Friday, February 1, 2008

February 1st

February 1st is the feast day of St Brigid, who began her life as a pagan goddess and ended up a Christian saint. The great high goddess, Bride or Brigid, was a fire and fertility goddess, perhaps embodied in the stars in the constellation we view as Orion. In her temple at Kildare, her priestesses tended an eternal flame. She presided over all transformations: birth and brewing, metal-smithing and poetry, the passage from winter to spring.

In Celtic lore, she is the daughter of the Dagda, the Good God, who marries her to Bres of the Fomors. Her name may be derived from Gaelic breo aigit or fiery arrow or (the Matthews prefer) a Sanskrit derivation Brahti or high one. As Bride, the Queen of Heaven, she seems to have been a sun goddess. In one tale, St Brigid carries a burning coal in her apron. In another tale, flames engulf her body without burning her.

The legends about the goddess Brigid gradually became associated with the (somewhat spurious) Saint Brigid who founded the first convent in Ireland (where else?) at Kildare. Her emblem is a cow and many legends tell of how Brigid kept guests at her abbey supplied (often miraculously) with milk and butter. Her flower is the dandelion, whose yellow flower is the color of butter and whose stem when broken releases a milky sap. St Brigid supposedly helped at the birth of Jesus, thus she is the patron saint of midwives and pregnant women. She is also the patron of poets, scholars, healers, dairymaids and blacksmiths, recalling many of the arts under the protection of the goddess Bride.

On the eve of her feast day in Ireland, people put out a loaf of bread on the windowsill for the Saint and an ear of corn for her white cow, offerings for the grain goddess like the loaf buried in the first furrow. Wheat stalks are woven into X-shaped crosses to be hung from rafters as charms to protect homes from fire and lightning.

In Ireland, the birds known as oyster-catchers (in Gaelic they are called Gille righde, the servants of Bride) appear on St Brigid's day and are said to bring spring with them.

During the 19th century, Alexander Carmichael collected and compiled folk customs from the West Highlands, including many revolving around Bridget. On her holiday, women get together to make Brigid's crosses at night. They also dress the corn doll or last sheaf (from Lammas or autumn equinox) in a bridal gown and put her in a basket which is called the Bride's bed. A wand, candle or other phallic object is laid across her and the Bride is invited to come for her bed is ready. If the blankets are rumpled in the morning, this is seen as a good omen. Obviously the goddess whose mating brings life to the land is not the abbess of a convent but the great fertility goddess.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999
Carmichael, Alexander, Carmina Gadelica, Llindisfarne Press
Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames and Hudson 1987
Matthews, John & Caitlin, Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom, Element 2000

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Blogger lila said...

Your posts are wonderful! I have never done much celebrating of St. Bridgit's feast day but I have made a quilt with a "St. Bridgit's cross" block (based on the woven crosses you mentioned). It is in my ETSY shop right now.

February 4, 2008 at 8:12 AM  

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