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Over the last few months, I’ve had some debates, rows, discussions and plain fights with people online over the importance of citing sources when making a declaration with regard to spirituality or deity. Here’s the thing. I don’t mean going back through papers from 30 yrs ago, when you might first have read something, I mean saying things like “Oh I read this paper by such and such that linked this aspect to that aspect and came up with this”. For most people, that’s about all that’s needed. Or indeed, “it was a story in the Lives, the one that isn’t Cogistosus or Bethu”. And then someone else can come and suggest the Prima, and the original person says, “That’s the one, thanks!” I don’t expect people with no research training to do much more than that.
Now if you’re writing something for publication, either a research paper, a book, or a blog you know will be widely read, or if you’re known as a scholar of the subject, I expect more. I expect a proper research citation really at that point. Or at least a very clear indication where the information came from. It doesn’t need to be Harvard referencing or anything like that for blogs (although for books and papers, if your editor isn’t asking for some sort of official citation scheme, question what sort of publication it is!) but something like “In Bethu Brigte,…..” or “In X’s paper, The Red Book, …” things like that really help when trying to separate facts or primary/ secondary sources of gnosis from personal gnosis.
I’m always amazed I’m not pulled up more often when I go back over older things I’ve written because of the lack of references or at least a nod to where this is coming from.
Why is this important?
Well. There’s a few reasons. The first one is “paper never refused ink”. Anyone can write anything, particularly in these days of free blogs on the internet (ahem, look at what you’re reading!) and really, we have no idea what their credentials are or what experience they have or whether they’re speaking truth or lies. I’d advise reading anything, including anything on this blog, with a pinch of salt until you can determine for yourself the legitimacy of the author. And sometimes that’s harder than others.
I’ll give an example. Every Imbolc, I see things going round the internet about how “golden round foods” are the way to celebrate Brigid’s festival. This is then linked to the “fact” that Brigid is a “sun deity” and Imbolc is celebrating the return of the sun. These people have never been to Ireland in February. Seriously. Let’s attack this a bit at a time. From the variety of Lives of the saint we have, Brigid is strongly connected with the dairy, so butter, milk, cream, anything that can be made in the dairy is a good way to start with offerings, if you want to go down that road. But pancakes in Ireland are associated with Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, when Lent will start. The date of Ash Wednesday can vary from 4th Feb to 10th March every year because Easter Sunday is calculated by a combination of the spring equinox and the moon cycle. From https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/when-easter
The simple standard definition of Easter is that it is the first Sunday after the full Moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox. If the full Moon falls on a Sunday then Easter is the next Sunday.
So it could be easy to say in Ireland, they use pancakes to celebrate Imbolc – except we don’t. When I was a child, pancakes were only served on Shrove Tuesday, because eggs and rich foods were not eaten during length traditionally, and pancakes were a handy and tasty way of using up such foods. It has nothing to do with Brigid or Imbolc at all. But someone somewhere didn’t really understand what was going on, linked some ideas about Brigid being a sun deity (which she isn’t, more on this later) with pancakes being round and golden like the sun and came up with pancakes being a great way to celebrate.
I mean, pancakes are a great way to celebrate anything, but it’s cos they’re so tasty and nice. There is no symbolism here linking them to Imbolc.
And then we come to the bit about celebrating the return of the sun at Imbolc. Not in Ireland. Imbolc is officially the start of spring in Ireland, but it’s more the beginning of spring, when we first see green shoots coming out of the ground. The weather is still, usually, miserable. It’s raining. It’s cold, it’s heavy, it’s unrelenting. It’s one of the prices we pay for those lovely green fields and for me, it’s worth it, but a celebration of sun return, it is not. We do sun celebrations at solstices. Kinda.
But the thing is, because this post saying Brigid is a sun deity and so anything round and golden , like eggs and pancakes and other foods, represent the sun, these are all good things to make for Imbolc, goes around every year and is celebrated across the internet every year, a lot of people are picking up some very inaccurate information. We don’t really have a sun deity as such in Ireland. If we did, the Dagda would be a much more likely candidate, but honestly, our deities are more to do with arts, crafts, and trades. They’re doing things. Brigid (from Sanas Cormac, or Cormac’s Glossary) is associated with poets, healing and smithcraft. There’s a list of animals as well – although it’s important to realise Cormac’s Glossary is not a modern dictionary, but that could be a whole other post! There’s definitely no mention of sun goddess in there or in the Leabhar Gabála Éireann (the Book of the Invasions of Ireland, essentially, our creation myth) or in Caith Maighe Tuireadh (Battle of Moytura).
