Bitel, Lisa M.. St. Brigit of Ireland: From Virgin Saint to Fertility Goddess

[St. Brigit of Ireland]
This paper was written as part of a (then) forthcoming monograph on the cults of St. Brigit of Ireland and St. Genovefa of Paris.

Presented at Fordham University, February, 2001

Lisa M. Bitel, University of Kansas

What has St. Patrick got that St. Brigit does not. Besides a y-chromosome and all that comes with it, he has a feast day on the Universal Calendar of the Roman Catholic church, the status of Ireland's patron saint, and parades the world over on his feast day of March 17. Brigit, born (ca. 452) in the same century as Patrick (ca. 412?), is also an Irish saint who maintained her place on the calendar during the Vatican II purge of dubious saints. Unlike Patrick, a native Briton, she was actually born in Ireland, probably near modern Faughart in Co. Louth. Her biographers, medieval and modern, maintain that she, like Patrick, led an exemplary life enriched almost daily by her miracles. She won converts to Christianity and established many churches in Ireland. As with Patrick's main church at Armagh, Brigit's seat at Kildare became the chief establishment in a whole network of congregations. At one time her church and her cult even competed with those of Patrick for the leadership of Ireland. She was, and still is, venerated by thousands of Christians, Irish and other, throughout the old world and new, in churches named after her on her feast day of February 1. . Along with Patrick and Columba, she presides as one of the three main patrons of Irish Catholics.

Brigit has one thing that Patrick lacks: a reputation as a goddess. Worshipers say she has always been a divinityñor perhaps three divinities for Celtic peoples in Ireland, Britain, and Europe, reigning for centuries before she was appropriated as a saint by crafty Christian missionaries and reluctant converts. Modern Celtic Christians, pagans, scholars, and webmasters all tout Brigit's pre-christian past and powers in rituals, books, articles, and colorful websites. According to revivalists, Brigit's attributes, her miracles, her very nameñ"the Exalted One"ñall derived from her original divinity long before Patrick was ever kidnapped to Irish shores. Brigit was the native, Patrick the foreigner; Brigit was there first, but Patrick became the national saint.

To journey through the scholarly literature on the saint-goddess is as wild a pilgrimage as surfing the web for Brigit-sites. In the past twenty years, scholars have cast Brigit as a pre-Christian tripartite hospitaller, lawgiver, and warrior based on the British goddess Brigant_; a goddess of "sun and fire" (McCone); a structuralist hero who manifests power by crossing boundaries of time and space (also McCone); the "most powerful female religious figure in all of Irish history....a Triple Goddess, a Virgin Mother, a Lawmaker, a Virgin Saint, and...a folk image whose shadows still move over Ireland" (Condren); "a suitable patron for the Irish women's liberation movement"; and the Irish equivalent of Pan and Kali (De Paor). [1] .

Brigit has also been the target of Irish Folklore Commission Questionnaires about strangely unchristian practices during post-famine times. According to folklore material collected earlier in this century, Donegal wives used to cast the brat BrÌde (Brigit's cloak) over calving cows to ease their pain, while in Mayo cross-dressing boys and girls carried a turnip-headed corn dolly called the brÌdeog (little Brigit) from house to house on Bridget's Eve. [2] [3]

Yet even to believe in Brigit's existence is a scholarly leap of faith since we have no good evidence of her historicity. Patrick, by comparison, left us a Confession by his own hand. We have no writings by Brigit herself, nor any biography of her until a century-and-a-half after her death, written around 650. The monastic annals from early Ireland list two birthdates (452, 456) and three different dates for her death (524, 526, 528). [4] [5]

But why. Why would clerical writers try to identify their own saint with any pre-christian goddess. It was hard enough for the first generations of Christians to maintain the reputations of female saints and to create persuasive cases for their veneration. Women were denied most of the avenues to sainthood available to men until long after Brigit's time; they could not be bishop missionaries like Patrick, or extreme ascetics, like St. Simeon who sat atop a pole for forty years, or public officials, like St. Germanus. In Ireland, they could not even be martyrs, since the Irish never persecuted Christians. In the late fifth century, when Brigit worked, women had hardly even begun organizing professional nunneries. The rumor of pagan sympathies would have endangered the reputation of a holy woman elsewhere in Christianizing territories. Nonetheless, the literati of medieval Ireland knew what they were doing. They were neither simple-minded traditionalists, unwittingly preserving their Celtic past, nor closet pagans, hiding evidence of heresy in stories of saints. The Irish were proud of their willing conversion to Christianity. No one forced believers to give up their goddess for saint Brigit. If early medieval writers invoked a prechristian past in stories of a saint, they had good reasons. If they sought a more ancient Brigit in pre-Patrician Ireland, just as modern Brigit-lovers do, then it was purposeful. And if we can figure out when and how Christian writers first invoked pagan associations for the saint, what exactly they did wrote, and how they made their case, then we will know why they did so. . . Let us begin, then, with the evidence for Brigit as goddess and Brigit as saint, in order to see when the two were joined. Since the pre-christian Irish did not write, the hardest evidence for a goddess named Brigit or BrÌg comes from stone and metal, although unfortunately not from Ireland. In another Celtic territory across the Irish Sea in Dumfrieshire, Scotland, archaeologists have found a Roman-era statue of a female figure clearly inscribed with the name of Brigantia, crowned like a tutelary deity, and holding a spear like the Roman goddesses Victoria and Minerva. [6] Deae Nymphae Brigantiae (divine nymph Brigit). [7] /BRIGANT_N inscribed on a coin in Iberian script, suggest that Celts south of Britain also worshipped someone named Brig. [8] . The names start to make sense only when linked with ancient ethnology. The town of Bregenz, at the eastern end of Lake Constance in Austria, retains the older name of Brigantion, a tribal capital of a people called the Brigantii, possibly after a goddess Brigant_. [9] . The rivers Brent in England, Braint in Wales, and Brigid in Ireland are all related linguistically and maybe religiously to the root Brig/Brigant. [10] [11] brenhin, from the goddess' name, Brigan_, understanding it to mean originally "consort of the goddess"; Cartimandua's own freedom in discarding one husband for another seems like evidence that she followed the goddess' model, selecting a mate with whom to rule the Brigantes. [12] . But the more ordinary Celtic words for king come from an Indo-European root, *regs- which has given us Irish , Latin rex, German reich; and Cartimandua was unusual among Celtic leaders, who were normally men.

