Thursday, July 31, 2014

Brigit Reviews (Series Six): Nonfiction, Academic/Popular Academic

Finally! The last installment of my promised book reviews. A pleasure it was to acquaint myself with the breadth of writing available on Brigit. I'll pin links to the reviews on the Pages tab (below the title banner of this blog) in order to make them more accessible to later readers, and will also make the whole lot available by request as a pdf. In the meantime you can find the previous reviews and introductory material at these links:

Brigit Reviews (Series Six):
Nonfiction, Academic/Popular Academic

By “academic/popular” I mean books written in a scholarly style but accessible (sometimes with a real effort) to a general audience. They are footnoted, backed up citations, and so on, and so the thinking in them can be more or less traced and verified. These I can only observe as a reader, not criticize as an expert.

The Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion, and Power in Celtic Ireland, Mary Condren (1989)

“Fire and the Arts” (etc) in Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish

            Literature, Kim McCone (1990)

The Festival of Brigit, Séamas Ó Catháin (1995)
Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins and Mothers, Miranda Green (1996)

“Imbolc: A New Interpretation”, Phillip A. Bernhardt-House (pp 57-76) in Cosmos 18 (2002)

The Rites of Brigid, Goddess and Saint, Seán Ó Duinn (2005)

Landscape with Two Saints: How Genovefa of Paris and Brigit of Kildare Built Christianity in Barbarian Europe, Lisa M. Bitel (2009)

“Queering the Flame: Brigit, Flamekeeping, and Gender in Celtic Reconstructionist Pagan Communities”, by Erynn Rowan Laurie in The Well of Five Streams: Essays on Celtic Paganism (Immanion Press, projected release 2015) 17 pp.


There are some delicious writings in here, with lots of obscure references and nimble interpretations; a cornucopia of ideas to mull over in building an understanding of Brigit. Two recommended sources which give abundant info on the world in which St Brigit lived are Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200 by Dáibhí Ó Crónín (1995) (not reviewed here) and Bitel’s Landscape with Two Saints: How Genovefa of Paris and Brigit of Kildare Built Christianity in Barbarian Europe. Placing her in the context of her world allows for a much deeper look into her Lives and mythos, helping us to notice where our assumptions are modern and inappropriate, and allowing us to develop a more balanced perspective.

Though the earliest of these investigations, Condren’s The Serpent and the Goddess is less about Brigit as it is the Christian church in Ireland and its treatment of women. I don’t recommend it for developing an understanding of Brigit.
In The Festival of Brigit, Ó Catháin explores the festival of Imbolc and searches far afield for evidence linking Brigit to, for example, the bear cult and horned deities. Fascinating reading, carefully explored and documented.

McCone’s Pagan Past and Christian Present contains important insights into sacred kingship, the sovereignty goddess, and the three major divisions of Celtic society and convincingly suggests their reflection in Brigit’s various personae.

Green examines the place of women and female deities in Celtic society, and focusses on a number of female-related themes and specific goddesses in Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins and Mothers. Brigit is looked at in the chapter on the transition from paganism to Christianity.

Bernhardt-House offers a detailed and unique examination of the meaning of the word Imbolc and its possible links to the wolf in ancient times in “Imbolc: A New Interpretation”.

In The Rites of Brigid, Ó Duinn examines a variety of Brigit-related folk customs. He compares in detail the perpetual fires of the Vestal Virgins and Brigit, and describes other sacred and perpetual flames in medieval Ireland.Very useful.

Bitel looks at some important Lives of St Brigit in Landscape with Two Saints, comparing that by Cogitosus of Kildare with those of later writers of Armagh, and putting them into the political context of their times. She examines the legacy of Brigit, and the changing role of women in Ireland.

A rather different perspective is offered in Laurie’s “Queering the Flame: Brigit, Flamekeeping, and Gender in Celtic Reconstructionist Pagan Communities”. This piece, which could have fit well into the Nonfiction, Popular (NeoPagan) section, I place here because of Laurie’s exacting standards of research and presentation. (Footnotes and citations and quotes, oh my!)

You may notice trouble linking to footnotes through their symbols. No worries. Just scroll to the end of the post and they are there.

Read More!

The Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion, and Power in Celtic Ireland, Mary Condren (1989) Harper and Row, San Francisco

The Serpent and the Goddess broke important ground in 1989, not least in gathering scattered Brigidine scholarship and presenting it to a larger audience. Feminists, goddess worshippers, Irish nationalists, and theologians were given ample food for thought. Rather than reviewing it as a whole I will highlight its treatment of  Brigit.

Serpent isn’t intended to teach us how to understand and celebrate Brigit, but to reflect on the changing role of women in religion and society. Still, many of us do pick it up to learn about her. There are now much better sources to turn to for that purpose—any of the other books in this review, Curtayne or Smucker for non academic books on the saint, or Kondratiev and Kay and Laurie for NeoPagan perspectives.

Alice Curtayne touched on Brigit’s role as peacemaker in ancient and modern times in Saint Brigit of Kildare (1954). Thirty-five years later Mary Condren placed the shattering political situation in Northern Ireland, with its inextricably “religious” overtones, front and centre in her introduction to a book that examines Brigit in tandem with Eve and Mary in relation to gender, power, and religion. Her assessment of Brigit’s role is not so benign as Curtayne’s:

“...whereas Brigit once may have been a Mother Goddess defending the rights of women, as the Irish political structure moved toward a hierarchical and military form of organization and as the Irish church, in line with Roman ambitions, developed a centralized hierarchy, Brigit would lose whatever power she still had: a power that she had maintained so precariously, often at the expense of other women” (xii).

