Brigid: The Goddess Behind the Saint

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St. Brigid from wikkicommons

St. Brigid is both historical figure and character of folklore and shared more than a name with her Pagan Goddess counterpart. It is through St. Brigid that the clearest glimpse into Brigid the Goddess can be found.—Brigid: History, Mystery, and Magick of the Celtic Goddess, Courtney Weber

If you spend any time researching the subject, there are numerous theories that describe how the Saint and Goddess are connected. The one that resonates with me most strongly these days comes from the excellent research done by Courtney Weber in Brigid: History, Mystery, and Magic of the Celtic Goddess. According to Weber, one of the commonalities between various Celtic cultural traditions was a term for an exalted being: Brig or Brid. It was applied to more than the Goddess, and was also used to refer to women in positions of power in society. One example is a first century Irish lawyer called Brigh which was probably not her name but was a reference to her occupation as a female judge.

When nuns take their vows, they leave their secular name behind and choose a new one. Based on Weber’s work it is possible that the nun in question chose the name Brigid which was quite fitting since she held a powerful position as the founder the cathedral in Kildare (which was built on top of a Pagan shrine) and abbess of a monastery. She also had a reputation for being generous to the poor and was known for healing miracles and compassionate care for animals.

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Cross from St. Brigid’s Cathedral

When Brigid died and was declared a saint, there is no doubt the folklore surrounding her continued to grow. It’s my theory that many of the qualities that were once attributed to the Goddess Brigid became attached to St. Brigid since the worship of the Goddess remained strong in Ireland in spite of Christian attempts to eliminate it.  This way, the Celts could have their Goddess in the guise of saint’s clothing.  It was a win/win for both sides!

There are others beside myself who believe in this theory. Robert Ellsberg in All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses For Our Time, says “It has been noted that in ancient times Brigid was, in fact, the name of the Celtic sun goddess. This has given rise to the suggestion that in St. Brigid, a nun and abbess of the fifth century, we find the repository of primeval religious memories and traditions. In any case, it seems that with the cult of St. Brigid the Irish people maintained an image of the maternal face of God with which to compliment the more patriarchal religion of St. Patrick and subsequent missionaries.”

Edward C. Sellner in Wisdom of the Celtic Saints, says “These attributes (of the goddess) were eventually identified with Brigit, the saint, whose feast day, February 1, came to be celebrated on the same day as that of the Pagan goddess. Early hagiographers also portray crucial turning points in Brigit’s life  and ministry as touched with fire. It i clear that St. Brigit stands on the boundary between Pagan mythology and Christian spirituality.”

In my own personal spiritual practice, Brigid plays a big part as my “go-to” Goddess. I have an icon of her above my altar in the form of St. Brigid to remind me of the connection between my Christian and Pagan paths. For me she is a bridge-builder and reconciler whose healing power might help to bring us all closer together!  Hail Brigid, and I wish you all a blessed celebration of Imbolc!

Copyright ©2020 by David Taliesin, http://www.sabbatsandsabbaths.com

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La Befana: Ancient Goddess, Santa’s Precursor, or Christmas Witch?

I was hooked the first time I heard about her: La Befana, the “Christmas Witch.” The first figure I saw of her while traveling in Italy was an elderly “nonna” (grandmother) who was dressed in peasant clothing with a kerchief around her head. She was riding a broom and had a bag of goodies. What’s not to like about THAT? A friend of mine recently brought me one from Italy that looked like a leftover Halloween witch. She even wore an orange skirt and a pointy hat.

Needless to say, there are many layers of tradition and stories that go into the creation of La Befana. The earliest layer is that some believe she is descended from the Sabine/Roman Goddess Strenia (Strenua), the goddess of the new year year, purification and well-being. She name appears to be the origin of strenae, the gifts Romans exchanged at the beginning of the year as good omens for the coming year. These gifts often included figs, dates and honey. Not surprisingly, several sources say that La Befana brought these same gifts to Italian children in her earliest incarnation. Thus, the tie between the two is rather convincing.

The next layer of La Befana occurs around the 8th century when she began to appear in Italian folklore in connection with the celebration of Epiphany. In fact, her name, most likely comes from the Italian word for Epiphany, “epifania.” If you’ve read my blog you know that the goddess often got adapted and incorporated into Christian theology and practice. (Brigid is the best example.) So it’s not surprising that this most likely occurred here as well.

