[This issue, we sit down with Mael Brigde. An Irish polytheist, Brigde here discusses her devotion to Brigit and other Celtic deities; her new book, Sun Among Stars; and the complex nature of that Goddess.]
ev0ke: How would you define your personal spiritual practice? Does it have a name, or is it more intuitive or eclectic?
Mael Brigde: I am an Irish Polytheist with a special devotion to Brigit. I am also a Buddhist, but although elements of that practice (such as compassion and non-violence) inform my paganism, I don’t combine the two spiritual systems. I am an ex-Catholic, born before Vatican II, so coming originally from old-school Canadian Catholicism. I left the faith as a young teen because of the abortion issue, and fairly thoroughly got away from my childhood beliefs. However, there is much I still cherish about Catholicism, which makes embracing Saint Brigit in addition to the goddess Brigit a simple and natural thing.
ev0ke: Which Deities, powers, or other spirits are honored in your tradition?
MB: I’m aware of a number of Irish deities, whom I honour, though I don’t directly work with them. The only deity I have a relationship with besides Brigit is her father, An Dagda, though that is pretty much as it would be with the parent of any close friend. They aren’t themselves my dearest friend, but I know and respect and like them, and see in them some of how my friend came to be who she is. I am also aware of my connection to the elements around me, the wind, the waters, the earth, the planet, and all the life these bear. My relationship to the living things around me is personal and intimate, and although I am very far from perfect in it, I do try not to harm even the smallest of these.
ev0ke: Your book A Brigit of Ireland Devotional: Sun Among Stars will be released by Moon Books in September 2021. First, congratulations! Second, why a book about Brigit? What inspired the book’s creation?
MB: The inspiration for the book came in stages, really. I long ago started writing my own rituals and the occasional praise poem, but I really wanted a book to draw on when I was at my altar and wishing to connect with Brigit in the intimate, contemplative way that prayer and poetry can I offer. I didn’t have such a book, or anything close to it. Then in 2011 I found out that I had cancer and believed I was in danger of losing my life. Although in the end it turned out to be fairly easily dealt with through surgery, at first I had no idea what might happen and I was really frightened. I started writing prayers to her in my sorrow and urgency, and over time the focus changed from me asking for help to me looking at her in many different ways. That makes it sound planned, but it wasn’t really. It’s just that almost everything inspired me to look more closely into a particular story or a particular experience in relation to her, or a particular aspect of her being. So I was inadvertently doing research for the poems and inadvertently doing poems because of the research. I wrote many, many poems in the first year. Finally I decided to put them into a book, to share what I had learned and what I had experienced with her, with the thought that other people might also benefit. Besides, I still didn’t have that book next to my altar.
ev0ke: The devotional includes a number of poems. Which of these was the most difficult, but ultimately most satisfying, to write? And why?
MB: That’s an interesting question. I suppose it’s the poems that are the most personal in terms of revealing my vulnerability and pain that are hardest to write; it’s just difficult to talk about those things, even with myself. They are also the hardest to show to other people. It’s scary to let anyone see those parts of me.
So, yes. It’s the emotional content, the vulnerability that comes of showing vulnerability. There are a few poems that come to mind, but I think the most difficult one to write and include in this collection is called “The Blessing I Ask.”
ev0ke: There is much ambiguity surrounding Brigit. Very briefly, could you touch on the nature of this ambiguity, and how it affects your understanding of her and your relationship with her?
MB: Ah, yes. There is a lot of confusion about her origins and what exactly she is, and also who. And how many! Some of the basic questions are around the saint versus the goddess, and the nature of the triple goddess.
The commonly held view, stemming from the ideas of certain Victorian writers, is that the saint is a Christianised version of the goddess, and that the saint herself may have been a devotee of the goddess at one time, who tended a perpetual flame with her Druid sisters in honour of the goddess. The thing is, there is no evidence at all to support the scenario, only speculation, and the saint and the goddess have very little overlap. Even the perpetual flame seems to be a very late Christian practice, tended by monks in at least seven other Irish monasteries.
