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Why Is Brigit So Hungry?

By Christopher Scott Thompson

The_Bard

Although this is a lovely public domain painting of a bard by John Martin, it is not necessarily what bards actually look like.

 

The Scottish folktale “Great Brid of the Horses” survives only in a version collected from Cape Breton Gaelic storyteller Joe Neil MacNeil and published in Tales Until Dawn in 1987, but the concepts in this story are much older.

“Great Brid of the Horses” is based on a medieval Irish tale called “Proceedings of the Grand Bardic Assembly.” The original version is a story about the high-handed behavior of the fili or elite bards of Ireland under the leadership of famous poet Senchan Torpeist, who has a voraciously hungry wife named Brigit.

In “Great Brid of the Horses,”Senchan does not appear in person and the poets are led by a woman named Brid. Since the group is still called “Senchan’s Band” and Brid is just a variant of Brigit, this must be Senchan’s wife.

“Great Brid of the Horses” is greedy, demanding and unreasonable. Her personality is so different from the popular image of Brigit that they don’t seem to be the same sort of entity at all. Still, as the wife of Ireland’s greatest fili this Brigit could well have some connection to Brigit the goddess of poetry. This raises the question – why is Brigit so hungry?

Bardic Extortion

Senchan Torpeist is the anti-hero of “The Proceedings of the Grand Bardic Assembly,” which is essentially a satire on the mafia-like behavior of the fili or poets. Because the clan chiefs and provincial kings of ancient Ireland were terrified of the magic power of a bardic satire (and of the fact that a satire could destroy a heroic reputation overnight), the poets were able to take advantage of the situation and impose on the kings.

When Senchan Torpeist was elected chief poet of Ireland, he decided to set the tone for his reign by visiting the good King Guaire with a vast following of lesser-ranked poets, hoping to bankrupt Guaire and force him to be less-than-flawlessly-generous to the poets. Senchan intended to use the slightest lapse on Guaire’s part as an excuse to satirize him, thus destroying the good king and establishing Senchan’s reputation as a poet to be feared and respected by all.

When Senchan’s wife Brigit sent a plate of food up to his room as a present, Senchan was enraged to find it eaten by rats or mice. He composed a satire on the creatures, and ten of them were killed by his magic power. (An incident so famous it was referenced by Shakespeare!) He then satirized the cats of the world because they failed to kill the mice, but Hirusan the King of the Cats came up out of the Cave of Cnogda to get revenge on Senchan. The monster cat ran away with Senchan, but St. Kieran saw it carrying the bard off and killed it with a flaming iron bar he happened to have handy.

Far from being happy at his fortunate rescue, Senchan was so put out that he remained gloomy of temperament for the rest of his days, because if he had been eaten alive by Hirusan then the Grand Bardic Assembly would have had the excuse they needed to satirize King Guaire.

As it happens, King Guaire was able to get rid of the Grand Bardic Assembly by asking them to recite the lost epic of the Tain, which shamed them into leaving and setting off on the quest by which the Tain was eventually recovered. As they were leaving, Senchan did refer to Guaire as “stainless” but added rather ominously that “We shall visit thee again, O Guaire, though now we depart.”

In “Great Brid of the Horses,” the poets impose themselves on a king and their leader Brid demands a series of impossible things such as blackberries in January, a meal of a pig that has never been born and a ride on a white horse with red ears. The symbolism of Brid’s demands is complex and symbolic, and seems to have something to do with the powers of the underworld. (As does the anecdote about her husband Senchan being dragged away by a monstrous cat who lives in a cave – raw cat flesh and raw pork were both used as sacrificial offerings by the fili when performing divination rituals.)

However, “Great Brid of the Horses” is not the only story about Senchan’s Band – in fact, these stories form a genre of their own in Highland folklore, and some of the other versions shed a different light on the entire concept.

Masterful Beggars

Starting in the late 16th century, the government of Scotland began to pass a series of repressive laws against wandering bards and other “masterful beggars” in the Scottish Highlands, ordering them to flee the country on pain of mutilation and death.

