Moral philosophy and the Atlantic European ‘Otherworld’

The ‘otherworld’ of the Atlantic Europeans appears to have been the keystone of a system of moral philosophy that existed as a dominant cultural force until the 19th century CE. This moral philosophy was founded firmly in an ancient supra-regional (northern and western European) pagan religion – one that the orientalist Greco-Roman state religions and subsequently their religious inheritor – christianity – had systematically  attempted to displace and replace from the 4th century BC onwards. This religion and culture almost certainly pre-dated the cultural or ethnic impact of the Halstatt and La Teine ‘celtic’ material cultures, but it has subsequently become attached to them and their ‘celtic’ afterglow in the minds of the modern European kindred across the globe.

What was this ‘Otherworld’?

It had many identities expressed in Atlantic popular across a broad swathe of time: In once sense it functioned as a location in which the dramatic and instructional narratives of mythology were played out. In another it was a place where a soul or spirit of a dead or living person might travel to visit or to reside. It might be a place that was distant – the endpoint of a journey – or a place intrusively near to us yet still alien and strange. Its denizens could be at once both very similar to us and yet somehow very different. If one word could sum it up, it would be this: contradiction. At the heart of this contradiction was a fundamental belief that the otherworld somehow mirrored our own. It was a reflection – as if in water or a mirror – that existed in a spiritual form and acted as a counterbalance to the material forces of the world. This belief is in fact traceable in all cultures across the planet, and is a part of empirical (ie – pagan) spirituality.

The confusing, contradictory nature of the otherworld might make it difficult to understand and easy to dismiss, yet the essential paradoxes of these beliefs are in fact their strength and key to the otherworld doctrine. Just as an understanding of indeterminacy and multiple parallel possibilities is the glue that holds together our modern understanding of the subatomic world (and increasingly of the macrocosm), so the otherworld functioned in a similar fashion for the pre-literate, anti-literate and illiterate cultures of the ancient European world down into modern times.

Who was in the otherworld?

When we had plenty in our world, the poor and hungry otherworld denizens were considered jealous of our material wealth (our cattle and kine), and we were poor and needy they might offer us stupendous wealth. and fabulous treasures. They might interrupt our peace and harmony with chaotic acts of cruelty. They could appear as splendidly as they could grotesquely. The people of the otherworld offered a reflection of humanity in all its states, and therefore functioned as a moral anchor that helped us tread the middle path between this world and the next.

As such, it appears that it was believed that each human had a reflection in the ‘other place’ (read Robert Kirk, Martin Martin et al for a 17thC account of how prevalent the beliefs were in the highlands and islands of Scotland). In times of impending peril, this reflection might manifest visibly to people with the ability of  ‘second sight’, and act or appear in a manner which presaged an event that would befall the earthly counterpart. It was called a ‘fetch’ or ‘living ghost’, and a striking account is given by the 14thC monk Ranulph Higden (in ‘Polychronicon’) of the belief in the Isle of Man.

Similar attributes are given to ‘fairies’ in folktales who often presage events in this world through their actions and behaviours. The implication from Robert Kirk’s accounts of highland fairy beliefs is that fairies and fetches are somehow the same, although he himself did not pretend to understand how this was so, except to imply and comment upon a belief that spirits – like the world and its seasons – were continually reincarnated, and lived a long time moving between different places and forms as they went. Ghosts, scal phantoms, fairies, Tuatha de Danann etc may all refer to different statuses occupied by eternal souls in their life cycles.

Spirits were believed to be constituted by that classical ‘fifth element’ – ether, ‘lux’, ‘spirit’ or subtle light. The mundane world was believed to founded, composed and constituted by four philosophical ‘elements’: earth, water, air and fire. Fire was closest in nature to this ‘ether’ which was itself believed to be a form of light, and the substance which all gods and spirits were supposed to be made from.  ‘Spirit’ or ‘ether’ was supposed to be able to represent all of the four mundane worldly qualities – this is why the ancients believed it to be the substance of the ‘otherworld’. This worldview dominated ancient European cultures as late as the 17th century CE after which the anti-pagan paradigms of monotheism couched in Enlightenment era science did away with it as a main force.

