The Feast of St Brigid, or Imbolg, is an ancient and somewhat forgotten holiday that falls on 1 February, midway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. Brigid’s Feast Day is said to be set to this date at her request so that her day would precede the Marian Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, or Candlemas, on the 2nd. She was so esteemed by God that this wish was granted. Her day is celebrated throughout Ireland and Scotland and in many other places where Celtic people left a mark. As this is a Celtic holiday, it begins and most ritual activity takes place, at sundown on 31 January.
St. Brigid’s Day is said to bring bright weather, ushering in the spring.
It is said that the lark begins to sing on St Brigid’s Day and the blackbird also, and that all the birds of the air begin to mate from St Brigid’s Day onward.
Today is the day of Bride, The serpent shall come from the hole I will not molest the serpent, Nor will the serpent molest me.
A short poem from Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica that ties Brigid to the divinatory snake,
presumably indicating that whatever the snake says is good.
Brigid is a bundle of contradictions. She is goddess of both fire and water. She deals out vengeance on behalf of those wronged by those in power — especially women and the poor — and yet she is also known for compassion and forgiveness. She is a healer who is also a warrior, a humble milkmaid and slave-girl who commands miracles, a goddess of fertility best known to Catholics as a holy virgin.
It is she who helps everyone in trouble and affliction.
It is she who cures diseases.
It is she who mitigates anger and calms the stormy sea.
In folk traditions, “Brigid” means “fiery arrow”, “bright arrow” or “the bright one”. None of these are accurate translations, but they are descriptive of her character. Both Goddess and Saint are closely tied to fire and sunlight.
One day when St Brigid was still a young child, the people living near her saw that her house was on fire. They ran to the house to put out the fire. But when they got there they found no flames. Instead the light came from the young girl, glowing with the Spirit.
Brigid was out with her flocks one rainy day and received word that St Brendan the Navigator was visiting her home. She rushed home and danced through the door. Mistaking a sudden sunbeam for a hook, she tossed her sopping cloak on the ray of light and it hung there to dry. Brendan was duly impressed and ordered his servant to retrieve his own cloak so that it might hang on a sunbeam as well. The servant did as ordered; the cloak fell to the floor. Brendon was humbled before the humble milkmaid.
She is frequently presented as a triple goddess of fire, three sisters all named Brigid — Brigid of the Hearth, Brigid of the Forge Fire, and Brigid of the Creative Fire. Brigid of the Creative Fire is credited with giving the written word to humanity. She is patron of poetry and inspiration, wisdom and education. Brigid of the Forge Fire is patron of metalworking and craft generally. Brigid of the Hearth provides healing and nourishment.
Brigid is also a watery deity and saint. She is associated with many wells throughout Ireland. It is common to make pilgrimages to these wells on St Brigid’s Day.
On St Brigid's Eve, as the night fell, my mother and I went to Saint Brigid's well, where the candles do burn...
St Brigid healed lepers using the water from her sacred well, and after she midwifed the infant Jesus into the world, she blessed the baby with three drops of water from her sacred well.
Along the way the five brothers came upon a well guarded by an ugly old hag. As they were thirsty they asked the old woman for a drink. But only for a kiss will she give her life-giving waters. The eldest recoils from the hag, then the next and the next and the next. But the youngest, Niall, gladly kisses the hag’s shriveled lips, whereupon she turns into a beautiful maiden queen. She tells him that he is destined to be king of all Ireland because he alone sees the value beyond appearance.
As Goddess, she has dominion over change and transformation, particularly of regeneration in spring-time. She is often seen as a double goddess — maiden and crone, Brigid and the Cailleach — who annually rejuvenates herself in the spring.
Once the Cailleach held prisoner a maiden named Brigid. But the Cailleach’s own dear son fell in love with Brigid and rescued Brigid from the Cailleach’s mountain fortress. The hag chased the young lovers from mountain to shore, forest to moor. Fierce storms followed in her wake. But eventually exhausted, the Cailleach sat down on a mountain peak and turned herself to stone. At last the couple escaped, trailing flowers behind them.
Corn dollies are made at the preceding harvest to represent the Cailleach. These dollies are kept over the winter, usually in the kitchen or granary, and brought out at Imbolg when Brigid transforms herself into a young woman once again. The harvest dolly is placed in a symbolic bed on the hearth and dressed in white lace, shells, stones and whatever flowers are available. If the hearth ashes are disturbed in the morning, this indicates that Brigid had visited her bed overnight, leaving her blessing on the home for the coming year. After Imbolg, the grain dolly is often mixed in with the spring’s seed corn as a charm for fertility and continuity.
In the Celtic pantheon, Brigid is sometimes the daughter of Boann, goddess of the River Boyne (which means “white cow” or “she of the white cattle). We can see in this myth the roots of Brigid’s association with a white, otherworldly cow. And later, St Brigid continued to be associated with unusual dairy cows.
She was not used to ordinary food.
She ate only milk from a white cow with red ears.
