Brighid has the distinction of being both worshipped as a Goddess and honored as the Catholic Saint Brigit. In reality, she may have been a Druidess. Her birthplace is said to be in Kildare, Ireland, which was originally spelled Cill Dara, which means “Church of the Oak” and may have a Druidic reference. The name Brighid has been translated as “shining one” or “the exalted”, and can be spelled Brigid, Bride or Brid, and pronounced Brid-get, Breed, or Bree-id. In Welsh she appears as Vrain or St. Ffraid, although we really didn’t have a Brighid’s Day holiday. On the European continent she is called Bergit or Brigette, sometimes pronounced “Bear-zheet”. She is linked to the Welsh Brenda and Branwen, and British Brece, Britannia and Brigantia. Brighid is still greatly beloved in Ireland, as well as by Pagans and Catholics worldwide.
Legends of Brighid the Goddess say that she was either the daughter of the God Dagda or fathered by a Druid named Dubhthach. She was born at sunrise with fire shooting from her forehead, perhaps a metaphor for red hair. Brighid is the goddess of flame, blacksmiths and other forms of craftsmanship. Because of her aspect as a skilled tradeswoman, the Romans associated her with Minerva, their goddess of weaponcraft and war. This might also reflect that Brighid was revered for her wisdom and learning. In Kildare, a sacred fire dedicated to Brighid was attended first by nineteen priestesses of the Goddess, or perhaps female Druids, and then by Catholic nuns. No man was allowed to help stoke the fire. Brighid’s flame was extinguished twice, once in 1220 when the Archbishop of Dublin tried to remove any Pagan connotations from the shrine, and again during the Protestant Reformation under the reign of Henry VIII. Brighid’s Flame was re-kindled in the 1920s and has been burning steadily ever since.
Brighid is also aligned with water, agriculture, midwifery, and healing. There are many sacred wells and springs dedicated to her in the British Isles and Ireland, including the famous font at Kildare. The water is believed to have curing properties. Some of the wells have trees growing nearby where people tie ribbons or rags and leave coins as offerings. Worshippers light candles or toss coins into the well water itself in veneration of Brighid and as a way to have prayers answered. These rituals are still being performed today. Sites where three rivers come together are considered sacred to Brighid, perhaps reflecting her threefold aspect. People wove reeds or barley stalks into four-armed “Brighid’s Crosses” as a symbol of the sun, the crops, and later as a representation of the Christian cross.
There are many legends associated with Brighid in both Pagan and Christian traditions. She is the matron of poetry and inspiration, responsible for thoughts which other Gods or mortals bring into manifestation. Poetry contests were held in her honor. It was said that she had the power to turn her bathwater into beer. As a goddess of agriculture, cattle are Brighid’s sacred animals. One legend tells how she gave away an entire pail of milk or crock of butter, making her father angry enough to sell her into slavery. To appease him, she charmed either the pail or the churn, making it perpetually filled. There are numerous stories about Brighid’s healing capabilities, including her ability to cure leprosy and her status as either midwife or nurse for the baby Jesus. A set of five small standing stones outside the holy well at Kildare symbolize the five Virtues of Brigid, including respecting the earth, peacemaking, caring for the poor, helping strangers, and meditation. Related legends say that Brighid tried to give away her father’s sword, and that she asked the king for land to graze the village cattle (or convent animals). She was told that she could have as much land as her cape would cover. When Brighid placed her cloak on the ground, it spread to cover hundreds of acres.
In some of the different Irish legends, Brighid appears as a maiden, mother and crone. She was believed to have a husband, although his name is not certain. Manuscripts have linked Brighid with Lugh, Bres of the Formorians, the Brigantes’ God Vinotonus, and the Roman Sylvanus. Brighid is also associated with fertility. She was purportedly the mother of Angus or Ruadan, and when he was killed, she cried aloud, which may be where the custom of keening (crying) at funerals comes from. The Goddess was also said to have three sons by Bres of the Tuatha de Danann, who were called Brian, Iucharba, and Iuchair. These sons later were combined into one man, Brian, possibly the Brian Boru of legend. In her crone aspect, Brighid is sometimes linked with the Cailleigh, although there are also tales and rituals where one Goddess supplants the other according to the season. One legend says that sitting in “Saint Brigit’s chair”, a stone monument, can help with conception or bring on an easy childbirth.
Many Pagan traditions honor Brighid, personified as spring and fertility, at Imbolc, celebrated on February first or second. In old Ireland, her festival day was actually February seventh, which may be because the “new” Gregorian calendar changed the date.
There is no concrete documentation that Brigit the saint really existed. She was believed to have been born around 450 C.E., and died in 523 C.E. Brigit was supposedly converted to Christianity by St. Patrick. Her first convent, in Kildare, was believed to have been founded around 470. When asking a favor of God, Brigit was told that she would become ugly in return for gaining her wish. Brigit was so good and generous that after a period of time, God restored her beauty. This might hearken back to an older legend of the fertility Goddess growing old, then being restored to youth. Although Roman Catholic women are not allowed to become leaders in the Church, Brigit was said to have gained the status of Bishop, able to appoint other clerics. February 1 was her sacred day on the Catholic calendar of Saints, which is now celebrated as Candlemas. Many miracles are attributed to her, most having to do with healing. After her death, holy relics (body parts) were taken to shrines in Portugal and Germany. Artifacts believed to have been hers are in museums in France and Germany, but there is no solid proof linking these items to Brigit. She was de-canonized in the 1960s, but continues to be venerated today.
