrimages take place to each of these shrines and they are as relevant today as they ever were.
It is thought that the cross itself was a symbol that far pre-dated Christianity and belonged to pagan protection rites. That said, the story of the rush cross relating to St. Brigid is the one carried forward through the centuries.
Brigid was sat at the bedside of a dying chieftain and she distracted him by making a cross from rushes that lay nearby. When she explained the meaning of the cross, the chieftain was said to have seen the light and was baptised there on his deathbed.
Today there are workshops and gatherings of folk who come together to make the rush cross in honour of St. Brigid and her feast day on 1st February and there are even on-line tutorial videos to teach you how to make them!
There is no question that the legend of Brigid the goddess and the life of Brigid the Saint became inextricably intertwined from early medieval times and to this day it remains that way.
Whether you believe in Brigid the goddess, Brigid the saint or indeed both, the message of creativity, healing and new life is the same, leaving the darkness behind as we move forward into the sun.
I wish you a happy St. Brigid’s Day and the Blessings of Imbolc!