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The Rites of Brigid: Goddess & Saint by Sean O’Duinn

I really loved this book. As an overview of the traditions and rites associated with St. Bride in Ireland, and speculation of their pre-Christian origins in the cult of the Goddess this exceeded my expectations.

Friar O’Duinn who lives at Glenstal Abbey in Ireland gives an academic and unbiased description. He compares the various components of the rites on St. Brigid’s day in Ireland to the cults and festivals of other saints to show what was quite normal in the veneration of a saint, and what was clearly influenced by other beliefs. I particularly liked his assertion that both the Brideog procession and the Threshold rites on St. Brigid’s day symbolise Bride’s return from the Otherworld, something not generally appropriate for Saints who tended to remain in Heaven. I see this as a very good argument for their being derived from earlier traditions.

Of perhaps the greatest value are the many first person descriptions of the rites he has collected from various Irish sources and translated in to English for the reader. These pieces show how the rites varied by locality and are worth the price of the book alone, whether or not you get value from O’Duinn’s speculations.

One of my few peeves with this work is the occasional reference to a Goddess as ‘the fertility goddess’ or ‘the mother goddess’ without specifying which one is meant, as the Celts clearly had several. However references of this kind were few and far between, so it’s certainly readable despite this.

I also took issue with some of his speculation, such as his comparing the symbolism of the Cros Bride with the lozenge and dot found on some ‘goddess’ figures in central Europe. Likewise, while I support his pet theory, that the Celts had a ‘Purusha’ type creation myth, I think he goes too far by suggesting that the rushes used to form the Brideog then being pulled apart to make Cros Bride is a form of mythic dismemberment.

Overall this is an excellent work and I would definitely recommend it to anyone as a solid source book for the traditions and rites surrounding La Fheile Bride and Bride’s wells in Ireland. It is useful in a practical sense for those wishing to reconstruct the rites and as a starting point for meditations on the symbolism of the many aspects of our beloved Bride.

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The Cros Bride is the symbol par excellence of St. Bride of Kildare and is also widely accepted and made for Her festival by those who honour Her in polytheistic traditions. I would like to look at both the traditionally recognised symbolism of the Cros and muse a little on other possibilities.

The story of St. Bride and the cross is commonly referenced in connection to it’s Christian symbolism. St Bride, at the death bed of her pagan father made a cross from the rushes strewn on the floor and with this explained the passion of Christ to him, thus converting him before he died. Although the Cros Bride is usually equal armed, unlike the traditional Christian Cross, it is worth noting that the Celtic Christian Cross is also often portrayed as equal armed enclosed by a circle. Whether the Cros predates the Saint or not, it must be recognised that for many the symbolism of the Cros Bride would be intrinsically linked to Christian theology.

If we accept that the tradition of weaving Cros Bride is in fact pre-Christian* then there are other possibilities. It may be that the traditional form of the Cros was in fact the three armed variant, which has been recorded also by folklorists, and that the four armed variant was an adaptation to Christianise the tradition. Scholars have also speculated that the four armed ‘swastika’ cros is based on a Pagan solar symbol, Bride often being given solar attributes. Indeed, the swastika symbol is present across Europe and India in decoration and religious symbology, and has been found in celtic art, such as the Battersea Shield.

I am now going to propose two alternate symbologies for the Cros. The first is in connection with Bride’s role as a hearth goddess. The Hearth is traditionally the centre of the Celtic household. It was even physically the centre in earlier dwellings and traditional houses, some of which survive today. The four directions were also widely recognised by Celtic tradition, particularly in Ireland where they form not only the four quarters and provinces of the country: Connacht, Leinster, Ulster and Munster but also the four treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann which were brought from the four island cities. I do not propose that the the directions were recognised in a ritual form, as in Neopaganism, but simply that the number four was very much attached to the land and that the directions were recognised in pre-Christian Irish cosmology. With this in mind, I consider it possible that the Cros itself is a cosmological symbol, representing the four provinces and directions, and Bride’s place as the flame at the center. Likewise in the microcosm of the house, where she is present in the hearth which radiates her warmth and light to the four corners of the building.

My other pet theory, which is mostly UPG, is that the Cros is in fact, a Star. The only evidence I have to back this up, comes from Carmichael’s notes in the Carmina Gadelica:

A similar practice prevails in Ireland. There the churn staff, not the corn sheaf, is fashioned into the form of a woman, and called ‘Brideog,’ little Bride. The girls come clad in their best, and the girl who has the prettiest dress gives it to Brideog. An ornament something like a Maltese cross is affixed to the breast of the figure. The ornament is composed of straw, beautifully and artistically interlaced by the deft fingers of the maidens of Bride. It is called ‘rionnag Brideog,’ the star of little Bride.

A Maltese cross is an equal armed cross, and woven from straw would be rather similar to the Cros Bride I imagine. That Carmichael records this being used to symbolise the rionnag Brideog, where the Scottish custom uses a rock crystal or shell, suggests to me the possibility that the Cros Bride is in fact the Reul-iuil Bride.

Reul-iuil is the Pole star, the North star which stays fixed in the night sky while all the other stars rotate around it. This is the guiding star, which leads sailor or traveller north through the darkness of night. It forms a steady flame, a central point and is one of the brightest stars in the sky. The ‘swastika’ type of Cros Bride depicts movement, the arms indicating rotation like the blades of a windmill, or the procession of stars around the pole star. Reul-iuil is the hearth of the night sky, or as Ella Young calls Bride in Celtic Wonder Tales; O Shepherd of the StarFlocks.

Resources: Brigid Cross Varieties, Brigid’s Cross, Four Jewels, Talam – Earth, Carmina Gadelica

* Something I have yet to see any conclusive evidence of, but which I would like to research more.

Kilmeny

Bonnie Kilmeny gaed up the glen;
But it wasna to meet Duneira's men,
Nor the rosy monk of the isle to see,
For Kilmeny was pure as pure could be.
It was only to hear the yorlin sing,
And pu' the cress-flower round the spring;
The scarlet hypp and the hindberrye,
And the nut that hung frae the hazel tree;

Kilmeny, James Hogg