Saturday, January 31, 2015
Imbolc by Dr. Mary Condren
Brigit’s Dew Soaked Cloak of Mercy
This weekend, all over Ireland and abroad, people will be celebrating the ancient festival of Imbolc under the auspices of Brigit, goddess and saint.
Womanspiritireland has celebrated Brigit’s festival in Ireland and abroad for over twenty years and a central part of our work has been to gather memories of how Brigit’s festival have been traditionally celebrated in Ireland.
We have learned that on the eve of Imbolc, people traditionally put out pieces of precious cloth (symbolising Brigit’s cloak) to be impregnated with the dew of the earth as Brigit’s spirit passes over. The following morning, they took the dew soaked cloak back in, cut it into small strips, and used it to heal ailments of body and spirit.
At one of our festivals, for instance, a woman told how her grandmother used the brat (the cloak) to wrap sick birds that she then placed in the ample folds of her breast for warmth. Her chirping granny came alive again through her memories.
Origins of the cloak
Schoolchildren are told that Saint Brigit asked a rich man for land on which to build her monastery. He told her she could have as much as her cloak could cover. The cloak spread and spread until it covered the Curragh of Kildare, an expansive area of soft grass that spreads for many miles. The Curragh was the site of the ancient Hill of Alenn, beloved of the Fenians, and Dún Ailinne, a royal warrior fort, one of the five such ancient sites alongside Tara, Uisneach, Emain Macha, and Rathcroghan. In Christian times, the Curragh became the site of Brigit’s monastery and cathedral in Kildare, Cell Dara, (the Church of the Oak).
However, the cloak has deeper and more ancient origins than Saint Brigit. Some Irish places are named after the cloak. Other Irish figures, Macha and Tephi, also called goddesses, drew the boundaries of their land using their cloaks, or their cloak pin.
International female divinities such as Dido, the foundress of Carthage, also gained her land using strips of cow-hide to cover as much land as she needed. In Native American Hopi traditions, the Spider Woman used her cloak of creative wisdom to bring four pairs of humans into being. The symbol of the cloak, therefore has far reaching roots and in the Gaelic traditions can be traced back to the ancient figure of the Cailleach, the Veiled or Mysterious One.
In numerous oral stories from Irish, Scottish and world folklore the Cailleach figure created the world using none other than her womb/cloak, which in some traditions took the form of an apron or basket. From these voluminous garments, the Cailleach dropped stones creating anything from mountains, to megalithic structures such as Loch Crew in Oldcastle, Co. Meath (still called the Hill of the Witch), to stepping stones for rivers, as she leapt from place to place on her journeys.
The Cailleach not only created the world: under various names, her body is imprinted on the landscape. Mountains are her breasts, wells are her eyes, her knees are imprinted on stones; her footsteps are found on ancient sites featuring wells and trees, effectively microcosms of the world. These Cailleach sites (or Carlin sites as they are called in Scotland), are now usually under the matronage of a local saint, predominantly Saint Brigit or Bride (in Scotland).
The Cailleach is also said to have changed the weather, using her cloak, at the four quarterly seasons, Samhain, Nov 1st; Imbolc, February 1st, Bealtaine, May 1st; Lughnasadh, August 1st.
Dew of Mercy: International
Very suggestive connections exist between the cloak of creation and the regenerative fluids of the earth, specifically, the early morning dew. In fact, throughout world religions, the dew of mercy is one of the most ancient metaphors associated with female divinities.
In Scotland, the druids considered dew to be the most precious of all forms of water. In Ukraine, the goddess Berehinyia is considered to be the “hostess who brings mists and covers the corn with dew." In Bulgaria, the “the rusalki or vily come into the fields out of the forest and pour out the fertilizing dew from their hunting horns.” In Northern Europe the Fates watered the World Tree every day, whitening it with white clay to preserve it for eternity. In Northern traditions, the water falling from the World Tree fell down as dew.
In the Hindu spring rites, the Goddess Saraswathi is said to be clothed with a garland as white as dew drops, sitting on a lotus, while the gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, pay tribute to her.
The Chinese, Kwan Yin, is a special protector of women and children whose name means "she who hears the weeping world". Kwan Yin is often pictured pouring the dew of compassion or mercy onto her special devotees.
A story in the Lives of Saint Brigit associates the saint with healing power of dew. Brigit healed a brother and sister, the one disabled and the other blind, when she poured the morning dew upon them
Cloak of containment
In many cultures, female divinities shelter humankind under their mantles. A common blessing still used in Ireland is “May Mary’s (or Brigit’s) mantle protect you.”
In ancient texts, the cloak has many other functions. It is used to hide opposing enemies from each other, or to enable enemies to forget what they might have been fighting over. For instance, Flídais (a form of Cailleach as deer goddess) is described as using her cloak to quell the violence that was erupting between members of the embassage sent by Ailill and Medb of Connacht and warriors from her own camp.
Wearing the cloak also signifies tribal identity, specifically, one’s relationship to maternal kin. Even in battle, the cloak can protect a warrior against his enemies if they are within certain degrees of maternal relationship. In other words, the cloak is a metaphor for containment, and for peace, and exploring international parallels can throw very useful perspectives on our Irish traditions.
In Womanspiritireland festivals, participants have come from all religious traditions (and none), and the cloak has proved to be a hugely important symbol. Whereas the altar of sacrifice serves to divide (who is or is not entitled to take Communion?) or which gender is excluded from celebrating the sacrifice of the Mass) the cloak is inherently an ecumenical and non-gender divisive symbol.
The metaphor of the cloak seems to awaken powerful cellular memories, and brings people together from many traditions, offering containment and safety. Throughout our events, we use the chant composed by Barbara Callan Fé Bhrat Bhríde Sin (May Brigit’s mantle protect us) a chant that weaves us seamlessly from one part of our celebrations to the next.
Dew soaked cloak of mercy or the altars of sacrifice
The Cailleach had created the world using her cloak/womb, but in Christian times the cloak was also used to test the chastity of women. Holding the embers of the fire in one’s apron without allowing them to burn through became a symbolic test of chastity which several unfortunate women failed to their detriment.
In one source, rather than the dew of mercy, a repentant woman is said to have dropped her dew of blood everywhere she went as she travelled throughout Ireland. The imagery parodies the Cailleach who left her imprint on the landscape: the dew of blood now serves her own subjugation.
This year as you prepare to put your precious cloth out on the ground remember that you are doing so to collect the dew of mercy, to celebrate our common origins in the great womb of the earth, and to resist the sacrificial fires and theologies that abject women and our bodies.
Most of all, when you put out your cloak, do so in memory of the Cailleach The Veiled and Mysterious One behind the traditions of Brigit, and in honour of the prophets of all the great religions who cried out against the petrified and divisive priestly practices of their times: I desire mercy not sacrifice.
Snowdrops, Louise Gluck
Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you.
I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn't expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring--
afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy
in the raw wind of the new world.