Saturday 18 February 2012

Is Saint Brigid Really a Celtic Goddess?

I recently enjoyed a very nice post for Saint Brigid's Day, on the New Liturgical Movement website. Yet I was saddened to see the first comment stating that the person thought the cult of Saint Brigid of Kildare had a pagan origin. Not that I am criticizing the individual who raised the issue, for the notion that Saint Brigid is really a Celtic goddess has become such an accepted and unquestioned 'fact' that when I first began my research a few years ago, I fully expected to find a body of irrefutable evidence for the link between the two. I was, therefore, genuinely surprised to find that when the sources and origins of this thesis are examined there is actually no firm evidence behind it, certainly none that would constitute the 'smoking gun' that puts it beyond dispute. Instead, the sources on which it is based do not inevitably lead to the conclusion that Brigid the saint inherited the name, festival and attributes of the pagan goddess. Moreover, the idea that saint and goddess are the same entity can be traced back, not to far bygone ages, but to Victorian scholars heavily influenced by the historical and cultural factors that shaped their own age. The concept has even been given iconographic expression in our own times in the illustration above, originally sourced here, from an article entitled Goddess or Saint, Multi-tasking Brigid is a True Inspiration. The image shows a prayer card of Saint Brigid, printed in Italy and widely available in Ireland, which shows her dressed as a nun, holding her abbatial staff, clasping the cross close to her heart and framed by a scene of her church and the floral emblems of white lilies and roses to symbolize her purity. Although it is not shown here, the reverse of this card contains a quotation from the closing paragraphs of the Homily on Saint Brigid from the Lebahar Breac, describing her as 'the prophetess of Christ and the Mary of the Gael'. The other image shows a modern pagan illustration of the 'triple goddess', a title which the author explains arises from her subject's patronage of 'three important skills: poetry, healing and smithcrafting'. So, let's begin with this 'triple goddess' and try to see whether the evidence does in fact confirm the link between the saint and the goddess suggested by the picture.

The main source for the triple goddess is the 9th-century text, Sanas Cormaic, Cormac's Glossary, attributed to the King-bishop of Cashel, Cormac ua Cuilennain, who died in 908. The 19th-century scholar Whitley Stokes published an edition of this text in 1862, which includes the gloss on Brigit:

Brigit, i.e. a female poet, daughter of the Dagda. This Brigit is a poetess, or a woman of poetry, i.e. Brigit a goddess whom poets worshipped, for very great and very noble was her superintendence. Therefore they call her goddess of poets by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit, woman of healing, Brigit, woman of smith-work, i.e. goddesses, from whose names with all Irishmen Brigit was called a goddess. Brigit then, i.e. breo-saigit, a íiery arrow. [1]

On the face of it, this goddess does not seem to have any obvious link to the Christian foundress of Kildare. Indeed, there is a separate entry for Sanct Brigit in the Glossary which reads Sanct Brigit .i. naem Brigit indsin, 'Sanct Brigit i.e. St. Brigit this'. Might not this suggest that rather than identifying the goddess with the saint, Cormac instead distinguishes between them?

Cormac's Glossary is also often quoted in connection with the pagan festival of Imbolc. The author of the article on the multi-tasking goddess saint confidently asserts that 'Brigid played an important role in the Celtic festival of Imbolc..' Yet in reality, evidence to back up this statement is lacking. As my  post Saint Brigid and Imbolc, looking at the analysis by Christina Harrington, pointed out:

The saint’s feast day fell in Imbolc, the official start of spring in the native Irish calendar. Cormac’s Glossary has an entry on imbolc, defining it as ‘the time the sheep’s milk comes’, but does not identify the festival with Brigit. Care of sheep was a specifically women’s activity in early Ireland, and there are stories of Saint Brigit shepherding and making dairy products, but it must be remembered that the girl, as the daughter of a slavewoman, is portrayed doing what non-noble girls would do normally. Nowhere, in fact, is Imbolc said to be the festival of the goddess Brigit, and beyond that, the goddess’s attributes do not include sheep care. It is only the connection to women that is marked. [2] [Emphasis mine]