But definitely not sun deities.
And I can already hear people asking, why this is important? Sure what harm can it do? Well, if you don’t believe that dealing with deity in the right manner is important, frankly, I’m wondering why you’re reading this blog at all? Every religion in the world has its ways of dealing with deity and observances around them. And yes, these things change over time and Brigid herself has shown herself very willing to change with the times – she supported the people of Ireland as a saint when paganism wasn’t really an option any more (although if you’ve read previous posts here, you’ll know of my belief that Christianity in Ireland was more of a thin veneer over deep roots of paganism anyway). So worship can change and what a deity does can change. Sure, I’ll accept that. But such changes happen gradually over generations, not overnight (relatively speaking) because someone got things wrong.
Now, Irish Brigid is not the only Brigid, I know that. But this all serves equally well for any other Brigid. I have yet to come across non-modern lore regarding Brigid as a sun deity. And yet, outside of certain circles, people accept this as true. It’s the same with the triple deity – triple deities in Ireland don’t fit the maiden/mother/crone mould – trust me!! – and yet, there’s a plethora of people out these insisting Brigid is a maiden, mother, crone. That’s a Wiccan process as far as I can figure out (and it was difficult to even narrow it down that far) but I’d strongly advise against telling Irish Brigid she fits that mould. Seriously. Or, if you’re going to have that conversation with her – let me watch? 😀
I can hear people screaming all over the place, “But that’s not my gnosis!!” Yeah, personal gnosis has a role to play in any spirituality. It’s really important and vital to your spiritual growth to develop your own gnosis. (Gnosis is the word used in many spiritual circles to cover knowledge and belief about a certain topic, comes from the Greek word for knowledge anyway). UPG, unverified personal gnosis, is such a common term around the place that it has it’s own acronym. It’s hugely important that you develop your own practices and beliefs, otherwise we end up with dogma and that’s not good. But it’s also crucial, absolutely crucial, to outline to others where something is based on your own experiences and where something is based on lore or writings or common knowledge. For example, Brigid to me is a friend, a support, a manager, a leader, a powerful force in this world. She is strong and capable and gets shit done. This is my personal gnosis. She appears this way to others as well. She also appears as a beautiful energy to others. She appears as a loving relation to others. She is more than one thing – deity is not simple. But it would be wrong of me to say she is only a support or only a capable doer of things. Because that leads others to doubt where their experiences have taken them. Now I do get annoyed at people who only see the beautiful energy thing, because that to me is a waste of energy. Energy is there to be used and useful – maybe it’s my engineering background, but I have a strong belief that deity needs to be useful as well, because, well why else would we do all of this? And even the belief that deity needs to be useful is personal gnosis as well.
It’s important to delineate between knowledge stemming from the lore and personal gnosis, because of the danger of leading others down an incorrect path. We’re not all called to do the same work, and why should we be? But the core of the lore concerning Brigid is quite brief, there’s not mounds of writing there (Irish Brigid again here!) so it’s worth being familiar with it and basing your practice on it. Working out from there is extremely useful. The Mary Jones website has a handy list of the lore concerning Brigid here, although I should note, I don’t necessarily agree with the links to Welsh mythology. I’m not familiar enough with Welsh mythology to comment more than that though. Clann Bhríde have a more complete list of lore here. They’ve also kindly provided a little commentary on each bit as well as links to where the originals can be found online.
There’s no reason not to look at the ancient lore we have, because it tells us what our ancestors deemed important to be recorded. We can work out our own practices from there. But it is work – it’s not enough to just decide something is right and go do it, you have to prove it to yourself and look for indications from herself that it is right. And, it’s really important to remember that while something might be fine and dandy for you to do, it might not be for someone else. Brigid doesn’t treat us all the same. That’s not in the old Irish ways. People were given their due, but their due was not constant. So, what is right and proper for me do to in relation to Brigid, might not be right or even safe for someone else to do.
We have a lot of commonalities for Brigid – fire, lighting candles, praying, writing – whether creative writing or otherwise, healing work, smithcraft… there’s a lot in it. And I go into it a lot in my courses in the Irish Pagan School as to how we can extrapolate from the lore and directions we might go in.
But just remember – the lore is there for a reason. It’s all we have. And “experiences may vary” is a valid warning no matter what we’re talking about! So label your UPG as such. You may find others have a similar UPG and that’s great. But they might not and that’s ok too – just as long as the experience is being labelled as UPG and nothing generally accepted practice.