Friday, February 15, 2019

Review: Saint Brigid of Kildare: Life, Legend and Cult by Noel Kissane

Kissane, Noel. Saint Brigid of Kildare: Life, Legend and Cult (2017).

Noel Kissane’s book on Saint Brigit is unlike any I have previously read. Readable, immense in scope, it places her within the context of medieval Irish and Continental Christianity while also examining the minutiae of her cult.

Kissane traces the early development of Christianity in Ireland, such as the process of conversion, and sets Saint Brigit in the context of bishops like Palladius and Patrick. Important texts about or mentioning her are discussed, their dates estimated and implications considered. Various older images of Saint Brigit which we encounter on the internet are identified with their original sources. The lives and intentions of authors of early poems and Lives dedicated to her are delved into. Artistic depictions are listed. Her folklore, the history of Brigidine nuns, cultural movements that drew inspiration from her are examined—and so on and on.

If you were to attempt a pilgrimage through Europe dedicated to Saint Brigit, this would be an essential reference book. Irish placenames linked to her, monastic communities and churches connected to Kildare (ca. 1000 C.E.), and current dedications from churches to Gaelic Athletic Associations are listed and their history briefly recounted. The origin and movement of her various relics (including more heads than most people can boast) is investigated, and he details her cult across Europe, distinguishing between churches named for St. Brigitta of Sweden versus those named for St. Brigit of Kildare, where to the untrained eye these wouldn’t be easily teased apart.

I especially enjoyed reading Kissane’s depiction of life in Ireland during her era—setting her tales against that essential background is not done enough.[1] He goes deeply into the role her supposed tribe, the Fothairt, played in that society (working as mercenaries for other tribes) and what this implies for her, and compares the claims of different locales for her birth, growing up, or veiling ceremony. (I am now convinced it was Mac Caille, not Mél, who gave her the veil, but you may come to a different conclusion.) Amply sourced and footnoted, with an index that includes a breakdown by Irish county and town, it has a bibliography to bring joy to the researcher’s heart. Such are the delights of this book for Brigit scholars.

It is delightful, as well, to have so many oddities of the lore explained. For instance, why do we sometimes encounter the suggestion that Cogitosus (author of her earliest Life) was Brigit’s nephew? (Because of a misreading of a garbled manuscript.) Could Patrick actually have converted Brigit? (Nope.) Why did the Scottish claim her as their own? Was she ever in Glastonbury? Etc. Some of these are explained elsewhere, of course, but no other text tackles so many of these questions as this one.

Little space is set aside for the goddess, naturally, as she is not the subject of this book. However, I am disappointed that Kissane accepts without really questioning, and offers as a statement of high probability if not fact, the hypothesis, generally discounted by modern scholars (for utter lack of evidence), that Kildare was a pagan community dedicated to the goddess Brigit.[2] He even adds to the usual story his own details, such as that the saint may have converted separately from the community (pg. 90), and that she probably inherited a “countrywide network of established holy sites” (pg. 118). I fear that his elaboration of these and related ideas will just add to the rampant confusion around this. I am not opposed to him speculating. I simply wished he had made it clearer that this scenario was unweighted by evidence, and had offered the contradictory view as well. He has such a richness of factual matter here, and many of his speculations throughout the book seem more carefully reasoned. In this area he seems to lose sight of the boundary between conjecture and supportable theory. He goes so far as to say, “It is almost certain that to some degree the early Irish converts to Christianity conflated the saint with the goddess and regarded the saint as retaining and manifesting certain of the qualities and functions of the goddess” (pg. 93). But it is not almost certain. Now, if he had said that it was almost certain that they saw elements of a goddess in the saint, I would be much happier. But to presume the existence of this Brigit goddess sanctuary is venturing too far into conjecture to be certain of anything.

