It has become lamentably common to state, as a matter of fact, that the great Irish foundress St. Brigid of Kildare (d. 525) is a transmogrified Celtic goddess. One need only spend ten minutes searching online for articles about Brigid of Kildare to run across variants of the theory. The alleged pagan origin of St. Brigid’s cult has been repeated so frequently that even otherwise scholarly publications take it to be historically factual.
Readers may then be surprised to learn that not only is the theory contested, but that it is entirely unfounded. The identification of Brigid with an alleged pagan goddess of the same name dates back no further than the Victorian era when historians of that time, eager to find remnants of ancient pagandom beneath every stone, created the theory on evidence so slight that no serious historian today would propose it. The theory was given further prominence by modern neo-pagans anxious to retain devotion to St. Brigid while stripping her of everything distinctively Catholic. This has given rise to all manner of wild associations that can best be described as elaborate religio-historical fanfiction.
The theory that St. Brigid’s cultus was originally pagan rests on six pillars:
(1) The ancient Celts worshiped a fire goddess named Brigit
(2) The existence of a pre-Christian cultic center at Kildare
(3) Identifying the oaks of Kildare as an ancient druidic grove
(4) The perpetual fire of Kildare as a survival of pagan rites to the fire goddess
(5) The correspondence of Brigid’s feast day (February 1) with the Celtic holiday of Imbolc
(6) Alleged similarities between Brigid’s vitae and episodes from Celtic myth.
To understand the ridiculousness of identifying St. Brigid with a Celtic goddess, we must review the merits of each of these six points.
1. Was there a Celtic fire goddess name Brigit?
One of the most surprising things newcomers to ancient Irish history learn is that the pre-Christian Gaels did not commit anything to writing. The only writing possessed by the ancient Irish was a cumbersome epigraphic script known as ogham which appears solely as carvings on boundary stones. It was not until the coming of Christianity that there was any manuscript tradition in Ireland. Almost all we know of the ancient Celtic mythology—whether of their gods, legends, or rituals—comes to us through the pens of Christian monks writing centuries after Irish paganism had already disappeared. That being the case, where and when do we first hear of a Celtic fire goddess name Bríg or Brigit?
The first appearance of the name in Gaelic literature outside of reference to the saint of Kildare is in the law tracts of the Ulster Cycle, dating from c. 700. A character named Bríg shows up as a kinswoman of the druid Sencha mac Ailella. (1) There is no indication that this Bríg is a goddess at all, and she shares no traits with St. Brigid; she is merely the human wife of the druid Sencha. There is nothing to equate her with Brigid whatsoever.
The next appearance of the name comes from the 10th century Sanas Chormaic (“Cormac’s Glossary”). The Sanas Chormaic, composed around 908 by Cormac of Munster,is a glossary of important persons and terms from early Irish literature. It provides definitions and etymologies of over 1,400 Irish words, many of them obscure or outdated by Cormac’s time. The Sanas Chormaic contains two entries for “Brigit,” one for the saint of Kildare, and the other for what is said to have been a “goddess worshiped by the poets.” The entry goes on to say that this latter Brigit had two sisters of the same name, goddesses of smithcraft and healing respectively. Her name, moreover, was said to be derived from bri-sagit, “fiery arrow.” This entry in the Sanas Chormaic provided the seed of the idea that Brigit was a triple goddess of fire. It is also the sole reference to a Celtic goddess by this name in any old Irish text.
Given that the Sanas Chormaic was composed around 908, we must first note that a goddess named Brigit is not attested until roughly 383 years after the historical Brigid died. Perhaps the Sanas Chormaic reflects beliefs from a much earlier period, but it is just as likely that it represents, not paganism as it existed in the 5th century, but paganism as 10th century Christian authors imagined it may have looked. By Cormac’s time, pagan symbols and early Irish concepts were no longer comprehensible to Christian authors, at least in their original context. There is no proof outside of the Sanas Chormaic that any deity named Brigit ever existed. The goddess may be a purely literary reconstruction, similar to the Anglo-Saxon Eostre, an alleged goddess who is attested only in the writings of the Christian monk Bede and nowhere else. At any rate, it is difficult to see how the cultus of St. Brigid could have developed out of a pagan deity that is not attested until four centuries after her own life.
Furthermore, the associations the Sanas Chormaic attributes to this Brigit—poetry, smithcraft, and healing—bear no resemblance to the historical Brigid. None of her vitae suggest she was a poet or had interest in smithing; she performed many miracles but was not particularly renowned as a healer; most of her miracles concern animals or agricultural matters. Had this goddess Brigit, for example, been an agricultural goddess or a goddess of cows or something similar, we could grant a connection. But, given the lack of similarity between the character of St. Brigid and the description of this goddess in the Sanas Chormaic, by what logic do we assume the latter is derived from the former?
