As Imbolc beckons, Pagans everywhere prepare to celebrate the Goddess Brighid and the quickening of life in the womb of the earth. As a newly initiated Priestess of Brighid, and fizzing with the creativity she inspires, I thought I would share some thoughts about her that I’ve been mulling over for some time.
Brighid is the Celtic triple Goddess of healing, poetry and smithcraft, she has been described as the Celtic version of the ancient Great Mother Goddess and she goes by many names; Bride, Bridie, Brighid, Brigit, Brigantia, Britannia and Ffraid, to name but a few. Her main festival day is February 1st, or Imbolc, when she traditionally transforms from her winter crone form, the Cailleach, back into the Spring maiden, and her footsteps bring green back to the slumbering earth.
Images of her vary widely…
When the Romans came to Britain, they pursued their usual policy of assimilating native deities. Searching for an equivalent Goddess in their own pantheon, the Romans apparently likened Brighid to Minerva, their version of the Greek Athena, but I’ve never been able to find a strong explanation for this connection, or found it very satisfying. I’ve read that perhaps the strength of devotion to her in the Celtic world led the Romans to liken her to a similarly powerful Goddess in their own culture, and it is pointed out that the depiction of her as Britannia on coins bears a striking resemblance to Athena in her armour. However the coins depicting Britannia were Roman, first minted in the time of Hadrian, so this is perhaps a circular argument.
Athena is the Greek Goddess of wisdom, of warfare and of the city, she is associated with owls and olives and has quite a patriarchal Greek origin story – emerging from the head of Zeus with no maternal connection. In my reading, I’ve never seen any description of Athena as a mother goddess or as a triple goddess, it seems she was originally an Aegean goddess of the palace. Nowhere in the descriptions of her do I feel the familiar feel of Brighid.
I don’t profess to be a historian or an expert in ancient mythology beyond my own avid reading, but the more I look and the more I read, the stronger the connections I see between our beloved Celtic Brighid and the Greek goddess Artemis, known to the Romans as Diana…
Both Brighid and Artemis were originally worshipped as the ancient Great Goddess of earlier times, and they are both seen as a triple Goddess comprising maiden, mother and crone. The Goddess scholar Monica Sjoo notes that Artemis was the maiden huntress of the moon in Greek culture, but also worshipped as the ‘Mother of all’ at the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus and as Hecate, the dark Goddess. Similarly Brighid has her aspects of Spring maiden at Imbolc, nourishing mother at harvest and dark winter Cailleach.
Midwifery and healing are core areas for both Brighid and Artemis. Women in the pain of childbirth would call upon one of these deities to help and protect them. In the Greek stories, Artemis was born just before her twin brother Apollo, and acted as his midwife. The Romans taught that Diana/Artemis was ‘born of her mother without pain’ and went on to teach women the techniques of painless childbirth. She was a midwife despite her maiden status. In Ireland, the association of Brighid with midwifery was so strong that when the Christians adopted her as a saint, they wrote her into the biblical story as the midwife of Christ (problems of time and distance being immaterial to a good story). Both goddesses are said to take an interest in the safety and protection of newborn creatures, human and animal.
The association of both these goddesses with snakes may be an extension of their status as goddesses of healing, Artemis is often depicted with snake bracelets and Brighid’s snake is said to come out of its hole at Imbolc – another symbol of regeneration and renewal.
In Rome, Diana/Artemis was also known as the protectress of slaves, outlaws and thieves, just as Brighid was in Ireland. And Sjoo notes that the Romans celebrated Diana’s festival “on the same festival day as the Irish triple goddess Brigid” though she puts this date in mid August.
They are both described as wielding a bow with a quiver of arrows – Artemis of course being the wild huntress, mistress of arrows, and Brighid as firing her arrows of inspiration into the heart of poets. The name Brigit itself means ‘fiery arrow’ or ‘Bright one’ and the Greek Artemis was also called Phoebe (‘bright one’) or ‘bearer of light’.
In addition to both being associated with heather, willow and oak trees, they are also both associated with bees, and especially bears. Brighid’s association with bears is believed to be because of their seemingly miraculous emergence around Imbolc from their winter hibernation. The Irish scholar Ó Catháin suggests that Brighid was once the great Bear Mother, venerated by ancient bear cults. And in 5th century Athens, young women were dedicated to Artemis before their marriage, dressing in imitation bear skins and and dancing in imitation of a she-bear in Artemis’ name. They were known as Arktoi, or ‘little bears’. An ancient Gallic statue discovered in the Ardennes shows ‘Artos’ the bear – her features are said to be those of Artemis.
Brighid is Goddess of water, of holy wells and rivers, and Artemis too, is firmly linked with water – she was Goddess of lakes, rivers and springs. The famous story of Actaeon surprising Artemis bathing with her nymphs in a pool in the woods (and his unfortunate punishment), also establishes Artemis as a water deity.
So what of fire? Having become more and more convinced of the equivalence of these two Goddesses, I searched for any association of Artemis with fire, a crucial aspect of Brighid’s identity. And then I found a passage in a work about Celtic women explaining that Artemis was ‘originally the Scythian Diana…the sun Goddess of early times who later relinquished her position to a male god’ As times became more and more patriarchal, many of the the attributes of the ancient Goddesses were taken away and given to male Gods, and suddenly we find that the ancient Artemis, worshipped by the Amazons in Anatolia as the Great Mother, finds herself once in Patriarchal Greece, furnished with a twin brother. Apollo was given the sun and she was made a moon goddess.
It doesn’t feel like a coincidence at this point to note that the twin brother of Artemis, in addition to being a fire deity of the sun, is also the Greek God of music, poetry and divination – all areas firmly attributed by the Celts to Brighid. Did he also get these attributes from the earlier matriarchal Artemis?
Most of what we celebrate as Neo-Pagans is reconstructed, with varying degrees of poetic licence and intuition fleshing out what can be proven about what our ancestors may have done in their Pagan rites. I don’t know how accurate is my interpretation of an ancient neolithic mother bear goddess spreading across Europe, becoming the ancient pre Indo-European Diana, and later worshipped as Artemis in the Hellenic world and Brighid in the Celtic, but it’s a satisfying narrative that has emotional appeal to me, as I’ve always felt a strong pull to both these strong, independant warrior goddesses. After all, in her essay about the great bear mother, Jude Lally points out that “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”
- Markale, J. 1986 Women of the Celts
- Ó Catháin, S. 1995. The Fesitval of brigid: Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman
- Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids https://www.druidry.org/library/gods-goddesses/brigit
- Sjoo, M & Mor, B. 1987 The Great Cosmic Mother
- Webster Wilde, L.1999 The Amazons, Women warriors in myth and history