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(Left, a Brighid's Cross. Graphic © 1999 Lisa Paitz Spindler)
Brighid: What Do We Really Know?
By Francine Nicholson
In ancient times, several Celtic goddesses bore names that incorporated the root bríg meaning flame, force, vigor, and exalted status. In medieval times, groups of nuns following the example of St. Brigid could be found in Britain and Scandinavia as well as Ireland where she was the focus of a fire cult and the chief figure in the devotions of Imbolc. Today St. Brigid, the "Mary of the Gael," is one of the best known saints in Ireland. Many of the charms and prayers collected by folklorists in nineteenth-century Scotland invoke the aid of Bride as she was called there. In Wales she is known as Ffraid where churches were named for her. A holy well at Glastonbury was dedicated to her. In neo-pagan circles the goddess Bríg is one of the most popular deity figures.
Numerous books and articles on Brigid in her various forms are available in print and on the Internet. Despite this apparent glut of information, we actually know very little about Bríg the goddess and Brigid. This essay summarizes the facts and directs you to reliable sources for more information. Well look at the meaning of Brigids name, the evidence about the saint, the cognate figures with names from the same root, and what is known about the goddess behind the saint.
Celtic Goddess Names
One of the basic facts of the Celtic pantheon is that literally hundreds of deity names have been recorded in various Celtic areas. This does not mean that the Celts as a whole honored hundreds of deities. Rather, each Celtic group had its own deities who fell into a dozen or so functional categories. For example, each tribe probably had a god who served as protector of the tribe, a goddess who granted sovereignty and oversaw the fertility of the land, a warrior champion who defeated the enemies and forces that threatened the tribe, deities who oversaw specific crafts, and so on. People and households probably also had their patron deities. If several tribes were joined together under a chieftain, there would have been deities who oversaw the welfare of the group of tribes, their ruler, and their combined territories.
Each deity would have had a name by which he or she was addressed by the tribe or tribal group. Continental and British evidence for deity names consists of inscriptions on statues, tablets, and other items; the mythology from Ireland and Wales also records names. It is generally assumed that we do not today know the names of all Celtic deities because many statues do not have inscriptions. Also, it appears that many of the "names" were actually titles or honorifics rather than proper names. Perhaps the "real" names were considered too sacred or too powerful to be used casually.
Allowing for language variations, a few names appear to occur in many geographic areas, suggesting that these deities were honored by many groups of Celts. Bríg appears to be one of these. Variations of her name are found throughout Europe.
Bríg: the Root of the Name
The syllable bríg has a variety of meanings. It is used in many Celtic placenames where it means "high" or "exalted." The root also incorporates a sense of power, force, or vigor, as well as flame. All these attributes have been associated with both goddesses and saints whose names incorporate bríg. It may be that the names incorporating this root are titles rather than proper names.
Cognate Goddess Names
Whether title or proper name, at least three goddesses were known by names incorporating bríg: Brigindo of Gaul, Brigantia of northern England, and Bríg of Ireland. The deity figure Bricta may also be related.
Modern neo-pagan writers often cite inscriptions as evidence that there was a pan-Celtic goddess behind the figures of Brigindo, Brigantia, and Bríg. This may have been true, but a few inscriptions do not constitute conclusive proof.
It is tempting to assume that goddesses that fill the same functional role in a society are cognates of Bríg, but this assumption is unwarranted. We simply do not know whether the Celts looked at their goddesses as interchangeable. The fact that so many different names are known suggests that they were seen as distinct figures.
The Evidence for Bríg
The evidence for Bríg, like that for most aspects of Celtic religion, falls into the following categories:
- Archaeological evidence: inscriptions of Celtic goddesses on statues and other artifacts give us the names for the goddesses Brigindo, Brigantia, and Bricta. The symbols and other elements used to depict each goddess tell us about what concerns she was thought to govern. The types of sites where the statues and inscriptions are found also tell us about how the goddesses were venerated by the various Celtic groups.
- River names: the names of rivers tell us that these goddesses were probably associated with rivers.
- Placenames: the names of towns and settlements may tell us where goddesses were worshipped. However, since the element bríg can simply denote a high or fortified place, it would be unwise to assume that each placename derives from a goddess.