Masterful beggars were people who roamed from place to place “sorning” or demanding hospitality from clan chiefs and other powerful people. In traditional Gaelic society, the rich and powerful were expected to provide generous hospitality on demand to nearly anyone who asked for it, and any rich man who failed to do so would have been scorned by everyone.

This custom was, in effect, a social welfare system – privilege carried with it an absolute obligation to be generous. Sorners and masterful beggars could not be asked to move on, so they would often attach themselves to a particular chief and live on his largess for as long as possible. A chief could get rid of his sorners only if he could meet certain ritualized conditions. For instance, a wandering swordfighter could only be asked to leave if the chief could find a local swordfighter capable of defeating the wanderer in a broadsword match. A wandering bard could only be asked to leave if the chief could find a local person to defeat the bard in a battle of wits. (Or, as my wife Cicely would have it, an “MC battle.”)

There were different categories of sorners, who were generally expected to provide some sort of service in exchange for the chief’s hospitality. According to James Garden, writing in 1692, wandering bardic troupes usually included “excellent poets” or what he called phili (the elite fili of Gaelic tradition), storytellers and genealogists or sheanachi, conversationalists and news-carriers or kreahkirin and riddlers or kheakirin. Garden also mentions fiddlers and women who sang Gaelic songs, and notes that such wandering bands of entertainers were known as Chlearheanachi. Whenever a bardic troupe came into a certain district, they would take turns visiting the local chief to provide entertainment and receive his gifts.

According to the Gaelic scholar John Shaw in his article “Scottish Gaelic Traditions of the Cliar Sheanchain,” these troupes were colloquially known in the Highlands as the Cliar Sheanchain or Senchan’s Band, just like the group in “Great Brid of the Horses.” Although the earlier “Proceedings of the Grand Bardic Assembly” portrays Senchan’s troupe as a band of high-ranking fili, the later Scottish Gaelic folklore uses the phrase Cliar Sheanchain for bands of sorners.

Brigit of the Great Hunger

According to Shaw, the name Great Brid of the Horses or Brid Mhor Each, is actually a later misinterpretation of Brigit Mhor-shaithech, a phrase that originally meant “Brigit of the Great Appetite,” referring to the wife of Senchan Torpeist. I would suggest that the name may not be merely a misinterpretation but a play on words, as the double meaning would have been appealing to any Gaelic storyteller. In Highland stories, the battle of wits between the Cliar Sheanchain and the local wit always ends when the local says something so clever that it stupefies or silences the bard – an act known as “putting the black mare” on the silenced person. This was seen as an act of magic, not just of cleverness, so there is an association between magic power, superior wit and horses.

So, if Great Brid of the Horses is also Brigit of the Great Hunger, we return to the original question – why is Brigit so hungry? The fili were a high status class in ancient Irish society, so why would the wife of Ireland’s chief fili be hungry at all? The story presents it solely as a case of bardic avarice, but there’s more going on here than meets the eye.

Direct Action

Shaw mentions another variation on “Proceedings of the Grand Bardic Assembly,” collected from Highland storyteller Archibald MacTavish in 1881 or 1882. In this version of the tale, the members of the Cliar Sheanchain are described as “five hundred blind men, and five hundred deaf men, five hundred lame men, and five hundred dumb men, and five hundred crippled men” along with their wives, children and dogs. Other accounts of the Cliar Sheanchain indicate that the bardic troupes were actually much smaller than this – maybe a dozen or two people in a band. However, this description is quite revealing.

The repressive acts of the Scottish government against the bards in the late 16th and early 17tth centuries were not directed against the high-status professional fili retained on a full-time basis by clan chiefs, but only against the wandering “masterful beggars” of the Cliar Sheanchain. These laws were not designed to destroy the bardic institution per se, just the wanderers who demanded hospitality under threat of magical satire. Why exactly did they do so? Not because they were uncontrollably greedy as most of the stories suggest, but because they were homeless people, often with physical disabilities, who needed material assistance to survive.

Gaelic culture, over the centuries, had developed an effective social welfare system in which the poor and disadvantaged could compel assistance from the powerful through magical acts of “direct action.” The law intervened to crush them, by scourging, branding and hanging defiant bards.

“Great Brid of the Horses” is also “Brigit of the Great Hunger,” not because the bards are greedy but because her people are hungry. She is the ruling spirit of the Cliar Sheanchain, their protector and champion, a goddess vilified even in the lore that preserved her name – just as the homeless and hungry are vilified still.

“Scottish Gaelic Traditions of the Cliar Sheanchain” by John Shaw:

http://goo.gl/ihKmIZ

24 Comments »

  1. I agree, that painting certainly is epic!

    I’m a bit confused by this passage:
    When Senchan’s wife Brigit sent a plate of food up to his room as a present, Senchan was enraged to find it eaten by rats or mice.

    Did Brigit send it to Guaire? If she sent it up to her husband in Guaire’s dwelling, it makes no sense, especially as I can’t see making something in a dwelling not one’s own, and it being a “gift” to her own husband.

    Was there a transposition of names, or am I missing something?

    I hope your Cicely is sweet–and I just learned that the American herb and the European herb of that name are not the same critter.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this. I’d never heard of Great Brid of the Horses, Senchan Torpeist or Senchan’s Band, although it would make sense that this Celtic goddess who in most of her guises is a goddess of bards would have a band of them in the Scots Gaelic tradition. And really interesting the way you have shown they could be the hungry and villified…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Given the dates, I wonder if the “Great Hunger” here is possibly a reference to The Great Hunger, .i. the Famine?

    It also seems a wonderful thing to me that being a fili, the very pinnacle of the social classes in Gaelic societies, was something open to anyone regardless of their physically able-bodied status. The blind or in other ways disabled poets of narrative and history are plentiful…

    Liked by 2 people

  4. brehan law was the basis of the old Scottish laws that were from the gaelic sources. while the gaelic monarchs were in power brehan laws were wide spread and left a permanent impact on Scottish law. after the 16th century the gaelic monarchy had become European and basically English lowland and they tried to repress many old gaelic traditions.

    the brehan law gave scottland and the anglo legal world the law of negligence. it came from donaghue v. Stevenson, which was a negligence case arising from Scotland but when approved by the judicial committee of the british house of lords became the law for all English common law jurisdictions. this case established the neighbourhood principle which says you have some responsibility to look out for you neighbours, even when the harms they suffer are accidental. before this there was no tradition of negligence suits in Britain or America.(of course then there were many cases that established the extent of your responsibility to your neighbours–we used to joke in law school that people kept pouring oil into harbours and setting it afire to test the extent of responsibility because of three such cases that went to the house of lords–the polemis/ucases)

    the brehan law was very progressive in protecting the poor and the disabled. there are few other such legal traditions in the medieval world, outside of tribal cultures. hence as the british empire military capitalist system arose they tried to destroy all the legal protections for the poor and powerless. this is followed by the American example. it is worth remembering where these public rights traditions come from.

    there was a long tradition of personal rights within the brehan law. penalties were harsher for the rich and powerfull for many offences, because they were better able to find alternatives to breaking the law to achieve their goals. and equally the poor and disabled were often forgiven offences because they had few other options. very very different from English law.

    the destruction of gaelic cutlute by the 800-900 years of English invasions did destroy much of this but some remained, especially in Scotland where the few gaelic lords sometimes maintained their independence, or at least required the lowland lords to compromise with them.

    I think it is very important to recognize these ancient traditions as gaelic, and to recognize that the imperialism of military capitalism, which is still making war in every part of the globe, is a product of five hundred years of british.american military capitalist imperialism. it is equally important to recognize that many pagan traditions are cultural appropriation of gaelic traditions and althought that’s fine, to not exclude those from an actual gaelic tradition. I say the last because I personally have regularily found that people practicing English masonry, and English wicca, come into gaelic paganism and proclaim them selves gaelic(or celtic), then censor or push out all the actual gaels. I support everyones right to make up and syncretize what ever tradition they want, but if you fail to recognize your sources in a meaningfull way then you will likely become part of the anglo military capitalist culture, and hence once more time drive out real celtic and gaelic traditions.