If this seems to throw Brigit out with the well-water, fear not. Condren has gone on to champion the reclamation of Brigit in our lives.  She writes in the Irish Times, “Like community activists and nurturers, Brigit wove the fragile threads of life into webs of community…her bountiful nature …ensured that the neart (life force) was kept moving for the benefit of all and was not stagnated by greed.”[1]

Condren’s critical eye, turned to the less admirable uses Brigit has been put to, reminds us of our own need to be careful of how we represent her. Yet her examination and interpretation of the evidence is itself skewed. Some of her basic assertions are unsupportable, such as that the vulture and the snake are two of Brigit’s most common symbols. Condren is attempting to link Brigit to Isis through shared symbols, but the ones she has chosen are inappropriate. I haven’t read a single reference in the Irish sources to vultures or snakes in connection with Brigit. There are rare references to snakes in Scottish lore, but this hardly justifies calling them Brigit’s prime symbols. Miranda Green does link a handful of Celtic goddesses to snakes—Sirona, for example; Brigit she lists among goddesses associated not with snakes, but cattle.[2]

Nor are snakes in the Celtic imagination necessarily associated with goddesses. The continental god Cernunnos is depicted with snakes, as is an androgynous deity on the Gundestrup Cauldron. Condren herself is aware that the snake-pounding at Imbolc mentioned in the Carmina Gadelica, which she interprets as part of a serpentine regeneration rite, could be “a later Christian accretion”[3]. Her extrapolation from a single, secondary folk custom concerning a snake on Imbolc to regarding Brigit as a serpent goddess is therefore baffling. In North America the snake-in-the-hole tradition of weather-prediction was transformed into Groundhog Day. It is easily possible that the original creature used to predict the end of winter in Celtic times was some animal other than a snake or a groundhog; indeed, in parts of France and Belgium the appearance of a wolf at Candlemas portended the end of winter[4], and Ó Catháin explores the possibility that that creature, connected to Brigit, might be the bear.

Far more obvious symbols for Brigit than vulture and snake are the cow, the rush, the poet or the smith. Condren reminds us evocatively of the importance of the cow association: “the milk of the Sacred Cow...was one of the earliest sacred foods throughout the world, equivalent to our present day communion... The Sacred Cow symbolises the sacredness of motherhood: through her milk the lifeforce itself was sustained and nourished (p 58).”

But her suggestion that Dumha na Bó (Mound of the Cow) at Tara was perhaps associated with Brigit’s sacred cow is a huge leap. The cow was of primary importance to the Irish Celts as an economic unit and  was the focus of much cultural activity and lore. The goddess Boann is herself a sovereign goddess associated with cows.  Miranda Green in Celtic Goddesses writes, “Boann is a ‘cow’ name, translated by (Anne) Ross as ‘She who has white cows’. The goddess of sovereignty was traditionally associated with cattle (pg 83).” Without further evidence there is no reason to suppose that anything ‘cowish’ suggests a connection to the goddess Brigit, particularly when remembering that the only cow links we are sure of pertain to the saint.

Condren portrays a Celtic warrior society eager to rid itself of its goddesses—“the religion of the Mother” (p 60), whose territorial nature interfered with the male impulse to invade and dominate. The picture doesn’t agree with my impression from wider reading, and the specific argument seems untenable: goddesses didn’t prevent the rapid spread of the Celts throughout Europe and Celtic goddesses, including Brigit[5], often have warrior aspects themselves. As Green plainly states, “female spirits—goddesses—were central to Celtic perceptions of the divine world”[6] (pg 9).

Condren then claims that the goddess Brigit was promoted to “the status of central divinity in Irish cosmology” as a deliberate move toward monotheism (pg 60). Yet if this goddess was central we can only guess it: in the existing texts of medieval Ireland she is identified clearly only once, and never with a key role in any story, where other goddesses make repeated and important appearances throughout the literature.

In her analysis of The Battle of Moytura she says that the “original sin” of Brigit’s son Ruadhan in Moytura resulted in the Tuatha De Danaan being thrown out of power (pg 61), but in the tale they in fact succeed against their enemies and remain in power[7]. In a more recent paper dealing with The Battle of Moytura[8], Condren paints a particularly baffling picture. Dian Cécht is clearly identified in the literature as the chief physician of the Tuatha De Danaan[9], yet she refers to him as their blacksmith, pitting him and his bad behaviour, along with the bad behaviour of smiths generally in Celtic literature[10], against the good behaviour of healers. It is true that Dian Cécht fashioned a silver arm for Nuada when he lost his in battle[11]. But to misidentify the chief physician as a smith because of this is inexplicable. It over-simplifies the context, putting smiths on one side (with death and patriarchy) and healers on the other, whereas the reality is much more complex.

Again, this is not to argue with Condren’s perception of the damage done by patriarchy, but with her methods in exploring the story of Brigit. Nor is it to say that all of her facts are wrong. It is just hard to winnow the oats from the chaff.

Although the text is peppered with interesting details, it is unreliable. Because she makes many unsupported and misleading statements regarding things I do know something about, dropping them into the text as if they were well established, I can’t trust her interpretations of things about which I know nothing. The fact of women’s diminution in social and religious realms, and the violence done to our psyche as a result, is broadly evident. In later writings, Condren points to its repair, and to an inclusive and affirming Christian spirituality, through the traditions of Brigit. This I think is where her greatest strength lies.

