The symbol known as “St. Brigid’s Cross”

— Pagan Seasonal Cycle or Christian Martyrdom?

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 12 mins.)

The 1st February is Lá Fhéile Bríde1 the feast day of St. Brigid, one of three patron saints of Ireland and one of the many traditions associated with this personage on her feast day was the making of the Cros Bríde (“St. Brigid’s Cross”) in many households and their placing in the loft or above the door, for example, to guard the house. But whether St. Brigid was a real historical person and whether the cross really represented her and Christianity, the origins of both are much, much older.

THE CROSS

The cross associated with St. Brigid is woven from rushes, a thin-stemmed plant growing in wet places (so, easily found in Ireland!), or from straw, the dried stalks remaining after the seed-heads and chaff of cereal crops have been gathered. The distinctive four-armed woven shape was the logo of Teilifis Éireann, the forerunner of RTÉ as the Irish national TV service, when it was launched in 1960 and remained so until it was short-sightedly removed in the 1990s. The four-armed shape was the symbol adopted by a number of organisations and it is still that of An Bord Altranais, the Irish national nursing profession authority. Though its ubiquity now is considerably less, it was recognisable as one of the symbols of Irish national identity, along with the Harp, the Shamrock and the Tricolour. But interestingly, a three-armed version has also been known historically2.

St. Brigid’s cross as the logo of Teilifís Éireann, Irish national TV broadcasting service, forerunner of RTÉ (Image sourced: Wikipedia)

The four-armed shape, with our without a large centre, has recurred in many places around the globe. The closest to us geographically perhaps where it is still in use is in the Basque Country, with the Lauburu (“four-head”) and the Basques, who tend to zealously defend their heritage and their role in developing that, say that it was from the Celts that they received it.

Lauburu of the Basques but whose tradition says they got it from the Celts (Image sourced: Wikipedia)

Long before the Nazis appropriated it, the Swastika was a symbol of deity and good fortune of people across Asia and I still recall the feeling of shock when I saw the symbol replicated many times across the stonework of the Indian Embassy in Aldwych, London. It is still used in a number of important Eastern ceremonies. The swastika also had a strong presence in Europe under different names but the Nazis have ensured it will be a long time before it can be used in the Western world without its fascist association. It also has a presence among American Indigenous people and has been found in archaeological excavations in Africa.

nkontim of the Ashante, Ghana, Africa. (Image sourced: Wikipedia)
The Aztec swastika symbol (Image sourced: Wikipedia)

Further afield one could argue that the Ojo de Dios so widespread in Mexico and in some other Latin American regions is also one of them – or at least a close relative. Of course the mystic Eye is also a symbol in many cultures, thought to express divine providence, God watching over humanity and the Ojo may be another one of those as its name suggests — but in many places it is contructed by weaving yarn around two crossed twigs. And in any case could the Eye and the Cross all originally represent the same thing, the Sun in the sky?

Ancient swastika motif on possibly Zoroastrian mosaic excavated in Palestine. (Image sourced: Wikipedia)

Many anthropologists think that sun-worship was once an important part of human societies across the globe and, given the life-giving properties of the sun (and the fact that we live in its system, the solar system) that should come as no surprise to us3. In Ireland many places are associated by name with the sun, for example An Ghrianán (“Greenan”), in locations as far apart as the counties of Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone in Ulster; Dublin, Meath, Wicklow, Westmeath and Wexford in Leinster; Tipperary and Waterford in Munster; Mayo and Sligo in Connacht (see Sources).

Ojo de Dios weavings on thin crossed pieces of wood. (Image sourced: Wikipedia)
Ojo de Dios made as crafts, perhaps in a school. (Image sourced: Wikipedia)

The symbol of circling movement might however also represent the turning of our planet Earth, the cycle of life through the seasons (see Wikipedia entry in Sources).

THE FEAST DAY – OF CHRISTIAN SAINT, PAGAN GODDESS AND SEASONAL MARKER

As noted earlier, February 1st is the feast-day of St. Brigid but it is also date of the pagan Celtic feast of Imbolc (though probably the exact date would have varied somewhat according to the astral calendar), one of the four great festivals of the year4. Falling midway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, it is considered in Ireland as the first day of the Spring season.

The feast-day’s role as the harbinger of Spring is mentioned in the first verse of Cill Aodáin, the poem (and song) by the celebrated blind poet Raifteirí (1779 – 1835), as with the coming of Spring he anticipates heading to his native Mayo:

Anois teacht an Earraigh beidh an lá dul chun síneadh

Is taréis na Féile Bride ardóigh mé mo sheol;

Ó chur mé i mo cheann é ní stopfaidh mé choíche

Go seasfaidh mé síos i lár Chondae Mhuigheo.