St Brigid’s ties to milk can be seen in many of her miracle tales. In one, an unexpected delegation of dignitaries in a time of dearth flustered her father’s household. Brigid saved the day. She milked her cows three times and each milking produced three times the normal amount of milk — until her pails overflowed over Leinster, creating the Lake of Milk.
As a child, Brigid was pious and generous. Ordered to churn butter by her master, she gave most of it away to the poor. When the druid scolded her, she prayed to heaven and the churn overflowed with butter. Her master was so astonished by this that he immediately converted to Christianity and freed Brigid and her mother.
In other myths the goddess Brigid is the daughter of the Dagda, the Good God, a fertility deity of markedly earthy character, and the Morrigan, the Washer at the Fords, the crow harbinger of war and destruction. In some myths, she is paired with Bres the Beautiful, the half-Fomorian and half-enemy ruler of the Tuatha de Danaan. Therefore, Brigid can be seen as a bridge between warring peoples. When her son, Ruadan, is killed by the smith god, Goibniu, Brigid creates the mourning custom of keening.
Brigid demonstrates the strength and empowerment of women. She is strong, wise, clever and powerful as both goddess and saint. She represents the potential for any woman to be self-contained and independent and yet feminine. She is maiden, mother and crone. Brigid leads women and men alike to show compassion and draw on inner strength, while remaining steadfast in the pursuit of wisdom and justice. She is powerful, but she shows us unwavering care and kindness.
As saint she is called the Great Teacher and was one of the early advocates for educating women. She is credited with creating the whistle as a defensive weapon, protecting women from attack. So honored was motherhood in Brigid’s domain that rape — which might result in forced motherhood — was punished severely. The stories of Brigid inventing the whistle likely originated in her role as protector of motherhood.
In many places it was a tradition on Imbolg to open all of the doors and windows in the home and for the women of the house to stand at the threshold in order to receive Brigid’s blessings.
She is also a goddess of childbirth and motherhood, being known in Christian tradition as the midwife to the birth of the Christ Child.
Brigid has many characteristics not commonly associated with sainted women in the Christian Church.
When Brigid went to receive the nun’s veil from Bishop Mel, the Holy Spirit caused Mel to read the rite of the Ordination of a Bishop over Brigid instead, and she was therefore miraculously ordained. When other church men complained to Mel, he replied that he had no power over the matter, that God had seen fit to ordain Brigid and caused the change in the text. Brigid’s successors also received this honor “beyond that of any other woman”.
St Brigid’s Christian chroniclers are also unusually frank about her pagan heritage. In her hagiographies, she is often marked for greatness by pagan powers. Her life and manner of birth are foretold by druids.
The child born tomorrow at the rising of the sun, and who is born without being inside or outside a house — that child will surpass every other child in Ireland.
And so it happened. Broicseach, Brigid’s enslaved mother, was stepping over the threshold at dawn carrying a bucket of buttermilk when she gave birth to Brigid. The household women washed mother and infant in the buttermilk. Almost instantly Brigid began performing miracles. The infant Brigid was taken to a place where the recently still-born son of a queen lay in state. Brigid’s mere breath raised the dead boy to life.
These symbols — the liminality of the threshold and sunrise and a stillborn child — do not hold great meaning in the Christian faith. They descend from the Goddess. In these tales we see the transformation from Goddess to Saint with no loss of power or dignity. The Goddess of transformation transformed herself and continues to do so to this day.
Brigid, if summoned with the proper ritual, is said to visit and bless the household on the eve of her feast. At nightfall, a young girl carrying a large bundle of rushes knocks three times on the door of the home, each time begging admission in Brigid’s name. After the third time, the household bids her welcome, giving prayerful thanks for the Brigid’s blessings.
The family then sets about weaving Brigid’s Crosses from the rushes. The shape of the crosses varies from place to place, sometimes 3-armed, but more commonly four offset arms around a central square, the typical sun symbol. After a feast that includes plenty of dairy products, the crosses are placed in the thatch of the house and the barn, protecting the household from fire and storm.
The Manx believe that St Brigid came to the Isle of Man to receive the veil from St Maughold. On St Brigid’s feast day, Manx housewives gather green rushes, stand on the threshold, and invite St Brigid to enter the home, calling out:
Brigid, Brigid, come to my house, come to my house tonight
Open the door for Brigid, and let Brigid come in.
Then the rushes are placed by the hearth as a bed for the saint.
Sometimes the leftover straw and rushes are woven into a girdle or hoop. Family members step through this hoop and then pass it over their livestock as an additional protective charm.
Gifts are usually left for Brigid and her companion, the white cow — milk, cheese and oatcakes for Brigid, oats and straw for the cow.
Here is a custom which the old people had long ago. When the Feast of Brigid arrived, the man of the house used to go out on that night and get a sheaf of oats and set it down at the doorstep. The reason for doing this was that when St Brigid arrived at the door that night, and when she saw the sheaf, she would put her blessing on this year’s crop of oats.
