Open the white Dragon Home page
Close Window 

   
 

"I Will Not Harm the Serpent ....."

Brighid and St Bride

By Kate Westwood

Published Imbolc 1998

Brigit or Bride{#), Goddess or Saint? It is almost impossible to find the seam that joins the two, knit as closely as they have become. The legends unite them. Mythology binds them and yet, different they are - or were. Nowadays one has been so overlaid upon the other that when St. Bride is evoked, the Goddess joins her - but, it rarely happens the other way around - why should it when the Goddess pre-dates the saint by many centuries?

Brigit

Brigit, though goddess in her own right, is often referred to as an aspect of Danu. In her turn, Danu is intermingled with Anu who was said to 'nurse the gods'. In Kerry the twin-peaks called the 'Paps of Anu' are named for her. Hills and mountains were the entrances to the Celtic Otherworld, the land of the Sidhe - Avallon etc. This was where the Tuatha retreated to after their defeat by the Sons of Mils. The name 'Tuatha de Dannan' means either, 'Children of Danu', or more literally, 'Children who worshipped the God whose Mother was Danu'! We know them as 'The Ever-living Ones' and though immortal and gods, they frequently pit their abilities against mortals - and victory wasn't always theirs! As gods they were not so much revered as honoured.

Brigit was the Dagda's daughter. Called 'the Good God' he was portrayed as a pot-bellied, club-waving rampant male - not unlike the Cerne Abbas Giant! He was a renown lover of the triple battle-Goddess called the Morrighan though his son, Aengus Og, was born to the Goddess Boand (after whom the river Boyne was named). In Scottish folk-lore Angus ('The Ever-young') and Brigit as Bride represent the Summer Lord and Lady. His palace at Brugh na Boyne is another entrance to the world of the Sidhe.

Brigit was one of three daughters born to the Dagda (her mother's name unknown), all three were named Brigit. To one was attributed the powers of healing, to another, smithcraft and to the third, craftship. The triplicate became one in she-whom-we-call Brigit. In many ways she is the feminine counter-part of Lugh the Ildana - the Master of All Crafts - for under smithcraft comes not only the forging of useful and decorative metal work but also that of weaponry. Likewise craftship cover the inspiration of poets and bards as well as anything creative - from childbirth onwards. Fire was attributed to her so she ruled not only the fires of inspiration and the fires of the forge but also the fires of the hearth and so life itself. Even her name is commonly said to originate from fire, Fiery Arrow, breo-aigit, though it may derive from the Sanskrit brahti, meaning 'High One'.

She was married-off to Bres the Beautiful in a diplomatic marriage to unite Ireland. The father of Bres, Elatha, was half-Fomorian by his own father's blood. The Fomorian race was far oler than the Tuatha but treated people badly. His mother, Eli, however, was of the Tuatha, Bres became king after the disfigurement of Nuada and proved to be a terrible king. He treated the Tuatha poorly by demanding excessive tributes of milk and grain and was eventually forced to abdicate. Despite being his wife, Brigit figures very little in these stories. They had a son - also a smith - who betrayed the Tuatha and on his death, Brigit's keening was so terrible it was heard all over Ireland.

She had three sons by Tuireann, son of Ogma. They were named Brian, Iuchar and Uar. The four of them murdered Cian, Lugh's father. Lugh, in his turn brought about their deaths. After the arrival of the Sons of Mils for whom Amergin was bard, Brigit became known as 'Mary of the Gaels'. A curious dedication, the Mother of Ireland becoming the darling of the last set of conquerors. Still, it all goes to show, you can't keep a good woman down!

Goibniu, the smith, not only shares Brigit's attributes but, as the Dagda's brother, is thus her uncle. Along with Goibniu, Luchta the wright and Credne Cerd the metal worker, Brigit is one of the 'Three Gods of Artistic Skills (Tri Dee Dannan). How four are also three is just one of those conundrums all pagans live with! However, the individual skills of all three gods are also those of Brigit herself. There are quite a number of mounds associated with Smith's in Ireland whilst in England we have Wayland's Smithy. Though Wayland himself came in with invaders it is a fair bet to assume the mound was already associated with smiths and that Wayland just became the latest one. It is even possible that Brigit was one of its earlier inhabitants - not so unlikely for nearby is Dragon Hill and dragons and snakes are... (see serpent queens).