A similar note of caution is sounded by Professor Ronald Hutton in his examination of the ritual year. He cites as a source a secular tale, Tochmarc Emire, the wooing of Emer, which although dealing with the pre-Christian hero Cú Chulainn, was composed in the 10th or 11th century. At one point in the tale Emer has occasion to name the main seasons of the calendar and one is named as 'Imbolc, when the ewes are milked at spring's beginning'. Hutton goes on to add:

The festival must be pre-Christian in origin, but there is absolutely no direct testimony as to its early nature, or concerning any rites which might have been employed then. There is, in fact, no sign that any of the medieval Irish writers who referred to it preserved a memory of them, and some evidence that they no longer understood the meaning of the name itself.[3] 

Once again the claims that the goddess Brigid was central to the festival of Imbolc, or that the customs once associated with Saint Brigid's Day in Ireland are direct pagan survivals, cannot readily be substantiated from the sources.

Another common claim, which supposedly proves our saint's true pagan origin, centres around the burning of a perpetual fire at Kildare, tended by 19 virgins and with a protecting hedge around it which prevents men from entering. The source of this information is the 12th-century Norman chronicler, Gerald of Wales. Gerald claimed that this fire had been going since the days of Saint Brigid herself. Now other sources do testify to the existence of a fire in the later medieval period, which was extinguished first on the orders of the Archbishop of Dublin in 1220 and finally as part of the Reformation suppression of the monasteries. I would accept, therefore, that it is entirely plausible that Gerald saw a fire at Kildare in the 12th century. We have only his word, however, that it went back to the time of Saint Brigid and his claim, written six centuries later, is not confirmed independently by any of her Lives or by any other other source. If fire was such an important part of the cult the saint supposedly inherited from the goddess, why should this be? Professor Hutton, who otherwise agrees with the basic premise that Saint Brigid became conflated with a pagan goddess of the same name, is nevertheless as a professional historian rightly cautious about going beyond what the sources support. Noting that the goddess, contrary to the claims neo-pagans make, 'was not especially associated with fire' and noting the absence of any mention of the fire from the 7th-century Life by Cogitosus, suggests that 'it is possible, therefore, that it grew up between the 7th and the 12th centuries as a derivation from the meaning of the saint's name'. [4] Here it is important to remember that fires are recorded in the medieval hagiography of other Irish saints, some of whose names also have a link to fire, as for example Saint Molaise. It is thus possible that for some reason, as yet unresearched, there was something going on in the 12th century which brought the burning of fires at the shrines of Irish saints into focus in the sources. If that is so, it might provide a different context for the fire at Kildare, one free of the pagan overtones inevitably associated with vestal virgins and men entering the sanctuary at their peril, despite the fact that Kildare was once a double monastery for both men and women.

Where the sources are frustratingly silent, imagination has, and still continues, to fill in the gaps. One of the most extraordinary examples is to be found in the writings of R.A.S. Macalister (1870-1950), a pioneering Irish archaeologist. In a 1919 paper on the remains of the pre-Christian site, the Hill of Tara, he mentions that some of our native saints, whilst he does not deny their historicity, nevertheless have had their names 'confused with other names which by reason of a much longer history, stretching far back into the unknown abysses of pagan ages, had made a deeper impression on popular memory'. Having started off his discussion with two male examples (Saints Ibar and Senan), he moves on to the example par excellence:

A case even more remarkable than the two above cited is that of the foundress of the nunnery of Kildare. There was doubtless here, in pagan times, a college of priestesses who tended a perpetual fire, and who (presumably with orgiastic rites resembling those of the Gaulish priestesses of Sena) honoured the fire-goddess Brigid, this divinity being immanent in the sacred sun-oak which gave to the place the name that it still bears. Probably the head of the college was regarded as an incarnation of the goddess, and so bore her name, as the kings of Temair bore the name of Eochu. But one of the succession came under Christian influence, and, embracing the Faith of the Cross, she accomplished the tremendous feat of converting the pagan sanctuary into a Christian religious house a work in its way far more wonderful than the miracles with which her biographers credit her. It is no detraction from the honour due to her for this achievement, that she could not quite rid the establishment over which she presided of all its pagan vestiges; "the bright lamp that lay in Kildare's holy fane" still "burnt through long ages," not, as Moore foolishly says, of "darkness and storm," but of Christian Faith and Works. And though it is most probable that she herself changed the official name "Brigid" which hitherto she had borne (for no Christian lady would willingly continue to bear a name so heathenish while paganism was still a force), it was too deeply rooted in the folk-memory, and continued to be used locally to designate her. [5]

