Brigid (/ˈbrɪdʒɪd, ˈbriːɪd/ BRIJ-id, BREE-id, Irish: [ˈbʲɾʲɪjɪdʲ, ˈbʲɾʲiːdʲ]; meaning 'exalted one' from Old Irish), Brigit or Bríg is a goddess of pre-Christian Ireland. She appears in Irish mythology as a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the daughter of the Dagda and wife of Bres, with whom she had a son named Ruadán.
She is associated with wisdom, poetry, healing, protection, blacksmithing and domesticated animals. Cormac's Glossary, written in the 9th century by Christian monks, says that Brigid was "the goddess whom poets adored" and that she had two sisters: Brigid the healer and Brigid the smith. This suggests she may have been a triple deity. She is also thought to have some relation to the British Celtic goddess Brigantia.
Saint Brigid shares many of the goddess's attributes and her feast day, 1 February, was originally a pagan festival (Imbolc) marking the beginning of spring. It has thus been argued that the saint is a Christianization of the goddess; a form of syncretism.
In the Middle Ages, some argue that the goddess Brigid was syncretized with the Christian saint of the same name. According to medievalist Pamela Berger, Christian "monks took the ancient figure of the mother goddess and grafted her name and functions onto her Christian counterpart," St. Brigid of Kildare.
St. Brigid is associated with perpetual, sacred flames, such as the one maintained by 19 nuns at her sanctuary in Kildare, Ireland. The sacred flame at Kildare was said by Giraldus Cambrensis and other chroniclers to have been surrounded by a hedge, which no man could cross. Men who attempted to cross the hedge were said to have been cursed to go insane, die or be crippled.
The tradition of female priestesses tending sacred, naturally occurring eternal flames is a feature of ancient Indo-European pre-Christian spirituality. Other examples include the Roman goddess Vesta, and other hearth-goddesses, such as Hestia.
Both the goddess and saint are associated with holy wells, at Kildare and many other sites in the Celtic lands. Well dressing, the tying of rags, (called clooties in Scotland), to the trees next to healing wells, and other methods of petitioning or honoring Brigid still take place in some of the British Isles and the diaspora.
Brigid is considered the patroness of poetry, smithing, medicine, arts and crafts, cattle and other livestock, sacred wells, serpents (in Scotland) and the arrival of early spring. In the Christian era, nineteen nuns at Kildare tended a perpetual flame for the Saint, which is widely believed to be a continuation of a pre-Christian practice of women tending a flame in her honour. Her festival day, Imbolc is traditionally a time for weather prognostication:
Brigid’s name means “Exalted One” and “She Who Rises.” In Scotland she is known as Brighide (Bride). In Wales, she is known as Ffraid, Baint and Breint, and there are several place names in her honor.
More modern spellings of her name include Brigit, Brid and Brig. In Irish literature she is one of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and daughter of the Dagda, wife of Bres and mother of Ruadan. She is the goddess of dawn, blacksmithing (synonymous in the ancient Celtic world with what we might think of as “technology” today), wisdom, and domesticated animals.
Brigid was appealed to for protection for both humans and animals. She is a goddess of healing and medicine – for both people and animals.
She is described as having two sisters as part of a trinity. Brigid is often referred to as Goddess of Fire, and is also importantly a water goddess, associated with various wells and rivers. As a goddess of poetry, it must be noted that Celtic poetry involved the oral transmission of all important cultural knowledge, and the memorization of vast bodies of lore.
Perhaps most well known for being an Irish goddess, she was also found throughout Britain – known to the Brythonic Celts as Brigantia. The Brigantes tribe of northern England claimed her as their spiritual ancestor. Numerous archeological finds have been found attested to her, and the River Brent was named for her. As with Irish Brigid, Brigantia presided over rivers and wells and the Romans called her “Nymph Goddess.”
Various wells are attributed to her throughout Ireland and Scotland. Both the goddess (and later Saint Brigid, see below) are venerated at sacred wells through the tying of cooties on trees next to the wells.
Both goddess and saint are associated with Imbolg, an ancient fertility festival around February 1, which marks the shift from Winter towards Spring. In this she is strongly associated with Cailleach (who in some stories is Brigid’s crone aspect). Imbolg was a time for divination of the weather, along with traditions across Europe, which informed the modern-day folk traditions of Groundhog Day.