She is said to be the tutelary goddess of the Brigantes, though in this form she was far more martial than her Irish counter-part. As Brigantia she is akin to the Roman Minerva or even to Britain's 'Britannia' who for many years graced our coinage (metal, forged by fire?). Minerva is often found alongside the god Mercury who is likened to Lugh, Brigit's male counterpart. At Aqua Sulis a perpetual fire was kept burning for Minerva. Legend says it was Bladdud, the founder of Bath who first lit the sacred fire (see below fires of Bride), which are surmised to have been used as a form of sympathetic magic. Also in Bath Minerva merged with Brigit to become Sul/Sulis. Sul presides over the curative hot springs of Bath and Brigit, as goddess of healing, has a number of healing wells named for her. Sul is the very heat that causes the springs to be hot. It is easy to perceive her firing-up the forge, far below the earth of Bath, to create the necessary energy to heat the springs as well as regulating the flow of waters.

Brigit/Bride's name has been given to the rivers Braint and Brent. To Brentford in Middlesex, Bridestowe in Devon, Brechin in Scotland, Bregia - the Plain of Meath - Bargy in County Wexford and to the Llansanffraed's (or Llansanffraid's) too numerous to mention. In London's Fleet Street under the present-day church of St. Bride is the site of a pagan temple dedicated to Brigit. As the arts are under her sway, it didn't take long for her to become the patron saint of journalism! Also in London, there is the women's prison Bridewell which was once a convent - dedicated to St. Bride, who else?

Her head, carved in stone, was held in high esteem and, with the coming of the Christians, was concealed in a dolmen for safety. Later it was recovered and instated in the church of St, Bride of Knockbridge. In 1847 the local vicar took it to another church and it has not been seen since - it is surmised that it was cast into a peat bog. The actual head of the saint was taken to the Holy Land though it is now enshrined in Lumiar, Portugal. A ceremony, supposedly still in existence, drives cattle past her head - presumably either to make them fertile or to purify them - as do the Beltaine fires.

Cows

Cows of plenty figure rather largely in Irish folk-lore - the epic Tain was a battle over the ownership of one. A cow created the circumstances leading up to the conception of Lugh and the cow is one of Brigit's symbols. As Mary of Ireland the saint was in possession of, not one, but of twelve of the wee beasties! These, by miraculous means, had their yield greatly improved by St. Bride. Apparently cow's milk was the original communion but was eventually banned by the Trullan council in 692. Milk, along with honey, was given to the newly-baptised as a symbol of regeneration. Part of pagan rites it symbolised communion with the Mother, the Source of Life (not necessarily practised in our isles). Boand, the mother of Aengus Og, meant 'White Cow'.

There are three particular cows in Ireland's mythology, Bo Finn, Bo Ruadh and Bo Dhu (the white, red and black cows). Various places in Ireland are named for the paths taken by the cows on their wanderings. The White Cow may be Ireland Herself as there is a tale telling how the White Cow was beaten to death by a red-haired woman (suggested by Lady Wilde as being Queen Elizabeth, the red-haired queen, and therefore England Herself). Legend says that when the White Cow is returned to life, Ireland will be free. It also says that only a true King of Ireland will be able to awaken her. Reminiscent of Arthur, sleeping with his white steed until England calls him? After all, in many ways the work done by cows as oxen was replaced by the introduction of the horse. Ireland's Lia Fail was on the Plain of Tara,- the sacred King stone which would cry out when the true king stood on it - like Siege Perilous in the Matter of Britain. This and the Stone of Scone are one and the same and it is now under the coronation throne in London. As the king of Ireland can only be proclaimed by the screaming of Lia Fail - exactly how will this now be accomplished? Perhaps removing the stone to Wales is the best idea - then everyone will be annoyed!

St Ffraid

St Ffraid, St. Bride in another guise, came to Wales from Ireland. She crossed the sea, not in a boat but on a sod of earth. After landing at Holy Island's Treaddur Bay the sod became the mound where, to this day, stands the remains of her church, Capel San Ffraid. Excavations at the large, man-made mound, disclosed a mass burial. Each body had been interned with its head pointing westward (towards Ireland, or to the mystical land beyond the Ninth Wave, Tir Nan Og - the Land of Youth or The Blessed Isles where the dead feast awaiting rebirth?). As the bodies were all male it was assumed they were battle-slain warriors. It is, however, conceivable that they were monks or devotees of Ffraid. Though the site is not marked on ordnance survey maps it is found on the left as you cross the Four Mile Bridge from Anglesey to Holy Isle.