Where was the otherworld?

To answer this depends upon reconciling a number of apparent contradictions about location. In medieval Irish prose-tales, ‘otherwordl’ locations such as Mag Mell, Tir Taingaire or Tir nan Og etc are typified as existing in the west, often as distant islands full of magical folk. In the case of Tech Duin and the Isle of Man, these are very real and visible islands, for which ‘west’ is relative. At the same time, the otherworld might also be encountered underground in the Sid mounds, or at liminal points in the landscape, the seasons or the day. Our night-time appears to represent the working daytime of those denizens we call spirits, elves and fairies. People took care never to speak ill of fairies as they were frequently belieed to be very much nearby. The otherworld is therefore both near and distant. Recalling the description I just gave of the ancient ‘elemental’ philosophy, one might say that the world was perfused and pervaded by ‘spirit’ which was the framework around which the mundane elements worked.

The otherworld’s moral philosophy:

How did ‘fairies’ influence behaviour and maintain a moral code without recourse to written statutes? By acting as a counter-ballast to actions in the mundane world. It was ‘Newton’s laws of motion’ and the ‘first law of thermodynamics’ expressed in the timeless empiricism of European pagan spirituality:

Take too much from this world, and the otherworld will come for its portion.

Tread a middle path and the otherworld will treat you the same.

The poor and humble are wealthy and great in the next life.

From decay comes generation.

All of these ideas hinged upon the otherworld/afterlife doctrine of cyclical continuity. We know that ancient Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras and others were influenced by the ‘philosophers’ of the Atlantic Europeans, otherwise known as druids. They later wrote about this and admitted it (eg – Diogenes Laertius).

We have to ask ourselves to what degree these ideas were pervading contemporary philosophers among the Hellenized peoples of the Mediterranean, middle east and asia minor during the early Roman Empire: Jesus of Nazareth in particular, whose own story and philosophies and eventual act of self-sacrifice appear to mimic the practices the Romans were busy trying to stamp out in Gaul, Britannia etc.

I shall finish with the words of Pliny (1stC AD) who had this to say about the druids:

…we cannot too highly appreciate our debt to the Romans for having put an end to this monstrous cult, whereby to murder a man was an act of the greatest devoutness, and to eat his flesh most beneficial.

He could just as likely have been referring to another religion that was  just starting out among a group of philosophical Hellenic Jews in the middle east…

St. Kentigern – a christianised pagan tale?

Kentigern, often known as Mungo, was a saint of the early medieval Christian church who was supposed to have lived in the 6th century and to have been responsible for christianising the ancient Cumbric British Kingdom of Strathclyde, now a part of Scotland.

The region of Strathclyde forms the southern gateway to the Scottish Highlands, and is formed by the plains and foothills surrounding the great River Clyde which discharges into the Irish Sea, and was therefore an important region in the historic interplay between the various cultures of this region during the first millennium, including the peoples of the Scottic Dalriada provinces, Gallovidians, Picts, Cumbrians and peoples of Rheged and later the Anglians and Norse settlers. Its capital city of Glasgu (Glasgow) was supposedly founded by Mungo.

Most of what we know of him is dependent upon the hagiographic writing of the great 12thC Cistercian Abbott, Jocelyn of Furness, who was instrumental in assisting with the mission of the continental (Norman) church to establish dominance and the episcopal system in the northwest Atlantic provinces and who translated Gaelic hagiographical traditions into latinate ones to suit the new ‘Anglo’-Norman world. Jocelyn provided new saints’ lives for Patrick (who supposedly originated in Strathclyde) as well as Mungo/Kentigern. His patrons for the work on Patrick were John de Courcy, and probably also his ally – the King of Mann and the Isles, Godred Olafsson whose sister Auffrica had married de Courcy, and who had assisted in the Norman lord’s conquest of Ulster and the subsequent consolidation of Ireland’s religious power under a post-Gregorian reformed episcopacy. For the work on Kentigern, his sponsor was the Norman Abbott Jocelyn of Melrose who was also Bishop of Glasgow, Strathclyde’s principle town.

