I have always been interested in the myths and traditions of other cultures. There are many times when history and anthropology intersect for me, and this is definitely one of them. When I was in fifth grade, we did a unit on the Greek gods and goddesses. From that day, I have felt a deep connection with the Greek goddess Athena.
In more recent years, I’ve become interested in diving into my own spirituality but without appropriating a practice – or in this case, a figure – that isn’t my own. While Athena is definitely one of those “safe” goddesses with which to form an identity, as a Grecian goddess and so, a part of that traditional European cultural foundation, I find that I would like to learn more about the other goddesses across Europe.
I’ve started a blog series on various European goddesses for women who don’t want to infringe on anyone else’s traditions (read: white women who want to connect with traditions that don’t appropriate anyone else’s culture).
First up: Brigid
Wow. When I decided to jump in with Brigid, I had no idea she was so complex. Hailing from Ireland, Brigid boasts layers of separate traditions that have all combined to form the image we have of her today.
She is the patroness of healing and poetry (no wonder I was drawn to her!) and also smithcraft. So, she’s a pretty wise lady. She’s also a deity of the sun, and her skills are associated with fire. She’s often shown bathed in light and waiting to give us inspiration.
“Brigid” means exalted one, but her older Gaelic name adds even more to her personality. Breo-Saighead means “fiery power” or “fiery arrow.” According to legend, when Brigid was born, she had flames shooting out of her head. Talk about a ring of fire for mom Boann (goddess of fertility), am I right?!
Brigid, A Triple Goddess
Okay, so this is cool. Brigid is actually a triple goddess. They do not represent three phases in life (maiden, mother, crone) but instead were all in the same generation. They just represent three different aspects of the same goddess-head.
Brigid, “Fire of the Hearth”
- This aspect was the goddess of healing, fertility, family, and childbirth
Brigid, “Fire of the Forge”
- This aspect is similar to my beloved Athena. She’s concerned with metalsmithing and silversmithing, and weaving, as well as justice, law and order (dun, dun!)
Brigid, “Fire of Inspiration”
- This aspect was the muse of poetry, the history of song, and protector of cultural learning. Read more here.
Together, they’re called the Three Sisters, the Three Mothers, or just Brigid.
Goddess, Saint, or BOTH?
We see the goddess Brigid present in the myths of St. Brigid of Kildare. As Doug MacGowan writes, “The transition from goddess to saint allowed Brigid to survive through the Christianizing world” when worshiping a pantheon of deities was no longer allowed in Europe and Catholicism was taking over.
Brigid (the goddess) is said to have been born right at sunrise and to have drunk the milk from a sacred cow from the Otherworld. Small flowers and shamrocks are said to appear where ever she has walked.
She married Bres, an Irish king and they had three sons. I love how practical and down-to-earth she is as a goddess, by the way. No sitting atop Mount Olympus only to come down to earth when there’s a war or someone to screw for this lady! Anyway, she and Bres were from two different warring tribes and it was thought that their marriage would bring peace. It eventually did, but not until after their son Ruadan was killed on the battlefield.
Then her eldest son went out and killed the smith of the opposing army. Apparently this sent Brigid into wails of grief, but eventually, the two sides got it together and decided to get along.
So here’s where the saint and goddess come together.
There were apparently two lepers who came to her at a sacred well in Kildare (remember that’s where St. Brigid is from). She told them to wash each other until they both healed. Well, because the lepers were human, when the first one was healed, he was suddenly grossed out by the other, not-yet-healed leper, so he refused to continue washing him. That pissed Brigid off, so she made his leprosy return and then she healed the other guy. Showed him, huh?
Many wells and springs are named for Brigid throughout Ireland, and water is often seen as a portal to the Otherworld. In fact, did you know that tossing coins into wells – at least in Ireland – hails back to the days when Brigid was openly worshiped? Pretty damn cool, if you ask me.
St. Brigid of Kildare
Her most revered shrine was located in Kildare, near an ancient oak tree. The place was so sacred to weapons weren’t allowed near it, and it was believed to be an ancient priestess college. Nineteen priestesses tended an eternal flame there, one priestess per day, and on the 20th day, Brigid tended the fire herself. It seems like they had a great thing going there, and eventually, a Catholic monastery was built on the site.
Appropriately, the site became a hub of knowledge and culture, and was instrumental in preserving literature during the Dark Ages.
As we see with the earliest Catholic saints, the legends of the goddess Brigid were integrated to the legends of St. Brigid.
Interestingly, St. Brigid’s Cross, made from reeds, may actually have been a sun cross. It was later written that St. Brigid wove this at the deathbed of someone asking to be baptized.
St. Brigid’s feast day is February 1 in Ireland. On the same day, Imbolc, a traditional Gaelic festival, celebrates Brigid and marks the beginning of spring. Imbolc dates back to ancient times, and it seems that Brigid was such a beloved goddess that it was easier for priests to make her a saint than a demon – and her celebration her feast day. Pretty smart, honestly.
Brigid Quick Facts
Origin: Celtic – Ireland
- Three Mothers
- Three Sisters
- Fire (the hearth and the forge)
I have loved learning about Brigid and will continue to research this fascinating lady! Stay tuned for more goddess profiles coming soon!