None of this material evidence reached early Ireland and it is doubtful that early Irish writers ever knew of it. Only if we assume the people called Brigantes or Brigantii went to Ireland and brought the goddess Brig is it possible to suggest the goddess' worship there. Ptolemy, a second-century geographer, did mention a tribe calling itself the Brigantes in Leinster. . But nothing remains of the Irish Brigantes except this single tribal name on a Greek's map, the river Brigid, and much later literary references to saints and supernatural figures named Brigit. If a cult or religion dedicated to her existed, nothing remains of it from the time of its practice. No one scratched inscriptions on stone walls, no one lost coins in the dirt, no statue stands, no mention of ritual practice has lasted in Irish literature, no priestess or queen dedicated to Brig or Brigit or Briganti deserved notice in Latin texts. No ruined shrine to Brigit remains on hilltop or tucked into forest grove. The kind of evidence that suggests the goddess in Britain and Gaul simply does not exist in Ireland.

Irish Brigit's case for divinity is strongest by two kinds of deduction. First information about goddesses in other so-called Celtic societies suggests the kinds of goddesses that might have reigned in Ireland. Epona, for instance, the horse-riding goddess carved into the stones of Gaul and Germany, or the triple mothers (matronae) of Roman Britain resonate with literary figures from medieval Irish texts. By synthesizing the attributes of these goddesses left to us in hard stone elsewhere in Europe and comparing them with the observations of classical writers such as Tacitus or the medieval Irish poets and taletellers, we can speculate that throughout Europe Celtic goddesses were generally of three types: warriors, mothers, or sovereignty figures, or some combination of these as territorial patronesses. Irish mythological literature of the Middle Ages mentioned similar female figures linked to particular territories or points on the landscape, in the same way that the tribal goddesses of British inscriptions were named after peoples of a certain area. The Irish of the Middle Ages wrote of an ancient queen named Boann, possibly a goddess of the Boyne Valley and Br™ na BÛinne. A ninth-century poet wrote of Caillech BhÈirri, the hag or nun of Beare, who seems to have been a sovreignty figure of Munster tradition. We can guess that perhaps there was a territorial Brigit too. But these vague literary comparisons do not prove that the Irish at the time of Christianization were worshipping a goddess name Brigit.

In fact, we cannot even assume that the peoples of Ireland were what we have come to call Celts: that they lived like, thought like, or worshiped the same deities as the natives of Britain, Germany, and Gaul. Archaeologists have begun to challenge the notion of a swarm of Celts originating in germanic territories in the Bronze Age, and sweeping in invasions and immigrations across Europe to Ireland for centuries until about 200 C.E. The "Celts" as a single people and "Celtic" as a coherent culture may be romantic constructs of modern observers of the past, a product of racially-motivated linguists, traditional-minded archaeologists, and nationalists of the Gaelic Revival. [13]

However, between the iron age inscriptions from abroad and the medieval secular literature, we have plenty of written evidence for the life of a woman called Brigit, the Christian saint of Kildare. From this evidence some scholars have produced an ancient goddess, but let us first examine it for the history of the saint. The oldest vita written in Ireland of any saint is the Vita Sanctae Brigidae produced around 650 by a monk of Kildare who called himself Cogitosus. This vita even provided the model for the earliest life of Patrick, written a few decades later (660x700) by Muirch™, who called Cogitosus his "spiritual father". [14] Vita Prima (because the Bollandists published it first on the mistaken editorial assumption that it was earlier than Cogitosus' text), and another at the end of the ninth century that has come down in mixed Irish and Latin form, now called Bethu Brigte. [15] Vita Prima, but the latter is much more detailed, while Bethu Brigte is more geographically precise, supplying exact names of people and places where events in Brigit's life took place. [16] [17]

All three vitae agreed on the basic details of Brigit's saintly career, although the texts varied in emphasis and structure. She was born already a saint in the province of Leinster, a child of the tribe called the Fothairt. In Cogitosus' story, her mother was called Broicsech. The other two vitae revealed that Broicsech was a slave girl from another province. Brigit's father Dubthach was a free client of the King of Leinster who took Broicsech for a slave and impregnated her. The child Brigit grew up in the pastures, dairy, and kitchen of her father according to Cogitosus, or in the house of her slave mother's owner, according to other versions. She herded animals and cooked bacon and made butter. In these domestic settings the child performed homely miracles, multiplying scarce food and giving it away to the poor or even to begging dogs. Her habit of charity also led her to donate father's possessions to anyone who asked. In the later two vitae, Dubthach was so annoyed with her holy thieving that took her in a chariot to the king of Leinster, hoping to sell her into slavery. While Dubthach was talking to the king, Brigit cheerfully gave away his sword to a beggar. Fortunately, the king recognized her holiness and would not enslave her. Eventually, after resisting marriage, Brigit was able to make a vow of chastity and accept the veil from a bishop, thus becoming a professional Christian. She traveled from church to church, Christian house to Christian house around Leinster, Munster, and Connacht; in the two later versions, she also went north into Mide to meet St. Patrick and visit his churches there. She performed miracles en route, healing plenty of lepers and other patients, halting bandits, preventing murders, and making peace. She also took on female followers and set up religious communities around her territories. Eventually she ended up in her own home church of Kildare, according to Cogitosus, where she was buried. Cogitosus wrote an elaborate account of this settlement, with its crowds flocking to Brigit's feastday, and its splendid church over the tomb of Brigit. The other two vitae remained virtually silent about Brigit's home church and its decor.

Condensing the three vitae into one brief summary does no justice to the texts, but it is exactly how medieval hagiographers composed their lives of Brigit: gathering oral testimony and written versions and reducing them to one new narrative. To describe the contents of the vitae and rehearse them as a story of Brigit from her birth to her death also reduces the many purposes of Brigit's hagiographers. Writers of saints' lives wanted to build their readers' amazement miracle by miracle, each saintly deed leading to another, more wondrous feat, all couched in vivid language full of references to other saints and to the Bible. Hagiographers meant audiences to do more than just read a saint's life; Christians were supposed to learn from the example of a life led piously and to meditate on the connections between the various deeds, their thematic links, the order in which they occurred, their replication of Jesus' deeds, references to Old Testament figures, and other encoded messages. What is more, hagiographers were writing public drama. During the early Middle Ages the reading of a saint's vita was an event enacted by communities on the saint's feast-day, accompanied by other rituals and celebrations. So when Brigit was cooking bacon in a big cauldron and looked a dolefully hungry dog in the eye, it was meant to be a crowd-pleasing scene shared by her rapt devotees, gathered together to hear again the familiar story of their heroine; when Brigit gave the dog the bacon meant for family dinner, listeners chuckled together; when the dog came back for more, they may have sputtered with outrage; but when the bacon reappeared untouched in the cauldron, ready for family supper, they were meant to gasp in recollection of Jesus' own miracles and to sigh while marvelling and learning from Brigit's act and the supreme charity which informed it. What is more, the whole drama varied according to which of Brigit's three early vitae we heard told; the story differed slightly when each author set the saint's miracles in a particular order or context of other charitable wonders; or related them to Brigit's ties to her kinsmen, colleagues, and political allies; or used different themes of humility, hospitality, or authority. Different versions were probably used in different churches of different regions of Ireland. The mutations of each episode were slight from vita to vita, but such variant details were crucial because the goddess is in those details, as is the saint and the ecclesiastical politics of early medieval Ireland. For hagiographers also had one last important purpose: to prove the powers of the saint to aid and protect her followers during her lifetime and after her death, and the necessity for Christians to support the clerics and nuns who tended the saint's shrine and her churches.

In Cogitosus' version of her deeds, written around 650, Brigit was a holy woman so stereotypical that she might have come from France or Britain as well as Ireland. She was virtuous, tireless, and humble to the point of seeming passivity. Cogitosus wrote in skillful, not stilted Latin, and arranged his text deftly in order to help readers construe Brigit's virtus, saintly power, as a result of her total obedience to God and her political superiors. Cogitosus' Brigit never argued with men of authority in either church or kingdom, as was fitting for a woman in early medieval Ireland and a professed virgin within a world of male ecclesiastics. But she did sometimes ignore their direction, confident in her adherence to the higher instructions of her Lord. She placated kings, murderers, and bishops with miracles and prayer rather than confronting them with angry words or displays of power, in order to get her way.(22, 23, 27, 28, 30. In one story, for instance, Brigit protected a woman from a lustful nobleman. The man had entrusted a silver brooch to the woman for safekeeping but then secretly threw the piece into the sea. He charged her with stealing it, knowing that he could take her as a sex-slave if he accused the woman with theft and a judge ruled in his favor. The woman fled to St. Brigit's community, the "safest city of refuge" available. When Brigit learned of her case she took the woman in but did not march out to argue or threaten the perpetrator; she deliberated until, by seeming chance, one of her fishermen hauled in a fish which, when cut open, proved to have swallowed the brooch. In great relief, Brigit and the woman went off to the legal assembly where everyone testified that the brooch belonged to the cruel lustful man. The mortified nobleman freed the woman, confessed his sin, and in an appropriately just gesture, bowed his neck in submission to Brigit. Brigit's humility before God and submission to the social order brought obedience from the criminal.(25) . Affinity with creation, submission and obedience, faith and charity were themes linking this to other miracles in Cogitosus' vita. [18] . Brigit obeyed God and thus men, women, animals, and even the forces of nature obeyed the saint. Pigs and wolves did her bidding, kings and bishops abided by her will, and rivers moved when she prayed hard enough.

But her seeming passivity was part of Brigit's great claim to saintly virtus, for the counterpart of obedience was authority: in this vita Brigit wielded it over others, albeit tactfully. Cogitosus began the vita by professing his own obedience to colleagues who demanded a life of the saint, despite his claims of general ignorance and limited Latin. But for Brigit's church of Kildare he claimed "supremacy over all the monasteries of the Irish...its paruchia extends over the whole land of Ireland, reaching from sea to sea.". The saint had provided a rule for organizing religious life and had vigilantly watched over the churches established in her name. She designated a bishop, Conl·ed, to help her govern her paruchiañfor, as a woman, Brigit could not confer ordination or say Massñso that her churches might lack nothing. After Brigit's death, nuns, monks, priests, and lay people of Kildare continued to be governed by Brigit's abbess successors and her bishops, who spread their government "like a fruitful vine with its growing branches and struck root in the whole of Ireland.". Cogitosus was not boasting idly without proof; the whole vita following his prologue demonstrated both his skill at hagiographical narrative and Brigit's right to claim her place as premier saint of Ireland. He also intended to support Kildare's position as chief church in Ireland and its claims to submission and dues from other churches and donations and protection from noblemen and women all over the island.