The story that is told about her is a really weird but delightful one. Here’s one version of the legend:

La Befana lived alone in a house in the hills of Italy. She spent her days cooking and cleaning like all good nonnas do! One night she noticed a bright light in the sky. After some thought, La Befana decided to ignore the light and go back to sleep.
A few days later, a caravan led by Three Wise Men stopped at La Befana’s house to ask for directions to Bethlehem. La Befana offered them hospitality. In return, the Wise Men invited her to come with them to visit Baby Jesus. She declined, saying she had too much work to do. But later she changed her mind.
She then packed a basket with baked goods and gifts for the newborn child. She grabbed her broom (because the new mother would certainly need help cleaning), and tried to catch up with the Wise Men.
After she had walked a long distance angels appeared to her and gave her the gift of flight. So she hopped on her broom and continued to search for the Christ Child. She is still searching to this very day, and every Epiphany, she visits homes throughout Italy, giving gifts to every child she finds along the way. Over time, she has come to realize that the Christ Child can be found in all children, so her search is not in vain.

Her final layer is the more modern folklore tradition that may be somewhat freed of its Christian adaptation. La Befana visits all the children of Italy on Epiphany Eve (January 5) by magically sliding down the chimney on her broom. She leaves candy, treats and presents if you’re good, and a lump of coal or black candy if you’re bad. Yeah, I know, that sounds a lot like Santa Claus so she may also be the precursor to the legends surrounding the jolly old man himself! Another tradition is that La Befana also sweeps the floor before she leaves since she is such a good housekeeper.

My “Befana” figure purchased in Italy

The final piece of the puzzle is her reputation as the Christmas “witch.” I see no evidence of her being a “Strega” (Italian witch) but am open to any information you have to share. It seems to me that since she rode a broom in early folkloric traditions and has the magical power to slide down a chimney, it’s not surprising that her kerchief became replaced with a pointy witches hat and her face grew more haggardly over time with a big pointy nose. It was born to happen, but I think this does her a great injustice. It may make sense for retailers to pawn off their Halloween witches as La Befana, but this cheapens her legend and legacy.

I still need to do more research on this topic but you must admit that La Befana is an intriguing woman whose legend is surround by magic and mystery. I don’t think she would have it any other way!

Copyright ©2020 by David Taliesin, http://www.sabbatsandsabbaths.com

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Ancient Christian Magic

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Ancient Amulet: The Sacrifice of Isaac

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men (Gk. MAGOS, meaning “magicians”) from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.—Matthew 2:1-3, NRSV

And it happened, when the Lord Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea at the time of King Herod, the magicians arrived from the East in Jerusalem, as Zoroaster had predicted. And they had offerings with them, gold, frankincense and myrrh, so they worshipped him and offered their offerings. —The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Savior

Ever since Matthew told the story of the birth of Jesus, Christianity has been surrounded by magic…and we’ve been afraid to talk about it ever since! The magicians, who offered the tools of their trade to baby Jesus, became “kings” as their legend developed. No longer were they spell casters and dream interpreters! Eventually they had crowns and ruled kingdoms. But I believe both Matthew and the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy are very clear, magicians appeared at the birth of Jesus. Why they were drawn to visit Jesus will forever remain a mystery, but they were definitely there.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, most people will be surprised to know that magic has been practiced by Christians since the very beginning. The word itself, MAGEIA, was a foreign word to the Greek speakers who lived during the time of Jesus. (The English word Magi comes from the Greek word MAGOS which means “magician.”) Magic was a word that had lots of negative connotations attached to it, so early Christian practitioners called it “theurgy” or “divine work” instead. They used amulets and spells for protection, defense and healing, but they stopped short of calling it magic.

Hmmm, sounds like magic to me!  I read a fascinating book edited by Marvin W. Mayer and Richard Smith, entitled Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. It contains exactly what you think it does: spells that were cast by Christians from the 1st through the 6th century. It even has a story of magical advice that was given by Christ himself.

Now, I know most Christians would flip over this info but for those of us who are interested in the ties between Pagan and Christian spirituality, it is most interesting indeed. While it’s clear that magic was not practiced by the majority of Christian believers there have always been some who integrated magic into their Christian beliefs and saw no contradiction with this whatsoever. Most of the spells in the book deal with things such as healing, love, prosperity, protection during pregnancy, and protection against evil spirits. This is definitely familiar territory for modern Wiccans!