2. Was Kildare a Pre-Christian Cultic Center?
Given that almost nothing is known of the goddess Brigit (if she existed), even less is known about any cultic center at Kildare. The existence of such a pre-Christian cultic center is pure speculation. The fact is no one has excavated beneath the church of Kildare to look for any pre-Christian structures. To date, there is zero evidence, textual or archaeological, that any pagan shrine existed at Kildare. All extant historical evidence affirms the contrary, that the site was uninhabited before Brigid founded her church.
3. Were the “Oaks of Kildare” a Druidic Grove?
The existence of a pre-Christian pagan cult at Kildare is generally inferred from toponymy—the name “Kildare” (Cell-dara) meaning “church of the oak.” As the Celtic druids preferred forest groves for their ritual spaces, it is simply assumed that the “oak” referenced in the name Kildare must refer to an oak grove previously used in pagan worship. Thus, when St. Brigid founded her church “beneath the oak,” she was quite intentionally appropriating a pagan worship site. This theory was another liberty of the Victorian era, whose writers could not resist drawing clear, definitive lines from current institutions back through time to the mists of pagan antiquity.
There is no evidence, written or archaeological, that Kildare was ever the site of a druidic grove. The name “Kildare” likely has a more mundane meaning: Cell-dara, commonly rendered “church of the oak,” could just as easily mean “oaken church,” referring to the building materials. This is hinted at in the late medieval Leabhar Breac, a collection of Hiberno-Latin writings which preserves some earlier Brigittine traditions. In the Leabhar Breac we see Brigid, accompanied by the bishop St. Ibar mac Lugna, cominh to the Plain of Liffey with the intent of founding her church:
…they came thereafter to the place where Kildare is today. That was the season and the time that Ailill son of Dunlaing, with a hundred horse-loads of peeled rods, chanced to be going through the ground of Kildare. Two girls came from Brigit to ask for some of the rods, and they got a refusal. Forthwith all the horses were struck down under their loads against the ground. Stakes and wattles were taken from them, and they arose not until Ailill son of Dunlaing had offered unto Brigit those one hundred horse-loads; and thereout was built Saint Brigit’s house in Kildare.
Though the text does not say these hundred horse-loads of peeled rods were oak, it is a reasonable inference. Besides relating a miracle story, this portion of the Leabhar Breac is meant to explain what Kildare was built out of and why. Presumably, the construction of the original structure out of a hundred-cart loads of oaken rods was somewhat of a novelty, causing it to be nicknamed Cell-dara, “the oaken church.”
This theory is admittedly speculative, but it has more evidence behind it than the druidic grove hypothesis.
4. Did Kildare Feature a Perpetual Fire Dating to Pagan Times?
It is often stated that medieval Kildare was the site of a perpetual flame. This flame, tended by Brigid’s nuns, dated back to pagan times, and was forbidden for men to approach, being blocked by a magical hedge; men who crossed its sacred precincts were struck dead or afflicted with madness. The theory is that this sacred flame (presumably sacred to the fire goddess Brigit?) was tended by druidic priestess in pagan times. With the coming of Christianity, the site gradually transformed into a Christian center, but preserved the sacred fire. Meanwhile, Brigit the goddess had her identity reworked to become Brigid the saint.
The perpetual flame of Kildare is first mentioned in the Topographia Hiberniae (“Topography of Ireland”) by the Norman archdeacon Gerald of Wales around 1188. The book was written in the wake of the Norman conquest of Ireland and was one of the most influential work on Ireland that circulated during the Middle Ages. The Topographia contains several chapters on Kildare, two of which deal with a perpetual fire. The passages are worth citing in full:
At Kildare, in Leinster, celebrated for the glorious Brigit, many miracles have been wrought worthy of memory. Among these, the first that occurs is the fire of St. Brigit, which is reported never to go out. Not that it cannot be extinguished, but the nuns and holy women tend and feed it, adding fuel, with such watchful and diligent care, that from the time of the Virgin, it has continued burning through a long course of years; and although such heaps of wood have been consumed during this long period, there has been no accumulation of ashes.
As in the time of St. Brigit twenty nuns were here engaged in the Lord’s warfare, she herself being the twentieth, after her glorious departure, nineteen have always formed the society, the number having never been increased. Each of them has the care of the fire for a single night in turn, and, on the evening before the twentieth night, the last nun, having heaped wood upon the fire, says, “Brigit, take charge of your own fire; for this night belongs to you.” She then leaves the fire, and in the morning it is found that the fire has not gone out, and that the usual quantity of fuel has been used.