Worship of Brighid as a Pagan Goddess continues in Ireland and elsewhere to the present day. Constructing Brighid’s Beds with corn dollies, walking around sunwise at sacred wells, creating “Bridey Dolls” and making wishes or offerings to the Goddess, praying to her at the standing stone monuments, burning hawthorn logs in Brighid’s Flame, and creating Brighid’s crosses were documented by Mr. James Bonwick in his book Irish Druids and Old Irish Religion, first published in 1894; by Sir James Frazier in The Golden Bough; by Kathy Jones in her “Goddesses of Glastonbury” website, and by cultural anthropologists in current times.
http://www.webcoves.com/circles/brighid.html A Pagan article about Brighid, with a couple of links.
http://sxws.com/charis/brigit.htm Information about Brigit, from an anti-Catholic, anti-Pagan perspective. Tries to link Catholocism with Paganism in a very pejorative way. Nonetheless, they did their homework. If you can stand the tone, read it for information about the Pagan and Catholic legends of Brighid, which I believe are quite accurate.
http://www.traditionalwitchcraft.org/celtic/brigit.html A scholarly Pagan site, focusing on traditional Celtic lore, including info about God/desses. Splendid article on Brighid. Extensive bibliography.
http://altreligion.about.com/od/druidholidays/ Information about the Irish and Druidic holidays. You can jump around this site for other information, including Goddesses.
http://irishdruids.org information on Druidry as practiced in modern Ireland, including lore and history of Imbolc.
www.druidry.org The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids website, including information on holidays. This is a very good scholarly resource site
www.echoedvoices.org Celtic and other mythology in an online magazine format, sponsored by a non-profit organization.
www.neopagan.net Scholar Isaac Bonewits’s site with loads of information on Druidry, various forms of ancient and neo-Pagan practices, and other cool stuff. As a note, Bonewits was the first person to get a PhD in Magical Studies, and was the ArchDruid for Ar nDraocht Fein / A Druid Fellowship for years. Links to his & other Druid sites.
www.celticleague.org The website for the Celtic League American Branch, including information about the holidays. Great essay about the co-existence of Paganism and Christianity into modern times, origins, mythology, the religious & cultural practices of the Druidic class vs. the working class.
www.wikipedia.org An online encyclopedia. Lots of information on Celtic religion, modern Paganism and many other subjects.
www.sacred-texts.com Religious information from all faiths, including neo-Pagan and old-line Pagan. Includes works by Gardner, Murray, Leland, Thompson and others who contributed to modern Wicca.
www.beliefnet.com Religious information from all faiths, including neo-Pagan and old-line Pagan
www.witchvox.com Information, forums and listings for the neo-Pagan and Wiccan communities worldwide. Includes some information on holidays and current traditions.
www.megalithomania.com This is a wonderful site, with photographs, a map, directions, and historic information about the stone monuments, dolmens including Brighid’s chair, and holy wells including a few Brighid’s wells.
Elinor Gadon, “The Once and Future Goddess”. Art history and archeology with speculations about the works from a feminist, goddess perspective. Read the text, then go back and look at the art once again, and draw your own conclusions.
Charles Squire, “Celtic Myth and Legend”. Although this was published in 1985, the author draws on much older sources. He does a lot of comparison with the Greek / Roman “classical” Gods and legends, and he does have a bit of a snotty-scholar tone, but the information is valid.
Merlin Stone, “When God was a Woman”, about ancient Goddess worship, written from a scholarly, feminist perspective.
Jean Markale, “The Celts, Uncovering the Mythic and Historic Origins of Western Culture”. Translated from French. Quite a scholarly book, however this author quotes Morganwg a lot, so exercise reasonable caution.
Rees, Alwyn and Brinley, “Celtic Heritage”, An oldie but goody.
James Bonwick, “Irish Druids and Old Irish Religion”, first published in 1894. This scholar compared the old customs to rituals performed in his time. Very precious British anthropologist-speak, “look at the quaint natives practicing their primitive superstitions!”, but if you can stomach it, there is a wealth of information on folk magic and lore, and good speculations on Druidry, with comparisons to other magical traditions.
Sir James Frazier, “The Golden Bough”. An assignment: Required reading for every Pagan boy and girl.
Janet and Stewart Ferrar, “Eight Sabbats for Witches”. The original writers of Alexandrian Wicca, an offshoot of the Gardnerian tradition. Extensive information about the holidays, references, speculations, history, witchcraft, and the Wiccan rituals, including Imbolc and some info about Brighid.
Robert Graves, “The White Goddess”. The scholarship is shaky, but the poetry / prose is lovely, and he has some nice ideas. Fine if you take it with a grain of salt.
Caitlin & John Matthews, “Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom”. Mostly Irish, includes folktales, lore, legend, literature, Gods, etc. Well-researched. Some specualtion about Druidry and the origin of modern Celtic Pagan traditions.
Carl McColman “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Celtic Wisdom”. Okay, I bought this as a joke, not knowing how good it is! Lots of information, simply explained, including pictures and photos. Information about the Druids, Celtic lore and legend, Christian religion, Paganism, etc., including a comparison of modern Wicca to the older Celtic religious practices. The author tells you plainly when it’s a speculation, and when it’s verified, and gives sources. Simple, concise, and well-written. Pictures of Brighid’s well and other sites. All of the “Complete Idiots” and “For Dummies” guides are actually pretty darn good.