By Marina Storino Holderbaum
The goddess Brig is a patron of women, of their rights and functions in Celtic law and society, and Saint Brigid seems to share many of these attributes, what reflects in her Feast. Many kinds of rituals and charms were made in the Feast of Brigid and her similarities with the deity in the patronage of arts as well as of women is apparent in the events that follow in the day dedicated to her. In The Celtic World, Anne Ross clarify the correspondences and admission of rites focusing to the cult of the deity in the Christians celebrations of the Saint’s cult.
“This ancient name for the second festival of the pagan Celtic year has been discussed by Eric Hamp (1979). The word seems to mean ‘purification’, and the festival took place on the eve of I February and on the day itself, at a time when the sheep and other animais were beginning to lactate. Imbolc was sacred to the threefold Irish goddess Brigid, who was adored by poets, smiths and medical practitioners and who is clearly the goddess whom Caesar equated with Minerva. There are other claimants to this role in the Celtic mythology, but hers must be the place of honour. She was mother-goddess par excellence, a seasonal deity, and she presided over the important purification feast of Imbolc. As a Christian saint, many elements of her cult legend were taken over into Christianity, and her cultus is found widely over Europe. ln Wales she is venerated as Sant Ffraid. Her festival was clearly acceptable to the church as, apart from anything else, it coincided with the Christian feast of the purification of the Virgin.”
In The Festival of Brigit, the Holly Woman, Séamas Ó Catháin describes several of this customs that still nowadays are traditionally observed by the people of Ireland, between them are three major ceremonial procedures. The first of them is the Brat Bríde which consist in a piece of unwashed cloth of the residence let outside in a bush from the eve of Oimelc to the morning of the next day, when it was brought to the inside and torn in parts to be giving to every female in the house, for Brig blessed it with her touch during the night. The Brat Bríde is a feminine practice which enlaces all the elements of Brig and his Feast in its employments for it is used to bring protection to women, to comfort women in child birth, to avoid sterility and to help cows in the afterbirth bringing good luck and abounded milk by putting it over their back.
The second phase of the feast is the Brideog procession, which involves all the community in the welcome of Brig. In this custom boys dressed as girls and girls dressed as boys carry the Brideog, a doll made of a peeled turnip and a stick draped like a baby, from house to house entertaining the dwellers with some kind of artistic performance as singing, reciting poems or playing flute or violin. Butter or bread were offering to the Brideog that, in old times, was collected to make a feast in some of the neighbor‘s houses. They were always welcome in every house since it would bring bad lucky to be inhospitable with the Brideog.
This part of the custom is completed with a meal in which the principal dish was made of potatoes and a lot of butter. The Brideog is a social practice that mobilizes all the community and enlaces all the elements of Brig and his Feast in its ritual for it involves the change of positions between male and female, the carry of the doll as a symbol of Brig and fertility in to the houses, the feats of artistic presentations as an element linked to the Saint make even more evident her relationship with the Saint, and the offering of butter and bread and the final meal as a symbol of prosperity and wealth close this part of the celebration. In The festival of Brigit the, holly woman, Séamas Ó Catháin give to us a good narrative about this practice.
“The Brídeog procession from house to house was and still is held in the eve of the feast. Both boys and girls took part and there are sometimes two or three (or more) groups, each group out for itself in an area of a square mile according as the district is thickly populated or not. Sometimes during the last week in January the young people who may be of any age up to twenty years, gather at certain house in the kitchen or barn of which the rehearsals take place. Boys dress in girl’s clothes as a rule and vice versa. Long ago a peeled turnip was used to represent the read of the Brídeog which was draped like a baby being brought to the chapel to be baptized. The places for the eyes, nose and mouth were cut and coloured with soot or any other colouring available. A stick was inserted in the turnip to lend body to the Brídeog and to make it easy to carry. Each participant prepared some items of entertainment to be performed on entering the houses. These items took the form of songs, music on flute or violin (later accordeon), rhymes etc. When Irish was still the language, there were prayers in which the players interceded to St. Brigit for blessing and favours for the members of the house, who were then asked to contribute something for the Brigeog. This took the form of bread or butter: it is only in very recent times that money has been given and accepted. Early in the evening of Jan. 31, the Brídeogs, as they are called, commence their rounds. They are all distinguished and are led by one carrying the Brídeog who is the first to enter the house… The Brídeogs, are always welcome as it would be regarded as unlucky to be uncivil or inhospitable where they are concerned… Long ago when what was received was in kind, it was all collected in bags and afterwards a ‘feast’ (as is said) was held in some of the neighbour’s houses… Priests were always against girls taking part in the processions and whenever they met them, they were sure to take the disguises off the Brideogs to find out if there were girls among them. Should a girl be found she was severely reprimanded by the priest and sent home. Boys were allowed to carry on.”
The Third part of the feast is the craft of tying’s and crosses made of straw or rushes. The tying’s are made from the first of the rushes and are attached around the necks of the lambs when they were born to bring lucky and promote fertility. After finished the making of the Tying’s it was time for the beginning the making of Brig’s crosses, according to a variety of traditional designs and patterns and they were used to bless the house, seeds and fields in honor of Brig and to promote fertility when made of wool and let under the bed of the couple. This final phase, as the others, also enlaces all the elements of Brig and his Feast in the confection and uses of these artifacts for they symbolize the Brig itself as a Queen and Goddess representing the land and its prosperity as well as women and fertility, the guarantee of milking by protecting the lambs and the artisans with the doing of crafts.
As we have seen, all these costumes are related with the food production, the guarantee of prosperity and fertility to the families or the society and the renovation of the position of women as part of the social structure. Being the personification of sovereignty and the land, and a Goddess of poetry, healing and smith-craft Brig represents all the three functions described by Dumezil, for she is a Queen, a Druid and an Artisan , this last function is reinforced by the milking as central product of the offerings and meal, because it is a facet of her fertility attributes that is an element of the class of production. Óimelc, being the feast of Brig, share all her sides in its meanings and practices.
GREEN, Miranda (Ed.). The Celtic World. Routledge, London, 1996
LE ROUX, Françoise & GUYONVARC’H, Christian‐J. A Civilização Celta. Mem Martins: Publicações Europa América, 1999. P195
Ó CATHÁIN, Séamas. The Festival of Brigit the Holly Woman. School of Celtic Studies. Celtica 23, Essays in honour of James Patrick Carney, 1999 http://www.celt.dias.ie/publications/celtica/c2