Welcome back to the September mythology series!
This month, we’ll begin with a somewhat unusual personal introduction. This is Suicide Prevention Month, and it seemed appropriate to illustrate the connection between mythology and myself which I credit in part with saving my life. Let’s just say, when I was a teenager something benevolent visited me in a dream and encouraged me to go on just when I was ready to give it all up. It’s hard for me to talk about certain parts of my past directly, but here’s a fairy tale interpretation:
Once upon a time in the wild hills of Connecticut, there lived a girl who was dissatisfied with the life view presented by the adults in her family. The girl was troubled, cursed by harmful events but blessed with an imagination that swept her away to fantastic places where she could disappear. These magical realms were nurturing and instructive, broadening her mind and introducing her to a unique person – herself.
At the nadir of her young life, a moment when she decided she could take no more and determined to throw her entire existence away, a candle blazed in the deepest dark. A face ringed with fire stepped into her world, whisking her from the shadows with promises of protection and enlightenment if the girl promised to never hurt herself again. The girl agreed. From that moment a love for the queenly goddess burned in her bruised heart, cauterizing her wounds. She grew strong, motivated to go forth and seize the gift of life which, even at its worst, remained a miracle to behold and experience.
A bit dramatic, but a metaphor is often easier to write than the bald truth. We’re the only ones who can save ourselves, but it is nice to know someone or something else cares. A helping hand or an encouraging word can drive us through our toughest times, even if our inspiration comes from crystal clear faith or a half-remembered dream. It’s the results that matter, the fact that something guided us back to the light. Be kind to each other, for you never know the full scope of other peoples’ struggles. And you never know who you might save with one small token of compassion, an easy gift that costs us nothing but might prove invaluable to others.
So, back to the star of this week’s myth. Who was this goddess, extending her cloak to shield the girl from the harsh world? She’s possibly the greatest goddess I’ve ever studied who guided me away from irreversible self-destruction. I could share rehashed interpretations of legends from countless scholars. But, that would spoil the fun of discovering the truth. I encourage you to Google this lovely Lady and learn for yourselves. I’ll weave my personal insights with some general tidbits to explain the relationship I’ve built over the years with Brighid, The Exalted One.
The Irish pantheon is nowhere near as well-known as the Greeks, Norse, or Hindu gods. And there’s a good reason for this, as I learned long ago in a dusty Connecticut college classroom. The Irish Bards of old were storytellers and poets who began a tradition spanning thousands of years. But, they did not write down these stories. Instead, their rich history of myths and facts were shared through spoken word and song, an oral tradition that is mostly lost. However, enough lingered that some intrepid early Christian scholars saved this knowledge, putting words to parchment and calling them Cycles (Mythological, Ulster, Fenian, and Historical). It’s the least the early Christians could do, considering they also managed to wipe out or appropriate the best of ancient Celtic culture during their period of conquest.
I was raised a Roman Catholic, but because of a natural tendency towards rebellion I wandered away to seek deeper truths. Lured, one might say, by books detailing both the cultural history of my ancestors and colorful manuals on Pagan beliefs. The tales of the ancient Celts fascinated me, inspired by my influential grandmother whose entire line originated in distant Ireland. I found my own alternative, a system that made infinitely more sense to me for several reasons.
Paganism is centered on a reverence for the natural world, filled with miraculous glories we witness every day through all of our senses. And another bonus for Paganism is its respect towards women, true equals who are considered divinely blessed by their potential for giving and nurturing life. And of all the Pagan goddesses, there was one who soared above the others.
Brighid – also known as Brigid, Bride, or Brigantia, was one of the most iconic goddesses of ancient Ireland. A triple goddess, with flame red hair and green eyes who represented the fires of Inspiration, Smithing, and Healing (including the hearth/home, marriage, and childbirth). It was she who visited me, leading me from the edge of a dark abyss and encouraging me to fight for my own life.
As a side note, this revelation shouldn’t surprise my gamer friends. You all know when we played our MMOs and offline games what name I assigned to most of my female characters – Brighid, a tall lovely woman with red hair and green eyes. A nod to a Lady I continue to venerate, despite my lack of ties to organized religion or a formalized belief system.
The story of Brighid is fascinating, even if the ancient texts only reveal enigmatic pieces of a puzzle we can never fully reconstruct. She was the daughter of the Dagda, the Irish Sky-Father, and Danu, a great river goddess and mother of the famed Tuatha dé Danann.
According to legend, Ireland was first occupied by three main tribes of natives who left but eventually returned. The Fir Bolg and Fomorian came back first, taking over their former home until the return of the third tribe – the Nemedians aka the Tuatha dé Danann. Their massive ships sailed across the sky, waves of majestic forces touching down among the green hills of Connacht.
None could stand against the Tuatha dé Danann, described as god-like beings or fallen angels, armed with divine weapons and magical powers. In an early attempt at a truce, Brighid married one of the Fomor nobles, Bres, and bore his child – Ruadan. When the Fomor rose again, her son was killed while simultaneously killing another Irish Smithing deity, Goibnenn. Brighid collapsed, overcome by sorrow as she held her son’s corpse, wailing her grief for all to hear. It was the first keening in Irish history, pre-dating the legend of the banshee. Again, you see my interest.
