Gelli Fach

Gelli Fach

I'm a cell, I'm fragmented, I change my form;
I'm a repository of song, I'm a dynamic state.
I love a wooded slope and a snug shelter,
and a creative poet who doesn't buy his advancement.

Wyf kell, wyf dellt, wyf datweirllet;
wyf llogell kerd, wyf lle ynnyet.
Karaf-y gorwyd a goreil clyt,
a bard a bryt ny pryn y ret.

From: Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, edited and translated by Marged Haycock

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Brigit as Goddess of the Dawn

In a hymn in the Rig Veda, Uṣas, the Dawn goddess, "shines forth and with her lovely face wakens us to happiness". The feminine adjective br̥hatī  meaning ‘high, great, lofty’ is applied to her several times in the Rig Veda and, as you might know, the names Brigantia and Brigit come from a cognate word, the feminine PIE*bhr̥g'hntī, from a root berg'h 'high, lofty, elevated'.  
It seems likely that the name Brigit or Brigantia is actually a title rather than a personal name, meaning ‘high one’ – something similar to the royal title, ‘Your Highness’. In the Indo-European (IE) tradition, among others, sometimes gods’ names were not spoken aloud because they were taboo and it was not uncommon for them to be displaced by a title or epithet. As M L West points out in his book Indo-European Poetry and Myth which I am drawing on in this post, we do the same with the Christian god Yahweh, referring to him instead as Lord or Almighty Father or simply God. J K Rowling reflects this in the Harry Potter books where Voldemort is so feared that he is known as He Who Must Not Be Named in case uttering the actual name will invoke his presence.

West considers Brigit a candidate for a lost Irish goddess of the Dawn. He notes that the details and imagery of Brigit in the saint’s Lives are in keeping with such a goddess. She is born at sunrise, on the threshold of the house, and her mother has a foot either side of the doorway. She is the daughter of Dubthach, (Dark), son of Dallbrónach, (Dark and gloomy), the house she is in appears to be burning with a fire that extends up to heaven but extinguishes nothing and she is only able to be fed by drinking the milk from a red-eared cow - Uṣas is associated with red cows. He also mentions that she is said elsewhere to be the daughter of the Dagda, the Good God (a statement which actually comes from Cormac’s Glossary). Uṣas is thought to be the daughter of Dyeus (Zeus in Greek mythology), the Father god, the all-knowing God. (West, p 218)

Dawn as the Inspirer of Poets and Bringer of Wisdom

Reading a hymn to Uṣas in the Rig Veda, I was delighted to find her described as the inspirer of poets:

"Gazing out over all creatures, the Goddess shines from the distance facing straight towards every eye. Awakening into motion everything that lives, she has found the speech of the inspired poet." (RV 1 92 9. O’Flaherty)

A note by the translator Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty tells us that ‘found’ has two meanings – both that Uṣas finds poetry for the poet, inspiring him, and finds it in him, accepting his praise. In his glossary, Cormac describes Brigit as "the goddess whom poets adored". It would be natural, of course, that the beauty of Dawn who brings with her the return of the light, of the day, of the riches that the day offers, inspires poets and is the subject of their praise.

As the bringer of light to mortals, and bearing in mind the metaphor of light as enlightenment, dawn can easily be associated with wisdom – and again Brigit is hailed by Cormac as a female sage or woman of wisdom. Both Uṣas and the Greek goddess of Dawn, Eos, are described as ‘far-seeing’ or ‘all-seeing’ and we know that the Sun god’s status arises from his position of being high in the heavens giving him likewise the attribute of being all-seeing as well as all-knowing (even in Christian prayers in the Carmina Gadelica the sun is revered as the eye of God). The Dawn goddess through her position in the heavens is all-seeing with its implication all-knowing, wise.

Cows and Dawn
West considers the cow with the red ears significant because Uṣas is particularly associated with red cows – probably a metaphor for the redness of sky at dawn.The Rig Veda refers to both Night and Dawn as cows:  “Dawn and Night are a cow good for milking”. (It should be noted though that Brigit’s cow is white with red ears and such animals appear elsewhere in Celtic language tales notably The Mabinogi, the implication being that they are Otherworldly beasts. But then why is this so? Is it because they were at one time associated with a goddess of the heavens?)
St Brigit’s lore undeniably associates her with cows – she is a protector of domestic animals. In one of the medieval accounts of her life she is able to milk her cow three times to provide hospitality to visiting bishops and in her iconography she is often shown with a cow. In milking songs in the Carmina Gadelica she is referred to as ‘the milkmaid Bride’ and a milking blessing (no 95)  affirms that:

   "The calm Bride of the white combs
   Will give to my loved heifer the lustre of the swan."
  "Bheir Bride bhith nan cire geala,
   Li na h-eal am aghan gaoi."l

Bride is often referred to as a maid or maiden in the Carmina Gadelica – as is Uṣas.   