In the final section of his vita of Brigit, Cogitosus made his final pitch for the saint and her church, bringing Brigit's life into the present day of his readers. His aim was to stake a claim to territory for Brigit, her nuns, her bishops, and all who succeeded her as religious professionals at Kildare. The hagiographer recounted a series of stories about the rebuilding of the main church at the settlement of Kildare as a kind of itinerary, leading readers and pilgrims into the church to the saint's tomb. He wrote of a huge stone found by workmen atop a mountain. The prior of Kildare wanted it for a millstone, to grind the settlement's wheat. But the mountain was so high, the stone so massive, that men could not carry it nor oxen haul a cart up to fetch it. The prior finally suggested that they "heave this millstone courageously and throw it down the cliff from the very top of this mountain invoking the name and power of the most revered saint whom nothing is impossible.". With Brigit's help from heaven, the stone toppled down the mountainside to the exact spot from which the oxen could drag it to the mill. Eventually, the stone ended up marking the gateway to the churchyard in Kildare, where those who touched it were cured of disease.(31)

From the mountain beyond Kildare, through the woods, to the gate, Cogitosus then took readers inside the church. First, a visitor glimpsed the tombs of Brigit and bishop Conl·ed, resting and right and left of the altar and adorned with gold, silver, and gems, with chandeliers like crowns hanging above. The walls were carved and painted just like basilicas in Gaul or Rome. The church was vast and spacious, divided by painted partitions decorated with hangings and illuminated by windows. Cogitosus then filled the church with action and song: priests and laymen entered one door, nuns and women another, and the bishop officiated in the sanctuary where Brigit lay. Cogitosus described how the church itself lay in the midst of the great bustling city of Kildare, protected by nothing more nor less than the saint's blessingsñKildare, with its numberless crowds of pilgrims, patients, clients, and onlookers, its feasts and processions, and its suburbana (outlying properties) all guarded by the saint from her place at its heart.(32) "I beg pardon," Cogitosus finished his story of Brigit "who compelled in the name of obedience...have skimmed in a tiny bark over the vast ocean of Saint Brigit's miracles which is daunting even to very learned men...Pray for me Cogitosus, the blameworthy descendant of Aed...". As much as Cogitosus told about Brigit, as extensive as his proof for her powers might have been, much more remained untold from the vast ocean of her life's work.

Cogitosus' professed humility aside, he was making profound claims for Brigit, her clout as a patroness of Christians, and the authority of her successors at Kildare. Kildare was by no means the only or even the wealthiest, most influential ecclesiastical community in Ireland in the mid seventh century. Its most formidable competitor was Patrick's home church of Ard Macha (Armagh) in Ulster, whose community leaders were allies or even members of the mighty UÌ NÈill confederation of tribes (O'Neills). In the seventh century, the UÌ NÈill were busy pushing south along the boundaries of the province of Leinster in order to expand the area under their control and bring more tribal confederations under their clientage. Not coincidentally, Brigit's Kildare lay just south of this borderland, and her paruchia (parish) extended into the contested area of what is now Co. Louth. Churches in this region faced a dilemma: to throw their allegiance with Kildare, whose saint had supposedly founded their churches and whose holiness now guarded them from harm, or to accept the political patronage of the UÌ NÈill and their own patron, Patrick. [19]

Cogitosus' vita told Christians to choose Brigit and Kildare. She was "the most blessed chief abbess" whom "all the abbesses of the Irish revere," lady of churches from sea to sea in Ireland, his prologue argued. She had set up an administration for her churches and a rule for their personnel. She had a bishopñwhom Cogitosus called "the anointed head and primate of all the bishops"--and priests to carry out the rituals that she and her successor nuns could not. The vines of their leadership grew from the roots she had planted at Kildare, entwining all Ireland. Implicitly, Cogitosus argued, churches were to look to Kildare for ecclesiastical and theological decisions, the proper conduct of Christian ritual and behavior, and the maintenance of Christian laws. They were to pay dues for this privilege of leadership. Their congregants were to journey to Kildare as pilgrims, following Cogitosus' itinerary, to pay homage to the great woman saint at her tomb. Brigit's church at Kildare was the finest, her tomb the most ornate, her congregation and city most populous, most worthy of admiration.

Cogitosus had no obvious model for the claims he made on Brigit's behalf. His is the first extant vita written in Ireland, and he the first proper hagiographer in Ireland. There may have been hagiographers before Cogitosus, because he referred to rearranging the familiar deeds of Brigit for his own text. [20]

Cogitosus had no native models for his life of a female saint-hero. The available hagiographical models were the lives of foreign saints such as Martin of Tours and Germanus of Auxerre, whose vitae were popular in Ireland throughout the Middle Ages. [21] civitates, old episcopal cities, such as Cogitosus claimed Kildare to be; the command of these foreign bishops stretched to the surrounding farms and settlements, like the suburbana of Kildare. Cogitosus wrote that Brigit lay in a tomb and a basilica not like the small, stone churches of Ireland, but similar to the grand, Roman-influenced shrines of Continental saints. . Indeed, Brigit's city of Kildare bustled with pilgrims like a small Rome.

Perhaps Cogitosus borrowed ideas from a few famous Christian women of the Continent, too. Brigit was to her bishop Conl·ed as Thecla was to St. Paul, a like-minded traveler who accompanied him on his preaching circuitsñexcept that, in the Irish case, the bishop attended the woman. But Brigit also resembled one of the early Gaulish women saints, Genovefa, the fifth- and sixth-century patron of Paris, who maintained an urban capital that later became the center of her cult. Brigit even shared some miracles with Genovefa: both saints prevented rain from falling on harvesters of their fields, while torrents washed over surrounding lands. Both moved about designated territories performing miraculous cures. Both women outshone contemporary male clerics by their submissive sanctity and their healing miracles. And both of their hagiographers emphasized the magnificence of the romanized shrines where the women were buried, in order to persuade pilgrims and donors to visit their tombs. [22]

While Cogitosus made territorial claims for Brigit and her paruchia based on Continental-style models of episcopal urbanism and architecture, the two eighth- and ninth-century vitae of Brigit took different approaches to territorialism and sanctity. These two slightly later vitae, the Vita Prima and Bethu Brigte, continued many of the same themes as Cogitosus' vita, emphasizing Brigit's nurturing and healing miracles. The events of the saint's birth, life, and death were the same. However, the two vitae also differed significantly from Cogitosus' text by relocating much of Brigit's activity to different territory and altering the political implications of her life. Brigit's competition with Patrick and Armagh grew more explicit in these vitae. What is more, Vita Prima and Bethu Brigte claimed a different kind of authority from Brigit, based on her thoroughly feminine sanctity and on literary allusions to the prechristian past. In short, these two vitae slyly made the very first written hints that Brigit's sanctity was greater because of her gender, and that her territorial dominance derived from a time before Patrick and Christianity ever came to Ireland.

