Tag Archives: ancient Celtic tradition

Celtic Festival of Lughnasadh

A woman’s voice with an unmistakable Irish lilt says, “In the Celtic Calendar, summer is already at an end. Do you know of Lughnasadh, the festival that welcomes Autumn? We celebrate it on August 1st.”

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Dolores Whelan

The woman who is speaking is Dolores Whelan. Most of what I have learned about Celtic Festivals comes from her wonderful book, Ever Ancient, Ever New. Dolores has taught us about Brigid’s Festival, Imbolc, which ushers in Spring, and about the Winter and Summer Solstices, the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes, and the fiery Festival of Bealtaine….

“Shall I tell you of Lugh and his festival?”

For answer, we settle ourselves comfortably, awaiting the tale with eagerness.

“The Celtic god Lugh is known as the samildanach, the many-gifted one. Lugh represents the skilled masculine energy, with its ability to hone, shape, bring to harvest the fruits of the seeds planted at Samhain and nurtured during the dark giamos time by the feminine energy.

 

At Lughnasadh, as in many of the other festivals, the important dance of opposite energies and roles is beautifully expressed. Tailtiu, the foster mother of Lugh, is the goddess who cleared away the wilderness, making the plains and fields ready for crops to be grown. She died from her efforts and is also remembered at this time; Lugh is said to have inaugurated this festival in her honour.

 

“In the wheel of the Celtic Year, Lughnasadh stands directly opposite Imbolc, where Brigid, embodying the primal creative energy, occupied the central role. Bron Trogain, an older name for this festival, may mean the sorrow of Trogain or the sorrow of the fertile earth. This may mean that the fertility of the harvest is linked with the death that follows its completion, again bringing together the polarities of life and death. The successful harvest requires that Lugh appease his adversary, Crom Dubh, who represents the aspect of the land that does not wish to be harvested or subjected to the rule and energy of Lugh.

 

“The two-week Lughnasadh festival was a very important meeting time for the tribe, bringing people together to test their skills in many different disciplines. They challenged each other in a variety of contests and games held during the annual fairs in Lugh’s honour. The rituals at this festival included the acknowledgement of the triumph of Lugh, the harvesting and enjoyment of the first fruits, and the acknowledgement of the end of summer. It was a time of great merriment, especially for young people, who wore garlands of flowers and went into the hills to pick bilberries or blueberries. Marriages were traditionally held at this time of year.

 

“High places in the land, where earth and sky met, were considered the appropriate place to honour Lugh. At the ritual site, many of the characteristics and gifts of Lugh were enacted by mummers. The first sheaf of wheat, barley or corn was ceremonially cut, milled, and baked into cakes. These were eaten along with the wild blueberries or bilberries. The young folks’ garlands of flowers were buried to signify the end of summer.”

Dolores pauses as we take this in.

One of the younger women says, “It seems so sad. Burying the garlands, such a sad ending to the beauty of summer.”

Dolores turns to her, and says gently, “In the wheel of the Celtic year there is no ending that is not also a new beginning. Remember that when the bright days of the masculine summer fade, diminish, we are getting ready to welcome Samhain, the season of the feminine winter. The days of womb-like preparation, the dark days of incubation that will themselves end with Brigid’s Festival of Imbolc on February 1st welcoming Spring.”

 

Another asks, “Is Lughnasadh still celebrated in Ireland?”

 

“Many of these ritual practices have died out,” Dolores tells her, “but an essential aspect of the Lughnasadh ritual is enacted each year with the annual pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick in County Mayo on the last Sunday of July. Puck Fair held in Kilorglin in County Kerry each August is another remnant of the Lughnasadh festival.”

Someone calls out, “Look. Up there on the high ground. It must be the setting sun, but it looks like someone has lit a bonfire!”

We are all gazing westward up towards the hill. Something flames there.

When Dolores speaks, her voice is so soft that we almost miss her words:
“That is no fire, nor is it a sunset. That is Lugh, come to bless you, to promise to bring to fruition and harvest the seeds you yourselves planted in the dark engendering days of the long winter. Take his blessing with you until we meet here again.”

 

Lugh

Lugh: Celtic God of Creativity

 

 

 

 

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.

Brigid: “Forge Us Anew”

There is something more I need to ask Brigid, something about a forge, a smithy. Didn’t Anne O’Reilly tell us that Brigid is also the Matron of Smithcraft?

These lines from James Joyce have always haunted me:

I go for the millionth time into the reality of experience
To forge in the smithy of my soul
The uncreated conscience of my race.