Dawn and Night as Sisters

Night and Dawn are seen in the Rig Veda as sisters, the one driving away the other. West quotes from the Rig Veda:

"Bright with bright calf the white one has come; the black one has vacated her seats for her.
Cognate, immortal, consecutive, Day and Night, alternating colour, move on…"(RV 1 113 2. O’ Flaherty)
He also quotes from Greek literature where Hesiod states:

                                "Night and Day approaching
   greet one another as they cross the great threshold
   of bronze: the one goes in the other comes out…
   the one carrying far-seeing light… for men on earth
   the other with Sleep in her arms, the brother of Death…"

while Parmenides has “There stand the gates of the paths of Night and Day, kept apart by a lintel and a stone threshold…”

A Latvian riddle offers “Two sisters who are at odds; one appears, the other runs away; one is white the other black”.  (West, pp 222-223)

The Two Faces of Bride

All this reminds me of a rather tantalising remark in Lady Gregory’s Of Gods and Fighting Men regarding Brigit: “And the one side of her face was ugly, but the other side was very comely”. I recognise the source of everything else Gregory says about Brigit and though I tried following up the booklist she gives as sources at the end of her book, I was unable to find this. It was a bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack however and perhaps I shall try again at some point. Since I do recognise the authenticity of the other descriptions of Brigit, I’m inclined to believe that she had a good source for this statement, though it could have been lore she had collected locally and so unverifiable.      

There are some echoes of this idea – of the two faces – in 'The Story of the Coming of Angus and Bride' in Donald Mackenzie’s Wonder Tales from the Scottish Myth and Legend. In it, Beira, who reigns over the winter is dark and old in her winter aspect (“Why is my face so dark, so dark?”) but when she renews herself by drinking from the Well of Youth she becomes young and beautiful with golden hair and we are told "there is none more lovely save Bride". Beira keeps Bride prisoner all winter but on the first day of spring she is rescued by Angus. A battle ensues between the forces of winter, Beira, and of spring or summer, Angus and his consort, Bride; Beira rides a dark horse, Angus a white one. Mackenzie comments that “The story of the struggle between Angus with his consort Bride and Beira is the story of the struggle between spring and winter, growth and decay, light and darkness, and warmth and cold” but he does not name sources for the story. It was published in 1917, thirteen years after Of Gods and Fighting Men but it is a least possible that Lady Gregory had heard of it.

Digressing rather, there is a pleasing account by the poet W B Yeats, a friend of Lady Gregory, which shows that he was aware of the Carmina Gadelica:

“I find in my diary that on December 27, 1897, a seer, to whom I had given a certain old Irish symbol, saw Brigid, the goddess, holding out ‘a glittering and wriggling serpent’, and yet I feel certain that neither I nor he knew anything of her association with the serpent until the Carmina Gadelica was published a few months ago.”  (From the essay 'Magic', quoted in A. Norman Jeffares, Yeats: Selected Criticism, Macmillan, 1964, pp 88-8)

To return to consideration of the two faces of Brigit - in the Scottish tale there are then two women, one old with a dark face and one who is young and lovely, who represent the opposing forces of dark and light, winter and spring or summer. In Lady Gregory’s description ugly and comely are not the same as black and white of course, but they signify duality and carry the idea of a welcome and unwelcome aspect.
These are the only two sources I’ve come across which suggest this type of duality and neither are substantiated – but I think it is at least worth considering that there has been a tradition of the two faces of Brigit and if so there might have been an older concept of the light and dark sisters.

In the Rig Veda, Uṣas herself has something of a dual nature. She is immortal, being reborn each day, and wakens mortals to happiness, giving them the riches of the day. But she also causes them to age, wearing away their life span because their days are numbered. ’Bringing old age, thou hast come, O unageing Dawn. Unageing, thou dost make to age all else’.
 (Taittirīya Saṃhāta. 3. 11. 5. quoted in West, p 225) In this she is, in a sense, an ally of Death as well as Life.