The Brigit of the Vita Prima and Bethu Brigte was more peripatetic than Cogitosus' saint even from birth. Her mother was a slave woman whom Dubthach's wife forced him to sell when Broicsech became pregnant. Dubhtach's wife was particularly annoyed when a druid predicted that Broicsech's child would rule over her own (a motif drawn from secular tales of kings). Hence Brigit was born in Connacht rather than Leinster, brought there as a child in the womb by her slave mother. Broicsech belonged first to a poet who then (in some manuscript versions) resold her to a druid, although the baby remained unenslaved. The druid took his purchase to his maternal territory out west where Broicsech gave birth at dawn, after milking the cows, over a threshold to a child whom she washed in the new milk. After her birth, while her druid-fosterer watched the stars for pagan signs, this baby shot columns of fire out of her head, a blatant sign of her direct connection to the Christian god. She would not eat the druid's food, but would only drink milk from a red-eared white cow (an animal that turned up elsewhere in Irish mythological literature as magical). As an infant she claimed territorial dominance of western Ireland by crying distinctly, "this will be mine!". Eventually, the druid set Brigit's mother free and converted to Christianity after he witnessed one of the girl's food multiplication miracles. Brigit returned home to Leinster to a Christian fostermother's house. She performed miracles similar to those in Cogitosus' life: she multiplied food and drink and distributed it to the poor, transformed water into beer, and healed lepers, the mute, the lame. She also saved herself from marriage by praying for a deformity that would discourage her suitors; God obligingly caused her eye to burst and liquify (similar to events in the life of St. Lucy). After taking the veil, she was healed.

In adulthood, Brigit began her travels, which in both later vitae took her to every province in Ireland including prolonged stays in UÌ NÈill territory in the company of Patrick and his colleagues. (Bethu Brigte followed the same map as Vita Prima, but with more precision in place names.. As Kim McCone has pointed out, Brigit's journeys comprised three great circuits of Ireland covering northern Leinster and Mide (the southern UÌ NÈill), Munster, and Connacht, with forays north sandwiched between visits back to Leinster. These texts were thus itineraria as well as vitae, journeys or circuits as well as lives, moving through the space of Ireland and Christian teleology from Brigit's birth in Connacht to her death in Leinster. But Brigit's actions while on tour in Mide and the borderlands had special significance because by the eighth century this had become Patrick's region; for Brigit to perform miracles before Patrick or his surrogate bishops was a hagiographic claim to her superior sanctity, intended to show up Patrick and establish the greater authority of Brigit and her clerical successors. For example, once Patrick's bishop Mel sent Brigit to seek a doctor to cure her headaches; Brigit obeyed reluctantly but en route fell out of the chariot, gashing her head (another nod toward secular literature; in the eighth-century tale of Deirdre, the heroine committed suicide by leaping out of a chariot and gashing her head on a rock.. A touch of her blood healed two mute women by the roadside. Mel had to admit that a Brigit had a better doctor than he could summon, that is, she had God.(29. Another time, she solved a paternity dispute before an entire assembly of clerics at Tailtiu, an old site of kingly inauguration in the north. Brigit caused the newborn infant to name its father, demonstrating that her knowledge trumped that of trained clerics and her powers that of legendary northern kings.(39. In still another episode, Brigit nodded off during one of Patrick's lengthy sermons only to reveal upon waking that she had received a vision directly from God. She had seen ploughmen sowing good seed and reaping new milk in a fruitful land; this Patrick informed her, was himself and herself spreading the word of God. She had also glimpsed evil ploughmen sowing cockle, and water streaming from furrows; this, the man-saint told her, was an apocalyptic vision of non-believers and evil-doers.(55) The whole episode proved Brigit's intimate link to God as well as making her a missionary equivalent of Patrick. Brigit interpreted visions for male clerics, helped them find their way across hostile territory, and clothed them in the vestment necessary for Christian ritual. She even agreed to weave Patrick's own shroud.(58) . Without her, bishops could not understand what they saw, go where they needed to go, perform the rites of their churches for the people of Ireland, or even have a proper burial. Likewise, she healed, directed, and protected kings and noblemen, as well as their women.

Some of the material for these two vitae came from southern Mide, the territory contested between Armagh and Kildare, between UÌ NÈill and the Leinster tribes. [23] VP and BB still claimed territorial dominance for Brigit, but in a different way than Cogitosus did. By repeatedly emphasizing Brigit's superior vision and sanctity in her miraculous displays before Patrick, the writers proved her to be the more powerful saint, thus more deserving of mass devotion in territory they shared. Patrick concentrated on ruling men and churches; she focused on feeding and clothing the poor, healing the sick, and receiving visions from God. When Brigit quietly rebuked bishop Mel in the headache incident, her hagiographer was criticizing the ambitions of Armagh. When Brigit unmasked the father of the illegitimate child, she showed her greater understanding of the consciences of ordinary Christians. When she slept through Patrick's sermon, she showed that she got her preaching directly from God, not through his official priests and formal rituals on earth. She performed her wonders not by virtue of education or office, which were limited to men, but because of her inherent superior sanctity.

But unlike Cogitosus' Brigit, this Brigit needed more than standard sanctity and a city to claim dominion for her churches and her successors at Kildare. Whether or not she was more saintly, Brigit was still a womanñnot a bishop, not a king, not a landowner or legally enfranchised member of any political confederation of tribes. The hagiographers had to turn her gender into an advantage, not a liability. So when Brigit went north on her hagiographic journeys, she moved like a royal bride from her father's house to a new place in a foreign territory, beyond the guardianship of her Leinster kinsmen. She was responsible, as any good wife, for acting as liaison between her groups of men, enforcing peace among them and protecting both groups. Already, by the time these vitae were written, Kildare and Armagh had made a treaty limiting Kildare's jurisdiction to the churches and people of Leinster, and subordinating Brigit's authority to that of Patrick. Inscribed in a text called the Liber Angeli (Book of the Angel) composed around 700ñbetween Cogitosus' time and the writing of the two slightly later vitae of Brigitñthis text laid out a compromise agreed to by rulers of the two most powerful church communities in Ireland.

