“Every day and every night
That I say the genealogy of Brigit,
I shall not be killed, I shall not be injured,
I shall not be enchanted, I shall not be cursed,
Neither shall my power leave me.”
~the Carmina Gadelica
Imbolc is upon us once again, and this year in particular I feel Brighid’s influence more than ever. Recent transitions and events have deepened my relationship with her, as well as the rest of the gods and allies I work with. The weight of medical school now off my back, and the career of healing service before me, she is front and center of my polytheist devotional attention lately. Brighid (pronounced Breedj) as the Irish goddess of both fire and water, healing, craftspersonship, and poetry has long been one of the deities that I revere, and I lovingly refer to her as Ms. Popular- everyone loves Brighid. It’s helpful that she has a sense of humor about it, and you should too if you want to understand her magick. Like all deities however, it should be noted that she is a dynamic, multi-faceted being who cannot simply be summarized as “the goddess of healing” or whatever. While I am no expert on the scope of mythical and religious lore regarding Celtic pantheons, my feet have been firmly planted in that ancient tradition for many years. When revivifying ancient traditions like this, it is critical that we look to the source culture from whence they arose, the stories about them in ancient times, as well as seeing their expression in modern circles and peoples’ UPG (unverified personal gnosis), much of which I will refer to in this post regarding my own insights regarding her. Among the divinities of the Tuatha De Dannan, the ancient divine tribe she is a part of, she stands out as one who has recognition and reverence in wide circles outside of groups that are not specifically focused on the Irish pantheon. She is also the only pagan deity I know of to cross over into prominent Catholic sainthood. Of course the fact that she’s daughter of the Dagda, “the Good God”, and her names means either “flaming arrow” or “high one” is also indicative of her high status and renown stature. It’s also a lesser known fact that her influence was not confined to Ireland, for she was a tutulary goddess of the Brigantia, a Celtic tribe who dwelt in what is now northern England.
So let’s take a closer look at her essential functions as well as the significance of Imbolc as her traditional holyday. First of all fire. Fire to pre-industrial people was critical to survival, and was a unifying force for families, tribes, and larger groups. It still is an important tool for our modern world and drives many of our technologies. But now we’ve harnessed it in myriad ways, often where we don’t even see it but rather the effects of it, thus subverting it to a very different, less revered role in our lives. The direct and daily experience of fire is one that most people in our modern culture do not have an understanding of. Fire held several functions from the preparation of food, warmth for the home, to providing light during the long dark nights. In addition to it’s “mundane” roles, which in a true pagan sense are not mundane at all, it held and continues to hold religious significance anywhere humans gather for prayer and sacred service. In ancient cultures, the hearth as the container for the central fire would have served all of these functions, and those who tended it been the stewards of these essential social functions. As a goddess of fire and of the hearth, Brighid is therefore also a goddess of mirth and hospitality- two aspects of Celtic culture that held great significance. And this I see translated into my experience of her as a presence of warmth, welcome, and humor. While I have not been to Ireland (yet), my knowledge and experience is that these qualities are quintessential to Irish culture. But we should not forget that fire also has a protective and even dangerous function. Fire is easily weaponized, probably one of the oldest of weapons, and if not carefully handled it can destroy all that we hold dear. And so in this, Brighid also serves a protective function, and has been present in many of the struggles and wars of the stories of ancient Ireland and possibly beyond. In my personal devotions and spiritual development, I have been deeply committed to her through my involvement as a bard, or rather fili, of the Sacred Firecircle, which while not specifically devoted to her, does service to all the things she stands for.
There is another fire to which she is associated, the inner fire, or “Fire in the Head”, what we might refer to as the spark of inspiration. As a matron of poets, she would have held the status of a fili among the Tuatha, possibly even Ollamh, the highest office of a poet though this is never directly assigned to her to my knowledge. A fili is similar to what we might think of as a bard, although our general perception of that role is not necessarily true to how ancient Irish society was structured, “bard” being a much later term from early mideval Aurthurian literature. Poetry in Celtic culture was not simply an amusement and art as it tends to be considered in today’s culture. Poetry was the very threads that held the fabric of culture together and defined the manner in which the world was explained and the story of major events preserved. As an oral culture, poetry was more than poetry, it was also woven together with the art of story telling and song, which play well into her role as a Lady of the Hearth. The filid (plural of fili) also in-part carried the unwritten letter of the law in Celtic society, and so in this Brighid is again a protector of the people through the authoritative and ritual use of language to maintain the moral and ethical constructs of Celtic culture. An echo of this tradition can be seen in later, mideval times where the court jester was the only person who could speak the truth to and/or insult the king and live. Strangely however, I know of very little poetry from the pre-Christian lore specifically attributed to having come from her, unlike her kindred the Morrigan who has several poems of prophesy and warning uttered by her. The one example I know of is a 10th century “Lake of Beer” prayer from St. Brigit, her Catholic persona, which clearly is a later, Christian manifestation of her lore with it’s “I‘d like Jesus to love me too” line. I’ll quote the entire poem at the end of the blog here because it’s awesome, or you can view it here: here. The drunkenness and frivolity indicated in the poem that starts with “I’d like to give a lake of beer to God” is both mythic in it’s proportion and indicative of the importance of humor and hospitality that she engenders. On the flip side, she also is an intermediary for the grieving as she said to birth the practice of keening during the Cath Maige Tuireadh (the Battle of Moytura), the harsh wail-song of mourning she emotes after the death of her son Ruadan. Her role therefore is concerned with some of the most critical aspects of society.
