Happy Imbolc! Today is the first day of Celtic spring, a tradition known in Ireland as Imbolc. This weekend we’ve had snow, we’ve had torrential rain, we’ve had wild winds, and we’ve had fog… it certainly doesn’t feel spring-like, and I wonder if the seasons have gradually slipped out of sync with the calender.
Today I was going to bring you to somewhere special, to a place associated with Brigid, but I’ve been ill this week, and so have my kids, a voyage of discovery out in the countryside just wasn’t going to happen. Instead, I’m going to tell you a little bit about Brigid.
I feel a connection with many characters from Irish mythology, but of them all, Brigid is the one I am most drawn to. Brigid was the daughter of the Dagda, a Druid and High King of the Tuatha de Danann, an advanced race with seemingly supernatural powers, who invaded Ireland some 4000 years ago.
Her feast day is celebrated at Imbolc, which falls half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and is usually held on the first day of February to welcome the arrival of Spring.
Imbolc (pronounced I-molk) is one of four ancient Celtic/Gaelic festivals, the others being Beltaine, celebrated on May 1st; Lughnasadh, on Aug 1st; and Samhain, held on Nov 1st.
These major festivals were celebrated with the lighting of huge fires. My favourite explanation of the Old Irish word Imbolc comes from imb-fholc, meaning ‘to thoroughly wash/ cleanse’. To me, this is clearly a reference to the ritual cleansing and purification of fire and smoke.
However, it is generally accepted to mean ‘in the belly’, with reference to the pregnancy of ewes. Indeed, the C10th manuscript known as Cormac’s Glossary explains it as oimelc, or ‘ewe’s milk’. As such, Brigid has popularly become associated with the onset of the lambing season.
Sheep are not a native species of animal to Ireland; they are thought to have been introduced by Neolithic settlers some time after 4000 BC, so there would certainly have been sheep around in Brigid’s day. However, they don’t get much mention in Irish mythology, which is highly unusual; almost every other animal, wild or domestic, did.
The Danann were well known for their milk-white cattle, indeed, cattle were highly prized among our ancient ancestors, as the many stories of cattle raids, real and mythological, through the ages will attest. Queen Medb was famous for going to war over a bull, as told in the Cattle Raid of Cooley, for example. Cows were used as a measure of currency, as a measure of value, and as a measure of wealth.
In the ancient text known as the Lebor Gebála Érenn, Brigid was said to have kept two royal cattle called Fea and Feimhean, the Boar King known as Torc Triath, and Cirba, who was King of the wethers. In case you don’t know, a wether is a castrated male sheep. She owned a number of castrated male sheep. No lactating ewes.
So it’s very interesting that in the tower on Glastonbury Tor, there is a carving which depicts her milking, not a sheep, but a cow.
Brigid was herself credited with the gifts of healing, of poetic inspiration, and metalworking. As with many of the Irish female deities, for example, the Morrigan (Badb-Anann-Macha), and the Sisters of Sovereignty (Eriu-Fodhla-Banbha), she was a Triune Goddess, meaning she was one and three all at the same time.
This triple aspect of their femininity related to the stages of womanhood, namely maiden-mother-crone. Unusually, Brigid’s triple aspect revolved around her skills, poetry- smithcraft-healing. I like that she stood out from the crowd, and I like her combination of skills.
Whilst we are on the subject of the triple nature of the Goddess, Imbolc was believed to be when the Cailleach, or Crone, gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. If she intends to make the winter long and hard, she will bless Imbolc with a bright sunny day, so she can gather plenty of firewood to last her a long time. If Imbolc is a day of foul weather, it means the Cailleach is asleep and winter is almost over.
The name Brigid means ‘bright/ exalted one’, from the Sanskrit brahti, and is thought to refer to her association with fire and the sun. When she was born (at sunrise), a tower of flame was said to have extended from the top of her head to the heavens, giving her family home the appearance of being on fire. This is how the C10th text, Cormac’s Glossary describes here;
“Brighid, a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. She is the female sage, woman of wisdom, Brighid the Goddess whom poets venerated as very great and famous for her protecting care. She was therefore called ‘Goddess of the Poets’. Her sisters were Brighid the female physician, and Brighid the female smith; among all Irishmen, a goddess was called ‘Brighid’. Brighid is from breo-aigit or ‘fiery arrow’.”
I like the description of the fiery arrow. I think it is more fitting for her role as a poetess, that she would receive divine inspiration or knowledge in this way. It also corresponds with the glowing white-hot iron she would have manipulated in the fire of the forge, and the light she would have used as energy to conduct her spiritual healing. However, modern scholars are not in agreement with Cormac.
Brigid married Bres, of mixed Danann-Fomori heritage, with whom she had a son, Ruadan. Bres was an unpopular High King; he was mean and a tyrant, and after seven years, the Danann opposed his rule and reinstated Nuada as their leader.
Bres enlisted the help of his Fomori relatives and attacked the Denann. During the battle, Ruadan entered the Denann camp on a mission to kill Goibniu, their master-smith, but was himself killed in the attempt. According to an ancient text known as Cath Maige Tuireadh, Brigid collapsed in grief over her son’s body, crying her sorrow, and was thus said to have invented the act of keening (in Irish caoine, or cine) for the dead.
It is thought that following Bres’s death, she later went on to have three sons, Ichvar, Ichvarba and Brian, with a man named Tuirean. After that, her name seems to drop out of the stories.
You can read more about Brigid and Imbolc in my other posts…
Ireland also has a Saint Brigid, whose feast day is also celebrated on 1st February. Some say she is the Christianisation of a much loved pagan Goddess that the Irish people refused to give up. It is also said that she started out as a Druidess who tended the eternal flame at the Shrine of Brigid, and was responsible for bringing about its conversion to Christianity. However, that is a post for another day…