My sense of Brigit has always been timeless, her roots stretching back past saint and Celtic goddess. This idea began to take form when I encountered the work of Irish scholar Séamus Ó Catháin, suggesting that Brigit was the great bear mother, venerated in early bear cults. Alongside this interest lay a question: “Does the source of the new consciousness required by our modern world lay in an ancient spirituality?” This journey took me to the earliest Imbolc, to the bear emerging from hibernation: a symbol of renewal, sacrifice, and ritual. Coded themes within myth revealed a very different Imbolc from the one of the Celts—familiar motifs representing something hidden, taboo, whose roots stretch back to a far older time.
The theme of regeneration emerges throughout, and employing Joanna Macy’s work in examining our modern sense of self expands who we are when we consider our ecological self. Brigit reminds us of our creativity, our ability to remember, revision, and reclaim, as if she herself morphs and changes to meet our needs.
In his seminal book, The Festival of Brigid: Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman, Ó Catháin suggests that the folklore associated with Brighid shows a continuous link stretching back to shamanic practice 4,000 years ago to early bear cults. The stories he searched within Nordic, Celtic, and Germanic folklore hold the same knowledge, which exists within the layers of our unconscious as ancient folk memory. The bear wasn’t just a biological entity to our ancestors; Shephard, Sanders, and Snyder contend that she represented both the physical and magical qualities early bear worshipers observed. She was a wise teacher, a loving mother who was fiercely protective of her young. Each fall, ancient peoples observed the bear going into hibernation, and in the heart of winter she would have appeared dead, her heartbeat slow and her breathing barely noticeable. To observe the same bear coming back from the dead would suggest magical powers, that she was a communicator with the otherworld.
Emerging from the dead, bearing new life in the form of cubs, she also emerged bearing life to the land itself. She breathed life into the dead of winter, which lost its grip as the stirrings of spring radiated throughout the soil. All of these qualities fed our ancestors’ spiritual beliefs, creating myths, ritual, and practices to live by, which also marked the great cycle of the seasons.
Marija Gimbutas, in her archaeological work, unearthed what may be evidence of bear cults in the form of figurines, possibly representing the bear as birth goddess. Small figurines from Eastern Europe 5,000 BCE have been discovered and called “bear nurses,” which depict human figures wearing bear masks. Similarly, we find “bear madonna” figures dating from 6,000 BCE that depict human female figurines wearing a bear mask while holding a bear cub. The existence of such ancient figures shows the importance and variation of the image. The idea of the bear cult, however, has flourished in popular culture, quite possibly owing its success to evoking our ancient memory.
Gimbutas offers linguistic evidence to illustrate the connection of the bear with birth. The Proto Indo-European root bhere refers both to the bear and also to the ability to give birth. This is reflected in the Germanic beran (to bear children or to carry) and the Germanic barnam (child), as well as being present in the Old Norse burdh (birth.)
Circumpolar societies associate the bear with supernatural qualities, although this similarity of beliefs is not related to a common ancestral belief system, but one that each culture developed separately due to revering the bear above all other creatures. From ancient Siberia, Shepard et al illustrate a practice of sacrificing a male bear, which was seen as essential in maintaining the order of the shamanic worlds. Within early myths, Ó Catháin notes the symbolism of shamans using the psychedelic mushroom Amanita muscaria (fly agaric, which he color codes as“white speckled”), linking its use to rituals undertaken at Imbolc. McIntosh speculates that Imbolc could have been an ancient magic mushroom festival celebrating the essence of spring with the new life as it dawns, radiating out across face of the northern hemisphere.
- muscaria use was likely at this cycle of the year to facilitate communication with the otherworld, ensuring the return of spring to the land and the survival of life. Laurie and White highlight one reason why the role of psychoactive mushrooms in Celtic mythology has been overlooked: with the demise of the old growth forests in Ireland, A. muscaria is rare in the Ireland of today. While it is likely that it grew in such forests, dried A. muscaria could have been easily obtained from the filidh’s (poet-seer’s) Celtic neighbors.