Another instance of unsupported speculation, much less worrying, is when he states that the story of Brigit’s mother’s status is much more likely to be correct in Vita Prima (slave) than in Cogitosus’s Life (noble woman) because there would be no reason to invent her illegitimacy. I can think of one good reason: Christ was born to a woman who was unmarried at the time of his conception. As in other saints’ Lives, many of the elements of Saint Brigit’s hagiography are meant to reflect moments in Jesus’s life as a way of showing her holiness. They reflect but do not exactly copy them. Could this be an instance of the same? I give this example only to say that speculation is just that, and we should never take it, when unsupported by excellent evidence, as any more likely than any other explanation to be true.

There is another good reason for making her illegitimate. Cogitosus was apparently a monk at Brigit’s monastery at Kildare (though a good while after her death); the author of Vita Prima was loyal to Armagh, St. Patrick’s seat of power. Kildare and Armagh were in the throes of a struggle for ecclesiastical supremacy. As Lisa Bitel writes in Landscape with Two Saints, unlike in Cogitosus’s Life, in Vita Prima and other later Lives Brigit “submitted to male religious officials, never competing directly for territory or space” (pg. 176). In this way she is subtly shown to be Patrick’s inferior, making Armagh the legitimate religious centre of Ireland. Would it not benefit such an agenda to have her the daughter of a slave, where Patrick was the son of nobles?

But such matters hardly mar my pleasure in the book as a whole. There is a goldmine of information here, including facts that, for all my scrutiny, I have never come across before, and which put into a much clearer order the normally shifting sea of matters Brigidine.

Highly recommended.

[1] See Christina Harrington’s Women in a Celtic Church and Lisa Bitel’s Landscape with Two Saints for very fine exceptions to this rule, as well as Alice Curtayne’s much earlier St. Brigid of Ireland for a less academic and slightly more fanciful but nevertheless excellent example.
[2] See Christina Harrington’s Women in a Celtic Church for a detailed explanation of how this hypothesis came about and the changes in scholarship that have led to its general rejection today.

Friday, February 08, 2019

Review: Pagan Portals—Gods and Goddesses of Ireland by Morgan Daimler

Daimler, Morgan. Pagan Portals—Gods and Goddesses of Ireland: A Guide to Irish Deities (2016).

Once again I come away from reading one of Morgan Daimler’s books with a sense of excitement and the urge to wave it in front of all sorts of people saying, “You want this book!” Why, in this case?

If you have ever plunged into Irish mythological texts, or even modern writings about the Irish deities, you will have quickly discovered that there are a LOT of names in there, all baffling if you are unused to Irish spellings, or are unaware that there are multiple forms and spellings for every name, not to mention the plethora of different persons associated with each god or goddess. In one story he is married to so-and-so, in another he is cavorting with someone else; here she is a sympathetic character, there she is a trickster or a dupe. How do you keep them all straight? And how begin to build a sense of each deity in his or her own right and complexity? How winnow through opinion and fact, misinformation and changing perceptions over time? How, on top of all of this, do you honour those you are drawn to?

There are a number of excellent tomes that cover Irish deities and myths in depth. Their worth is undeniable. But if you want to narrow down your focus you would be hard pressed to find a source that maps things out as clearly and beautifully as Pagan Portals—Gods and Goddesses of Ireland.

The Pagan Portals series is a brilliant idea. Each book is short—in this case less than ninety pages—and serves as an introduction to its subject that offers enough information to set you clearly on your path without overwhelming you with detail. It is possible to read one quickly enough to retain a good sense of the general scope of the book, to leave you feeling less rather than more confused.

In this case, Daimler’s purpose is to offer sound scholarly information about the deities in an easily accessible style to assist those interested in following an Irish Pagan path. This book could be of use both to newcomers to Irish Neo-Paganism and to those who have been immersed for some while.