“Fire and the Arts” (etc) in Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, Kim McCone (1990) Maynooth Monographs 3

This review touches on several chapters in this excellent book, of which “Fire and the Arts” most directly concerns Brigit. There is ample material also in the chapters “Heroes and Saints”, and “Politics and Propaganda”. The foundational material in “Kingship and Society” is important for understanding what follows in these chapters.

PP & CP aims to re-integrate the academic approach to the secular and ecclesiastical streams of medieval Irish literature, to draw together scattered researches into a lucid whole which can provide an internally consistent overview of the field. It examines precisely and in detail both the pre-Christian and Christian content of and influence on both. McCone’s evidence is vivid and abundant, and he answers with care assertions he believes are false.

Though clear, the book is not simple, and is probably unsuitable for casual readers, or those put off by a steady flow of Irish words and passages or wordy and intricate explorations.

McCone describes an early medieval Ireland that “had developed a dynamic political system dominated by ambitious overkings whose monastic propagandists and genealogists were ruthless reshapers of the past in the interests of the present” (pg ix). Foundational concepts such as sacred kingship and sovereign goddesses, with their ties to wisdom, prowess, and material abundance, are fully discussed. Misleading elements such as the un-Celtic mistiness of the Celtic Twilight movement, the Indo-European background, biblical influences, etc are laid out. The repeating motif of three divisions of society and social roles is examined and related to Brigit in fascinating ways.

The general categories are: i) material abundance and generosity, ii) heroism, physical prowess and perfect health, and iii) discernment and wise judgement. They reflect the three major citizen types— i) young, landless warriors, ii) landed soldier-farmers of more mature age, and iii) elders who play the role of judges and poets.

It “is hardly a coincidence that these should be precisely the three personal aspects...prone to transformation in literary representations of the goddess or woman of sovereignty (128).” The goddess is both the king’s spouse and his mother, and the ancestor of the royal line. She is the divine expression of the principals of which he is the human construct. The goddess, McCone demonstrates, may appear as an ugly hag made beautiful by her union with the king, a wild wanderer made sane again, or a woman of high caste raised by cowherds whose status is, in uniting with the king, restored (128).

Saint Brigit herself assumes more obvious links than Brigit the goddess (in the little mention we have of her in Cormac’s Glossary) to the three major social orders mentioned above—hospitaller, warrior, and “men of art”. There is a very interesting discussion of the collective evidence which touches on Brig briugu (hospitaller/provision), Brig ambue, (warfare) and Brig/Brigit (knowledge) and their goddess parallels.

McCone offers a detailed comparison of the Irish saints connected to fire and the three divisions of social order, and gives continental examples of fire cults, such as Sulis/Minerva, asserting that “pagan Brigit’s associations with sun and fire seems beyond reasonable doubt” (164)[12]. From here he examines the role of fire, especially in relation to cooking, in the mythic understanding of arts and culture in Irish, Greek, Indian, and Native American pre-Christian culture, and finds a place for them in the goddess Brigit’s attributes. Goddess of smiths: in smelting, the role of fire is obvious. Goddess of healing: in medicine, “the heating of brews”. Goddess of wisdom: knowledge, which, as is revealed in the Irish medieval poem “Caldron of Poesy”,  is generated in three cauldrons in a man, must then be “cooked”, taking it from the wild state to one useable by society. (See also Erynn Rowan Laurie, Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom, for a Celtic Reconstructionist Pagan exploration of these cauldrons.) “It then becomes easy enough to understand how this mediatory function of fire and cooking as interconnected modes of conversion from one state to another could lend itself to mythical treatments of poetic inspiration, learning and other social activities” (170).

There is, of course, much more. This dense and thoroughly satisfying book lends a glimpse into the possibilities of Brigit by re-connecting her for modern readers to the cultures, both Pagan and Christian, from which she sprang. Highly recommended.

The Festival of Brigit, Séamas Ó Catháin (1995) DBA Publications, Blackrock, Co. Dublin Received the 1995 Ruth Michaelis-Jena Ratcliff Prize in folklore and folklife.

I remember the excitement I felt when this book came to me in 1995, a gift from a fellow Brigidine. A whole book about Brigit (!) and one which reported in a careful and scholarly way on customs I knew little about. Ó Catháin sets Celtic materials next to Germanic and earlier European evidence, particularly Nordic, supplementing folk tradition with archaeology, classical writings, and Celtic literature to explore not only traditions unquestionably related to Brigit, but to dig into obscure potential connections with, for instance, the bear and horned deities.

Like Ó Duinn, Ó Catháin examines the festival of Imbolc, but where Ó Duinn collects brief anecdotes and interprets customs more generally, Ó Catháin delves in great detail into a few topics. Some of the documentary material offered is translated into English for the first time, and Ó Catháin’s original research is—unlike that claimed by Brian Wright[13]— supported by verifiable research, and cautious in its conclusions.

For example, the chapter devoted to a rare form of folktale which may connect Brigit to the ancient continental bear goddess. The proposed connection to the circumpolar bear cult is tantalizing and well explored, beginning with the bear’s emergence from hibernation at the time of Brigit’s vernal awakening. The connection, if real, would be very old, from a time when the Celts had not yet reached bear-free Ireland. Ó Catháin discusses as well an implied link between Brigit and Lugh, and investigates legends such as the herdswoman who alerts her people to her kidnapping.