The coat of arms of Glasgow depicts the miracles of St Kentigern (Mungo)

The coat of arms of Glasgow depicts the miracles of St Kentigern (Mungo)

Jocelyn’s Life of Kentigern starts with an apology for the problems he encounters in interpreting the various gaelic language traditions of the saint he a had gathered in order to flesh out a text already being developed by the bishop of Glasgow. The stories he gathered were mainly from Strathclyde and from St Asaph’s in Wales: all important ports, along with Furness, in the Irish Sea region. Many of these tales he implies were improper and contained too many elements of heathenism, ‘contrary to certain doctrine and catholic faith’ to use the narrators own words. In fact, it is fairly clear from reading the Furness monk’s work that there is plenty of pagan material still within it, as well as much promoting the other seats of the new continental religious power and spirit of the Gregorian Reforms of church probity and religious rigor that underpinned the Cistercian worldview of the 12th and 13th centuries. His aim was obviously to rid the tale of aspects of what he perceived as syncretic heathenism in the Gaelic forms of Kentigern’s life so as ‘to season with Roman salt what had been ploughed by barbarians’.

Before I embark upon my commentary of the pagan aspects of this legendary text, I urge readers to take a look at a recent translation of the work by Cynthia Whiddon Green.

The first aspect I’d like to examine is the ‘origin story’: This is one of a fallen and rejected heathen woman Thaneu – fallen both in Jocelyn’s medieval Christian moral sense and fallen also in the physical sense that she was apparently thrown off a cliff at the top of Traprain Law in Lothian. The tale mirrors the biblical narrative of the Cistercians’ favourite ‘mother goddess’ – Mary,  with Mungo’s mother pregnant through an illicit extra-marital union with a nebulous and unspecified paternal donor. For such a ‘crime’ her father, the King of Lothian, has her thrown off a crag on Dumpelder (Traprain Law) but she is carried softly down to the ground, as if by wings. She is then cast adrift in the ocean in a coracle – her fate dependent upon the spirit of the seas. It so happens she drifts ashore near to an early Christian centre of learning run by St Servanus/Serf, and she builds a fire for herself on the shore and gives birth to a boy – Mungo – before being discovered by the monks.

Those astute in the folklore originating from Atlantic paganism will recognise that these motifs are to be found in many of the ‘syncretic’ literary and folktales that survive from Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man etc. Conception by spirits of magical children, the leapss and falls of giants, the casting adrift of sacred children and female personages who come ashore to figuratively give birth. The narrative is one based in the seasonal drama, and passage of the sun across the sky.  The female character (Thanue) is the Earth Goddess and the male (Mungo) represents the Sun/Son – in the story, the Sun is born out of the land in the east and travels west towards the Atlantic ocean into Strathclyde. The theme of a magical character washing ashore occurs in the Isle of Man’s Caillagh y Groamagh legend attached to Bridget’s day or Imbolc as it is sometimes known. The same theme is used in the Bethu Brigdhe hagiography of Bridget which mentions the bandit-turned-saint Machaldus (Maughold) being cast into the sea and washing up in the Isle of Man. Thanue is therefore a character replacing Bride-Aine, but what of her son?

The fact that Mungo enters his floruit (recorded life) from the sea and spends an awful lot of time in water and controlling water during the rest of his hagiography is highly suggested of the solar deity motif, identifying him with reasonable certainty as a hypostasis for the shining god Manannan who strides so actually godlike among the lesser characters of many of the euhemerist legends of medieval Irish literature and later folk tradition.  Even his name seems to refer to ‘Man’ in the form of ‘Mun’, just like Mongan mac Fiachna in the Irish Manannan legends. Mungo = Manannan.

