Feb 02 2013
Pic: Mario Corrigan
|The second month of the year is generally thought of as dark, damp and dreary, its only saving grace being its shortness. To the pagan Celts, however, the first of February was an occasion of celebration, for on that day was the beginning the feast of Imbolc, the winter half of the year passed its mid-point, and the vital spirit in the earth began its springtime phase of renewal.|
Life in those days proceeded to an accompaniment of myth and poetry, dramatizing every stage in the hunter’s and farmer’s year. At Imbolc fires were lit to honour the rebirth of the goddess, daughter of the earth. There were torchlight processions to shrines associated with generation, in dells and sheltered hollows and where springs well up from the ground. Thereafter followed the ceremony of “churching” the mother, and the earth was ritually purified at the festival now called Candlemas, which in the church calendar is on February 2nd. Its Christian reference is to the purification of Mary after the birth of Jesus. In ancient Greece it marked the retune from the underworld of Persephone, daughter of Demeter or mother earth.
The north European name for the goddess whose birth or return was celebrated at the start of February was Brigid, alias Brig, Bride, Frigg, Brigantia. She existed in three aspects, beginning as the spring maiden, becoming the bride and matron in the course of the summer and ending as the old witch of winter. Healers and craftsmen were under her special care, and she was known by their emblems, the serpent and the fire, which are also symbols of the fertilizing energies in the earth. In Ireland, were veneration of the goddess is still evident in numerous grottos and rustic shrines dedicated to the Virgin, Brigid represented the native spirit of the country. She was the Bride to whom the high king of the four quarters of Ireland was married at the time of his coronation. Her name is commemorated throughout Ireland in Bride, Kilbride, Bridebridge, Brideswell etc., and her legend was assimilated and renewed by the famous Irish nun, St Bridget.
The conversion of the Irish and other Celtic nations from the Druidic to Christian rite seems to have been more in the nature of a reformation than the work of outside missionaries. Beyond the influence of Rome, the Celtic church adopted many of the shrines, festivals, customs and legends of its pagan predecessors, and accommodated the old gods by renaming them as Christian saints. It was evidently a peaceful change, for early Celtic church is unique in claiming no martyrs. With the Christian revelation came a revival of scholarship and mysticism. The Druid colleges were re founded as Celtic monasteries and the great sanctuary of the goddess Brigid, at Kildare, became Ireland’s first nunnery under St Bridget. In it there burnt a perpetual flame, an inheritance from the days of the old goddess, which for about a thousand years up to the Reformation was tended by a succession of nineteen vestal nuns. Both their number and their function were survivals from pagan times, as was recognised by a 13th century Archbishop of Dublin who succeeded briefly in suppressing the atavistic flame; and the legend of St Bridget is a compilation of miracle tales far older than Christianity. From Brigid she acquired the attributes of a fire goddess, appearing with a pillar of flame over her head and receiving the name Fiery Dart. The nuns of her order wore white robes in the style of an earlier priesthood. From Kildare they spread across Ireland and into Scotland occupying the old goddess shrines and rededicating them to St Bridget, thus identifying her with that misty wraith of folklore, the woman in white, whose haunts are by springs, wells and the crossing of rivers.
|Many of St Bridget’s shrines are at holy wells, where her ethereal figure in the image of the white goddess can be glimpsed or imagined in the twilight. These places still attract pilgrims. hundreds of local people attend St Bridget’s well to the west of Mullingar on the last Sunday in August, making a ritual journey through 14 praying stations on their way to the shrine. In England dedications to St Bridget are rare, and with one exception they are all found in the western part of the country along the border with the Celtic lands.||
The notable exception is the church of St Bride in London’s Fleet Street, where Bridget’s holy well (now blocked up), outside the church to the south east, indicates the prehistoric sanctity of the site.
In the early chronicles of St Bridget’s life there is no mention of her ever leaving Ireland. Yet near Glastonbury in Somerset an island in the marshes at Beckery is identified as the former site of her chapel and hermitage, and medieval visitors to Glastonbury Abbey were shown her relics. Other evidence of a separate English St Bridget is in her 19 English churches which, being early dedications, should by customs have been founded personally by their patrons. Almost a third of these churches are in Cumberland, which in Roman times was part of the British nation of Brigantia, named after its principle goddess. It may have been Brigantia rather than the Irish Brigid who gave her name to the Cumberland parishes of Kirkbride, Bridekirk and Brigham and left her mark on the sacred history of Glastonbury.
In Wales, where St Bridget is known as St Ffraid, several churches and eight holy wells are dedicated to her. Far more common are dedications to the Virgin Mary, St David and his mother St Nun, who also gave her name to two holy wells in Cornwall. One of these performed a rare useful function. Many ancient wells have retained their reputation as places of healing or vision from times when these were gifts of the earth goddess. Mostly they are believed to cure certain diseases or parts of the body, but St Nun’s well at Altarnun on Bodmin Moor provided a psychiatric remedy. Lunatics were brought there to be treated by a method which he Cornish called “bowssening”. The patient was led to the brink of a pool made by the waters of St Nun’s well. He was then seized by priestly therapists, hurled into the water, ducked and tossed about until he was half drowned, after which he was laid in the well chapel while sacred chants were sung over him. If this failed immediately to soothe his mind the process was repeated.
St Nun’s holy wells in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany are natural shrines of the earth goddess and, like those of St Bridget in Ireland, mostly retain the atmosphere of sanctity which has attracted people to them since prehistoric times. At Altarnun, where St Nun was said to have been born and buried, a community of early Christian nuns reformed her pagan cult and continued the administration of healing waters. She journeyed to Wales, landing at St Nun’s bay, Pembrokeshire during a raging storm, and took refuge by a well within a stone circle, where fair weather prevailed with blue skies and summer flowers. There she gave birth to St David, leaving a mark on one of the stones where she pressed down during delivery. The well, to the south of St David’s cathedral was famous for curing children’s and other complaints, and is now a place of Catholic pilgrimage.
Another Cornish well of St Nun is at Pelynt overlooking the Looe valley. Those who can find its obscure site are rewarded with a glimpse of fairyland. The well chamber, built into a bank and lodged within the roots of a tree, is overgrown with ferns and still gives clear, medicinal water. St Nun’s name is attached to it, but it has been reclaimed by its original owners, the Cornish piskies, who are said to bring good luck to those who respect the places and curses to those who defile it.
As the annual rebirth of Brigid preceded the festival of purifying mother earth, so is the feast of St David on the 1st March followed next day by that of his mother St Nun. On those dates in early spring the wells of St David and St Nun begin their traditional season of potency. According to ancient perception, encoded in mythology, the spirit of fertility withdraws at the approach of winter into the metals of the earth, exuding again in spring to stimulate growth and to restore in the waters of the earth their healing and oracular powers. These powers are most concentrated at certain spots where fresh, cool water wells up from the ground. In Britain and Ireland there are literally thousands of holy wells, many neglected and with their legends forgotten, but a surprising number of them are still locally cherished and visited for the virtue in their waters and the peaceful beauty of their settings. Their characters change with the seasons or, as the ancients saw it, with the stages in the annual life cycle of the goddess. For those who admire the maidenly aspect of nature, the season of resort to holy wells begins with the snowdrops and the birth of their patron goddess, Brigid.
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