Brighid is also known as a smith, which hearkens to her importance in the Iron-age culture from whence she arose. This is in a way an extension of her role as a fire goddess, since blacksmithing is inherently a fire art. It also is another way in which she is intimately connected to the warrior-culture of Celtic peoples, an element that is essential to anyone seriously interested in partaking of Celtic spirituality. Celts were a fierce and heroic lot, and while she herself is not typically associated as a warrior, she certainly contributes to the crafting of tools essential to warriorship- whether that be the sword or the word. Metal work in Celtic culture of course was not only for weaponry, but high artistry of all kinds was left behind as testimony to the masterful craftspersonship that Celtic peoples throughout the British Isles and Europe were prolific in, and so her hand can again be seen in the enigmatic artistry that has defined “Celtic” in terms of visual art. In a general way, she is also associated with other forms of craft, and while it is debatable what exactly what the Brighid’s Cross originally evoked with its roots in the misty, pre-literate Celtic religion, it’s woven nature to my mind is reminiscent of a loom for textiles. As a domestic deity, this would fit well, but that is purely conjecture.
Perhaps one of her most sought after aspects in today’s broken world is her healing presence. As noted above, she is more than ever a guiding light in my life now that I am formally stepping into the role as an acupuncturist and primary care provider. While she is noted in the tales of the Tuatha De Dannan as the daughter of the Dagda and wife of Bres, she is not considered the primary deity of medicine of the Tuatha De Dannan, indeed very little is spoken of her in the pre-Christian myths. This association, it would seem is something more from the Christian era, in which she alone was appropriated into Christian cannon. Nevertheless, she survives as a matron of healing, and in my view, her absorption into the Christian lore is telling of her capacity to bring healing, even into the cultural rifts that exist between pagan and Christian world views. Her story during the era of the Tuatha is one of heartache wherein she is married of to a king (Bres) who would later be at war with her own kin, and who would bring death to her own son. In this, she is deeply touched by grief of loss that accompanies war, and often times these are factors which propel individuals toward the healing arts.
And finally it is important to look at the significance of Imbolc, Brighid’s tradional holiday which took the form of Candlemas and St. Brigit’s in Irish Catholic tradition. Traditional associations have to do with cleansing which took place at this time of year in a culture dependent on livestock and the cycles of life involved with raising herd animals. However, another interpretation that has been put forward translates at “wolf-butter”. Aside from the rather comical image that is conjured by this translation, one has to look into what this could possibly mean in the context of Celtic culture. Wolves, while existentially a threat to the flocks of sheep-herding people, were also a totemic animal for warriors throughout Celtic lore, as well as other cultures. And in this context, Imboc may have been a significant time for Celtic warrior to be cleansed and blessed before the warm months emerge when battles would be expected. Regardless of whether this was the original connotation for Imbolc, ritualized cleansing has been an associated practice handed down through the ages. As the presiding deity of Imbolc, Brighid cleanses and blesses her kin with gifts of domestic abundance held sacred to her- milk and butter of the flock which were and are a mainstay of the Irish diet, particularly at this time of year when fresh food would have been pretty much non-existent.
So for this holyday, light a candle for Brighid, weave her cross, sweep the hearth off for a new season to come, enjoy the fruits domestic plenty (butter namely), cleanse and prepare yourself for the challenges of the year ahead, and may Bright Blessings of Brighid be upon you.
Lake of Beer Prayer attributed to St. Brigit:
I would like to give a lake of beer to god
I’d love the heavenly host
To be tippling there
For all eternity
I’d love the men of Heaven to live with me
To dance and sing
If they wanted. I’d put at their disposal
Vats of suffering
White cups of love I’d give to them
With a heart and a half;
Sweet pitchers of mercy I’d offer
To every man
I’d make Heaven a cheerful spot
Because a happy heart is true
I’d make the men contented for their own sake
I’d like Jesus to love me too.
I’d like the people of Heaven to gather
From all the parishes around.
I’d give a special welcome to the women
Three Marys of special renown.
I’d sit with the men, the women, and God
There by the lake of beer
We’d be drinking good health forever
And every drop would be a prayer.
Featured photo by Joe Perri
This entry was posted on Thursday, January 28th, 2016 at 12:29
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