Imbolc: Festival of Purification
The pre-Roman festival of purification known as Lupercalia
became subsumed into the festival of Februra
, celebrated by the Romans around the middle of the month and derived from Februus
, personifying February as the month of purification. Februa
was but one of many significant epithets attached to the goddess Juno
, who was before other things the goddess of marriage and protector of married women. Every year, on the first of March, women held a festival in honour of Juno called the Matronalia
. As Juno Februtis
she was a purifier and fertility Goddess, especially connected with the month of February and the festivities in its latter half. The first days of each Roman month, the calends, were considered sacred to Juno, the month of June named after her. Juno had a long history of worship in Rome and was one of the three supreme deities known as the Capitoline Triad
, along with Jupiter
One of Juno's oldest titles carried the epithet Lucetia; a
s Juno Lucetia
, she was the Roman Goddess of light, (Lucetia
= 'Giver of Light'), a Moon-Goddess and Goddess of the Dawn and the growing light of the day. As Goddess of the light of heaven, she was by derivation the goddess of childbirth, Juno Lucina
, for the new-born child brought into the light of the day for the very first time.
Practically all of the many attributes and epithets attached to Juno, hold strong similarities to the traditions and customs of Brigid
, Christian Saint and Gaelic Goddess, born at the dawn, Her feast day, 1st February, synonymous with the festival of Imbolc
containing the lighting of fires, purification with well water and the ushering in of the new growing season by the maiden known as the Queen of the Heavens.
Many aspects of the ancient festivals of Lupercalia
and the Matronalia
, carry strong similarities to the traditions and customs associated with the pre-Christian festival of Imbolc
a celebration of the lengthening of the days and the first stirrings of spring to the land. Imbolc, or Imbolg
, is the feast marking the end of winter and the beginning of spring usually referred to as “when the ewes are milked at springs beginning”
In Cormac's Glossary (Sanas Cormaic
c.900 AD), we find 'Oímelc
', a similar term for Imbolc, denoting "the time the sheep's milk comes, milking, i.e. the milk that is milked
". This has led some scholars to state that the pagan festival of Imbolc has something to do with the period of the coming into lactation of sheep. On the other hand other scholars reject this explanation, claiming this to be a false etymology based on a derivation from the term oí-melg
', and 'milk
') and that the feast of Imbolc is based on an old pastoral term which simply means 'milking'
. However, apart from the time of year, this does not explain the the role of milk (or milking) in connection with the festival; indeed there appears to be no evidence for sheep having a ritual purpose among the Gaelic people.
It has been argued that the meaning of Imbolc more correctly derives from the Old Irish 'imbolg'
meaning "in the belly
” a reference to the pregnancy of ewes. Another suggestion is that the word for Imbolc has possibly developed from the original Indo-European root *uts-molgo
, meaning 'purification
', this in turn developed into *ommolg
, which simply means 'milking'
. The festival for `purification'
, at this time of year would appear to have been established by association with various Roman customs, as discussed above, particularly the Lupercalia
, and the goddess Juno, whose epithet februa
. Significantly, Imbolc is immediately followed by the Christian festival of Candlemass, which marks the end of the season of Epiphany, and is also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin
, commemorating the ritual purification of Mary, 40 days after the birth of her son Jesus. The beginning of February is unavoidably associated with purification.
is also known as St Brigid's Day
, an Irish festival heralding the beginning of spring. Brigid is associated with milk and is often depicted with a cow and milking stool, perhaps suggesting an ancient tradition now lost to us that linked milk at this time of year with a purification ritual.
Imbolc in the Somerset town of Glastonbury is traditionally known as the Maiden Brigid's Festival
in which the Light of Illumination
from Her perpetual flame is brought into a darkened room, heralding the coming of spring. Small honey and barley cakes are eaten and milk drunk in Her honour. On the first day, ears of corn gathered from the Lammas Corn Doll
are planted in the ground and the dried stalks are burned, the flame releasing the life back into the earth. The ashes are spread upon the ground renewing fertility to the earth.
Brigid holds a special association with Glastonbury and is depicted on Saint Michael's tower on the Tor milking a cow. Brigid also appears on the north door of the Lady Chapel in the Abbey ruins in a carved figure and has traditional connections with the Somerset town. According to Giraldus Cambrensis and John of Glastonbury, She visited Patrick at Glastonbury during the 5th century. William of Malmesbury claimed that Brigid stayed at Beckery on the western side of Glastonbury where she founded a small chapel. Near the foot of Wearyall Hill, made famous by Joseph of Arimathea and the legend of the Glastonbury Thorn, is a small hillock known as Bride's Mound
. On this mound was a spring known as Saint Bride's Well. Relics, claimed to be Brigid's, including a spindle and a bell, were left at Bride's Mound where the adjacent fields are called “The Brides.