There is a link I am trying to make, trying to forge, I suddenly realize. I risk now asking Brigid: “How does the poetry connect with smithcraft? Anne O’Reilly’s poem asks you to forge us anew. I sort of get that, but James Joyce seems to be talking of so much more. He says he must forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race. What does that mean?”

Brigid holds my gaze for a long searing moment. “Indeed,” she says at last, “what does that mean? When you understand, you will each be ready to leave this garden, to return to your homes, to do the same for your time, for your task, for your earth.”

And with that, she is gone. We get up from the almost-dry grass, shake the last drops of rain from our umbrellas, and head back to the hotel.

We did not see Brigid again during our time in Ireland. We returned home, her last challenge still ringing in our hearts.

Yet we continued to seek a deeper understanding. We stayed in touch with one another, offering our thoughts on what it might mean to forge ourselves anew. Here are some of our responses:

Noreen suggests: it is a call to each to do our own inner work.

Patricia touches on the same theme: we need to trust and be in touch with how we feel, what we see… and then to bring it into relationship with our mind. We must trust ourselves and be true to who we are and what we believe, protective of the unique gift that we bring to our world.

Shirley, commenting on the magnitude of the challenges presented to us by the global crisis in the planet’s environment, says: if we allow ourselves to connect deeply with our feelings, we tap into the energy that can give us courage, strength and determination to practise compassion to create a better world.

These three women have understood the heart of Brigid’s challenge: the call to transformation that is the essence of our work in the hearth or smithy of our soul.

Irish Theologian Mary Condren writes compellingly of the gifts of Brigid for our time. Her article, “Brigit, Matron of Poetry, Healing, Smithwork and Mercy: Female Divinity in a European Wisdom Tradition” was published in 2010 in the Journal of the European Society of Women in Theological Research.

Mary Condren’s work sheds light on this fourfold matronage of Brigid, and was my source for information in the last posting on the role of the poets in ancient Celtic Society.

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Mary Condren guides us into a further understanding of smithwork of the soul:
As a smith, Brigid transformed people’s minds rather than metals. She forged new ways of being and transformed old patterns of behaviour into new courses of action. Her psychic mojo speaks of another kind of in-depth knowledge: the perspective of the Crone, the one who has seen it all and is not afraid to speak.

Brigit may be patroness of smithcraft, but her anvil was that of the soul; her alchemy, that of the spirit….Brigit’s matronage of smithwork also takes the form of the “inner fire” necessary to ensure the ethical life of the community….the fire that does not burn, the life-force within….Brigit’s followers, like the ancient Vestal Virgins, were charged with holding the seed of the fire on behalf of the community. The fire would not burn provided they remained focussed, and undistracted by flattery.

With the poet Anne O’Reilly we ask Brigid to forge us anew, to assist us in our work of transformation in the smithy of our souls.

Shirley offers a further reflection that speaks to this challenge, offering us hope:

If our hearts can be turned forward we can help co-create a new human species, a new consciousness. We cannot be fear based. If we stay fear based we can become more unconscious. There are powerful voices building, encouraging momentum. Hopefully in our dialogue we can change minds and hearts by increasing the awareness of the sacredness of all creation and the interconnection of all things.

May we ponder this and send light and love to assist in the emergence of a new human community to embrace the whole of the Earth Community.

This is part of the dying and resurrection. We work it through and that’s the power of the resurrection. This is a new universe being born and it’s messy.

Thomas Berry wrote: “We are not lacking in the dynamic forces needed to create the future. We live immersed in a sea of energy beyond all comprehension. But this energy, in an ultimate sense, is ours not by domination but by invocation.”

Brigid: Matron of Poetry and Smithcraft

Following our conversation with Brigid about the meaning of Equinox, we gather for dinner back at our hotel. The mood is somewhat subdued, the conversation sporadic, touching on the sudden chill of the evening, the earthy tang of the Guinness, our plans for the evening. Within walking distance, there is a poetry reading at eight o’clock, featuring the works of Irish writers of the 20th century. I do not say it to my companions, but I think poetry might be a welcome release from Brigid’s intense teaching and catechizing. I am still smarting from her comment to the fox that we have a great deal to learn…

Just before eight, we make our way to the pub for the readings. We crowd in, some of us clustering around small tables of dark well-polished wood, others perching on the high bar stools. Though I feel a little guilty about it, I am looking forward to an evening without thinking about Brigid. Minutes later, I hear Irish poet Anne Frances O’Reilly, the evening’s host, say that the poetry will be dedicated to Brigid, patron or rather matron, of poetry, healing and smithcraft…

Anne begins with her own poem to Brigid, as recorded on her CD “Breath Song”.

