Brigid and the Celtic Festival of Bealtaine

As one of the threefold goddesses, Brigid is honoured as Maiden, Mother and Crone. We began our reflections on Brigid with the Feast of Imbolc, February 1st, when Brigid in her Maiden form emerges to breathe life into the mouth of dead winter. We have reflected on Brigid in her Crone presence, the Cailleach who brings about transformation for our lives, for our planet, when we submit ourselves to the slow processes of her cauldron. With the Celtic Feast of Bealtaine, May 1st, we conclude this time with Brigid.

Bealtaine ushers in the full richness of summer, the active sun-drenched days of masculine energy. At Bealtaine, we welcome Brigid in the third aspect, in her embodiment of the Mother.

Bealtaine is a mingling of three themes:

(1) purification by fire
In ancient times, the cattle who had been kept indoors all winter were walked through the fires in preparation for their move to the summer pastures; in our time we need to be purified from any negativity that remains from winter that might interfere with the blossoming of our lives and our work;

(2) the flower maiden
The young mother represents the fertility of the land goddess. She was honoured with flowers strewn on altars, on doorsteps, on rooftops invoking fertility in all aspects of one’s life; altars were built and heaped with flowers; children walked and sang in joyous processing carrying flowers;

(3) sacred marriage of masculine and feminine energies
The Maypole rituals celebrate the young god of summer who woos the flower maiden away from the winter king and marries her; the masculine energy serves the seeds sown and nurtured by the feminine energies through the winter.

Rituals of Bealtaine celebrate the harmonious working together of masculine and feminine energies. As Dolores Whelan writes:
In the Celtic tradition, the masculine and feminine energies are represented by fire and water and are considered to be most effective when they act together in harmony with each other. On May morning, it was customary for people to go to the top of a hill before sunrise, light fires in honour of the sun, and bathe in the rays of the sun as it rose on the first day of summer. They washed their faces in the morning dew, which was considered a magical substance as it consisted of fire and water, capable of ensuring youth and vitality. Others went to holy wells and drank the water or poured water over themselves as the rays of the rising sun hit the water. All of these customs and rituals reflect this power of water and fire working together and the potency of masculine and feminine energy working in harmony within the land, a person, or a project.
(Dolores Whelan Ever Ancient, Ever New 2010 p. 114)
Until the mid-years of the twentieth century, Catholic school children walked in joyous processions honouring Mary as “Queen of the May”, unaware that this ceremony had origins that went back to the ancient Mayday rituals honouring the Goddess. Dressed in their best clothes, walking in the sunlight of late spring, they lifted their voices in melodious hymns to Mary: Bring flowers of the fairest, bring flowers of the rarest, from garden and woodland and hillside and dale; our full hearts are swelling, our glad voices telling, the praise of the loveliest rose of the vale. Oh Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today, Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May… 

Mary

 

The powerful presence of Mary as Mother in the Catholic Christian tradition may have overshadowed this third aspect of Brigid.

Irish theologian Mary Condren makes reference to Brigid as Mother: Brigit’s symbolism is firmly maternal, nourishing, protecting, spinning and weaving the bonds of human community, but it is maternal in the broadest sense of that word in that Brigit’s traditions fostered … maternal thinking… (refusing) to do in the public world what would not be acceptable in the home. Brigit constantly bridged the worlds of nature and culture: her traditions aim to bridge the world of public and private and to keep the life force moving rather than allowing it to stagnate….Her traditions speak of an approach to sacrality intimately connected with relationships rather than splitting.
In keeping with her maternal aspects, the predominant fluid for Brigit is milk, the milk of human kindness. The milk of the Sacred Cow was one of the earliest sacred foods throughout the world, equivalent to our present day Holy Communion. In historical times it was said that the Abbesses of Kildare (Brigit’s successors) could drink only from the milk of the White Cow. The same milk was also believed to provide an antidote to the poison of weapons.

Milk represented the ideal form of all food for its purity and nourishment. Mother’s milk was especially valuable and was believed to have curative powers…Brigit was even said to have been baptized in milk. Baptisms in milk were practised by the Irish until the practice was banned by the Synod of Cashel in 1171.
….
Whereas Brigit’s traditions had insisted on creating, maintaining, and healing relationships through the power of her artefacts, imagery, stories and rituals, the rising power of the father gods depended on their establishing or maintaining their positions by threatening to, or actually sacrificing their children. Not surprisingly, therefore, when Brigit’s traditions were overthrown, maternal milk was replaced by bloodshed, not in the course of the life cycle – childbirth or menstruation – but in the voluntary giving or taking of life, in various forms of sacrifice.
(Mary Condren in “Brigit, Matron of Poetry, Healing, Smithwork and Mercy”, Journal of the European Society of Women in Theological Research 18, 2010)

Brigid as Mother challenges us to restore to our rituals, our communities, our nations and our planet a sense of the sacred that is relational rather than divisive and to replace the flow of sacrificial blood in conflict with the milk of mutual respect and nurturing.

 

May we celebrate Bealtaine with joy, as we welcome the masculine energy of activity, the bright sun that will nourish and call forth the seeds of new life we planted in the dark and quiet days of the feminine energy time.

Perhaps we will be drawn on May 1st to rise before dawn, climb a hill, light a fire to welcome the sunrise, then wash our faces in the morning dew. Thus we symbolically embrace masculine (fire) energies and feminine (water) energies, inviting both to dwell in harmony within us and throughout our planet.

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