Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Brigid's Eternal Flame

One of the most complex Goddesses of the Celtic pantheon, yet Brigid is one of the most powerful religious figures of Irish history. The tales of Brigid the Goddess and Christian Saint are irrevocably entwined and impossible to separate out as fact or fable, but from elements of her Christian story we find clear indications towards a pagan origin. In the story of Saint Brigid she was said to be a Druid's daughter who predicted the coming of Christianity and was then baptised by St. Patrick. She became a nun and later an Abbess who founded the Abbey at Kildare. As Abbess, Brigid was said to have had the power to appoint the bishops of her area, a role not usually delegated to such a rank, oddly her bishops were also required to be practising goldsmiths.

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. As a pagan Goddess She is known by her many names, Bride, Bridey, Brighid, Brigit, Briggidda, Brigantia; the traditional patroness of healing, poetry and smithcraft. Her name meaning literally “the high one” or "the exalted one”.

Veneration of St Brigid appears to have incorporated many elements of a much older, possibly pre-Celtic, tradition. Sun and fire are particularly stressed in the early lives of the Saint which were no doubt based upon older sources which appear to reflect traces of ancient lore relating to the Goddess. Significantly, the Gaelic word for Kildare is 'Cill Dara', which means the 'Cell, or Church, of the Oak'. Here Saint Brigid built her Abbey around 480 AD, on a hill beside a great oak tree. This was always an important gathering place and pilgrimage site in earlier centuries; the site became the centre of a great cult of the Goddess Brigid, who presided over healing, inspiration, poetry and smithcraft. She is provider of plenty, giver of life and identified with fertility and fire. Priestesses are thought to have gathered on this hill at Kildare to tend their ritual fires while invoking the Goddess to protect their herds and to provide a fruitful harvest.

Tradition tells us that Brigid kept a shrine at Kildare, Ireland, with a perpetual flame tended by nineteen virgin priestesses, later called Daughters of the Flame. No one knows how long the flame had been tended by the priestesses, however, it is likely to have pre-historical origins. This perpetual flame was said to have been tended by nineteen Virgins symbolising the nineteen-year, metonic, lunar cycle; a period of 235 lunar months, or 19 years at the end of which the phases of the moon repeat in exactly the same order and on the same days as the preceding cycle. Needless to say, the moon was very important to astronomer-priests of pagan religions, the number 19 being found again and again throughout pagan mythologies and megalithic sites around the world. For example, at the world famous megalithic monument at Stonehenge we find 56 Aubrey Holes about a metre inside the ditch.Throughout mythology we find a cauldron possessing magical properties on an Otherworld island tended by nine maidens, the number nine being half a metonic cycle to the nearest whole number.

With the advent of Christianity in Ireland it quickly became apparent that the Goddess Brigid was so deeply etched on the Irish people that it would be impossible to eradicate her. The Christian solution was to make her a Saint and in the 6th century, a monastery was built on the site of the temple where the vigil of the eternal flame had been held. Consequently, a sacred fire continued to burn in Kildare from early Christian times and the custom of keeping the fire alight continued; the fire representing the new light of Christianity, the Daughters of the Flame kept her flame eternally lit, ensuring it was never extinguished.

On the north side of St Brigid's Cathedral, Kildare, are the restored foundations of
Brigid's ancient fire temple. The fire was lit on the 1st February, St. Brigid’s day.
This flame was symbolically relit in 1993 and is now tended at 
Solas Bhride.

In the 12th century the Welsh Chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) visited Kildare and recorded that the fire of Saint Brigid was still burning and attended by twenty "servants of the Lord" a clear reference to the tradition that each day, for nineteen days, a different priestess (or nun), would keep vigil over the sacred fire but on the twentieth day Brigid would tend the flame herself. By the time of Gerald's writing the fire had been burning continuously for at least 600 years, probably several hundred more, yet had apparently never had its ashes cleaned out, yet the ashes never seemed to increase in size.

No male was ever allowed to come near the eternal flame and neither were these women permitted to associate with men, consequently all their supplies were brought to them by women from the nearby village. Thus, surrounding the fire was a hedge that no male could ever cross. One legend recalls of a man who attempted to cross the hedge and ended up going insane. Another tells of an attempt to cross the hedge but just as his leg crossed the threshhold, his comrades pulled him back. Unfortunately the leg that did cross the hedge became maimed and he was crippled for the rest of his life. No trace of this legendary hedge with magical properties has survived today, but it clearly provided protection to the flame from male invaders by cursing them to either go insane, die, become maimed, or even have their penis wither.

However, in 1220 AD, a Bishop disagreed with policy of non-admittance of men to the Abbey of Saint Brigid of Kildare. The Arch-bishop of Dublin, Henry of London, insisted that as nuns were subordinate to priests they must open the abbey to inspection by a priest. They refused and requested the inspections be carried out by a female official such as another Abbess. The Bishop was not impressed with this show of disobedience and decreed that the keeping of the eternal flame was a Pagan custom and consequently demanded that the sacred flame to be extinguished. The flame was thought to have been briefly extinguished but was quickly relit by the local people and the Eternal flame survived up to the suppression of the monasteries in the sixteenth century.

It was at this time that King Henry VIII demanded the destruction of many monasteries and the Eternal flame was extinguished but never forgotten. Brigid remained the most popular Irish saint along with Patrick and on Saint Brigid's day, 1st February, in 1807, the Bishop of Kildare, Daniel Delany, commenced the restoration of the the ancient order of the Sisterhood of Saint Brigid with the clear intention to revive her legacy.

During Vatican II, the so-called modernisation of Catholicism in the 1960's, it was declared that there was insufficient proof of Brigid's sanctity or even of her historical existence; consequently the Church's gradual program against Brigid was finally successful and She was de-canonised. Today She is often called just "Brigid of Ireland" and it can be difficult to obtain images or even holy cards of Saint Brigid outside of Ireland.

In 1993 at a conference, entitled “Brigid: Prophetess, Earthwoman, Peacemaker” held in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Saint Brigid’s Peace Cross Project, Mary Teresa Cullen, the then leader of the Brigidine Sisters, re-kindled the Eternal flame in a ceremony in Kildare’s Market Square. Since then, the Brigidine Sisters have tended the flame in their centre, 'Solas Bhride' (Light of Brigid) in Kildare.

In 2005 Kildare County Council commissioned a sculpture to house the flame in Kildare Town Square. The sculpture comprises a twisted column, flourishing at the top into a bronze, acorn cup holding the flame nestled amongst oak leaves. Surely, we have come full circle with the oak leaves symbolising the Druidic element of the legend of Brigid and the name of Kildare, 'Cill Dara', the Church of the Oak.

As Breo-Saighead (Fiery Arrow), Brigid was known as The Flame of Ireland; She is clearly the best example of the survival of an ancient Goddess into Christian times; disowned by the church, dismantled by the very hands that rocked her cradle, yet still held in high reverence by the people.


1. The number 56 is the nearest whole number to three metonic cycles; 19 + 19 +18 = 56. More accurately 3 metonic cycles of 18.61 = 55.83.

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