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Pre-Christian Celts and the Legend of Saint Brigid

August 21, 2009
St Brigid’s Cros

by Kat Behling

The Irish are not only blessed with their unsurpassed gift of gab, but are highly regarded as the epitome of storytellers, spinning colorful tales and adventures from traditional legends dating back to 3rd Century BC when the first Celts arrived and settled on the shores of Ireland.

These pre-Christian Celts devised magical tales that romanticized and honored their mighty legion of gods’ and deities’ superhuman powers. Entwined with common underlying themes such as heroism, spiritual journeys or supernatural love, the gods confronted faeries, spirits and monstrous beasts who not only represented the creative forces of nature – both good and evil – but also reflected early religious and cultural beliefs. Later, with the arrival of Christianity, stories juxtaposed both pagan legends and Christian saints within the same tale. The legend of St. Patrick, one of Ireland’s three patron saints, is said to have used his sacred wooden staff to banish evil serpents from the island; along with Brigid, the ancient earth goddess of fire and wisdom and the patron saint of farming and agriculture; and the story of Colm Cille, the founder of Christian monasteries are probably the most notable and celebrated of the Irish saints. Holy wells dedicated to each individual saint are still frequented on their respective feast days in many rural areas of Ireland where people come from miles around to pray for relief of physical ailments or spiritual distress.

Many Irish historians speculate that the faerie kings and queens who make frequent appearances in these century’s old tales are in fact the ancient pagan gods and goddesses themselves “in disguise.” After being buried under the guise of Catholicism and eventually replaced by Christian saints on the Irish calendar, their spirits live on through these mythical tales. Having been passed down from one generation to the next, continuing to evolve and surviving solely by word of mouth, it was not until the Middle Ages when they were finally collected and preserved for future generations by Christian monks and scribes did they begin to resemble the enchanting folktales familiar to young and old readers of Irish folklore today.


St Brigid
St Brigid shown with a St Brigid’s Cross which is made of straw and a perpetual fire, representing wisdom, poetry, healing, therapy, metallurgy and the hearth.

The Legend of Brigid

Wearing white robes and sweeping the country on her ramshackle chariot, She swept across Ireland urging peace, freedom and good spirits. Her generosity was legendary, her political power unparalleled. This is Brigid  of Kildare, the goddess, the slave who became a saint – who was known as much for her homebrew as she was for her generosity. So powerful was she, that the Celtic festival of Imbolc on February 1st marked not only the first day of spring on the Celtic calendar, but her feast day as well.

Legend has it she was born among flames of fire and angels near Dundalk around 453, daughter to a slave who had become pregnant by her master. The master’s wife was so enraged that both mother and daughter were banished to work for another master miles away where Brigid  became known as a great dairywoman, whose extraordinary spirit won her and her mother eventual freedom. Like many themes surrounding her folklore, she is said to have a magical cloak and a love for poetry and song.

She founded a community of women in Kildare and one of the first monasteries which became centers for craft and illuminated manuscripts, as well as her famed ale which is said to have kept the entire peoples of Kildare refreshed for the 10 days from Holy Thursday to Low Sunday. By the time of her death, she was leader of almost 13,000 sisters all over the country and a spiritual role model for men. Some believed her name alone was powerful enough to repel the huge sea monsters which threatened their journeys.

Brigid was known for her hospitality and abundance. Unlike most saints, she was extremely healthy. If she leaned on a wooden altar, the dead wood would begin to sprout. Butter churned from her hands, dry cows gave milk. No one went hungry.

Traces of Brigid persist in place names throughout Ireland. Her woven cross of reeds known as St. Brigid’s Cross, stands as an age-old symbol of sunshine and bounty. Families hang them in doorways as a sign of protection. But her status as an ancient feminist icon as well as a symbol of female spirituality remains her legacy – even in modern times when female spirituality are mostly ignored by Christian churches.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Gina Paterson-Bryant permalink
    August 21, 2009 11:41 PM

    I had to go to Brigid’s well last time, left my trinket too.
    Chills it gives you when you kneel at the end of that hall and look up, and simply listen to the sounds of the water and breath in.
    Thanks for the excellent article! :)

  2. August 23, 2009 7:57 AM

    If you’re interested in a fictional account of her early life, please check out my book Brigid of Ireland. You can find it on Amazon or http://www.brigidofirleand.com. Hope you don’t mind the plug! :)

  3. Kim permalink
    September 3, 2009 6:54 PM

    Hi Corey and Liam

    This just reminds me of our visit in February and our stories shared about our relatives in Ireland. My cousin Mary from the farm was so gracious on our second visit. She brought me so many little presents. One was a St. Brigids Cross. It wasn’t new and looked like it had hung in her house in the original package for many years. I think I love even more because of that!! the package was filled with prayer cards and notes about the symbolism I feel like i have my own Irish Shrine now!!

    Mary also gave me the 150th anniversary book of the school that her husband and all the rest of my ancestors went to before coming here. It was such a treat. She is so happy to have me as a pen pal and I love her letters too. It was such a treat to get the St. Bridgids cross which now hangs right next to my china cupboard. If only she would send me Jesus with the broken arm tied to the cross!!

    THanks for bringing back the memories. I now have her brother in-law on facebook another treat!! His sons I am sure signed him up!! but before we met he barely could use the internet!! It is great to keep in touch with them.

    Thats all for now, Thanks for the podcast and blog!!

    Kim

  4. Sister permalink
    October 23, 2009 4:43 AM

    This account wrongly links Saint Brigid with pagan celtic ideas. Brigid was Christian and it is Jesus who inspired and created her goodness and love of others. The Order shs created was of Christian Nuns. And her Cross also was totally Christian. The story behind it is that she was nursing a dying pagan and told him of Jesus, Saviour and Redeeemer of the world, and to do that she wove a simple Cross from the straw on the floor. The Saint Brigid Cross in a house protects with the power of Jesus and each year new ones are blessed at Mass.

    • Rick permalink
      March 11, 2012 6:01 PM

      Sister, there are quite a few thoughts regarding Brigid. One, as pointed out, that she was a Pagan Goddess. Demoting Her to Sainthood made the spreading of Christianity easier. The other, that she was a Heathen who converted and was saintly. Here, they say she was the daughter of a slave, which sort of makes her like a female St. Patrick. I’ve also heard that she was the daughter of a Druid Priest. So, maybe she was a person whom became fused with the Pagan Diety over the centuries. We will never really know as these stories were oracular and already centuries old by the time they were written down. Either way, what’s the harm? In the scheme of time, Christianity is the new kid on the block in Irish history. Do you really have such disdain for the indigenous spirituality of our anscestors? Must you paint their beliefs as black simply because they had never heard of Jesus, or the imported Middle-Eastern religion we now call Christianity? Have a little faith in your own culture.

      have such disdain for the indigenous spirituality of our ancestors? Must you paint their previous religious veiws black simply because they had never heard of

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