Last week a "true" Celtic warrior woman completed her journey from this world to the next, crossing the "rainbow bridge" into the Summerlands, or the Tir na n'Nog (the "Land of the Forever Young") as it was known by the Irish. While the passing of this amazing woman, Lynne Sinclair Wood, can be read here, I thought it would be appropriate to share some information about the Goddess to whom Lynne was a devoted priestess to, that being the Celtic Goddess Brighid.
The following has been compiled from various sources of the years.
Brighid was one of the great Triple Goddesses of the Celtic people. She appeared as Brighid to the Irish, Brigantia in Northern England, Bride in Scotland, and Brigandu in Brittany. Many legends are told about Brighid. Some say that there are three Brighids: one sister in charge of poetry and inspiration who invented the Ogham alphabet, one in charge of healing and midwifery, and the third in charge of the hearth fire, smithies and other crafts. This actually indicates the separate aspects of her Threefold nature and is a neat division of labour for a hard-working Goddess.
Brighid was probably originally a Sun Goddess, and a charming story of her birth is that she was born at sunrise and a tower of flame burst from the forehead of the new born Goddess that reached from Earth to Heaven. It was likely She who inspired the line in the famous Song of Amergin: "I am a fire in the head." Her penchant for smithcraft led to her association by the Romans with Minerva/Athena. As a warrior Goddess, She favoured the use of the spear or the arrow. Indeed, various interpretations of her name exist including, "Bright Arrow", "the Bright One", "the Powerful One" and "the High One", depending upon the region and the dialect.
As a Goddess of herbalism, midwifery and healing She was in charge of Water as well as Fire. There are a vast number of sacred wells and springs around Ireland named after or dedicated to this Goddess. A story is told of how two lepers came to one of her sacred springs for healing and She instructed one Leper to wash the other. The skin of the freshly bathed man was cleansed of the disease and Brighid told the man who was healed to wash the man who had bathed him so that both men would be whole. The man who was healed was now too disgusted to touch the other Leper and would have left him, but Brighid herself washed the leper and struck down the other arrogant fellow with leprosy once more before he could leave. Offerings to the watery Brighid were cast into the well in the form of coins or, even more ancient, brass or gold rings. Other sacrifices were offered where three streams came together.
Brighid's cauldron of Inspiration connected her watery healing aspect with her fiery poetic aspect. Brighid is clearly the best example of the survival of a Goddess into Christian times. She was canonised by the Catholic church as St Brighid and various origins are given to this saint. The most popular folktale is that She was midwife to the Virgin Mary, and thus was always invoked by women in labor. The more official story was that She was a Druid's daughter who predicted the coming of Christianity and then was baptised by St Patrick. She became a nun and later an abbess who founded the Abbey at Kildare. The Christian Brighid was said to have had the power to appoint the bishops of her area, a strange role for an abbess, made stranger by her requirement that her bishops also be practicing goldsmiths.
Actually, the Goddess Brighid had always kept a shrine at Kildare, Ireland, with a perpetual flame tended by nineteen virgin priestesses called Daughters of the Flame. No male was ever allowed to come near it; nor did those women ever consort with men. Even their food and other supplies were brought to them by women of the nearby village. When Catholicism took over in Ireland, the shrine became a convent and the priestesses became nuns but the same traditions were held and the eternal flame was kept burning. Their tradition was that each day a different priestess/nun was in charge of the sacred fire and on the 20th day of each cycle, the fire was miraculously tended by Brighid Herself. There into the 18th century, the ancient song was sung to her: "Brighid, excellent woman, sudden flame, may the bright fiery sun take us to the lasting kingdom".
For over a thousand years, the sacred flame was tended by nuns, and no one knows how long before that it had been tended by the priestesses. In 1220 CE, a Bishop became angered by the no-males policy of the Abbey of St Brighid of Kildare. He insisted that nuns were subordinate to priests and therefore must open their abbey and submit themselves to inspection by a priest. When they refused and asked for another Abbess or other female official to perform any inspections, the Bishop was incensed. He admonished them to obedience and then decreed that the keeping of the eternal flame was a Pagan custom and ordered the sacred flame to be extinguished. Even then, She remained the most popular Irish saint along with Patrick.
Her festival is held on 1st or 2nd February in the Northern Hemisphere (1st or 2nd August in the Southern Hemisphere). It corresponds to the ancient Celtic fire festival of Imbolg or Oimelc, which celebrated the birthing and freshening of sheep and goats (Feast of Milk). This festival was Christianised as Candlemas or Lady Day and Her Feast day, La Feill Bhride, was attended by tremendous local celebration and elaborate rituals. Her festival is also called Brighid. Brighid (the Goddess and the Festival) represents the stirring of life again after the dead months of the Winter, and her special blessings are called forth at this time.