February the 1st in Ireland is Saint Brigid’s Day. It also marks the first day of the Irish spring. The country fills with daffodils, snowdrops and the promise that the prolonged dreary winter will soon be over. Ireland’s most important female Saint, second in importance only to Patrick, is celebrated with the symbol of Brigid’s evangelism of Ireland: a cross of reeds.
As Irish children weave their St. Brigid’s Crosses at school today, it will hardly be mentioned that the true origin of this religious day is the Celtic festival of Imbolg, a Celtic festival of light, literally translated as ‘in the belly‘. Associated with lactating lambs. It is a key date in the Celtic calendar for celebrating new life, fertility and growth.
It is even less frequently mentioned that the figure of St. Bridgit is a triumph of Christian syncretism. When the Christians first arrived in Ireland, around the 5th century, they began a gradual process of converting the ‘wild and savage’ Celtic, pagans to Christianity. They appropriated Celtic festivals and converted them into Christian celebrations and turning Celtic deities into Christian Saints. So Halloween became ‘All Saints’ and the goddess Brigid became a saint.
Christian evangelists were particularly astute in super-imposing the image of the Virgin Mary on local pagan Goddesses, or creating a new Saint out of a goddess image, as a tactic for converting sceptical locals. This was achieved with great success in Mexico where the Aztec Goddess Tonantzin was transformed into the now revered Virgin de Guadalupe. The figure of ‘La Pachamama’ or ‘Mother Earth’ of the Incan civilization was likewise transformed into the Virgin Mother. These processes of syncretism were often accompanied by violence; America was, after all, colonised by the ‘cross and the sword’. In the case of St. Brigid, however, this process of syncretism took place so long ago that her origins as a Celtic goddess has all but been erased from popular folklore.
The Celtic goddess Brigid, worshipped not just in Ireland but across the Celtic territories, was associated with childbirth, fertility, abundance, healing, women’s wisdom and the creation of new life. Her festival Imbolg marks the re-awakening of the earth following winter. Like all Celtic goddesses she was not a fragile flower, cloaked in white robes who spent her time skipping through meadows filled with new-born lambs. She was a warrior, a healer, a wise woman with dominion over the natural processes of life and death. She was the guardian of pregnant and birthing people. She could aid with fertility and also end unwanted pregnancies.
With the arrival of Christianity to Ireland, and its patriarchal fear and suspicion of all things related to women’s bodies and sexuality, the goddess Brigid became the devout, evangelist we know today. She was obedient and chaste, her most famous act: establishing a convent in Kildare. Nevertheless, some of the goddess imagery managed to survive centuries of Christian evangelism. St. Brigid continued to be associated with healing powers, wisdom, kindness to animals and protection for pregnant people. She is also known to have performed the miracle of making a fetus ‘disappear from the womb’ of a virgin who had ‘given into lustful urges’.
Women in medieval times would pray to Brigid to help them in the case of unwanted pregnancies. In medieval Ireland it was in fact a common and accepted practice to abort unwanted pregnancies. Women knew of herbs and remedies for provoking abortions and while it wasn’t socially acceptable it was considered a lesser crime than adultery, requiring penance and mild punishments. In fact, Church teaching in relation to abortion has evolved from a stance of relative permissiveness to one of absolute prohibition. Catholics for Choice are correct to point out that abortion is not an immoral choice, even for devout Christians.
The image of Brigid we know today is little more than a sanitised folk tale, completely divorced from her original spirit. Her enduring symbol: a cross of reeds.
This February 1st, if you feel inclined to weave a St. Brigid’s cross, why not dedicate it to the original spirit of the goddess who once protected Irish women’s reproductive rights? Spare an intention or a prayer for Anne Lovett, who died 33 years ago yesterday, for Savita who was left to die nearly five years ago, Miss X, Miss C and countless others. Make 2017 the year that the Irish state finally respects women’s human rights and full bodily autonomy by repealing the eight amendment.