Brighid Lore for Imbolc
by Doreen Motheral
The goddess Brighid (also known as Brigit, Bride, Biddy and other names throughout Europe) is a goddess who is near and dear to my heart for many reasons. I like the fact that she is associated with both water (her wells in Kildare and other parts of Ireland) and fire (her fire pit in Kildare). I like the fact that she spans both the pagan and Christian worlds and some of her traditions are still celebrated today.
Since the festival of Imbolc (also called Óimelc) is this weekend I thought I’d write a few thoughts for those who aren’t familiar with her (and perhaps renew an acquaintance for those who already were). Imbolc is the time of the year that the ewes lactated, and the successful timing of this event was approximate, so the exact date of Imbolc could vary from region to region and from year to year depending on the climate. Production of this milk supply was very important to both man and animal. From the milk comes butter and cheese. Newly calved cows were also put under Brighid’s protection. Here’s an old saying:
Samhain Eve without food,
Christmas night without bread,
St. Brighid’s Eve without butter,
That is a sorry complaint.
Cormac mac Cuillenàin, who lived in the 9th century said, “Brighid i.e. a learned woman, daughter of the Dagda. That is Brighid of learning, i.e. a goddess who filid worshipped. For her protecting care was very great and very wonderful. So they call her a goddess of poets. Her sisters were Brighid woman of healing, and Brighid woman of smithcraft, daughters of the Dagda, from whose names among all the Irish a goddess used to be called Brighid” In this writing, Cormac mentions her triple aspect of three sisters, common among the Celts. I often call on one or more of her aspects of creativity, writing and healing, but she is much more than that.
The Christian aspects of Brighid and the pagan aspects often overlap, so it’s difficult to figure out which stories have pre-Christian beginnings. I think there is a seed of paganism in many of the later stories associated with her. We’ll never know for sure, but in my own private practice I take many of her current customs and use them for my own worship of her – and I don’t worry about the pre-Christian aspect of the story or not. Your mileage may vary, of course.
On the eve of Imbolc, a piece of linen, other cloth or ribbons is placed outside (some folks put them on their window sill). This piece of cloth is called Brighid’s Brat or Brighid’s Mantle. It is said that Brighid travels all over the land on Imbolc eve and if she sees this cloth, she will bless it and give it healing powers. Some folks in Ireland say that the older your brat is, the more powerful it is. Mugwort Grove (the grove to which I belong) destroys ours from year to year. We put out a whole piece of linen and tear it into strips for members of the Grove during our Imbolc ritual. People take the strips home to use for healing and some are kept on personal altars throughout the year.
Other folklore says that if the mantle gets bigger overnight, you will be especially blessed. It’s a nice tradition, especially if you have a lot of illness to overcome for the following year, and a brat is nice to have for healing rituals later in the year.
Brighid’s fiery aspect makes her the perfect goddess of the hearth – in fact, my hearth at home is dedicated to Brighid. There are many hearth prayers dedicated to Brighid, especially concerning smooring. Ashes and embers were often deposited in the fields. Also, indoor activity associated with Imbolc often took place near the hearth, and if there was a feast, an extra place was set for Brighid. It is also considered bad luck to do any type of spinning on Brighid’s Day.
There is also the custom of Brighid’s Bed. A small bed is made near the hearth and a doll (called a Brídeog), often made from a sheaf of corn and made into the likeness of a woman and is sometimes placed in the bed. In Ireland the doll was often made from a churn dash decorated in clothing (associations t milk again). Sometimes the doll was carried around town to visit houses in the neighborhood. Songs, music and dances are performed – then prayers are said to St. Brighid for blessings upon the house (this is similar to wassailing in other countries around Christmas). Then the family is asked to contribute a donation – which used to be bread and butter (there’s that dairy again!) but now it’s often money (sometimes given to charity).
There is much, much more about Brighid I could share, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. A bit of trivia – Brighid is so loved by the Irish people that in 1942 a survey was taken on “The Feast of St. Brighid”. The replies about the customs run to 2,435 manuscript pages. A great book, if you can find it, is The Festival of Brighid Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman by Séamas Ó Catháin. There are many really cool stories and legends about her.
Last but not least one of the other interesting aspects of Brighid is a prayer attributed to her from the 11th century which goes like this:
I would like a great lake of ale, for the King of the Kings
I would like the angels of Heaven to be among us.
I would like an abundance of peace.
I would like full vessels of charity.
I would like rich treasures of mercy.
I would like cheerfulness to preside over all.
I would like Jesus to be present.
I would like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us.
I would like the friends of Heaven to be gathered around us from all parts.
I would like myself to be a rent payer to the Lord; that I should suffer distress, that he would bestow a good blessing upon me.
I would like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
I would like to be watching Heaven’s family drinking it through all eternity.