With his use of the terms 'priestesses', 'orgiastic rites', 'sun-oaks' and 'fire-goddesses', we can see the clear influence of the Victorian scholarly conviction that early Irish Christianity preserved 'primitive survivals'. What is striking, however, is that Macalister produces not one shred of hard evidence to back up his view of Kildare as a place where paganism lived on beneath a thin veneer of Christianity. He says that there was 'doubtless' a college of priestesses who 'presumably' had Gaulish-style orgiastic rites and whose head was 'probably' considered the incarnation of the fire-goddess. These are some pretty big assumptions.

In a fascinating examination of the changing fortunes of Saint Brigid in the 19th century, modern scholar Catherine McKenna has traced the origins of the type of thinking that lies behind Macalister's views. She identifies the continental Celticist, Henri d'Arbois de Jubainville (1827-1910), as instrumental in placing the figure of Brigit in a mythological rather than a hagiographical or historical setting. His 1884 work, Le cycle mythologique irlandais et la mythologie celtique, marks the first time that Dr McKenna has seen an explicit identification of the triple goddess with the saint of Kildare made in print. Page 145 of this text makes what is now a familiar claim:

... Brigit, goddess of the pagan Irish, was supplanted in the Christian era by Saint Brigit, and the Irish of the Middle Ages transferred in some way to this national saint the cult that their pagan ancestors had addressed to the goddess Brigit. [6]

I can't help noting the use of the vague term 'in some way' (en quelques sorte) to describe the transference of the pagan cult to the Christian saint by the medieval Irish. It seems to me that right from the start this 'dual Brigit' thesis has been set forward with a great deal of imprecision. Sadly, this has not prevented it from being embraced wholeheartedly ever since, but things may at last be changing. Dr McKenna makes this valuable suggestion to other scholars:

A recognition of the historical conditions that give rise to our current assumptions about the origins and development of the cult and hagiography of St Brigit, of course, tells us nothing about their actual origin and development. It does, however, suggest that we might profitably re-examine the concepts that have become axiomatic, and question the usefulness of repeating the commonplace that Saint Brigit is a euhermerized divinity. [7]

I believe that this is sound advice for Christians too. Let's stop unthinkingly throwing in references to the goddess when speaking of our national patroness. Instead, let's firmly separate her from the unsubstantiated claims of neo-pagans and stand up for our Saint Brigid, the Prophetess of Christ and Mary of the Gael.


[1]Whitley Stokes (ed.), Three Irish Glossaries (London and Edinburgh, 1862). Translation from the preface, xxiii-xxiv.

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

[3] Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun - A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford University Press, 1996), 134.

[4] Ibid, 135.

[5] R.A.S. Macalister, 'Temair Breg: A Study of the Remains and Traditions of Tara', Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 34C (1919), 340-341.

[6]Translation from Catherine McKenna, 'Apotheosis and Evanescence: The Fortunes of Saint Brigit in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries' in J. F. Nagy ed., The Individual in Celtic Literatures, CSANA Yearbook 1 (Dublin, 2001), 79.

[7] Ibid, 97.

Content Copyright © Trias Thaumaturga 2012-2015. All rights reserved.


  1. Why should you be suprised,christians stole all our festivals, made gods and goddesses into saints and murdered those who wouldn't convert.

  2. Nothing about the ahistorical, adolescent, victim mentality of neo pagans surprises me, actually. The coming of Christianity to Ireland is not associated with the mass murder of anyone. Indeed it was precisely because it was such a bloodless affair that so many Irish saints took off for the Continent to achieve the martyrdom they felt was missing from the domestic experience.

  3. I also have an article about this: