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BRIGID. SAINT OR GODDESS?


For us the answer is both and in order to understand Celtic spirituality, we must understand Brigid as both goddess and saint.


But let's start with Imbolc.

Imbolc is a festival in pre-Christian Gaelic Ireland celebrated on 1 February marking the transition from one season to the next, in this case the beginning of spring (the fertile season). It's strongly associated with the Irish goddess Brigid or Brigit and also the lactation of ewes*.

Subsequently this pagan festival was taken over by the Christian church, as feast day of St. Brigid.

Like most days in the Christian calendar, St. Brigid's day also has its roots based on an ancient tradition, festival or ritual. Imbolc's name comes from the Old Irish i mbolc, meaning 'in the belly' (or today ‘the feast day’). Another possible origin is the Old Irish imb-fholc, 'to wash/cleanse oneself', referring to a ritual cleansing (holy wells visits). It was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (November 1st), Imbolc (February 1st), Beltane (May 1st) and Lughnasadh (August 1st). 

The Imbolc's day is thought to have been significant in Ireland since the Neolithic period**. Some passage tombs in Ireland are aligned with the sunrise around the times of Imbolc and Samhain. This includes the Mound of the Hostages on the Hill of Tara, and Cairn L at Slieve na Calliagh.
The Gaelic Calendar

Brigid or Brigit (pre-Christian Gaelic Ireland)
Irish Goddess of healing, fertility, wisdom, poetry and fire. Her name means "exalted one". She is the keeper of the sacred flame, the guardian of home and hearth. To honor her, purification and cleaning are a wonderful way to get ready for the coming of Spring. In addition to fire, she is a goddess connected to inspiration and creativity. Daughter of the Daghda, a powerful king of the Tuatha Dé Danann (the folk of the goddess Danu) and also known by the earlier name Tuath Dé ("tribe of the gods"), a supernatural race that inhabited the island before the arrival of the Milesians (the ancestors of the modern Irish).

They were said to have been skilled in magic, and the earliest reference to them relates that, after they were banished from heaven because of their knowledge, they descended on Ireland in a cloud of mist (coincidentally this morning was a misty one in Dublin). They were thought to have disappeared into the hills when overcome by the Milesians (name for the people who drove the race of gods below ground, in Irish mythical history).

John Duncan's "Riders of the Sidhe" (1911)

John Duncan's "Riders of the Sidhe" (1911)

Saint Brigid of Kildare (Christian Ireland)
A Saint, Patron of Ireland. Born in Dundalk in 450 AD, she was a nun borned who founded the first monastery in County Kildare, Ireland. Christians believe that God performed miracles through Brigid during her lifetime, most of which had to do with healing.

In Ireland, Brigid's crosses were made at Imbolc (February 1st). A Brigid's cross usually consists of reed woven into a four-armed equilateral cross. They were often hung over doors, windows and stables to welcome Brigid and for protection against illness and evil spirits. The crosses were usually left there until the next Imbolc. In western Connacht, people would make a Crios Bríde (Bríd's girdle); a great ring of rushes with a cross woven in the middle. Young boys would carry it around the village, inviting people to step through it and so be blessed.


Two Women, One state of mind.
The author Dolores Whelan explains in the RTE documentary on Faughart Ireland “Most of what we know about Brigit as the Christian saint who was supposedly born in Faughart and set up her monastery in Kildare…actually comes from her pre-Christian incarnation as the goddess Brigid, and in order to understand Celtic spirituality, you must understand Brigid as both goddess and saint.”.

The historical and spiritual significance of Brigid of Kildare to the people of Ireland is undeniable. Brigid, whether goddess, patron saint or both, compels us to ritualize life returning to Earth through flame, light and water/purification during the festival of Imbolc.


History
In Gaelic Ireland, Imbolc was the festival marking the beginning of spring. It is attested in some of the earliest Old Irish literature, from the 10th century onward. It was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (November 1st), Imbolc (February 1st), Beltane (May 1st) and Lughnasadh (August 1st).

From the 18th century to the mid 20th century, many accounts of Imbolc or St.Brigid's Day were recorded by folklorists and writers. Imbolc has traditionally been celebrated on 1 February. However, because the day was deemed to begin and end at sunset, the celebrations would start on what is now 31 January. It has also been argued that the timing of the festival was originally more fluid and based on seasonal changes. It has been associated with the onset of the lambing season (which could vary by as much as two weeks before or after 1 February), the beginning of the spring sowing, and the blooming of blackthorn.

The holiday was a festival of the hearth and home, and a celebration of the longer days and the first signs of spring. Celebrations often involved hearthfires, special food recipes, divination or watching for omens, candles or a bonfire if the weather permitted. Fire and purification were an important part of the festival. The lighting of candles and fires represented the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months. A spring cleaning was also customary.

Holy wells were visited at Imbolc and the visitors to holy wells would pray for health while walking 'sunwise' around the well. They would then leave offerings, typically coins or clooties. Water from the well was used to bless the home, family members, livestock and fields.

The etymology of Imbolc/Imbolg is unclear. The most common explanation is that it comes from the Old Irish i mbolc (Modern Irish: i mbolg), meaning 'in the belly' (the feast day), and again refers to the pregnancy of ewes*. Another possible origin is the Old Irish imb-fholc, 'to wash/cleanse oneself', referring to a ritual cleansing.

Since Imbolc is immediately followed (on 2 February) by Candlemas (Irish: Lá Fhéile Muire na gCoinneal, 'feast day of Mary of the Candles'.

We hope you enjoyed the reading and if you would like to add anything, please feel free to comment it or contact us anytime. We would love to hear it from you!

Our deepest gratitude,
Fenix, a state of mind.

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* Chadwick, Nora K. (1970). The Celts. Harmondsworth: Penguin. p. 181. ISBN 0-14-021211-6.

**
Imbolc". Newgrange UNESCO World Heritage website. Retrieved 1 June 2011.