Who is Brighid?
Brighid is an Irish goddess and Irish Catholic saint known throughout the Celtic lands and beyond for her transformative energy, usually represented by a perpetual fire that is tended in her honor. She is beloved by many because her appeal runs both so broad and so deep.
Her depth can be felt in the Irish myth in which she appears, The Second Battle of Magh Tuired. Here she is the wife of King Bres the Beautiful of the Fomorrians who are doing battle for Ireland with her people, the Tuatha dé Danann. They share a son, Ruadán, who is struck down in battle while fighting on his father’s side, and when he falls, Brighid’s mother-heart beaks and she lets out a shrieking wail of grief, making the first keen heard in Ireland. The battle occurs on Samhain, marking the time for remembering our beloved dead and confronting again the gripping grief of loss. Brighid is a goddess who understands our pain and our need to express it, and shows us how the power of our voice can help us move the energy of pain through our bodies and hearts to a needed release.
Usually though, Brighid is known for brighter and more creative endeavors. She is associated with fire in several guises, both physical and esoteric. Fire affects transformation and is her penultimate gift to us, in a variety of forms.
In the Irish tradition, Brighid is actually three sister-goddesses who utilize fire in different ways. One sister is a blacksmith who uses the fire of the forge to transform ore and metal into tools and weapons to provide for and protect the people. In this manner, the blacksmith was central to ancient Irish societies. With agricultural tools, they cleared land and ploughed fields to grow grain for bread, ale, and winter fodder for livestock. Then with great iron cauldrons, the harvested, raised, and hunted food was cooked for eating to feed the people. Brighid is the daughter of an Daghda, the Father God of the Tuatha dé Danann, or the Tribes of the goddess Dana, who was said to be the keeper of a magically ever-full cauldron from which no one went away hungry. He’s also associated in the lore with oak trees, from which acorns were gathered, soaked, ground, and baked into a flatbread. An Daghda was also said to be a fierce warrior; with forged swords and spears, the people defended their lands and its bounty from invaders and marauders. The Irish Celtic tribes were renowned for their warriors, as were their gods.
Brighid is also said in the lore to be the keeper of several important otherworldly livestock animals, tying her again to the agricultural and pastoral realm of Celtic society. She had two oxen named Fea and Femin, for which two sizable plains are named; the King of the Boars called Torc Triath; and Cirb, the King of the Wethers, for whom another plain is named. In Irish society, oxen cleared the land for planting, boar were hunted and eaten, and sheep (“wethers”) were kept for milk and butter, and for wool for clothing and blankets. But beyond being the leaders and forebears of their domestic descendants, the special role of these otherworldly beasts was that they were all said to cry out together when Ireland was being plundered. In this way, they also served to protect the people, as did Brighid the blacksmith in forging weaponry to fight off plunderers. Brighid the Smith can help us today by tempering and shaping us in her forge to strengthen us when we must face ordeals in our lives. And when she has done so, she can also show us how to become the forgers and shapers of ourselves and our own lives. She both gives to and teaches those who call to and connect with her.
Another sister is known as a healer. Her traditional connection to fire is that of the hearth fire over which the cauldron sits for brewing restorative and nourishing herbal infusions. The healer was also key to ancient Irish societies. Herbs were used to treat both physical and emotional ailments. In the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Gaelic lore from Scotland at the turn of the 20th century, the dandelion is called in Gaelic, “the little notched flower of Brìde,” as she was called there as a saint. This volume also lists healing charms that call upon Brìde and her power to heal. In Ireland there is still a tradition to keep a Brat Brighde, or a small cloth blessed by St. Brigit, to lay on an ailing person to help heal them. And of course there are famous healing wells all over Ireland dedicated to the saint known for curing various specific ailments. The well might be seen as a kind of chthonic cauldron welling up from the fiery center of the earth. The people depended upon healers to maintain their health and wellbeing so they could function as productive members of their tribes. Today we can call upon Brighid when in need of her blessing of health and restoration, whether physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual. Brighid the Healer can show us how to find and maintain the ease of balance within ourselves that affects healing when we feel “ill at ease” or are “dis-eased.”
The third sister is the most famous of all. According to Cormac’s ninth-century glossary, Brighid is a divine poet loved and revered by all the poets of Ireland, in a land where poetry was and is held in the highest regard. The fire associated with Brighid the Poet is the esoteric “fire in the head” that is divine inspiration, called imbas in Irish. Poets in the Irish tradition are not only makers of rhymes but keepers of lore, law, history, and genealogy. They are the tradition and wisdom bearers of their people, honored and respected for their role. The greatest of the ancient poets were also druids and magicians of great power. The imbas they sought comprised of prophecy, enlightenment, and divination, and they enacted various ceremonies to obtain each of them, collectively referred to as the Three Illuminations of the Filidh, or the high poets. Today, we can call on Brighid with prayer and meditate with her energy to guide us to imbas, through which we too can obtain the knowledge, wisdom, and insight of all that inspiration encompasses.
Flametending in connection with Brighid began in the early Christian period in Ireland when a woman named Brigit became a nun and established a monastery beside an oak tree which she called Cill Dara — Church of the Oak — and is called Kildare in English today. She is said to have established a fire temple where she and nineteen other nuns took turns tending the fire for a day and night each in rounds of twenty nights, ensuring the fire never went out. It was intended to represent the eternal light of God. It is said that when Brigit died, the practice continued, and the twentieth night was reserved as her own. The nineteenth nun left the fire temple at the end of her shift and called out, “Brigit, tend your fire.” And when the first nun arrived for her shift at the beginning of the new flametending cycle, the fire was said to still be burning bright, without any wood having been consumed by the fire. With the arrival of English rule and their Church of England several centuries later, the fire was eventually extinguished when the monasteries were suppressed, and remained dark for hundreds of years. There has been speculation that the flametending tradition there derived from an earlier practice dedicated to the goddess Brighid, but to date no solid evidence has proven this to have certainly been the case.
Then in the year 1993, Brighid’s Perpetual Fire was relit on February 1st, the saint’s day, on two different sides of the world, unbeknownst to the parties involved. Sister Mary Teresa Cullen, leader of the Brigidine Sisters, relit the saint’s fire at Kildare during a justice and peace conference being held there, entitled “Brigid: Prophetess, Earthwoman, Peacemaker.” Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in Vancouver, B.C, Canada, another woman calling herself Mael Brigde gathered women together to dedicate a relit Perpetual Fire to the goddess Brighid, and they continued to tend it through an order she created called Daughters of the Flame, which has since grown to worldwide membership as women who love Brighid have flocked to tend her flame for a 24-hour shift in their own homes, on their own shrines, and connect with each other online. A few years later, an American order in the same vein was created, called Ord Brighideach, which also now enjoys global reach.
Today, flametending can be engaged with as a personal spiritual practice of seeking imbas with the guidance of Brighid to bring clarity, wisdom, and insight, and most profoundly, deep transformation within our souls as we grow to embody Brighid’s powerful gifts of shaping, healing, and finding illumination to enrich our own lives.
[Erin Aurelia is the author of The Torch of Brighid.]