• Ali Isaac

Brigid, Queen of Imbolc

Updated: May 19, 2020

It was a really cold day. Drifts of snow lay on the ground, and frost iced the branches of trees and blades of grass with sparkling fairy dust. I decided to mark the festival of Imbolc by visiting St Brigid’s Well at Lisnabantry, about five minutes drive from where I live.

It is situated on the edge of bogland, near a very ancient looking cemetery called Roffney Burial Ground. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. It was well looked after, and clearly quite recently visited, as you can see from the pictures; there was evidence of many candles having been lit, and gifts had been left for Brigid.

It was a very peaceful place, in lovely, quiet countryside. I said my bit to Brigid, swirled my hand in the bone-chilling water, and turned to leave. It was only then that I noticed the magnificent milk-white bull at the top of the hill, watching me. You can just see him in the title picture. His presence felt right.

According to the Celts, Imbolc is the first day of Spring. It is also the feast day of Brigid, a Princess of the Tuatha de Danann, now more popularly known in Ireland as a Christian Saint. The word Imbolc is Old Irish, and thought to mean ‘in the belly’, with reference to the pregnancy of ewes. Indeed, the C10th manuscript known as Cormac’s Glossary explains it as oimelc, or ‘ewe’s milk’.

Brigid, Queen of Imbolc. Saint and pagan goddess of ancient Ireland.

However, another term which I much prefer, but which scholars deem unlikely, is that of imb-fholc, meaning ‘to thoroughly wash/ cleanse’. To me, this is clearly a reference to ritual cleansing and purification, and as Imbolc is one of the four great Celtic fire festivals (the others being Beltaine, Lughnasadh and Samhain), it makes much more sense to me.

For the ancient Irish, the day began with darkness, not light. It began at sunset. Therefore, although the festival is held on February 1st, it actually begins on the evening of January 31st. Great bonfires were lit, which represented the return of the heat and light of the sun as the days began to lengthen and ripen into summer. Fire and smoke were also important for purification rites.

Many of Ireland’s ancient stone monuments confirm the festival’s importance. The Mound of Hostages at Tara, for example, is a Neolithic passage tomb aligned with the rising sun on the morning of Imbolc. Loughcrew has another.

Brigid is generally accepted as being the daughter of the Dagda, who was once the Ard Rí, or High King of the Denann. As with many of the Irish female deities, she was a Triune Goddess, meaning she was one and three all at the same time. This triple aspect of their femininity related to the stages of womanhood, namely maiden-mother-crone. Unusually, Brigid’s triple aspect revolved around her skills, poetry-smithcraft-healing. In particular, she was greatly loved for her healing and protection. She is associated with fire, and, very popularly, with lactating sheep.

I wonder about the sheep association; the Danann were famous for possessing beautiful milk-white cattle (hence the guardian of the well on the hill above me). In her own herd of livestock, Brigid was said to have kept  two royal cattle called Fea and Feimhean, the King of the Boars known as Torc Triath, and Cirb, who was king of the wethers. In case you don’t know, a ‘wether’ is a castrated male sheep. No lactating ewes.

Brigid was worshipped all over Ireland and also in the UK. There is a carving in the tower on Glastonbury Tor which depicts her milking, not a sheep, but a cow. Cattle were considered very important in Ireland in ancient times; not only were they seen as a symbol of wealth and power, but they were used as currency. Queen Medb was famous for going to war over a bull, as told in the Cattle Raid of Cooley. An association with cattle would therefore make so much more sense to me.

Brigid was married to Bres, of Danann-Fomori heritage, with whom she had a son, Ruadan. Bres went on to become High King, but was deposed for his tyrannical rule. Seeking revenge, he enlisted the help of his Fomori relatives and waged war on the Denann. During the battle, Ruadan was sent into the Danann camp as a spy. He tried to kill their smith, Goibniu, but was himself killed in the attempt. Brigid collapsed in grief over her son’s body, crying her sorrow, and was thus said to have invented the act of keening (in Irish caoine, or cine) for the dead.

Bres was defeated by the Danann, but his life was spared by Lugh, although it is said that he was responsible later for killing Bres with a cup of poisoned wine.

One story claims that Brigid also had a union with Tuirean after Bres was killed, perhaps marriage, as they had three sons together, Ichvar, Ichvarba and Brian. These three men caused a feud with Lugh by killing his father, Cian. But what became of Brigid, I’m not sure.

St Brigid founded a nunnery in Kildare. Here an eternal flame was lit in her honour, and tended by nineteen nuns. Men were not allowed to enter. She had a close companion who went on to take her place as abbess when she died. Intriguingly, this woman’s name was Darlughdacha, which means ‘daughter of Lugh’.

The name Brighid means ‘bright/ exalted one’, thought to refer to her association with fire and the sun. This sounds more like a title to me. Some say her name derives from Breo-Saighead which means ‘fiery arrow’. To me, this conjures up images of lightning.

Lugh was the God of Lightning. Perhaps Darlughdacha was the real Brigid, daughter of Lugh, Goddess of Lightning. Lightning is a fitting way to describe the light, or divine inspiration of the poetry with which she is associated. It also accurately describes the glowing white-hot iron she would have manipulated in the fire of the forge. And the Celts used light rather than cosmic energy in their spiritual healing.

This paints a slightly different picture of Brigid than the one we’re used to, and perhaps it’s a challenge too far for some. In the end, none of it really matters. Belief is individual. She is what she is to you.

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