While A. muscaria use is documented in numerous cultures throughout Europe and Asia, there are only obscure references to it within Celtic culture. Celtic legends are full of sleep-inducing berries and apples as well as magical hazelnuts and salmon. These were selected by the filidh as magical foods, yet there is nothing psychotropic about the foods that would allow them to produce inspiring and prophetic visions. The Roman historian Laertius recorded that Celtic Druids and bards spoke in “riddles and dark sayings,” and it seems many taboo subjects were referenced in obscure and coded ways. Motifs of such magical foods could be explained as being metaphoric references to A. muscaria, as it is probable that direct referencing was taboo due to its sacred qualities, argue Laurie and White.
Inspiration and divination was fundamental to the filidh, and Brigit, as patron of poets, would have been invoked in rituals undertaken to inspire ecstatic poetry and induce prophetic visions. Brigit was a fire goddess, and instances throughout her life associated with pillars of flames around her head could have been an ancient coding for A. muscaria, which produces a pronounced heating of the head.
While possible A. muscaria references were coded, so too were Brigit’s associations with speckled cow and snake, both having otherworldly origins. Her association with the snake is well known, and Scottish and Irish folk references refer to A. muscaria as the speckled snake. There is a possible link to Saint Patrick who, in banning certain pagan rituals as well as banishing snakes from Ireland, was actually attempting to wipe out an A. muscari cult, claim Laurie and White.
Later agricultural communities celebrated Imbolc as a time when Brigit brought the new life to the land; with milk being so important to the Celtic diet, the celebration also anticipated the lactation of the pregnant ewes. Ó Catháin notes that, when anyone complained of the depleted winter’s store, they were met by reassurances that, ‘‘it won’t be scarce very long now as Saint Bridget and her white cow will be coming ‘round soon.”
With the loss of such rich mythology, our sense of self has undergone a shrinking; once capable of shape-shifting, that self is now reduced to a mere shadow. Statistics abound with graphs showing sharp rises in the use of antidepressants alongside our insatiable hunger for consumerism. This, in part, explains our reaction to an unconscious feeling of loss, partly due to the urgency of the overwhelming array of issues vying for our attention.
The root of this great change lies in the destruction of tribal Europe and the worship of the great goddess, where our sense of self was drawn from each other, our non-human family, and the land. Salomonsen explains that these early matrifocal and matrilineal cultures, which laid down the foundation for our civilization, were eventually conquered by worshipers of a male warrior god, which lay the foundation for patriarchal and oppressive societies in Europe. The overthrow of the goddess by a male god, whose reign is removed from the earth, brought about an epic change in thought, which is still in place and dominates cultural thinking that places women, animals, and the earth as second-class citizens. As we adapted to this new myth, our notion of self changed. The founding principle of the myth of progress is self-destruction. It views our race as apart and separate from nature, concerned only with economic growth and material accumulation.
In Celtic culture, it was the role of the bard, devoted to Brigit, who kept the myths—the stories of the people—alive. McIntosh explains that this poetic power was eroded away by repressive laws such as the 1609 Statutes of Iona in the Highlands of Scotland, which suppressed Gaelic culture. Clan chiefs were required to send their eldest son or daughter south to learn English. Bards were outlawed and chiefs were no longer allowed to entertain them, with the threat of being punished or banished.
Similar laws were replicated throughout the ancient Celtic world, repressing the bard’s role in maintaining cultural and ecological awareness, and were replaced by the power of money and the adoption of values of commerce. The crisis currently unfolding on our planet is a spiritual one whose roots stem from a dysfunctional and pathological notion of the self. Could the loss of the bear, in Scotland and Ireland—the loss of ancient forests, of habitat, of indigenous belief—be the reason for the shrinking of our notion of self? With each loss, we are losing aspects of ourselves.
