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Sun Of Womanhood
By Patricia Monaghan, Michael McDermott
Goddess Ink, Ltd.Copyright © 2013 Patricia Monaghan and Michael McDermott
All rights reserved.
BRIGIT GODDESS OF THE CELTS
Brigit, Sacred Virginity, and the Elements of Perpetual Energy
Miriam Robbins Dexter
The pagan Irish triple goddess Brigit, the daughter of the Dagda (the shining god of the heavens), was patroness of poets, smith-goddess, and goddess of healing. In pagan Ireland, she had a son, Ruadan; that is, early on, she was not a virgin, as she became later under Christianity. When she was assimilated into Celtic Christianity, she regained her virginity, becoming a virgin nun. According to Geraldus Cambrensis, writing from approximately 1146 to 1220 CE in "De Igne A Brigida Sua Nocte Servato," she and her attendant nuns guarded a perpetual flame:
At the time of Brigit
twenty nuns here served a master as would a soldier,
she herself being the twentieth ...
when indeed every night through every succession
they cared for the fire ...
on the twentieth night the last nun
said: 'Brigit, I have cared for your fire
and thus, the fire having been left ...
it was found again,
Cum tempore Brigide xx moniales hic Domino militassent, ipsa vicesima existente.... Cum vero singulis noctibus singule per ordinem ignem custodiant, nocte vicesima monialis ultima ... inquit: Brigida, custodi ignem tuum. Et sic, igne relicto ... inextinctus reperitur.
Not only was Brigit significant in the element of fire; she was associated with the element of water as well. Her name was given to holy wells and to several rivers, including the Brighid in Ireland, the Braint in Wales, and the Brent in England. As a virgin, Brigit embodied a most potent form of energy in its stored form; her energies were held in reserve, just as a battery stores energy. This is a different sort of energy from that of a woman who gives energy sexually, as I argued in my 1990 book, Whence the Goddesses. The forces of these elements are perpetual: water can flow infinitely, just as fire can burn continuously. A virgin such as Bridget the nun was replete with the stores of energy that might guarantee the perpetuity of both elements.
Through the past two millennia, Brigit has remained important to the people of Ireland and beyond. Her feast day, February 1, also called Imbolc, is celebrated worldwide. Her perpetual flame in Kildare was kept unextinguished until the 16th century, and it was relit by the Brigidine Sisters in 1993. It became a perpetual flame again in 2006 and it still burns.
Another name for Brigit is Saint Bride; Saint Bride's Day is still celebrated, and hymns, such as the following 20th century song found in the Scottish region of Ross, are sung to her:
Early on Bride's morn
The serpent shall come from the hole;
I will not molest the serpent,
nor will the serpent molest me ...
This is the Day of Bride.
The queen will come from the mound;
I will not touch the queen,
nor will the queen touch me.
In this poem we see that Brigit is associated with the female serpent, called the "queen," similar to the Indic Nirrti, who was Sarparajni (literally, "the Queen of Serpents" in Satapatha Brahmana). This female serpent is beneficent; it is not feared because it does not molest the devotee. Brigit's roots, indeed, extend back to the European Neolithic snake goddess who, as Marija Gimbutas amply demonstrated, was depicted in figurines from the 6th through the 3rd millennia BCE.
The concept of the sacred fire, and sometimes its association with virginity, is found in several Indo-European cultures, among which are those of Ireland, Greece, Rome, and Lithuania. The Greek goddess Hestia was the personification of the pure core of the home: the hearth. She was required to be a virgin, as we learn in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite written sometime between the 8th to 6th centuries BCE:
Nor yet are Aphrodite's works
for the venerable virgin, Hestia ...
she swore a mighty oath ...
that she would be a virgin all of her days....
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In Greece, the priestesses of the hearth goddess could be any age, and they need not be virgins, although they were required to be celibate. The sacred fire could even be maintained by an elderly married woman, as long as she no longer cohabited with her husband. Such was the case with the Pythia at Delphi.
Vesta, the Roman equivalent of Hestia, was also a virgin. She was the third daughter of Ops (goddess of abundance) and Saturn (god of time). Ovid, in the Fasti, tells us this of her:
The others married.... of the three one resisted,
refusing to endure a husband....
