Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Brigit Reviews (Series Five): Nonfiction, Popular (Neo-Pagan)


This post follows rather belatedly on the earlier reviews of children's Picture Books, etc. When I have completed the Sixth and final series (Academic/Popular Academic) I'll pin them all to the Pages tab below the title banner, in order to make them more accessible to later readers. In the meantime you can find the previous reviews and introductory material at these links:


Brigit Book Reviews (1): Introduction





Brigit Reviews (Series Five): Nonfiction, Neo-Pagan

Candlemas: Feast of Flames, Amber K and Azrael Arynn K (2001) Llewellyn Publications
“The Well of Her Memory” in Red-Haired Girl from the Bog, Patricia Monaghan (2003) New World Library
‘‘Imbolc—Brigit”, Alexei Kondratiev,  in Devoted to You, Judy Harrow (2003) Citadel Press
Brighid’s Healing: Ireland’s Celtic Medicine Traditions, Gina McGarry (2005) Green Magic
Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom, Erynn Rowan Laurie (2007) Megalithica Books
Brigid: Goddess, Druidess and Saint, Brian Wright (2009) The History Press
Brighid and Me: Experiences with the Goddess, Hollee Swann, ed. (2010) copyright Helen Roberts Hollee Swann
Brigit: Sun of Womanhood, ed. Patricia Monaghan and Michael McDermott (2013) (Mention only.)

Introduction

We have a mixed bag in this category, some excellent, some I don’t recommend at all, and some I recommend with certain reservations. A few of these reservations crop up repeatedly, in particular the failure of authors to cite their sources and the mixing of fact with guesswork—their own or that gleaned from other writers.

A useful guideline for dealing with one sub-category of the latter problem can be found in the concept of UPG. (See below. ) It is a variation on a basic principle of nonfiction writing: only present as fact what can be established as such. Represent your own ideas and those of “the popular mind” as what they are. This does not make them less important. Insight and innovation nourish our growing appreciation of and connection to Brigit in the modern world. Delineating between our own ideas and defensible traditions simply allows each individual to draw their own conclusions, in possession of as much clear, and clearly sourced, information as possible.

The Ks’ book, Candlemas, suffers from a lack of citations—there are some but not many and they aren’t all useful—making it frequently impossible to check their statements. It also suffers in offering unproven assumptions as fact, particularly annoying when they are in doubt or disproven elsewhere. Despite this it is a lovely jumping off point for thinking about Brigit and the festival, with lots of warmth, imagination, and ideas for celebration, Neo-Pagan-style.

Monaghan’s essay, “The Well of Her Memory”, offers a well written and interesting personal perspective on Brigit and her modern celebration in Kildare. A couple of her statements, again not cited, are dubious, however, and I would verify elsewhere any new ideas you find here that you want to embrace.

Kondratiev, too, at times presents imagination as fact in ‘‘Imbolc—Brigit”. Yet he does have a good background in Celtic studies and it is a pleasure to imagine along with him. He offers numerous ways to celebrate a Neo-Pagan Imbolc, as well. Worth the read.

I can’t speak to McGarry’s herbal information, which may be solid, but, despite her obvious goodwill, as a book about Brigit or Celtic tradition Brighid’s Healing: Ireland’s Celtic Medicine Traditions is very unreliable. Nor does it have much obvious to offer around actual Irish herbal traditions. Not recommended.

Laurie has done an excellent job in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom. This book is not specifically about Brigit, but she appears frequently in its pages, placed to an unusual degree in the context of the Celtic mindset from which she emerged, and the Neo-Pagan landscape in which she now finds herself. It is well-footnoted and carefully distinguishes Laurie’s own ideas from tradition, offering modern innovations and explaining how they adhere to or differ from what is known of the beliefs and values of the Celts.

Despite some interesting photos and tidbits, I can’t recommend Wright’s Brigid: Goddess, Druidess and Saint. Instead of distinguishing his hypotheses from known facts, he puts forward his own imagined history, unsupported by evidence, quite forcibly as reality, thereby giving a very misleading picture of things.

Swann has put together a nice little pamphlet of personal essays by various Neo-Pagans on their relationship to Brigit in Brighid and Me: Experiences with the Goddess. I like it, and was pleased to be asked to write an essay for it, so I leave it to you to decide if I am biased.

I’m going to cheat and not actually review Monaghan and McDermott’s Brigit: Sun of Womanhood. It was published after the writing of the other reviews here, which have been long delayed in publication due to health issues in my life. Rather than delay yet longer as I read and review Sun of Womanhood  I will say only that it exists, and that it is a collection of largely Neo-Pagan writings, though there are offerings from Christians as well.


Useful Terms:

When discussing books written by authors of a spiritual bent, the terms UPG, SPG, and CG can come in very handy.

UPG (Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis): Information gained through meditation, intuition, visions, etc., which cannot be substantiated by lore or research but is usable in the individual’s practice. Labelling as UPG helps prevent misunderstandings about verifiable sources and preserves intellectual honesty. “UPG” specifically indicates beliefs arrived at via mystical means, not ideas or intellectual conclusions reached from academic research.

SPG (Shared Personal Gnosis) — A mystical vision and belief shared by a number of people.

CG (Confirmed Gnosis) — Substantiating evidence for UPG or SPG may later be found in the lore, rendering it CPG (Confirmed Personal Gnosis). These instances are highly valued, and have served to bolster individual and community faith in the Deities, spirits or ancestors from whom the information was received. Instances of CG are also very important in that over time they help us learn to distinguish true imbas from imagination. (Imbas is the Old Irish word for “inspiration.” In Modern Irish it is spelled iomas. )

                                                   Distilled from the CR FAQ (available online or in book form.)


Click below to read the reviews.

Candlemas: Feast of Flames, Amber K and Azrael Arynn K (2001) Llewellyn Publications

This book is the first one that many Neo-Pagans read about Brigit, being far more readily available than, say, Ó Duinn’s The Rites of Brigid, Goddess and Saint, and more accessible than Ó Catháin’s The Festival of Brigid or Bitel’s Landscape with Two Saints. Presenting a blend of cultural, divinatory, and magical traditions, Candlemas may appeal more to those whose traditions are not drawn from a single culture than to, say, Celtic Reconstructionists. 

