Books Reviewed: Pagan Portals: Brigit – Morgan Daimler, Brigid: History, Mystery, and Magick of the Celtic Goddess – Courtney Weber, Brigid: Goddess, Druidess and Saint –Brian Wright, Brigit: Sun of Womanhood – Patricia Monaghan and Michael McDermott, and The Rites of Brigid: Goddess & Saint – Seán Ó Duinn.
“A teacher of mine believes a whole spiritual tradition could be filled solely with Brigid devotees…” (Weber, Loc. 49) This is probably true, and you could certainly fill a bookshelf with volumes on Brigit, goddess and saint. For this post I wanted to review books that would be easily available, written for a popular audience, and likely to appeal to readers. I could easily have gone past five, but anyone who is that enthusiastic about Brigit will no doubt find more on their own.
Pagan Portals: Brigit: essentially an introduction to Brigit, both the Catholic saint and the Celtic goddess. The author is an Irish Reconstructionist pagan and Druid who had also written a book on the Morrigan, and provides her own translation for some of the texts she quotes.
It covers the main sources in Irish myth and folklore, including some less-well-known material like Brigit’s role in the Lugnasa celebrations. (Loc. 796) At the end of each chapter is a short section entitled “Brigit in my Life”, intended to give readers some sense of what devotion to Brigit looks and feels like.
The second half of the book is more focused on personal devotion to the goddess, and would be good for anyone wanting a foundation for their own practice.
There is a chapter on modern myths about Brigit, which is a good balance of honesty about claims for ancient provenance, and an appreciation of living myth and how it changes. For example, Brigit’s mother is never named in the Irish myths; many modern writers have tried to fill that gap, including Brian Wright (see below).
I did have a few niggles about Daimler’s discussion of the British goddess Brigantia, but that doesn’t detract from what is a good introduction to the goddess, her myths, and traditions connected to the saint’s cult. Anyone looking for a general introduction to the goddess (or saint) should start here.
Brigid: History, Mystery, and Magick of the Celtic Goddess: this book covers the same ground as Daimler’s, but thematically, covering Brigit as healer, bard, smith, warrior and goddess of springtime and oak trees. (The name Kildare, where her church stands, comes from Irish Cill Dara, the church of the oak.) Her book includes teachings and inspiration gleaned from Brigit’s myths and legends, such as the “Stretch on the Anvil”, which hammers the soul into shape.
The introduction suggests that the name Brig might well be a title, the Exalted, which would explain the multiplicity of Brigits in both saint and goddess form, as well as mortal women such as a first-century judge. This would explain Brigantia and the Gaulish goddesses with names beginning with Brig- as well, without having to make them all the same goddess.
The inclusion of a chapter on Brigit as warrior is a bit of stretch. The Irish Brigit was never much of a warrior, since her role in the Battle of Magh Tuiread was to marry one of the enemy to broker peace, and later to mourn their son when war broke out again. The saint’s tales point more to a goddess of justice than a warrior, as she helps out women and the poor, either by her judgements, trickery or magic. She does appear above the battlefield in a few saint’s tales, but that doesn’t make Brigit a war-goddess.
Still, it’s a decent introduction to Brigit, more inspirational in focus than Daimler’s. If you want an introduction to Brigit that’s primarily neo-pagan or Wiccan, this is a good book.
Brigid: Goddess, Druidess and Saint: This book does have a lot of folklore about St. Brigit and her festival on Feb. 1st. Unfortunately, it is poorly written, and lacks citations, which means you can’t follow up on information. This is a real problem, because he makes claims that need some evidence to back them up:
- Brigit was introduced to Ireland in the first century CE, probably by Brigantes who fled England when the Romans took over their territory in the early 70s.1 My favourite part of this theory is that the Druids seized on the Brigantian goddess and pushed her as a way to unify the feuding Irish tribes. (This is a mirror image of the argument that the Romans invented Brigantia to flatter the northern English into submission.) Further, these druids pressed the Morrigan into service as Brigit’s mother. He seems to be quoting from the Second Battle of Moytura, to justify this, but the original source doesn’t mention any children of the Dagda and Morrigan.
- The real St. Brigit was a druidess who converted to Christianity. The two saint’s lives written about St. Brigit say that she was adopted by a druid, but the Brigit in these stories is a determined Christian, almost from birth. So once again we don’t know where Wright’s information comes from.
Although this book has some useful information, and tells you how to make a St. Brigit’s cross, I cannot recommend it. Check out Séamus Ó Cathaín’s The Festival of Brigit: Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman instead. (See also Dorothy Bray’s review; she’s a Celtic scholar who had studied St. Brigit extensively.)
Brigit: Sun of Womanhood: This book is more of a mixed bag, as it is a collection of essays by many authors. It divides (appropriately) into three sections, the first on the Celtic goddess, the second on the saint, and a third on Brigit in the modern world. Patricia Monaghan is the author of The Book of Goddesses and Heroines, and this book takes a more women’s mysteries approach to Brigit.
It’s probably best approached as a devotional, rather than a fact-based book on the goddess and her cult. Anyone seeking inspiration for their own poetry or rituals can find something here.
Two essays in this book stood out for me, mainly for their subjects: “Got Milk?” focuses on St. Brigit’s food miracles, and “Bride in Scotland” covers the cult of St. Brigit in Scotland. Brigit’s roles as provider, hospitalier and brewer tend to be forgotten alongside her more exalted functions. The Scottish folklore is not as well-known as the Irish, and her relations with the Cailleach, a winter goddess, and Angus may be new to readers.
The Rites of Brigid: Goddess & Saint: this last book is a bit different from the rest, as its author is a Benedictine monk. However, it s a very useful guide to rituals and folklore associated with Brigit’s festival. The author is Irish, and focuses on local traditions.
He covers the return of Brigit from the Otherworld (some traditions had it that she went away for winter, and had to be welcomed back), the bed of Bride, the Brideog or image of the saint which was carried around in procession, the cross of rushes, and Brigit’s belt, as well as much else.
His views on pre-Christian religion are a little old-fashioned, however, and seem to be influenced by Frazer’s Golden Bough, as well as assuming that all folklore must have roots in some distant past. Also, the writer does jump around a bit, with one paragraph unrelated to the next.
Of the five books, I would recommend the first two for anyone wanting to learn more about the goddess, and Monaghan and McDermott’s book for anyone looking for a devotional. Ó Duinn’s book is not bad, especially if you’re looking for traditional Irish lore. I cannot recommend Wright’s book at all.
1. The Roman georgrapher Ptolemy said that tribe called the Brigantes were living in the south of Ireland, around Waterford and Wexford. This may be what inspired Wright. However, there are several other tribes called the Brigantes in Europe, who may or may not be related. In any case, the name may merely mean “Highlanders” making it less likely they were all related.↩