Among the pleasures of this book are Ó Catháin’s writing style, which is clear and evocative, his willingness to plough through the available evidence, and his careful, detailed, and well documented arguments. Sheer, unexpected delight.

There are a number of peculiarities in the way the book was produced that make it harder to use, unfortunately. It has tiny print. The main text is unusually small; the quotes and voluminous (yes! yes!) footnotes are microscopic. Nevertheless, it’s worth the squint. Worse, the table of contents is useless. Ideally in a reference book the chapters will have titles that tell you immediately what they are about, with perhaps a short summary of the chapter below the title, to make it easier to track down half-forgotten points. In Festival the chapters have no titles and the contents page gives no summaries; it is simply Chapter One, page 1, Notes to Chapter 1, page 18... They might have spared themselves the bother of putting it in at all.

One disappointment is the occasional quote in Latin or Irish which is not translated into English. This is fine for the Celtic scholar, who is expected to be fluent in these languages, but presents an impenetrable veil for most of us. Nevertheless, the discussion following such quotes roughly illuminates what has gone before, and it is only an occasional inconvenience.

More importantly, the footnotes are extensive and informative, and the index is good. Ó Catháin quotes liberally from original sources, allowing no confusion as to where his ideas come from and how solid they may be, and giving the reader the opportunity to form her own conclusions. A series of twenty-one black and white plates helps lend life and context to the ideas discussed in the book: young men with a Brigit effigy; Sámi drumheads; a Brigidine shrine inscribed with a swastika; a young woman wearing a crown of candles. We are immediately aware that intriguing parallels are being drawn here.

As Ó Catháin’s reads it, “Christian devotion to the saint is imbued with the spirit of the goddess (pg x)”, and he turns his eye in detail to the elements of deity to be found beneath the saint, reaching back to the goddess of the hearth and the bear goddess. The purpose of the book is to examine the available evidence in order to gain a hint of the pagan festival associated with Brigit, and he does a compelling job of it. It is important to bear in mind, though, that these are ideas he is exploring. Even the author does not swear to their historical truth. It is our responsibility to pass on that caution when sharing his ideas with others, rather than plunking the bare bones of hypotheses down as fact in our writings about Brigit and her cult.

For those who like a hearty stew and a scholarly style, this book has much to offer. In his own words, “Much...still lies awaiting discovery in the lap of the goddess. (xii)”

Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins and Mothers, Miranda Green (1996) George Braziller, New York

I include this book, though it has only a few pages about Brigit (notably pg 195-202), because of the background it gives on women in Celtic society and Celtic goddesses generally and for Green’s unusual perspective on the interpretation of Brigit as goddess and saint.

Green argues that by its “polytheistic perception of the Celtic supernatural world” (pg 203) Celtic religion permitted a vital role for female nature spirits and deities that is denied in monotheistic cultures where deity is by definition male. However, she reasons against the extrapolation that is often made from this that Celtic women must therefore have had a high status in their society (pg 15)[14]. Her careful eye and thoughtful approach to the materials lend weight to the discussion of, for example,The Divine Female in Welsh Myth”; “Sovereignty, Sexuality, and the Otherworld in Irish Myth”; “Water-Goddess, Healers and Mothers”; and “Priestess, Prophetess, and Witch”. The last chapter, “From Goddess to Saint”, offers an examination of Brigit as a representative of the “meeting and merging of paganism and Christianity” (pg 202).

The goddess Brigit is a daughter of the Daghdha (a Tuatha De Danaan—the deities of Celtic Ireland) and the wife of Bres (a Fomorian—among the Tuatha De Danaan’s greatest foes). According to Green, in this dual role she acted as a mediator between the two peoples. Her interest, despite being a tribal deity, was not the winning of wars for one side or the other[15] but, “as an ancestor-deity, a mother goddess whose main concern was the future well-being of Ireland,” (pg198) of finding peace between the two if possible.

Green refers to the paradox of St Brigit's sacrifice of her own sexuality (in order to maintain autonomy and be able to do her life's work) and her deep connection to fertility and birth, her ability even to “cure frigidity in women” (pg 200). “The strength of Brigit's fertility-imagery is suggested by the medieval carvings of Sheela-na-gigs in Ireland, interpreted by some scholars as grotesque depictions of Brigit with the entrance to her womb wide-open, even though the saint was a virgin. As we saw with some of the Welsh goddesses... it may be that it was because Brigit was sexually-intact that her fertile power was so concentrated (pg 200).” Elsewhere she points out that an “apparent paradox—which is presented particularly in the early myths—is that both virginity and marriage generated special power in the female” (pg 204). (She is not specifically talking about Brigit here, but of Celtic goddesses generally.)

Her warning, though, is well heeded: “Little is known in detail about the goddess Brigit. 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 the is the saint’s magical association with fire, which has given rise to the deity being identified as a fire-goddess” (pg 198).

An excellent foundational work for the understanding of Brigit in her role as goddess and Celtic woman.