The Colours of Dawn

The IE prototype for the word dawn, *h
ewes- (→ *awes-), is a verbal root meaning, according to West, ‘glow, (red) flame’, related to the Latin and Old Prussian words for ‘gold’among others. From these come Latin aurora and Welsh gwawr. The name Eos for the Greek goddess of Dawn, the Roman Aurora, and the Indian Uṣas are related. (West, p 217)

In the Rig Veda Uṣas is associated with red-gold and described as being many-coloured or brightly-coloured. Her cows and horses are variously described as red or red-gold, although in hymn 113.14 she awakens the world on her chariot drawn by purple horses. Also, as in the example above, she is described as both bright and white - 'the white one'.
Famously, Homer celebrate Eos as 'rose-fingered' and 'saffron-robed' while elsewhere the epithets 'rose-armed' and 'gold-armed' are applied to her. The poet Sappho calls her 'gold-sandalled Dawn. The redness described is often qualified as a soft rose-red or golden red. These are, of course, the colours of dawn.

Kilmeny, in her blog 'Reul-iuil Bride', has an interesting post, 
The Colours of Bríde, which shows Brigit is repeatedly linked with the colours white and gold in the extant lore, rather than the bright red we might associate her with today in current neo-pagan narrative.

Incidentally, the picture of Brigit at the top of this post fits very well with her as goddess of Dawn bringing light out of the night sky, dressed in white with golden hair. I came across it unattributed but the style is so like that by the artist Gail Donovan in a leadlight window in Kildare College Chapel, Holden Hill, South Australia, "dancing the dance of the new life of creation…" (which I have on a card given me by the Brigidine sisters in Kildare) that I assume it is by her. 

The Dawn Goddess Mourns Her Son

A rather curious and unexpected correspondence I came across exploring the dawn connection concerns the Greek goddess of Dawn, Eos. Eos, a Greek, has a son, Memnon, by the Trojan Tithonus. He is killed by Achilles fighting for his father's people against the Greeks in the Trojan War. 
His death is told of in the now lost epic Aethiopis, composed after the Iliad, circa the 7th century BC but recounted in other texts which have come down to us. Eos mourns the death of her son, in one account she prevents the sun from rising and flees to Hades until Zeus persuades her to return. Virgil says that when her son Memnon was going to fight against Achilles, she asked Hephaestus, the Greek smith god, to give her arms for him. When Memnon was killed, her tears fell down in the form of morning dew.
Compare this account with a scene from The Second Battle of Maigh Tuiredh:

…the Fomoire… picked a man to reconnoitre the battle and the practices of the Túatha Dé — Rúadán, the son of Bres and of Brig, the daughter of the Dagda—because he was a son and a grandson of the Túatha Dé… They sent him back to kill one of the áes dána, Goibniu [the smith of the Túatha Dé]. He requested a spearpoint from him, its rivets from the brazier, and its shaft from the carpenter; and everything was given to him as he asked… But after the spear had been given to him, Rúadán turned and wounded Goibniu. He pulled out the spear and hurled it at Rúadán so that it went through him; and he died in his father's presence in the Fomorian assembly. Bríg came and keened for her son. At first she shrieked, in the end she wept. Then for the first time weeping and shrieking were heard in Ireland. (Gray, paragraph 57, p 39) 

In the Greek story, the Greek Eos has a son with Memnon, a Trojan and Memnon fights on the Trojan side and is killed by Achilles, a Greek. The Greek god Hephaestus made a weapon (or armour in some accounts) at Eos’s request, because she is of his tribe. In the Irish account Brig, of the Túatha Dé Danaan, has a son with Bres of the Fomoire. Goibniu, the smith and other craftsmen of the Túatha Dé Danaan make a spear for Rúadán because they are of his mother's tribe. Rúadán tries to kill Goibniu but fails and is killed by him, a member of the Túatha Dé Danaan. Both mothers grieve deeply for their sons.

It seems to me there is too much similarity between these two accounts for it to be accidental and we know that the Irish literati were interested in the intellectual heritage of classical civilization and copied classical texts. If the story of Eos and Memnon did influence this account, it is surely significant that Brig is given the role of Eos, the Dawn goddess.

The so-called "Memnon pietà": The goddess Eos lifts up the body of her son Memnon (Attic red-figure cup, ca. 490–480 BC, from Capua, Italy) Courtesy ofWikipedia 

The statues of Mary with the body of her son Jesus that I’ve seen in Ireland always make me think of Brigit and her son Rúadán and in fact the Christian Pietà may have its origin in ancient depictions of the Greek legend of Eos and Memnon.