Overall, I like the book. The text is weakened by a reliance, in the historical notes, on authors who have no background in Celtic studies and who draw their information from yet other authors who do not obviously have direct experience studying the old texts and lore. This tendency allows inaccuracies to creep in and become part of the common view of a subject, thereby distorting an already obscure picture. Nevertheless, and despite a lack of clarity at times between cultural sources, Candlemas has much to spark the interest of a variety of readers.

Candlemas was written with a general Neo-Pagan (or Neo-Pagan-friendly) audience in mind. It’s focus is largely on Brigit, but it encompasses other deities and festivals and makes some interesting parallels between them. The second author, Azrael K, who focusses on the Imbolc feast, includes a wealth of recipes, indicating which ingredients would have been available to the Celtic people at various points in history—a nice touch, I thought. (Brand new recipes are included, as well.)

 The tone is friendly and welcoming, lacking an ardent attachment to a single interpretation of Brigit and encouraging exploration. Amber K has a lovely, multifaith, all-people-are-one approach, and a great delight in deity and celebration. Reading Candlemas is much like being invited in to sit by the hearth to talk, make crafts, and share ritual.

Although some care is taken to cite sources and trace evidence, this is inconsistent, and Candlemas is therefore not a reliable source of factual information, nor is it easy to follow up items of interest. Hypotheses that are contested among experts are presented as accepted truths—for example the definition of Imbolc:

“Imbolg means ‘in the belly’ and refers specifically to the pregnancy of the sheep, and more broadly to Mother Earth quickening with new life.”
                                                                                                   pg 7

No source is given. And Mother Earth is a Slavic, not a Celtic, deity, and so we know there is something wrong with this definition right off.

Scholars give much more tentative definitions of Imbolc:

“The exact meaning of ‘Imbolc’ or ‘Oimelc’ presents considerable difficulty, and Pamela Berger suggests gently that cleansing of the fields after the winter and preparing them for sowing the grain in spring may be fundamental in the idea underlying the term. She refers to the theory which separates the term ‘Imbolc/Imbolg’ into two words: im and bolg, im meaning ‘around’ and bolg ‘belly’—the belly of that goddess—that is the land, the farm...”

          The Rites of Brigid, Goddess and Saint, Séan Ó Duinn, pg 19-20.

Ó Catháin reads things differently.

Imbolc/óimelc the ancient name for the festival of Brigit is defined thus in the ninth-century Cormac’s Glossary:...‘that is the time when the sheep’s milk comes’...Though condemned as ‘a fanciful etymological explanation’ this statement has, nevertheless, inspired oft-repeated assertions that the pagan name of our feast, as imbolc/óimelc is said to be, has something to do with the period of the coming into lactation of sheep. Eric Hamp...has shown that the word simply means ‘milking’...”

           The Festival of Brigit, Séamas Ó Catháin, pg 7.

Ó Catháin goes on at length to examine the philological evidence and theorize about what the name—if it even IS the true name of the feast—means and what it may tell us about the festival. All of which simply shows that the details, roundabout though they may be, are infinitely more textured and fascinating than the boiled down versions we often receive, and that there are many more possiblities out there than the Mother Earth story above hints at. (For an unorthodox and intriguing interpretation of the word Imbolc, see my upcoming review of  Phillip A. Bernhardt-House’s paper “Imbolc: A New Interpretation”.)

I would have appreciated a lot more footnotes, with a strong bibliography to back them up. (The citation “From the files of Amber K, source unknown”, found on page 20, doesn’t cut it.) No matter how general an audience you are seeking or how blended a spirituality you want to offer, you are doing your readers a real disservice by stating something as a fact and not giving them any way to learn more about it. For instance, how do we know the time of year was once called Wolfmonth? Was this an Irish term? Scottish? German?

“The Scots celebrate the growing light not only with Imbolg but also with Up-Kelly-Aa, a fire festival on January 28 that honors the sun goddess.”
                                                                                                    pg 7

This surprising revelation was not footnoted, and a quick internet search, plus a brief consultation of the indexes of a few books on my own shelves, shed no light. I have no idea where Up-Kelly-Aa came from, who has called it a fire festival or why, and I am sure there are a few Scots who will be surprised to learn that they honour the sun goddess on that or any other day. I want to know more about this interesting festival, a feeling I often had when reading the wondrous collection of unsourced details the author has amassed. There truly is an impressive amount of research here; my frustration at not being able to easily verify it, and therefore to rely on it, only increases because of that.

In addition to letting the trail go cold on so many details, the author at times accepts the oversimplifications of other authors, or blends together Neo-Pagan perspectives with traditional Brigidine lore. For instance, in adopting the use of the term “Imbolc Sabbat” (pg 7). Sabbats were not observed by the Celts. Though Hebrew at its root, the term is modern in its use and is more correctly applied to Wicca and witchcraft.

This is admittedly, for some, a blurry line. If modern witchcraft adopts Celtic and Germanic festivals into its Wheel of the Year, then it makes sense in that context that the term “sabbat” be applied to them. But if we are presenting a purported history of the festival, the term is completely out of place.

Nevertheless, at other times things are laid out very clearly, and the author will point out areas of uncertainty, such as in her examination of Brigit’s origins. An attempt is made, too, to get into the skin of the ancients, to claim the festival and goddess/saint as our own, and bring into our lives all the poignant symbolism and positive energy that these interpretations can yield. One of the pleasures of Candlemas is the inclusion of poetic imaginings of how things once were. (“...the solstice is past, the days are dreary, the memory of warmth seems like a fading dream...”) This embodying and enlivening of spiritual ideas invites the participant closer to nature, to divinity, to community, and to the ideals of creativity and sharing.

Candlemas is a wide-ranging offering of ideas and lore, much of which comes straight from Brigit’s medieval Lives or folk custom, much more of which is drawn from a variety of streams from gemology and astrology to western ceremonial magical traditions, all woven together with the heartfelt contributions of modern celebrants.

Despite its weaknesses, it is a fun and warming read. A good introduction to a Neo-Pagan interpretation of Brigit and all that she encompasses.

