Brigid, or St. Brigid, is closely associated with liminality. But often, we don’t really think about what “liminality” actually means. So ,today, I’m going to explore the concept a bit and why we link Brigid so closely with it. I’ll be looking at liminal space as well and how it affects us. And I will be looking at both Christian and pagan resources here, because even Brigid’s ability to permeate that boundary is an example of liminality!
What is liminality?
Well, when in doubt, check out the dictionary…
Liminality is a state of transition between one stage and the next, especially between major stages in one’s life or during a rite of passage.
The concept of liminality was first developed and is used most often in the science of anthropology (the study of human origins, behavior, and culture). In a general sense, liminality is an in-between period, typically marked by uncertainty.dictionary.com
So we’re looking at a state of transition, a non-stable state, a time of change. These are always difficult. I think this is why people look to rituals and actions at these times of change. Look at the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II in the UK. There was an outpouring of public grief and mourning, there was an eruption of cancellations of all sorts of events. But there were also people calling for life to go on – because for many people, it had to! There was widespread speculation at this time about countries (ahem – former colonies) removing the British monarch as head of state or leaving the Commonwealth. To date, only Ireland (1948) and Zimbabwe (2003) have done both.
Charles III was head of state and monarch since the moment of his mother’s death. But the space between the woman’s death and her burial were a liminal space, a period of transition. Particularly when you think that for a great percentage of her subjects, she was the only monarch they had known.
That’s at a country level. But liminality comes at a personal level as well. Changing jobs, moving home, the death of a loved one – these are all transitional spaces, major incidents in life. It’s interesting to note that there are all among the highest stressors in modern life as well. I know from my own experiences of family members passing away, the three days between the death and the burial can seem like a time apart. Brigid gave us the ability to keen and mourn our dead, but the Irish have many customs surrounding death. From the newer notices on rip.ie to the bottle of whiskey traditionally given to the volunteer grave diggers… There are traditions and expectations surrounding each element of the event.
And it can feel surreal in those times. On the one hand, you’re extremely busy for a lot of the time, trying contact people and make arrangements. On the other, you can find yourself at a loss at times, or staring into space, struggling to come to terms with the loss. It is an uncertain time, where the traditions and expectations can help ground and focus us and help us through the transition.
Liminal space then is another consideration.
a state or place characterized by being transitional or intermediate in some way: Motels are such liminal spaces—everyone there is either coming or going.
Informal. any location that is unsettling, uncanny, or dreamlike: The classroom when school is out for the summer is a liminal space.dictionary.com
Did you know this is why we sometimes forget why we came into a room? Liminal space, transitions between one allocated space and the next, is a place of transition. It changes the way our brains work and focus on things.
Many means of initiation use this to great effect. The idea of being withdrawn from the world in a different environment. The sense of no longer being in this world. The thoughts of a mental or spiritual transition aided by such a withdrawal. I’ve experienced it myself and it worked. It brought about new ways of thinking and means to change parts of the way I do things.
A liminal space won’t do this all on its own of course, but liminality is one of the elements of a successful initiation.
Liminality and St. Brigid
Most of our associations with Brigid and liminality come from St. Brigid. She was born on a threshold (a definitely liminal space), as sunrise (liminal time of day), to a pagan father and a Christian mother (liminal family lineage). She was fed from a cow from the Otherworld (white with red ears), which is in itself a liminal space in many way.
But we have links to the liminal in the deity as well. Brigid’s associations with death in Caith Maigh Tuireadh would link her to that liminal time. Her acknowledgement as a healer would have her dealing with births and deaths and serious illness. A all transitions of a fairly major sort. Liminality again. Her work as a poet, a file, would have links to the Otherworld and magi. Not to mention physically moving through the liminal spaces between dwelling places. Her work as a smith has elements of creation and destruction, as well as the forge itself being a liminal space of transmutation and transformation.
And of course, as I mentioned before, we have the movement between the deity and the saint, the pagan and the Christian. Brigid is a being that is comfortable with these transitions and liminality in general.
So, Brigid being associated with liminality and change is well documented. But we, as humans, don’t always deal well with change. Even when it is something we look forward to… There are reasons a new marriage or a new job are on the list of high stressors. They are times of uncertainty and change.
How do we deal with this then?
Well, as with death, it can help to have long standing traditions to help use through these times. Half the reasons most people follow traditional paths in marriage is that it removes the stress of decision making. Families in Ireland will use the same undertakers for generations, because they know how things are done in the family. The same with solicitors, banks and even tea bags!
We can actively seek liminal times, liminal spaces. Places where land, sea and sky meet, I would consider liminal. As we change from one state to another – children changing schools for example, or graduating from college. Dedicating yourself to a new deity, committing to a new course of spirituality… All liminal times, liminal spaces. But even when we break new ground for ourselves, we like to see what those who have gone before us have done. We look for rituals in books, online, to feel like we have a tradition of some sort to back us up. (Nothing wrong with any of this, by the way!! Traditional ways of doing things can help keep us safe!)
So tell me, how do you deal with liminality? Is it something you’ve grown more accustomed to? Has Brigid “encouraged” you in this area? Or indeed, has she taken you and shoved you on the anvil so hard you’re still confused when you emerged? (Some of us can be a bit slower on the uptake than others and she gets impatient…) Let me know!!