“Imbolc: A New Interpretation”, Phillip A. Bernhardt-House (pp 57-76) in Cosmos 18 (2002)

This intriguing article looks at the meaning of Imbolc from a new perspective—that of a connection with wolf and warrior cults originating with the Indo-Europeans and presenting in Roman and Celtic civilizations. Bernhardt-House has a broad knowledge of the literature and he brings together disparate pieces into a tantalizing whole. Where he himself concludes that his new etymology may be proved unsound, it nevertheless serves to “refocus our attentions on certain smaller aspects” of Imbolc, particularly the wolf aspect, which is “now beyond doubt as having been important to the holiday as it would have been observed in pre-Christian times” (pg 65-66).[16]

In approaching the subject, Bernhardt-House first looks at both Neo-Pagan and scholarly etymologies of the Irish word for the festival, Imbolc. While accepting the consensus meanings of milking and purification, he suggests an additional—and surprising—one.

If im has as its basis “butter”, olc is generally derived as “evil, bad, wrong” in Irish, both Old and Modern. But Kim McCone[17] traces this word back to the Indo-European root meaning “wolf”. Joining these two, Bernhardt-House offers “Imbolc as the 'butter-wolf'”, hoping to “shed some light on further images in Irish sources, as well as connecting this to a further complex within Indo-European ritual” (pg 60).

These images in Irish sources range from calendrical evidence linking February to wolves, the association of Candlemas in France and Belgium with the wolf (where a wolf sighting predicts the ending of winter), of Brigit herself with the bear and wolf, and so on, along with an examination of the period of time between Samhain and Imbolc and its association with warring, as well as hospitality.

Perhaps most interesting is the parallel drawn between the rites of the Lupercalia in Rome and Imbolc in Ireland, and their potential links to Gaulish deities and to earlier rituals. The link with purification in both festivals is already established; the writer points to a possible further link in purification with the use of milk or, in the Irish case, butter.

The young Roman priests, the Luperci, sacrificed a dog and a goat at the cave where Romulus and Remus were said to have been nursed by a wolf. The blood of these two animals was mixed and the youngest priest's forehead anointed with the mixture; this was then cleaned away using a piece of milk-soaked wool, which ritual was followed eventually by striking the general populace with goat-skin thongs for luck and fertility.

In a medieval story St Brigit removes the signs worn by men which signify their engagement in activities of war; Bernhardt-House suggests that if “some form of Brigid was one of the presiding deities of Imbolc, Brigit who was bear-mother in origin but could easily have been a wolf-mother in Ireland, might have been the deity who removed these warrior-signs and reincorporated the youthful fian-warriors into regular society, perhaps by the means of the purifying medium of milk, or, given the etymology I have suggested with imb-, perhaps even butter” (pg 64).

The details examined by the writer are greater in number and scope than suggested by this brief review, and it is worth tracking down the article through your local or university library.[18]

This is just the sort of thing that gets the creative mind churning along nicely. A very enjoyable article.

The Rites of Brigid, Goddess and Saint, Seán Ó Duinn (2005) The Columba Press, Dublin

Seán Ó Duinn is a Benedictine monk at Glenstal Abbey, Éire. His Rites of Brigid is both thorough and blissfully readable; a welcome addition to the Brigidine collection.

In illustrating Brigit’s life, Ó Duinn elects to use Whiteley Stokes’s 1877 translation[19] of the 14th - 15th century Leabhar Breac (Speckled Book), stating that “its ethos is close to that of the folk-cult of the people who revered Brigid” (pg 8).[20] This choice is important, as St Brigit’s various Lives (vitae) follow sometimes rather different storylines, yielding different impressions of who she was depending on the needs of their authors. (See Lisa Bitel’s Landscape with Two Saints for an illuminating comparison of Brigit’s Lives[21]. Bitel focusses largely on the vita written by Kildare monastic Cogitosus, Vita Sanctae Brigitae. Her interest is not in the folk cult but in the saint’s actual life, times, and legacy.)

In Leabhar Breac we find Brigit, besides affecting cures and performing deeds of generosity as she does in Cogitosus’ work, granting victory in battles, helping prisoners escape, and robbing a man of the posts she wants to build her city. (She does this by gluing his horses’ feet to the ground so he can’t move on till he gives her what she wants (pg 12-13).) This Brigit was clearly a force to be reckoned with.

Ó Duinn observes an “unevenness” between the Brigit of her vitae and the Brigit of “the people’s rituals” (pg 15). Unlike the written saint, who is centered in Leinster (although Cogitosus ascribes countrywide ecclesiastical power to her, especially over women religious[22]), and unlike other Irish saints, whose cult is confined to a certain locale, Brigit’s cult belongs to the whole country. He attributes this to the political importance of her region, and the religious import of Kildare as a cult centre for the goddess.

Unlike another believing Catholic, Alice Curtayne, who wrote of St. Brigit in the 1950s, Ó Duinn is not afraid to argue that the Lives give little evidence of an historic person but, in accordance with Professor Kim McCone, yield a “wealth of evidence regarding a pagan goddess...whose name was Brigid...and that her cult is influenced by paganism” (pg 17)[23]. He happily accepts the goddess who was patron of “Ironwork, Medicine, and Poetry” and concludes that the historic Brigit “lived within an area that was steeped in history, prehistory, politics, and mythology and that a lively way of life was going on around her...” (pg 18).

The book is divided into chapters focussing on different aspects of her rituals. “Brigid and Springtime”, “Foretelling the Future”, and so on. Drawing on colourful oral reports collected by the Irish Folklore Commission, giving them in Irish with English translations, Ó Duinn pulls together both Pagan (Celtic and otherwise) and Christian materials to shed light on each aspect of Brigit’s cult. In this way he does something similar to, though more scholarly than, what Amber Kay attempts in Candlemas.[24]

Interestingly, Ó Duinn observes the number of occasions in which Brigit is connected to the number eight: “It is difficult to know if Giraldus Cambrensis was influenced by the Classics when describing St Brigid’s perpetual fire, but it is strange that he mentions the number 20 as the number of nuns—the same number from which the Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome were chosen. In Ireland, one would expect the number 9 to predominate (pg 64).”

