14 February 2009

From Virgin Saint to Fertility Goddess?

Many of the hagiographers and writers of hymns and poetry about St Brighid spoke of her in terms that seem to have been taken from the pagan literary traditions of the Celts. Unfortunately, in the last century or so this has given rise to the misconception that St Brighid is ‘merely’ a pagan goddess rather thinly Christianised, a misconception that can be found more or less in several of the sources I’ve cited in my post on her. Michael Staunton, for instance, claims, ‘The Brigid who emerges from Cogitosus’s pages is essentially a pagan fertility goddess disguised by a thin veneer of Christianity, and the success of her cult is bound up with pagan tradition’ (The Voice of the Irish: The Story of Christian Ireland [Mahwah, NJ: HiddenSpring, 2003], p. 48)

The topic has been well-addressed, however, in a paper by Lisa M. Bitel entitled, ‘St Brigit of Ireland: From Virgin Saint to Fertility Goddess’, available here. Bitel argues that there is actually very little evidence for a pagan goddess by the name of ‘Brighid’ in Ireland (one of the most frequently cited sources on her is only 12th century!)—‘However, between the iron age inscriptions from abroad and the medieval secular literature, we have plenty of written evidence for the life of a woman called Brigit, the Christian saint of Kildare.’ Bitel concludes:

Since then, historians, celticists, and scholars of religion have pored over the earliest written lives of Brigit to prove the development of goddess Brigit into saint Brigit. Researchers have sought to find the non-christian, the unorthodox, the unwittingly pagan details in the vitae. Textual evidence that does not match scholars' definition of a female saint, or passages that resonate with later medieval mythological texts, or episodes that seem related to continental evidence of Celtic deities, scholars and devotees of Brigit have treated as accidental information. They suppose that hagiographers included this information unintentionally in their Christian texts, or that otherwise devout Christian writers still loyal to pagan Irish culture hid their true sentiments in saints' lives.

But in fact, the hagiographers knew exactly what they were doing. They were not transforming a goddess into a saint. They were casting a saint as a goddess.

It is an excellent illustration of Thomas Owen Clancy’s and Gilbert Márkus sensible observation that the Saints ‘cease to look like old gods transformed when we focus on their historicity, on the reality of their bodies’, an observation that could be made, mutatis mutandis, about much of the nonsense published about our Lord Himself (Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery [Edinburgh: Edinburgh U, 1995], p. 116).

There seem to be so many poems about St Brighid that I want to take every available opportunity to post them. So here is one that Bitel identifies as the work of a bishop of Kildare in about 840. I have taken it from the Project Gutenberg E-book of Alfred Perceval Graves's A Celtic Psaltery:

Safe on thy throne,
Triumphing Bride,
Down Liffey's side,
Far to the coast,
Rule with the host
Under thy care
Over the Children of Mighty Cathair.

God's hid intents
At every time,
For pure Erin's clime
All telling surpass.
Liffey's clear glass
Mirrors thy reign,
But many proud masters have passed from his plain.

When on his banks
I cast my eyes thorough
The fair, grassy Curragh,
Awe enters my mind
At each wreck that I find
Around me far strown
Of lofty kings' palaces gaunt, lichen-grown!

Laery was monarch
As far as the Main;
Vast Ailill's reign!
The Curragh's green wonder
Still grows the blue under,
The old rulers thereon
One after other to cold death have gone.

Where is Alenn far-famed,
How dear in delights!
Beneath her what Knights
What Princes repose
How feared by her foes
When Crimthan was Chief--
Crimthan of Conquests--now passes belief!

Proudly the triumph-shout
Rang from his victor lords,
Round their massed shock of swords;
While their foes' serried, blue
Spears they struck through and through;
Blasts of delight
Blared from their horns over hundreds in flight.

Blithe, on their anvils
Even-hued, blent
The hammers' concent;
From the Brugh the bard's song
Brake sweet and strong;
Proud beauty graced
The field where knights jousted and charioteers raced.

