Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Brigit Book Reviews (1): Introduction

This post marks the introduction of a series of posts in which I will review books (and one or two major book chapters) about Brigit. The books will be grouped by category (eg picture books, novels) and over time I will add to them as more books come my way. To find all postings, please search by the term "Brigit Book Reviews" (though with any luck I will post them in a clump, so you can just scroll to the next one.)

Brigidine Books for Children and Adults

Twenty-five years ago or so I had difficulty finding much at all to do with Brigit. There was Alice Curtayne’s Saint Brigid of Ireland (1954), and rummaging in scholarly journals and books I found a few brief references; a smattering more appeared in feminist and Neopagan writings. Most presented the same few elements—her perpetual fire, her healing well, her triplicity, her sainthood—with an occasional new detail to whet my appetite.
I wanted more, and I was not alone. Due in large part to books like Barbara Walker’s The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, interest increased in this western European alternative to the patriarchal Christian God, and so did the publications. We learned about folk traditions and discovered prayers to Saint Bride in the Carmina Gadelica. Chapters and whole books devoted to her began to appear, from scholarly texts to children’s picture books. With the introduction of the internet, sites of devotion to her as goddess and saint have mushroomed. There is a plethora now of writings (not to mention meditation and music CDs, sculptures, crafts, and images galore), and a wee bit of confusion if you look too closely at them.
Despite the antiquity and persistence of Brigit’s cult, and many years of study of the ancient Celts, there are major gaps in our knowledge of the nature and traditions of Brigit and her people. This leads naturally to guess-work and differing interpretations, depending on the sources used and the background and orientation of the authors. This is inevitable and good, when supported by evidence and footnoted in such a way that the interested reader can retrace arguments and come to her own conclusions. In this way, our understanding deepens and evolves. But it can lead, when there is a desire to offer an easily understandable picture, or where information is looked at without a good understanding of its context, to oversimplifications and misunderstandings, and a mushing together of the known and the invented. Borrowings, conscious or unintended, from unrelated doctrines—the Four Directions of Wicca, for example, which don’t exist in Celtic myth and religion—may be used to fill in the gaps: new traditions are grafted onto the old.
It can be argued that this is evolution, itself. The cult of Brigit is changed, now as in the past, by any new culture it comes in contact with. But for those of us who want to piece together an understanding based on what comes down to us from antiquity, it causes problems.
For some, historical accuracy is not as important as the lessons gleaned, the inspiration received, and the ease with which Brigit can be included in an existing practice or pantheon. This is a valid perspective. And surely, if we only wanted verifiable historical detail, Brigit would be a bad bet. Her “lives” were all written long after she died (if she lived at all) and her appearance as a goddess in the old texts comes even later. What we know about her comes almost entirely from a mixture of late period folklore, customs, place names, and Christian vitae. Still, an examination of those materials can give us a clearer picture of who she was to her people at various points in history. For many, this is the most comfortable starting point for a modern interpretation. Piecing together the many pieces of the puzzle is for them a rewarding intellectual and spiritual endeavour.
Having a satisfying bibliography and thorough footnotes doesn’t automatically prevent muddy thinking and misinformation, nor is it a case of academics being right and lay writers wrong. A healthy dose of skepticism is always advisable, and if you come across a particularly enticing piece of information, presented as fact, that you’ve never encountered before, you may want to follow it up and see where it comes from. There is a good chance that someone has made a guess and someone else has read that speculation as Truth.
For this reason you will find that I most prize authors who give their evidence, cite its origins, and then offer hypotheses based on that evidence. I am happier with gaps in the picture and a lack of certainty about ultimate truths than I am with murky provenance. On the other hand, I do appreciate reading a Brigidine’s vision of his benefactor and his interpretation of that vision, upwellings of inspired poetry, and creations of new ritual and charms. These are valid and valuable additions to her cultus. I treasure modern manifestations of her cult, “UPG” (Unconfirmed Personal Gnosis: inspiration about one’s personal deity), and spontaneous, joyful renderings, in addition to old traditions, academic observations, and considered conclusions. But I do like to know which is which.
When we can’t retrace a writer’s steps and weigh their conclusions, assertions once born as guesses or poetic imagery work their way into the literature as accepted fact. They may not be errors or even UPG—they may be legitimate pieces of historical information, but with no way of tracing them to their source they are untrustworthy and frustrating items to deal with. An example is the name Ingheau Anndagha or Daughters of the Flame.
I found this term in Merlin Stone’s Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood in 1992 and enthusiastically applied it to the group I had formed to relight Brigit’s perpetual flame. Because the Irish was daunting to non-Irish speakers, I reserved it for the newsletter and called the group Daughters of the Flame. I didn’t afterward find a single reference to the title Ingheau Anndagha in any but Neopagan writings—presumably they, too, got it from Merlin Stone.
So where did it come from? I wrote to Ms Stone in the 1990s and got no reply, so I can’t say. In time I dropped the dubious title from the newsletter, but we are quite content to this day to think of ourselves as daughters of Brigit’s flame, wherever the name may have come from. (The Truth may be out there somewhere; I eventually stopped looking. If you know the origins of Ingheau Anndagha, do tell!)
In my reviews of Brigidine books, I will primarily attempt to distinguish between:
  • works based on folk traditions, and/or written or geographical materials of ancient or medieval origin versus those which embark in new directions, infusing Wiccan and other ideas into their presentation of Brigit, versus works based largely on personal relationship with deity;
  • works that are well written and well presented versus those which are not;
  • works intended to further the study of or devotion to Brigit versus those which pursue other aims primarily;
  • works that are more useful for inspiration than for scholarship. (Since I can find inspiration in the driest scholarly presentation, if the ideas are exciting enough, I may not be able to offer the opposite: works that are more useful for scholarship than inspiration.)
 All of this is intended as a sketchy roadmap for people to whom such distinctions are important. I’m grateful for this upsurging of Brigidine materials and devotion, in its many forms, and my intention is never to discourage authors, but to ask for and celebrate clarity in intent and presentation. I won’t be reviewing every book, or the many papers and articles available; if anyone is drawn to writing a scholarly critique of the literature, I would be delighted to read and link to it.
I distinguish in my categories between scholarly and popular books in part by the presence or absence of footnotes, index, and a bibliography based on primary and secondary source materials as opposed to one based on other popular books. This is not an indication of how serious or sincere a writer is. There are few books on the subject that have nothing at all to offer to our appreciation of Brigit and her cultus, and there are many perspectives available; mine is as subjective as any other.
I offer you, then, my sense of the books I have before me, pointing you in the direction of texts I personally find useful and raising a flag of caution here and there, in the hope this may help you in choosing which books you want to explore in more depth. If you have suggestions of other books that should be on the list—perhaps your own?—please let me know. If you are able to point me toward a review copy, so much the better.
Given all that, I invite you to dip into the waters of Brigit writings, and encourage you to add to that body of work if you are so inspired.
  May you find many blessings in your research, and may her flame burn bright within you.


Anonymous said...

I thought someone may be intreested in this site: www.angelgiftshop.co.uk There are a few Brighid items on it (a book, which you've posted here on your site, as well as some Brighid jewelry). Just thought they could be great gifts just in time for Imbolc!


Mael Brigde, for The Daughters of the Flame said...

Thanks, Lisa.

And for those who are wondering Where The Heck my reviews are...they're in process. When they are all finished, I'll post them together.