THE SAINT

Brigid is known in Irish as Muire na nGael (“Mary of the Gaels”), which points to her importance as an individual personage, since in Christian belief Mary is the mother of Jesus Christ, in turn believed to be an aspect of God in human form. Brigid’s status is underlined by her nomination as a patron saint of the nation but points also to the significance of the female, of some status in Gaelic society5 and very likely representing a trace of a more ancient matriarchical society.

Brigid’s feast day in Irish culture was of greater importance than that of St.Patrick’s, although the latter was always considered the highest in that he is thought responsible for the conversion of the society of the Gaels to Christianity. There was little ritual associated with the feast day of Patrick and even the wearing of shamrock on the day seems a late innovation6. On St. Brigid’s Day the Cros Bríde was woven, the old one burned or otherwise disposed of as the new one took its place as a protector of the house. In some areas there would be ritual visits to a well and I have read too, though I cannot now find the references, of ritual milking and butter churning. Of course the rituals may owe more to custom of veneration of the pagan goddess and the marking of a place in the cycle of the seasons than to the Christian saint.

Harry Clarke stained glass representation of St. Brigid, St. Mary’s Church, Ballinrobe, Co. Mayo (Image sourced: Internet)

There is some disagreement about the date and provenance of some of the early accounts of the life of St. Brigid as well as their accuracy but the earliest known is thought to have been written two centuries after her death7. We are told that she was born in 451 CE in Faughart near Dundalk, Co. Louth to Brocca, a Pict slave woman who became pregnant by Dubhthach, a Leinster chieftain who then sold her due to the jealousy of his wife. According to the tradition Brocca had been converted to Christianity by St.Patrick. The selling of a pregnant slave seems unlikely but according to the tradition not only was that done but she was sold to a Druid. At the age of ten Brigid went to Dubhthach’s home as a household servant and the tradition relates that Rí Laighin (King of Leinster) Crimthann Mac Énnai, noting her charity and piety, freed her (however it has been my understanding that slavery in this part of the world was not hereditary8).

Accounts of her life describe her performing miracles as a child and also of acts of charity towards the poor. The doing of great deeds as a child is one of the recurring themes in accounts of heroic characters in legends (in Ireland, think of Culainn’s giant guard hound slain by the boy Setanta with hurley and ball).

Around 480 CE the tradition has Bríd founding the abbey at Cill Dara (Kildare – “the Church of the Oak” or Oakwood) on the site sacred to the Celtic Goddess Brigid (see more later) where female devotees guarded an eternal flame and by this founding act alone the saint’s story is being conflated with the pagan deity. At the abbey St. Brigid brought about the institution of Christian female devotional community, starting with seven followers9.

St. Brigid founded two religious institutions, one male and one female and for centuries history records that the abbey was ruled by a dual abbotship, female and male with the former being considered head of all monasteries in Ireland.

At Kildare, Brigid founded a school of metalwork (another nod to the Goddess); also one of art and Giraldus of Wales (c. 1146 – c. 1223), the Norman-Welsh visitor (and founder of anti-Irish racism in literature) reported seeing The Book of Kildare with gorgeous illumination of every page, which he pronounced as beyond compare, declaring it to be “the work of angelic and not human skill” (a verdict of his on Irish harp music also). The book disappeared during the Reformation.

According to tradition, Brigid was a friend of St. Patrick and also traveled through many parts of Ireland.

Ruins of the 11th Century “Black Abbey”, Kildare, the oldest remaining., constructed by Norman invaders long after Brigid’s time. (Image sourced: Internet)

Among the many miracles which Brigid of Kildare was said to have made were healing, with which she has traditionally been associated and preservation of chastity. The latter seems more likely an outgrowth of feudal Christianity imported by the Norman occupation from the 12th Century and of course would have been highly valued by the Catholic Church in Ireland, in particular in the 19th Century.

Healing reminds us of the Druids and her foster-father, to whom her mother was given by her real father. There has long been an association between Bríd and healing, which is presumably why “her” cross is used as a logo for An Bord Altranais, the nursing authority in Ireland.

She was also reputed to be able to turn water into beer (some publicans have been reported tending towards accomplishing the reverse) and was also associated with dairy production. These latter two are reflections of plenty and are represented in a number of pagan deities. Brigid was also associated with fire, which reminds us again of the Goddess Brigid.

