Tag Archives: Celtic Mother Goddess

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.

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 Five

The Storyteller has taken us to the moment when Etain, in her new life as daughter of Etar, has become the bride of the High King of Ireland, Eochaid. Today, as she continues the tale, there is a mischievous glint in her eyes, showing she is aware of the questions stirring within us.

What has happened to Midir? Will no one tell Etain of her former life, her former love?

Now the Storyteller continues:

The Great Feast of Tara was held with all splendour, and the people of Ireland rejoiced. The King had two brothers, and Anguba, the younger of them, saw Etain at the Feast and he gazed on her continually, and such gazing is a sign of love. His heart reproached him, and he tried not to love his brother’s wife, but to no avail, and that his honour should not be stained, he ate no food, fell into a decline, and was near to death.

It was the time of the Royal Circuit, and Eochaid, despite his grief and deep distress, was forced to leave Tara. He left his brother in the care of Etain, and bade her attend him, and if he should die, to see that his grave be dug, his lamentations made and his cattle slain.

Every day Etain came to the house where Anguba lay sick, and spoke with him, to comfort him, and his sickness was eased, for as long as she stayed with him, he would be gazing at her. Etain pondered on the matter, and one day she asked him the cause of his sickness.
“It is for love of you,” Anguba said, and Etain answered:
“Pity, indeed, that you have been so long without telling it. Had we but known, you would have been healed a while ago.”

“Even this day I could be whole again,” Anguba said, “if you are willing.”
“ I am willing indeed,” Etain replied, and every day she came to his House and she bathed his head, and carved his meat, and after thrice nine days Anguba was healed of his sickness and he said to Etain:
“And when shall I have from you what is still lacking to cure me?”
“Tomorrow,” Etain said, “but not in the King’s House shall he be shamed. Tomorrow, on the hill above the Court, I will wait for you.”

Etain kept the tryst, but at the hour of meeting a magic sleep overcame Anguba, and he did not waken till the third hour of the next day. When Etain returned to the house, she found the King’s brother sorrowful and distraught.
“That I should have tryst with you, and then fall asleep,” he said.

Twice they made tryst, and each time Anguba slept, and on the third night a man was waiting on the hill above the Court.
“Who are you?” Etain said. “It was not you I came to meet. My tryst with Anguba is not for sin or hurt, but that one who is worthy to be King should be healed of his sickness.”

And the stranger revealed himself to her, and told her his name.
“I am Midir of Bri Leith, and I have loved you for a thousand years. You were daughter to Aylill, Fairy King of Mag Inish, and I was your lover and your husband. I paid a great bride-price for you.”
He was tall and fair, and his purple mantle fell in five soft folds around him, and in it was the golden brooch of Bri Leith, that reached to his shoulder on either side. His bright yellow hair was held back from his brow by a fillet of gold, and the radiance of desire was in his eyes.

“Tell me,” said Etain, “what parted us?”
“The sorcery of Fuamnach divided us, one from the other,” said Midir, and approached her. “It was I who put love for you in Anguba’s heart, so that he was sick with longing and near to dying. It was I who took from him all carnal desire and covered him with sleep that your honour might not suffer.”

Etain was silent, and turned away from him.

“Etain,” he said, “will you come with me to the wondrous land where harmony is?

Hair is like the crown of the primrose there, and the body smooth and white as snow.
There is neither mine nor thine,
White are teeth there, and dark the brows.
A delight to the eye is the number of our hosts.”

But Etain would not look at him.

“A wondrous land is the land I tell of,” Midir said.
“Warm sweet streams flow though the land,
the choice of mead and wine,
stately folk, without blemish,
conception is without sin, without lust,
We see everyone on every side,
And no one seeth us.”
But still she stood apart.

“Will you come with me if the King, your husband, bids you?”

“Willingly,” Etain answered, and they looked into each other’s eyes.

When she returned to the house she found Anguba and he was whole
again, and healed of the cause of his sickness.
“We are well met,” he said, “for now I am healed, and your honour has not suffered.”
“It is well,” said Etain, and they rejoiced together.

When Eochaid returned from his journeying, he gave thanks to Etain for her care of Anguba, his brother, and for all she had done to tend him. There was feasting in the great hall of Tara, and Etain poured the wine for Eochaid, her husband, and for Anguba, his brother, for it is written, “the pouring of wine was a special gift of hers.

