Brigit: Goddess, Saint, ‘Holy Woman,’ and Bone of Contention
Carole M. Cusack
On A Panegyrical Note: Studies in Honour of Garry W. Trompf, Sydney Studies in Religion, 6, Sydney, 2007, pp. 75-97.
The vitae of Brigit of Kildare have received considerable scholarly attention. However, tension exists between purely textual studies, which concentrate on demonstrating the Christian orthodoxy of the material in the vitae and the ways in which these texts contribute to knowledge of the early Irish church, and the folkloric/comparative studies which indicate close ties with pre-Christian Irish religion and the transformation of Brigit from pagan goddess to Christian saint. This tension recently led Seamas O Cathain to suggest the term ‘Holy Woman’ for Brigit, avoiding favouring either pagan or Christian interpretations, side-stepping the otherwise inevitable ‘bone of contention’. This paper examines these two areas of ‘Brigit studies,’ questioning the methodological assumptions underlying the rigid sequestration of textual studies from other forms of evidence.
It is demonstrated that insistence on the Christian orthodoxy of Brigit and of early medieval Irish Christianity is misleading and can only be maintained through this sequestration; once all the evidence is presented it is clear that the figure of Brigit and surrounding traditions have pagan origins and indicate the syncretic nature of early Irish Christianity. Finally, O Cathain’s descriptor, ‘Holy Woman,’ to define Brigit is endorsed.