The Goddess Brighid

In Christian times the Irish Pagan festival of Imbolc seems to have been completely subsumed into the feast day of St Brighid (alt. Brigid/Bride/Brigit), [1] and indeed, modern Pagans often celebrate Imbolc as the festival of the goddess Brighid. The tenth century Cormac’s Glossary tells us that:

“Brigit i.e. a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit the female sage, or woman of wisdom, i.e. Brigit the goddess whom poets adored, because very great and very famous was her protecting care. It is therefore they call her goddess of poets by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit the female physician [woman of leechcraft,] Brigit the female smith [woman of smithwork]; from whose names with all Irishmen a goddess was called Brigit. Brigit, then, breo-aigit, breo-shaigit, ‘a fiery arrow’.” [2]

This single source gives us most of the ideas we have today about the goddess Brighid: three sisters or a triple deity with the Brighid of poetry, prophecy and inspiration; the Brighid of healing, and the Brighid of fire who oversees the hearth and forge and who is the patroness of craftsmen and women.

Most of the tales we have that expand these concepts come from the later legends of the saint the Christian Church turned her into. [3] However, since many of the practices around the saint’s feast day concern fire, fertility and the birth of young animals, it seems entirely probable that these originally related to the goddess Brighid at Imbolc. [4] While Cormac’s interpretation of her name as ‘fiery arrow’ may be fanciful, she was certainly connected with fire. [5] In one tale, St Brighid was born at sunrise on threshold of the house as her mother was on her way out to milk the cow, and immediately a tower of flame emerged from her forehead that stretched from earth to heaven, fulfilling a druid’s prophecy that she would be neither born inside or out, or during the day or night. Later a house she was in flamed up to heaven and a fiery pillar rose from her head. She also hung her cloak on sunbeams, cow dung blazed before her, and flames engulfed her body without burning her. In another tale, she carried a burning coal in her apron. Furthermore, the saint is said to have founded an abbey at Kildare (Cull Dara = ‘Temple of the Oak’), where a perpetual fire, said to burn without ash or waste, was kept burning by a college of nineteen women called Inghean an Dagha (‘Daughters of the Flame’) who fed the fire each night and kept it from dying; on the twentieth day it was believed that Brighid herself tended the flame.  Men were forbidden to enter this sanctuary.  This sounds very much like the rites of a Pagan temple, a sacred hearth tended by virgin priestesses akin to the fire of the Vestal Virgins of Rome, given a thin Christian veneer.  Nevertheless, the abbey kept the flame burning until 1220 CE when Henry de Loundres, the Archbishop of Dublin, shocked at this evidence of fire-worship, issued an edict ordering the flame to be extinguished, condemning it as “pagan superstition”.[6]

In 1969 the Catholic Church officially removed Brighid from the list of accepted saints, finding no evidence that she ever existed.  The goddess Brighid, however, was certainly a pan-Celtic deity appearing as Brighid or Brigit in Ireland, Brigantia in Northern England, Bride in Scotland, and Brigandu in Brittany. Her association with the hearth fire, by way of the erstwhile saint, persists in Ireland to this day. Within living memory, the domestic fire was kindled with invocations to Brighid. [7]

© Anna Franklin, abstracted from The Hearth Witch’s Ritual Year, Llewellyn, 2021

Illustration © Paul Mason from the Oracle of the Goddess, Anna Franklin and Paul Mason, Vega, 2002


[1] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999

[2] Cormac’s Glossary, online at https://archive.org/stream/sanaschormaicco00stokgoog/sanaschormaicco00stokgoog_djvu.txt, accessed 10.4.19

[3] Gilbride & Aster Breo, Finding Brighid in the Ancient Lore, https://clannbhride.wordpress.com/articles-and-essays/finding-brighid-in-the-ancient-lore, accessed 26.9.18

[4] [4] Dr. Dáithí Ó hȮgáin, Myth, Legend and Romance, An Encyclopaedia of Irish Folk Traditions, Prentice Hall Press, New York, 1991

[5] Gilbride & Aster Breo, Finding Brighid in the Ancient Lore, https://clannbhride.wordpress.com/articles-and-essays/finding-brighid-in-the-ancient-lore, accessed 26.9.18

[6] Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick, A History of Pagan Europe, Barnes and Noble, 1995

[7] Kevin Danaher, The Year in Ireland, Leinster Leader Ltd., Kildare, 1972

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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