Brigid

These words will never carve
your image out of bog oak
but that is what they want to do
to dig down into the moist wetness
to touch the layers of centuries
that have made you
woman, goddess, saint
to see your shape emerge intact
from the dark earth.

My instruments are crude for such a work
the bog resistant to intruders
as an ancient tribal memory
in its dark and secret places.

But I must search out these roots
this memory as vital as breath.
I must drag this ancient oak
from the centre of the bog.

I will wait as I must
for the time of dryness where I can see
the shape of what you were and what you are.

The fine coat of resin will preserve your beautiful shape intact
and I will call on you great woman
to grace me with a golden branch and tinkling bells.

And I will polish you then with images of
sun and moon, cows, sheep, serpents, vultures,
bags, bells, baths and sacred fires
so that you become a fiery arrow
and breathe life into the mouth of dead winter
as it is these days in the lives of women
whose spirits have ceased to quicken.

O beautiful vessel still intact
where we have unearthed you,
remind us of your many manifestations
and let us smile again in memory
of when doddering Mel pronounced you bishop
or your cloak spread over the green fields of Kildare.
You who turned back the streams of war
whose name invoked stilled monsters in the seas
whose cross remains a resplendent, golden sparkling flame
come again from the dark bog and forge us anew.

 

The following morning, we arrive at the place we now think of as “Brigid’s Garden” under umbrellas that offer little shelter from a wetness that blows towards us from the side. Balancing umbrellas with one hand, spreading jackets or raincoats with the other, we sit on the wet grass.

Brigid is laughing, the raindrops caught in her long hair like sparkling jewels. The sunlight radiates in the drops creating prisms of light, and soon the rain has vanished as though lapped up by their thirst.

“Did you enjoy the poetry last evening?” Brigid asks.

There is a buzz of response, nods of agreement, a few of us quoting remembered lines and images from WB Yeats, from Patrick Kavanagh, from Seamus Heaney.

“Anne O’Reilly said you are the matron of poetry, Brigid,” Elizabeth says. Herself a poet, she then ventures to ask, “How did that come about?”

“How did I come to be matron of poetry?” Brigid echoes, then adds, with great seriousness, “you have seen and read, of course, my collected poems? No? Well, there’s a good reason for that.” She laughs suddenly. Lightly. It eases the tension. Each of us had been fearing we’d missed something important. “I’ve never written even one verse,” she admits.

“Let me tell something of the role of poets in ancient Ireland. They were honoured along with kings and priests as part of a triad of leaders. Poets played a role in the inauguration and the legitimizing of kings. Should a king not live up to what was required of him, the poets could overthrow him.

“The last time you were here, we spoke of the Celtic year that begins with Samhain, as the dark time of the year approaches. You may recall my saying that for ancient people life was understood to begin in darkness. For this reason, the training of poets for a culture that was mostly oral demanded that they spend many hours in complete darkness memorizing the ancient tales and the wisdom lore of Ireland. Because they had faced this darkness and at the same time, their own inner darkness, the poets were prepared to call the community to integrity, to challenge unjust rulers, and false decisions, to defend the weak.

“Now you already know that my name goes back millennia to a time when it meant High or Exalted One. In early Irish law there is mention of a Brigh Ambui who was a woman, an author of wisdom and prudence among the men of Erin. From her were named the incantations called Briathra Brighi by which the poet’s mind was made prophetic.

“The poets of Ancient Ireland had three significant duties: intuitive knowing, whereby they accessed wisdom from the collective unconscious and from within their own bodies; composing without thinking, or on the spot, out of this deep source of wisdom, their store of knowledge and the poetic gift that brings the knowing forth; and the illumination of song.”

We are silent, taking this in, expanding our understanding of the art of poetry, the task of poetry.

 

A Conversation With Brigid

After these weeks of reflecting upon Brigid, we decide to pay her a visit. We book spaces on an Aer Lingus Flight to Shannon Airport. Outside the airport, we find a bus, its destination clearly written above the front window: Church of St. Brigid.

The bus stops before a stone church that appears and feels to be centuries old. Inside, as our eyes adjust to darkness, we pull shawls/sweaters/light coats more closely around us to protect against the chill, the seeping dampness from winter’s rain. The smell is a not unpleasant mix of wax, flowers, dusty hymnals, wispy remnants of incense.

