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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 33

Danu is also identified with Brigit, goddess of knowledge (dán), perhaps through a folk-etymology. She was worshipped by poets, and had two sisters of the same name connected with leechcraft and smithwork. They are duplicates or local forms of Brigit, a goddess of culture and of poetry, so much loved by the Celts. She is thus the equivalent of the Gaulish goddess equated with Minerva by Cæsar, and found on inscriptions as Minerva Belisama and Brigindo. She is the Dea Brigantia of British inscriptions. One of the seats of her worship was the land of the Brigantes, of whom she was the eponymous goddess, and her name (cf. Ir. brig, "power" or "craft"; Welsh bri, "honour," "renown") suggests her high functions. But her popularity is seen in the continuation of her personality and cult in those of S. Brigit, at {69} whose shrine in Kildare a sacred fire, which must not be breathed on, or approached by a male, was watched daily by nineteen nuns in turn, and on the twentieth day by the saint herself.225 Similar sacred fires were kept up in other monasteries, and they point to the old cult of a goddess of fire, the nuns being successors of a virgin priesthood like the vestals, priestesses of Vesta. As has been seen, the goddesses Belisama and Sul, probably goddesses of fire, resembled Brigit in this. But Brigit, like Vesta, was at once a goddess of fire and of fertility, as her connection with Candlemas and certain ritual survivals also suggest. In the Hebrides on S. Bride's day (Candlemas-eve) women dressed a sheaf of oats in female clothes and set it with a club in a basket called "Briid's bed." Then they called, "Briid is come, Briid is welcome." Or a bed was made of corn and hay with candles burning beside it, and Bride was invited to come as her bed was ready. If the mark of the club was seen in the ashes, this was an omen of a good harvest and a prosperous year.228 It is also noteworthy that if cattle cropped the grass near S. Brigit's shrine, next day it was as luxuriant as ever.

Brigit, or goddesses with similar functions, was regarded by the Celts as an early teacher of civilisation, inspirer of the artistic, poetic, and mechanical faculties, as well as a goddess of fire and fertility. As such she far excelled her sons, gods of knowledge. She must have originated in the period when the Celts worshipped goddesses rather than gods, and when knowledge—leechcraft, agriculture, inspiration—were women's rather than men's. She had a female priesthood, and men were perhaps excluded from her cult, as the tabued shrine at {70} Kildare suggests. Perhaps her fire was fed from sacred oak wood, for many shrines of S. Brigit were built under oaks, doubtless displacing pagan shrines of the goddess. As a goddess, Brigit is more prominent than Danu, also a goddess of fertility, even though Danu is mother of the gods.

Other goddesses remembered in tradition are Cleena and Vera, celebrated in fairy and witch lore, the former perhaps akin to a river-goddess Clota, the Clutoida (a fountain-nymph) of the continental Celts; the latter, under her alternative name Dirra, perhaps a form of a goddess of Gaul, Dirona. Aine, one of the great fairy-queens of Ireland, has her seat at Knockainy in Limerick, where rites connected with her former cult are still performed for fertility on Midsummer eve. If they were neglected she and her troops performed them, according to local legend.231 She is thus an old goddess of fertility, whose cult, even at a festival in which gods were latterly more prominent, is still remembered. She is also associated with the waters as a water-nymph captured for a time as a fairy-bride by the Earl of Desmond. But older legends connect her with the


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