Pietà of Tubądzin c. 1450 Courtesy of Wikipedia

Goddess of Springtime

The Agniṣṭoma, the Vedic springtime festival at the beginning of the year, began with songs to Uṣas. (West, p 225) Elsewhere too the Dawn goddess was associated with a springtime festival. West comments that many IE peoples had a festival to celebrate the returning warmth of the sun and traditionally people would rise at or before dawn to greet the sun. It would therefore be natural for the dawn goddess to be the subject of more veneration at this time of the year. He later states that:

"The plainest example of the Dawn goddess’s becoming attached to a single festival, and that in the spring, is that of the Anglo-Saxon Eostre and her postulated German counterpart Ôstara, who have given us Easter and the Ostertage. Our source [Bede] does not connect Eostre with dawn, but that is undoubtedly the meaning of her name. (West, p 227)

Brigit’s festival, as we know, is earlier than Easter, at the very beginning of spring, when the light of the sun is just starting to visibly strengthen. To my mind, if Dawn were to be associated with a spring festival, the very start of the season would have a logic to it since dawn is the very beginning of the day.

Dawn as Upholder of Cosmic Law

Because he sees all, the Sun is witness to all and was widely known to be invoked as a witness of oaths. (West, p 200) Moving rightways with the sun is also of major importance as an expression of cosmic order and truth. In the Rig Veda Dawn, who resides on high, also upholds cosmic law:

"Truly she followeth the path of Order, nor faileth, knowing well, the heavenly quarters." (RV 1 124 3, Griffiths)

"Foe-chaser, born of Law, the Law's protectress, joy-giver, waker of all pleasant voices." (RV 1 113 12, Griffiths)

This resonates with me, at least, since I believe that Brigit, as a woman of wisdom, calls us to uphold the Truth, the right order of things.

Like the Sun, the Dawn looks down on all alike:

"She, verily, exceeding vast to look on, debarreth from her light nor kin nor stranger.
Proud of her spotless form she, brightly shining, turneth not from the high nor from the humble." (RV 1 124 6, Griffiths)

For those who consider that Brigit has connections with the law and justice, perhaps in the guise of Bríg ambue (the jurist who is said in the Irish law tracts to have intervened in or corrected judgements made by Sencha, king Conchobar's judge) these attributes of Dawn may be potent.

Dawn as a Provider of Riches

Finally, Uṣas, like Brigit, is a provider. First of all she brings Light and Life and by extension the plenty that accrue from them:

"Arise! The breath, the life, again hath reached us: darkness hath passed away and light approacheth.
She for the Sun hath left a path to travel, we have arrived where men prolong existence.
Singing the praises of refulgent Mornings with his hymn’s web, the priest, the poet, rises.
Shine then to-day, rich Maid, on him who lauds thee, shine down on us the gift of life and offspring."
 (RV 1 113 16-20, Griffiths)

Perhaps the idea of a goddess as midwife might have developed from the concept of one who is herself reborn each day and then awakens mortals into life?


There is an inscription at Corbridge on Hadrian’s Wall to caelestis Brigantia, celestial or heavenly Brigantia, which would be consistent with a Dawn goddess who is seen on high – the High One. In the past I’ve considered that it might refer to a sun goddess but a dawn goddess is just as possible.

Considering the idea over the course of this post, I find myself persuaded that there is something tangible here, that being a goddess associated with the dawn is part of Brigit’s story, though buried in the mists of time. 

In some medieval Irish texts Brigit is compared to the sun rather than the dawn. For instance, in two of the Lives, a wizard prophesies, on hearing the sound of Dubthach’s chariot, that Dubthach’s bondmaid Broicsech will give birth to a daughter “conspicuous, radiant, who will shine like a sun among the stars of heaven” and the 11th c hymn Brigit Bé Bithmaith says:

Brigid, excellent woman,
Flame golden, sparkling,
May she bear us to the eternal kingdom,
(She), the sun, fiery, radiant!  

Also, her four-armed cross has been identified with a ancient symbol of the sun. However it could well be that in later times the dawn goddess developed into a goddess of the sun. In Homer, the dawn goddess Eos accompanies Helios, the sun god, throughout the day, and she sometimes stands in for him. There is also some identification or confusion of her with Hemera, the Greek goddess of the day, and later retellings assign Eos's myths to Hemera. Something similar might well have happened in Irish tradition. We should remember though that images of fire and the sun are not unique to accounts of St Brigit and appear in other descriptions of Irish saints and heroes.