Brigid was staunchly dedicated to charity; she gave away whatever came to her hands. This was not as extreme as it seems. Among the Celtic nobility, the rules of hospitality dictated regular exchange of costly gifts as tribute and aggrandizement.
Once Brigid visited a poor woman. The woman, following the rules of hospitality, was forced to slaughter her only calf and break up her loom for firewood in order to provide a meal. Brigid took pity on the woman and miraculously replaced both calf and loom the next day.
The difference was that Brigid took from the rich nobility and distributed the bounty to the poor.
One day a wealthy woman gave Brigid a basket of lovely apples. Brigid exclaimed that the apples would make lovely gifts for the poor and hungry. The woman was angered at this saying “I brought these apples for you and your virgins and not to be given to lepers”. At this Brigid became offended. She cursed the woman’s apple trees, saying that the trees would henceforth bear no fruit. And indeed, when the woman returned to her orchard, the trees which had been heavy with fruit were empty and they remained barren ever after.
Brigid had little fear of power. She was champion of the powerless, quite often without ever directly challenging but undermining those in high places all the same.
Once a poor man came near the court of the King of Leinster. Seeing a fox in the courtyard, the poor man killed it, thinking he’d rid the king of a pest. Unfortunately for the poor man, this fox was the tame pet of the king. When the king learned that his beloved fox was dead at this man’s hand, he had the man thrown in the dungeon, threatening the man with death unless he could replace the fox. Now, Brigid, hearing of this man’s sad plight, immediately set out to intercede with the king on this man’s behalf. Along the way, a fox jumped into her cart and remained by her side until she came before the king. She presented this fox to the king, whereupon the fox began doing all the tricks that the king’s tame pet had been known to do. The king was abashed and released the man. Brigid returned to her monastery. However, as soon as the poor man and the saint left the court, the fox ran off. Though the king and all his men pursued the wily animal, he was never caught.
Saint Brigid was both slave and daughter to Dubthach, a chieftan of Leinster. Since her generosity drove him mad, he resolved to sell her to King Dunlang of Leinster. When they arrived at the King’s keep, Dubthach commanded Brigid to wait with the cart while he went in to negotiate. Rather than praising Brigid, he complained to the king “Nothing will stop her from selling my goods and giving the proceeds to the poor”. Meanwhile, Brigid, waiting in the cart outside, was approached by a leper begging alms. Brigid, having nothing to give, looked about the cart and saw her father’s fine sword which she presented to the beggar. When her father came back to the cart and found his sword gone, he was irate. He dragged Brigid before the king. Upon hearing what she’d done, King Dunlang asked “If you came to be my bond-maid, how much of my wealth and cattle would you give away?” She replied “Jesus knows that if I had your wealth, I would give it all.” Dunlang declined to buy her for his household, but so impressed was he by her generosity that he proclaimed “Brigid’s status is higher in the eyes of God than among men”. The king gave Dubhthach a sword with an ivory hilt on Brigid’s behalf and then bestowed freedom on Brigid.
When St Brigid wanted to build an abbey to better give aid to the poor, she went before the King of Leinster to ask for land. The king, being flinty, told her he would give her nothing. So then she asked that he give her as much land as could be covered by her cloak. At this, the king laughed scornfully and agreed. Then four of Brigid’s maidens took the four corners of her cloak and began to spread it out. They turned and ran and the cloak grew with them. Soon the cloak covered a vast area and the king became alarmed. He repented and implored Brigid to call off her women, promising that whatever she needed he would give if she would but leave some of his kingdom uncovered.
When she had secured her land, Brigid first built a small cell under an oak tree for herself and her companions. The place became known as Cill Dara which can be translated as either the church (“cill”) of the oak or the oak wood (“coill”). Under Brigid’s leadership the community grew to become a great nunnery and monastery, a famous center of learning. Brigid also founded a school for the arts at Kildare, including a program for metalwork — a legend claims that only working goldsmiths may be appointed bishop — and a scriptorium which produced the magnificent Book of Kildare, among many illuminated manuscripts.
But most famously, Kildare housed the shrine of the Eternal Flame, where it was guarded night and day behind a hedge of thorns that no man could pass. Brigid’s Daughters of the Flame maintained the perpetual flame in Kildare from the fifth century BCE to the sixteenth century CE when King Henry VIII had the site dismantled because it was too pagan. Recently, the Flame has been reignited with Flame tenders spread around the globe. There are even virtual flames and events (here is one) for those who can only dream of going to Ireland.
K, Amber, and Azrael Arynn K. Candlemas: Feast of Flames. 2001. Llewellyn Publications: Woodbury, Minnesota.
Montley, Patricia. In Nature’s Honor: Myths and Rituals Celebrating the Earth. 2000. Skinner House Books: Boston, Massachusetts.
Neal, Carl. Imbolc: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for Brigid’s Day (Llewellyn’s Sabbat Essentials). 2015. Llewellyn Publications: Woodbury, Minnesota.
Ó’Duinn, Seán. The Rites of Brigid, Goddess and Saint. 2005. The Columba Press: Blackrock, Co. Dublin.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021