Like many saints St Ffraid is said to have plucked her own eyes out in order to make her unattractive to suitors - and, once this objective was achieved, she promptly popped them back into their sockets! She managed to perform all the usual sort of miracles and healings - besides turning the Mayor of London into a horse! Our saint had either a dark, veiled side to her character or a wicked sense of humour! It's a wonder she wasn't branded 'demon' rather than 'saint'. Oak leaves and acorns were her emblems - which she shares with Bride.

Bride

Born in 453, her father was the druid, Dubtach, whilst her mother was a Christian Pictish slave (again unnamed!). She went to live with her father when considered old enough to serve him for she was considered his property. Later she took the veil to avoid marriage. When St, Brennain visited her, she had been out tending sheep. Coming in she absent-mindedly hung her cloak upon a sunbeam to dry. St. Brennain, unable to mimic her, was not best pleased.

Once, having nowhere to feed and water her cow, a rich man asked her how much room she desired. She said 'as much as my cloak will cover'. Her cloak began to spread and, if not for the interference of an old woman, would have covered - and thereby, freed - all of Ireland. That part of the land was held rent-free until recent times when barracks were built on it. The cloak supposedly went to Bruges Cathedral in 1087, taken there by King Harold's sister. Bride's shoe is in Dublin at the National Museum of Ireland. Made as it is out of silver and brass set with jewels, it must have been somewhat uncomfortable to wear! Her bag, rosary, bell and sewing equipment she left behind in Glastonbury - presumably, they are still there.

In Glastonbury

It should come as no surprise to discover that St Bride is one of the numerous saints to be found in Glastonbury - one to be heard with a large pinch of salt, afterall, the monks turned buried saints and kings along with their relics into a lucrative business. St Bride came to Glastonbury in the last twenty years of her life for solitude. The place she chose to live was a low-lying isle called Beckery or Little Ireland where there was a holy spring called St. Bride's Well. It is now covered-up and lies near the area of sheepskin trades. Later a chapel was re-built in her honour, replacing one dedicated to Mary Magdalene. This, like Capel San Ffraid, also stood on a high point - here, in a field called Chamberlain hill. Excavated in 1887/8 a burial was discovered beneath the church's foundations. It was of six people - again all had their heads westward. It is likely that the legend of St Ffraid was carried to, and purloined by, the monks of Glastonbury. The fields around the church are still siad to be called 'brides'. Incidentally, the twelve hides of Joseph of Aramithea are echoed in ancient Ireland for there were once twelve plains.

As midwife to Mary

Bride, mysteriously transported to Bethlehem to become midwife to Mary, was also, in Hebridean legend, the foster-mother and wet-nurse to the baby Jesus - hence her presiding over childbirth. She placed three drops of spring water upon the brow of the infant, Jesus. This echoes the birth of the Son of Light who has three drops of wisdom placed on his brow. These three drops are the source of the three rays of light or wisdom present in the Druidic symbol, Awen.

Gwion, who stirred Ceridwen's Cauldron of Inspiration and was destined to be reborn through Ceridwen as Taliesin, receives three drops of wisdom from the Cauldron. As a reuslt he became a great bard and seer, making it is easy to equate the hag Ceridwen with the dark face of Brigit. Taliesin was said to be under the Muse of Minerva - Brigit herself. After four elemental transformations he was swallowed by Ceridwen in the element of fire (corn and hen) and was reborn as Taliesin, 'Shining Brow'. Though hens were not associated with Brigit, cockerels were - cockerels crow at sunrise, the day's equivalent to Imbolg.

Oddments...

