The 'safe' version of Saint Brigit of Kildare (Image via Wikipedia)
The saint we all know and love.
Like any good scholar when confronted with new evidence, I must correct an earlier statement: Saint Brigit was probably a historical figure, but this cannot be proven to any convincing degree. After a certain fashion, however, the physical existence of Brigit is not really very important; what is significant is the enduring power and influence of this figure. A symbol of charity, harmony with nature, and general humility, Brigit is a humble saint, we are taught, in contrast to the arrogant nobleman Colum Cille, or the pagan-punching Patrick. She is a synthesis of Christian and pagan ideals, embodying the feminine, in tune with nature, doing God’s work, helping the poor, curing the sick, milking cows more often then they should be milked, making puddles of water magically appear, making ducks swim in different directions, taming foxes, and oh my god is anyone else bored yet? She is the dullest saint ever. At least, that’s what I was led to believe when I was growing up, a belief which lasted until about a year ago. And then I studied the earliest texts about her, three ‘Lives of Brigit’ from the seventh to the ninth century, from the very dawn of Christian Ireland. And I learned something new; I learned that Brigit was awesome.
They didn’t teach us this in school…
Brigit has huge volumes of miracles to her credit, most of which are, in fairness, bland. And for some strange reason, these tedious miracles are her most famous deeds. For those who wish to delve deeper into the story of this saint, a treat lies in store; tales of death and murder, of curiously practical kings, magically disappearing f0etuses, and gore. A surprising amount of gore. Not ‘Evil Dead’ levels of gore, but close enough; this was the Middle Ages after all, and these are religious texts, and however amazing the Irish saints were, there wasn’t one who held a candle to Ash… Anyway. Here follows a brief selection of Brigit’s more exciting and interesting miracles.
The Tale of the The Clever King.
Once upon a time Brigit’s father, Dubthach, asked her to go to the king of the Laigin (roughly modern-day Leinster) to ask that he be given permanent ownership of a sword that he had only been allowed to borrow. On her way to the king, Brigit is met by a servant who begs her to secure his release from the service of the king. When she asks the king for these things, he is curious as to what Brigit can offer in return. Swords weren’t cheap. Humans were though, especially the male kind. Anyway, Brigit promises to give the king the most amazing gifts her God has on offer: eternal life and that his descendent will be kings forever. The king is a practical man, and responds that he has no need for a life he cannot see, and that he has no concern for those who succeed him, he wishes only that he has a long life, and that he will be eternally victorious in battle. Brigit says “Fair enough”, grants these gifts, and the king concedes to her request. The next time that he was about to enter into battle, the king tells his men to pray to the saint. Brigit appears on the battlefield before them, and they successfully rout the enemy. And by ‘rout’ I mean ‘probably killed so many of them that the living were so terrified of dying that they ran away’. The king won thirty battles, waged nine victorious campaigns in Britain, and was offered rewards by many other kings to fight on their side as he was invincible. Upon his death, the Uí Néill, the eternal enemies of his family, decide to collect all their warriors together with the intention of wreaking revenge on the Laigin. As this huge force gathers, the Laigin become desperate; one of them suggests that maybe the gift of victory is still present in the dead king. So they lash his body to a chariot and ride into a desperate attack against a superior force. And they win. They tie a dead man to a chariot, the enemy are defeated, and the Laigin praise Brigit. I think it was more a case of the Uí Néill were utterly freaked out by an opposing force that was willing to be led into battle by a dead man.
Visions of Death.
A Man of Death: Sláine Mac Roth (by Simon Bisley)
The king of Tara, Conall, approaches Brigit for a blessing to aid him in killing his enemies. He wants her divine help to kill people, he clearly hasn’t understood the carpenter’s message. He and his companions are wearing sinister amulets, and are compelled to complete this murderous deed. Brigit blesses them, praying that they are neither harmed nor do harm. The men continue on to the lands of the Cruthin (north-eastern Ireland), burn a fort, and apparently slaughter many people, before returning home with the heads of their enemies, covered in gore and blood, to a joyous welcome. I’d like to point out that the text specifically refers to ‘gore’. Gore. That means ‘bits of people’, not just blood. This wasn’t some simple sword through the heart, these guys went ‘American Psycho’ on their enemies. Or at least they thought they did… The next morning they awake and find no heads at their feet, and no gore or blood on their weapons and clothes. Conall dispatches emissaries to the fort, who report back that the people still live. Conall and his men lay down their amulets, obviously freaked out by this mind-trick, and Brigit promises that she will protect him from all danger from that point onward. This boon comes in quite handy when Conall invades another territory, where he inflicts a great slaughter, before taking rest at an abandoned fort. His companions fear a reprisal, but Conall places his faith in Brigit. That night his enemies send spies to investigate the fort, but they see only clerics examining books, not warriors with the heads of their enemies at their feet, so the vengeance-seeking army heads off on its merry way. Learning of this, Conall gave thanks to Brigit and God. It would appear that Brigit’s only objection to Conall’s invasions of rival territories was that he did so under some pagan symbol, the sinister amulets. Once he accepted Brigit’s God he is free to attack his enemies without fear of harm. I’m not sure why, but that doesn’t sound very Christian of her. But what I find most amazing is how Brigit made the men hallucinate hacking other people to bits. It’s a good thing they didn’t meet Colum Cille; the people who didn’t do as he said tended to become very dead very quickly.
