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BRIGHID (c. 454c. 524) was an early medieval Irish Christian saint celebrated as a virgin and miracle worker and the founder of an important monastic community at Kildare. According to early annals, she died in 524 ce at the age of seventy. However, that date is best understood as evidence of the tradition that holds Brighid to be a younger contemporary of Saint Patrick rather than as a precise record. Although Brighid has always been associated with the province of Leinster, in southeastern Ireland, she was also, from at least as early as the seventh century, revered along with Saint Patrick and Colmcille as one of the principal patrons of all Ireland. With the movement of Irish monks in the eighth and ninth centuries, the cult of Brighid spread throughout much of Europe. The spelling Brighid is the Middle Irish form of the Old Irish Brigit, the modern Irish Bríd, and the English Brigid.

Early Records

The earliest surviving records of Brighid's life date from the seventh century, more than a hundred years after her death; both accounts are in Latin, one anonymous and the other composed by Cogitosus. The former describes her birth to a slave woman who was the concubine of a nobleman; her infancy and early childhood with the druid to whom her mother was sold; her eventual return to her father's home; her resistance to his efforts to arrange a marriage for her; her consecration of her virginity; and her travels throughout Ireland with the women who gathered around her, doing good and performing miracles. Her birth and infancy are said, in this life, to have been accompanied by many portents of her future greatness, and it is of considerable interest that druids as well as Christian bishops recognize them.

The miracle stories give considerable emphasis to Brighid providing food and drink: turning water into milk on some occasions and into beer on others, making butter out of nettles and bacon out of bark, feeding a large crowd on "twelve loaves, a little milk, and one sheep," and producing salt from a stone. Although they are certainly modeled to some extent on accounts of Christ's multiplication of the loaves and fishes and transformation of water into wine in the New Testament, the multiplicity of these stories suggests that abundance and hospitality were qualities associated from a very early date with Saint Brighid's cult.

The early lives also represent Brighid as having extraordinary sympathy with animals. In one of these stories, a wild boar that is being hunted joins her herd of swine and becomes tame. In another, a man has been condemned to die and his family to be enslaved because he has killed a king's pet fox, mistaking it for an ordinary one. At Brighid's behest, a wild fox plays tame and performs tricks just long enough for the king to accept it as a replacement for his lost pet and free the man; then it flees the court and returns to the wild. Several miracle stories involve both her empathy with animals and her liberal provision of food, as when she feeds a substantial portion of bacon to a hungry dog but when it is time to serve her human guests finds the total quantity of meat to be undiminished. As Cogitosus has it, "It is plain that the whole order of beasts, flocks and herds was subject to her rule" (De Paor, 1993, pp. 207224).

Christian and Pre-Christian Traditions

The association of Saint Brighid with food and with animals may reflect aspects of a pre-Christian Irish goddess called Brigit or Bríg. Traces of this figure are faint in the written record, as one might expect them to be in early medieval Irish literary culture, since it was the product of Christian monasteries. A tenth-century list of terms deemed already archaic identifies Brigit as a goddess once worshiped by poets and the sister of two other Brigits, one a healer and one a smith, but it is rather Bríg briugu, a legendary hospitaler or innkeeper mentioned briefly in a seventh-century Irish law tract, who might more readily be imagined to have had affinities with the saint as she came to be represented in Christian hagiography. The name of the goddess Brigantī (Exalted One) appears in inscriptions and in the name of the British people known to the Romans as the Brigantes. Quite possibly cognate with Brighid or Bríg, this name suggests that Brighid may represent the Irish version of a goddess revered by various Celtic-speaking peoples. Since Brigantī was the tutelary goddess of the Brigantes, so was Saint Brighid understood to be the guardian of the Irish province of Leinster. In the anonymous early life, known as the Vita Prima, she appears leading the king of Leinster into battle, "with her staff in her right hand and a column of fire blazing skywards from her head" (Connolly, 1449, at 41).

Many practices are associated with Brighid and with February 1, her feast in the Christian calendar, which was also the pre-Christian festival of Imbolc. The Brighid's Day customs, well attested into the second half of the twentieth century and surviving into the twenty-first century, include weaving crosses of rush that can be hung over the byre to protect livestock and in the home to protect the family, and particularly its women; making a figure or doll representing Brighid, the brídeog, which is carried around a village and welcomed into each home; and preparing the brat Bhríde, or Brighid's cloak, a piece of cloth left outdoors overnight to receive the saint's blessing and then employed throughout the following year to protect and heal humans and animals. Numerous springs or wells regarded as having curative properties are associated with Brighid, and many prayers and charms in Irish and Scottish Gaelic tradition invoke her name.

The explicit linking of the Christian saint and the pre-Christian goddess may be traced to 1900, when Brighid in her two aspects was adopted as the patron of Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland). Since 1993, several organizations have developed a cult of this dual Brighid; their practices center on maintaining a perpetual flame at Kildare, which was inspired by a twelfth-century account of such a fire tended by women and by Brighid herself, and on the two holy wells in the area associated with Brighid. Brighid's feast is observed at Kildare with a candlelight procession and vigil. These groups place a strong emphasis on women's spirituality, but they are by no means exclusively composed of women.

See Also

Celtic Religion, overview article.


The early lives of Saint Brighid are available in English translation in Sean Connolly, "Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae: Background and Historical Value," Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 119 (1989): 549; Liam de Paor, trans., "Cogitosus's Life of St Brigid the Virgin," in Saint Patrick's World (Dublin and Notre Dame, 1993), pp. 207226; and Donncha Ó hAodha, ed. and trans., Bethu Brigte (Dublin, 1978). A complete catalogue of the early documents pertaining to Saint Brighid can be found in James F. Kenney, The Sources for the Early History of Ireland: Ecclesiastical; An Introduction and Guide (New York 1929; reprint, New York 1966), pp. 356363. For Saint Brighid's importance in the early Irish Christian church, see Christina Harrington, Women in a Celtic Church: Ireland 4501150 (Oxford, 2002), and for a thorough and intelligent analysis of the evidence for the pre-Christian goddess, see Kim McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature (Maynooth, Ireland, 1990), especially pp. 162166. Séamas Ó Catháin, The Festival of Brigit: Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman (Dublin, 1995), especially pp. 126, provides a good introduction to the folklore and customs associated with Brighid and Saint Brighid's Day. See also Catherine McKenna, "Apotheosis and Evanescence: The Fortunes of Saint Brigit in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries," in The Individual in Celtic Literatures, edited by Joseph F. Nagy (Dublin, 2001), pp. 74108, and Catherine McKenna, "Between Two Worlds: Saint Brigit and Pre-Christian Religion in the Vita Prima," in Defining the Celtic, edited by Joseph F. Nagy (Dublin, 2002), pp. 6674.

Catherine McKenna (2005)

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