St. Bride's Day preceeds Imbolg or Candlemass. The Roman festival in honour of Februa, after whom the month was named, was held at the same time and was one of purification. Candlemass candles are lit with the same intention. There is a tale about how St. Bride helped Mary present the infant Jesus to a crowded temple. In order to draw their attention, St Bride appeared wearing a head-dress of lighted candles. As a thank-you Mary decreed that St. Bride's Day would fall immediately before Candlemass! It also shows how important Brigit was and how, in many ways, she and Mary go hand-in-hand in the heart of catholic peoples. Indeed in the case of Bride as midwife to Mary, the story says Bride dreamt her way to Bethlehem (shamanic or astral travel?) and, on awaking, found her mantle had been transformed into blue with brilliant stars upon it - Mary's colours and making them both 'Queen of Heaven'. Brigit was held so tight in the people's hearts that the incoming Christians adopted Brigit as another form of Mary - or perhaps it was Mary as Brigit.

St Lucia, a Scicilian saint whose name means 'light' and whose celebrations bear a resemblence to Imbolg, had December 13th, dedicated to her. In Sweden St. Lucy's Day was celebrated by a woman dressed in white with a red sash and a head-dress of seven or nine lighted candles. Her presence was meant to drive out evil spirits - echoes of the purification of Candlemass. She is yet another saint who removed her eyes to avoid marriage. In Europe it was sometimes she, not St. Nicholas, who brought the presents. St. Bride had a second day of celebration on the 23rd July.

The Fires of Bride

St. Bride/Brigit had a perpetual flame burnt in her honour at Kildare, which meant 'cell (or church) of oak'. The flame, burnt without ash and was 'a great wonder'. It was probably fuelled by oil, or more likely, peat. The flame was put-out in about 1220 and when re-lit, was assumed to have been fed by oak - the ash miracuously vanishing. The flame was finally extinguished following Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536-40. Depending on which version you read the flame was either burnt in Brigit's honour or was continued or initiated by St. Bride herself. Either way, on nineteen consecutive days it was tended by a woman and on the twentieth, by Bride/Brigit herself. Now the spot is marked by one of Ireland's famous round towers which stands in the grounds of the present-day's St. Brigit's Cathedral. Though the fires of Bride were only tended by women - nuns or priestesses - the original double monastery housed men and women - a great rarity, to say the least. The monks and nuns, separated by a wooden partition, could not see one another.

Kildare may already have been a sacred place for the druids as they celebrated the moon and the sun in oak groves. The oak was venerated as it held the spirit of Esus, or Hesus, who eventually became linked with Jesus hanging from the World Tree. Hesus is referred to as Hu-Hesus. The Hu represents the Essential seed, reborn at Winter Solstice (Alban Arthuan) - as is Jesus, the sun/son reborn. Perhaps it is upon the brow of Hesus that Brigit placed the three drops of wisdom which, in Kabballistic terms, represent the three worlds that Are before even primary Kether comes into being. Oak is also linked with the Dagda - Brigit's father and is an excellent wood to make charcoal from - this is, naturally, burnt in the Smith's furnace - the Forge of Bride.

Nineteen

As nineteen women tended Bride's fire's so, In 'The Vita' , was Merlin fed by nineteen apple trees. Nineteen (or, to be precise 18.61 years) is the length of time it takes the moon cycle to again fall on the same day of the week and is called the metonic cycle. At the Giant's Dance (Stonehenge) nineteen blue stones stand in the inner oval. Some of the Chinese and Jewish calendars made use this nineteen-year cycle. Brigit is, of course, goddess of both moon and sun.

Serpent Queen

On St Michael's Mount there is a carving of St Bride milking a cow - a common image of her and one that reflects her goddess alter-ego. St Michael, controller of the land's dragon/serpent power is equated with St George who was both dragon-slayer and solar hero whilst Bride, in Scotland, was dubbed 'the serpent queen'. At Inverness she was associated with a barrow at Glenelg which was said to have connections with serpent-worship. In fact, St. Bride's Day, February 1st, was also a day of snake-worship. At Glenelg she was supposed to rise from the said barrow. (see [1] below.)

The snake was believed to emerge from its bolt hole on St. Bride's Day. The white snake had the same properties of magic and wisdom as the Salmon of Knowledge. It was also known as 'the snake of the hazel grove'. Hazels are associated with wisdom and the Well of Wisdom in the Otherworld is banked by nine hazel trees. This Well, which also has five steams running from it, is the mythical source of the Boyne. As to drink from it is to gain wisdom, there are four cup bearers guarding it from the unworthy. The white snake supposedly held its tail in its mouth - like the symbol Ourobouros, symbol or rebirth and regeneration. If cut in two - providing the head was intact - it was said to be able to unite itself when back in the water! The summer re-emergence of the snake in the east brought thunder (Druidical 'god' Taranis) - and thunder was attracted by the oak tree with which St Bride (and St. Ffraid) are associated.