“The Well of Her Memory” in Red-Haired Girl from the Bog, Patricia Monaghan (2003) New World Library

There is some very nice writing in Monaghan’s chapter on Brigit. She gives a version of Brigit’s history, as well as interesting notes on, for instance, the face of paganism in modern Ireland. I have some quibbles, as well as one more serious concern, but I appreciate that, unlike most writings on the topic, the chapter gives a personal face to Kildare and the Irish Brigidine movement. It includes a moving description, though second-hand, of the relighting of Brigit’s flame in Kildare hundreds of years after its extinguishing, and an intriguing account of the celebration of Brigit in Ireland, particularly in Kildare, today.

Monaghan doesn’t live in Kildare, nor is she Irish, so the story is from an outsider’s point of view, and focusses naturally on the period around Imbolc, when La Fheile Bhride is celebrated, in tandem with a peace conference, by both native Irish and hundreds of people who do not live day to day with Brigit in Ireland. As an Irish North American, though, Monaghan feels a strong connection with these traditions, and the story she tells is as individual as it is commonplace—that of a modern woman of the diaspora seeking her place in the culture of her ancestors. In addition, she relates some Brigidine lore, describes the use of holy wells, and so on.

Red-Haired Girl has, I am happy to report, an index, and this is greatly appreciated. Not so footnotes. In writing such as this, which is a blend of travelogue, personal essay, poetry, and history, it’s understandable that the writer might balk at having the page bristle with footnotes. Nevertheless, there are places where I really wish she had used them.

For example she asserts, without stating by whom, that Brigit is credited with creating the ogam—a medieval Irish cipher system. Yet it is clear in the literature that ogam’s origins are attributed to the god Ogma. (“Oghma...is credited with the invention of the Ogham letters...” Proinsias MacCana, Celtic Mythology (1968) pg 35.) If there is a Celtic scholar who has suggested that Brigit, in fact, is responsible for the invention of the ogam, I would like to read what she or he has to say about it. Without a citation here, I’m not able to do that.

I was startled to read her etymology of the word “bridge” in Irish placenames. It is a rendering I’ve never encountered before, and it sounded very dubious to me. She claims: “...bridge is a Brigit word. The Celtic word Brigit...was anglicized into Bridget; in turn, across Ireland and England, towns near ancient shrines to the goddess were called by names including ‘bridge’, as in Bridgeport...”

First of all, to be clear, and Monaghan is not saying otherwise, the soft “g” pronunciation in Brigit is relatively recent, the original Irish hard “g” sound having given way to the Swedish “dg” found in the name of the Scandinavian Saint named Bridget.

That aside, since holy places are everywhere in Ireland, it would not be hard to argue that anywhere with “bridge” in the name was near one. But there are many waterways, small and large, as well. Wouldn’t it be much more likely that there was also a bridge nearby at sometime, if not today? It strikes me that a far simpler explanation is that these places are named after bridges. I tried to verify Monaghan’s assertion, but found nothing to support it. I took the question to a number of persons with a stronger background in the subject than I; none had ever heard this etymology before, and none were convinced by it. The mildest reaction was from the Northern Ireland Place-Name Project, which called it “Possible but highly unlikely.”

Looking further, P W Joyce’s The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places (2nd edition, 1870), sports a 53 page index of place-names. Few if any have “bridge” in them, although a number have forms of droichead, Irish for “bridge”. A very few have some form of bri[1], translated as “a high or rising ground”. It strikes me that less than one hundred and fifty years ago there seem to have been almost no names with “bridge” in them. My guess is that those that now exist are modern anglicizations rather than ancient derivations.

This may seem like nit-picking, but such assertions, unsubstantiated and unequivocal, are very misleading. This is not the only such leap made in the book, and as in much writing on the subject, there are places where she presents one version of the story of Brigit without mentioning conflicting ones. I would therefore say that, since such points are not backed up or always clearly stated , it would be best to read the historical parts of this piece as “maybe”, and focus on the much stronger personal aspects of the book.

Another nitpick: the misspelling of the names of two Brigidine sisters—Mary Minihan for Mary Minehan and Mary Theresa Collins for Mary Teresa Cullen[2]. Such obvious and easily corrected mistakes suggest an underlying weakness in her scholarship elsewhere. Nevertheless, the sincerity, depth of feeling, and beauty of Monaghan’s writing compensate to a great extent for the flaws.



[1]    Including bree or bray.
[2]    The latter spelling is given in the Irish Brigidine nun Rita Minehan’s book Rekindling the Flame,  Solas Bhride (1999).

‘‘Imbolc—Brigit”, Alexei Kondratiev,  in Devoted to You, Judy Harrow (2003) Citadel Press

Good writing. That is the first thing that strikes me about Kondratiev’s essay on Brigit. He has pulled me in by the end of the first sentence.

“In a glen in the east of Ireland, protected from the toil and battle of the world outside, a group of chosen women came together within a round enclosure to tend a fire lit before any of them were born” (p 89).

I do not know at this point if he is referring to the saint’s nuns or some presumed group of pagan Celts tending a goddess’ flame, but the image as he relates it is enticing, and somehow I am included in that group, just by hearing about them in this way, and I am swayed.

Ultimately, though, I’m cautious about assuming that there ever was a group of pre-Christian flame-tenders at Kildare, much as I would like to believe it, and I am uncomfortable with Kondratiev’s assertion of it as though it is fact. Allow me a major digression here.

Our first word on the subject of Brigit’s perpetual flame comes from Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) in 1188 CE. It isn’t mentioned in her several early Lives. Indeed, a good 700 years passed after her death before the practice was noted down.  This seems a dramatic oversight, especially considering the great detail Cogitosus goes into in describing her church and reliquary, and the intimate stories of her life that abound in all extant vitae.

Three other perpetual flames are known to have been tended by medieval Irish clerics (in each other case, by men), these being extinguished and relit each Easter with the rebirth of Christ. It seems well possible that the perpetual fire at Kildare was a Christian invention, and that it was lit for the first time long after the death of Saint Brigit. Fire is an important symbol in Christianity, and no link between perpetual fires and the goddess Brigit appears in the sparse references to her found in medieval texts (W. G. Wood-Martin, pg 278-279).

