I have often said that the worship and honouring of Brigid in Ireland is a syncretic blend of paganism and Christianity. And today I want to discuss this a bit more. Whether the saint or the deity, Brigid has had a long history in Ireland. Her worship is heavily influenced by the way Christianity came to this island. This was not at the point of the sword, but by persuasion and habit. And that makes a big difference when it comes to syncretism.
What do I mean by “syncretism”?
Syncretism is the merging or blending of distinct cultural, religious, or philosophical beliefs into a cohesive and harmonious system. (Or check out Merriam-Webster here.) In the case of Brigid, this meant that many of the pagan associations and practices were simply… carried over into the new Christian system. We must remember that Ireland was not, as many places were, converted at swordpoint. Our ancestors just kind of “absorbed” the new faith into the old practices. And then, because of things like monastic settlements having food during famine times, (among other influences) Christianity became the predominant religion. But Brigid was still there. (And yes, I know – I’m repeating that point. But people often miss that point when learning about Ireland)
Brigid in Christianity
Christianity arrived in Ireland in the 5th century CE (roughly, anyway). And over time, things changed a lot. By the time the Normans arrived in the 12th century, Ireland was Catholic and well-established as such. The Gaelic way of life was significantly different from what they were used to. But from a religious point of view, Ireland conformed pretty well to the general practices of the wider church at the time.
Where then did Brigid fit in? Well, as she always has. She fit in by supporting her people, by being there, by hanging around. There is some evidence for a powerful abbess who founded the monastic settlement in Kildare that we still associate with Brigid today. There is evidence of up to 13 different St. Brigids around the country, although it might be just that the “main” St. Brigid travelled a lot. Or indeed, people knew of her, knew of her power, and kind of co-opted her for their local shrines.
The first hagiography we have, the Cogitosus one, the saint comes across as a reasonably “normal” female saint. By that I mean that the usual miracles are accorded to her. Plus, Cogitosus was really just writing a PR campaign for Kildare. I mean, Armagh won, but that’s at least partly down to the patriarchy, in my opinion.
Even in Christianity, Brigid’s stories had strong syncretic strands. For example, her links to the Otherworld highlight how pagan and Christian were interwoven. She could only drink from a white cow with red ears. Red and white being a sure-fire indication of magical or supernatural connections. Her healing potions tasted of beer. (Although that could be wishful thinking rather than syncretism) And possibly best of all, she hung her cloak on a sunbeam. (Whereas, a certain male saint couldn’t manage it. St. Brendan, I’m talking about. Patrick was far too high and mighty to be getting into that story!)
Pagan threads in Christian worship
Now, it’s not just the stories where we see this syncretic blend. We also see it in the ways we worship Brigid. The obvious one is candle lighting. I mean, Catholics the world over light candles as a means of prayer, but the Irish do take it to extremes. Doing an exam? Get your Mammy to light a candle. Waiting for test results? Light a candle. Going for a job interview? Definitely light a candle.
It doesn’t take much to subvert that candle lighting to paganism – almost in plain sight you might say. And it’s not a massive step from candle lighting to flame tending. Now, I have to admit that flame tending isn’t my favourite means of working with Brigid. It’s a bit passive for my liking. Although, to be fair, I do use flames in meditation. Which is a sort of flame tending. And meditation is good for the mind and the soul. Flame tending isn’t a bad thing. It’s useful in giving a structure to meditation if nothing else.
Fire tending is closely linked to Brigid’s pagan roots of course. Imbolc is one of the four major fire festivals in Ireland. And in another stunning example of syncretism, it’s nominally the night of the 31st January. With Feb 1st being St. Brigid’s Day…
As well, we have the Brigid’s cross. A simple change from a 4-armed cross to a 3-armed cross has you moving from Christian to pagan quite nicely. And there are several different types that wouldn’t be visually, obviously, Christian in nature as well.
In particular, I think the lozenge type cross in the top left hand side of the picture doesn’t hold too much resemblance to Christian crosses.
Want to learn more?
Yeah I know, I could write forever on the syncretism in pagan and Christian workshop in Ireland, in particular Brigid worship. But it’s 3:30 on a Friday of a very tough week for me, so I’m going to stop here. And let you know that next Sunday, 30th July, at 9pm I’m teaching a very updated intro to Brigid class at the Irish Pagan School. Link to enroll is here. The title of the class is “Brigid Goddess and Saint” and we’ll be exploring this whole syncretism thing in a lot more detail there. As well as sharing some of my own personal gnosis and practices around herself as well. Hope to see you there!