The magical work the early Christians performed parallels the magical work that was also being done by Pagans of old. Not surprisingly, the Church outlawed these practices. Therefore, many “magicians” had to go into hiding for fear of being arrested and even killed. (Hmmm…now where have we heard THAT before?) Thankfully, some of these old writings were hidden and eventually discovered in places such as the Nag Hammadi Codexes.  Now they have been translated into English so that we can ponder a subject that has been virtually silent for two thousand years.

Copyright © 2020 by sabbatsandsabbaths.com

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The Magi’s Blessing: Chalking the Door

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I came across a wonderful tradition which I will have to research further to learn a little more about it’s origins. According to Pagan Christmas, “Even today, priests go from house to house in the Black Forest on January 6, smudging them for protection from evil influences. With chalk sanctified with blessed salt, they write the letters C, M, and B, plus the year, over house and stable doors.”

This ritual is called “chalking the door” and the markings for this year look like this:

20 + C + M + B +20

The C, M and B are the initials for the traditional names of the Magi (Caspar, Melchior, ad Balthazar), but they are also an abbreviation for the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, which means “May Christ bless this house.” You can find various liturgies on line for this ritual.

On January 6th my plan is to go outside, read the story of the Magi from the gospel of Mathew, smudge the entrance to my house and mark the lintel with chalk. One article I read suggested that this ritual could be used any time during the Christmas and Epiphany season with other suggested uses such as blessing a room in a nursing home or hospital (get permission first!) or to set aside a Bible study meeting place, choir practice room, nursery, or youth area at church. This would be a fun activity that even the youngest members of your household could participate in and enjoy. Happy Epiphany!

Copyright ©2020 by David Taliesin, sabbatsandsabbaths.com

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In Praise of the Invincible Light

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“The light shines in the darkness,
And the darkness did not overcome it.”
(John 1:5, NRSV)

While writing a sermon on the first chapter of John, I came across this interesting observation from Karoline Lewis in her Fortress Preaching Commentary on John: “A quick review of the science of light in terms of our ability to see underscores the theological claim that is being made. It only takes the slightest bit of light for our optical system to adjust and see in the dark. When there is no light present at all, our eyes will never become accustomed to the darkness.”

In a season where every spiritual path celebrates some festival of light, I find Lewis’ observation tremendously encouraging. It’s easy for us to focus on the darkness that exists in our world. Facebook and the 24-hour news cycle do an excellent job of promoting every tragedy and sadness that is happening all around us. But if we’re paying attention, nature is telling us there is an alternative: we can shine whatever light we possess, armed with the hopeful knowledge that even the tiniest bit of light makes a huge difference to those we shine it on. It can go a long way in helping them navigate the darkness in their lives.

So, keep those Hanukkah lights burning. Rejoice in the return of the sun on the Winter Solstice. Sing Silent Night with candles blazing on Christmas Eve. Follow the seven luminous principles of Kwanzaa. Find some reason, any reason, to light a candle! May the candles we light remind us of our connectedness to each other, and our sacred duty to be light for one another. We spend far too much time talking about what makes us different. Maybe this December we can focus on what binds us together as one! Shine on, sisters and brothers!

Copyright ©2019 by  David Taliesin, sabbatsandsabbaths.com

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December Full Cold Moon

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If you’re into numerology, December’s full moon will occur on 12/12 at 12:12am! In biblical numerology the number twelve is a combination of 3, which signifies the Divine, times 4, which signifies the four “corners” of the earth. It’s a number that signifies perfection of government or rule (Good luck with that!) There were 12 tribes of Israel and Jesus also had 12 disciples. I see it as a number that combines both Divine and earthly energies, and so, it is a powerful number.

Early Native Americans called this Full Moon the Cold Moon (or Long Nights Moon) since December is the month when the winter cold makes its presence known as the nights become long and dark.

The weird thing about December is that it’s super busy for most people which is counter-intuitive to what nature is telling us to do. Practically everyone celebrates some festival of light during this season: Yule, Christmas, Winter Solstice, Diwali, Hannukah, etc. Our calendars become filled with extra activities and lots of busy preparation. All of this tends to stress us out and leave us feeling depleted and exhausted when January rolls around.

