The Feast Day of St. Brigid by Carol P. Christ


May we remember Brigid on her day in the fullness of her connection to bountiful and life-giving earth by setting a bowl of milk on an altar or special place in the garden on her holy day.  Who knows, a snake just might come to drink from it.

The Christian Feast Day of St. Brigid of Kildare, one of the two patron saints of Ireland, is held on February 1, the pre-Christian holiday known as Imbloc.  It is well known that St. Brigid has the same name as a pre-Christian Goddess of Ireland, variously known as Brighid (pronounced “Breed”), Brigid, Brigit, Bride, or Bridie.  The name Brigid is from the Celtic “Brig” meaning “High One” or “Exalted One.”  Brigid like other Irish Goddesses was originally associated with a Mountain Mother, protectress of the people who lived within sight of her and of the flocks nurtured on her slopes.

Imbloc marked the day that cows and ewes give birth and begin to produce milk.  It was also said to be the day when hibernating snakes (like groundhogs) first come out of their holes.  In northern countries, Imbloc signals the beginning of the ending of winter.  The days have begun to lengthen perceptibly after the winter solstice when the sun stands still and it seems that winter will never end.  At Imbloc spring is not yet in full blossom.  But if hibernating snakes come out of their holes, it is a sure sign that the processes of transformation will continue and warmer days will not be far off.  As Marija Gimbutas says, “The awakening of the snakes meant the awakening of all of nature, the beginning of the life of the new year.”  

St. Brigid’s male counterpart, St. Patrick, was said to have driven all of the snakes out of Ireland.  This legend reiterates the Biblical association of snakes with evil and temptation.  In Old Europe snakes were symbols of life and regeneration.  Moreover, snakes eat mice and rats, protecting granaries and helping to create hygiene and therefore heath in the home.  In driving snakes out of Ireland, St. Patrick, like his precursors Marduk, Apollo, and St. George was re-enacting the myth of slaying of the Goddess.  St. Patrick may not have driven all of the snakes out of Ireland, but Christianity succeeded in making fear and hatred of snakes nearly universal in Christian cultures.  Yet in the Lithuania of Marija Gimbutas’ youth protective snakes were encouraged to live underneath houses and were fed with bowls of milk.  Could it be that snakes were lured out of their holes at Imbloc by setting out of bowls of the first milk produced by the lactating ewes and cows?

For agricultural peoples, the day that cows and ewes give birth is not simply another marker of the coming of spring.  When human beings domesticated cattle and sheep by providing them with food, care, and shelter, we began to depend upon these animals for milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, meat, leather, and wool.  In domesticated herds and flocks, most of the animals are female because the females give birth and produce milk.  A few of the males will be allowed to survive, but most will be eaten on feast days and at celebrations of birth and marriage.  Agricultural peoples knew that males were needed to impregnate the females, but in celebrating the day that ewes and cows give birth and begin to produce milk, our Old European ancestors were affirming female power to give birth and nurture life.  For them, Imbloc was a reminder that the lives of human beings and animals are intertwined in the processes of birth, death, and regeneration in the web of life, which they understood to be the cycles of the body of the Goddess.

“Human alienation from the vital roots of earthly life” may be part of our heritage, but as Marija Gimbutas tells us, “the cycles never stop turning, and now we find the Goddess reemerging from the forests and mountains, bringing us hope for the future, returning us to our most ancient human roots.”  Brigid’s day is a good time to think about our connections to milk-giving cows and ewes, and to pledge ourselves to do what we can to end the torture chambers of factory farming, based on the misguided  assumption, spawned of patriarchy, capitalism, and modern science, that animals have no feelings and no right to frolic and give birth on the mountainsides of the Mother. And let us not forget the snakes who have been living on Mother Earth far longer than humans and whose movements became the patterns for folk dances and symbols of the dance of life the world around.

(Originally presented in somewhat different form at the Feast of St. Brigid at Christ Church Cathedral in Houston in 2004.)

Carol P. Christ is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement.  She teaches in the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS and through Ariadne Institute offers Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.

