For many practicing Neo-Pagans, today is Imbolc, the half way point between Winter and Spring. For many Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican Communion Christians, today is St. Brigid’s Day.
Brigid, it turns out, is also the central Celtic goddess of Imbolc.
So who was the goddess Brigid, and who was St. Brigid?
Brigid the goddess:
First and foremost, Brigid is a goddess for poets; when her son Ruadán died in battle, she wept as she sang, inventing a style of recital known as keening. This is the sound of heartbreak; at the same time, she invented the night whistle, so that travelers would not get lost in their nocturnal sojourns.
Her father was The Dagda, an Odin like god figure, who controlled both life and death, sun and earth. She was born a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, which can be understood as a clan of divine beings, who were locked in battle (sometimes on the war plains, sometimes on the bed sheets) with their equally powerful brethren, the Fomorians. Imagine political intrigue on semi-cosmic scale; this is what Brigid inherited.
So what did she do? She took care of the animals. She taught the healing arts. She even taught the metallurgical sciences. She became a poet, a healer, and a smith.
Today is her day, and she deserves it.
Brigid the Saint:
We’re going to avoid historicity in the next section. This is mythos, not logos, story, not truth. And here’s how the story goes:
St. Brigid was born in the mid 400’s, and lived to a good age of 72. At a young age, she went to Kildare (lit. Church of the Oak), Ireland, and found a pre-Christian shrine to a Pagan goddess.
A goddess named Brigid.
Apparently, it was still active. One of the rituals that had survived was a flame that was constantly tended.
An eternal flame for the Pagan goddess Brigid.
St. Brigid did many things, some miraculous, some practical. On the practical front, she founded many churches and schools, one of which focused on art, including metal work and illumination.
Out of this period comes a lost work, an illuminated manuscript called the Book of Kildare. This may (or may not be) related to the Book of Kells. If so, the following is representative of the artwork:
We don’t know for sure if there was a real St. Brigid, or if she was just one of many known examples of syncretization that appear throughout the Catholic cannon. If she did exist, she was apparently friends with another famous Irish saint, St. Patrick. She also apparently openly shared her bed with her female acolyte, Dar Lugdach, who succeeded her as the Abbess of Kildare.
So, let’s look at one of the mythic miracles that surrounds St. Brigid:
Brigid found the perfect place for a monastery. It was near a forest, which meant easy access to firewood and berries. Water was also nearby in the form of a lake. the only thing Brigid didn’t have was the permission of the king.
Brigid presented herself before the king, and asked for the land, who laughed her off. Brigid prayed, and in her prayer, was given an answer. The next day, she went to the king, and asked a simple donation: “will you give me as much land as my cloak will cover?”
Seeing the simple and ridiculous nature of her request, he agreed.
Four of her attendants were present; each one grabbed part of her garments, and ran towards the four directions. Like Draupadi in the Mahabharata, her cloak was infinite – in no time, the king had given up his entire kingdom.
“Oh, Brigid!” begged the terrified king, “what do you want?”
“My cloak is as large as your ignorance of the poor.”
“Call your sisters back, and take what you want.” replied the defeated king.
Brigid reigned in her nuns, and winked at the king.
From then on, whenever she needed something from the king, she brought her cloak, and a smile.
So whether you are celebrating the magic of Brigid bringing the Spring, or St. Brigid’s cloak and the king, or something else entirely, have yourself a happy Imbolc!