The St. Brigid Cathedral, Kildare Town. (Image sourced: Internet)

Bríd, Bridget and Brigid are common names given to girls in Ireland (also encountered in parts of the world where Irish missionaries have been) as are other variants: Breda, Bridie, Breedge, Bree, Biddy, Bridge, Bridgie. There are also variants of the name in other languages, for example Brigitte, Brigida, Bergit, Britt, Bricia, etc.

Christianity and Druids

If she existed – and it appears likely that someone of the kind did — it seems an impossible task to completely disentangle the abbess of Kildare from the pagan goddess. Indeed it is even possible that the Bríd or Brigid referred to in Irish Christian hagiography was herself a Druid and her early life with a Druid as her foster-father hints at that. However one of the traditions has her vomiting food he gave her which seems to represent a violently symbolic rejection of the old religion at a time when it was the dominant one in Ireland.

Being the daughter of a Pictish concubine10 slave is also interesting although the advent of Christianity in Ireland pressured for an end to chattel slavery.

The early history of Christianity in Ireland is curious for unlike most other countries in Europe, it was introduced into a pagan society largely without violence. The Gaels had a number of gods and goddesses and were very familiar with trinities and dualities, so that the (very late historically) account of St. Patrick explaining the Christian Trinity with reference to a three-leaved shamrock is of course pure nonsense. Nevertheless the conversion represented a radical enough change in culture and religious belief and one can only speculate on some kind of accommodation between the Druids and early Christian missionaries and certainly the Celtic Christian Church was quite different from the Roman one, as the family names signifying descent from priest and bishop attest, as well as those associated with a Christian ancestor11 who might well have been a monk or devotee of some saint. It is a matter of record that the Roman Christian Church struggled with the Celtic one to impose celibacy on monks, abbots, priests and bishops, as well as to insist on lay marriages being monogamous and to abolish the right of divorce.

CELEBRATION

From Wikipedia: “In Gaelic Ireland, Imbolc was the feis or festival marking the beginning of spring, during which great feasts were held. It is attested in some of the earliest Old Irish literature from the 10th century onward. It was one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals: Samhain (~1 November), Imbolc (~1 February), Bealtaine (~1 May) and Lughnasa (~1 August).

Fermanagh “Biddy Boys” celebrating St. Brigid’s Day/ Imbolc with the “Brideog” made of straw. (Image sourced: Internet)

“From the 18th century to the mid 20th century, many accounts of Imbolc or St Brigid’s Day were recorded by folklorists and other writers. They tell us how it was celebrated then, and shed light on how it may have been celebrated in the past.

“Imbolc has traditionally been celebrated on 1 February. However, because the day was deemed to begin and end at sunset, the celebrations would start on what is now 31 January. It has also been argued that the timing of the festival was originally more fluid and based on seasonal changes. It has been associated with the onset of the lambing season (which could vary by as much as two weeks before or after 1 February), the beginning of the spring sowing and the blooming of blackthorn.

“The holiday was a festival of the hearth and home, and a celebration of the lengthening days and the early signs of spring. Celebrations often involved hearthfires, special foods, divination or watching for omens, candles or a bonfire if the weather permitted. Fire and purification were an important part of the festival. The lighting of candles and fires represented the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months. A spring cleaning was also customary.

“Holy wells12 were visited at Imbolc, and at the other Gaelic festivals of Bealtaine and Lughnasa. Visitors to holy wells would pray for health while walking ‘sunwise’ around the well. They would then leave offerings, typically coins or ‘clooties’ (see clootie well). Water from the well was used to bless the home, family members, livestock and fields.

“Donald Alexander McKenzie also recorded that offerings were made “to earth and sea”. The offering could be milk poured into the ground or porridge poured into the water, as a libation.”

Many young people went from house to house with a symbol of the saint, ‘The Brideóg’: this was an effigy supposed to represent St. Brigid and made according to the local custom. It was usually a straw doll, dressed to portray a human figure. Often small children went to the neighbours’ houses and were given money. In some areas unmarried girls carried the effigy bestowing Brigid’s blessing on the house, often they handed out crosses to the head of the houses they visited. It was accepted that the girl who carried the effigy was the most beautiful and modest of all. In other regions no effigy was used, the girl dressed in white and carried a locally made cross to represent the saint. Those who carried the ‘brideog’ were called ‘brideóga’, ‘biddies’ or ‘biddy-boys’.