Light comes from the red sanctuary lamp and, in a side aisle, a single candle bows in a soft breeze from a high, partially open, window. Drawn by the candle, we look upwards, gazing at an image in stained glass of Saint Brigid, eyes looking away, one hand grasping a book of prayer, the other a flaming candle.
Clearly she is not expecting us.

image of Brigid

 

But then, slowly, she lowers her gaze, looks steadily at us and…. WINKS!

Beneath her, the partially open window shows a sunlit landscape of such verdancy that we are drawn towards it, even as we see her gesturing that we follow her. We are outside now, breathing in the fragrance of wet, newly-turned earth, pungent with spring life. Brigid draws us onward towards a pool of water that holds a drowned, cloud-drifted sky, invites us to sit on the springy young grass that surrounds the pool.

When we are settled, she speaks: “There’s something I need to tell you….”

We look to her, surprised by this turn of events, eager to listen, to learn.

“First of all, you took the wrong bus. When I drew you here to Ireland, I thought you’d know where to look for me, but when you climbed into that bus, I had to get here ahead of you. Believe me, it was no easy task to stand so still, trying my best to look holy, otherworldly, until you arrived. But now you’re here, I have much to say to you.

“You’ve heard stories about me, of my life in the Christian Monastery of Kildare where I served as abbess to both men and women. I embodied in that role the qualities of compassion and generosity, of kindness, of fierceness in my focus, as I kept the sacred fire alight, the healing water of the holy well flowing. These stories you understand for they are part of your heritage.

“But there is so much more for you to know, wisdom that goes back to the countless millennia before Christianity, before the Hebrew Scriptures, before men decided that God was a powerhouse running the universe, yet wholly separate from what “he” had created.

“I will speak of Ireland, but you must understand that this wisdom was found in many different parts of the planet, in the myths and stories of numberless, now mostly forgotten, aboriginal peoples, in the days when the Holy was understood to be a woman whose body was the earth that births and holds us, nourishes and comforts us, receiving us back into her body when we die. Fragments of this wisdom have endured, to come to us in stories, in myths, in rituals.

“In those ancient days, wave after wave of people came to Ireland, each bringing their own understanding of that sacred being, our mother. Over the millennia, she was called by many different names: Anu, which relates to Danu, the goddess for whom the great river Danube is named; or Aine, the wheel of the seasons, the circle of life; and later Brigit, a name that derives from an Indo-European word brig, meaning the High, the Exalted One.

“In ancient Ireland, Brigid was honoured as embodying all three aspects of the goddess: maiden, mother and crone. The poets, who themselves held positions of honour almost equal to that of the king, worshipped the goddess Brigid, taking her as patron. She was said to have two sisters, each named Brigid, one the patron of healers, the other patron of smith-craft.

“In this, you can see that Brigid was a goddess of many aspects, perhaps herself the many-faceted One, the sacred holy mother of far more ancient times.

“I can see by your expressions that some of you are wondering why I feel it so important to tell you all of this, you who live in a time so different, so removed from the ancient days of Ireland. Yet I have seen in your hearts some of the darkness and suffering you carry, your grief for the ravaging of the planet, the earth, that you know as your mother. I have felt your pain over the desertification of the rain forest, the lungs of your planet, the pollution of its waters, its rivers, lakes, oceans, its very life blood, the poisoning of the air…

“I want you to know, to rediscover, the wisdom of the ancient ones who saw Brigid/Aine /Anu as the life within the earth herself. The hills, her breasts, were called the Paps of Anu; the nipples of high mountains sprouting water were like breasts giving milk; wells that spring from rocks on the sides of mountains and hills or gushing forth from under the earth, or deep inside caves, were her offering of healing.

“Open your eyes, dear ones, so that you may see the earth as co–creating with you in love. See yourself as a partner in this great work, and know yourself held in love by the earth whom you honour as mother.

“As you watch spring returning to your land, remember these things, remember me, and know you are not alone.

“I hear your bus returning. You need not tell the driver what we’ve been speaking about. But do come back again, for I have so much more to tell you!”

We board the bus, bemused, intrigued, making for our hotel. We know this is only the first of many conversations with Brigid.