- Myths, hagiography, and folktales: the stories of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany about St. Brigid tell us something about the original goddess figure behind the stories. However, all these stories have come to us through a Christian context and certainly have been reworked, to what extent we cannot be sure. However, it may be that some sites and practices originally associated with other goddesses and saints have been attributed to St. Brigid as her figure gained in importance over time.
- Folk practices: many of the folk practices, charms, and prayers collected by folklorists are associated with St. Brigid. Holy wells in particular have been associated with St. Brigid in folklore and devotional practice (MacNeill, 406; Ó Cátháin, pp. 25, 57). Analysis of the purposes and practices at these sites tells us something about the figure associated with it and how she has been venerated over time. However, as with the myths, it is likely that stories originally associated with other goddesses and saints have been attributed to St. Brigid as her figure gained in importance over time.
Brigantia: Goddess of Northern England
Brigantia was the ancestor-goddess of the Brigantes, a powerful group of tribes who in Roman times occupied what are the now the six northernmost counties of England. In both her iconography and descriptions by the Romans, Brigantia resembles the Roman Minerva. Her areas of concern consisted of protecting the tribe, ensuring prosperity and fertility in the home, and inspiring success in the learning arts, especially poetry. We see some of these concerns illustrated in the statue of Brigantia found at Birrens in England (see photo below). This statue combines Celtic motifs with those of the Roman goddess, Minerva, who performed a similar role in Roman worship. The spear, mural crown, and globe represent Brigantias protection of the tribe. The Brigantes were a powerful group of tribes and their queen, Cartimandua, successfully held off Roman domination for several years. So it is only proper that the ancestor goddess of the Brigantes appear as a figure of strength. In modern times, this figure was adapted to become Britannia, the symbol of the British Empire.
-Like many Celtic goddesses, Brigantia was associated with rivers and wells, as demonstrated in the inscription to her at Irthington: deae Nymphae Brigantiae. Rivers on the island of Britainfor example, the rivers Braint (Middlesex) and Brant (Anglesey)bear her name (Ross, pp. 452-456). Brigantia was also associated with healing.
The goddess Bríg of Ireland seems to have been involved with the same sorts of concerns although her figure is not known to have been associated with a single tribe. Because of the similarities of concerns and names, scholars have determined that it is safe to assume that Bríg and Brigantia are cognate, deriving from the same figure in the mists of Celtic origins but attached to different geographic locales and people. (Ross, p. 454)
Brigindo: Goddess of Gaul
Inscriptions to Brigindo appear in eastern Gaul (MacKillop, p. 52). From her iconography, scholars suggest that she was a goddess of healing, crafts, and fertility, similar to her cognates, Brigantia and Brig. The inscriptions tell us very little about what the Celts of Gaul thought of Brigindo or how they worshipped her.
Bricta, Consort of Luxovius
At Luxeuil in the Saône valley of eastern France, there are remains of an ancient Celtic healing center, combining hot springs and sanctuaries. Several deities appear to be referenced in the iconography at the site. At the Luxeuil site, Bricta is specifically identified as the consort of Luxovius, a god of healing and light which may be cognate with Lug. Iconography at Luxeuil depicts a sky-horseman bearing a solar wheel, a figure linked to Lug by many scholars, including Mac Neill (MacNeill, p. 276 ). Another goddess represented at Luxeuil is the goddess Sirona, known as a goddess of fertility and healing at sites ranging from Hungary to Brittany and associated with rivers and healing springs like the goddesses Brigantia and Bríg. If Bricta is a title incorporating Bríg, it may actually be a title assigned to Sirona rather than a separate goddess. So, there may be as many as four deities referenced at Luxeuil or as few as two. If Bricta was indeed a cognate of Bríg, she was probably a goddess of healing, protection, and fertility with both water and fire associations.
Bríg of Ireland
The evidence for Bríg as goddess in Ireland consists of a few references in mythological and placelore tracts, placenames, and the stories and folk practices associated with St. Brigid, who is assumed to be a Christianized version of the earlier goddess.
Cormacs Glossary said that Bríg was a goddess of poets and her sisters, also named Bríg, were goddesses of healing and smithcraft respectively. This appears to be a reference to Bríg as a triple goddess of the functions of the classes of farmers and craftspeople. Other sources refer to her as Bríg ambue, the goddess of warriors without status. This may refer to the f/ennidi who appear several times in St. Brigids hagiography (Nagy, 1985, p. 259). So Bríg was a goddess for all classes in society, but especially associated with the fertility of land and people. This is consistent with the attributes of Brigantia. The main difference is that Brigantia was pictured as a goddess who protected her people, whereas Brígs military association is limited to her ambue title.
