Saint Brigid: Pagan goddess, patron saint, proto-feminist

An exploration into the history and legacy of Saint Brigid

Christianity began in response to the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet, as it grew, it snowballed and took influence from each society it rolled through. This phenomenon of adapting, assimilating, and merging cultures is known as syncretism. While its influence on elements of theology remains a highly contentious issue, many festivals find their origin in cultures which became dominated by Christianity. Christmas was a Roman festival honouring the sun. Easter was a Sumerian festival of fertility. One of the clearest examples of the influence of syncretism over an individual culture is our only female patron saint, Brigid.

Saint Brigid’s Day has a long history, like most Christian festivals dating back to before the birth of Jesus. It originally was celebrated to honour Bríd, a pagan goddess who represented fire, inspiration, spring, the sun, recovery, and healing. Her divine flame was a symbol of the shift from the darkness of winter to the light of summer. Similarly, Saint Brigid is alleged to have performed healing miracles, and had an eternal flame in her monastery. The saint and the pagan goddess are both celebrated on February 1, halfway between the Winter Solstice and Vernal Equinox. A relationship to moon cycles or the position of the Sun is a common element of pagan festivals, and are an obvious remnant in Christian festivals.

“This origin is disputed by many historians. Some argue that it is a type of ancient sun cross, common in pagan societies.”

It is common for Irish primary school students to, on a spring morning, when the daffodils are budding and the sun, bright but cold, is shining through the window, weave a little cross out of reeds in honour of Saint Brigid. The story goes that Saint Brigid wove this at the deathbed of a pagan chieftain, some say her father, who was so enamoured by it he converted to Christianity, was baptised, and saved from eternal damnation. According to tradition, if you hang it in your house, it will protect the household from a fire.

This origin is disputed by many historians. Some argue that it is a type of ancient sun cross, common in pagan societies. The key difference between this cross and a sun cross is that usually, a sun cross has a circle around it. However, with its four equal arms, none of which create a continuous straight line, it is very unlike most depictions of the cross upon which Jesus died where the crossbeam is significantly shorter, creating the impression of a lower case “t” without the curve at the bottom. For these reasons, the sun cross idea is controversial, and it is unclear why this specific symbol was used to represent Bríd.

Saint Brigid’s other trademark item is her cloak. Legend says, she asked the King of Leinster for land to build her monastery, he laughed in her face and said she could have whatever her cloak could cover. She lay down her cloak and it grew to cover the entire province. He begged her to stop and granted her whatever land she desired.

Bríd also has a history with a cloak, though it is less horrifying than covering 19,800km² with fabric. She was born as the sun rose and wrapped in a green cloak. This cloak became a symbol of healing and strength. On Imbolc, it was tradition to leave a cloth outside after sunset on January 31 to be collected before sunrise. Soaked in the morning dew, this cloth was imbued with the healing powers of the goddess.

“What is at the heart of the tension between the pagan and Christian aspects of Brigid is that they are so similar.”

However, those isolated items of evidence are fairly inconclusive. Everything about the reed crosses is contested and there is enough ambiguity surrounding their cloaks that there is also reasonable doubt. However, there are a number of stories that are used to describe both the goddess and the saint. Both drank milk from a sacred cow as children. Both cured multiple lepers. Popular pilgrimage sites for both are sacred wells. In both the goddess’s temple and the saint’s monastery, there were flames that were forbidden to be extinguished. Brigid/Bríd was out one day when a short, but heavy shower of rain began. When she returned home, it had subsided but she was still soaking wet. She removed her cloak and hung it on a sunbeam that fell through her window. There are accounts of this highly specific story, among many others, being used to describe both figures. It is worth considering, given the large swathes of similar stories surrounding the women, that elements of Bríd may have been borrowed and adapted to aid a budding Christian society in reconciling their previous pagan beliefs.

What is at the heart of the tension between the pagan and Christian aspects of Brigid is that they are so similar. It is tricky to say where one begins and the other ends. This has created a figure of Christian history that, despite being indispensable to the tradition, doesn’t adhere to the common perception of Irish Catholicism, particularly in her treatment of and role as a woman.

At the beginning of Cogitosus’s account of her life, he describes her monastery as “the head of virtually all the Irish churches and occupies the first place…its jurisdiction extends over the whole land of Ireland from sea to sea.” This is particularly worth noting because Saint Patrick had founded churches in Brigid’s lifetime, yet her monastery was better respected, despite her now seeming to play second fiddle. He speaks about her work with a priest at the time saying, “[they] built their church in happy partnership, guided by virtue. Their episcopal and feminine see, like a fertile vine expanding everywhere in growing branches, spread throughout the whole island of Ireland.” The Monastery of Saint Brigid is shown to us as the seed for the sapling church in Ireland. It is a church where holiness and femininity are not opposing forces. Those forces can work through one woman and should work in “happy partnership” in this budding church.

“Having built a monastery for women, Brigid further consolidated her role as a feminist by performing miracles for women, particularly those who had been wronged by society.”

Having built a monastery for women, Brigid further consolidated her role as a feminist by performing miracles for women, particularly those who had been wronged by society. Such as when a woman was once asked to look after a silver brooch for a man. The man then stole it back from her and threw it into a river meaning legally, since she lost the brooch, she would become his property. The woman turned to Brigid for help and refuge. Brigid went to the river and cut open the bellies of each fish until she found the silver brooch and could present it to the court, thus freeing the woman. This is just one of the dozens of stories like this.

Another commonality between all histories of Brigid is a story where her family are attempting to sell her into marriage despite Brigid’s protests. In the Bethu Brigte, an early anonymous account of Brigid’s life, one of her brothers shouts at her: “That eye in your head is destined to be betrothed to a man, though you like it or not.” In response, Brigid tore her eye out of her head and threw it at him saying, “here is that eye for you”. She refused to do what the men in her family and society at large asked of her, and chose to live her life as she saw fit.

Later in life, Brigid became an abbess and had many students. One day, a student came to her distressed. She admitted to the saint that she had committed the sin of lust and was pregnant. Saint Brigid forgave her, blessed her and placed her hands upon the girl’s stomach. The pregnancy was then terminated, allegedly by the grace of God. The girl came to Brigid scared and vulnerable and ashamed. Brigid approached her with no judgement, no anger, nothing but love and understanding. She did not punish or condemn her as so many women have been since.

She was a woman who forged her own path. She looked upon those who had sinned, opened her arms, and forgave them without condition. She was everything the church was supposed to be and everything it never became. Hers is one story of many Christian feminists who have been drowned out by the gross sexism of much of the Catholic Church. As a goddess, she healed and protected; as a saint, she forgave and loved. Perhaps we should revisit the quaint image of Brigid we teach in schools with her delicate woven cross and her pretty cloak, and embrace a woman who spoke out for women and forgave their sins; a woman who would rather tear out her own eye than live the life society set out for her. Perhaps we should reconsider what the church in this country has become, and reap the seeds she sowed for an Irish church that would be episcopal and feminine, where men and women could work “in happy partnership”.

Robert Gibbons

Robert Gibbons is the current Societies Editor for Trinity News.