The author Marian Green warns “There is a danger of creating a picture of her pagan role from information we have of Brigit as a saint, because certain elements of her life as a Christian holy woman appear to be pre-Christian in origin. An example of this is the saint’s magical association with fire, which has given rise to the deity being identified as a fire-goddess” (pg 198).

Looked at from another angle, Séan Ó Duinn, while not directly questioning the pagan origins of Brigit’s perpetual fire, speculates that Giraldus Cambrensis might have been influenced by classical literature in his recounting of what he found in Kildare; this would account for the similarities between his description of Brigit’s flame cult and that of the Vestal Virgins. He further remarks that it is odd that, like the Vestals, Brigit is said to have had 20 virgins tending the flame. “In Ireland, one would expect the number 9 to predominate...9 hazels of wisdom...9 damsels of the sea... (and so on)” (pg 64).

Clearly Brigit, as goddess of the smith, has a connection to fire. And great fires were lit at times of cultural importance in pagan Ireland. But if I recall correctly—and I’m having trouble remembering where I read it, so if you have a citation, please let me know—Brigit’s festival, Imbolc, is the only one of the Irish quarter days that does not have a bonfire associated with it. I don’t mean to imply that there is no pre-Christian importance among the Celts to fire in general or Brigit’s fire in particular, or indeed to argue the point one way or the other, only to call attention to the fact that the assumption that her fire was tended perpetually in pre-Christian times is just that, an assumption, unproven and in some doubt. What if, a possibility which Bitel suggests, the attributes of a goddess, and not necessarily the goddess Brigit, were added to the saint’s stories by later writers to lend weight to the saint’s cult, or rather, to lend importance to the ecclesiastics in various parts of the country whose power was tied to their association with Saint Brigit (pg 192)?

Kondratiev himself, when examining the goddess as distinct from the saint, asks, “What stories do we have about the goddess that clearly predate the stories about the saint?” and then refers to material which “Irish scholars compiled between the eighth and the twelfth century”. These stories of the goddess were written down at least a hundred years after the first saintly tales, written down by clerics who would have been well aware of Saint Brigit, who lived in a now Christian land, and who might well have had reasons of their own for presenting the stories in the way and with the characters they did.

Indeed, later Lives of Saint Brigit are far more imbued with miracles and “pagan” sensibility than Cogitosus’s Life, which many scholars believe to be the oldest of her vitae. Quite possibly she began as a simple human and grew more fantastic as time went on, rather than the opposite—a woman who slipped into the role of a goddess in her lifetime and whose goddess-like associations were there from the start, or even, as Kondratiev suggests, that “a high priestess of Brigit (who was herself Brigit) converted to Christianity” and refused to renounce her goddess. Any of these stories is possible; we need to be careful not to rewrite the past to match our idea of what should have been. We have future and present enough for that. (This concludes the digression on Brigit’s Pagan fire.)

Nevertheless! Kondratiev is not alone in accepting that the perpetual fire at Kildare is pre-Christian in origin, and he builds on that assumption throughout the text. He reaches out in imagination to the humble yet vital role of tending fire, to the role of fire in fending off danger and killing frosts, in guiding the wanderer home and transforming food. He draws us into his world—our world, perhaps, of long ago. He even (Bless him! Praise him!) provides a (brief) annotated resource list. This alternative to the more rigorous (and useful) option of footnotes and bibliography allows a smoother, more fiction-like text, but still points us generally toward more evidence.

He also cites some of his sources in the text itself, although not as often as I’d like. And his imaginings are supported by a familiarity with Celtic writings and folklore that allows him to make informed guesses and to supply enlightening tidbits. For instance, that fire is in Celtic and Indo-European thinking the “archetypal ‘element that rises’”, and that water is the archetypal “‘element that descends’ down to a cold, dark, chaotic underworld” (pg 98). In exploring these two archetypes, he is able to show how Brigit embodies both—most interestingly in the integration of rising and descending in the element of water as it rises from the earth as a sacred healing spring.

Although Kondratiev emphasises the importance of woman’s role in her connection to the (presumed) goddess of fire—or at least to the hearth—he doesn’t forget that the Celts had a patriarchal society with limits on kinship and sharing. He extrapolates from here that it was the need for cooperation and mutual protection that gave rise to a non-family based flame-tending group—one that would secure the safety of the whole tribe and knit families together.  At another point, he slips into speaking of Brigit’s choice to join a religious community as though the stories in her Lives and his imaginings about her are factual accounts of a real woman’s life, which is again questionable.

The true story isn’t likely to be exactly as he has imagined it. If it is like most things speculated on, once new evidence is unearthed and a fuller picture gained, they are not much like we have imagined them. Although he clearly is largely convinced of his story, and thus leans in the direction of misleading the reader into an assumption of Truth, he occasionally does allow that there is no substantiation for the picture he offers.

It doesn’t even entirely make sense. “It was comforting for people to feel that they didn’t have to give up the goddess who had always looked after their welfare and given them the energy they needed to do their daily work. She could remain at the heart of the official religion their nations had chosen to follow” (pg 100). At the time of Saint Brigit, Christianity was a minority religion in Ireland. According to Bitel, “Christianity was only slowly becoming a native manufacture” ( pg 137). There was no sudden switch to Christianity that would require such comforting; indeed, there was no nation at the time.

Kondratiev assumes that Boann is the goddess Brigit’s mother and that Boann is the cow that fed the infant saint (pg 108). I like the image but it is another unsubstantiated leap; in addition he says she fed her “when no one else would”, whereas the tale actually says she couldn’t keep anything else down. I can’t help being amused by his blithe statement that “The White Cow”, the river Boyne, is Brigit’s mother. Wright equally blithely assures us that the Morrigan is Brigit’s mother, and McGarry that Dana has that role. None of these writers bothers to say where they got this information. More careful authors give her father’s name only—the Daghda—as this is the only parental name reported in the ancient texts, Cormac’s Glossary and Cath Maige Tuired (The Second Battle of Mag Tuired).