Children in St. Aidan’s School, Cavan, making the traditional crosses in 2016 (Image sourced: Internet)

THE GODDESS

Whatever about the historicity of Saint Brigid, there certainly was a Goddess Brigid figure of great importance in Ireland and she was associated with the spring season, fertility, healing, poetry and blacksmithing. There is a suggestion that she may have been a triple deity from an entry in the 10th Century Cormac’s Glossary written by Christian monks, as it states that the Goddess Brigid had two sisters: Brigid the healer and Brigid the smith.

The Goddess of European Celtic society Brigantia may have had her qualities attributed to the Gaelic Brigid or possibly the latter was a Gaelic representation of Brigantia. The Graeco-Egyptian historian and geographer (among other scholarships) Ptolemy, who gave us the earliest description of a possible Dublin settlement, “Eblana” in 140 CE, mentioned a Leinster tribe called the Brigantes, possibly taking their name from the Goddess but nothing is known of them now. In Celtic pre-Roman northern England, an area centered around Yorkshire was the domain of the Brigantes, the largest Celtic tribe in Britain (and ruled by a queen) while there was an Alpine sub-tribe known as the Brigantii.

Eight inscriptions to Brigantia have been found from the Midlands to Northern Britain and the word appears on some Celtiberian coins. Elements of the name may appear in a number of settlement locations in mainland Europe and in Britain (including the river Brent) but is difficult to be certain of that due to the etymological origin of Brigid/ Brigida, “high, exalted” (ultimately of Proto-Indo-European origin), so that the toponym could also be describing the aspect of the location itself, “high place” or of the human occupants “high/ elevated”.

End.

Traditional St Brigid’s cross woven from green rushes, originally a pagan symbol (Image sourced: Wikipedia)
The rarer three-armed St. Brigid’s cross. (Image sourced: Wikipedia)

FOOTNOTES

1“Brighde” in older spelling; Là Fhèill Brìghde in Scottish Gaedhlig; Laa’l Breeshey in Manx.)

2The Celtic triskele is a relatively well-known shape also thought to represent the sun and, in the form of three legs, is the national symbol of the Isle of Man, a nation of celtic origin. But there is also a four-armed version of the triskele design.

3Indeed the pronunciation of the word “Dia” for God in Irish and the word “día” for “day” in Spanish and Catalan are not just coincidences as I discovered ‘digging’ one day, finding an etymological connection in Proto-Sanskrit.

4The others being Bealtaine, and Lúghnasadh and Samhain.

5Apart from the representation of important goddesses and warrior queens or chieftains in Irish legend and history, according to the Brehon Laws free women’s rights to their own property continued into marriage and they had the right of divorce and even female slaves had some right in law (and had the possibility to rise in status).

6See https://rebelbreeze.com/2017/03/17/the-shamrock-and-the-colour-green-native-or-foreign-imports-into-irish-iconography/

7Cogitosus, a monk of Kildare in the 7th Century: Vitae Sanctae Brigitae.

8Though the Wikipedia entry on Brigid of Kildare” says that she “was born into slavery” and that it was the King who freed her.

9The mystic number seven!

10Cúchullain (Setanta) was taught skill of arms by Scáthach, a female Pictish warrior and bore him a son, unknown to him after he left, with tragic consequences years later for both father and son.

11Mac an tSagairt/ Taggart (“Son of the Priest”), Mac an Easpaig/ Nesbig (“Son of the Bishop”), Giolla and Mac Giolla Chríost/ Gilchrist (Son of Servant of Christ), Mac Giolla Bríde (S. Of Servant of Brigid!), Maol Muire/ Mulmurry (S of Servant of Mary), Maol Eoin/ Malone (S of Servant of John) and many more.

12Many wells in Ireland were dedicated to a saint and therefore considered holy, probably too originally a pagan view of wells.

SOURCES AND FURTHER READING

St. Brigid’s Cross: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brigid%27s_cross

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/the-evolution-and-disappearance-of-brigid-s-cross-in-rt%C3%A9-s-logo-1.4141861

https://www.jstor.org/stable/25510514?seq=1

South American Eye of God: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God%27s_eye

The Swastika: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swastika

Irish sun-related toponyms (place-names): https://www.logainm.ie/en/s?txt=Greenan&str=on

Christian Saint Brigid: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brigid_of_Kildare

Irish Christian-related family names: https://www.libraryireland.com/articles/Muls/Muls.php

St. Brigid in Scottish place-names: https://saintsplaces.gla.ac.uk/saint.php?id=28

Feast of Imbolc: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imbolc

Gaelic Goddess Brigid: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brigid

Reference for “Biddy Boys” and the Brídeog

European Celtic Goddess Brigantia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brigantia_(goddess)

Brigantes people: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brigantes

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