Brigid, whose name means ‘the Exalted One,’ was one of the most well-loved goddesses of the An Tuatha Dé Danann. She was the daughter of the chief, ‘The Dagda’, and wife of Bres, a former high king, with whom she had a son Rúadán. However, she was venerated throughout ancient Ireland in her own right as a powerful deity.
Brigid held sway over many domains. On one hand, she was a serene goddess of healing, fertility, water, motherhood, childbirth and agriculture. On the other, she was a passionate goddess of fire, creativity, poetry, smithcraft and invention. People worshipped her as a powerful, yet personal individual. When she wasn’t protecting mothers and newborn children, she was inspiring many of the writers and poets for which Ireland is internationally renowned.
First and foremost, Brigid was considered a goddess of the sun and fire. She often appeared as a fiery-haired maiden wearing a cloak of the sunbeam. For this reason, Brigid was also considered the goddess of spring and she was celebrated on the festival of ‘Imbolc’ which occurred around Feb 1st. ‘Imbolc’ means ‘in the belly’ and is associated with the sun warming the earth after a long cold winter, the birthing of young animals, the sowing of seeds and new beginnings. Brigid’s link to the sun and spring made her a goddess of agriculture. In particular, she was the protectress of animals, mainly cattle and sheep. People of ancient Ireland used to leave offerings for Brigid at Imbolc to ask her for protection of their homes, animals and to ensure good harvests. This tradition continued for many centuries.
It is thought that Brigid’s protection of women in childbirth and children grew from her inability to protect her own son, Rúadán. Brigid was married to Bres, the half-Fomorian High King who was ousted by An Tuatha Dé Dannan for being an unjust leader. Bres declared war on An Tuatha and their son Rúadán sided with his father. This put him on the side of the Fomorians and pitted him against his mother’s people.
Tragically, during the 2nd battle of Moytura, Rúadán killed the smith god of An Tuatha, Gobhniu, but he died shortly afterwards himself from his wounds. Brigid was so overcome by grief that her mournful cries could be heard for miles.
This was the beginning of the tradition of ‘keening’ in Ireland. ‘Keening’ was an intense and almost musical wailing by mourners at funerals that allowed them to openly express their grief in the same way Brigid did when Rúadán died. People were comforted and inspired by Brigid during their loss.
Brigid is said to have been the first to invent and craft a whistle to use for night travel. It was used, particularly by women, for calling to one another so they could be located and kept safe through the night. Although it was originally a practical tool, it evolved into one of the earliest musical instruments of An Tuatha dé Danann. For this reason, Brigid also became known as the goddess of music.
Brigid has always been connected to Poetry. In early Irish literature such as ‘Lebor Gabála Érenn’ and ‘Cormac’s Glossary’, Brigid is described as a ‘goddess of poets’. This ties into her fire element again from the spark of inspiration and creativity associated with poetry. Brigid as a fire goddess is often linked to her role as the goddess of smiths and metalworking. Here, she governs the forge’s fire where the smith takes raw material from the earth and moulds it into something useful or beautiful such as tools, weapons or brooches. She inspired not just smiths, but craftsmen of all trades. Her fire associations were so strong that a perpetual fire was set at Kildare in her honour.
In contrast to this, she was also referred to as a goddess connected to water, wells and rivers. The water from her wells was said to have healing properties. Brigid was revered as a healer, both through her wells and her knowledge of herbs and salves.
Ancient texts also describe Brigid as ‘a wise woman’ or ‘a sage’. In modern literature, Lady Augusta Gregory describes Brigid as ‘very great and very noble’. She was said to be a learned goddess and her ability to always know what was needed was one of her many sacred gifts.
It has been argued that the goddess Brigid became Saint Brigid when Christianity came to Ireland. Although this has never been proven definitively, there are striking similarities between the two.
Both Brigids were connected to fire and a perpetual flame. Goddess Brigid’s flame was said to be a naturally occurring fire that burned on the hill of Kildare in pre-Christian times and was protected by female priestesses. Saint Brigid also kept a sacred fire at her monastery in Kildare which was kept alight by nineteen nuns. On the 20th day, Brigid tended it herself. This sacred flame survived up to the suppression of the monasteries in the sixteenth century. In 1993 the flame was re-lit in Market Square, Kildare, by Sr. Mary Teresa Cullen, then congregational leader of the Brigidine Sisters. Currently, the flame is in the care of Brigidine Sisters in Solas Bhride in Kildare town.
Other similarities between the goddess and saint are their associations with water and holy wells. Also, they are both connected to poetry, smithing, medicine, arts and crafts, cattle and other livestock and the arrival of spring.
Saint Brigid’s feast day is on February 1st and for the first time, it will become an official public holiday in Ireland in 2023. Goddess Brigid was celebrated at Imbolc which also marks the first day of Spring, around February 1st in the pagan calendar. The debate goes on among historians about whether St Brigid and Goddess Brigid were the same person. Either way, Ireland was truly blessed to have had them both.