Brigid: The Mary of the Gael

Edinburgh was coated in light snow on that February day in 1992, the air a raw biting cold, as I set out to explore the city. The National Gallery of Scotland lured me within, down a narrow staircase to an explosion of beauty, wildly out of proportion to the size of its modest rooms, its small wall space. I hold vague memories of standing in awe before landscapes, clusters of children in a garden, beautiful women and solemn men whose painted faces gazed back at me.

st-bride-john-duncan

One image remains etched in rich detail in my mind. I stopped, breathless, before John Duncan’s 1913 painting called, “St. Bride”. Two angels in gloriously patterned robes, miniature tapestries holding scenes from Celtic mythology, were carrying a white-robed maiden, her hands joined in prayer. One angel supported her back with his hands, as her golden hair fell in great waves towards the sea. The other angel held her ankles while her knees rested on his shoulders. The angels’ wings were a symphony of colour from scarlet to rose to pale pink, shaded with greens, golds, midnight blues. The angels’ toes just brushed the surface of the sea where a seal swam ahead of them.
I had no idea what I was seeing.

That evening, in the home of the friend with whom I was staying, I learned the story of Brigid. Legend tells that she was carried by angels across the seas from Ireland to Bethlehem in Judea, to be present at the birth of Jesus, and that she became his foster mother. Other tales add that Brigid served Mary as mid-wife, and that when Herod was seeking the Child to destroy him, Brigid distracted the soldiers by running through the streets, allowing Mary and Joseph to escape with Jesus.

As I am sure you recognize, we are in the realm of story. But as I hope you realize, it is the story that matters, that lures us, inspires us, teaches us what we need to understand about life. The life of Brigid is in some ways more mysterious than the life of Mary. With Mary, we have the fragments of the Gospels. For Brigid, what we have are mostly legends.
Brigid was born in Ireland in 457 AD and founded a double monastery in Kildare sometime before her death in 524 AD. A wealth of stories about her were carried in oral tradition until Cogitosus, a monk of Kildare, wrote his “Life of Brigid” around 650 AD. At the time of his writing, Cogitosus noted that in the Kildare monastery, the nuns still guarded her sacred fire.

According to Cogitosus, Brigid was the daughter of Dubhthach, a pagan noble of Leinster, while her mother Brocseach was a Christian. Baptized at an early age, Brigid was fostered by a Druid.

The stories of Brigid reveal her spirit of compassion for the poor: one day when she was a child, after she had milked the cows, she gave away the milk to some poor persons who were passing. She feared her mother’s reproof, but when she arrived home, her milk pail was found to be even fuller that that of the other maidens.

The adult Brigid approached a rich landowner, asking for land where she might grow food for the poor. The landowner agreed to give her as much land as she could cover with her cloak. Brigid lay down her cloak and it expanded until it covered many, many acres.
Another story tells of Brigid’s father preparing for her marriage to a nobleman while Brigid herself wanted to become a nun. Through the intervention of the Christian King of Leinster, Brigid’s desire was granted. With seven other young women Brigid was consecrated to Christ.

In a wonderful tale, during the Ceremony for Consecration of a Virgin to Christ, the very old Bishop Mel of Ardagh mistakenly read for Brigid the words for Consecration of a Bishop. When his mistake was pointed out to him by co-presider Bishop MacCaille of Longford, Mel insisted that the Consecration would stand, as it must have been the work of the Holy Spirit. Brigid would be the only woman to hold the episcopal office in Ireland.

In the book, Miniature Lives of the Saints, I came upon this explanation for Brigid’s title, “The Mary of the Gael”:
At a synod held near Kildare, during the lifetime of the saint, says an old legend, one of the fathers declared that he had seen a vision, and that the Blessed Virgin would on the morrow appear among them. Next day Brigid arrived with her companions, and the father immediately exclaimed, “There is the holy Mary whom I saw in my dream.” Brigid accordingly came to be called “The Mary of the Gael,” that is, of the Irish; for so pure was she in spirit, so holy in every action, so modest, so gentle, so filled with mercy and compassion, that she was looked on as the living image in soul and body of Mary the Mother of God. (London, Burns and Oates, 1959)

Legend says that Brigid’s mother gave birth to her on the doorstep of their home, one foot within, one foot outside the door. This would seem to be a prophecy for a life that would become a threshold, bridging pagan and Christian, woman and man, rich and poor….Goddess and Saint.

For the story of Brigid, founder of the Christian Monastery of Kildare, is interwoven with the ancient Irish goddess who shares her name. As goddess, Brigid is known as maiden, mother and crone. And the Feast of Saint Brigid, February 1st, coincides with the ancient Celtic Festival of Imbolc, the beginning of spring.