In Irish myth, Brigid has a menagerie of animal companions, including guardian beasts who cry out at any sign of danger. Two named oxen called Fea and Femen, give their monikers to two plains in Ireland, and Cirb the boar, also named Torc Triath “the King of the Boars,” has his own plain as well.
The figure Saint Brigid inherited many of the goddess’ attributes, and was said to charm wild wolves into domestication. Likewise, she could charm wild boars to domestic pigs, and summon wild ducks. As a saint she is strongly associated with pregnancy and motherhood.
According to the Cath Maige Tuired, at the death of her son Ruadan, Brigid began the folk custom of wail-singing called keening, which lived on as an important lamentation practice among the Irish and Scottish. Professional keeners were women who earned a wage by performing this duty, and in addition to conducting cathartic wailing, would recite the deceased person’s lineage, history and family.
Brigid’s husband in the Irish lore is Bres, a Fomorian who serves as king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The Fomorians can be compared to other earlier families of gods, such as the Jötnar, and their story is similar to their conflicts with the Vanir and Æsir in Norse-Germanic myth. The wedding of Brigid and Bres is an act of diplomacy between the two tribes.
Brigid is one of the most beloved of Celtic figures among many traditions: Celtic pagan, Wiccan, the women’s spirituality movement, and even Catholic and Anglican (Protestant) Christianity (as a saint).
Brigid was so beloved and culturally significant that the Christians who arrived in Ireland kept and adopted her during the conversion period. The goddess was syncretized by Celtic Christians with the figure of Saint Brigid of Kildare. Scholars have learned a lot about the goddess Brigid through deconstructing the saint. While there indeed appear to be several candidates for a real-life personage dubbed Saint Brigid of Kildare, the aspects of the goddess are obvious when you look at them. Saint Brigid is associated with the tending of a perpetual, sacred flame. Nuns today tend such a flame in the sanctuary of the saint.
Among the saint’s attributes was the ability to manifest never-ending quantities of food, in particular cheese, milk, butter, porridge, and pork. She could also turn rock into nutritious salt, and turn water into beer. She was able to ask trees to get up and move!
Scholars think that there were several nuns who modeled their lives after the goddess, and took her name, in a like manner that nuns practice the taking of names of Mary and other spiritual role-models. Celtic Christianity, as begun in Ireland was a relatively harmonic fusion of the faiths. So much so that the monks who painstakingly preserved the old faith in their records appear to have done their best to preserve much of the pagan past and merge it with their own mythology.
Hence, the Irish cosmogony in the Lebor Gabála is a hodgepodge, grafted onto Hebrew myth. This blending, now called Celtic Christianity horrified Roman Catholicism, who in the 1100s came to Ireland to clean things up, a process which among other things saw the demotion of Christian priestesses called Abbesses.
Brigid is one of mythology’s great diplomats. Her wedding to Bres the Fomorian prince is an act of statecraft between two warring tribes of gods. She brings together wild and domestic animals. Her soothing, summoning, and putting to domestic task various wild animals places her a part of world folkloric motif of Fairy Tale maidens pacifying beasts.
The Romans syncretized her with Minerva, goddess of wisdom and technology. This fused deity is often referred to by scholars as Gaulish Minerva. Like Minerva, Brigit is credited with creating the first whistle instrument. This goddess was called upon as a goddess of war and defense of the Homefront by her Brythonic children, the Brigantes, in their resistance to Roman occupation.
The tradition of female priestesses tending sacred, naturally occurring eternal flames is a feature of ancient Indo-European pre-Christian spirituality. It is possible that Brigid is linked with Greco-Roman Vesta-Hestia, goddess of the physical and spiritual hearth. There is evidence in the Celtic period of priestesses who tended fires in early Iron Age Ireland.
With the power to end unwanted pregnancy and her role as a midwife, Brigid is often thought of by modern pagans as a goddess of women’s reproductive health and choice.
Brigid’s name appears to be connected with the Hindu goddess of the dawn, one of whose names is Bṛhatī.