Brigit is called the 'Two-faced One' for her image has one side of her face old and ugly whilst the other is young and beautiful. This reflects her dual character as maid of summer and hag of winter - similar to Lady Ragnall in 'Gawain and the Loathly Lady'. Bride, representing spring would, like Persephone, emerge from the underworld, bringing summer to the land. Snake and dragon power is not just the ley system it is also the power of the land. Bride would set it aflame, bringing the warmth of the sun, breaking the winter's potent hold. A Gaelic verse says:

'Brigit put her finger in the river on the feast day of Brigit and away went the hatching-mother of the cold.

She washed her palms in the river on the day of the feast of St. Patrick (March 17th) and away went the birth-mother of the cold.''

St Patrick, who died when Bride was eight years old, bears the reputation of cleansing Ireland of serpents - an (unsuccessful) attempt to purge Ireland of Bride and so plunge the land into perpetual winter? With her image on St Michael's church does this mean she is stopping the serpent-power from being killed? Does she as Goddess and Michael as Archangel continue to protect the power of the land, sleeping, coiled about the Tor itself? The serpent sleeps wound-about the World's Tree - it also lies coiled at the base of the human spine(Kundalini).

... More oddments

Linnets were known as Bride's birds and if the lark sang on Bride's Day it was seen as a good omen for the coming spring. The red on their throats and heads was the scorch-mark of Brigit's fire. Larks were sacred to St. Bride for they awakened her each morning to her prayers. The oyster-catcher was, in Connaught, known as Giolla Bride, Bride's Page and is said to bear a cross. One led her to calvary. Hoar-frost gathered on St. Bride's Day was believed to be an infallible cure for the headache. The dandelion was also sacred to Bride for it is of both the sun and the moon and called, ingeniously enough, 'Brigit's flower'. The snowdrop was hers for it is the first flower of spring.

Of, course, there is much folk-lore surrounding the festival of Imbolg, Candlemass and St. Bride's Crosses. This area has deliberately been omitted from this article. For one thing, there has been much already written and for another - there just wasn't enough space! Brigit's Bright Blessings be with you.

Notes

(1) Taken from a Gaelic prayer for St Bride's Day: 'Early on Bride's morn shall the serpent come from the hole, I will not harm the serpent, nor will the serpent harm me'. An alternative version concerns an effigy of a snake being made out of peat 'This is the day of Bride, the Queen shall come from the mound, I will not touch the Queen nor will the Queen touch me'. Thus equating Bride with the serpent.

{#} Brigit equals Goddess and Bride equals saint. Needless to say, the idea is better than the reality - it is near impossible to split them as easily as this!

Sources

1.Nora Chadwick The Celts Pelican 1972
2.J.A. Macculloch Religion of the Ancient Celts Constable 1992
3.Chris Barber Mysterious Wales and More Mysterious Wales Paladin 1982 and1987
4.A. Le Strange Saints in Glastonbury from 'A Glastonbury Reader' Ed J. Matthews
5.Rev. C.L. Marson Glastonbury or the English Jerusalem George Gregory 1909
6.Ralph Whitlock In Search of Lost Gods Phaidon 1979
7.D.A. Mackenzie Ancient Man in Britain Blackie 1922 {*}
8.Lady Gregory The Blessed Trinity of Ireland Colin Smythe 1985
9.Daragh Smyth Irish Mythology Irish Academic Press 1996
10.T.W. Rolleston Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race Constable 1985 {*}
11.Will Hayes The Book of the Cow The Order of the Great Companions 1930
12.R.J. Stewart Waters of the Gap Arcania 1989 13.R.J. Stewart Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses Blandford 1990
13.C. and J. Matthews Encyclopaedia of Celtic Wisdom Element 1994
14.F.W. Robins The Smith Rider
15.K. Danaher The Year in Ireland Mercier Press 1972
16.R. Nichols The Book of Druidry Aquarian 1990
17.J. O'Brien & P. Harbison Ancient Ireland Wiedensfield 1996 {*} available in Senate's £1.99 series