99% BRIGHID–A PAGAN LIBERATION THEOLOGY
by Scott Thompson
The year 2011 saw massive uprisings and popular protests all over the world in the name of democracy and social justice. From October 2011 onward I was personally involved in these struggles as an activist for Occupy Minnesota. Given the reputation of Minneapolis as “Paganistan,” it’s not surprising that a few of my fellow Occupiers were pagans, but others were Christian and quite a few were atheists.
I remember being particularly moved at a foreclosure defense action when one of the scheduled speakers expressed his commitment to social justice with the phrase “The Earth is the Lord’s” and got a roar of appreciation from the blue-collar crowd. The Earth is the Lord’s—not just a commodity to be owned and controlled by a few powerful men, but a “common treasury” as the 17th century Christian radicals known as the Diggers put it. That’s how a Christian expressed his understanding of Occupy and what it stood for. So how would a pagan do the same?
In polytheistic religions, there’s hypothetically a deity for everything- but one would assume that the Iron Age Celts did not get around to naming a deity of social justice and radical activism. One would not be entirely correct, however, as several of the myths associated with Brighid have a radical theme.
Consider Brig Ambue—“Brighid of the Cowless.” Cows equaled wealth in ancient Celtic society, where your legal worth was officially measured by how many cattle a person had to pay your tribe if he killed you. To be ambue or “cowless” was to be worth absolutely nothing—the ambue were the dispossessed, and Brig Ambue was their protector. When desperate warriors of the ambue class staged cattle raids to support their families, Brig Ambue was invoked in cleansing rituals to absolve them of guilt and reintegrate them into community life.
Brig Briugu means “Brighid of Hospitality.” If a person of common origins acquired enough wealth in ancient Ireland, he could legally achieve noble status by becoming a briugu or Hosteler. Hostelers maintained roadside inns where any traveler could stable his horses, sleep in a warm bed, eat a hot meal, and drink his fill of the local beer—all absolutely free of charge. Hostelers were expected to have enough wealth of their own to set up shop, but the hostel was supported by the tribal king out of the cattle he was paid in tribute. In other words, they were socialized travel hotels. The purpose of all this was to facilitate trade by making travel easier, safer and less expensive—but also to fulfill the principle of unconditional hospitality, a central and sacred obligation in ancient Celtic society. Brig Briugu’s role as a mythical hosteler was reflected in the later legends of St. Brigit magically brewing limitless quantities of beer or giving away food to the poor.
Brig Brethach means “Brighid of Judgment,” and this Brighid was said to be the daughter of the great judge Sencha. It is said that the only false judgment Sencha ever made was when he denied women the right to inherit land in their own name. His daughter Brig Brethach denounced his judgment, and three blisters appeared on his face as soon as she spoke. They disappeared again only when he ruled in favor of the rights of women.
Brig Ambue, Brig Briugu and Brig Brethach are three of the more obscure avatars or manifestations of Brighid in ancient Ireland, but the themes they are concerned with are consistently radical in modern terms—justice for the dispossessed, food and shelter without charge for those in need, and the rights of women. One might assume that these themes would have been toned down or removed when the goddess Brighid became St. Brigit with the introduction of Christianity, but in fact they were amplified.
According to the legend of St. Brigit, she was the daughter of a slave and the tribal chief who owned her—an implicit critique of the slave economy of the ancient world and of the sexual exploitation of slaves by their owners. She was not, however, a very meek or obedient slave. On the contrary, she made a habit of giving away her father’s food, drink and prized possessions to the poor at every opportunity. When he became so frustrated at her constant redistribution of his wealth that he tried to give her away to the king, she gave his sword to a passing beggar while waiting outside in his chariot. The king, perhaps wisely, refused to take her.
St. Brigit continued her policy of constant hospitality and wealth redistribution as the abbess of Kildare, although she usually used her saintly powers to restore whatever had been given away. A number of legends portray her tense relationship with Ailill, the king of Leinster, reflecting the earlier status of the goddess as the personified Sovereignty of that province. St. Brigit was willing to lend her powers to the king, but only on condition that he free his slave. In fact, she offered to guarantee him good children, a dynasty of his own, and entrance into Heaven for himself, but he refused all of it. The only thing Ailill cared about was victory in battle against the tribes of Ulster, but he was willing to free the slave if St. Brigit would promise him that. This is important in context because it once again confirms that St. Brigit had inherited the role of the goddess of the Land, whose duties in the ancient pagan religion included supporting the tribe in battle. Unlike the Morrigan, another Land goddess who is described as being downright bloodthirsty, St. Brigit is only portrayed as aiding the Leinster army when Leinster was being invaded by a hostile force. Brighid serves as a battle goddess only to defend the land and its people—not to engage in acts of aggression.
In the Celtic lore of the Land or Sovereignty goddess, the goddess grants the kingship to the tribal king by offering him a drink of mead from Her own hands. Only when he drinks from the hands of the goddess who personifies the tribal territory does he become the king. In one of the legends of St. Brigit, she gives away all of the mead intended for the king’s visit to entertain the common people of the tribe. This has always been interpreted as another story about the saint’s tender concern for the poor, but if we interpret it in context with her role as a stand-in for the Leinster goddess, it has a clear political implication—the saint or goddess takes the drink of Sovereignty away from the king and gives it to the common people.
She later magically restores the mead to the king, but the warning message is still implicit. The Sovereignty of the land belongs to the goddess, not the king. “The Earth is the Lady’s.” If he proves to be an unjust ruler, She has it within Her power to take his authority away and give it directly to the common people.
This legend, above all others, is why I think of Brighid as a goddess for Occupiers.