Brigit of Ireland: Saint or goddess?
Posted on: 30 January 2023
Ireland's new public holiday to celebrate the icon Brigit has been greeted with widespread enthusiasm. In this comment piece, Dr Mary Condren, Trinity’s Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies, asks “who is Brigit, goddess or saint?”
Europeans in search of The Goddess have found that the word goddess refers to images of divinity found in several eras: Old Europe, Indo-Europe, and contemporary Europe. Very broadly speaking, divinity can be variously characterised as panentheistic, henotheistic, polytheistic and monotheistic. Each, approach entails very different theologies, ethics and values that need to be distinguished.
In a panentheistic framework, Goddess is a metaphor for ‘neart’ (energy), shakti, life-force, or divine vibrations (Eva Gore-Booth). She is not personified but is often metaphorically represented by animals representing regeneration: bees, bears, serpents, bulls and others that are culturally specific. The Irish Cailleach refused to be tied down to one place. Macha pleaded that she should not be named. Divinity is mysterious.
In a henotheistic framework, divinity is considered located in special places. Gobnait, Brigit of Munster, is associated with Ballyvourney. Lasair of Duhallow gave her festival to Brigit Today, many other ancient sites belong to Saint Brigit. There we find wells, trees, chairs, and plains (that should never be subject to the plough or otherwise wounded).
Panentheism and henotheism are typical of Old Europe, and henotheists acknowledge the Brigits of other places.
Indo-European gods and goddesses are polytheistic, and while we must acknowledge and respect the many ways in which cultures image and name their divinities, we should also be aware of subjugation and denigration strategies in sagas and other classical sources.
In Indo-European cultures, many old divinities were used by ambitious rising political entities to legitimate radically changing worldviews. Like Maeve in the Táin, or the Greek Athena who exclaimed, no mother gave me birth, I came full blown from the head of Zeus, such figures (often originating in Old Europe) are now framed as belligerent supporters of warring escapades. In some Lives, even Brigit is depicted supporting a rising Irish political entity.
Finally, in a monotheistic framework, ruled by a singular male deity, Brigit is a saint, but what is a saint?
Some saints are radical reformers, subject to suspicion and critique during their lives, but canonised when dead. Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, pleaded not to be canonised after her death: I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.
Other saints were applauded and valorised during their lifetimes (and afterwards for their various practices). Viewed today with psychoanalytic lenses, some might be considered to have been deeply disturbed.
Where does this leave Brigit?
Some scholars argue that Brigit was brought into Ireland by the Brigantes, escaping Roman persecution. However, we cannot assume that what we know of the Indo-European Brigantian priestesses or their practices has much in common with the Brigit we know from her living traditions at Imbolc.
Brigit’s relics and material artefacts – her embroidery tools, cloak, crios/girdle, and cross – have many parallels across Old Europe and beyond. For instance, the cloak is a universal symbol of female divinity collecting the dew of mercy.
According to Miranda Aldhouse-Green, the word Brigit is a title meaning 'The Exalted One'. In many matri-centred societies, women leaders took the name of a revered founder, embodying her ethics and traditions. Brigit’s successors, the great Abbesses of Kildare, were known as 'Those Who Turned Back the Streams of War'. Stripped of religious authority by the 12th century synods, and raped by ambitious political figures, their demise signalled the denigration of their traditions and the suppression of female spiritual leadership for centuries to come.
Cover image: photo of ‘Brigid of Faughart’ mural in Dundalk by visual artist FRIZ.