All of this came as a shock to me when I became aware of it. I suppose I was afraid that it made meaningless what I have devoted much of my life to — tending Brigit’s flame with other devotees. I had to sit with my reactions for a long while before they settled. Over time, I have come to distinguish between Saint Brigit and the goddess(es!) Brigit, and to be much more careful about ascribing to the saint what comes from her stories and traditions, and to the goddess what is hers, though they remain closely connected in my heart. I still address Brigit as her or you, not as they or you (plural). Somehow my brain doesn’t have a problem with these two ways of looking at the same thing.
The second issue is more easily dealt with, for me. It’s simply that although we don’t clearly understand what the triplicity of a deity means in Irish mythology, beyond reinforcing power or significance, we definitely know that the motif of maiden, mother, and crone, so integral to forms of Neo-Paganism, has no place in the ancient Irish tradition. The three Brigits who are the daughters of The Dagda are sisters, and no indication is given that they are different in age, only that their areas of patronage are different. For this reason some people see them as three aspects of one goddess while others see them as three separate goddesses. I hover between those two perceptions.
I should say, though, that in religion there are no hard rules. Whatever floats your boat. If the modern story of the saint being an altered goddess makes sense to you, that’s fine. If you see a maiden and mother and crone in Brigit, that’s fine, too. I just ask that when we talk about these things on our blogs and books and so forth we let people know that this is our UPG — unverified personal gnosis — and not a traditional Irish view. That makes it possible for others to make informed choices in their own beliefs.
ev0ke: What sort of research went into the book? Long hours at the library? Multiple tabs open on your computer all at once?
MB: All of the above, with the exception of a physical library. I did searches on university library sites for papers I hadn’t seen, but largely I was able to lean on my own library, digital and paper, which in a couple of cases meant buying a book to fill something in. Some of the research was about life in Ireland in and around the 4th century, by which I mean the life of humans, including nuns, and also what sort of climate and plant and animal systems existed there. For instance, I wrote one poem about the wolves who herded pigs toward Saint Brigit’s monastery when they learned the pigs were meant for her. So I looked into when wolves were hunted to extinction in Ireland, and what their lives might have looked like there. I didn’t find reams of information, but I was able to piece together what I did find with research into the lives of European and North American wolves to be sure I wasn’t describing anything too far outside the realm of possibility. (Well, except for wild wolves deciding to herd pigs for a saint.) If I’m writing about magic, or a miracle story, I try to stay within the rules of what I know about those systems. So there can be a tiny detail, like the colour of dye made by a certain plant in ancient Ireland, that may take some while to discover or to check, and a reader will likely whiz by it, but I will know that I have got it right, and that is important to me.
Mind you, there are times I make things up because they feel right for the story I’m trying to tell, and times when I borrow from other legends to illuminate some aspect of Brigit. I do try to say in the notes to the poems when I have done this. I am sure I have made mistakes, but I have tried very hard to get things as right as I am able.
ev0ke: What interesting historical tidbit did you absolutely have to include in the book?
MB: I couldn’t help including information about the perpetual flame, and why it no longer seems to be of great antiquity to me. I couldn’t stop myself from mentioning that the practice ended with the Dissolution of the Monasteries. (For the uninitiated, this was when Henry VIII of England set himself as the head of the English church and took possession of all Catholic religious properties and their incomes in England, Wales, and Ireland.) And although there is only a faint theory that the bean sídhe (banshee) may be related to Brigit, I was so taken by a tale mentioned by Erin Kraus in her pamphlet The Wise-Woman of Kildare that I did not stop myself from including the resulting poem in the book. There were others I would have loved to include, including one on the Curragh Wrens, but that’s why we have editors: so our books don’t run to endless volumes. (Although I did just notice that the glossary note on the Wrens — poor ostracised Irish women who lived outside the English soldiers’ camps in Victorian times — was accidentally left in. So studious readers will see a hint about them, anyway!)
ev0ke: In 1993, you founded the Daughters of the Flame. What is the purpose of the organization, and can anyone join?