Bríg is referred to in one source as the mother of the "three gods of Danu." The latter designation appears to equate her with Danu, but in other places, she is called the daughter of the Dagda. This seems to be more evidence that the monastic scribes who composed and recorded stories like the Lebor Gabala and Cath Maig Tuired really were unfamiliar with much of the mythology and tried to make figures fit into what they considered logical groupingsalthough they sometimes contradicted themselves.
Bríg is also depicted as the wife of Bres, the half-Fomorian ruler of the Tuatha Dé Danann. She cries out the first lament heard in Ireland when her son Ruadhán is killed while attempting to slay Goibhniu, the smith.
The remaining evidence about Bríg comes from the folklore and hagiography associated with St. Brigid, but it is so much a mixture of pagan and Christian that it is very difficult to tell which was originally a part of the cult of the goddess named Bríg, which was part of the cult of other goddesses, and which was added after the adoption of Christianity. Even when we can feel fairly certain that a practice predated Christianity, we cannot be sure that its current form corresponds exactly to the way it was performed then.
Nevertheless, the folklore and practices portray Bríg as the protector of domestic animals, the bringer of fertility and new growth to the land and people, healer, and the aid of women in conception and childbirth. (Ó hÓgain, p. 60-64)
Was St. Brigid a historical person? Modern scholars tend to think that she was not. Even if she was, the hagiography we have is not about a real person. The earliest ones were composed several hundred years after she reputedly lived and they combine stories that are almost surely Christianized versions of the myths once associated with the goddess Bríg or other goddesses. The attributes and concerns of St. Brigid are the same as those associated with the goddess and her church is put at Kildare, which probably was a pre-Christian sanctuary.
Also, there appear to be at least a dozen different St. Brigids associated with different places throughout Ireland, not to mention the dozens of holy wells dedicated to "St. Brigid." It may be that wells that were once associated with various goddesses were rededicated to St. Brigid. It may also be that the goddess was worshipped in various forms throughout the country.
Modern writers tend to assume that the prominence of St. Brigid in medieval Irish Christianity was directly inherited from a goddess who was equally prominent. Ó Riain has suggested instead that the prominence of St. Brigid may owe more to the active PR efforts of the monks of Kildare and the various Leinster tribes who adopted her as patron. He points out that although the mythology and folklore clearly suggest that Lugh was a very important deity figure, his Christianized versions languished in obscurity, the patrons of small monasteries. Bríghids Kildare, on the other hand, was an active and prosperous monastery that took a very prominent role in Irish politics before the time of the Normans and linked its fortunes to the leading families of Leinster.
The conclusion is that we cannot be sure how important a goddess Bríg was in pre-Christian Ireland. We cannot even be sure that all the references to Bríg or Brigid concern a single figure. What we can be sure about, however, is that in the folklore, St. Brigid became the principal focus of the feast of Imbolc. As such, she functioned as guardian of domestic animals, aid to women in conception and childbirth, healer of ills, protector of the home, and bringer of spring warmth and new growth.
James Mac Killop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, Oxford Univ Pr: 1998; ISBN: 0-1986-9157-2
Máire Mac Neill, Festival at Lughnasa, Oxford Univ. Press, 1962
Kim McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, An Sagart, 1990
J.F. Nagy, Wisdom of the Outlaw, Univ. Calif., 1985; ISBN: 0-5200-5284-6
Séamas Ó Catháin, The Festival of Brigit, DBA Publications, 1995; ISBN 0-9519-6922-6
Daithi Ó hÓgain, Myth, Legend, and Romance: An Encyclopaedia of Irish Folk Tradition, Prentice Hall Press, 1991; ISBN 0-1327-5959-4
Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, Academy Chicago Pub, 1997; ISBN: 0-8973-3435-3
This article in the Celtic Well E-Journal is © Copyright 1999 by Francine Nicholson. Sections may be freely quoted, provided the author is properly cited with the URL and the words"electronic version." You may link to this site, but please do not copy this web page and its dependent web pages without contacting one of the Celtic Well List moderators.