Between holy Patrick and Brigit, pillars of the Irish, there existed so great a friendship of charity that they were of one heart and one mind. Christ worked many miracles through him and her. The holy man, then, said to the Christian virgin: O my Brigit, your paruchia will be deemed to be in your province in your dominion, but in the eastern and western part it will be in my dominion. [24]

In other words, Kildare would orde. the churches of the province of Leinster only, while Armagh controlled the rest of Ireland. This was the Armagh version of Brigit's authority; the Vita Prima and Bethu Brigte told a different version. Either way, though, Brigit formally submitted to Patrick as a good wife to her husband, or a daughter to her father. Although they acknowledged that Armagh was the premier church of Ireland, Brigit's hagiographers sought her power elsewhere.

Brigit's hagiographers did not let her case rest with the Armagh treaty, though. Cogitosus had claimed territory for Brigit by virtue of her role as a woman with a continental-style civitas, a Roman-style basilica and tomb, and all the responsibilities of a major patron-saint. The later two hagiographers claimed a territory for Brigit and her representatives based on two kinds of arguments. One argument was based on Brigit's heroic characteristics and references to heroic literature of the period. Brigit's unusual birth on the threshold of a house, her connections with a prophetizing druid fosterer, her insistence on the milk of a red-and-white cow, and her head-gashing leap from the chariot all referred to secular tales and established Brigit as a hero in the Irish tradition.

But the hagiographers constructed yet another, even stronger argument for Brigit's territorial dominance based on allusions to secular literature and on the saint's feminine characteristics. Brigit displayed a gendered authority different from that of the condescending bishops in her vita when she had visions and performed nurturing miracles, as I have shown. But her two hagiographers invoked another kind of feminine power derived from prechristian motifs, especially Brigit's control of the landscapes of Ireland. Her control over even the wildest of animals had been well established by Cogitosus and repeated in the two later vitae: fierce boars, elusive foxes, cattle and sheep all followed her commands. (To take the argument one speculative step further, both boars and cattle were important animals in the iconography of so-called Celtic traditions in Ireland and elsewhere, turning up as frequent characters in the secular literature of the early medieval period.) . Brigit also reigned over the natural features of the landscape and the weather. Rain did not fall upon her harvests nor storms threaten her sheep. In the Bethu Brigte, she sang this verse:

Grant me a clear day
for Thou are a dear friend, a kingly youth:
for the sake of thy mother, loving Mary,
ward off rain, ward off wind.
My king will do it for me,
rain will not fall till the night
on account of Brigit today,
who is going here to the herding.(46)

Both inhabited places and wilderness yielded to her. Dark and impenetrable woods gave up easy paths to those under her protection, while thieves lost their way in broad daylight. In one episode in the Vita Prima, her women companions were halted at a river with the Connachtmen and UÌ NÈill, who refused to help them cross. But while the river roiled up above the unhelpful soldiers' heads, the waters remained calm for her nuns, only reaching their knees, so that they were able to wade across.(95. Even some inept Christian clerics could not cross the river; they offered one nun a seat on their raft and when the raft sank the nun rode her bench across to the far shore without dampening a shoe. The lesson of the episode: Women who called upon Brigit could cross any river, while unbelievers and evildoers were swallowed by the waters of Ireland. In secular stories, such as the seventh- or eighth-century cattle-rustling saga T·in BÛ Cuailnge, supernatural powers also whipped up the waters to prevent the passage of impious armies. Finally, Brigit interpreted the skies as druids read the stars; she informed a crowd of admirers that the thundercloud lowering over their heads signified Patrick's burial place.(58. She even, in a famous episode, hung her cloak on a sunbeam.(91)

Her constant travel across the lands of Ireland, her ability to interpret and control the landscape and the skies, and her power to protect or destroy men on the move all pointed toward a mastery of nature and territory that even Patrick could not claim. True, the earliest vitae of Patrick put him on the plains before Tara (Temair) clearing the skies of darkness and halting druidic snows, but Patrick did not display the ease with nature's creatures, or consistently perform the same kind of nature-based miracles as Brigit. Later hagiographers copied Brigit and made their own saints weather-masters, but in the seventh and eighth centuries, only Brigit was mistress of the landscapes.

But Brigit's hagiographers also invoked prechristian history in their allusions to the landscape. Once, heroines, warrior-women, and territorial protectresses from the myths and king-tales had wielded feminine power in a land that denied women political authority. The extraordinary females of the ancient past, relics of an already lost pagan Ireland, supplied possible models for a saint who did the same. Female characters of tradition could control the landscape, as river goddesses and territorial divinities who guarded its peoples. The writers of Vita Prima and Bethu Brigte chose these traditional models and purposely cast Brigit as keeper of lands and champion of the Leinster people in danger of invasion by their enemies, especially the invading UÌ NÈill. She was able to predict an attack upon her father's household, hurrying the family and servants out of the fort before housebreakers burnt it to the ground.(87. She also came to the assistance of the king of Leinsterñnot a kinsman by the time these vitae were written but a dynast of the UÌ D™nlainge, who were to rule Leinster for centuries. She visited the king to negotiate the release of a prisoner and granted, in return, eternal life and kingship for his heirs. The king, however, wanted something else: a long life and victory in his "perennial feud with the UÌ NÈill.". Although other episodes in her vitae showed Brigit to be on good terms with the southern UÌ NÈill and their bishops in Mide, she readily granted the king's request. Soon after, the king went to battle to prevent the invasion of his homeland and called on Brigit's support against the UÌ NÈill. His men cried to heaven and immediately had a vision of Brigit in the van of battle, her staff in her right hand and a column of fire blazing skywards from her head. The king thereafter waged thirty successful battles in Ireland and conducted nine campaigns in Britain. Almost more importantly, Brigit's supernatural shield remained effective after his death, for when the Leinstermen carried his body into battle against the UÌ NÈill, they routed the invaders.(88, 89)