Christian narratives did their best to replace the dualist Atlantic god and goddess with a masculine counterpart, particularly after the Brigitine church period, so Mungo subsumes the roles of both in the rest of the Vita. Here is a list of some of the features of Jocelyn’s tale which illustrate the pagan legends he was trying to weave in:

1. He emerges from the sea and has power over the waters.

2. He has the power to resurrect (e.g. – the little ‘red bird’ of St Serf – either a Robin or a Wren).

3. He has a magical branch (hazel or holly – the gaelic names can be confused) with which he keeps Serf’s eternal holy flames burning.

4. He resurrects a man who describes being conveyed back from the afterlife by a man of shining fiery light.

5. He conveys the dead to their resting place (the bullock cart is an interesting celestial motif)

7. Like the Cailleach of highland legend, while living as a ‘Culdee’ he exerts control over flocks of deer and wolves, who he treats like cattle, and hitches to his plough.

8. He spends an inordinate amount of time dousing himself in water and radiating holy light. When others are asleep he is awake praying – the Otherworld Inversion.

9. He disappears from the world in winter to fast. His food is the underground parts of dormant plants.

10. He sleeps in a stone sarcophagus and wears goat skins. There are a number of references to paganism in medieval and later literature which attest to ‘saints’ or spirits living in stone sarcophagi covered in water. Brownie/Phynnodderee/Glastig was a hairy half-human.

11. He is associated with a magical white boar, a special ram, and bullocks.

12. He finds a ring in the belly of a salmon. This motif also occurs in a number of traditional ‘fairy tales’ and medieval irish otherworld literature. For example, the Irish legend of Macaldus, the English fairy tale ‘The Fish and the Ring’ and the Irish Tain Bo Fraich. The Salmon returning is a motif of the returning year and the ring also – the goddess name Aine signifies a ring as well.

There are quite a few more referenes which emerge upon careful study of Jocelyn’s work, but these are the most important! Read the text and see what you think…

Otherworld themes in “Aislinge Meic Con Glinne”

The Middle-Irish prose tale Aislinge Meic Con Glinne (‘The Dream-vision of MacConglinne’) is supposed – by the style of its language and themes – to have been composed and written in the late 11th or early 12th century. Two versions of it have survived to the modern day – one (‘B’ recenscion) in the 15thC manuscript collection known as An Leabhar Breac (‘The Speckled Book’ – RIA MS 1230) and the other in the manuscript TCD MS 1337 (‘H’ recescion).

You can read a translation of it here.

Set during the 8th century, it is styled in the form of a somewhat satirical prose-tale interspersed with poetic verses, and revolves around the power of a ‘dream vision’ (Aislinge) to sway the fate of the hero of the plot – a scholastic Armagh monk by the name of Aniér Mac Conglinne, saving his life and saving the kingdoms of the South of Ireland by exorcising their High King, Cathal mac Finguine of a ‘Lon Cráis’ (sometimes translated perhaps erroneously as ‘demon of gluttony’) that had taken up residence in him.

The story contains a number of highly amusing and incisive aspects to its narrative. The first introduces the humourous, energetic, ever-fasting and hungry monastic hero-adventurer whose destiny is to save King Cathal and his subjects from their greedy and sinful ways. So eager and restless is he in his mission that he runs from Armagh to Cork in the space of a day or so. Upon arriving at the monastic hostel in Cork he finds their Benedictine christian values of hospitality severely wanting and sets about causing an annoyance to advertise this fact. This mortally upsets the monks who report his activities and (worse) his biting satires to Abbott Manchín who demands his arrest and has him tortured and prepared for execution. MacConglinne goes willingly to his fate, seeking to demonstrate his piety to the monks by way of example. This part of the tale is obviously an exemplar of the popular spirit of the late 11th and early 12th century ‘Gregorian Reforms’ of church probity and the monastic orders. which led to the explosion of new and disciplined monastic institutions. The character of MacConglinne – being a monk from Armagh who wears a white habit – is obviously designed to represent a forerunner of Malachy of Armagh who promoted the reformed Cistercian Order during the era of the tale’s apparent authorship. This allows him to hold no punches in castigating the lazy, fat, greedy and cruel monks of Cork and refer to them as ‘shit-hounds’ among other choice and amusing epithets!