This fire is surrounded by a hedge, made of stakes and brushwood, and forming a circle, within which no male can enter; and if anyone should presume to enter it, which has been sometimes attempted by rash men, he will not escape the divine vengeance. Moreover, it is only lawful for women to blow the fire, fanning it or using bellows only, and not with their breath. (2)
Notice that Gerald does not assert the fire goes back to pagan times, only that it had been burning “from the time of the Virgin.” Thus, the pagan connection is read into Gerald’s account, not deduced from it.
There is no doubt Gerald was writing about an actually existing fire, as other contemporary sources also mention the perpetual flame at Kildare. Documents up until the late 14th century reference the fire; a 1397 roll references a “fyre house” at the church. Even today, visitors to Kildare are shown the foundations of a rectangular structure that is called “the firehouse,” which tour guides identify as the site of Brigid’s perpetual flame.
Nobody knows what this structure was or what it was used for; “firehouse” is simply a popular nickname. It certainly does not date from pre-Christian times; its masonry and appearance suggest it comes rather from the 10th-11th centuries. As to the assertion that an ancient fire was kept burning from the time of Brigid, we shall here defer to Christina Harrington, whose scholarly work Women in the Celtic Church argues strongly against the existence of any such perpetual flame:
[Regarding] the supposed perpetual flame at Kildare, the alleged sign of surviving fire worship or vestal devotion. There is no mention of it in any of the three early Lives of Brigit, namely the Vita I, Cogitosus, or the ninth-century Bethu Brigte. It is hard to imagine that it could be overlooked in all three Lives. It is, in fact, absent from all other Lives, from annals, from the martyrologies and their glosses—all sources, in fact, until Gerald of Wales, a visitor in the twelfth century, almost 700 years after the alleged pagan-Christian transition took place. (3)
If, in fact, this alleged fire ritual was so central to the cultus of Brigid at Kildare, why is it not mentioned anywhere in the 700 years prior to Gerald? We should not naively accept Gerald’s assertion in the absence of any other corroborating evidence. To give an idea of Gerald’s naivete, elsewhere in the same work, Gerald also alleges the existence of a falcon in his day that had been alive since the time of Brigid. (4)
Gerald also wrote with a deep anti-Irish bias. The Topographia was written as a propaganda piece to justify the Norman conquest. To this end, he sought to portray the Irish as half-Christianized savages still mired in the darkness of paganism. The Topographia contains chapters entitled “How the Irish are very ignorant in the rudiments of faith,” “Of their abominable treachery,” and “Proof of their wickedness.” In Chapter 19, we read that the Irishmen are “indeed a most filthy race, a race sunk in vice, a race more ignorant than all other nations of the first principles of faith.” Gerard frequently resorts to gossip and rumormongering to argue the Irish faith is barely discernible as Christian. His analysis is hardly objective.
But what of the fire that was present in the 12th century and later? What was it? Was it the remains of some vestal pagan ritual? Again, let us return to Harrington, who says:
Gerald did say that only nuns were allowed to tend the fire, and this may have been the case, but Kildare did have monks and clerics on its premises in his day, as in earlier centuries. Nor was the presence of a perpetual fire unique to Kildare: in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries seven others are mentioned in the hagiography, all of them at male monasteries. The inescapable conclusion is that such flames in Ireland were not especially associated with women and appear rather late in the historical record. The reasons for their existence were probably Christo-theological: the luminary imagery of Christian deity was as ubiquitous in Ireland as it was elsewhere in the West. Why they appeared suddenly in the twelfth century is a question not ventured here. (5)
The final nail in the coffin is the fact that there is no evidence the druids had “priestesses” or any female branch. It was an exclusively male order, making it nigh on impossible that the nuns who tended the fire at Kildare were heirs to an order of ancient pagan priestesses.
5. Does Brigid’s Feast Day Correspond to Imbolc?
Brigid’s feast day is February 1, which is the date of the Celtic holy day of Imbolc. The very existence of the feast of Imbolc, however, is questionable. What do we truly know of this holiday?