Seeking the Sophia

I long for You so much

I follow barefoot Your frozen tracks

That are high in the mountains

That I know are years old.

I long for You so much

I have even begun to travel

Where I have never been before.
(in Hafiz The Subject Tonight Is Love trans. Daniel Ladinsky)

As we set out to find Sophia, the missing feminine aspect of the Holy, we prepare for a long journey, following tracks that are millennia old. We learn to be adept at time travel, at exploring deep dusty caverns of pre-history, at unravelling, then reweaving, threads of ancient stories.

Sophia is nowhere precisely, yet everywhere subtly. Mythologies of many cultures abound with tales of her presence, her power, her sufferings, her diminishments. Old fairy tales hold glimpses of her that are both tender and terrifying. We will need to look into sacred wells, old ritual sites, ruined temples and sanctuaries. We will carefully examine fragments of poetry, shards of pottery, pieces of drums, tiny perfect feminine figures carved of stone, buried in the depths of the earth.

We are living today in the time of the great recovery. What has been hidden is being revealed to us. Scholars of ancient civilizations are writing of their findings: the traces of a sacred feminine presence within the stories, myths and ritual practices of people long vanished.

In “A Brief History of The Celts”, Peter Berresford Ellis writes of the Great Mother Goddess of the Ancient Celts, revealing the connection between the Celtic Goddess and the great rivers of Ireland, a sacred connection also found in India’s mythology:
“… the Celts believed their origins lay with the mother goddess Danu, ‘divine waters from heaven’. She fell from heaven and her waters created the Danuvius (Danube), having watered the sacred oak tree Bile. From there sprang the pantheon of the gods who are known as the Tuatha de Danaan (Children of Danu) in Irish and the Children of Don in Welsh myths.” (p. 162)
The story associated with the Danuvius, which is arguably the first great Celtic sacred river, has similarities with myths about the Boyne, from the goddess Boann, and the Shannon, from the goddess Sionan in Ireland. More important, it bears a close resemblance to the Hindu goddess Ganga, deity of the Ganges. Both Celts and Hindus worshipped in the sacred rivers and made votive offerings there. In the Vedic myth of Danu, for she exists as a deity in Hindu Mythology as well, the goddess appears in the famous Deluge story called “The Churning of the Ocean.” (p.7)
Celtic writer Jen Delyth writes further of the goddess Anu, also known as Danu and Aine:

An ancient figure, venerated under many names, she is known as the womb of life. She is the spark and vitality of life. She is the seed of the sun in our veins. The Great Earth Mother is more ancient than the god of the Celtic Druids. She is the Mother whose breasts are the Paps of Anu in Ireland. Her hair is the wild waves, the golden corn. Her eyes are the shining stars, her belly the round tors or earth barrows from which we are born. Like the cat, the sow, the owl, she eats her young if they are sick or dying. She is the cycle of life, the turning of the seasons.”

In rivers, waves, and corn, in stars and earth barrows, in the very seasons of our land, this sacred presence is embodied, immersed, implanted in the universe, around, above, beneath, within us.

In “Women of the Celts”, Jean Markale offers an overview of the decline of the Sacred Feminine presence as the Jewish/Christian religions became dominant, but he also hints at how her presence survives:
Within the patriarchal framework (goddesses) were often obscured, tarnished and deformed, and submerged into the depth of the unconscious. But they do still exist, if only in dormant state, and sometimes rise triumphantly to rock the supposedly immovable foundations of masculine society. The triumph of Yahweh and Christ was believed sanctified forever, but from behind them reappears the disturbing and desirable figure of the Virgin Mary with her unexpected names: Our Lady of the Water, Our Lady of the Nettles, Our Lady of the Briars,
Our Lady of the Mounds, Our Lady of the Pines. But in spite of the veneration accorded her over the centuries and the public declaration of successive dogmas related to Mary, the authorities of the Christian Church have always made her a secondary character, overshadowed and retiring, a model of what women ought to be. Now the pure and virginal servant of man, the wonderful mother who suffers all heroically, she is no longer the Great Goddess before whom the common herd of men would tremble, but Our Lady of the Night.”     (Jean Markale “Women of the Celts” p. 86)

Our Lady of the Night! What a lovely, appropriate name for the presence we seek, the One who has so many different names… yet is being rebirthed now in our time, from the “womb of this present darkness”.

The ways we are to seek her may seem arduous, but the starting place is deep within our souls.

As Hafiz hints in his poem, the search begins with our longing for her.