    as an example is was recently censored y my local group for referring to the English in Ireland as “invaders”, because it might upset set the English in the group. the invasion of Ireland is an historical truth and to deny it is akin to holocaust denial. there are many forms of denial of gaelic culture. scotts call us highlanders–we do not, we call ourselves gaels. the reason for the change is that if we are geographical region then the ethnic cleansing wasn’t actually ethnic cleansing but a geographical oddity of history, and if you call us, what we call ourselves, gaels-then you might be acknowledging the fact of the ethnic distinction and hence the ethnic cleansing of Scottish gaels.(and irish gaels as well)

    gaels in cape Breton and north nova scotia are a very tolerant culture, and a traditionally very oppressed culture. we really don’t need a new round of anglos telling us what to do. really. you are welcome to borrow and participatre but show some respect for those who are still alive.

    gaelic culture is intimately involved with the languages, and the music and song. if you are not doing traditional gaelic music, songs poetry and language you are not a gael. you may be borrowing and creative in your use, but you should not call your self a gael of a celtic tradition. that is an insult to those who are doing these things. its fine to borrow but be honest and acknowledge it, and above all, do not then go ahead and drive out and censor those who are doing traditional work. frankly I have given up on “celtic paganism” because they keep cencoring and driving out traditionalists.

    he need to dominate is endemic to anglo culture pagan or not. I implore people to be a bit more self aware when they are kicking out, censoring and name calling to gaels for having a different point of view then the English do. we are different, we have different traditions, we are not a monolithic culture but we traditionally allow a great deal of debate and dissent. anglo culture does not, and anglo paganism does not. again I was also recently called a troll for discussing these very issues, even a few times called a racist. people who are trying to keep their culture alive from the dominant anglo culture are not racists. it’s the opposite.(and very prominent people and groups have done this).

    so it is important to acknowledge the examples of gaelic tradition that have come into modern culture, and to allow them to thrive and grow. the legal tradition fo the law of negligence and the traditions of gaelic culture to support the weak poor and powerless is worth recognizing and preserving.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hello John! I do not call myself a Gael as I don’t have any basis for claiming that identity. However, I do pray in Gaelic at least three times a day and also sing Gaelic songs on a daily basis. (I’ve been singing my girls to sleep with them since they were born!) I feel very strongly that anyone involved in Celtic paganism should hold the preservation of Gaelic culture as a central value. Thank you very much for your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

      • tapheat leat, agus thanks. to be clear, I do not believe that gaels are a race, and I do not believe that any racially based theory is supportable by any science or rational thought. I do believe that gaels are an ethnic cultural group with some common dna but not always. what makes a person a gael is participation in gaelic culture, not ones back ground. I have African canadian and African American and even one African English friend who is a gael. they mostly play harp or another traditional instruments and try to play traditional stuff at least some of he time.(i’m not a fanatic–I have been known to break out in a bob Dylan song from time to time) I also believe that this was part of the old tradition. there were many clans that were norse, but settled and became ethnic gaels, and many instances of leader from as far away as Italy who settled and became gaels. (the first maccrimmon piper is thought by some to have been Italian, and his name was thought to be mac Cremona–plural mac cremonean. then maccrimmon. hard to be sure. but that’s my point. if one is doing traditional. stuff its great. if not it’s kind of insulting to clain you are, especially if you are also kicking people out and censoring people who are ethnic gaels. which as I said I have encountered many times–to the point that I have come to think it’s a lost cause. the internet generation is so lacking in self reflection, and so full of self righteousness that we are entering a new era of mass discrimination. this new discrimination takes new forms but it’s still discrimination. now dissenters are demonized as terrorists or mentally ill, nit as heathens(for those who don’t know the majority of nova scotia and ontario English used to call us heatherns((which is quite ironic)) or barbarians when I was young–i’m 62 now) to which I would say–“you say that like it’s a bad thing”

