A Poem For Bridget

I often find myself discussing religion, or religious philosophy, or religious metaphor with people. I practice a non-mainstream religion, and even inside Paganism my beliefs are archaic and esoteric. So when I use a term (such as: Jungian Archetypes, Liminal Edge, the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh) I pause and tip my head questioningly at whomever I’m speaking to: “Do you need that explained?”

Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but it makes the conversation go smoother.

I was thinking about the Goddess Bridget (because of the season, neh?) in my morning meditation period (which could also be described as ‘dozing’) and I realized that I rarely have to explain a reference to Her, even to people that I do have to explain “Lugh” or “An Dagda” references to. Bridget is described in the good books (modern explications of lore and Pagan thought) as “pan-Celtic.” Generally I take issue with the term “Celtic” because some people use it as a religious descriptor (“I follow a Celtic Path”). In my world, the response to that is an automatic: “Which hearth-culture?” This is because, like the tribes of the First Peoples, the Celtic cultures are different. Strictly speaking, “Celtic” refers to a common group of languages that derive from a non-Romance root. The cultures of the peoples and countries that speak those languages are not analogous; one bit of one culture cannot be popped into a similar-but-not-identical slot in another.

But Bridget is actually pan-Celtic in that She appears in almost all of the Celtic cultures in one personification or another. Sometimes more blacksmith-y, sometimes more midwife-y. Sometimes drinking only the milk of a white, red-eared cow (do you know what “red-eared” refers to?), sometimes hanging Her cloak/brat on a sunbeam.

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Bridget is more than pan-Celtic—even people who are not referencing Celtic lore in their religions (“I am spiritual, not religious’) recognize Her. “Well,” says Other Meditative Mind, “you are speaking mainly to white, European-derived, middle-class people when you discuss religion. Your reference group is skewed.”

Very true. So I think about, for example, the Chinese. What about Vodoun?

Then I realize the truth behind the meditative mind—

Religion has a Goddess of Kindness.

(Sometimes also a little Firmness or Kick-Your-Assness stirred in.)

Because we need Her to listen to us.

Imbolc 2016

Her hand over the refugee,

Bridget is there.

The hunters find a honey-tree,

Bridget is there.
Inside the tiny cardboard shack,

Bridget is there.

The beaten spouse will not come back,

Bridget is there.
Street-child finds a coin in the dirt,

Bridget is there.

Aid-centre hands out a clean shirt,

Bridget is there.
“Wait, we’re really not that different!”

Bridget is there.

Cop fails to see the homeless tent,

Bridget is there.
A human being cries out in pain,

Bridget is there.

Fire ignites the artist’s brain

Bridget is there.
Somewhere a child goes to school,

Bridget is there.

The people rise up against misrule,

Bridget is there.
We all have something that we fear,

Bridget is here.


Judith O’Grady

judithis an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’).

Gods of a Radical

Prayer to the Goddess of the City

 

In wooden beams, in bricks, in cobblestones

I see your face and feel your watching eyes.

And when the alleys moan

With wind I hear your cries.

You dance in every shaking sign

And drink when gutters run with spilled red wine.

You slip unnoticed in your all-night walk

Through empty playgrounds marked with fading chalk.

You sleep on benches in the winter cold

Forever growing old.

You see all secret things, and know all crimes

Committed on your streets. And you reveal

All things the wicked wish they could conceal.

When paper skitters down an empty street

At 3AM, I hear you walking past.

And I can hear the echoes of your feet

In sirens and in breaking glass.

Protect all those you pass along your way

And see them through until the light of day.

Oh goddess of my city, I am poor.

Keep hunger from my family’s door.

Protect my neighbors from the storm

And keep us all well-fed and warm.

And I, in gratitude, will do the same

For others, in your name.


This has been an emotionally and spiritually exhausting time to be a writer for Gods and Radicals. Apparently, writing about pagan religious practice and radical politics in the same space makes you a “fanatic peddling a divisive agenda” as one “apolitical polytheist” described me.

While the initial controversy was set off by a page about the New Right in pagan movements, many of the critics have made it clear that they don’t want Gods and Radicals to exist at all. In their minds, any discussion of left-wing politics in a religious context is illegitimate. The most common criticism seems to be that we aren’t really motivated by religion, and that the only thing we care about is politics.

Now, I’ll give them this much. If a person is willing to stand up with me and fight the powers that are despoiling this planet, I don’t care if that person is a pagan or not. I’m happy to stand on the barricades with an atheist or a Christian. I don’t think the revival and growth of polytheism is more important than the crises currently facing this planet, and frankly I can’t understand the values of anyone who would.

That doesn’t mean I “don’t put the gods first” as so many are saying. It also doesn’t mean that I think my gods are telling me what side to fight on. Just to be clear, Brighid never came down from above and told me to be an anti-capitalist, and neither did Macha.

On the other hand, the lore and mythology associated with Brighid and Macha has implications for both society and my daily life, and I happen to take those implications seriously. Why? Because I take my gods seriously, of course.

In the lore about the various Brighids of Irish mythology, we find them mourning war, asserting the rights of women and the poor, and standing up to rulers and kings. Doesn’t this imply something about the values Brighid represents and manifests?

In the lore of Macha, the goddess dies in battle fighting the oppressive Fomorians, then comes back in human form only to die when she is forced to race the horses of the king of Ulster. She curses the warriors of Ulster in vengeance. Doesn’t this imply something about the need to make sacrifices to fight oppression, and about Macha’s attitude to unjust rulers?

These stories may imply something different to you than they do to me. That’s fine, there’s no one right way to read a myth. And your gods may have different values from my gods. That’s your business. But if your god’s lore implies something to you and you choose to ignore it, you can hardly say you’re “putting the gods first.” The lore of my gods implies certain values, I take those values seriously, and I guide my life by them.

As such, there is no conceivable way my polytheism could be apolitical.


Christopher Scott Thompson

Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/.

 

Barkeep Brigit

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Having posted a formal curse and a fist-waving protest poem, I thought I’d contribute something a little happier. This poem is a modern interpretation of Brig Briugu, the Brigit of hospitality and abundance, as a goddess of post-scarcity anarchism! 

Christopher Scott Thompson


Clink of glasses, sparkling lager,

Sweet brown ale and bowls of stew,

Heaping plates of bread and butter-

Barkeep Brigit brings those too.

Brigit of the bees and honey,

Bless us with your cheerful smile.

Open all the doors and call us

To your table for a while.

Call the ones who wait for dinner,

Tell them all are welcome here.

Bring us joy with clinking glasses,

Food and bread and foaming beer.

Call the ones who wait in hunger,

Tell them none are turned away.

Let us feast with songs and stories

Past the dawning of the day.

 

Christopher Scott Thompson

Christopher Scott Thompson is a writer, historical fencing instructor and founding member of Clann Bhride, the Children of Brighid. He was active with Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy St. Paul. His political writing can be found at https://alienationorsolidarity.wordpress.com/.

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


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