It is Brigid who “breathes life into the mouth of dead winter”. It is Brigid who, as we have already read in Dolores Whelan’s article, “Brigid: Cailleach and Midwife for a New World” holds the cailleach energy, the energy of the cauldron where our lives, individually and communally, need to be transformed through the power of her fire, her water.

I close with words spoken by a contemporary Irish woman who was seeking to grasp the goddess/saint mystery of Brigid: ”Ah, wasn’t she a goddess before ever she was a saint?” (in The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog by Patricia Monaghan)

The Wooing of Etain Part Seven

King Eochaid has just laid upon Midir the great tasks that have become famous throughout all of Ireland, promising, as Midir requested, that no one would be out of doors all night so that Midir and his people might work unseen. But as soon as Midir departs, Eochaid sends his steward to follow him and spy upon the night’s activity.

The steward went with all stealth from Tara, and as he watched, it seemed to him that all the men from all the Elf-mounds in the world were raising tumult there, and Midir, standing on a hill, urged on his Fairy Hosts. Then to his surprise, the King’s man saw that the strong dark blue Fairy oxen were yoked by their shoulders so that the pull might be there, and not on their foreheads, as it had always been in Ireland. And as they worked, the hosts of the Elf-mounds sang:

“Heave here, pull there, excellent oxen,
In the hours after sundown, And none shall know whose
Is the gain or the loss
From the Causeway of Tavrach.”

And the causeway would have been the best in the world, had not the work of the Fairy Hosts been spied upon, but Midir was angry because of this and he left some defects in the work.

Meanwhile the steward returned to Tara, and told the King of the magic he had witnessed during the night, and he told him of the new way he had seen of yoking the oxen so that the pull might be upon their shoulders. When he heard this, Eochaid decreed that henceforth all the oxen in Ireland should be thus yoked, and for this decree he was called Eochaid Air-em, “The Ploughman.”

“There is not on the ridge of the world a magic power to surpass the magic I have seen this night,” the steward said, and as he spoke, Midir appeared before them, his loins girt and an angry look on his face. Eochaid was afraid, but he made Midir welcome.

“It is cruel and unreasonable of you to lay such hardship and affliction on me and on my people, and then to spy on me,” Midir said. “My mind is inflamed against you.”

“I will not give wrath for your rage,” the King said.

“Then,” said the Fairy King, “let us play chess.”

“What stake shall we set upon the game?” Eochaid asked.

“That the loser pays what the winner shall desire,” said Midir of Bri Leith, and they sat down to play.

Midir won with ease, and Eochaid’s stake was forfeit.   “You have taken my stake,” he said.

“Had I wished I could have taken it before now.”

“What do you want of me?”

“My arms about Etain, and a kiss from her lips.”

Eochaid was silent. Then he said: “Come one month from today and it shall be given to you.”

Midir left Tara for the Fair Mound of Bri Leith, and Eochaid, losing no time, called the flower of the warriors to his land, and the best war lords in all Ireland, and he mustered them around Tara, without and within, ring upon ring of the heroes of Ireland to guard the Hill of Tara, and the King and Queen were in the centre of the House; and the Courts were locked and guarded by the Men of Strength, and the Men of Hearing, against the Man of Magic who was to come.

Etain was serving wine to the King and the Lords in the midst of the Hall, and as she bent over towards the goblet in the King’s hand, Midir, in the centre of the Royal House, came towards her.

He was fair at all times, but on this night he was fairest, and the hosts of Tara were astonished at his beauty, and at the radiance of him. In the silence, the King made him welcome.

Midhir1

“What is pledged to me, let it be given to me,” Midir said.

“I have given the matter little thought,” said the King.

“What is promised is due,” Midir said.

Etain was silent, and her cheeks were red as the scarlet rowanberry, and then, by turn, white as snow.

“Do not blush, Etain,” Midir said to her. “I have been a year seeking you with gifts and treasures, the richest and most beautiful in Ireland. It is not by the dark magic that I have won you.”

“I will not go with you, Midir, unless the King releases me to you,” Etain replied.

“I will never release you,” Eochaid said. “But as for this stake, I willingly allow this warrior to put his arms about you, and to kiss you, here in the middle of the Royal House, while the hosts of Tara look on.”

“It shall be done,” said Midir, and he took his weapons in his left hand, and with his right arm he held Etain round the waist, and as he kissed her, and kissed her again, he bore her away in his embrace, through the skylight of the House.

The men of Ireland rose in shame about their King, and he led them out in hot pursuit. But Eochaid, High King of Ireland, and his hosts, saw only two snow-white swans in full flight over Tara.