Joanna Macy’s work centers around accepting the pain we feel in facing the overwhelming issues in our current world, before it develops into grief and denial, so we are able to turn our feelings into effective action. In defining ourselves, we naturally adopt different notions of self to meet different needs. While we are free to select our boundaries—whether they end at our skin, our family, our tribe, our non-human family, the mountains, the oceans, the planet, ancient goddesses and gods, or they extend to the very universe—Macy envisions that a return to this ecological self will bring us into kinship with other forms of life, and ultimately bring us new reserves of strength.
Reconnecting is one route to wholeness, to reassembling our missing parts. The method employed does not lie outside; instead, it is a journey inwards, deep into our bones, our blood, our cells, our DNA, where remnants of ancient memory have been passed down through the generations. This was my journey in rediscovering Brigit, resonating with her as bear mother. Myths are the language of the soul, and the essence of a myth only comes alive when it resonates in the soul of the recipient. Just because the bear no longer roams in the Celtic lands of Scotland and Ireland, this does not mean that the same psychological needs that brought about the veneration of the bear are no longer relevant.
As Brigit regenerated the land, her regenerated spirit becomes meaningful again. She offers us the inspiration to envision a future which values our nonhuman relatives and the earth in our natural relationship of interconnection. Rather than accepting a future borne out of fear and helplessness featured in films that feed us horrors of ecological destruction, we must join in creating an empowering vision in which technology serves us in renewable ways, and empowers us to create sustainable futures right now. Brigit spans the existence of humankind, offering the deep well of wisdom to those who seek her. In rediscovering her symbols, hidden in layers of myth and accumulated in tales told over the years, her symbols, which might at first seem obscure, produce a powerful picture once they are reassembled.
Brigit is the great mother bear who returns the energy to the land after winter. As she regenerates the land, her regenerated spirit becomes meaningful again. She is the great mother who midwives our continual rebirth, her flame the transforming fire that burns within us. She is the fire of inspiration that the Druid filidh invoked, the fire that ignites our heads to dream new dreams, burns in our heart as compassion, and warms our hands in the work we carry out.
Condren, M. T. 2002. “Brigid: Soulsmith in the New Millennium.” Irish Journal of Feminist Studies 4 (2): 34–39. Cork, Ireland: University Press.
Gimbutas, M. 2001. The Language of the Goddess. London: Thames & Hudson.
Laurie, E. R., and T. White. 1997. “Speckled Snake, Brother of Birch: Amanita Muscaria Motifs in Celtic Legends.” Shaman’s Drum 44.
McIntosh, A. 1998. “Deep Ecology and the Last Wolf.” United Nations Biodiversity Proceedings: Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Macy, Joanna. 2007. World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal. Berkeley, CA: Parallex Press.
Ó Cathain, Seamus. 1995. The Festival of Brigid: Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman. Ireland: DBA Publications.
Shepard, Paul, Barry Sanders, and Gary Snyder. 1992. The Sacred Paw: The Bear in Nature, Myth and Literature. New York: Viking Press.
Jude is an artist, writer and ritualist. Her work focuses on the wise women ways, of women’s mysteries and employing shamanic tools to heal the damaging split modernity has created between nature and ourselves which only exists in our mind.
She describes her work as walking the Ancestral Soul Path weaving through women’s circles, ritual and ceremony she builds ways to approach our ancestors with sacred intention and lets those insights and inspiration flow through us in creative ways allowing it to nourish us and fostering it to root it in our lives, our circles and communities.
Originally from Scotland Juse is currently residing in Asheville NC where she runs her Celtic Soul School as well as offering a series of workshops, online courses and retreats to Scotland.
For online courses, workshops and to activate your free membership in her Celtic Soul School visit http://www.celticsoulcraft.com or find her on Facebook. For details of her Ancestral Mothers of Scotland Retreat visit www.judelally.com. Additionally, Jude teaches Weaving the Protection of Brighid- A Goddess Activation Course .
Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared in Brigit, Sun of Womanhood, edited by Michael McDermott and Patricia Monahan, published by Goddess Ink.
Brighid Imbolc Altar: Jude Lally
Other Photos Credit: Shutterstock