Monday, February 24, 2014

Dumb St. Brigit Joke

Knowing well my affection for the sacred woman, my niece told me a joke about St. Brigit that she got out of a book I gave the family years ago in the hopes of bestowing a cultural blessing of some sort.

The book is The Cut-throat Celts from the Horrible Histories series by Terry Deary and illustrated by the lovely Martin Brown.

Now, I don't have the book in front of me, so I have to give you my niece's version, but I suspect it's close.

Q: Why is Saint Brigit like a lonely teacher?

A: Because she only has one pupil.

Thanks, FJ!

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) Goddess Ink
Pagan Portals—Brigid: Meeting the Celtic Goddess of Poetry, Forge, and Healing Well, Daimler, Morgan (2016) Moon Books


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.

Daimler’s Pagan Portals: Brigit is a short (112 pg.) and very focussed look at the goddess Brigit. If you can afford only one book about Brigit, this is it.

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.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Meaning of the Word: Imbolc

Cross-Stitch by Donna Amaral

Don't be misled by bold and simple assertions of what Imbolc means. We really are not sure. Scholars give various tentative definitions of the word:

“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. 

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”. (Or better yet, hunt down the paper itself. You'll find it in Cosmos: The Yearbook of the Traditional Cosmology Society 18 (2002): 57-76.

 A hint here: If im has as its basis “butter”, olc is generally derived as “evil, bad, wrong” in Irish, both Old and Modern. But Kim McCone 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” (60).

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 simplified story we often receive begins to hint at. 

REVIEW: Brigid: Goddess, Druidess and Saint, by Brian Wright

This book review by Dorothy Ann Bray was first published in Folklore 121 (December 2010): 346–362.

Brigid:Goddess, Druidess, Saint. By Brian Wright. Stroud: History Press, 2009. 255 pp. Illus.
£18.99 (pbk.). ISBN 976-0-75244-865-7

Saint Brigid of Kildare is considered one of Ireland’s foremost saints of the early Christian period, along with Saint Patrick and Saint Columba. Her floruit was supposedly the late fifth century to the early sixth century and she is credited with the foundation of a major monastic community of both monks and nuns at Kildare. Her cult spread from Ireland into Wales, Scotland, England, and the Continent, and continues to the present day. Her hagiographical tradition is extensive, with her earliest Life dating from the mid-seventh century. Her folkloric tradition is even more extensive: on her feast day, 1 February, she is celebrated with special rituals and customs; several holy wells have been dedicated to her; in the Hebrides, she has been associated with the Virgin Mary—as her midwife, no less; and she has been closely identified in the modern era with a pagan Irish deity of the same name, to the extent that many people believe that she is the goddess Christianised. A book that draws together her early and later traditions, and examines the popular folklore surrounding her, ought to be welcomed—but, unfortunately, not this book.

Brian Wright does draw together Brigid’s early traditions in his first few chapters, beginning with a discussion of the origins of the goddess Brigantia who became venerated as “Brighid” (sic) in Ireland, thanks to the druids (according to him). Brigid the saint, he believes, was a druidess who converted to Christianity and, with her fellow druids and druidesses, founded the monastery of Kildare. Alas, there is no evidence whatsoever for this. Wright offers a potted history of pre-Christian and early Christian Ireland that takes theories for fact and makes use of sources in an uncritical way. His account of the goddess Brighid, about whom he admits few tales exist, is devised in a similar fashion, where he synthesises several discrete strands of mythological lore and speculative ideas.

When it comes to relating the customs and traditions connected to Saint Brigid, Wright proceeds from the firm conviction that many of these stem from the pre-Christian beliefs and lore surrounding the goddess; most of the miracles of Saint Brigid, including the multiplication of food and drink and control of the weather, are, according to him, survivals of the deeds of the pagan goddess. He does not take into consideration the miracles of Christ (except once, on page 235, where the hagiographer himself does it), although he does allow that her early hagiographers adapted these deeds for a Christian moral purpose. ButWright’s purpose is not to examine these tales, customs, and beliefs in any scholarly way; this is meant as popular book for a non-academic audience. There are no references to his sources in either footnotes or endnotes. Translations of hymns, prayers, and saints’ lives go unacknowledged. This, however, is a disservice to his readers, academic and non-academic alike, both of whom might like to follow up his sources. Although he provides a list of Further Reading, this is a jumble of the scholarly and nonscholarly, and a mess in terms of citation; journal articles are cited as if they were books, and one item is, in fact, cited twice, owing it seems to some confusion over the authors’ names (Amber, K and Azreal Arynn K or K, Amber and K, Arynn—which is it?).

Wright does actually provide some extensive compilations of folk customs and traditions surrounding Brigid, including Saint Brigid’s Day celebrations. However, his account is no substitute for Séamus Ó Cathaín’s The Festival of Brigit: Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman (1995). On the other hand, Wright does tell his readers how to make a Saint Brigid’s cross in Chapter Seven, “Celebrating the Goddess-Saint in Ireland,” and Chapters Eight and Nine contain a compendium of Brigid’s traditions in Scotland, Wales, and the Isle of Man. Chapter Eleven, on holy wells, also brings together several of Brigid’s folk customs and beliefs associated with wells, although Wright does not consider the possibility that not all wells dedicated to Saint Brigid may have been pre-Christian sites of worship. It is simply assumed as a fact.Wright is billed as a teacher of folklore and British mythology in Somerset and Devon, and his local interests are evident in his chapter on the tradition of Brigid’s association with Glastonbury (Chapter  Ten). In his final chapter, he lists some of the modern manifestations of the veneration of the “goddess-saint” and ends with a brief advertisement for the Friends of Bride Mound at Glastonbury.

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. It is also very poorly written. Individual chapters are badly organised internally, and the entire text is riddled with grammatical errors (sentence fragments abound) and mistakes in spelling and punctuation. For example, a common and consistent error is the use and misuse of the apostrophe (“it’s” for “its,” and vice versa); these and mistakes like “Keeting” instead of “Keating” (p. 70), “formerly” for “formally” (p. 135), and   “Cannon” for “Canon” (p. 189), to name but a few, suggest that no human copy-editor laid eyes on the manuscript prior to publication. Yet the material quality of the publication is high: it is printed on good, heavy paper; the photographs and line drawings are well reproduced; and the front and back covers are colourful and eye-catching. But priced at £18.99, this is asking too much for what it is. The content just does not live up to the packaging.

Dorothy Ann Bray, McGill University, Montreal, Canada

©2010, Dorothy Ann Bray