I point these inconsistencies out not to disprove Kondratiev’s contentions, but to bring home that the smallest assumptions can lead to hugely different interpretations of history. We may so easily mislead ourselves and others by representing our guesses and dearly wished-for versions of that history as truth. Either way, the story of Brigit is a fascinating tale, rich with imagery and symbolism with which to feed our imaginations, and the goddess/saint who is now inextricably combined is a wonder and a gift. Regardless of the medieval state of affairs, the story has changed many times throughout the millenia. Was Brigit the daughter of the Daghda? Was she the mother of all the Tuatha de Danaan, the Irish deities, including the Daghda, as suggested by those who see Dana and Brigit as one? Was she one of these at one time in history, and the other at another time, or was she both at once? Were Bríg Ambue and Bríg Briugu and Brigit the triple goddess all one, and was the saint a single Brigit or a variety of similarly named women?

Brigit is, after all, a liminal figure, neither of this world nor the Otherworld, but of both, as shown most clearly by her birth on a doorstep, neither in nor out of the house. She can be both goddess and saint, the Daghda’s daughter and his mother, deeply pagan and unimpeachably Christian. We do not have to simplify her, to create a grand unified Brigit, or to ask the evidence to bear too much weight.

There will always be points of disagreement in interpreting evidence and presenting arguments.  Despite my criticisms, Kondratiev’s lengthy chapter on Imbolc and Brigit satisfies both intellect and  spirit. Whatever she has been, Brigit is now a goddess and a saint with both the power of healing waters and ever-burning fire, and Kondratiev is able to offer a moving picture of how things may have been, and from there, to guide how we might participate in those mysteries now. He offers a comparison with the Vestal Virgins (for a more thorough comparison see Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid), an interesting look at the goddess references in the old texts, a nicely developed introduction to Brigidine associations (the ox, the oystercatcher), and an examination of Breton and French folktales in order to gain a greater understanding of themes of mutilation in stories about Saint Brigit. He provides prayers, meditations and notes for Brigidine retreats, and points out that Brigit is at home in all three of the Celtic Realms—Land, Sea, and Sky—thus assisting us in grounding our relationship to her in the greater context of the Celtic worldview. In the end, his fiction-like approach yields more good than ill as long as one bears in mind that it is speculative and not a reiteration of a true life story.

I want to give two thumbs up to this wonderful essay, which is so rich in detail and design, but too often Kondratiev blurs the line between guesswork and research, and blends unrelated lines of evidence without indicating that he is doing so, then basing conclusions on that blended evidence. I can’t accept that the goddess and saint are so seamlessly linked. Nevertheless, his interpretations arising from these stories fill out missing details and allow a deeper understanding of the myths, leading to powerful magical and metaphorical leaps in our own minds.

Bibliography

Lisa M. Bitel, Landscape with Two Saints (2009)
Giraldus Cambrensis, Topographia Hibernica (1188)
Oliver Davies, translator,  Celtic Spirituality (The Classics of Western Spirituality) (1999)
Séan Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, Goddess and Saint, (2005)
Cath Maige Tuired (The Second Battle of Mag Tuired), Translated by Elizabeth A. Gray (1983)
Marian Green, Celtic Goddesses (1996)
Proinias MacCana, Celtic Mythology (1968)
W. G. Wood-Martin, Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland (1902), pp. 278-279 (Thanks to Erynn Rowan Laurie for this reference.)

Brighid’s Healing: Ireland’s Celtic Medicine Traditions, by Gina McGarry (2005) Green Magic (England):

I won’t comment here (nor do I have the knowledge to do so) on the value of the many herbal remedies included in Brighid’s Healing, but only on McGarry’s handling of the Brigit-related material.

Despite the friendly and well-meaning attitude of the author, I can’t recommend this book. I could have been content if it had been presented differently—as a synthesis of learning from many sources and the inspiration of the author, rather than as a book based on Irish tradition.

The trouble for me begins with her author photo, where McGarry dresses as an Irish peasant of an earlier century. I have no problem with people playing dressup, but I am uncomfortable with it in this context. It lends, for me, a feel of play-acting, or worse, pretense, in a book that claims to be a serious treatment of an important topic. I am further troubled by a misleading cover blurb: “Gina...is the director of...Brighid’s Academy of Healing in Westmeath, Ireland...(Her work) has seen her reputation spread far beyond her native land.” Her native land, it fails to mention, is not Ireland, as seems to be implied here.

As a textbook, there are obvious omissions. There is no index, bibliography, or footnotes. She claims deep tradition, but makes claims throughout with no substantiation. No attempt is made to differentiate between traditional Irish uses of herbs and modern ones drawn from a much broader tradition, from non-Celtic astrology to the herbal theories of Susun Weed, and a blend of Neo-Pagan beliefs—both UPG and SPG[1].

McGarry states that she wants Celtic herbalism, especially Irish herbalism, to “take its rightful place” alongside “Chinese, Ayurvedic and Native American herbalism” (pg vii). This idea entices me, but I learn little here about the Irish or Celtic use of herbs. It doesn’t read as if anything is actually Celtic, in terms of the herb-lore, and her herbal references to various Celtic deities are not obviously connected to an informed understanding of them. I seldom get the sense that I’m reading about actual traditional Irish recipes and uses—there is little drawn from interviews, folklore, medieval manuscripts, and so on, that point to elder uses of herbs—yet we know that information exists. The association of hawthorne with the Good People is mentioned, but two herbs very commonly used in dealing with fairies, foxglove and St. John's wort[2], are not even listed in the Materia Medica. (Though I search, I don't actually see a section on dealing with a wide variety of fairy interference, yet this was a key area of Irish herbalism.)

A better Neo-Pagan resource for such references is Erynn Laurie’s Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom, which examines in detail the Irish and Scottish uses of plants connected to the ogam letters. A more exhaustive work would be, perhaps, An Irish Herbal: The Botanalogia Universalis Hibernica, by John K'Eogh and George Harrison (1735)[3]. Other works McGarry might profitably have consulted and referred to in Brighid’s Healing are Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland, by David E. Allen and Gabrielle Hatfield, Timber Press (Portland, 2004), or Healing Threads: Traditional Medicines of the Highlands and Islands by Mary Beith, Birlinn (Edinburgh, 2004), and William Milliken and Sam Bridgewater’s Flora Celtica: Plants and People in Scotland, Birlinn (Edinburgh, 2004)

Yet McGarry’s goodwill is apparent. She cares about people and tells a gratifying tale:

“For millenia, Brighid was the residing Spirit at an academy of learning at Her sacred site in Kildare. Young women from families rich and poor, near and far, came to receive Her teachings and become aid-women, serving in Her name. Their functions included the preservation of the traditional sciences, healing remedies, and the laws of the land. Village women brought them food and, in exchange, the Bride women taught them how to use herbs as medicine. The head of the academy was considered to be the physical incarnation of the Goddess and, when elected, took the name of Brighid.”
                                                          pg 31

If only the words “let’s imagine...” had preceded the tale! As a fable, it can have meaning—could encourage and inspire, perhaps. But presented as fact it strains credulity. How can she possibly know this? To my knowledge, there is absolutely no evidence of such a thing having existed, let alone a hint of all these details.