 He compares the two cults, in greater detail than did Kondratiev and with citations, and describes, along with other sacred flames in Ireland, the two other perpetual flames reported there in medieval times, both of which were tended by monks and neither of which was dedicated to St. Brigit (pg 66-67).

Related saints’ days and their meaning, fire and the sun, agricultural and fishing connections, the nature of the Tuatha De Danaan, of which the goddess Brigit is one, Brigit’s return from the Otherworld[25]—there is much here, from reports of countless customs to thoughtful attempts to trace their origins, and guideposts to understanding the true meaning of each ritual. What is especially valuable is Ó Duinn’s diligence in comparing the various sources, from Church custom to a wide range of folk practice to Pagan lore.

For all his strengths, Ó Duinn is not infallible. His discussion of the elements overlooks the older, Celtic system of three realms—land, sea, and sky—which is important in understanding ancient Celtic perceptions of their world and no doubt has implications in the cult of Brigit, as well. Some of his ideas seem to come from modern thought, including Wicca, rather than Celtic sources—which is fine if stated but it is not. For instance the prayer of Cu Chulainn which Ó Duinn quotes is shown by MacMathuna to be not representative of ancient Celtic thought but transitional in the sense of adjusting older perceptions to Christian sensibilities where the sea is subordinate to the earth.[26]

For all that, for general readers I would say that if you could own only one Brigit book, this is the one I would suggest.

Landscape with Two Saints: How Genovefa of Paris and Brigit of Kildare Built Christianity in Barbarian Europe, Lisa M. Bitel (2009) Oxford University Press

I will deal here only with the second half of Landscape, which is devoted to Brigit of Ireland. Bitel carefully examines the social, religious, and economic background to Brigit’s cult in Ireland and her role in the development of Christianity. She looks in depth at the texts concerning Brigit; Landscape is unparalleled in its clarification of selected Brigidine sources and the unfolding of her cult over time. It is also rich in details of life as it might have been experienced by Brigit and her followers.

Far from the liberated Irish women suggested by many writers, Bitel depicts a pre-Christian society that circumscribed the role of women, a pattern that was later reinforced by Christian tradition.

Confusion around this point for the average reader stems from the richness and power of goddess imagery in Celtic mythology, and from the fact that we have been told[27] that Celtic women had greater rights and freedom than their non-Celtic European contemporaries. This has come to mean to many of us that women were powerful members of Celtic society, perhaps even equal to men, but according to Bitel and others[28] this was not so. That some women were or may have been warriors, poets, chieftains, and healers did not mean that these were usual roles, nor that women enjoyed the same privileges within them as their male counterparts.

Bitel says of medieval Irish women that they ‘‘could dwell upon land and manage it, but only inherited the usufruct or occupation of property, or kept bits of property that had accrued to their mothers through gift or purchase. They lived in the households of men…’’ (pg 130). Bluntly, she states, ‘‘Gender had been built into the Irish landscape long before Christians arrived. Land belonged to men, but much of the landscape belonged to women—or, at least, to female entities…While royal forts such as Dún Ailinne reminded Leinster folk of ancient kings and symbolized contemporary kingdoms… specific natural features also evoked the folklore of goddesses’’ (pg 132).This pre-existing situation ‘‘offered builders and writers a comprehensible sacral geography ripe for conversion’’(pg 133).  Far from a gender situation that would inhibit Christianization, in many ways the way was paved by the status of women in early Ireland. A very interesting discussion of the gendering of landscape versus boundaries, and how this affected the development of Christianity in the area, occupies a portion of the Brigidine section of Landscape.

One of the most useful aspects of Landscape is the orderly analysis of the earliest extant Life of Saint Brigit (Cogitosus, 650 CE) and its comparison with the Lives that followed—the Prima Vita (750 CE) and Bethu Brigte (900 CE).

Cogitosus was most likely a monk at Kildare. He was asked to write his Life of St Brigit nearly two hundred years after she had ‘‘laid down the burden of the flesh.’’ On the contrary, the anonymous authors of the later works were clerics loyal to Armagh, the seat of power of St Patrick. Bitel navigates the murky waters of politics and regionalism in her examination of Kildare’s, and therefore the posthumous Brigit’s, competition with Armagh and Patrick for ecclesiastical control of Ireland and the influence this had over the way in which her Lives were written. This discussion grounds the reader firmly in the context of Brigit’s Ireland and illuminates the conflicting Lives on which our inconsistent (and thus broadly flexible) understanding of her now is based.

“From the start…Brigit’s hagiographers elaborated the natural claims to all Ireland of her abbatial and episcopal successors. Cogitosus...announced the islandwide authority of the abbess of Kildare over all communities of religious women in Ireland and all churches and religious settlements in the province of Leinster...(and) described a holy patroness whose powers clearly outshone those of any other Christian leader, male or female, and whose travels and miracles in imitatio Christi linked her historically to the savior himself. Finally, he located Brigit’s body in Kildare and thus centralized custody of her influence.