None of the material here amounts to evidence that Brigit or Brigantia was at one time known as a goddess of the Dawn – it is suggestive rather than conclusive, poetic rather than systematic. I’ll leave you with words from Ruth Bidgood’s Hymn to St Ffraid (Brigit’s name in Wales) from the collection Symbols of Plenty,which describes the situation beautifully:

   It is fitting that you
   should be saint of poets,
   you are mysterious, as a poem is.
   We cannot say of you
   she is exactly this or exactly that,
   or name with certainty your origin,
   or set limits to your meaning.
   You were a poem waiting to be written.
   Found and revealed,
   you make for us
   resonances with things nameless,
   deep, ancient and to come.

May Brigit shine her lovely face upon you and awaken you to happiness!


M L West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth, Oxford University Press, 2007

The Rig Veda, An Anthology, translated by Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, Penguin Books, 1981

The Rig Veda, translated by Ralph T. H. Griffith

The Second Battle of Mag Tuired, translated by Elizabeth A Gray, 2003

Donald Alexander MacKenzie,Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend, Dover Publications Inc., 1997

Ruth Bidgood, Symbols of Plenty, Canterbury Press, 2006


  1. Hello .. I have never seen a smart articles that you created. It really helped me to get back my ideas for writing. I will save this post, for I learn more

  2. Hilaire, I can't thank you enough for this post. I have been trying to track down references to Bride's connection with the Dawn for a long time, and haven't found even half as much material as you have here.

    I've also been confounded by Lady Gregory's reference to the fair/ugly face, the only other goddess I know of described with this trait is the Norse Hel.

    It is interesting that the Sun in Scottish Folklore is considered feminine. This is fairly rare in western mythology, and has also made me consider comparing her with Ameterasu-Omikami, the great sun goddess of Shinto. Ameterasu's name means 'heavenly shining one.' I'm looking forward to doing more research on this though!

  3. teddy bear: Thank you for commenting - I am pleased if the post has inspired you.

    Kilmeny: You're very welcome. Thank you for your contribution.
    You were thinking along the same lines too? I didn't know about Hel, or Ametarasu. Will look forward to hearing more!

    1. Hilaire, what a wonderful and erudite site. I'm so pleased to have found you. Thank you - and also for following and linking to mine. I shall return the favour!

      Kilmeny: it seems that in Celtic folk tale, and myth cycles like the Grail Quest, the men and women 'come in pairs', so to speak (according to Jungian thought): the fair maiden is merely the other face of the Loathly Lady, as the Giant is the other face of his vanquisher, or the wise elder the alter ego of the naive youth...

    2. Hilaire: Yes, I have been thinking along these lines for some time. I have been doing more Shinto research, and it is interesting to see that Sarasvati has been honoured under different names in many Buddhist countries too. In Japan she is Benzaiten, who is honoured in Buddhism and Shinto and as one of the seven lucky gods (the only female, which shows her popularity.) It may be that Benzaiten is a more comparable Goddess to Bride than Ameterasu, interestingly in Japan her mount is not the Swan or Peacock, but the Serpent/snake.
      As in India, Japan has a living Animist/Polytheist tradition, and that is why I find it interesting to study and compare their gods.

      Roselle: That may indeed be a good explanation of Lady Gregory's comment! I am familiar with some Grail lore examples, but can you suggest a Gaelic folk tale equivalent? I'd love to compare this further.

  4. Thank you for this and for returning the favour, Roselle. I was pleased to find your blog - am just about to try out your 'setting the trap' poetry exercise to stimulate the subconscious!

  5. I've always known that Brigit was a Dawn Goddess. The story of Angus and Bride (Brigit) in Scottish Myth demonstrates this mythological motif very well.

    Very good post! Will recommend it on my new blog!

  6. Goddess of dawn.
    of poets and poetry.
    keeper of the cauldron fire.

    Who mourned her son.
    Who sang his death through the dark.

    Her night song
    steering the lost

    Who stood again at dawn.
    And drew the light thread down from the stars
    for the poets to spin.

    Keeper of the cauldron fire
    Keeper of the well.

  7. This is beautiful, aajodie. Thank you for posting it.

  8. Have you found any story of Brighid who sat close to her dying father. As she waited she weaved a knot from rushes. Her father noticed and asked her what she was doing. She explained how each loop although individual is not able to be separated from the whole just as their relationship was interwoven so too were they wrapped up with those who would follow in the life after?

  9. Hi! Can you tell me where that first image is from please? Thank you!