She speaks of “Brighid’s Aid-women” in the historical section on page one. These were, she says, her trainees, like Tibetan Buddhists, followers of a particular teacher and forming a spiritual tradition. As far as I can tell, she made them up. Yet she includes them in a list of things we “know” about Celtic physicians. (She may have based these constructions on Alexander Carmichael’s remarks in the Carmina Gadelica that in Scotland “She (Bride) was the aid-woman of the Mother of Nazareth in the lowly stable, and she is the aid-woman of the mothers of Uist in their humble homes.” This relationship is explored in the Scottish traditional prayer “Bride Ban-Chobhair” (“Bride the Aid-Woman”), collected by Carmichael. http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cg1/cg1076.htm .)

According to McGarry, Brigit is the daughter of Dana and Dana is from Atlantis. In Celtic literature, Dana is an Irish goddess sometimes equated by modern scholars with Brigit. Atlantis is of Greek, not Celtic, construction. The goddess Brigit is described in the medieval Irish text Cormac’s Glossary (c. 900 CE) as being a daughter of the Daghda, but not of Dana. (Brian Wright, in his own imagining of Brigit’s parentage, has her mother as the Morrigan. Kondratiev gives Boann—he doesn’t use that name, but calls her “The White Cow” and “the river Boyne”. None of these authors offer substantiation for their maternal genealogies.)

There are many examples of such UPG in the book, together with a mingling of unrelated magical systems which, though they may work well together, are not examples of traditional Celtic healing. This is a problem here, where it is not in Candlemas, because the claim is different. One book celebrates a mingling of traditions where the other claims a pure lineage that it doesn’t deliver on.

In her attempt to present a unified Brigit, McGarry blurs goddess and saint, sacrificing important differences and exaggerating desired aspects. This is acceptable in a personal devotional practice, and we all exercise our preferences more or less in how we represent her to ourselves, but to offer this as undiluted fact misleads the reader.

There is one example of reinterpretation presented as fact that I want to outline here not because it is outrageously unique but because it is one of a genre of creative reimagining and wishful thinking that might work well in fiction or in UPG-based ritual, but which mars writing that claims to be based in fact.

“Brighid carries a sword, the Blade of Truth and Justice. She abhors war and offers Her protection to soldiers who will lay down their weapons” (pg 57). This is a bold statement whose origins are unclear. Where in the literature does Brigit carry a sword, by this or any other name? Not as a goddess, although she is the patron of swordmakers (eg smiths). Nor, to my knowledge, as a saint: she handed over her father’s sword to a poor man. If she does wield a sword somewhere, I want to read the source, to add to my understanding of her. If McGarry is being metaphorical, fine, but this needs to be made plain.

And what is the comment about the soldiers based on? It’s true that Saint Brigit is shown to interfere in the process of war in some of the stories in her vitae, and she is today a powerful symbol for peace and reconciliation. But there is strong evidence that both she and the goddess were invoked in battle:

“Yet in time of war St Brighid was wont to intervene in favour of Leinstermen and more or less in the manner of the pagan war-goddess. But there is no essential inconsistency here, for Brighid was tutelary goddess of the land of Leinster and, as such, she was as much concerned with its political as with its economic well-being.”
          Celtic Mythology Proinsias Mac Cana, pg 93

In the end, what is presented here is an earnest vision based as much on McGarry’s laudable wishes for the world as on real research, and more on non-Celtic than Celtic principles and lore. Ditching the idea that what she presents is “traditional” and instead embracing the cultural fusion and the personal inspiration employed here would have been much appreciated steps toward a stronger and more realistic offering.



[1]    See “Useful Terms” in the introduction to this posting.
[2]    The Burning of Bridget Cleary, Angela Bourke, (Random House, 2010) pp 30-31
[3]    A modernized version of this book is available, edited by Michael Scott.

Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom, Erynn Rowan Laurie (2007) Megalithica Books

 
O:WWW is a thoroughly researched and well executed primer on the Irish medieval cipher system known as the ogam or ogham and its use in modern times. Although not devoted entirely to Brigit, I include it because of Brigit’s great presence in the book, placed within the context of a wider Celtic worldview, and the text’s usefulness to Brigidines who are interested in contemplation, divination, ritual, and so on.

Beginning with a strong grounding in the ancient uses and meanings of the ogam and adding her own insights as a practitioner of Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism (CR), Laurie guides us in learning and using the wisdom offered therein. She is careful to differentiate between medieval and folk sources and modern SPG and UPG. (See definitions of SPG and UPG in the introduction to this set of reviews.) References to Brigit appear frequently in the book in association with different symbols or feda, for instance Lus (flame—herb) and Dair (oak), as well as in ritual.

Laurie gives an overview of the ogam and its Celtic setting, and discusses the modern situation as well, from a CR point of view. She then delves in detail into each symbol—its meanings, associations, and possible uses and interpretations in readings—and provides a question or two to contemplate in association with each fid. Readings are enhanced by her examination of the Celtic elements of Land, Sea, and Sky, and of the three Cauldrons. The second half of the book is devoted to divination techniques, ritual, and meditations. Rather than simply saying, do this, do that, she details her own understanding of and aims in the creation of ritual.

Brigit’s healthy presence in O:WWW is not surprising. The ogam are tools of Celtic poetcraft and Brigit is the goddess of poets. If you are interested in doing ritual, divination, poetry, or healing work with a deeper awareness of ancient associations, this book is a truly valuable tool. And it has everything I search for in a reference book: lucid writing, verifiable research, clear distinctions between opinion and fact and between modern and traditional, and a useful bibliography, glossary, and index.


