I recently purchased and read The Rites of Brigid Goddess and Saint by Seán Ó Duinn. I wanted to better understand the Goddess and, though I have read such works as “The First Battle of Moytura” and “The Second Battle of Moytura,” as well as several scholarly works which studied the overall Celtic/Druidic religious perspective (that we can tell), I have read very little that is specifically about Brighid. What drew me to this work, besides the positive review by the much-respected Erynn Rowan Laurie, was that it was written by a Christian monk who was not only accepting and even respectful of the Saint’s pre-Christian origins, but also extremely well-studied in regards to the folk practices surrounding her. That is what I wanted a better understanding of for they give hints at what once was – things that may not have been explicitly stated in the surviving manuscripts from Ireland and other Celtic nations.
Ó Duinn covers different categories of practice and belief in each chapter. Some topics discussed include Brighid’s yearly return from the Otherworld and what customs surrounded that; flame keeping; holy wells; and the crafts and costumes associated with her. Although many people know of the existence of such practices, it was fascinating to see a closer examination of them and the differences and/or similarities between various Irish counties.
I was both intrigued and encouraged to read about Brighid’s darker side. So many modern Pagan books focus on her midwifery and healing, as well as her creative powers. They forget that there is a darker side to such things – creativity requires the transformation and destruction of something else. A healer must eventually decide when someone is beyond healing. Women can die in childbirth. Blacksmithing is extremely dangerous. The fire that warms the home can just as easily destroy it. It could be argued that some of these “darker” sides were embraced by The Morrigan or even the Cailleach (hag), but there is a lot of cultural evidence to show that people were aware of Brighid’s jealous side. There was a belief that Brighid could ignore you on Imbolc, which was seen as a very bad sign for the family and the harvest. (Brighid has some very strong connections to fertility.) There was a lot of animal sacrifice in her honor, even in modern Christian times. Much of it involved chickens. There were also a lot of vegetable sacrifices made in her honor. There was even a belief that Brighid had/could set peoples’ homes on fire. This backs up some UPG experienced by a grove member whose friend said Brighid was weak compared to the Morrigan. He returned to his home to find it ablaze! I myself have experienced Brighid’s jealousy, though not in a violent way. For a Wiccan Drawing-Down ceremony I attended, it was decided that the group would call to Freyja. During meditation, Brighid appeared to me, felt as if she was holding me, and I heard her voice say “mine.” Obviously I was not meant to be Freyja’s vessel!
Do I think Brighid is quite as vengeful these days? While the person whose house burned down will probably never take Brighid lightly again, I get the impression, through my studies and personal experiences, that most Gods are not as fierce as they used to be. This has nothing to do with an inability to be hostile as I firmly believe they are more powerful than us and could do quite a bit of damage if they wanted. But I believe that the Gods have evolved socially, like us. I also think they realize that burning everyone’s house down is not a good way to keep up good relations. That said, I also think it’s possible for a God to have a moment of passion or extreme anger. It can happen to people, and the Gods are known for being hot headed!
Returning to the book, Ó Duinn also discusses the crafts associated with Brighid. I was very interested in this because 1) I’m an artsy person and 2) I got the book as a source for my Artisan study program’s muse essay. The Romans, as many of us know, equated Brighid with Minerva, citing her as the patron of art. I was always gladdened yet mystified by this association. Minerva is known for weaving while Brighid is associated with black smithing. Ó Duinn explains that there are some folk beliefs about Brighid and fiber arts. Many say she invented them and taught women how to turn wool into clothing. This is wonderful news for someone like me who sews and has always felt Brighid’s presence strongly during my work. It’s a UPG verified by folk belief. There is also a link between Brighid and the spinning wheel, including a taboo that people are not supposed to do any such work involving wheels on Imbolc. Needless to say, I have a lot of good information to help me begin working on my muse essay.
I definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in Celtic culture and/or Brighid as a Goddess or a saint. Some may find it a bit dry, but my passion for the Goddess made every new bit of information worth the read.