The first of February is Saint Brigid’s day, or Imbolc, the Gaelic festival of the beginning of spring, sacred to the goddess Brigit, many of whose attributes were later attributed to Saint Brigid of Kildare. One of her attributes is that she can turn water into beer, presumably without going through the tiresome business of brewing it. So here’s to Saint Brigid! Cheers!
Imbolc is the ancient Gaelic festival of spring, situated halfway between the shortest day and the spring equinox, as is the catholic celebration of Candlemas (2nd February) and the Japanese Setsubun festival (3rd February). There are various attempts to explain the etymology of the word, but perhaps the most convincing is that it carries the combined meaning of ritual cleansing and milking. Imbolc is said to be a festival of the hearth and home, fire, candlelight and purification were an important aspects of it. Imbolc is one of the four fire festivals that take place at the quarters between the solar festivals of solstices and equinoxes:
- 21st December: Winter Solstice (Solar Festival)
- 1 February: Imbolc (Fire Festival)
- 21st March: Spring Equinox (Solar Festival)
- 1st May: Beltane (Fire Festival)
- 21st June: Summer Solstice (Solar Festival
- 1st August: Lughnasadh (Fire Festival)
- 21st September: Autumn Equinox (Solar Festival)
- 21st November: Samhain (Fire Festival)
Imbolc is especially intriguing because it is closely associated with the two Brigids, the pagan goddess and the Christian saint.
Brigid of the Tuatha Dé Danaan
The 10th century Irish king and saint, Cormac, wrote that the goddess Brigid was a poet and daughter of the Dagdae, that is god of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, an ancient race of Irish gods, children of the primordal mother goddess Danu, who in later mythologies become the Irish fairy folk, the aes sídhe, who appear in the poetry of Yeats. According to Cormac,
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; from whose names with all Irishmen a goddess was called Brigit. Brigit, then, breo-aigit, breo-shaigit a fiery arrow.Sanas Cormaic, translated by John O’Donovan, ed. Whitley Stokes: https://archive.org/details/sanaschormaicco00stokgoog/page/n40
O’Donnovan comments that [Codex] B “omits the absurd etymology of Brigit” – the “fiery arrow” stuff – and speculatively associates her name with the “Old Celtic” Brigantia and Old Norse Bragi. By the third century A. D. Brigantia herself was associated with the Roman goddess Victoria, at least in the northern provinces of the Roman Empire in Britain. If she is indeed associated with Brigantia, then we may also see her in the image of Britannia, the symbol and protector of the British Isles.
Brigid as Queen of Wands
For my part, I associate Brigid with the Queen of Wands, particularly as represented in the Masonic Tarot deck, with her coronet of three upstanding triangles hinting at her triform divinity, and the fiery torch that connects her to the Imbolc fire festival.
Saint Brigid of Kildare
According to various annals, Saint Brigid died some time in the early 6th century. She founded the monastery of Kildare (among others) by an oak tree, a sacred tree to the pagans: Kildare = Kill-dara = church by the oak tree. As well as brewers, she is the patron saint of children born into unmarried or violent families, shepherds, mariners, dairy and poultry workers, printers and scholars among others.
Here’s a story about Brigid that links her to both the milk and ritual cleansing of Imbolc that I mentioned earlier: In 453 A.D., Brigid’s father, a druid, had a dream that his wife would give birth to a radiant daughter who should be named after the goddess Brigit. When she was born her mother bathed her in milk. Here is the combination of ritual cleansing and milk that I alluded to earlier. She could not or would not eat the food of the pagans and so a white cow with red ears came along and supplied her with milk. The saint no less than the goddess has a connection with fire; she is said to have kept a sacred fire alight at the monastery of Kildare, tended by 19 nuns and herself. It continued burning, possibly until the suppression of the monasteries in the Henry VIII’s time. A new Brigidine flame was lit in the market square of Kilare by the Brigidine Sisters in 1993.
There are a lot of wells in Ireland that are dedicated to Saint Brigid, wells that were previously sacred to the old Gaelic deities of the Tuatha, including Brigid. Another link between the two is Saint Brigid’s cross, which resembles a swastika woven out of reeds and placed over doorways for protection. On Saint Brigid’s Eve Brigid was said to visit people’s homes, bringing good luck for the year. In various manifestations of the festival, Brigid would be called out to and invited to spend the night in a bed in the house. This ritual invitation of good luck into the house reminds me again of the Japanese festival although that is a lunar festival that involves a ritual exorcising of evil spirits along with calling in good luck.
W. B. Yeats’ The Host of the Air: Bridget the Bride Taken by Fairies
The Tuatha deities continued in Ireland, metamorphosing into fairy folk, the aes sídhe whom we appease by referring to as “good-people,” just as Puck is also Robin Goodfellow in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In that play the rift between Oberon and Titania is over the possession of a mortal boy. The fairies of old Ireland also want to carry people off to fairy land, especially newly married women, such as a certain “Bridget” in Yeats’ ballad, The Host of the Air, which I leave you with here, read by Irish poet Brendan Kennelly and offered to Brigid, goddess of bards:
O’Driscoll drove with a song
The wild duck and the drake
From the tall and the tufted reeds
Of the drear Hart Lake.
And he saw how the reeds grew dark
At the coming of night-tide,
And dreamed of the long dim hair
Of Bridget his bride.
He heard while he sang and dreamed
A piper piping away,
And never was piping so sad,
And never was piping so gay.
And he saw young men and young girls
Who danced on a level place,
And Bridget his bride among them,
With a sad and a gay face.
The dancers crowded about him
And many a sweet thing said,
And a young man brought him red wine
And a young girl white bread.
But Bridget drew him by the sleeve
Away from the merry bands,
To old men playing at cards
With a twinkling of ancient hands.
The bread and the wine had a doom,
For these were the host of the air;
He sat and played in a dream
Of her long dim hair.
He played with the merry old men
And thought not of evil chance,
Until one bore Bridget his bride
Away from the merry dance.
He bore her away in his arms,
The handsomest young man there,
And his neck and his breast and his arms
Were drowned in her long dim hair.
O’Driscoll scattered the cards
And out of his dream awoke:
Old men and young men and young girls
Were gone like a drifting smoke;
But he heard high up in the air
A piper piping away,
And never was piping so sad,
And never was piping so gay.William Butler Yeats, The Host of the Air, from The Wind Among the Reeds, 1899