The most amazing and amusing aspect of the tale comes when the starved MacConglinne is tied to a pillar-stone to await his execution and in delirious depths of his abject suffering and hunger, he is visited by an angel or spirit who grants him a vision of a land made of and peopled by food!

The fort we reached was beautiful,
With works of custards thick,
Beyond the loch.
New butter was the bridge in front,
The rubble dyke was wheaten white,
Bacon the palisade.

Stately, pleasantly it sat,
A compact house and strong.
Then I went in:
The door of it was dry meat,
The threshold was bare bread,
cheese-curds the sides.

Smooth pillars of old cheese,
And sappy bacon props
Alternate ranged;
Fine beams of mellow cream,
White rafters – real curds,
Kept up the house. (Trans. Kuno Meyer, 1892)

When the abbott arrives to see him executed the next day, MacConglinne relates his vision and the abbott and monks have second thoughts and refer him to King Cathal, believing that he may be tasked by god into casting out the King’s Lon Cráis. This ‘demon’ has made the King into a man who only takes food from his vassals and never distributes it, giving him an insatiable hunger.

MacConglinne dons the garb of a poet-juggler and arrives at the court of a local petty-king whom Cathal is visiting. He impresses his way in with his antics and satires and gains an audience with the king and promises to cure him, after relating his vision of a land of food. The king is so impressed by his abilities and religious piety that he begins tossing him apples (having given food to no man for many years) which the hero gladly eats, and this obviously causes MacConglinne’s powers to sally forth even further! He convinces the whole court (including Cathal) to fast overnight, and in the morning has Cathal bound with ropes and orders the most sumptuous foods be prepared which he then taunts him with while reciting a tale he himself has composed which embellishes upon the themes of his vision.

His new tale involves him being approached by a Scál (usually interpreted as a ‘phantom’, but in Irish tales always referring to an otherworld being who tests and/or instructs a hero). The scál sees he is sick with hunger and disease (or ‘original sin’) and instructs him to find (in the land of food) a magical healer or ‘fairy doctor’, known in Middle Irish as a fáthliaig (an archaic term meaning ‘vision-healer’ which survived into 19thC Manx Gaelic in the word fallog’). In MacConglinne’s telling, the fáthliaig advises him that he is sick, evoking a description of him suffering from a spiritual (and physical) inversion of King Cathal’s own predicament (which also reflected the poor traditional values of hospitatlity the monk had found in the South). This is typical of shamanic practice – the figurative/spiritual assumption of the sufferer’s disease by the healer in a dream-vision in order to combat it:

‘‘Pray for me!’ said I to him.’

‘‘In the name of cheese!’ said he to me. ‘Evil is the limp look of thy face,’ said the Wizard Doctor. ‘Alas! it is the look of disease. Thy hands are yellow, thy lips are spotted, thine eyes are grey. Thy sinews have relaxed, they have risen over thy eyes and over thy flesh, and over thy joints and nails. The three women have attacked thee, scarcity and death and famine, with sharp beaks of hunger. An eye that sains not has regarded thee.

The fáthliaig‘s prescription is, again, humorous – MacConGlinne must eat the finest foods, and be tended to by a beautiful woman while reclining upon soft animal skins in front of a roaring fire!  There follows a recitation of the delightful foods he must be fed which so inflames the ‘Lon Cráis’ in Cathal’s throat that it jumps out and hides under a cauldron in the fireplace, at which point after MacConglinne offers thanks to God and Brigit!