Like the territorial goddesses alluded to in myth and saga, Brigit ruled the land of her kin and protected its kings. The hagiographers must have known that features of the landscape and even whole territories had gained their names from female figures of tradition, although none of that tradition had been recorded in specifically religious terms. Irish literature also had complex traditions of female sovereignty figures who conferred kingship upon political leaders, sometimes via sexual union. Brigit was the chaste consort of Leinster kings. Her biographers and devotees knew that her first church of Kildare was located only a few short miles from one of the ancient inaugural site of Leinster kings, the hill of Ailenn. We have no evidence to indicate that Brigit or her clerical followers chose Kildare in order to link it with the kings of Leinster, although it seems quite possible; but we do have poetic evidence that, after Brigit's time, her successors interpreted the proximity of the sites as further evidence of Brigit's near-divine powers over the land. One poem written about 840 by a bishop of Kildare bewailed the decline of the earthly kings of Leinster but declared Brigit the new ruler over Ailenn, the political symbol of the province:

. Sit safely enthroned, triumphant Brigit, upon the side of Liffey far as the strand of the ebbing sea. Thou art the sovereign lady with banded hosts that presides over the Children of CathaÌr the Great.

. God's counsel at every time concerning the virgin Erin is greater than can be told: though glittering Liffey is thine today, it has been the land of others in their turn.

. When from its side I gave upon the fair Curragh...the lot that has fallen to every king causes awe at each wreck...

. Worship of auguries is not worth listening to, nor of spells and auspices that betoken death; all is vain when it is probed, since Alenn is a deserted doon...

. Oh Brigit whose land I behold, on which each one in turn has moved about, they fame has outshone the fame of the kingñthou art over them all.

. Thou hast everlasting rule with the king apart from the land inw hich is thy cemetery. Grandchild of Bresal son of Dian, sit thou safely enthroned, triumphant Brigit! [25]

Kings came and went, kingdoms rose and fell, implied the bishop-poet, but the supernatural reign of Brigit continued long past any man's death. Similar to Temair or Tailtiu, the sacred sites of northern kingships, Brigit remained the guiding force of Leinster political ambitions.

By the ninth century, Brigit had begun to acquire the reputation for divinity that would haunt her literature to the present day. Her hagiographers and other writers had realized how effective that reputation could be in making a case for her sanctity. They knew, from Cogitosus' popular version of her vita and from visits to Kildare, that Brigit's body lay at the heart of Leinster, infusing her sanctity into the landscape. Plenty of wells dotted the hills and fields of Leinster and other provinces called after the saint, where healing waters could cure believers of headache and other ills. [26]

Brigit .i. banfile ingen in Dagdae. Is_ insin Brigit b_ n-_xe .i. band_a no adratis filid. Ar ba rom_r 7 ba ro·n a frithgnam. Ideo eum deam uocant poetarum. Cuius sorores erant Brigit b_ legis 7 Brigit b_ Goibne ingena in Dagda, de quarum

nominibus pene omnes Hibernenses dea Brigit uocabatur.

Brigit, that is, the female poet, daughter of the Dagdae. This is Brigit the female seer, or woman of insight, i.e. the goddess whom poets used to worship, for her cult was very great and very splendid. It is for this reason that they call her the goddess of poets by this title, and her sisters were Brigit the woman of leechcraft and Brigit the woman of smithcraft, i.e. goddesses, i.e. three daughters of the Dagdae are they. By their names the goddess Brigit was called by all the Irish. [27]

The Dagdae was the great good god in mythological literature circulating during the period. In Cormac's version, his daughters were three goddesses called Brigit, each with her own specialization: poetry, healing, and artistic creation. Meanwhile, another goddess-figure named BrÌg briugu (hospitaller) turned up in legal legends of a century or so earlier as did a female judge called BrÌg ambue (foreigner). Both appeared in stories about women rendering legal decisions in a system which traditionally disenfranchised all women; ambue may also indicate an outlaw or warrior-woman. [28] Cath Maige Tuired (Second Battle of Moytura), a story of the fight for Ireland between two supernatural tribes. This BrÌg was one of the T™atha DÈ Danann (translated "tribe of the goddess Danu"). In this and other twelfth-century texts she was important mostly for inventing keening, the characteristic Irish shrieking and weeping over the dead. [29]

In the twelfth century, when the goddess Brigit entered mythological and historical syntheses, the Welsh-Norman, Gerald of Wales, came to Ireland and recorded strange stories of Kildare. He heard that the plains of Kildare boasted unharvested fields dedicated to Brigit, that the saint's monastery could not be violated by a man at pain of death, that the nunnery kept an ever-burning flame tended by her nineteen nuns and, each twentieth night, by the saint herself. [30] Vita Prima and Bethu Brigteñhad each sought ways to claim authority, power, and territory for the saint of Kildare, her churches, and her clerical successors. They had lacked models for Ireland's first female saint, for hagiography was new to Ireland; Christian women still did not have many ways to become saints in the patriarchies societies of early medieval Europe. Although the hagiographers used drew on continental vitae to establish the saint's reputation and her church's control of territory, they also looked nearer to home. They sought out the traditions of prechristian history and cast Brigit as a mistress of the animals, the landscape, and the elements. For hagiographers and their audiences, this enabled Brigit to protect human inhabitants of her territories, too. She could perform marvels wherever she went, even in the territories of Patrick, but her special concern was the kings and people of her home province, Leinster, at the heart of which lay Kildare and the saint's body. And the only way for hagiographers to express this protective power of a womanñand her posthumous ability to keep on protecting her followersñwas through the language of territorial divinity. Christian texts from elsewhere simply could not articulate a woman's territorial control within the tribal politics of Ireland. These two vitae, these explicitly Christian didactic tales, intended to teach Christians how to be more Christian, reached back into the ancient history of pagan Ireland to prove the sanctity of Brigit.

