St Brigit: no better woman for the times we live in
St Brigit, whose feast day falls tomorrow, was a negotiator, peacemaker and early community activist. Just the kind of person we need now, writes MARY CONDREN
‘BRIGIT, WITH her white wand, is said to breathe life into the mouth of the dead Winter and to bring him to open his eyes to the tears and the smiles, the sighs and the laughter of Spring,” wrote Alexander Carmichael.
This weekend marks a turning point in the Celtic year. February 1st is the festival of Imbolc, announcing the arrival of new life: never more needed, and never more welcome.
The whole month of February is also called Mí na Féile Bríde (Month of the Festival of Brigit). In Celtic myth, Brigit was goddess of poetry, healing and smithwork: in Christian history she was an abbess and saint. Her traditions are preserved today in ritual, story, artefacts and her Christian Lives stories.
However, one aspect of Brigit seldom receives attention: Brigit the Weaver. Her cross was made of newly plucked rushes; her crios (girdle or belt), of new straw; and her cloak was of woven material. Now the opening up of Eastern Europe expands our understanding of the importance of this connection.
Before mass media and travel, and great political rallies, societies were held together by fragile threads, and weaving tools signified a key responsibility: that of weaving the precious webs of life and tending the bonds of community.
Throughout European mythology and folklore, the wise women were spinners whose advice was ignored at one’s peril. Images abound of European women leaders holding distaffs, spindles, weaving swords or spears which were not used for war making but for practical and ritual purposes.
Some of the few surviving relics of Saint Brigit are thought to be her weaving or embroidery tools, held in Glastonbury, England.
During Brigit’s festival, on February 1st, weaving or turning wheels was strictly forbidden in an honouring of Brigit the Weaver’s holy day.
Brigit was also a “peace weaver”, the name given to distinguished women in Old European times. Peaceweavers sometimes married into their enemy’s tribe, and their daughters carried gifts to weave peace. Such women had great negotiating skills and authority.
As with such peaceweavers, St Brigit caused mists to appear between opposing sides in order to prevent bloodshed. With her nuns she accompanied protesting warriors to the battlefield, rendering them unable to fight.
In historical times, the Abbesses of Kildare, who succeeded the historical 5th century Brigit, could pardon criminals encountered on their way to execution. They were revered figures of authority who were known as “Those Who Turned Back the Streams of War”.
In the 12th century, however, ominous events took place. Two abbesses of Kildare were raped, symbolically rendering them unfit for office. Twelfth-century church reform councils restricted sacramental offices to male priesthoods. The offices of weaver would be entirely superseded by the offices of sacrifiers, with wide-ranging social and political implications.
European grave excavations show that, whereas priestesses were buried with their spindles and distaffs, priests were buried with their knives. Subsequent European history, with its numerous wars, colonisations, and constant threat of violence, speaks loudly of the consequences.
Today, weavers and nurturers – community activists, parents, carers, and educators – continue to weave webs of empowerment. Their authority is fragile, rather than heroic. Their work is often unpaid, their views are unrepresented and their perspectives are silenced in the corridors of political or religious power.
This weekend, those in search of a new Irish spring, will celebrate the festival of Brigit and Imbolc at their holy wells, in their homes and communities.
Like community activists and nurturers, Brigit wove the fragile threads of life into webs of community. She invented a shriek alarm for vulnerable women travelling alone, she secured women’s property rights when Sencha, the judge, threatened to abolish them and she freed a slave-trafficked woman. Above all, her bountiful nature (23 out of 32 stories in one of her Lives concern generosity) ensured that the neart (life force) was kept moving for the benefit of all and was not stagnated by greed.
Today, the old religious and political structures have crashed all around us. In any new arrangements weavers and nurturers must be represented and their voices heard, loud and clear. No better woman than Brigit to inspire their efforts.
Mary Condren ThD teaches at the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies, Trinity College Dublin, and is director of the Institute for Feminism and Religion: instituteforfeminismandreligion.org