Brigid: Goddess, Druidess and Saint, Brian Wright (2009) The History Press (Gloucestershire)

 Although neither the author nor the publisher presents this as a Neo-Pagan book, this is what it appears to be. I would prefer that bias be stated outright, as is done in Amber and Azrael Kay’s Candlemas or Erynn Laurie’s Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.

I want to write an honest survey of the available books on Brigit, but there are times like now when I am uncomfortable with that task. I don’t doubt the sincerity of this author or the hard work he has put into researching, theorizing, and writing his book. I appreciate his interest in Brigit and consider him a fellow traveller. But much as I want to like it I can’t in good conscience recommend this book.
  
B:GDS is presented as a scholarly work based on “original historical and archaeological research” but that is not how it reads. To better understand what sort of scholar Wright is, I wrote to his publisher, who had earlier been happy to supply a review copy. I asked for a list of some of his academic publications, intending to read articles by him which are more carefully sourced and argued than this book, and to check the responses of his peers to his work. This time, the publisher did not respond.

I wasn’t able on my own to find articles by him in academic journals, but I did track down a review of B:GDS by McGill professor Dorothy Ann Bray in the journal Folklore (Vol. 121, Dec. 2010). Her conclusions were similar to my own. “Had he stuck with simply bringing together the modern folk customs and beliefs of Saint Brigid—and had he offered proper references—Wright might have produced a book both interesting and useful. As it is, this book is seriously limited in value.” I have posted the full text of her criticism for those who are interested.

On to my reading of the book. An element of doubt was immediately introduced with the cover claim that the book “uncovers for the first time when and by whom the goddess was ‘conceived’, and evidence that Saint Brigid was a real person.” After many years’ exposure to the careful, evidence-based speculations of researchers in the field of Celtic and specifically Brigidine studies, none of whom make such definitive assertions, I am very leery of this grand claim.

In general, B:GDS gives a broad review of known Brigidine fact and lore glued together with a large dose of unproven assertion. Wright overlooks evidence that conflicts with his own ideas, fails to present his ideas as untested hypotheses, and frequently gives foundationless arguments as proofs.

On the plus side, he has gathered together some interesting items, for instance his chapter on relics, and lists of variations of Brigit’s name and of different saints named Brigit. There are many black and white images, including recreations of Celtic buildings and of how Brigit’s church may have looked at the time of Cogitosus (7th century). He has a generous index—“Crosses, Brigid’s” alone has 15 sub-listings. And he has an interesting take on the “serpent” connection which is suggested by the Scottish folk verse:

To-day is the Day of Bride,
The serpent shall come from his hole,
I will not molest the serpent,
And the serpent will not molest me.[1]

Rejecting the idea promoted by Mary Condren that this tale originates in snakeless Ireland, or that it reflects vestigial snake worship, he says, “the beating of the ‘serpent’ does not look like veneration of the snake but rather its defeat, perhaps inspired by the biblical reference...‘Thou shalt tread upon the lion and the adder; the young lion and the dragon shall thou trample under feet’” (pg 138).

I’m inclined to agree. Despite the presence of snakes in Celtic art in Ireland and elsewhere, there are no tales linking the goddess Brigit or, that I’m aware of, no manuscripts or folk traditions in Ireland that link Saint Brigit herself to snakes. On the other hand, Scotland has both snakes and superstitions concerning them, and it is Scotland which gives us the tradition linking the snake to Saint Bride. This suggests a later, not earlier, connection of the snake to Brigit.

Mostly, though, the going is much trickier in this work. Wright devotes an early chapter to the Brigantes, a subject not often covered in writings about Brigit, and the history is interesting. But his assumptions detract greatly from the story. He is careless in his interpretations, presenting as fact his imaginings about what the evidence says and where it leads. He writes as though he knows, for example, what the Druids of the 1st century thought and did, and when they did it. He often repeats but never substantiates that the Brigantian Druids had a “policy of uniting both the Irish Druids and the Irish Celts” (pg 25). How does he know this? No substantiating evidence is given.

Similarly, he constructs a vision of what Brigantia was like and what her role was in her society, as well as the way in which it was changed after Roman domination—speculations which are unconvincing, but which, when presented as fact, seem inarguable. For example, he writes that after the Roman subjugation of the Brigantes “the perception of their goddess Brigantia began to change as her warrior aspects as a warrior goddess became less relevant” (pg 17).

This statement contains a number of assumptions, not least of which is the idea that we know what their perception of the goddess was in the first place. Returning to Wright’s original description of Brigantia I find that he has given no concrete evidence for her nature. He has given guesses based on scholarly work on Celtic goddesses in general, saying that the “Brigantes probably ‘saw’” her and “the evidence of her power in the landscape of their tribal territory...” (pg 13). How can he know how their perception changed when he doesn’t even know what it was? And subjugation of a people does not immediately translate into a loss of the fighting spirit. The experience of the Irish in historic times is evidence enough of that.

More worrying is his extrapolation, from the most slender threads of evidence, the solid assertion that it was escaping Brigantes coming to Ireland (Druids in the lead) who brought their own goddess and deliberately invented an Irish counterpart named Brigit in order to further their political ends. He says “...there is evidence that...Brigantian Druids...migrated to Ireland in the second half of the first century” (pg 23). But in fact he has given evidence only of Brigantes arriving in Ireland, and he has inferred that their Druids came with them. There is a big difference between the two when you then go on to infer a whole story about folk you have not actually shown were even there.

Another example. After describing the goddess Brigit’s father, the Daghda, Wright goes on to describe Brigit’s mother, selecting the Morrigan for that role. (For other assertions of her mother’s identity, see the Kondratiev and McGarry reviews.) This is seamlessly done and follows what appears to be a quote describing the mating of those two deities which concludes “the result of this union was to be Brighid.” The “quote” is offset from the surrounding text. The next piece of offset text, which is a quote, is from the 9th century Cormac’s Glossary, telling of Brigit, the daughter of the Daghda. (No mother mentioned.)