“Cogitosus’s eighth-century successors shifted emphasis, however...They too identified Brigit with Jesus. In their tales she also multiplied provisions and healed lepers as the savior did. However, although these later writers mentioned settlements founded by Brigit, they did not discuss architecture. They recalled secondary relics but not the saint’s body or tomb. In their stories of Brigit’s travels, Brigit outshone but submitted to male religious officials, never competing directly for territory or space. She still demonstrated her superior holiness before crowds of Christians, but usually on the road, in the open, or in domestic settings of kitchens and farmyards. Instead of directing pilgrims to her church, these hagiographers argued for Brigit’s control of landscapes outside of Leinster, her mastery of nature and its creatures, and her marvelous protection of fellow travelers” (pg 176).

The changing fortunes of her main centre in Kildare are discussed, along with conditions of Brigit’s other monasteries. eg: “Kildare was a wealthy place; even if its founder had disdained material possessions, her colleagues and heirs did not” (pg 169). “In the eighth and ninth centuries, leaders of Brigit’s other communities had to manage the same daily contest for space as did the abbesses of Kildare, but without the unique advantages conferred by Brigit’s main place. These women and men of other monasteries did not dwell in the shadow of Dún Ailinne, nor were they governed by princesses from Leinster’s ancient dynasties...” (pg 175).

In a section entitled “How Saint Brigit Became a Goddess”, Bitel makes the unorthodox suggestion that, far from beginning as a goddess and growing into a saint, as is frequently assumed, Brigit began as a saint and, as hagiographers’ needs changed, acquired characteristics familiar from secular Irish tales and in time gave her name to a goddess (pg 192), rather than the other way around. (She does say there may have been earlier goddesses named Brig.) It is an intriguing and well argued idea, although she doesn’t spend a great deal of time on it and it is far from the central theme of the text.

“The story of Brigit evolved as her cult spread and accumulated a history, and as Christian communities matured…Her story compounded when other holy women called Brigit or Brig populated these same texts…Suddenly, after Cogitosus spread the saint’s reputation, Brigits were multiplying like loaves and fishes” (pg 187).

But the change in Brigit’s vitae signalled something more sobering, too. “It is ironic but not coincidental that, as later hagiographers sought new ways to express Brigit’s authority around Christendom, religious women in Ireland were becoming less mobile and less visible…Brigit’s new persona as patroness of fields and farms made her a timeless symbol of feminine nature, but made her useless as a historical model for other vowed women” (pg 194).

An exceptional book filled with valuable insights into not only the stories surrounding Brigit, but the world she and her spiritual heirs inhabited.

“Queering the Flame: Brigit, Flamekeeping, and Gender in Celtic Reconstructionist Pagan Communities”, by Erynn Rowan Laurie in The Well of Five Streams: Essays on Celtic Paganism (Immanion Press, projected release 2015) 17 pp.

“Queering the Flame” is an as yet unpublished essay that will be released in 2015 in Laurie’s collection of essays, interviews, and reviews.

Herself a keeper of Brigit’s flame, Laurie is an amateur scholar whose work rests on diligent research and thorough citation, combined with a carefully thought out, ethical, and personal Polytheist sensibility. She carefully distinguishes between her own ideas and what can be discerned from the literature (hooray!), allowing the reader to reach informed conclusions of her own.

The impetus for writing this piece was a debate that arose within the Celtic Reconstructionist (NeoPagan) community when a mixed gender Brigidine flame-keeping group was proposed. Laurie asks, “What would make the act of tending a perpetual flame in the name of a particular Goddess problematic or contentious? What are the theological assumptions at work, and why is gender such a central issue within some of those assumptions? More importantly for this essay, what does queerness have to do with it? To address these issues, we need to look at the person and place of Brigit as Goddess and saint, the practice of flamekeeping generally, and the ritual traditions that surround this act. ”

Accordingly, in “Queering the Flame” Laurie examines the ethical and ideological issues as she sees them, and looks at perpetual sacred flames in historical Pagan religions and in medieval Christian Ireland.
“These sacred fires, both in [Pagan] Rome and in Ireland, were considered community hearthfires, regardless of the gender of the flamekeepers. Regional ritual fires were lit from the Irish flames, as were household flames on particular holy days, and if a household’s flame were accidentally extinguished, it also would be relit from the sacred flame. The hearthstone at Inishmurray is specifically cited as a source for the relighting of household flames, even after the church itself was long-deserted and the physical flame extinguished”.

 Having shown that in Ireland both men and women tended perpetual sacred flames, and that Irish flame-tending practices may well not have had Pagan origins, she argues that in Celtic Reconstructionist practice the tending of Brigit’s flame ought to be open to both men and women, with women-only groups coexisting with those of mixed genders. “Queering” of gender roles is examined as well, including, for instance, cross-dressing among biddy boys and Bitel’s consideration of nuns as “masculinized” women in the context of their time.

What separates Laurie’s examination of flame-tending from other works in the Academic category is her stated relationship to Brigit and her concern for the NeoPagan and Polytheist communities: welcome additions, in my opinion. She states, “Flametending has been a rhythmic, almost tidal support to my spiritual and creative life. The regular presence of the flame on the altar near my writing desk is a tangible reminder of Brigit and of her patronage of poets, of the accessibility of inspiration, and of the dedication necessary to nurture a life as a poet and writer. Each time I light the flame, I renew my devotion to creativity as a deep and necessary part of my spiritual path.”