She tackles her topic by dividing the book into three main sections covering the gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the goddesses of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and Irish deities of different or uncertain origins. Instead of limiting herself to the handful of deities we encounter again and again, Daimler includes a number who are much more obscure. She somehow strikes a balance between giving a satisfying survey of their names, relationships, attributes, associations, and elements of their stories, and holding back enough detail that the reader doesn’t end up becoming lost in the thickets.[1] (It must be very hard to stop herself at times—she is well versed in her topic and has many fascinating gems at her disposal.) She is concise and clear without oversimplifying, frequently giving conflicting points of view and allowing the reader to follow up on them if desired rather than simply offering her own favourite theory and omitting all controversy. As well as those of Celtic scholars, she offers perspectives of Irish Neo-Pagan practitioners, and ends each entry with suggestions for how we might honour a given deity in our own lives.

In addition to the individual entries, which range from less than half a page for a deity like Neit, about whom little is known, to over four pages for Macha, Daimler offers excellent advice on how to build a relationship with the deities—not a prescription of rituals and offerings, but an approach to learning and relating that is as wise as it is clear (and again, succinct). A bibliography and recommended reading list are given at the end of the book.

I had not originally thought to include this review in Brigit’s Sparkling Flame. I changed my mind for the simple reason that Brigit is not an isolated goddess, but a part of a rich tapestry of deities from a complex culture, and having a clearer sense, even just a beginning sense, of some of the other gods and goddesses can only strengthen our understanding of and relationship to her. I can think of no better book to wave before Brigidines for this purpose than Pagan Portals—Gods and Goddesses of Ireland.

[1] One detail I find especially interesting which is not often included is the particular geographic area a deity is linked to, where that is known.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Review – Poems for the season of Imbolc by Kris Hughes


I recently received a very short, self-published chapbook by an author whose writing I was not familiar with. I get nervous about reviewing people’s work—I don’t like to hurt feelings but I also don’t like to say I love something when I really don’t. Somehow the stakes seem even higher when it is self-published, I suppose because they don’t obviously have anyone else promoting the work for them, so more depends on one review, but equally they may well be depending entirely on their own eyeball when it comes to editing, layout, and so on, which as many writers have shown is not always a great idea. So it was with some trepidation that I awaited delivery of this booklet.

It arrived shortly before Imbolc. To my relief, it looked pretty darn good. The layout is done with an artist’s eye, though there is little decoration; it is printed on nice paper; there were no wild claims on the back cover: all promising signs.

Because of its subject matter, I wanted to review it right away so people could know about it before the feast day, but it is my busiest time of year and it just wasn’t possible. At last today I had a clear enough mental space to sit down and read the whole thing at once and pay it the attention it (and the author) deserved. I have to say—I love it.

Twenty pages all told, including front and back matter, Poems for the season of Imbolc focusses on the Scottish tales of Bride, Angus, and the Cailleach. There is a short and useful introduction and then four poems, “If Angus Would Come,” “The Cailleach Becomes Bride,” “Cailleach Rant,” and “Woman of the White Sky.”

Apart from “Cailleach Rant,” which is a prose poem of gathering power, the poems are free verse, telling their stories pithily and beautifully. Their tone ranges from lilting and passionate to wild and world-shaping, climaxing in a defiant call to giant selfhood.  I will give two small tastes, but far better that you read the book all at once. Often this is not the case with poetry. It’s best to take deep sips of one or two poems and then sit with them before going back. But Poems for the season of Imbolc is strongest when taken all together, from the longing of Bride for Angus to the transformation of Cailleach to Bride to the roar of the Cailleach to women everywhere, to the brief silence of the final poem of praise to her.

… If Angus would come
He would search for me
Guided by the light of a thousand candles

He would know my abode
By the sark I have hung on the window sill
It collects the snow, to be wrung as dew
To ease his wounds when he comes …

                        from “If Angus Would Come”

… I cackle again from the treetops
raising a storm that sends the cattle
lowing and bucking in indignation
from sleet like knives
for the shelter of the dyke
The ponies
lower their heads to the ground
tails plastered to their legs …

                        from “The Cailleach Becomes Bride”

What does it feel like when life turns out not to be a journey, after all, but an immense impermanence?

                                                from “Cailleach Rant”