Thursday, March 29, 2007

Electronic Texts on Brigit & Irish Studies

Several valuable internet resources exist for Irish documents. See, for example:
Bethu Brigte & Milk Symbolism in the Bethu Brigte & The Festival of Brigit the Holy Woman.

Thanks to the Brigit-loving people on Live Journal for these sources.

Briget's Crosses & Biddy Boys

Although generally this blog is for referring to other sites, books, etc. to do with Brigit, I would like to add a few notes on Brigit's Crosses from the book Irish Folkways by E.Estyn Evans (Routledge, London and New York, 1957, 1988). This book is an excellent resource and is considered the classic reference for information on folk-customs and tools.

To the left is a drawing taken from pg. 269 of this book. Fig. 1-7 are Brigit's crosses, and Fig. 12 is a Brigit's Girdle. The other figures provide comparision with other cultures. Figure 3, the three-armed cross, is made with 9 stranded plaits (pg. 210).

From the book:

"The blessed Bridie was a cowherd and is therefore associated with cattle and with such flowers as the dandelion--the Plant of Bride--yielding a milky juice which was believed to nourish the young lambs in spring. St. Briget's Feast was very popular and many superstitious practices, more or less Christianized, cling to the preparations made on St.Briget's Eve, the last day of January. On that day rushes are fashiuoned into protective charms known as Briget's Crosses, a name which illustrates how the church has won over pagan symbols, for the 'crosses' take the form of either swastikas or lozenges, and comparative evidence suggests that they are magic symbols of suns or eyes. A three-legged swastika, presumably an old form, is reserved for the byre: its shape may be compared with the Celtic triskele.

"The lozenge-shaped charms have their counterparts in many parts of the world. The Huichols of Mexico make similar charms of wool mounted on a bamboo frame: knwon as 'god's-eyes', they bring good health and long life to children (F. Toor, A Treasury of Mexican Folkways (1947), pg. 72). A CAlifornian Indian charm made of grass or rushes is very similar. In the Old World similar magic 'squares' have a wide distribution, in Europe, Africa, Tibet, Burma, Assam and Indonesia, and farther afield iin Melanesia, Polynesia and Australia. Among the Nagas of Assam the squares, made of coloured thread, are placed on the graves of women and protect them against evil spirits (H. E. Kaufmann, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 73 (1943), 101, 106.) In Sweden and Estonia straw squares are strung up as Christmas decorations and tied to the straw masks worn during Christmas games (Fig. 10).

"Briget's Crosses are believed to protect the house and the livestock from harm and from fire*. No evil spirit could pass the charm, which was therefore hung above the door of house and byre. The rushes must be pulled, not cut, on St. Briget's Eve, and care must be taken to fashion the crosses from left to right, with the sun. As a rule they are left in position until replaced the following year, though I have seen byres with many crosses thrust into the underthatch, the decaying accumulation of annual offerings. In Co. Galway similar crosses made of wood or straw were also placed in the rafters at Hallowe'en, and the discovery of a partly burnt rush cross which had been deposited in a megalith in Co. Limerick points to a more general cult of the 'cross' (S. P. O'Riordain, North Munster Antiquarian Journal, 1 (1936), 36. For a study of Briget's Crosses in Co. Armagh, see T. G. F. Paterson, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 8 (1945), 43-48). A 'love-knot' of similar shape, fashioned out of sedge leaves, is known from South Wales."

Evans goes on to add that:

"It was popularly believed that the saint wandered through the countryside on the eve of her feast day. Bread was left on the doorstep, and in some districts it was the custom to place it by the fire so that Bridie might come in and rest. Sometimes the last sheaf of harvest was used for the purpose. In south-western Ireland a doll made of straw--or decorated churn-staff--was carried from house to house by 'Biddy Boys', wearing straw masks such as are used by mummers and by strawboys at weddings, and singing songs in honour of the saint. They would solicit gifts and end the day in jollification. The evening was celebrated by a supper of pancakes taken from a plate laid on a rush cross, and as on the other quarter-days prognositcations were made.

"A ribbon or piece of cloth exposed on St. Briget's Eve became endowed with curative powers. It was believed that no work which involved the turning of a wheel should take place on the saint's day. The placing of a periwinkle in each corner of the kitchen likewise hints at a remote pre-agriculatural origin for the festival, but it came to be associated with the pastoral promise of spring, of warmth, new grass, lambs and milk. It is said that the saint placed her foot in water on her feast day so that on that day it begins to warm up each year."

* "The crosses would have blessed the thrashing as well as the cattle." (pg. 215)