Brigit Book Reviews: Conclusion

These reviews touch on a few of the issues related to the investigation into and celebration of Brigit. Many other works are available with their own perspectives, their own strengths and weaknesses. Each contributes to the growing and changing cult of Brigit in the world today. To all who participate in this journey, whether as friends of Brigit, academics, artists, or curiosity seekers, I wish you the greatest blessings.

[1] Irish Times, 31 January 2011
[2] Green, Celtic Goddess, pg 169-171 and pg 182.
[3] pg 231, note 64.
[4] “Imbolc: A New Interpretation”, Phillip A. Bernhardt-House (60-61), citing Van Gennep (1934) and O’Neill and Davis (1999).
   Considering the absence of snake associations in Brigit’s vitae and the dominance of anti-snake imagery associated with Patrick, as well as to the equation of the snake with the devil in Christian symbolism, the “later Christian accretion” interpretation seems inescapable.
[5]See “Fire and the Arts” re: Bríg ambue (pg 162-163) in Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish
      Literature, Kim McCone (1990)
[6] Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins and Mothers, Miranda Green (1996)
[7] See Cath Maige Tuired: The Second Battle of Mag Tuired Translated by Elizabeth A. Gray. Available online.
[8]“Brigit: Soulsmith for the New Millennium,” Concilium: In the Power of Wisdom eds. María Pilar Aquino and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, vol. 5, (London: SCM Press, 2000), pp.107-119. Available online.
[9]See for instance The Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe & Early Ireland & Wales, edited by John T. Koch with John Carey (2003) pages 148, 253-5, 258-60.
[10]Condren is correct in noting the bad behaviour of smiths in Celtic tales, and other tales throughout old Europe. See “Celtic Smiths and Satirists: Partners Sorcery” by Mary Claire Randolph. ELH, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Sep., 1941), pp. 184-197
[11] The work of a silversmith, not a blacksmith, who fashions iron. This ingenuous adjunct to healing the wounded king permitted him to continue as leader of his people, where being one-armed would have prevented it..
[12] Miranda Green disagrees (pg 198).
[13] Brigid: Goddess, Druidess and Saint, Brian Wright (2009) 
[14] See also Lisa Bitel on the subject of women’s circumscribed role in early Irish society. Landscape with Two Saints: How Genovefa of Paris and Brigit of Kildare Built Christianity in Barbarian Europe, Lisa M. Bitel (2009)
[15] This role began with her later sainthood. See my review here of Ó Duinn’s Rites of Brigid
[16]    For a complete review of the wolf and werewolf in Celtic literature and an examination of that material, see Bernhardt-House, Phillip A., Werewolves, magical hounds, and dog-headed men in Celtic literature: a typological study of shape-shifting, Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2010.
[17]    See my review above of his Brigit section, “Fire and the Arts” (etc) in Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, Kim McCone (1990)
[18]    For a posting in the NeoPagan blogosphere see For a discussion  in a Celtic Reconstructionist forum of both the blog post and this peer-reviewed article, see In particular see the comment from  wire_mother : “I've read the original article from which PSVL derives this thesis (Bernhardt-House, Phillip A., "Imbolc: A New Interpretation", Cosmos 18 (2002), 57-76), and I buy the argument on the basis that OIr. olc very plausibly derives from PIE *wlkwo- "wolf" (which gives us English "wolf"!, and which through simple metathesis gives us *lukwo-, from which we derive e.g. English "lupine" from Latin) and also very plausibly shows semantic drift into its current meaning of "bad, evil" given the Christian experience of the youthful warrior/lycanthropic bands in Ireland; that it shows a definite relationship to Lupercalia, which seems to be a Latin reflex of the same ritual impulse; and the relationship of St. Brighid to the outlaw bands (all of which elements are discussed in that article by PSVL). For disclosure, I know both Prof. Bernhardt-House, the author of that article, and PSVL in person, and have discussed the issue with them many times, but even so, the three points I list here are more solid than even the assumption that we can derive pagan practices from e.g. folklore. That is, we have solid linguistic grounds (any linguist can easily derive that using tested rules of language change - one would have to dismiss nearly the entire field of linguistics to dismiss that point), solid comparative grounds (in the same region, even, and from a tradition which is linguistically closely related - one would have to dismiss the concept that religious ideas refer to the past in any way to dismiss that point, which would require one to dismiss the concept of any continuity of pagan religion at all), and solid hostile testimonial grounds (and the evidence for those youthful warrior-bands being also self-consciously, as well as community-consciously, considered to be "lycanthropic" is extensively documented across Europe, in the Celtic countries, and specifically in Ireland).”
[19]See Three Middle Irish Homilies, Whiteley Stokes (1877), available online here.
[20]This rather late Life is the same one chosen by Anna Egan Smucker for her pocket introduction to the saint, though for different reasons. See my review of her book.
[22] See Bitel Landscape with Two Saints, pg 176.
[23] See Bitel and Green (Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins, and Mothers) for another perspective, that perhaps the saint preceded the goddess in this case.
[24] What the Kays deliver in addition to their review of customs is an exuberant Wiccan approach to ritual and feasting.
[25]Described by Ó Duinn as unusual for a Christian saint, but not uncommon among Celtic deities, such as Aine’s annual return every St John’s Night (Summer Solstice)
[26]See Liam MacMathuna’s “Irish Perceptions of the Cosmos” Celtica 23 (174-187). Available online.
[27] See for example Women of the Celts, Jean Markale (1986).
[28] See for example Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins and Mothers, Miranda Green (1996).

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