MB: My original purpose was simply to rekindle and tend with other women Brigit’s flame. To my knowledge at the time, it had been tended by women for many centuries and was quenched for political reasons unconnected to those women. It offended me that what sounded like a beautiful goddess-related devotion had been squelched like this, and I thought that we would benefit from having that flame back in the world. Partly as a powerful energy, partly as an offering to Brigit and a way of making her veneration available to more people, but also as a practice that could nurture connections between women on a Neo-Pagan or Christian path who honoured Brigit, while nourishing our own spiritual lives.
I suppose that my purpose hasn’t changed. However, I did learn a few years later that on the same day that we were relighting her flame, the Catholic Brigidine Sisters in Kildare were also relighting it. Knowing that the sisters were tending it as well was a blessing, and, as when I would learn of other Neo-Pagan groups taking up the practice, I felt less isolated and more a part of a beautiful and varied community. Recently I learned that Lady Olivia‘s group, the Fellowship of Isis, had begun a small “hearth” of flame keepers in Brigit’s name years before the rest of us, which continues to this day. Learning that history is a joy to me.
As to who can join, as you can tell by the name ours is a woman-only group. At the time of organising the group I knew that I had very little information about the flame tending practice, so I tried to stick to the little I did know. What Gerald of Wales said was that only women tended the flame, with Brigit in spirit tending it on the twentieth day, and that men were banned from even approaching it. So I adopted that criterion, though I was happy to help any men interested in joining to start their own group. I was very happy when the group Ord Brighideach launched and made a place for those men; much as I valued our women-only space, I did want men to have the opportunity, too. (And when I say women, I am referring to people who identify as women.)
I should say, though, that we are a small group, so it is common to wait for a shift. We do what we can to make that a comfortable wait, but it is sometimes a long one.
ev0ke: Which conventions, festivals, or other events to you plan to attend in the foreseeable future, either in person or virtually?
MB: I’m afraid I know little about the Pagan convention and festival circuit. While many events are still online, it would be great to be involved in more. Invitations are welcome!
I do have a launch coming up, on 28 August, which should be lovely, if it unfolds as I envision, and I am presenting at the next Wise Woman Witchery conference, but the dates for that are not yet set. I presented at MoonCon 21 in June, alongside Morgan Daimler and Erin Aurelia. We are the three Moon Books authors with Brigit titles, and it was a great pleasure to settle in with them and talk about Brigit. You can view our discussion on YouTube and on Facebook.
ev0ke: What other projects are you working on?
MB: At the moment, I am dividing my time fairly equally between working towards my book’s release, gardening, and trying to take care of my health. When things quieten down a bit in the fall I hope to get back to reviewing Brigit books — I have several to catch up on — and I would like at some point to add a live component to one or more of my Brigit classes. The classes are open access, so you can start when you like and carry on when you like, and I do respond to comments left by students, but I would like to try running them in a more regulated and interactive way, and see what that opens up. I also look forward to getting back to learning Irish and taking a few courses, myself.
[Biography: Mael Brigde is a devotee of the Irish goddess and saint, Brigit, and the founder of the Daughters of the Flame, which has tended Brigit’s flame since Imbolc 1993. She publishes a general interest Brigit blog, Brigit’s Sparkling Flame, and a Brigit poetry blog, Stone on the Belly. She teaches courses and webinars on her, including Journey with Brigit, Goddess of Poetry, an intensive class that explores reading and writing poetry as a sacred act. Her book, A Brigit of Ireland Devotional – Sun Among Stars is now available for pre-order. Mael Brigde lives in Vancouver, Canada.]