There in each household
Ran the rich mead;
Steed neighed to steed;
Chains jingled again
Unto Kings among men
Under the blades
Of their five-edged, long, bitter, blood-letting spear-heads.

There, at each hour,
Harp music o'erflowed;
The wine-galleon rode
The violet sea,
Whence silver showered free,
And gold torques without fail,
From the land of the Gaul to the Land of the Gael.

To Britain's far coasts
The renown of those kings
On a meteor's wings
O'er the waters had flown.
Yea! Alenn's high throne,
With its masterful lore,
Made sport of the pomp of each palace before.

But where, oh, where is mighty Cathair?
Before him or since
No shapelier Prince
Ruled many-hued Erin.
Though round the rath, wherein
They laid him, you cry,
The Champion of Champions can never reply.

Where is Feradach's robe,
Where his diadem famed,
Round which, as it flamed,
Plumed ranks deployed?
His blue helm is destroyed,
His shining cloak dust.
Overthrower of kings, in whom now is thy trust?

Alenn's worship of auguries
Now is as naught!
None thereof takes thought.
All in vain is each spell
The dark future to tell!
All is vain, when 'tis probed,
And Alenn lies dead of her black arts disrobed.

Hail, Brigit! whose lands
To-day I behold,
Whither monarchs of old
Came each in his turn.
Thy fame shall outburn
Their mightiest glory;
Thou art over them all, till this Earth ends its story.

Yea! Thy rule with the King
Everlasting shall stand,
Apart from the land
Of thy burial-place.
Child of Bresal's proud race,
O triumphing Bride,
Sit safely enthroned upon Liffey's green side.


The Ochlophobist said...

Quite helpful. Many thanks.

Our midwife named her daughter Brighid because St. Brighid is the patron of midwives. She happens to be a neo-pagan who is into the goddess nonsense, though she is a wonderful, kind, woman for whom we are ever thankful. But I think she appreciates our veneration of St. Brighid (St Brighid's crosses in the home, and icons, etc.). I have heard the line, from her and others - "ya know, Brighid was a celtic goddess before she was a saint." I think I may print out copies of the linked article and simply hand them out to folks who tell me this in the future.

Around the time we named our daughter Brighid I Googled "Brighid" and the results were quite dismal. This lust for the neo-paganization of everything Celtic - so inane. It is good that revisionist histories are beginning to correct some of this.

Justin said...

Thank you for posting this, Reb Aharon. The Celts seemed to have lived a world where the physical and supernatural were not always distinct. And their legends of yore often stepped into the present tense. This comes across strongly in their poetry.

Instead of starting from the assumption that all things Christian were actually "co-opted" from paganism, it makes a more logical argument and more consistent with Celtic culture to say that Brigid and other local Saints were very real and as they grew in notoriety, were seen as exhibiting admirable characteristics found in Celtic myth.

One fact that I've never seen mentioned is that there is no firm evidence to say which of the famous Celtic personalities (the Hag, the Morrigan, Nudd, Daghda, Epona, etc) were actually worshiped as gods, which were simple forces of nature, which were merely story archetypes, and which were mythologized historical figures.

So before scholars can say Saints were anthropomorphized gods, they need to answer the question: "who exactly was a god to begin with?"

In modern academia, the deconstruction of Christianity is not done for the higher purpose of knowing history or understanding our heritage. Deconstructing Christianity is in itself, the goal.

aaronandbrighid said...

Owen> I had the same thought myself about giving out this article. I've thought about this issue before, and had read one or two other things that addressed it in brief, and suprisingly, I only discovered this article on Thursday. I guess St Brighid sent it my way!

By the way, there's an excellent book on the whole 'goddess' phenomenon per se, called Goddess Unmasked: The Rise of Neopagan Feminist Spirituality by Philip G. Davis. Although I think he goes just a little far in one or two of his conclusions, I found it highly enlightening!

Justin> Your last line in particular was very well put. I was never very well read on Celtic paganism (Norse paganism was more in my line!), so I was surprised to learn that the stuff that I'd seen quoted and referred to before about the 'goddess' Brighid was so long after the fact, and that there was so little evidence for any such thing in Ireland.