One might think such a group as the Tuatha dé Danann were unbeatable, akin to the Olympians or Asgardians that subjugated their enemies and worshippers with ease. And they did rule for a while, until a set of heroic humans invaded their shores. The Milesians led by Amergin traveled from Spain’s Galician shore, claiming the Emerald Isle for themselves. The battles were too close to call between the two groups, and eventually the Tuatha dé Danann and the Milesians reached an accord. They decided to split the island. Clever Amergin chose the upper half, which left the Tuatha dé Danann with the underground.
And that is where they fled, living to this day under the hills of Ireland. We now call them fairies – the Aos Sí or Daoine Sidhe, the Fair Folk of the Mounds. Gone, but never forgotten, these beings retained their divinity while also gaining noble titles as rulers of the Fae and the Otherworld.
This mythology is unique because what other examples exist of mankind subjugating their gods, banishing them to a distant realm while continuing to revere them?
For the Celts did worship the defeated Tuatha dé Danann. And above all others, Brighid is remembered because her spheres of influence were essential to the well-being of not only the Irish but also for all Celts living in the Iron Age and here in the present.
When the Christians invaded next, led by St. Patrick around 500 A.D., they succeeded in “driving the snakes from Ireland”. The snakes were the Pagan natives, convinced to abandon their polytheistic beliefs and only worship Jesus Christ. But, the Pagans required some convincing. As often happened during Christian takeovers, the Church appropriated a revered figure or popular holiday to include in their own practices. This way, the transition was more comfortable for the skeptical newcomers who were more likely to accept the new order if they recognized a piece of themselves in the doctrine.
Thus Brighid the Triple Goddess is transformed into St. Brigid of Kildare, a likely fictitious nun from a wealthy family who gave her riches away to the poor and chose to run an abbey. Many also refer to St. Brigid as the foster-mother of Christ, a bit of a fanciful claim given the massive distance between Ireland and Jerusalem. Hard to imagine the same woman acted as a wet nurse for baby Jesus while also being a contemporary of St. Patrick, who baptized her circa 500 A.D.
Along with St. Patrick and St. Columba, St. Brigid is a patron saint of Ireland who receives prayers even now. To most Catholics, St. Brigid is second only to the Virgin Mary – both women honored in a religion that typically doesn’t credit the female gender with an abundance of positive qualities. Her feast day, Candlemas, is February 1st – the same as Imbolc, which not so coincidentally honors the pagan Goddess Brighid. Catholics and Pagans celebrate their version of the Lady by lighting fires and weaving special crosses and dolls from rushes and corn husks. The holiday marks the world’s first steps out of Winter, sort of a practice celebration for Spring and the period of rebirth which occurs in full on Ostara or Easter.
But this is not where Brighid’s influence ends. She becomes a central figure in yet another religion.
Maman Brigitte is an iconic figure in the African religions of New World islanders. She’s the consort of Baron Samedi – Lord and Lady of Death in Voudou and Santeria. She’s the only white loa in their pantheon, a spirit treated with the same reverence owed to a god or goddess. St. Brigid was idolized by the aristocratic British and Celtic settlers who stole countless generations of African tribesmen, forcing them into slavery on plantations in Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean. And those prayers somehow moved the souls of the captured Africans despite barriers between language and culture. Maybe it was her singular beauty or renowned compassion for those in need, I don’t know. Amazing, because one would think they’d be averse to including a representative of their wicked oppressors into their own belief system. But gentle Brighid inspired them, both then and now. At least something brought a measure of peace to the generations of kidnapped people forced to endure unimaginable brutality under an unspeakable system perpetuated by British Colonialism and Early Americans.
In the modern era, Brighid is more popular than ever. Entire covens of Pagans are dedicated to the awe-inspiring Triple Goddess. Dozens of stories and novels exist about her family, the Tuatha dé Danann. And the people of Ireland faithfully celebrate St. Brigid in Kildare and at over a dozen holy wells and other consecrated sites. And yes, they still make their corn dollies and special crosses on Candlemas/Imbolc. One of my own stories is influenced by this Irish goddess and her kin (no spoilers!). Recently on Season 2 of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Maman Brigitte and Baron Samedi even make an appearance – something not in the book, but nonetheless one of my favorite additions to the show.
Few figures of myth capture the attention of the masses so consistently over millennia. And I doubt worship of the alluring and brilliant Brighid will fade any time soon. She’s adapted too well to the ever-shifting world. Each representation of her is a marvel whether as Pagan, Catholic, or loa.
As a creator, I am constantly grateful to this shining goddess of Inspiration. And I still maintain I owe my own life, despite its ups and downs, to the fiery Lady who saved me from myself. She shined a light, guiding me from the abyss and back home, reminding me that life was too precious to waste. She taught me that my own life had value and meaning, something my teenage self was too young and downtrodden to comprehend. But, I knew she loved and believed in me, so how could I not do the same for her?