 
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Categories: Female Saints, Foremothers, Goddess, Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion

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14 replies

  1. Hi Carol,
    Thank you for this beautiful reminder today. I have actually been re-reading some of your work this week, as my student’s are reading it, and Goddess history has been in my heart. Catherine Keller taught me to love spiders, though I definitely had to practice this loving because it did not come easily at first. But, you’re right, the deep seated fear of the snake is so much a part of our culture and dominating patriarchal Christianity. I really see it everywhere and in myself, and its upsetting to realize the “naturalization” of such a fear is tied to such a long and terrible history of silencing.
    I love the image you posted of that beautiful snake drinking– it’s definitely a “counter”-image for me.
    Kundalini energy is also envisioned as a serpent, and female, coiled at the base of the spine– and in the mantra I wrote about before, it is definitely associated with the goddess Shakti. The goal of Kundalini energy is to tap into this energy. I am reminded to day to meditate on this more often.
    Thank you again,
    Sat Nam,
    Sara

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  2. Carol,

    I really enjoyed reading your post. I have to say that I find snakes fascinating at a distance. They are powerful creatures and I try to keep a respectful distance. Maybe it is because they scare me, but I also like to think that I give them their space out of reverence for their power. I’ve never thought I developed a fear of them because society taught me to behave so.

    I guess I associate my fear of things with personal preference. For example, if I listened to many people in society about roller coasters, I really should love them. I don’t. But then again, roller coasters are not snakes. You are right that society portrays snakes as vicious animals, often as ready to bite. I’m reminded of pictures of cobras for example.

    I still think I will keep my distance from snakes when I encounter them. However, I hope that when I see one the first thing I’ll have in mind is your post with its picture of the snake drinking out of the dish instead of society’s image of the cobra ready to bite. That may settle my nerves somewhat and hopefully help me to rethink what else some segments of society teach that also hides the truth.

    Thank you.

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  3. I don’t think any snakes will be coming out of holes today here in Lesbos. I awoke to the beautiful sight of icicles covering the mermaid who sits in my garden fountain.

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  4. Terrific explanation of why so many people think they hate snakes–they were taught to by the fathers of the church and the hounds of heaven (missionaries and inquisitors) of early medieval Europe. I intend to read this again on Feb. 2 as I celebrate Brigit’s Holy Day.

    It always seems to me that it’s the Goddess talking to Eve in the biblical story. She needs to be talking to all of us, right? And She does speak when listen. This week, She’s telling all of Her children–every living being on the planet–to wake up and enjoy the springtime (or, south of the equator, the fall). Hooray for changes in seasons! The world would be sooooo boring if it were the same season all the time.

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  5. Carol~

    Thanks for this post! In recent years I’ve really developed a fondness for the goddess I share a name with! I still have a St Brigid’s cross my parents gave me years ago, and look on it with a renewed sense of meaning and insight.

    Ironically, I’m lactose intolerant, so I don’t have the same relationship with milk as I did as a kid :)

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  6. In India we have a goddess who is worshipped as the presiding deity of all mantras associated with the snakes. She was, according to legend, created out of his mind by sage Kasyapa of great spiritual prowess and for this reason she was named Manasa. And because of the traditional association of snakes with wisdom and regeneration she is known as Mahajnanapathi, meaning ‘One of great wisdom.’ She has other synonyms as well, twelve of which are most important which celebrate various aspects of her personality. It is believed that if one recites these twelve names of Manasa every day they will never have any fear from the snakes. And because snakes represent the latent psychic and spiritual powers in a human, meditation on Manasa is believed to bestow spiritual progress. Her worship is also believed to bring good spouse, good offspring and material wealth. Here are the 12 names of Manasa from DEVIBHAGAVATHAM-the sacred text of shakti worshippers. 1.Jaralkaru(the emaciated one, because of her protracted austerities) 2. Jagalgauri(one with golden hue) 3. Manasa(mindborn) 4. Siddhayogini(an accomplished yogini) 5. Mahajnanapathi(one of great wisdom) 6.Vishahari (one who cures snake poison) 7. Nageshwari(queen of serpents) 8. Nagabhagini(sister of nagas or great serpents) 9.Shaivi(one who has won the grace of lord Shiva due to her prolonged austerities) 10. Vaishnavi(one who has won the grace of lord Vishnu) 11. Jaralkarupriya(literally the beloved of jaralkaru. Her husband was a sage by name Jaralkaru) 12. Asthikamatha(mother of sage Asthika, the young saint who saved the serpent race from extinction).
    In all Hindu shrines across Kerala, a special place is demarcated for the serpents. There are also shrines exclusively dedicated to the serpents. In all these places where serpents are worshipped, Manasa is worshipped with great reverence.

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    • I had the pleasure of visiting Kerala in India in 2010, while attending meetings of the IALRW and IARF international interfaith organizations. This summer we meet in the U.K., and I hope to visit Stonehenge, another ancient site of great power and mystery. And in 2008 I went on a pilgrimage to Crete, and visited Athens, which was led by Carol Christ…and I highly recommend it! I’ve also become familiar with the holiday of St. Bridget of Ireland, celebrating the the birth of lambs and the milk brought forth from their mother sheep, and the time when–in warmer climes–snakes may shed their skins…however, where I live in the U.S., it feels like winter has just begun!…and the ice and snow and freezing rain are pummeling the streets and roads and highways, so it’s great to be reminded that spring and summer will come again…if we are just patient and wait. Thanks for your details about the place of snakes in the Hindu religion.