Brigit travels to a certain king in the Midlands to secure the release of a man from prison, but the king refuses, stating that the man will be executed that very day. Brigit manages to convince the king to stay the execution for one more day, but some of the king’s company, guessing that the saint has a trick up her sleeve, plan to kill him that very night. The prisoner has a vision of Brigit while he sleeps, which tells him to call out the saint’s name repeatedly while he is being dragged to his death, and, when the chain is removed from his neck, to turn to the right where he will see her waiting in a doorway. Once again, an illusory death occurs; the men think that they hack (hack, not cut cleanly, hack with repeated blows through flesh and sinew and bone and… well… gore) the man’s head off, but he had in fact escaped with Brigit. The following day no head or gore was to be seen, and when Brigit asked the king to free the man, he realised what she had accomplished, and he said “Absolutely”. Let’s face it, if Brigit could make you believe that you had just seen a man beheaded, she could make you believe anything, and you wouldn’t mess with somebody like that. She could easily convince you that, no, those are not the droids you are looking for…
More Wicked Men, and, surprise surprise, more gore.
While on one of her many travels, Brigit once again runs into a group of men wearing diabolical amulets intent on murder who also request her blessing. She asks that in return for her blessing that they lift a heavy load for her; they agree to do this, so long as she holds their amulets while they bear the load, as the they are forbidden to let the amulets fall to the ground. The saint makes the sign of the cross over the amulets while they work, and then the men go on their way, with the aim of killing a certain man. They find this fortunate man, and are led to believe that they behead him, but he is left unharmed. Once they realise what Brigit has done they abandon their amulets. In another tale, Brigit, yet again, meets nine very wicked men in “a peculiar guise required by a godless and diabolical superstition” who plan to commit murder and bloodshed before the end of the following month. Brigit implores the men to abandon their sinful ways. The men refuse her, and continue on their wicked task, yet, through another illusion miracle, the men are led to believe that they (quite brutally) kill their objective, when he in fact goes unscathed. Once these would-be murders realise what has transpired they are converted to Christians and live happily ever after. Or suffer from post-traumatic stress. The text isn’t clear on the issue, but they believed that they hacked a man to bits, and then found out that they hadn’t, I know I’d be pretty stressed. And I’d probably be questioning the very nature of reality…
Now you see it, now you Don’t.
If a virgin had become pregnant, Brigit had a neat trick which would ensure that the girl was “restored to health”. The early Irish seem to have had an odd notion of what the term ‘health’ implied, since this basically meant that “Brigit made the foetus go away”. The saint blessed a woman who had become pregnant, and she is “healed” such that her pregnancy disappears, and she is restored to virginity. No harm, no foul, no baby. I know it’s not technically an abortion, but it kinda is an abortion. Brigit, a widely venerated Christian saint, was clearly pro-choice. Which is probably why the Church doesn’t broadcast this story on her holy day…
Which Brings us to the heart of the matter…
Are you wondering yet why you have never heard of these amazing tales, but know Brigit only as some kind of innocent and chaste Mary of the Irish? Most saints led very interesting lives, full of sex and violence, and deeds that would seem to be at odds with the Christian message of many of today’s Churches. The Catholic Church appears to glide over some of the rougher edges of its saints, popularising a Photoshop-perfect version, and disseminating either bland sanitised saints, or lamentably propagandised ones, for public consumption. The historical figure is lost in the myth; the majesty of a tiger cannot be grasped as it paces, neutered, behind bars, it must be seen in context, though this can be dangerous (Brigit may have created illusions of gore, but a tiger will reduce you to gore). It is vital that we seek out the sources of belief, understand them in the context of the society which produced them, and then question the application and interpretation of these texts in the modern world. It is only then that we can see how the memory and deeds of these unwitting figures are abused to an undeserved end.
‘The three Lives of Brigit from this period are the 7th century ‘Vita Brigitae‘ by Cogitosus, the anonymous 8th century ‘Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae‘, and the anonymous 9th century Old-Irish ‘Bethu Brigte‘. Translations of these texts may be difficult to find if you don’t have access to an academic library, but here are the references:
Bethu Brigte, Ó hAodha, D. (ed. and trans.) (Dublin, 1978).
Cogitosus, Life of Saint Brigit, in S. Connolly and J.-M. Picard (trans.), ‘Cogitosus’s “Life of St Brigit” Content and Value’, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 117 (1987), pp.11-27.
Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae, in Connolly, S. (trans.), ‘Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae: Background and Historical Value’, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 119 (1989), pp. 5-49.