So, who, if anyone, is he quoting in the first passage? He doesn’t say. If it is his own text, why offset it like this? He gives no hint as to where he gleaned the fact that the Morrigan was her mother, and since the Daghda was the father of three sons as well, if any issue did come of that mating (the actual tale doesn’t mention it), it could well have been one of them. I’ve seen no evidence that the Morrigan (or anyone else) is the mother of the goddess Brigit—if you know of any, please point me to it. Scanning the texts on Brigit by Ó Catháin, Ó Duinn, and so on, I find no mention of the Morrigan at all in connection to her, though there are many of the Daghda. Thus for me great doubt is cast upon this blithely stated and unsubstantiated claim.

On this foundation of air Wright builds the house of Brigit—which of her traits can be traced to her father, which to her mother, and so on. Again without substantiation (for there is none to be had), he states categorically that Brigit the saint was “a senior Druidess before her conversion”, and that she inherited her smith aspect from the De Danann smith Goibniu after he died in a fight with her son Ruadhan. Ruadhan, he explains, couldn’t have inherited the role of smith because he died, too.

But if you read the original tale you see that Goibniu didn’t die. He was dipped in the well Slaine in which the Tuatha De Danann placed their mortally wounded warriors and was made whole. He went on to help defeat their foes and died later with no help from Brigit or her son.

And so on. You see my frustration. I don’t say Wright has deliberately ignored or twisted evidence, but in interpreting things as he has he is able to build up a story about Brigit that is completely unsupported by fact, and by omitting both citations and evidence which would make mud of his hypotheses he is able to pass them off as proven. A reader innocent of the background information could easily be persuaded that she was privy to The Truth About Brigit. And this really annoys me.

Yet it also saddens me. In presenting as truth what is only his best guess, a doubtless well-meaning author is adding to the already great confusion about Brigit instead of bringing much-needed clarity. Readers are smart enough to understand subtlety, to follow difficult or obscure evidence, accept uncertainties, decide for ourselves among well-reasoned arguments if the facts are written clearly and are supported. We don’t require oversimplifications that mislead us into unwarranted certainty. Indeed we want to understand, which is why we read, even if understanding means we are left with some questions unanswered.

One of the great gifts of following Brigit over the years has been the gradual unfolding of knowledge about her. Unlearning oversimplifications and misconstructions has been painful at times, as I have been forced to shed cherished assumptions, but the resulting picture is much richer and has far more to teach about we humans and our relationship to the divine.

Please be clear, I don’t object to creative thought. In shining facts through the prism of our imagination we can develop a rich spirituality and do much to heal our world. But keeping fact and fabrication separate is essential in that task. (See SPG and UPG above.) Wright fails badly in this regard.



[1] Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Alexander Mackenzie (1917)


Brighid and Me: Experiences with the Goddess, Hollee Swann, ed. (2010) copyright Helen Roberts (Pamphlet.)

 
Hollee Swann of Gloucestershire, England, conceived of this pamphlet as a way to celebrate Brigit and raise funds for the Alzheimer’s Society, in honour of Brigit’s healing aspect. Unlike most Brigit-related books, Brighid and Me isn’t about the goddess or the saint herself but about her devotees. Hollee asked, “How do they relate to her, communicate with her, honour her? How did they first discover Brigit—was it gradual or an epiphany? How do they manifest her qualities in their lives? Which of her many aspects do they connect with?”

Given these questions, the sixteen contributors set out in poetry and prose to reveal something of the nature of that very personal relationship. A couple of examples:

Brid Wyldearth writes of her rocky beginnings with and later pilgrimages to Glastonbury in “Reclaiming Brigit”. I tell of coming to know her and to create the Daughters of the Flame in “A Dream of Brigit”. Ceri Norman describes her transformations in “Brighid—My Guide”. Jill Smith offers her reminiscences and her paintings of “Brighde in the Western Isles”. Rose Flint graces us with her poetry, beginning with:

 I saw her last week, coming down the sky
 with a white following
 billowing up in a furl of swansdown
 loud as the quickening wind

The essays in this small collection are heartfelt and enjoyable. Thanks to Hollee for her inspiration in bringing the booklet to us.

Contributors:

Brid Wyldearth
Mael Brigde
Ceri Norman
Crowspirit
Hollee Swann
Izzie, Priestess of Bridie
Jenne Micale
Jill Smith
Julie Todd
Lynne Wood
Oakmyst
Paul from Yorkshire
Rachel Mica McCann
Rose Flint
Sara Jane Kingston
Breo

Brigit: Sun of Womanhood, ed. Patricia Monaghan and Michael McDermott (2013)

As foreshadowed above, only a brief mention here of this latest Brigidine offering, to avoid further delays as I meander through it and with excruciating slowness write a review.

This book, edited with her husband Michael McDermott, is Monaghan’s swan song, coming into publication at the time of her death last year. In it are collected essays, poems, snippets of fiction. The publisher, Goddess Ink, writes of it:

“Brigit: Sun of Womanhood offers a holistic picture of Brigit from her beginnings as a Celtic Goddess to her role as a Christian saint. The contributors to this anthology hail from all parts of the globe—including Ireland, Scotland, the United States and Canada—reflecting the widespread influence of Brigit.”

Dawn at Brigit’s Well
Poem by Patricia Monaghan

In hope, in pain, in song we passed the night.
We have kept watch—kept faith—each in our way.
Our long dark vigil ends in spring’s mild light.

We ended winter with this ancient rite,
Strangers until we joined our hands to pray.
In hope, in pain, in song we passed the night.

Beside the guttering candles, a single white
Snowdrop nods to greet St. Brigit’s day.
A long dark vigil ends in spring’s mild light.

So much is wrong, across the world: we fight
Each other, blight the land, betray
Our hopes. In plaintive song we passed the night.

Yet we believe and pray, acolytes
In service to a change too long delayed.
Our long dark vigil ends in spring’s mild light

And we rise, renewed. Such ritual ignites
The fire in our souls. It’s a new day.
In hope, in pain, in song we passed the night.
The long dark vigil ends in spring’s mild light.


Contributors:

Allison Stone

Barbara Callan
Barbara Flaherty
Carol Christ
Dolores Whelan
Eileen Rosensteel
Emily Stix
H. Byron Ballard
Ita Roddy
Joan McBreen
Kirsten Brunsgaard Clausen
Kerry Noonan
Matthew Geden
Sr. Rita Minehan
Ruth Barrett
Valerie Freseman



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