Another year, another February 1st. Another Imbolc, another St. Brigit’s Day. Another chance to revel in the avalanche of online ‘Celtic’ codswallop and pagan goddess gobbledygook. Such misunderstood musings are well-intentioned, harmless, and if truth be told, not a bad way at all to view the world. An idealized version of the distant past seen through an attractive prism of feminine attributes, influence and power. One could definitely do worse.
Of course, historically speaking, such views do not have a leg to stand on, let alone a sunbeam to hang a cloak off. There is even a certain irony in the fact that successive generations, in seeking to adopt, (re)create and promote a symbolic saintly/pagan figure of pseudo-history, have actually helped to obscure some of the very real and historically important attributes of the same.
It’s not so much that Brigit occupies an incredibly early position within Irish history and Early Irish Christianity itself; it is the fact that she represents the earliest surviving insular Irish hagiography, period. Almost a generation before Patrician hagiographers were sharpening their quills, a saintly Brigit was already being utilized for nothing less than all Ireland ecclesiastical primacy.
From Sea to Sea
It is in no small part to her cult and its Kildare promoters that we owe the corresponding efforts of those who sought to elevate St. Patrick (and slightly later, St. Columba) to a national and international stage. The earliest seventh century Latin Lives of Brigit (the vernacular one flavoured with ‘paganism’ dates to the ninth century, four centuries after initial Christianization) are testament to Early Irish insular imaginations, reacting to and harnessing, outside influences and events. The aim: to provide her erstwhile foundation and its heirs with nothing less than an archiepiscopal status ‘extending from sea to sea’.
An extraordinary claim, when you think about it. Before those who championed Patrick, the outsider, who came to Ireland; before those of Columba, the insider, who went outside Ireland – there was Brigit. None of the above. Neither an insider or an outsider. Or indeed, male.
Its even more extraordinary when you consider the makeup of Irish society of the time. Much to the chagrin of those who sometimes seek to peddle idealized celto-babble concerning women’s rights in Early Medieval Ireland – outside of myth and legend, the reality on the ground was quite the opposite. Women occupied positions which could be described, at best, as third class citizens, and more normally, as the movable property and currency of men.
The Business of a Bondswoman
To get an idea, you need only consider the insular variable unit of measured worth, the cumal (expressed in a variety of forms in Early Irish laws, e.g. milch cows, or land acreage). Cumal itself means, “female slave, bondswoman”, later described in Sanas Cormac as:
.i. cum mola .i. ben bīs fri bleith mbrōn, ar is ē mod frisa mbītis cumala dōera riasíu dorōntais muilind
‘a she-slave’ i.e. a woman that is grinding at a quern; for this was the business of bondswomen before the mills were made.
In other words, the prime underlying cognitive and etymological understanding of ‘economic value’ and ‘currency’ in Late Iron Age/Early Medieval Irish society was that of the productivity of an enslaved female engaged in one of the lowest forms of menial endeavor. Expressed in cattle. For good measure.
Never Mind the Bullocks
Does this strike one as a society where a powerful fertility goddess refused to come out in the wash -requiring a concerted Christian effort to subsume insular orality and overwrite an ancient sacral and maternal tradition, venerated and held aloft as the pinnacle of higher authority? Spare me the bullocks. Such simplistic reasoning does not do justice to the intelligence of contemporary Late Iron Age peoples, whether pagan or Christian. Real conversion didn’t work like that. Pagans would not have been duped by cosmetic change. Early Irish Christians did not need to appropriate a female deity, nor would they have been particularly interested in trying to. And even if they had – they probably wouldn’t have started with floral Latin vitae packed with Christian allegory, metaphors, motifs and underlying meaning designed to aggrandize and claim authority and primacy.
bríg: ‘power, strength, force, authority, vigour, virtue‘
brígach: ‘powerful, mighty, forceful, strong, virtual, vigorous’
brigaid: ‘shows, asserts, declares, adjudges, respects, proves, verifies, confirms’
brígmar: ‘powerful, strong; vigorous, lively; efficacious’
brígrad: ‘power, force’
So, what was it about the foundation under her patronage, or more importantly, the very idea of her figure that enabled ecclesiastical scholars attached to her church and cult to make such an a claim of authority in the seventh century AD?
Some would argue that it was a question of timing and location. Kildare and Leinster, strategically situated with regard to regional contacts with Britain and mainland Europe, at a time when the Romanizing factions of the Southern Irish church were in the ascendancy (decades ahead of Armagh, Iona and the northern churches). Something which certainly makes a lot of sense in the grand scheme of things.
Yet Armagh, in reacting to earlier Kildare/Brigit claims, eventually won out in the end by consolidating ownership and authority of what must have been the earliest historical evidence for Christian activity in Ireland available to them (i.e. Patrick’s historical documents). Why would Kildare have even attempted to challenge anyone, unless they were confident of a similar kind of authority? Or perhaps, more importantly, if Armagh’s counter to an emerging St. Brigit hagiography was that of St. Patrick bringing Christianity to Ireland (backed up by the historical missionary figure and documents), then what was it about Kildare’s initial claim that necessitated such measures?
Body Of Evidence
A possible answer may lie in what such authority was assumed to have been based on. Unlike Patrick or Columba, the Brigit of hagiography is not underpinned by that of a historical person. If there ever was an actual ‘Brigit’, she is forever lost to us. Reading the original Latin lives, it’s fairly clear that even seventh century authors and audiences did not imagine she was ever a real figure. She was, to those who could receive such texts, a literary motif, a composite symbol and multiple metaphorical vehicle for many things – Christian faith, charity, virtue, sacral and sovereign authority – underpinned with theological and doctrinal strands of thought, expressly designed to embolden and appeal to ecclesiastical audiences.
