Monday 20 February 2012

Brigid the Fire Goddess?

It is commonplace on neo-pagan websites to present the Christian saint Brigid as a watered-down version of an Irish goddess whose cult has fire as an essential element. This is expressed in her alleged patronage of smithing and other arts involving fire. But as Christina Harrington points out, actual evidence for these assertions is thin on the ground:
As was mentioned in the previous chapter, we know very little about the pagan goddess of the name Bríg or Brigit in Ireland, owing to a lack of evidence, written and archaeological. Because no one has ever dug underneath Kildare to see if there is a pre-Christian temple site, even the presumed cult centre, if there was one, is not known to exist. The earliest evidence for the goddess is in the Irish vernacular law tracts, written down c.700, which contain a few little legal stories in which Bríg is the daughter, wife, or mother of the legendary judge Sencha of the distant Irish past. According to these she sat by Sencha’s side as he made pronouncements on law, and on occasion intervened to correct or contradict him. Nowhere in this material is she equated with the saint of the almost-identical name. Then in the tenth century the compilers of Sanas Cormaic (Cormac’s Glossary) included an entry on Brigit calling her the goddess worshipped by poets, adding that she had two sisters of the same name who were patronesses of smithcraft and healing respectively, and that her name was derived from bri-sagit, ‘fiery arrow’. It is uncertain whether they equated the deity Brigit with the saint Brigit, but it is impossible that the saint was unknown to them; for some reason they chose not to make explicit their understanding of the relationship between the two. It is with Sanas Cormaic that we find the first explicit link made between this goddess and the element of fire, in the word bri. McCone has convincingly shown that the three arts it claims Brigit supervised — healing, smithcraft, and poetry — were in early Ireland all associated with fire. The authors of the saints’ Lives of Brigit seem to have been aware of the same-named goddess, though they never say so explicitly: all of her Lives give Brigit a druid father figure, so she is made into a member of the druid class, the same class as poets and judges. The hagiographers do not carry through the parallels, though, for the saint is not portrayed as a judge, nor a law-maker, nor a poet; she has no noticeable interest in smithcraft, and her healing miracles are not very physician-like. The only significant overlap is the motif of fire and light, but the references can all be attributed to common motifs and have equivalents in male Irish Lives. Another association between Saint Brigit and fire would in the twelfth century be reiterated by Gerald of Wales, but that too was not specific to her.

McCone has pointed out that another saint, the virgin Lassair, also has a fire name, from lassar, flame. In his view Brigit, like Lassair, was a goddess who became a saint in Christian times; both succeeded in the new religions because their attributes could be harmonized with those of the Christian God, for the Bible is filled with light and fire imagery. The fire element in the name, then, betokens a goddess origin, for him, in spite of the insignificance of fire and its attendant crafts in the early texts from Brigit’s cult.

Christina Harrington, Women in a Celtic Church- Ireland 450-1150 (Oxford University Press, 2002), 63-4.

[Emphasis mine]

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