So… what is a Lon Cráis? There are repeated references in Gaelic folklore to a creature – often a type of lizard or newt – which can enter the mouths and throats of the unwary and cause a great unsatiated hunger or thirst. In Gaelic Scotland, Robert Kirk (17thC) spoke of possession by the spirit of a ‘great eater’. This was explicitly called the Lon Craois during the 19th century (see JG Campbell’s ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands Vol.2 p.366), and in Ulster and the Isle of Man the English term for it was ‘Man-Creeper’. In both cases the cure was to tempt it out with delicious food (as with Cathal) or to eat salt and lie near a well with your mouth open (Isle of Man). In both cases it appears that the condition refers to Diabetes Mellitus, where the blood is rick with sugar but the body’s cells cannot take it in. This results in dehydration, great hunger and thirst. Kuno Meyer (1892) preferred to translate the Lon as a ‘demon’, which in the context of the characters of the narrative and their beliefs seems a correct choice, even though he knew of the Scots Gaelic term. The term does not translate literally as ‘demon’ –Lon may be the otherwise attested word Lionn, which is the Irish word for ‘humor’, meaning one of the four classical/medieval humors of the body, and an imbalance of these was believed to be the mode through which disease (and moral failings) was supposed to operate. The OI/MI word Cráes means gluttony or hunger – the latter being invoked as ‘three women’ (an implicit Cailleach reference) by the vision’s seer-leech.


The ideas of food and gluttony are explicit themes around which this whole tale revolves. The implication is that the Monk of Armagh (MacConglinne, representing both Patrick and the hegemony of Continental christianity under Malachy and the Gregorian reforms) is spiritually proper in his fasting and starvation and that having plenty of physical food and not sharing it with the poor is a form of spiritual starvation. This is another ‘Otherworld Inversion’ similar to many pervading the spirituality of the Gaels or Atlantic peoples and which were deeply influential upon early European Christians. The Lon Cráis was an ‘otherworld’ force which transformed gluttony into hunger, and MacConglinne evokes an ‘otherworld’ vision of the world of this ‘creature’ (a world of food) in which he meets a ‘fairy doctor’ or ‘seer-leech’ who details his cure by having the hero invoke an inversion of Cathals’s disease upon himself so as to defeat the spirit by evocation and provocation. By causing the spirit to escape under the pressure of his bardic or poetic genius, he fulfils his original ambition to exceed his monastic limitations, and the cure is ultimately based in Atlantic otherworld doctrines, and not purely Christian:

It is clear from this text that the hero’s poetic creation of a world and narrative made of food is the force which expels the hungry spirit, not the Christian god who (along with Brigit) gets the credit at the conclusion.

As with all Middle Irish texts and stories, this tale is beset with contradictions between a pagan and a Christian narrative. The explicit connection between fasting and spiritual purity is made in the ancient Hebrew stories collected in the 5th and 4th centuries BC into the written canon of the Hebrew Bible, from which Judaism, Christianity and Islam eventually grew, and is common to many other ancient faiths. What is interesting is how the Atlantic/Gaelic view of the Otherworld and its interaction ‘through a mirror’ with ours influenced the Christian aspects of this narrative by providing a more rational idea of spiritual balance, largely lost from continental christianity in the cultural confusion of the post-Roman period….

The fate of the early Irish Brigitine church

We know from the earliest surviving hagiographic literature from Ireland (written by Cogitosus, Abbot of Kildare some time in the 7thC) that the original Irish ‘Brigitine’ monastic movement was probably one of the first forms of organised christianity that flourished in Ireland, sociologically interesting in that their communities or ‘abbeys’ apparently combined chapters of both male and female ascetics. These abbeys and their leaders are generally accepted to have been places where the children of the local aristocracy would be fostered to the care of the new political and spiritual forces influencing Ireland and Britain in the period, offering opportunities for learning and travel. It appears to have preceded the ‘Patrician’ movement which established its retrospective dominance in the ensuing four centuries of Uí Néill ascendancy, leading to Patrick becoming seen as the main patron saint of Ireland. Even by the 12th century, monastic writer Gerald of Wales was able to comment (perhaps to highlight in his eyes its need for reform) upon the strange setup at Kildare with its holy enclosures, sacred meadows and sanctuary with its eternal flame.