Instead of picking up the pace, why not consider setting aside time for “hibernation” during the month of December? The long nights call us to get some extra sleep, to read a book and drink a glass of wine in front of a roaring fire, to pamper ourselves a bit, and use the time to do some soul-searching. December is a good month to ask ourselves “What seeds do I need to be planting in my life that will blossom in the spring? What work do I need to do in the soil of my life so that it can nurture new opportunities when they make their presence known?”

I’m not saying we can’t have a good time in December. I know I’m planning several opportunities for family and friends to gather together and celebrate. However, we all need to intentionally plan some “down days” during this busy month and not feel guilty about it. If you don’t know it already, you’re worth it! No one can go like the Energizer Bunny 24 hours a day 7 days a week and not experience burnout. So, be good to yourself and, whatever you do, go out on December 12th and see that beautiful full moon!

Copyright ©2019 by David Taliesin, http://www.sabbatsandsabbaths.com

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Gratitude Ritual

We had a wonderful discussion at The Welcoming Circle last night on the subject of nurturing a spirit of gratitude in our lives. Here is the closing ritual, along with a resource sheet I handed out. Blessed be!

GRATITUDE RITUAL

ANOINTING (David Taliesin)

Gratitude Oil
1/4 cup olive oil
3 drops frankincense essential oil
3 drops of lavender essential oil

May your heart overflow with gratitude
For every blessing you’ve received this autumn.

CALLING THE QUARTERS (David Taliesin)
Guardians and Ancestors of the East, Powers of Air, we are grateful for the intuition and creativity you breathe into our weary souls, reviving us once again. We are honored by your presence. Hail and welcome!

Guardians and Ancestors of the South, Powers of Fire,
we are grateful for the passion and determination
you ignite in our minds,
setting us ablaze with decisive action.
We are honored by your presence. Hail and welcome!

Guardians and Ancestors of the West, Powers of Water,
we are grateful for the love and peace
that flows into our stressed out lives,
giving us a feeling of shalom and well-being.
We are honored by your presence. Hail and welcome!

Guardians and Ancestors of the North, Powers of Earth
we are grateful for the stability and security
you provide in our lives,
giving us a firm foundation to stand on.
We re honored by your presence. Hail and welcome!

Great Spirit, Nurturing Gaia,
who is known to us by many names,
we are grateful for the many blessings
you manifest in our lives.

We are not aware of all of them
but, tonight, help us to remember
and appreciate all that you do for us.
May we let go of negativity and embrace
a perspective of blessing and abundance.
We are honored by your presence. Hail and welcome!

Gratitude Ritual [Gratitude-Wheel, Gratitude Handout]

Light a green or gold candle before you begin this exercise. I used colored markers for bolder expression on the page.

Tonight, each of us is going to construct a gratitude wheel or mandala. In the center of the page are the words “I am grateful for…” What I would like you to do is creatively list whatever gives you joy and makes you feel empowered and blessed. The words you choose can radiate out form the center of the page like spokes on a wheel or whatever arrangement is pleasing to you. Don’t do this exercise quickly. Spend some times in silence and really think about it. We’ll have some open space for conversation for those who would like to share their experience of this activity. Blessed be!

CLOSING (David Taliesin)

Guardians and Ancestors of the North, Powers of Earth,
we thank you for your abundant and steadfast presence
in our circle and in our lives.
Stay if you will, go if you must. We bid you farewell!

Guardians and Ancestors of the West, Powers of Water,
we thank you for your peaceful and calming presence
in our circle and in our lives.
Stay if you will, go if you must. We bid you farewell!

Guardians and Ancestors of the South, Powers of Fire,
we thank you for your passionate and wise presence
in our circle and in our lives.
Stay if you will, go if you must. We bid you farewell!

Guardians and Ancestors of the East, Spirits of Air,
we thank you for your creative and intuitive presence
in our circle and in our lives.
Stay if you will, go if you must. We bid you farewell!

Great Spirit, Nurturing Gaia,
Who guides us on the journey of life
And bless us abundantly in ways seen and unseen,
We thank you for your presence
in our circle and in our lives.
Stay if you will. Go if you must, We bid you farewell!

And now the circle is open but never unbroken
Because it is a circle woven in love.
Whatever energy is left in this space
We return to the earth with a spirit of gratitude.
Merry meet and merry part, and merry meet again.
Blessed be!

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