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As with most ancient goddess myths and legends, there is a lot of variation in Bhrighde's stories depending on locality, reflecting the people's adaptation of the archetype to their own particular collective character and circumstances. Confusion is compounded by her appropriation by the Christian churches in their attempts to win converts in the early years of Christianity. But such stories arose from a symbolic-mythopoetic, rather than literal-logical consciousness, and are designed to be understood in terms of psychological archetypes, not historical 'fact' – to be heard with the heart, rather than the head. Variation can consequently add clarity and subtlety to the understanding of the archetype, rather than confusion.

Cadhas do Bhrighde. A token of respect to Brigid. By Professor Alexander John Haddow (1912- 1978)

Cadhas do Bhrighde. A token of respect to Brigid. By Professor Alexander John Haddow (1912- 1978). It took 19 years to complete.

Bhrighde is most frequently attributed a solar divinity, daughter of the Dagda, goddess of fire and hearth and a patron of warfare or Briga. Her soldiers were called Brigands. A perpetual fire was tended in her honour and no man was allowed near. She is also associated with the Moon and water, and was worshipped at healing wells and springs. The 19 maidens who tended her sacred flame references the 19-year lunar cycle.

F Marian McNeill gives her affinities with Pallas Athena (Minerva) the Moon goddess; with Hera (Juno) goddess of hearth and home; and with Persephone (Proserpine) as goddess of Spring and the Corn-Maiden.

Born into one people and married into another, she has mediated between two peoples in times of war. She is Brigit of the Judgements, the triple matron of crafts (including smithcraft, brewing, weaving and dyeing), goddess of healers, seers and doctors, and of poets, whose word held magic and who sat as equals to kings. She protected travellers, and women in childbirth, and extended that blessing to domestic animals, especially cattle. Her feast day – Imbolc ('in the belly') – has strong connections with pregnancy, coinciding with the birth of lambs, and was one of the four major festivals of the year. She is patron of language and alphabets, of farm work and cattle, keeper of prophecies and dreams, the watcher of the greater destinies, the guardian of the future. Her feast day is the Celtic festival of Imbolc (February 1st-2nd). Cattle are sacred to her, and in some of her aspects the goddess had power over large sea creatures. Her colour is green: the spreading of her green mantle over the land heralds Spring. In other attributions, her triple nature is expressed in colours of white, red and black (maiden, mother and black hag). The oystercatcher – Ghille Bhridein (Bride's page) as it's still known in the Highlands with its call of ghille-ghille-ghille-ghille-bree-juh – wears these three colours.

Appropriated by the Christian Churches, she became St Bride or Brigit, 'Mary of the Gaels', one of the 3 patron saints of Ireland. The goddess's sacred flame became the saint's and was kept by the nuns of the abbey of Kildare (the abbey is believed to have been built on the site of a pre-Christian temple to the goddess). The custom of allowing no man near the flame, or those who tended it, was maintained. No one knows when it was lit, but it was extinguished in 1220 on the orders of the Archbishop of London who decreed it a pagan superstition. It was then rekindled and kept alight until the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1541). In the 1960s, the Vatican decanonised St Bride, citing insufficient proof of her sanctity or even of her existence. At Imbolc, 1993, the Brigidine Sisters of Ireland rekindled her flame at Kildare.

According to Irish legend, St. Brigit was born in 452 AD to Dubthach, a pagan chieftain, and a Christian bondwoman (slave) in County Louth, Ireland. The chieftain's wife got wind of the slave's pregnancy and ordered her removed. She was sold to a poet, who in turn sold her to a Druid. When Brigit was born – at sunrise – a tower of flame reached from the top of her head to the heavens and gave the house the appearance of being on fire. When she was about ten years old, she returned to the home of her natural father. The legends say she immediately starting giving away everything in the kitchen to the poor. She even gave away her father's sword to a leper. Dubthach was furious, and took Brigit to the King to sell her. Brigit's explanation for her behaviour impressed the King and she was sent to the Church instead. Other versions say Dubthach took her to Iona.

Earlier this century, an old woman recounted her experiences at a well of Brigid’s on the west coast of Ireland – one of many that are still active today. “I had a pearl in my eye one time, and I went to Saint Brigit’s well on the cliffs. Scores of people there were in it, looking for cures, and some got them and some did not get them. And I went down the four steps to the well and I was looking into it, and I saw a little fish no longer than your finger coming from a stone under the water. Three spots it had on the one side and three on the other side, red spots and a little green with the red, and it was very civil coming hither to me and very pleasant wagging its tail. And it stopped and looked up at me and gave three wags of its back, and walked off again and went in under the stone….And in three days I had the sight of my eye again. It was surely Saint Brigit I saw that time; who else would it be?”

The night before her feast day, St Bride travels the country accompanied by a white cow bestowing blessings on the people and their livestock. Irish legends say that during Brigit's lifetime, everything she touched increased in quantity or quality, whether this be sheep she tended or the food she gave to the poor (or even perhaps the petrol in cars?).

St Bride by John Duncan, 1913. National Gallery of Scotland

St Bride by John Duncan, 1913. National Gallery of Scotland. The painting depicts St Bride's transportation to Bethlehem by angels.

In the Scottish tradition, St Bride grew up on Iona. Legend has it that angels transported her from Iona to Bethlehem on the night of the nativity where she became Christ's foster mother – Muime-Chriosd. Foster parents in Celtic tradition ranked higher than the natural parents, the relationship being considered sacred.

Sources and Further References
McNeill, F Marian. The Silver Bough. 1956. Republished 1989. Canongate Publishing, Edinburgh.
Graves, Robert. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. 4th edition, 1997. Faber & Faber, London. pp 20, 491-492.
McIntosh, Alastair. Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power. 2001. Aurum Press, London. pp 2, 18, 154-158, 177, 221-223, 260.