Cogitosus claimed that there had been an explosion of Brigitine missions and Abbeys in his own lifetime that had spread across Ireland, yet it is somewhat difficult to ascertain what and where all of these were. We can be certain that some of these were taken over by the subsequent movements of the male-centred order of Finnian and his students, perhaps in continuity of the Brigitines’ probable appropriation of goddess-centred sanctuaries for their own establishments. Indeed, the language and forms of popular legend and hagiography about characters such as Cóemgen (St Kevin of Glendalough) and Senán mac Geircinn (St Sennan of Scattery Island) contain coded references to deposed female characters and conquered ‘beasts’ – typical motifs used in dealing with indigenous paganism. It is very likely that these Irish early-christian religious institutions were established at the sites of former pagan shrines, and that many if not most of these were associated with well-springs, islands in sacred lakes and rivers and river-crossings, as well as fertile meadowlands – the typical sites of earthly goddess-worship and legends. The attributes of <Christian Brigit> in the accounts by Cogitosus and from later texts such as the Bethu Brighde were loquaciousness, fecundity, hospitality, healing powers, associations with fire and light, and some mechanical miracles.

With this in mind, Cormac’s Glossary (probably 10thC) had this to say about Brigit (trans. by John O’Donovan, Ed. Whitley Stokes):

“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 leech craft), Brigit the female smith (woman of smith work), from whose names with all Irishmen a goddess was called Brigit.”

The passage is remarkable as it makes a specific reference to a pagan Brigit and claims this was the name by which all the goddesses of Ireland were once called by the Irish! She is referenced as a creatrix through the Smith-association, a mistress of nature’s healing bounty, and an exciter of the human imagination in expressing the things of the world. Explicitly in the Sanais Chormac, she is a triple goddess of the sort seen in the characters of the Matronaes depicted in some of the statuary and bas-relief traditions of late Iron Age Atlantic European cultures: Mother goddesses perhaps representing the three generative seasons of the year…

Brigitine monasticism is likely to have taken over the reigns of traditional goddess-worship in Irish society during the 5th/6th centuries (if not earlier), and then to have been supplanted by a male-centred order under the acolytes of her supposed contemporary Finnian of Clonard (attrib. 5th/6thC) who promoted a non-feminine regime magnifying the missions of Palladius and Patrick (sometimes now referred to as the ‘two Patricks’) as the main forebears of Irish christianity. Finnian is the character that the ‘second wave’ of Irish saints depend upon for their education at his great school. However, we must necessarily question whether these religious establishments that began to cascade as far as Ireland’s westernmost extremes and into Scotland, Mann, Wales and Cornwall before leaping to the continent, were based upon pre-existing (possibly syncretic) Brigitine sites.  There is no explicit evidence to demonstrate this, but much that is oblique or indirect, as formerly commented on.

One particularly interesting piece of literary evidence from the 15thC Book of Fermoy (roughly contemporary with Chaucer) contains an explicitly Christianised version of an older tale also known as ‘The Wooing of Etain’ (earliest surviving version is from the early 12thC), but referred to in this context as Altram Tige Da Medar (‘The Fosterage of the House of the ?Two Pails’). It is set in the pseudo-historical world of the ‘Gebala Eirenn’ mythos, and tells of the warrior tribes of Tuatha De Danann and their ruler Manannan who settles them in various Sid mansions and governs them with the laws of the Otherworld. In this tale, the fairy Eithne (apparently the same character as the earlier Etain, possibly also a version of the name ‘Aine’) has an inverted ‘otherworldly’ encounter with a christian priest and his church after being abstracted from her friends while batheing in the Boyne and becomes fostered by him and becomes a Christian!

You can read a copy of it here: @MaryJones

Readers may recognise ‘Eithne’ or ‘Ethniu’ (‘Enya’) as a character who makes a number of appearances in the mythological cycle tales – as the mother of the hero Lugh. Here she is daughter of a minor Tuatha Dé Danann (TDD) noble called Dicu, fostered by Aengus, and Manannan is portrayed – curiously – as the (Christian) god-fearing ruler of the TDD who tries to bring a new rule of law and order to the fairy tribe to whom he grants their Sidhe mansions or hills. The narrative hands to Eithne (for which we might also read (C)ethlinne or ‘Aine’) the role as the first TDD to become a Christian – fostered by one of Patrick’s priests. It is almost analogous to the early Bridget hagiographies in this regard – building a sympathetic or syncretic bridge between the pagan past and the Christian future which the Book of Fermoy’s 15thC aristocratic patrons must have enjoyed.  Manannan also fulfils the function of ‘Christian Godsend’ that Charles MacQuarrie suggests in his ‘Waves of Manannan’ thesis – an acceptable pagan analogy of the Christian god, who the narrator has Manannan hail and recommend in his role as benevolent otherworld leader of the TDD:

‘…The nobles inquired of Manannan where Ealcmar would find rest. ‘I know not’, said Manannan, ‘and no prophet or sage in the whole world knows, but the one God almighty knows.’ …. ‘

The displacement of Brigitine syncretism became a significant ambition of narrative traditions from the 6/7thC and therefore appears to have continued as late as the 15th century. After all, heresy was always the main home enemy of western christianity and from the 15th century would evolve into something known as the ‘witch craze’ where pagan folk-traditions would eventually under intense scrutiny by both the religious AND secular authorities and become a victim of the polemic of popular culture.


“Brede, Brede, tar gys my thie, tar dyn thie ayms noght.
   Foshil jee yn dorrys da Brede, as lhig da Brede e beet staigh.”

” Bridget, Bridget, come to my house, come to my house to-night.
   Open the door for Bridget, and let Bridget come in.”

Manx invocation to Brighde (taken from William Harrison’s Mona Miscellany – Manx Society Vol. 16, p.137).

This was a tradition recorded from the second half of the 19th century in the Isle of Man. The invocation was made at the threshold of the house at sunset on the eve of St Bridget’s Day (1st Feb) while holding a handful of green rushes – symbolic of hospitality from ancient times. The rushes were then sprinkled to make a welcoming path into the house, which Harrison describes as a ‘carpet or bed’ for the saint or goddess. In the Hebrides, Carmichael recorded the tradition of women making an actual bed for Bride who they represented by a ‘Corn Dolly’ (Carmina Gaedelica Vol.1). Those familiar with the rush-bearing traditions of the Isle of Man will know that these were also related to Manannan – as a tax the people of the island used to pay the god, and that are still sprinkled on the processional way at the annual Tynwald midsummer festival. They exude a sweet smell when trodden and are soft under the feet. On old Irish welcome greeting was ‘May we strew green rushes under your feet’ (from the Folklore Commission Collection, Delargy Centre, University College Dublin).

The idea was one of welcoming the returning year. When it was recorded, the island had been Protestant since the 16th century but saints such as Bridget, Columba and Patrick still had popular currency as they were held to be the originators of christianity in the region. Curiously though, the saint’s day in the Isle of Man had another name with a distinctly pagan flavour – perhaps unsurprising at it also fell on the ancient Atlantic cross-quarter-day festival known in Irish as Imbolc. In the Isle of Man, the day was also known as the day of the Caillagh ny Groamagh, meaning ‘Old/Veiled Woman of the Gloom’.  It was celebrated on Old St Bridget’s Day (i.e. – by the Julian calendar) on the 12th of February, the Manx preferring to keep the Julian calendar for many of their important festivals including Christmas (Shen Laa Nollick) and Midsummer’s Day (Tynwald Day).

It is quite important to understand that there is an etymological connection between the words Caillagh (Irish/Scots: Cailleach) and the name ‘Brighde’ or ‘Bride’: This is expressed in the Manx Gaelic word for ‘a veil, cover, hood; a sheltered part of the mountains…’, which is ‘Breid’ (Source: Kelly’s Dictionary), and ‘Brat’, ‘Brut’ or ‘Brot’ (Source: eDIL – consider the Germanic words for ‘bread’ when interpreting these!). In other words – they appear to be the same character: The ‘Old Woman’ whose ‘veil’ was ‘ever- renewed’ as the ancient Irish poem related… The Goddess as a metaphor for the annual cycle – the ‘saint’ known as Brighid or Bride.