Despite this, Kildare did have one thing which Armagh didn’t. The body of a saint, or rather, a grave containing the purported relics of a female founder, enshrined and displayed within her church. An ecclesiastical foundation which had existed in the local landscape long enough to have the gravitas and eminence to be depicted as such. An identifiable female foundation with a cult conceivably stretching back to the earliest strata of Christian origins in the region, let alone the island.
It is that very idea of early female founders and foundations, whether singular or ‘double houses’, which is fascinating; especially when you consider the extent to which other early insular hagiography (i.e. Patrician and Anglo-Saxon) went to in order to facilitate and reconcile similar female church sites and cult centers (which had also long enjoyed prominence in the landscape). In contrast to hagiographical conventions, with its myths, miracles and medieval mayhem – the sites and landscapes portrayed within the same were very much real. They had to be, in order to frame the very narrative upon which were hung their literary canvasses. Landscapes and locations acted as physical witnesses to the depicted events. What would be the point of including sites that everyone could remember being built? Old was hagiographical gold.
By the time the earliest Irish hagiography was being written, the existence of long-established female cults and foundations was a contemporary reality which could not be ignored. Such sites represented several thing: important and quasi-independent religious and economic centres with associated dynastic allegiance, history and social memory. Most of all, they represented something which couldn’t be bought. Ancient authority and a proto-primacy by virtue of their antiquated presence in the landscape. As such, their founders needed to be included in the initial story and narrative of the past ‘in the past’ – brought into the fold on respective terms before they could even begin to be written out ‘in the future’.
Was ‘Brigit’ a pagan goddess? Of course not. What some people assume to be pagan echos are thoroughly Christian in origin and interest, written down and mediated through several ‘colourful’ lenses, two or more centuries after the earliest Latin lives had already been produced. Did ‘St. Brigit’ exist? Of course not. She’s the product of an overwhelmingly ecclesiastical masculine imagination and if there had been any underlying historical reality it would have been included within her earliest lives, as Patrick’s historicity had been. If they couldn’t find anything tangible in the seventh century, then neither can we at this late stage.
Did a ‘Brigitine’ figure exist at some time in the deep past? A woman whose faith, leadership, charisma and talents resulted in the foundation of an extremely early ecclesiastical site at Kildare? Almost certainly. That woman and her legacy, whatever her name was, would go on to become the figure of Brigit – the survival of her relics, cult, church site and burial-place eventually held up as a physical witness during the earliest attempt to claim All-Ireland primacy. What an incredibly different early ecclesiastical identity we may have had if things had turned out differently.
Underneath the layers of later emendation and additions is something far more interesting than a fanciful ‘pagan’ goddess or an exaggerated super saintly metaphor. An unknown, unnamed, real female founder, representing hundreds, if not thousands, of unnamed real women all over the island. Some of the earliest detectable converts in early Irish Christianity who played a role in establishing the earliest strata of Christian communities. Many of their sites and settlements stood the test of time, surviving to the seventh century and beyond, as eminent foundations worthy of being claimed by others.
Ironically, just as Brigit would later become all powerful enough to be transformed and portrayed as an echo of ‘Pre-Christian’ Ireland – by Christians, for Christians – her popularity ensured the displacement of many other smaller localized female cults. Why champion the likes of Laloca, or Mathona, or Comgella, when you could have Brigit? Real women, written out of history by men inventing a fictional woman – who went on to displace other real women.
No religion or belief system has ever had a monopoly or inside track on maternal goddess figures and/or the return of Spring. That’s something probably as old as human ritual itself. Fertility, bounty, agricultural cycles, crops, birth, milk, breasts, bellies, nurture, healing, safety, protection, blessing. It’s a no brainer, then as now. Prehistoric peoples knew this, as did the early modern Irish peasantry whose fading traditions speak overwhelmingly of lambing, calving, food production and birth. The mythical and hagiographical figure of Brigit can of course, and always has been, whatever one wants her to be. That’s the beauty of her. She’s the ultimate foster mother to all (wo)men. Just as the real one probably was. Just as all ours are, were and always will be.
Mother, Grandmother, Provider, Protector, Saint, Saviour and all round Superhero.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bitel, Lisa M. (2009) Landscape with Two Saints: How Genovefa of Paris and Brigit of Kildare Built Christianity in Barbarian Europe. Oxford University Press.
Bitel, Lisa M. (2004) ‘Ekphrasis at Kildare: The Imaginative Architecture of a Seventh-Century Hagiographer’, Speculum 79, 605-627.
Bray, Dorothy Ann (1992) “Secunda Brigida: Saint Ita of Killeedy and Brigidine Tradition”, in Celtic Languages and Celtic People, 27-38.
Bray, Dorothy Ann. (1987) “The Image of St. Brigit in the Early Irish Church,” Études Celtiques 24, 209-215.
Bray, Dorothy Ann (2010) ‘Ireland’s Other Apostle: Cogitosus’ Saint Brigit.’ Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 59, 55-70.
Bray, Dorothy Ann (2011) ‘The Vita Prima of St. Brigit: A Preliminary Analysis of Its Composition.’ Narrative in Celtic Tradition: Essays in Honour of Edgar M. Slotkin. Ed. Joseph F. Nagy. CSANA Yearbook 8-9 (Colgate University Press), 1-15.
Charles-Edwards, Thomas (2000) Early Christian Ireland. Cambridge University Press.