        but having said that, if you have been raised entirely in English culture, and have learned no traditional celtic langauges or other culture-like song, or poetry, you shouldn’t be telling gaels what to do. I have know quite a few like this.(I won’t name names). I’ve sat at pagan bardic circles listening to modern folk, with my ancient harp, and never got to play, and I have been told I wasn’t welcome because I criticized the scholarship of a guy who wrote books on celtic traditions without learning any celtic language. in no other field can you be a literary expert without learning the languages, or even get a decent dregree in the field without learning the languages. I has to learn academic French to get my history degrees. it’s standard. in celtic studies is wasn’t standard in English universities until about twenty five years ago–which was the only department like that, but now the chair of celtic studies at Cambridge has to learn at least one celtic language. hence anything written before that was mostly written by people who never read the original sources, and in fact they most dismissed the original sources as gobble de gook. the origional sources are difficult, my gaelic isn’t all that good,, but it is fun to try to understand the ancient poetry. but it shows how much bigotry was engrained in English culture that only in celtic history did the experts not have to learn the languages.

        I sing mostly in English. and a little French. gaelic singing is difficult and I am a bit conflicted because I used to hear it sung correctly, so I am self conscious of my mistakes.(I haven’t actually spoken gaelic as a social language since I was about seven years old-no longer anyone to speak to).

        I should also say that non celtic gardnarians and other non celtic pagans were the most supportive to me. it’s the ones who want to be the celtic bosses who just arrived who make the trouble, and many are very skillfull at it. this perfectly parrellells colonialism. the colonizers arrive and take over and reinterpret the culture to serve their own purposes and disenfranchise the natives.

        sorry for my terrible typing.my eyesight is getting worse and I am from the time of the Dictaphone.

        Liked by 2 people

      • John, I couldn’t agree more. Hopefully as time goes by people interested in Celtic paganism will become more reflective and more respectful of the rights of the people whose spirituality interests them so much.

        Like

    • I have no Celtic blood, from any of the Celtic nations, in my genes to the best of my knowledge, but the music, the language, the songs, and the countries feel *right* to me. When I stepped off the train in Inverness, it felt like home. Scotland itself has had a pull on me since I was in highschool–about the same time as you! I picked up Socts fairly easily through folksong, fiction, and who knows what else, and I can look at some words in Erse or Gaelic and be able to pronounce them and translate them to their English equivalents. I am proud to say I can understand Glaswegian speakers.

      Brittany caught me by surprise via music (les Soeurs Goadec, and a few others, even before Alan Stivell), and I began to learn more about the politics of being un Breton bretonnant–a modern-day Breton-speaking Breton.

      I have yet to find a course on learning Breton (or Basque (no easy language–took the devil seven years to learn it) or Icelandic or Navajo), but I did take a class in Old French (mostly the literature thereof) and found it easier to work with than any of my classmates. I guess I channel language…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “The repressive acts of the Scottish government against the bards in the late 16th and early 17tth centuries were not directed against the high-status professional fili retained on a full-time basis by clan chiefs, but only against the wandering “masterful beggars” of the Cliar Sheanchain.”

    It’s awfully intriguing that this comes during that period which saw many other ends of ancient obligations, each cascading atop the next to a point when ‘all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of venerable prejudices and opinions [were] swept away.” and the utter destruction of community that was Capitalism could finally come about. Those obligations which acted as social correctives, once gone, really allowed all sorts of crimes against kin (I’ve been thinking of the Clearances a lot lately…)

    There are so many parallels to mention, but one, anyway. was seen in the British Colonies a century later, when old traditions of carousing and forceful begging from the rich during festivals–particularly Christmas–became outlawed and replaced with the placid, domestic holiday we know now.

    Thanks for this essay!

    Liked by 4 people

    • And while charity became an emphasized part of Christmas (much due to the efforts of Charles Dickens) charity is a very different thing than justice- “I’m doing this to be a nice” in a voluntary way vs. “It’s part of my social role/a matter of honor to share & be hospitable” The English Poor Laws (and divisions of “deserving & undeserving”) are the root of much of our social welfare policy both in Britain & the U.S. The Brehon system has more of an ethic of restorative justice, a revival of which we are starting to see on a grassroots level in various places.

