Sunday 19 February 2012

Saint Brigid and Imbolc

Having touched on the aspects of Saint Brigid as the harbinger of spring in Ireland, it is perhaps now time to examine the notion that Saint Brigid is no more than a thinly-disguised pagan goddess, whose feast is an unconvincing Christianization of the Celtic festival of Imbolc. This line is trotted out as unquestioned fact on neo-pagan websites and has even been accepted by popular writers on modern 'Celtic Christianity'. However, as scholar Christina Harrington points out, the evidence for this belief is neither strong nor conclusive. She sees the patronage of women as being the only real connection between the goddess and the saint:
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.
[Emphasis mine]

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

Harrington's book is an excellent read, and I will go on to look at other elements of the goddess versus saint debate which she reviews - the perpetual fire at Kildare and the oak tree. The evidence for those too rests on equally uncertain foundations.

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