Do not perceive Vesta as anything but the living flame,
and you see that no bodies are born of flame.
Therefore, she is justly a virgin who neither sends forth nor takes seeds, and she loves companions [the Vestal Virgins] in her virginity.
Utraque nupserunt.... de tribus impatiens restitit una viri.... nec tu aliud Vestam quam vivam intellege flammam, nataque de flamma corpora nulla vides. Iure igitur virgo est, quae semina nulla remittit nec capit et comites virginitatis amat.
Vesta's attendants were required to be literal virgins, in contrast to the priestesses of Hestia. These priestesses were called the Vestal Virgins: the virgins of Vesta. They were politically very important priestesses of the hearth, and they performed various rituals to benefit the Roman state. If any Vestal were to violate the rule of chastity, it is said that her punishment would be live inhumation, as we again learn from the Fasti of Ovid:
... nor will it be said
that under [the emperor's] leadership
any priestess violated her sacred fillets,
and none shall be buried alive in the ground.
It is thus that an unchaste [Vestal] perishes,
because that [earth] which she violated,
in that [earth] she is interred;
and indeed Earth and Vesta are the same deity.
Nullaque dicitur vittas temerasse sacerdos hoc duce nec viva defodietur humo. Sic incesta petit, quia quam violavit, in illam conditur, et Tellus Vestaque numen idem.
It was necessary to the Roman state for the Roman Vestals to remain virgins, because only through virginity could their sacred energy have been saved for their office rather than dissipated through the sexual act. Further, if a woman was neither virgin nor married, she became a threat to the patriarchal, patrilineal Roman establishment, since if she was both unmarried (un-ruled by a husband) and sexual, she was thus autonomous. Any woman who took control of her own sexuality, in Rome as elsewhere, was both condemned and feared by those societies.
It is significant that any maiden, no matter what social class she belonged to, was eligible to become a Vestal Virgin. Nor need she be young. In 19 CE, Tacitus, in his Annals, tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius:
proposed the selection of a virgin in place of Occia,
who had presided over the Vestal rites with the greatest purity
for fifty-seven years.
Rettulit ... capiendam virginem in locum Occiae, quae septem et quinquaginta per annos summa sanctimonia Vestalibus sacris praesederat.
The sacred power was present in all Roman women.
The Balts had religious fire rituals similar to those of the Romans and Celts. A perpetual flame, sacred to the thunder god, Perkunas, was tended, as the 18th century scholar S. Rostowski recorded (and Mannhardt republished a hundred years later):
For Perkunas they used to maintain a perpetual sacred fire, in the woods, imitating Roman Vestals.
Perkuno ignem in sylvis sacrum, vestales Romanas imitati, perpetuum alebant.
This flame was guarded by priests and priestesses, called vaidelotai or vaidelutes. Further, unmarried female vaidelutes served Potrimpus (a god of rivers and springs), or his snake-epiphany, with a nonperpetual fire and with milk.
The juxtaposition of fire, waters, and snakes provides a striking parallel to the Celtic honoring of the goddess and nun, Brigit. Thus Brigit, who in origin was a powerful triple goddess—perhaps a pre-Indo-European great goddess of Ireland—became both Indo-Europeanized and Christianized; so it was that she gave her energies to the task of maintaining both fire and water in perpetuity for the people of Ireland.
Bride of the Waters, Brigit of the Air
Begoibne of the Fire, Brighid of the Earth,
Breo-saight of the Spirit, be with us.
Lady of the Hearth Fire, Lady of the Forge Fire,
Lady of Wisdom and Inspiration,
Fiery Arrow of Knowledge, be with us.
Mary of the Gael, Mother of Compassion,
Nurse of Christ, Foster-mother of Christ,
Protectress in Childbirth, be with us.
Daughter of the Druid, Bishop of Kildare,
Guardian of Indigenous Wisdom, Mother of Monastic Fire,
Mother of Memory, be with us.
Lady of the Flowing Sea, Lady of the Calm Heart,
the Soft Palm, Well of Healing, Strength of the New Moon.
Lady whose feet walk with respect upon the land, be with us.
Brigit of the Peat-heap, Brigit of the Fields,
Brigit of the Sea and Rocky Summits,
Guardian of the Children of the Land, be with us.
Brigit of the crane, swan, deer, wolf, horse, and hound.
Protectress of the flocks, herds, and fields,
Spring of the year, Feast of New Milk, be with us.
Whispering voice in the ear of poets,
healers, blacksmiths, Mother of All Crafts,
Brigit of the Mantles, be with us.
Mistress of Seeing, Lady of Healing,
Lady of the Mirror, Woman of the Spindle,
Lady of Augury, Lady of the Cauldron, be with us.
Holy are your wells and springs,
your groves and barrows, hearth fire, and forge.
Mother, teach us again and again, be with us.
The Great Bear Mother: A Journey with Brigit to the Ancient Dawn of Imbolc
My sense of Brigit has always been timeless, her roots stretching back past saint and Celtic goddess. This idea began to take form when I encountered the work of Irish scholar Séamus Ó Catháin, suggesting that Brigit was the great bear mother, venerated in early bear cults. Alongside this interest lay a question: "Does the source of the new consciousness required by our modern world lay in an ancient spirituality?" This journey took me to the earliest Imbolc, to the bear emerging from hibernation: a symbol of renewal, sacrifice, and ritual. Coded themes within myth revealed a very different Imbolc from the one of the Celts—familiar motifs representing something hidden, taboo, whose roots stretch back to a far older time.
The theme of regeneration emerges throughout, and employing Joanna Macy's work in examining our modern sense of self expands who we are when we consider our ecological self. Brigit reminds us of our creativity, our ability to remember, revision, and reclaim, as if she herself morphs and changes to meet our needs.
In his seminal book, The Festival of Brigid: Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman, Ó Catháin suggests that the folklore associated with Brighid shows a continuous link stretching back to shamanic practice 4,000 years ago to early bear cults. The stories he searched within Nordic, Celtic, and Germanic folklore hold the same knowledge, which exists within the layers of our unconscious as ancient folk memory. The bear wasn't just a biological entity to our ancestors; Shephard, Sanders, and Snyder contend that she represented both the physical and magical qualities early bear worshipers observed. She was a wise teacher, a loving mother who was fiercely protective of her young. Each fall, ancient peoples observed the bear going into hibernation, and in the heart of winter she would have appeared dead, her heartbeat slow and her breathing barely noticeable. To observe the same bear coming back from the dead would suggest magical powers, that she was a communicator with the otherworld.
Emerging from the dead, bearing new life in the form of cubs, she also emerged bearing life to the land itself. She breathed life into the dead of winter, which lost its grip as the stirrings of spring radiated throughout the soil. All of these qualities fed our ancestors' spiritual beliefs, creating myths, ritual, and practices to live by, which also marked the great cycle of the seasons.
Marija Gimbutas, in her archaeological work, unearthed what may be evidence of bear cults in the form of figurines, possibly representing the bear as birth goddess. Small figurines from Eastern Europe 5,000 BCE have been discovered and called "bear nurses," which depict human figures wearing bear masks. Similarly, we find "bear madonna" figures dating from 6,000 BCE that depict human female figurines wearing a bear mask while holding a bear cub. The existence of such ancient figures shows the importance and variation of the image. The idea of the bear cult, however, has flourished in popular culture, quite possibly owing its success to evoking our ancient memory.
Gimbutas offers linguistic evidence to illustrate the connection of the bear with birth. The Proto Indo-European root bhere refers both to the bear and also to the ability to give birth. This is reflected in the Germanic beran (to bear children or to carry) and the Germanic barnam (child), as well as being present in the Old Norse burdh (birth.)
Circumpolar societies associate the bear with supernatural qualities, although this similarity of beliefs is not related to a common ancestral belief system, but one that each culture developed separately due to revering the bear above all other creatures. From ancient Siberia, Shepard et al illustrate a practice of sacrificing a male bear, which was seen as essential in maintaining the order of the shamanic worlds. Within early myths, Ó Catháin notes the symbolism of shamans using the psychedelic mushroom Amanita muscaria (fly agaric, which he color codes as "white speckled"), linking its use to rituals undertaken at Imbolc. McIntosh speculates that Imbolc could have been an ancient magic mushroom festival celebrating the essence of spring with the new life as it dawns, radiating out across face of the northern hemisphere.
A. muscaria use was likely at this cycle of the year to facilitate communication with the otherworld, ensuring the return of spring to the land and the survival of life. Laurie and White highlight one reason why the role of psychoactive mushrooms in Celtic mythology has been overlooked: with the demise of the old growth forests in Ireland, A. muscaria is rare in the Ireland of today. While it is likely that it grew in such forests, dried A muscaria could have been easily obtained from the filidh's (poet-seer's) Celtic neighbors.
While A. muscaria use is documented in numerous cultures throughout Europe and Asia, there are only obscure references to it within Celtic culture. Celtic legends are full of sleep-inducing berries and apples as well as magical hazelnuts and salmon. These were selected by the filidh as magical foods, yet there is nothing psychotropic about the foods that would allow them to produce inspiring and prophetic visions. The Roman historian Laertius recorded that Celtic Druids and bards spoke in "riddles and dark sayings," and it seems many taboo subjects were referenced in obscure and coded ways. Motifs of such magical foods could be explained as being metaphoric references to A. muscaria, as it is probable that direct referencing was taboo due to its sacred qualities, argue Laurie and White.
Excerpted from Brigit by Patricia Monaghan, Michael McDermott. Copyright © 2013 Patricia Monaghan and Michael McDermott. Excerpted by permission of Goddess Ink, Ltd..
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Table of Contents
ContentsSong to Brigit by Patricia Monaghan,
A Note on the Text,
BRIGIT, GODDESS OF THE CELTS,
Brigit, Sacred Virginity, and the Elements of Perpetual Energy by Miriam Robbins Dexter,
Brigit's Litany by Barbara Flaherty,
The Great Bear Mother: A Journey with Brigit to the Ancient Dawn of Imbolc by Jude Lally,
Invocation to Brigit by Ruth Barrett,
In Search of Crios Bríde by Barbara Callan,
Magdalen Rising (excerpt) by Elizabeth Cunningham,
Forging by Eileen Rosensteel,
The Search for Bride's Well by Cheryl Straffon,
Forging Finer Metal by Barbara Ardinger,
Brighde of the Isles by Jill Smith,
Goddess of Smiths by Mael Brigde,
Bride in Scotland by Stuart McHardy,
The First Keening by Valerie Freseman,
Brigit's Runes in Sweden: The Völva and the Sun by Kirsten Brunsgaard Clausen,
Saint Bridget's Day by Matthew Geden,
Bridget and Kildare by Sr. Rita Minihan,
Poem for Saint Bridget's Day by Joan McBreen,
Growing up with Brigit by Emily Stix,
Brigid of Ireland, A Historical Novel (excerpt) by Cindy Thomson,
Bridget's Mantle by Bee Smith,
Got Milk?: The Food Miracles of Saint Bridget of Kildare by Kerry Noonan,
Reworking of an 11th Century Irish Prayer to Brigit by Erin Johnson,
Brigit: Cailleach and Midwife to a New World by Dolores Whelan,
Dawn at Brigit's Well by Patricia Monaghan,
The Feast Day of Saint Bridget and Other Stories by Carol Christ,
BRIGIT IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY,
A Garden for Brigit by Jenny Beale,
My Blood Song by Szmeralda Shanel,
Take Back the Hammer by Slippery Elm,
The Hem of Her Cloak: How Modern Brigit Worship Spread into the Southern Highlands of Appalachia by H. Byron Ballard,
Fa La La by Alison Stone,
Sacred Tattooing: A Dedication to Brigit by Phoenix Lefae,
Brigit's Light: A Break from Rain by Kersten Christianson,
Inspiration and invocation: Creating a ritual with Brigit by Betz King,
The Story of Brigit: A Conversation by Ita Roddy,
Bridey: From Personal to Global by Aline O'Brien (M. Macha NightMare),
Brigit by Annie Finch,
Fire Will Make It Whole by Sabina Magliocco,
In Memoriam: Patricia Monaghan,