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  7. In one of the Greek islands snakes are lured and brought into the church on August 15, the day of the celebration of the Panagia’s “falling alseep” or death. I wonder how widespread this practice once was. On the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete some have imagined that the “lustral basins” which were not used for bathing, could have been snake homes.

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  8. I believe that there is some connection between sacred serpent concepts all over the word. I failed to mention last time that the image of Manasa in Kerala shrines bears a striking resemblance to the Cretan snake goddess holding snakes in both hands. Manasa is represented with nude upper body and a drape from hip downwards. She holds two snakes in both hands. I have observed the Cretan goddess with a naked bust holding snakes in the same posture. Manasa is also almost always represented in standing posture.

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  9. Meenakshi V, thanks for your posts, Kerala is or was a matrilineal culture, which I think Crete must have been too. Mother and mother nature honoring.

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  10. Thanks Carol,
    I wish to mention something else also. We have lots of shrines dedicated to serpents in Kerala. But one of them is really special and will be of great interest to you. Here in South Kerala at a place called Mannarashala is a shrine dedicated to serpent deities where worship is conducted by a woman priestess. The shrine is attached to a particular family and it is the eldest female member of the family who officiates as the priestess. This shrine is one of the most popular shrines in Kerala and is attended by people coming from all parts of the country seeking redressal from curses and negative experiences which supposedly stems from offending the serpent gods or hurting snakes.
    This shrine is famous for a special rite known as Uruli Kamazhthal(placing a specially shaped rounded vessel upside down inside a special chamber of the shrine). This rite is conducted by childless couples. They bring the vessel to the shrine which is then taken inside by the priestess affectionately called Valiamma meaning elder mother. A vow is made that when they beget a child it will be brought to the shrine to be presented to the serpent deities.
    The most heartening part of this rite is the belief that once a couple prays with tears for a child and makes a vow, a serpent starts ardous penance inside the niche provided by the upside down vessel so that any negative karmas blocking the couple from having a child may be completely removed. The serpent continues it’s severe penance until the couple is blessed with a child and they come back and present it to him. Then the vessel is lifted and filled with specially prepared ritual food and offered to the serpent. In fact this shrine is considered the last resort of all people suffering from the anguish of not having any children. The annual festival in this shrine falls in the malayalam(our native language) month of Thulam(Oct-Nov). The highlight of the festivities is the grand procession taken out on the last day of the festivities. Led by Valiamma, who holds the processional idols of the serpent deities, the devotees circumambulate the shrine. When somebody dismantles their family shrine the serpent deities inhabiting the shrine are usually moved to Mannarashala with appropriate rites.

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  11. Sonas na feile oraibh go leir la ‘le Bhride! That means, happy St. Brigid’s day! Greetings from Brigid’s own country, Ireland, where I am listening to the howling of the wind coming in from North America to our west coast at Galway Bay! A group celebrating Brigid in Galway this weekend were supposed to spread Brigid’s cloak outside last night. It was so stormy that no one in her right mind could spread anything outside to tempt the elements. February 1 is the first day of spring here. Snowdrops have pushed their heads up recently. Daffodils, tulips, and crocuses have sprouted a few inches, despite my warning to them to lie low just in case the frost we escaped in winter might pay a surprise visit.
    Thanks, Carol, for your reflections on Brigid. It is true that we have no snakes in Ireland, except the odd one that might get in by mistake with imports of multinational fruit. My own theory on the absence of snakes is that they just couldn’t stand the climate with so much rain–just like I often feel after 45 years in North America! However, there are many other compensations in the homeland.
    I really enjoyed the Goddess pilgrimage to Crete last summer. Unbroken sunshine every day for two weeks was an added bonus in a beautiful country where much resonated with my Celtic roots.
    Blessed be!
    Carmel McEnroy and Roisin (my adopted Cairn Terrier)

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  12. My husband and I are discussing Brigid this morning and I found your article. Thanks it is a thought provoker. I had not understood the importance and reverence of the female domesticated animal to our early ancestors. My husband mentions that the snake also represents the feminine because of its flowing movement out of the earth representing the flow of blood from females. This from ‘Gods and Goddesses of Europe’ Very interesting to think of movement as a part of the beauty of this animal. Prejudice must be overcome with love and knowledge by all sensible people – gita lloyd

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