The earliest reference to Imbolc also comes from the Sanas Chormaic, whose entry merely says, “the time the sheep’s milk comes.” Later in the 10th century, the tale Tochmach Emire says Imbolc is “when the ewes are milked at spring’s beginning.” Beyond this, little is known of Imbolc, neither how it was observed nor what gods—if any—it commemorated. Imbolc appears to have been centered on milking, and Brigid certainly was known for working with dairy animals. But this was a job all women did in ancient Ireland; there is nothing about Imbolc that connects it to Brigid specifically. Furthermore, if Brigid was a fire goddess, shouldn’t she have been commemorated at Beltane, the spring fire festival? Professor Ronald Hutton, in his study of the Celtic seasonal cycle, says of Imbolc:
The festival must be pre-Christian in origin, but there is absolutely no direct testimony as to its early nature, or concerning any rites which might have been employed then. There is, in fact, no sign that any of the medieval Irish writers who referred to it preserved a memory of them, and some evidence that they no longer understood the meaning of the name itself. (6)
The historical Feast of St. Brigid is much better attested than the feast of Imbolc, whatever it was. As with the case of the supposed triple-goddess Brigit, the Imbolc that Brigid’s feast day is supposed to have been derived from is not even attested until centuries after her death. As Dr. Hutton says, it probably does date back to pre-Christian times, but other than its coincidental concurrence with Brigid’s date of death, there is no other connection to the saint.
6. Similarities Between Brigid and Celtic Myth?
Alleged similarities between Brigid and Celtic myth are ubiquitous online, but they are always notably vague. When we search for specific episodes in the life of Brigid that supposedly parallel anything from Celtic myth, we are left empty. This is obviously because nothing at all is known about the goddess Bríg upon whom Brigid is supposedly based.
On the continent, there are inscriptions mentioning a deity Brigantia dating from the late Roman period. Nothing is known about her, however, or if she bears any similarity to the Irish Bríg. Part of the problem is that the old Celtic word breo simply means “high” or “powerful.” Brigantia thus simply means “high one,” “mighty one,” or “powerful one.” This makes discerning the identity of this deity a bit of a muddle; analogous to a situation where archaeologists in the distant future discovered English inscriptions to a being called “God-Almighty” and were uncertain if this phrase was a title or a proper name. Another parallel is ancient Canaan, where the etymology of the god Baal simply means “Lord,” making it uncertain if this was a proper name or title. The morpheme breo and all its variants are extremely common throughout Indo-European languages; there are versions of it in Old German, Iberian, and even Sanskrit. It is as common in these tongues as the root el in Semitic names, which also designates might, power, and divinity.
This has all taken us rather far afield from the main point, which is that so little is known about Bríg or Brigantia that no similarities to St. Brigid can even be posited let alone demonstrated.
Having addressed these six points, we shall conclude this essay by citing Dr. Clare Downham’s assessment of the question in her scholarly tome, Medieval Ireland. After speaking about the foundation of Kildare, she says of Brigid:
There is debate among scholars as to whether she was a real woman or a pagan goddess transmuted into a Christian saint. Nevertheless, evidence for a pre-Christian cult of Brigit in Kildare is lacking, and the earliest hagiography was written less than 150 years after her supposed death: these details favour the view that she was a real person. (7)
This last point is key: the vitae of the historical Brigid—along with her tomb at Kildare and the community she founded—all predate any reference to these pagan elements by centuries. We do not know how old the monk Cogitosus was when he wrote his vita, the oldest history of St. Brigid. If he was elderly at the time, then it is possible he could have spoken with witnesses who personally knew Brigid. Even if he was not, he certainly obtained his information from secondary sources. It is ridiculous to discount the testimony of Cogitosus—who said that he had “extensive tradition” of Brigid’s life at Kildare at his disposal from the living memory of witnesses—in favor of a slipshod theory cobbled together by Victorian speculators out of fragmentary medieval references that post-date St. Brigid by centuries. (8)
The above is taken from an essay by Phillip Campbell in The Life of St. Brigid of Kildare by Cogitosus and Other Selected Writings (Cruachan Hill Press, 2022).
(1) Her relation is uncertain; she may be a wife, or mother. See Kaarina Hollo, “The Ulster Cycle, the Law-tracts, and the Medieval Court: The Depiction of Senchae mac Ailella, Aurlabraid Ulad,” Aiste 1 (2007), pp. 170-180
(2) Giraldus Cambrensis: The Topography of Ireland, Chap. 24-26, trans. Thomas Forester (In Parentheses Publications: Cambridge, Ontario, 2000), pp. 53-54
(3) Christina Harrington, Women in a Celtic Church: Ireland 450-1150 (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2002), pp 64-65.
(4) Topography of Ireland, 55
(5) Harrington, 65
(6) Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford University Press, 1996), 134.
(7) Clare Downham, Medieval Ireland (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, U.K., 2018), 121-122.
(8) Cogitosus, Life of Saint Brigid the Virgin, Introduction
Phillip Campbell, Brigid of Kildare, Pagan Goddess? Unam Santcam Catholicam, January 28, 2023. Available online at http://www.unamsanctamcatholicam.com/2023/01/brigid-of-kildare-pagan-goddess