Thursday, February 2, 2012

Jeudi: Great Spirits

Today is familiar to most Americans as Groundhog Day, the day when we wait to see if the rodent after which it is named will peek out of his den and either scurry back in because he “saw his shadow” or climb out and presumably ask the gathered crowd “How’s it goin’?” while scratching himself.  Since the former occurred this morning in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, it is assumed that we must gripe and groan through six more weeks of winter.

This amusing if somewhat lugubrious ritual is in fact a gross diminishment of the origin of this calendar day.  Once, many millennia ago in the Celtic lands of Ireland, Scotland, England and France, it was around February 2nd that the spring lambs were born.  This renewal of life represented the rise of the greatest creation goddess of the Celtic people.  Out of the ashes of the hag of winter came the bride of spring and summer; the generous one who was known as Brigid or Brigit the “bright one”.

Brigit was called Bride (pronounced “breed”) in Scotland and parts of Ireland.  She was known as Brigandee or Brigandu in France and as Brigantia in England, Cornwall and Wales.  Her aspect was threefold but unlike the Mediterranean triple goddesses who wore three faces – maiden/mother/crone – Brigit was always a young woman; not yet a matron but no longer a maiden. 

She was the inventor of smith craft; her priestesses were virgins who tended a sacred forge where pure gold was crafted into royal ornaments.  Brigit was also the muse of poets and the inspiration of artists and she brought to humans the benevolent gift of healing in all its forms from herbal medicine to magickal trance.  In her triple form she was often depicted as holding a torch, a cauldron and a snake to represent each aspect respectfully.

The seat of Brigit’s worship by the time the first Christian missionaries crossed into Ireland was Kildare so it stands to reason that the Christian saint who merged with one of the greatest goddesses in history is now known as Bridget of Kildare.  The ancient place of Brigit’s worship, at whose center was an enormous oak tree, became known as the abbey where she, as Abbess, literally ruled the land benevolently.  The virgins became the nuns in her care and Saint Mel the bishop who blessed her vows, allegedly in the late 400s.  The story goes that the aging saint absentmindedly read the vows for a bishop rather than an abbess and, when the ceremony was over, could not take back the mistake.  Through this the Church allowed St. Bridget almost as much power as the goddess in whose stead she stood.  It was the Abbess Bridget and her successors who chose the Bishops of Kildare from then on.  It should come as no surprise that each was required to be a practicing goldsmith.

The virtually pagan worship of St. Bridget at the Abbey of Kildare survived nearly into modern times.  It was forced underground during the persecutions of Cromwell and slowly the traditions were forgotten.  Although there are still “Catholic ministries” that claim a link to the Celtic roots of the Abbess of Kildare, their modern brand of “Bridget worship” is sadly watered down even when compared to the rituals and traditions of a few hundred years ago.

Some of Brigit’s power and inspiration of awe survive to this day, and in some fairly innocuous places.  The mammoth stones used to create such pre-Celtic monoliths as Stonehenge are often referred to as “bridestones”, suggesting a far more ancient origin than can be traced.  Most endearing of all, in Britain – particularly Ireland – a girl named Bridget (or Brigit, like my daughter) is born with a nickname: “Brighty”.  In this way, as in so many others, language keeps alive what prejudice has tried so hard to destroy.

Header: Saint Bridget of Kildare from the Cill Dara Ministries website


Timmy! said...

Nice post, Pauline! Lots of good and interesting information. You should share this with Brigit too...

Pauline said...

I always feel pretty close to the ancient Brigit on Feb. 2. And our very youthful Brigit knows all about her namesake, thankfully.

Pauline said...

I always feel pretty close to the ancient Brigit on Feb. 2. And our very youthful Brigit knows all about her namesake, thankfully.