The Cult of Saint Brigid of Kildare
As a saint Brigid of Kildare (c. 451–525) is one of Ireland's most important holy figures along with Saint Patrick. Brigid is associated with Kildare and many other holy wells in the Celtic lands; She is commemorated in both Ireland and the highlands and islands of Scotland. Her feast day is 1st February, the traditional first day of spring in Ireland, significantly the underlying tradition associated with St. Brigid's Day, probably originally held mid-February, is food production as a continuous process and the successful reproduction of livestock as a perennial cycle.
St. Brigid was associated with perpetual, sacred flames, such as the one maintained by 19 nuns at her sanctuary in Kildare, Ireland. According to Giraldus Cambrensis the sacred flame at Kildare
was said by to have been surrounded by a hedge, which no man could cross and any who attempted to were said to have been cursed to go insane or die. The tradition of female priestesses tending sacred "eternal flames"
is a feature that can be traced back to ancient Indo-European pre-Christian spirituality.
Patrick is undoubtedly a historical figure as attested by his writings, the Confessio
and the Letter to Coroticus
, which provided his hagiographers with reliable information, whereas writers on Brigid, such as Cogitosus of Kildare
and the anonymous Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae
(the so-called First Life of St. Brigit
from the Leabhar Breac
) and Bethu Brigte
, were left no such historical texts to work from. Brigid had been commemorated in Ireland by Latin prose vitae from the 7th century onward. However, the surviving texts are known only through the numerous manuscript copies made in continental Europe. Indeed, the Life of Brigid
is probably the most-copied of all the Vitae
of early medieval women saints in Europe, yet no copy of the early vitae survived in Ireland.
The oldest account of St. Brigid is the hymn of St. Brogan-Cloen
, said to have been composed at the request of his tutor, St Ultán of Ardbraccan
, who collated all of her miracles in one volume. From this volume St Brogan recorded the miracles of Brigid in verse, which he must have composed prior to the death of St Ultan, recorded as 656 AD in the Martyrology of Donegal
The Vita Brigitae of Cogitosus
is thought to have been written no later than 650 AD, at the request of the Kildare church, and the first life of Brigid, Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae
, thought to have followed about a century later. The Bethu Brigte
followed in the early 9th century. Cogitosus' account has a mythological feel to it as it is made up of the many miracles Brigid is said to have performed with images of fire and sun being plentiful. In Cogitosus’ Vita
he recalls the famous story of her hanging her cloak on a sunbeam, a motif probably taken from an apocryphal Continental story about the Christ child:
“As she was grazing her sheep in the course of her work as a shepherdess on a level grassy plain, she was drenched by very heavy downpour of rain and returned to the house with her clothes wet. There was a ray of sunshine coming into the house through an opening and, as a result, her eyes were dazzled and she took the sunbeam for a slanting tree growing there. So, she put her rain soaked clothes on it and the clothes hung on the filmy sunbeam as if it were a solid tree.”
Devotion to Brigid was associated with Marian devotion and to the Irish She was popularly known as 'Mary of the Gael'
, and equated with the Virgin Mary. The worship of Saint Brigid has persisted up until the early 20th century with her Irish cult almost supplanting that of Mary. Indeed, the earliest documentary reference to Brigid, recalls how “She will be another Mary, mother of the great Lord
” and a prophecy of Brigid entering the Irish site of Kildare states, "This site is open to heaven ….and today the girl for whom it has been prepared by God will come to us like Mary”
According to the Vitae
, Brigid has a legendary involvement in the life of Jesus. Brigid being the midwife present at the birth, placed three drops of water on Christ's forehead. No doubt this is a Christianised account of the ancient Celtic myth telling of the Sun of Light upon Whose head three drops of water were placed in order to bestow wisdom
. Brigid was said to be the foster-mother of Jesus, emphasising the very special position this Saint held.
The Exalted One
There can be little doubt that Saint Brigid is based upon a Celtic Goddess who was presented in Christian attire by the early church fathers in order to win over her pagan Irish followers. She is perhaps one of the most complex Goddesses of the Celtic pantheon; Brigid can be seen as one of the most powerful religious figures of Irish history with many separate traditions intertwined. She is known by her many names, Bride, Bridey, Brighid, Brigit, Briggidda, Brigantia,
as the traditional patroness of healing, poetry and smithcraft. Her name means "exalted one
Veneration of St Brigid appears to incorporate many elements of a much older tradition. Sun and fire are particularly stressed in the early lives of the Saint which were no doubt based upon older sources and may reflect ancient lore relating to the goddess Brigid. The perpetual flame at Her shrine at Kildare in Ireland was said to have been tended by nineteen Virgins symbolising the nineteen-year, metonic, lunar cycle.
In Irish mythology, Brigid was the daughter of the Dagda and one of the Tuatha Dé Danann. She had two sisters also named Brigid, the attributes of a classic Celtic Triple Goddess:
“Brigit i.e. a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit the female sage, or woman of wisdom, i.e. Brigit the goddess whom poets adored, because very great and very famous was her protecting care. It is therefore they call her goddess of poets, by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit the female physician (woman of leech craft), Brigit the female smith (woman of smith work), from whose names with all Irishmen a goddess was called Brigit.”
