Brigid: The Healer

Content warning: Mention of pregnancy loss.

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As January reaches its apex and slides into February, I can feel the influence of Brigid more strongly in my life again. We are nearing her feast day, La Fheile Bride, Imbolc, Candlemas. She has been a healing presence in my life since the loss of my first pregnancy over three years ago and her celebration, and the traditional beginning of spring, is always a bright spot in my year.

Brigid, or Bride, is one of the few pre-Christian goddesses who has been syncretized explicitly into Scottish folk practice, appearing in the Carmina Gadelica as the midwife of Mary, foster-mother to Jesus. The songs make it clear that this is not really a fifth-century Irish saint, but instead a goddess-like figure who appeared at the Nativity in a radiant golden light. She is invoked as an equal to Mary and is often associated with midwifery and fire, like the pre-Christian Brigid.

My experience with Brigid began about three years ago as I was trying to heal after losing my first pregnancy. Brigid is associated with grief and the loss of a child and so she was one of the goddesses I invoked to aid me. While her gentle presence was a balm to my grief, I found her most powerful when I invoked her on behalf of another. Shortly after my loss, a dear friend fell dangerously ill, and I was so worried for her that I prayed to Brigid to please protect her and help her heal. She made an astonishing recovery after that, faster than anyone expected. From then on, I knew that, while An Cailleach is my primary focus, Brigid would be a part of my life for good.

I associate Brigid with fire and water, so I invoked and honor her with a candle and either an offering of clean, consecrated water, or else a tea session with my favorite Baozhong oolong, which holds a deep association with water for me. Her presence is soothing, like a mother’s embrace, and as her feast day approaches, I feel the dark and cold of winter shaking loose from my bones and the warm hope of spring kindling in me.

In folklore, Brigid is the daughter of the Dagda, a goddess of poetic inspiration, healing, and smithing. She is honored with perpetual flames as well as holy springs and wells. This trinity is sometimes made explicit, with Brigid having two sisters, also named Brigid, making her a sort of triple goddess. In some folklore, she is associated with tricolor animals, such as calico cats. During the first battle of Magh Tuireadh, her son is killed and it was from her wailing in grief that the practice of keening was brought into the world. She is both revered as a spring or summer maiden, as in the stories of Bride in Scottish folklore, as well as a mother and midwife, in the stories of her grief and the syncretic practices of honoring her connection with Jesus.

Having felt her warm, gentle presence, I understand why the Irish and Scots wished to keep her in their traditions, despite the incursion of Christianity. And, perhaps, this benevolent presence is why the early Christian missionaries accepted her into their traditions, even going so far as to rewrite the Nativity for her.

Meet the Cailleach

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It is that pre-dawn time and I lay in bed, half-waking, half-dreaming. In my half-dream, I am in a wide field. Around me stands a ring of stones and I stand in front of one, much larger, and polished like a dark mirror. Beside it is an old woman. Her silver-grey hair spreads out in wild waves, spilling over her plaid-covered shoulders, and the dim light of twilight gives her skin a bluish cast. She has a wolf by her side and a feral grin as she beckons me to her…

Perhaps this would have been a natural first post in this space, but the temptation of launching the blog on Samhain was just too great. And the whole of the dark half the year is the time of the Cailleach, while Samhain is just one day. But who is the Cailleach?

The Cailleach is an ancient deity of the British Isles. The word “cailleach” simply means “old woman” or “veiled woman,” and there are stories that refer to several specific figures as an cailleach in Celtic folklore. At her core, the Cailleach represents the crone phase of the triple goddess cycle, but is also associated with midwifery and birth. She is seen as frightening and fierce, but not necessarily an evil or bad figure. Similar to the Baba Yaga of Russian folklore, the Cailleach is a figure who appears both as a force of natural balance and as an antagonist.

In a similar story to the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades, one story of the Cailleach says that she captured the young and beautiful goddess Brigid, and that Brigid must escape to bring the Spring. But in other tellings of that tale, Brigid and the Cailleach are two aspects of the same person, with the Cailleach either shedding her crone appearance to become the maiden of spring, or else turning into a stone for the summer while Brigid reigns during the light half of the year.

My personal connection to the Cailleach started years ago when I was learning about chthonic goddesses like Hecate of the Greek tradition. The Cailleach struck me as a peculiar blend of an earth goddess, as she was said to predate even the Celtic inhabitants of the British Isles, and a death goddess. She was not necessarily associated with war, like the Morrigan, or the earth itself, like Danu, but was instead the personification of the cycle of living and dying. I’ve written before about her association with predicting the coming of spring and modern traditions around Imbolc, but never really gone into what she means to me personally.

The Cailleach is a goddess who exists at liminal places in the world, like older women often find themselves. They are neither given importance or power, nor are they entirely ignored, and are often feared because of the unknown they represent. The Cailleach is both a goddess of birth, because of her associations with midwifery and Brigid, but also very much a goddess of death. As such, she has been a comfort to me during my own periods of grief in my life. I plan to write more about this in my upcoming book, The Grief Cleanse, in which I’ll chronicle my dealings with grief around a very specific period in my life, but suffice to say that the concept of a woman who is not defined either by youth or fertility intrigues me as a woman. Particularly a woman who is creeping closer and closer to cronehood myself.

The Cailleach is also a wise woman. She knows the cycle of the world. She is said to have control over the weather, or at least over the winter. In my piece on Groundhog Day, I wrote about the tradition of judging the length of the remaining winter by the weather on the day when the Cailleach is supposed to gather firewood for the rest of the winter. And another legend says that at the beginning of winter, she takes her plaid (or shawl) to the river to wash and when she is done, it stretches out pure white and covers the land in the first snowfall.

As the hag of winter, she is depicted with grey or white hair, blue skin, and hooded, often with only one eye. I find that intriguing, as she is almost a sort of Odinic character, with her associations with divination, magic, death, and hidden secrets. And Norse folklore tells of many of those deities not sticking strictly to one gender.

So I have chosen to depict the Cailleach in my own tribute as a woman with one eye veiled with a plaid that has not yet been washed clean. While I am not quite a crone yet, I feel the influence of the Cailleach in my life and heed her call as the wheel of the year turns to her time.