      Liked by 5 people

  6. and yes the advent of laissez faire capitalism, which I call military capitalism, led to a series of enclosures, literally and socially, that disenfranchised the majority of people, both English and celtic. this helped pave the way for the imperial era and destroyed opposition for centuries. the clearances were a genocide(and completely militarizex british culture according to class and rank). in Ireland and Scotland. gaels were once %40 of the population. now under %5. we barely surrived even in nova scotia. the quarantine island off Canada saw the deaths of possibly a million people who came in the coffin ships but were to sick to survive. and british historians do not count their numbers among the dead from the deportation and famine. ten feet out to sea and you didn’t count. there are approximately a quarter million gaels buried on grosse isle in the mouth of the st Lawrence river, alone. it was a holocaust. it’s amazing anything survived.

    the quarantine island in the st john river and the mirimichi each and another 30 to 40 thousand burrials. and these quarantine stations were all up and down the east coast. that’s laissez faire capitalism folks. that free enterprise!!

    and in the Bengal there were several major famines after the british took over. three million starved in 1943/44, and over ten million in the eighteenth century. and the authorities wasted no money on food for the poor, but they kept collecting rents or forclosing on those who could not pay. it was a very ugly system.

    gore vidal said it best”the british practiced genocide in Ireland , then the took the show on the road, arriving on the coast of California all dressed up for empire and no one left to kill–so they invaded the philipenes!”

    I am not anti capitalist, but I am against the form we now have. I support economic democracy . preferably socialist and democratic but we do not have economic democracy now.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Rhyd. I have always thought that there is a natural ethic to both giving and receiving help.

    Never give help in such a way as to embarrass the one that you are helping.

    Never make the person helping sorry that he did help you.

    Both sides of this, to me, are equally important.

    I use a walker and often have people wanting to help, sometimes more than I need. But I always politely thank them because I don’t believe in punishing a person who was trying to be decent.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I try to ask: would you care for some assistance? when facing someone having a hard time doing something. I don’t say “need”, and “care for” sounds more pleasant than “want”.

      When someone asks me if I need/want assistance getting my sister’s wheelchair in or out of the car, I welcome it thankfully. I think the main reason I have a hernia is due to being unable to lift it properly into the back of my stationwagon. I’m short, female, and it’s heavy for someone with little upper body strength.

      I also thank politely when I don’t need it, for much the same reason you do.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Isn’t amazing how much nicer life is when people are willing to freely cooperate with each other, both in helping and in being helped. Cooperation is something often missing, in our competitive society where competition is rated high at all costs. But in doing so, we are left with having to do everything ourselves and that can be scary, because we all have limits at some point in our lives. Once I could lift sixty pounds comfortably, now thirty-five pounds is my limit.

        Liked by 2 people

      • hey, i’m gratefull not to be kicked off these posts. that’s what usually happened when I talk about gaelic issues. i’m travelling for the nest six weeks–might not post again unless I have a handy computer. thanks agus tapheat leat

        Liked by 2 people

      • “Peter Tremayne” who writes the Sister Fidelma mysteries had fuchsia hedgerows in 9th C. Ireland. Interesting, since they were only discovered in the New World several centuries later:
        Fuchsia is a genus of flowering plants that consists mostly of shrubs or small trees. The first, Fuchsia triphylla, was discovered on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola (present day Dominican Republic and Haiti) about **1696–1697** by the French Minim monk and botanist, Charles Plumier during his third expedition to the Greater Antilles. He named the new genus after the renowned **German botanist Leonhart Fuchs (1501–1566)**.

        I’m told his non-fiction is also riddled with error, but the fuchsia and the mysogyny inherent in the books made them wall bangers and not to be purchased or borrowed thereafter.

        Like

      • It is very pleasant when more courtesy, which I think of as a facet of hospitality, is found. I also try to spread it in various small ways that might brighten someone’s day.

        I sow it, so that I and many others, might reap its harvest.

        Liked by 1 person

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