Since then, historians, celticists, and scholars of religion have pored over the earliest written lives of Brigit to prove the development of goddess Brigit into saint Brigit. Researchers have sought to find the non-christian, the unorthodox, the unwittingly pagan details in the vitae. Textual evidence that does not match scholars' definition of a female saint, or passages that resonate with later medieval mythological texts, or episodes that seem related to continental evidence of Celtic deities, scholars and devotees of Brigit have treated as accidental information. They suppose that hagiographers included this information unintentionally in their Christian texts, or that otherwise devout Christian writers still loyal to pagan Irish culture hid their true sentiments in saints' lives.

But in fact, the hagiographers knew exactly what they were doing. They were not transforming a goddess into a saint. They were casting a saint as a goddess. They were making a case, as writers of saints' lives must do, for the superior virtus of their subject. Brigit's hagiographers had trouble because they were necessarily innovators. What is more, their saint, their churches, and their political allies were competing for souls with Patrick and other male saints and stronger kingdoms. Although they lost the battle for leadership of Ireland's churches, the tactics of Brigit's hagiographers made Kildare one of the ecclesiastical centers of Ireland throughout the Middle Ages. The hagiographers also gave us the goddess Brigit.

[1] Kim McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish L (Maynooth, 1990), 175-178, 185-195; Mary Condren, The Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion, and Power in Celtic Ireland (San Francisco, 1989), 55; Francis John Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings (London, 1973), 155-156; Miranda Green, Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins, and Mothers (New York, 1996), 195-202; D·ithÌ ² h²g·in, The Hero in Irish Folk History (Dublin, 1985), 16-2. Liam De Paor, "St. Brigid's Birthplace," in De Paor, Ireland and Early Europe (Dublin, 1997), 90-95; T. F. O'Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology (Dublin, 1946), 37-38; John Ryan, Irish Monasticism: Origins and Early Development (Dublin, 1931), 134-135. See also the recent master's thesis by Eileen M. Harrington, Brigit: Goddess and Saint (Pacific School of Religion, 2000).

[2] SÈamas ² Cath·in, The Festival of Brigit: Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman (Blackrock, Co. Dublin, 1995), 1-11.

[3] M·ire MacNeill, The Festival of Lughnasa: A Study of the Celtic Festival of the Beginning of Harvest (Oxford, 1962), pass. and ² Cath·in, above. See also the material on Bridget/Bride in A. Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica (Edinburgh and London, 1928-71), 6 vols.

[4] Se·n Mac Airt and GearÛid Mac Niocaill, eds. and trans., The Annals of Ulster to A.D. 1131 (Dublin, 1983), 44-45, 66-69.

[5] P·draig ² Riain, "Towards a Method in Early Irish Hagiography," Peritia 1 (1982), 146-159.

[6] Green, Celtic Goddesses, 197.

[7] Olmstead, Gods of the Celts, 358; cited Harrington, Brigit: Goddess and Saint, 27.

[8] Garrett Olmstead, The Gods of the Celts and Indo-Europeans (Budapest, 1994), 354-361.

[9] De Paor, "St. Brigid's Birthplace," 94.

[10] Don·l ² Cathasaigh, "The Cult of Brigid: A Study of Pagan-Christian Syncretism in Ireland," in James J. Preston, ed., Mother Worship: Theme and Variations (Chapel Hill, NC, 1982), 78-79.

[11] Tacitus, Annals 12.40, 2-7; Histories, 3.45.

[12] D. A. Binchy, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Kingship (Oxford, 1970), ñ; John Koch and John Carey, eds., The Celtic Heroic Age (Malden, MA, 1995), 39-40.

[13] Simon James, The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention? (Madison, WI, 1999); Barry Raftery review, TLS.

[14] Ludwig Bieler, ed. and trans., Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh (Dublin, 1979), 62.

[15] AASS Feb. 1; Sean Connolly and J. -M. Picard, trans., "Cogitosus: Life of Saint Brigid," JRSAI 117 (1987), 5-27; Sean Connolly, "Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae: Background and Historical Value," JRSAI 119 (1989), 5-29; Donnchadh ² hAodha, ed. and trans., Bethu Brigte (Dublin, 1978).

[16] Kim McCone, "Brigit in the Seventh Century: A Saint With Three Lives?", Peritia 1 (1982), 107-145; Richard Sharpe, "Vitae Sanctae Brigidae: The Oldest Texts," Peritia 1 (1982), 81-106; Mario Esposito, "On the Early Latin Lives of St. Brigid of Kildare," Hermathena 24 (1935), 120-165; Felim ² Briain, "Brigitana," ZCP 36 (1977), 112-137.

[17] Jean-Michel Picard, "Structural Patterns in Early Hiberno-Latin Hagiography," Peritia 4 (1985), 67-82.

[18] Connolly, "Cogitosus. Life of Brigit," 5.

[19] McCone, "Brigit in the Seventh Century".

[20] Picard, "Structural Patterns".

[21] Picard, "Structural Patterns," 68-74.

[22] Vita Sanctae Genovefae, MGH SRM III, 215-238.

[23] McCone, "Brigit in the Seventh Century".

[24] Bieler, Patrician Texts, 190-191.

[25] Kuno Meyer, trans., Hail Brigit: An Old-Irish Poem on the Hill of Alenn (Dublin, 1912); Byrne, Irish Kings and High-kings, 156.

[26] Walter L. Brenneman, Jr. and Mary G. Brenneman, Crossing the Holy Wells of Ireland (Charlottesville, VA, 1995), esp. 88-123.

[27] Kuno Meyer, ed., Sanas Cormaic (Halle, 1913), 15; McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present, 162.

[28] CIH, 377.26, 380.14-15, 1654.12; Fergus Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law (Dublin, 1988), 358; McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present, 162.

[29] Elizabeth Grey, Cath Maige Tuired (Naas, Co. Kildare, 1982), 56-57. See also Dindsenchas, Lebor Gab·la, Bansenchas.

[30] John J. O'Meara, ed. and trans., Gerald of Wales. The History and Topography of Ireland (Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1952), 81-82.