Many places in the British Isles bear witness to her name as an ancient Goddess. As “Brigantia
” she gave her name to the Celtic lands of the North of England, and to that of the ancient people that bore her name, the Brigantes
. She was worshipped especially in Yorkshire, and her name is still echoed in the names of rivers Briant
in Anglesey and Brent
in Middlesex, seen as the power of rushing rivers and the thrusting hills of the countryside; the Goddess in the ancient landscape.
Goddess of the Dawn
Imbolc, or St Brigid's Day falls on one of the four cross-quarter days of the modern Celtic calendar halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox in the northern hemisphere ultimately indicating its origins as a solar festival. Brigid's attributes are light, inspiration and associations with fire. Indeed, we find one of Brigid's most ancient names is Breo-saighead
meaning 'fiery arrow
'. This is a reference to Brigid as light from the sun
; she was born at the sunrise and is the Goddess of the Dawn
. She possesses an unusual status as a Sun Goddess who hangs her Cloak upon the rays of the Sun and whose dwelling-place radiates light as if on fire. Brigid took over the Cult of the Ewes
formerly held by the Goddess Lassar
who also is a Sun Goddess.
In Irish mythology, Lassar,
"), is the eldest of three sisters, a triple Goddess; together with her sisters, Inghean Bhuidhe
they represent the growing, ripening and harvesting of crops. Lasair, was Goddess of the spring budding. She later also became a Christian saint with her sacred well at Lough Meelagh in Ireland. Lassar's feast day is May 1st, Bealtaine.
History or Myth?
So, was the Christian Saint Brigid a real historical person, or the mythical Celtic pagan Goddess in another form?
Brigid is arguably the most important Goddess in British history yet most of what we know of her has been passed down through oral tradition. The extant written sources date from several hundred years after Brigid had established her community at Kildare, so we must show caution in re-constructing a Goddess from what we know of the Saint; the two are so interwoven it is virtually impossible to separate them with any certainty.
|St Brigid's Cathedral, Kildare|
Second only to St Patrick in the esteem of the Irish people, yet of all the early Irish saints celebrated in hagiography and cult, Brigid is the most difficult to link to a genuine historical figure; it has been suggested that she was a living person, a Christian woman called Brigid who local people saw as a reincarnation of the Goddess. Sharing both her name and feast day with that of the earlier pagan Goddess Brigid may indicate that Saint Brigid is partially or entirely a fictional creation based on the pagan figure in order to convert pagan Celts to Christianity.
Burial Place of Saints
In Down, three saints one grave do fill,
Patrick, Brigid and Columcille.
After Brigid's death the monastery at Kildare flourished. The first Life of St Brigid
was written not much later than 650 AD, by a monk of Kildare named Cogitosus. The "Life
" was a compilation of stories of St Brigid providing a glimpse of life in Kildare from that time. Cogitosus describes the great church of Kildare where the bodies of the Saints Brigid and Conleth were:
"laid on the right and left of the ornate altar and rest in tombs adorned with a refined profusion of gold, silver, gems and precious stones, with gold and silver chandeliers hanging from above and different images presenting a variety of carvings and colours"
The Irish Annals
record that in the year 836 AD a Danish fleet of 30 ships arrived in the Liffey and another in the Boyne. They plundered every church and abbey within the territories of Magh Liffe and Magh Breagh, destroying the town of Kildare and carried off the shrines of Saints Brigid and Conleth. It is claimed that in the previous year, 835 AD, the remains of St. Brigid had been removed for safe keeping to Down.
Tradition claims that St. Patrick is buried at Down Cathedral (Cathedral Hill) in Downpatrick, County Down, alongside St. Brigid and St. Columba, although this has never been proven. However, Down suffered too from Viking raids; a further tradition claims her body was removed from Down and buried in a place known only to a few priests so that eventually all knowledge of her resting place was lost.
An alternative version claims that in 1185 St. Malachy, Bishop of Down, in an effort to discover the burial place of St. Brigid prayed to the Lord to reveal the burial place. A beam of light settled over a spot on the floor of the church and sure enough when St. Malachy dug at this spot he found the graves of Saints Patrick, Brigid and Columcille. Malachy petitioned Pope Urban III for permission to move the bodies to Down Cathedral. His request was granted and the remains of the saints moved on 9th June 1186, the Feast day of St. Columcille
. During the dissolution of Henry VIII, the sacred shrine was despoiled and the relics of the Saints were scattered. Luckily some were saved and the head of St. Brigid was recovered and said to now rest in a chapel in Portugal, devoted to her in the Church of St. John the Baptist in Lumiar, near Lisbon.
The Festival of Brigit the Holy Woman - Séamas Ó Catháin
Brigit: Goddess, Saint, ‘Holy Woman’, and Bone of Contention - Carole M Cusack
Mary Jones - Celtic Encyclopedia
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