A Tale of Two Brigids: a Celtic Goddess and a Christian Saint
There are churches dedicated to Saint Brigid in many parts of the world. With time, she became one of the most important icons of the Catholic Church. However, it is still uncertain if she was a real person. An analysis of various resources suggests that her legend actually grew from a myth about a Celtic goddess.
During the first centuries of its existence, the Christian religion adopted and modified many pagan sites and stories. Several churches replaced ancient altars and sacred pagan locations. Moreover, stories about the great people of the past and myths about their deities became the foundation for legends which describe the lives of Christian saints. When the early Christians discovered a powerful story in the land of a recently converted community they tried to replace it with one of their own.
A Goddess of Spring
Her name is often said to be Brigid, but she has also been called Brigit, Brig, Brighid, Bride, etc. She was an Irish goddess who was associated with spring, poetry, medicine, cattle, and arts and crafts. Brigid’s feast day was celebrated around February 1 and was called Oimlec ( Imbolc). The original Irish text says the following about her:
''Feast of the Bride, feast of the maiden.
Melodious Bride of the fair palms.
Thou Bride fair charming,
Pleasant to me the breath of thy mouth,
When I would go among strangers
'Thou thyself wert the hearer of my tale.''
The name Brigid may come from the word ''Brigani'' meaning ''sublime one''. It was romanized as Brigantia during the times of the Roman Empire’s domination. This form was used to name the river Braint (now Anglesey), Brent (Middlesex), and also Brechin in Scotland. Brigid appears to be related to the Roman goddess Victoria, but sometimes she was presented as similar to Caelstis or Minerva instead.
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According to Cormac's Glossary (written by 10th century monks) she was a daughter of the god Dagda, a protector of a tribe. She was seen as a goddess of poetry, fertility, and smithcraft. Her identification with Minerva comes from the interest of both goddesses in bards and artists. In ancient times, smiths were not only recognized for their craft, but their work was also connected with magic. Brigid was strongly associated with the symbol of fire as well. She was a part of the Tuatha Dé Danann , an Irish supernatural race known from mythology. She may have also been one of the triple deities of the Celts.
Plate of god Dagda of the Gundestrup cauldron. ( Public Domain )
St Brigid of Ireland appears
When Ireland was Christianized, the monks and priests needed good examples to inspire people to follow the new faith. They used the same method as in the other parts of the world and started to create stories which sounded familiar to the inhabitants of the converted areas. In one of these stories they described a woman who connected two cultures.
According to Catholic resources, St Brigid was born 451 or 452 AD in Faughart, near Dundalk, County Louth. She was said to be a daughter of a Druid man and a slave woman. Brigid reportedly refused many marriage offers and decided to become a nun. She settled for some time near the foot of Croghan Hill with seven other virgin nuns. They are said to have changed their home a few time, but finally the nuns lived in Kildare, where Brigid died as an old woman on February 1, 525 AD. The Catholic Church argues that the date of her death is a coincidence; however it also provides a meaningful link between the Celtic goddess and Christian Saint.
Saint Brigit as depicted in Saint Non's chapel, St Davids, Wales. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
In legends St Brigid was a daughter of Dubtach. She was perhaps prepared to be a Druid, though in the end she became a nun. This was quite a popular solution for wise people of pre-Christian religions: To avoid problems, many of them preferred to become a part of monasteries and continue their practice connected with the ancient ways as “Christians.”
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Like the goddess, St Brigid is associated with fire too. The first biography written about her was made in 650 AD by St Broccan Cloen. However, in the 20th century many researchers began to doubt the historical evidence for her life. The saint wrote: