Metaphors for Religion

There are many different metaphors floating about for religions, and each one illuminates something different about the nature of religion – that’s why I collect them.

Religions as explanatory tools for various situations – like why shit happens (surprisingly accurate); why your web page cannot be found; and of course, how many adherents it takes to change a lightbulb (there are Christian lightbulb jokes, Pagan lightbulb jokes, Jewish lightbulb jokes, Buddhist lightbulb jokes, and there may be many others that haven’t been discovered).

Religions as languages

Viewing religions as languages helps us to see them as a group of distinct forms which may be related but may also be mutually incomprehensible. They also have dialects, just as religions have many variations which are still recognisable as part of that religion.

Religions as languages – the idea that religions are languages, each with their own dialects, discourses, and ability to spread through trade and conquest. This metaphor is a very helpful way to understand religions, though it’s not the whole picture. Wittgenstein’s concept of language games could also be useful here. Jeff Lilly explores this metaphor in two excellent articles, The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part I: Prestige and Stigma and The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part II: Going Organic. Similarly, Andrew J Brown likens religions to irregular verbs:

Christianity is an irregular verb par excellence (as too, of course, are all the other world religions). To speak it and understand its hopeful message you simply have to learn them, live them, always use them in the context of the world in which you find yourself. They are never reducible to a set of simple unifying, rational rules.

Religions as software – if your brain is the hardware and your mind is the operating system, religions are the software installed on it (and sometimes it’s really difficult to uninstall them). My article, Religions as software, explores this idea.

Religions as people

Different people respond to the world differently depending on their personal history, the culture in which they were born, and the historical circumstances of their era. The same is true of religions.

Religions as vinegar tasters – there’s a Taoist painting of Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tsu tasting vinegar; only Lao Tsu is smiling and enjoying the vinegar for what it is. The vinegar represents life, the world as it is. Another article by Jeff Lilly explores the idea of the vinegar tasters.

Religions as ex-girlfriends – a hilarious article by Al Billings (sadly no longer available) explores the idea of religions as ex-girlfriends, which means they naturally have opinions of each other:

[Wicca] complains about your “kablahblah” and rolls her eyes while mumbling about patriarchal power schemes. She can’t stop talking about Roman Catholicism and how wrong she was for you… in fact, she seems pretty obsessed with her sometimes.

Religions as landscapes

This group of metaphors is particularly useful for illuminating the widely varying practices, traditions, and values within different religions.

Religions as cities – this one’s been popular ever since someone dreamed up the heavenly Jerusalem, and Augustine burbled on about the City of God. Nevertheless, not a bad metaphor; different denominations can be different suburbs. As Evelyn Underhill famously said, ‘the Anglican Church may not be the city of God but she is certainly a respectable suburb thereof’. Andrew Brown has a lovely article on religions as cities. If Christianity is a city, is Paganism another city (possibly with more trees), or is it the surrounding countryside?

Religion as landscapes – In my post “Your mountain is not my mountain and that’s just fine“, I suggested that the Pagan revival (and other religions) is like a vast landscape with mountains, rivers, camping grounds, cities, and forests – and each of these fulfils the needs of different groups of people.

Religions as rhizomes or river systems – Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the spread of ideas as being like the growth of rhizomes could also be useful here. Similarly, religions are discourses, so the idea of discourses as rivers could also be useful. R Diaz-Bone (2006) describes discourses as an ‘expression, indeed part of a certain social praxis, that already defines a certain group of possible texts, that express that same praxis, indeed can be accepted as representatives of that same praxis.’

Religions as trees – Tolkien described the Catholic Church as a big tree growing into time with its roots in eternity; and regarded the Protestant Reformation as an attempt to chop down that tree, with all its interesting gnarly bits, and start again with a new sapling. Regardless of what you think of his particular religious politics, it’s a great metaphor. Trees grow in a particular place and are nourished by the soil and shaped by the winds that blow, so each religion is shaped by its environment; but all trees are recognisable as trees and have some features in common, by which we can compare them, so this metaphor gives you essence (the quality of treeness) and particularity (type of tree, environmental conditions).

Religion as a wagon train moving towards undiscovered regions. The different religions form different wagon trains, and some are searching for gold, others for lush farmland, others for good fishing. Not only that, we don’t necessarily know where our wagon-train is headed – it’s all about the journey.

Religions as light, colour, energy

I particularly like this group of metaphors for illuminating the idea that religions are different perspectives on life, which generally promotes mutual tolerance.

Religions as receivers of frequencies – it occurred to me that each religion has its own frequency for tuning in to the numinous, and that in between the frequencies, there is static (but perhaps one day a new radio station will appear there). Or perhaps one religion is tuned to light, another is sound, and another is radio waves, and so on — so each religion is a different type of receiver for detecting the emissions from the numinous.

Religions as prisms refracting the light of the divine:

Imagine for a moment that the divine Ultimate Reality (what some might called YHWH, God, Allah, Nirvana, Brahman) is like the electromagnetic spectrum of light — infinitely continuous, a tiny bandwidth visible, most unseen by the human eye. In each of the great faiths of the world, the metaphor of light is used for the divine. Now think back to a science class in which you learned about prisms. A prism breaks down pure “white” light into a color spectrum. Each of us views Ultimate Reality through a prism. We see our universe and our lives through a lens that has been shaped by our cultures, languages, histories, upbringings and genetic dispositions. When I look through my prism at the light, I might see blue; someone else will see red, and another green. Blue, red and green are not the same, but each is part of the spectrum that is light. Each is unique, but true — yet incomplete. Infinity encompasses contradictions.

Religions as colours – each religion has a different set of colours representing the philosophical and cultural ideas within it. Colors of PaganismColors of JudaismColors of IslamColors of HinduismColors of ChristianityColors of Buddhism.

Religions as art-forms

I like this group of metaphors because it suggests that there is an aesthetic to religion and ritual, and that it can be great art and drama, or it can be mush.

Religions as dance (suggested by Yvonne Rathbone):

Religion as Dance. Contemporary, Jazz, Ballroom, Hawaiian, Crump, Latin, Hip-hop. To get really good at one, you have to focus on it and do it a lot. You can admire someone who is really good at another type of dance without feeling it takes away from your own dancing. And you are, of course, completely welcome to learn as many dances as you like, doing one or another depending on your mood. Except that, in a way, religion as dance isn’t a metaphor but a tautology.

Religions as movies (suggested by KNicoll): reconstructionist religions are like films “based on a true story”. I suggested that Wicca is a movie based on a romanticisation of a folkloric trope – but it is still satisfying and effective.

Religion as cuisine – Some cuisines blend well together; others do not. The taste of Mexican cuisine is not reducible to the taste of Indian cuisine, even though they use some of the same spices. On a related note, religion as ice-cream, and mixing religions as a spiritual buffet.  Then there’s the idea of religions as different desserts (apple pie is not the only dessert), and religions as different types of alcoholic beverage.

Religion as music: Music can transport us to other realms of imagination; it can be uplifting, stirring, boring, disturbing, discordant. There are various genres of music – some people like thrash metal, others prefer classical. Different types of religion can also have wildly varying effects on people – some people prefer charismatic religion, others prefer the formal and liturgical.


Hail Eris!

The way things have been going lately, anyone would think that Eris had lobbed an apple pie into the middle of the Patheos Pagan channel. There are so many apple and apple pie related posts, it’s hard to keep track of them all. But let’s keep the discussion civil.

What Eris teaches us is that sometimes throwing all the pieces up in the air to see where they land is a good thing. It’s very uncomfortable while it’s happening, but it is necessary. At the moment, polytheists are going through a phase of throwing everything up in the air to see where it lands (or perhaps it’s an awkward adolescence). Let’s just take care that it doesn’t land on someone and squash them when the dust settles.

Confetti by Andreas Graulund

Throwing it all up in the air to see where it lands…
Confetti by Andreas Graulund on Flickr [CC-BY-2.0]

Metaphor and Analogy

Metaphors are sometimes useful. But there’s a difference between a metaphor and an analogy.

  • A metaphor is applicable to a situation but can be interpreted in a number of different ways. A classic metaphor is “My love is like a red red rose” (Robert Burns). If you try to turn this into an analogy, it doesn’t work. Robert Burns is not saying that his love has thorns and a stem and the petals fall off. He is saying that his love evokes the same feelings as a red rose (beautiful, sensuous, smells nice). So those qualities of the rose are transferable to the experience of his love; the rest of the rose’s attributes are ignored.
  • An analogy is an exact mapping of one thing to another thing. For example, the solar system is often used as an analogy for atoms (it’s not exactly how atoms work, but it’s a good way to teach kids about atoms). The electrons orbit around the nucleus. The planets orbit around the sun. There’s a direct mapping of all the features of the two systems being compared.
I see John Beckett’s Bakery of the Gods as a metaphor, not as an analogy.

What’s wrong with chocolate cake?

I am assuming that in John Beckett’s Bakery of the Gods metaphor, the people selling chocolate cake were Wiccans and Wiccanish Pagans. I like chocolate cake and Wicca. I am not so keen on chocolate cake with not enough chocolate in it, but each to their own. This metaphor, however, implies that you can’t mix Wicca and polytheism (or maybe I am reading too much into it). That’s the problem with vague metaphors, they can mean all sorts of things that may not have been intended. I wouldn’t mix chocolate cake with apples – but you most definitely can mix polytheism and Wicca.


Many flavours are available

If my view of polytheism is different from yours, that’s a good thing – it means that more flavours of polytheism are available; and that’s helpful. Some people like apple pie with cinnamon; others like it with shortcrust pastry, or puff pastry, or less sugary; others still don’t even like apple pie; some people maintain that desserts are bad for you. There are many desserts available, and many flavours of polytheism (none of which are the One True Flavour).

None of us know objectively what the nature of the gods is; we only perceive them with our limited, local, and finite perspective. It is interesting to discuss their nature and how we interact with them, so that we can learn from each other’s perspectives. But we can’t be certain what the nature of the gods is.

We don’t all like the same flavours

The only way to discover whether one perspective is better than another is by observing its results in the world. If your perspective makes you feel closer to the gods, happy, fulfilled, and able to function effectively as a human being without harming others, then it is probably worth sharing. If your perspective makes you angry, bitter, jealous, and vengeful, then it probably isn’t doing you or anyone else any good.

And, here’s the rub: apple pie with cinnamon makes me say “Yuk!” but for someone else, it may be the only way to make apple pie. That’s just fine, as long as I don’t make them eat my recipe, and they don’t make me eat their recipe.



Apples and Apple Pie – the story so far

Various commenters have also pointed out that they are allergic to apple pie, or prefer rhubarb pie, or pear pie, or apple crumble.

Did I omit your apple / apple-pie post? Let me know in the comments.


Polytheism and Apple Pie

John Beckett has a witty and amusing post up about apple pie, vanilla pudding, and other kinds of dessert. He’s got practically the entire readership of Patheos Pagan going “I want apple pie”.

But he missed out all the people who are saying that only their apple pie is the real apple pie. (John himself acknowledges that there are many kinds of apple pie.)

Your apple pie is not my apple pie

I am horrified that John puts cinnamon in his apple pie, and nothing would persuade me to eat it. That’s just wrong. Also, I am willing to bet there is too much sugar in his apple pie (I like mine really tart). And I bet he doesn’t put cheese with it either, because he’s not from Yorkshire.

And if you are a British reader, you will not be tasting the same apple pie on your mind’s tongue as an American reader. The poor benighted Americans don’t even have Bramley apples, apparently. This recipe article outlines the difference between a British apple pie and an American apple pie.

But it’s still apple pie

However, I would have to grudgingly acknowledge that his apple pie is a kind of apple pie (despite the presence of cinnamon and too much sugar) because his pie has apples and pastry in it, and therefore it meets the minimum criteria for being described as apple pie. I hope he would acknowledge that my apple pie is also apple pie, even if he doesn’t like it.

And my Bramley apple pie is definitely better than apple pie made with the wrong kind of apples and with cinnamon and extra sugar…. for me.

The same applies to polytheism. You might not like relational polytheism, or mystical polytheism, or devotional polytheism, or polytheistic monism, or anything else that can be described as polytheism because it involves many gods… but it’s still polytheism.

By Marcin Floryan - Own work (own photo), CC BY-SA 2.5,

Bramley Apples: the food of the gods. Photo by Marcin Floryan – own work, CC BY-SA 2.5.

When We Are Birthing, It Helps to Breathe Through the Pain

Photo credit: Reed Busse

This is an invitation. This is an opening in the day.

Pause. Deepen, listening into to your senses. Ground to the earth under the sidewalks, under the foundations of houses and workplaces. Breathe slowly and fully.

Here is a lived truth I invite you to share: when we are birthing, it helps to breathe through the pain.


Breathe and Ground.

Ground and Breathe.


Seven Reasons I Am Silent


  1. I do not think I am a blogger.
  2. I have been thinking about this for a long time.
  3. A blog is a form. A relatively new one.  It is a form that requires
    • Information easily broken down into bullet points and top ten lists
    • Visual content
    • An easy and accessible voice
    • Humor


  1. You don’t have to hit every one of those, but most of the time I hit one at the most. Sometimes zee-ro.
  2. And I’m okay with that. My work is elsewhere.
  3. The blog form also asks that the writer…know. Have answers. A blog is a container for answers.
  4. I don’t have answers. I have mostly questions.



I Am Too Slow a Writer to Blog Well


Breathe and Ground.

Ground and Breathe.


Choose your adventure, choose your battle. Because I am a slow writer, because I take a lot of time to process, I was writing three blogs posts at once last week. Social media moves faster than I do, even on my good days. Then I realized all my essays said the same thing: it is not a question of two sides. This (whichever this you are looking at currently) is not a binary dilemma.



This Is the Only Offering I Have


Breathe and Ground.

Ground and Breathe.


I do not have answers. All I can do is hold space, here.


Those who shout loudest feel most threatened.

Those who speak the most hate feel the most fear.


What do we fear?

Who do we fear?

What scars do we bear?

What wounds never healed?


Everyone is hurting. Breathe.

That person you have named your enemy is hurting. Breathe.

That person you fear is hurting. Breathe.

That person you do not know is hurting. Breathe.

That person who hurt you is hurting. Breathe.

That person who thinks she has the answer but is afraid to share it is hurting. Breathe.

That person who tells you he has the answer is hurting. Breathe.

It is not us and them. It is not me and you. It is we. Breathe.

It is never the end of the world. Breathe.


Peace, peace, peace, to all of us. Breathe.


When we are birthing, it helps to breathe through the pain.




Wisconsin landscape

photo credit: Reed Busse



Why Pagans don’t proselytise or evangelise

There are various different ways in which religions can try to attract new adherents and/or communicate with others.

Interfaith dialogue means providing other faiths/philosophies with information about your own religion or philosophy, and having a dialogue about how to co-exist peacefully. Some members of some faiths may participate in interfaith dialogue in the hope of making converts: I don’t think that should be our goal. I think it is dishonest and undermines the whole purpose of dialogue if the participants have an aim to convert each other. One can certainly enter dialogue with a willingness to entertain another perspective, but not to persuade others to join your own faith.

Interfaith is a bit of an awkward name for having a dialogue with atheists, humanists, and people who don’t adhere to any faith, but the same rule applies: we are not there to make converts; we are there to communicate with others and provide information about Paganism(s).

A deer in Holland. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow

A deer in Holland – too busy eating to evangelise any local cats. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Providing information to others who might be interested in Paganism (because they have a gods-shaped receptor, or a Nature-shaped receptor) but don’t know we exist. This type of communication doesn’t have a special name, but is certainly desirable. There are still people out there who have never heard of contemporary Paganism, or if they have heard of it, don’t have a clue about it.

Evangelism is telling other people they will be happier if they adhere to your faith. But we can’t prove that non-Pagans would be happier if they were Pagan – maybe they are perfectly happy as atheists or whatever – different people are wired differently – some people have a gods-shaped receptor, others have a God-shaped receptor, some don’t have a receptor for god(s). So I do not think that evangelism is a good idea. Where religions do evangelise, I suspect that they find that converts made through evangelism are often not very engaged, and fall by the wayside at the first sign of difficulty.

in any case, which Pagan deity would you evangelise  on behalf of? Cernunnos? As this Lolcat meme makes clear, the cats (who obviously worship Bast), would be pretty unimpressed. What about Woden? A well-known UK Heathen once turned up to a party with an amusing T-shirt reading “Woden’s Witnesses”.

Proselytising is (technically) where you tell people that they are doomed in some way if they don’t follow your faith. As Pagans don’t believe that our gods have an unpleasant fate prepared for non-believers, this is not an option open to us, nor would it be a desirable route to take. No-one should be persuaded to join a religion on the basis of some kind of threat, whether the threat is of suffering in this life or a hypothetical next life.

Pagans don’t actively seek converts because we believe that the realisation that you are a Pagan wells up from within, as a response to the beauty of Nature, the call of the Pagan deities, or a growing convergence with Pagan values and a Pagan world-view. We do not believe that it is “cosmically necessary” to be a Pagan – our gods want willing adherents, not forced ones, and they do not punish people who do not believe in them (ancient pagans also did not believe in punishment for non-believers).

Most Pagans feel that you cannot be converted to Paganism, because being a Pagan is not about the acceptance of a set of propositions or a creed, but a sense of connection with Nature, the old gods, the Earth, or the land. Instead, we call the realisation that we are Pagan a feeling of coming home.

In an excellent article for the Theologies of Immanence wiki, Judy Harrow wrote:

I’m a convert, and probably so are you. Very few of us were raised as Pagans. Most of us come to this religion in adulthood, by conscious choice. Some Pagan elders find satisfaction in welcoming newcomers to our community, helping them to find their way around. It’s good for all of us to reflect upon the process of change that most of us have experienced.

Among ourselves, we don’t call new Pagan affiliation “conversion” at all; we call it “homecoming.” The difference is not trivial. Remember, language shapes thought. Most religions expect conversion to be a transformative experience. They expect new adherents to think, behave, even speak differently, utterly renouncing their old ways. In contrast, we say “you don’t become a Pagan; you find out that there’s a name for what you already were, and a community of others who feel the same way.”

All we really expect from a new homecomer is a deep sigh of relief. Certainly we have our community mores and customs. However, instead of indoctrinating or re-socializing newcomers, we like to believe that they come to us because they find us already feeling and doing the very things that made them misfits in their previous faith communities. They find the home they never thought existed for them. That’s what it felt like for me, how about you?

It’s not that simple of course. Whoever comes home as an adult has left a previous home. Although it was less satisfactory, still there are aspects they’ll miss, and baggage they’ll carry along. And anybody who has ever moved house, even to a much better location, knows how disorienting, and how much work, it can be.

In the article, Judy goes on to point out that all processes of conversion (whether they are called that or not) involve a shift of perspective, a leaving-behind of a previous paradigm, a search for a new paradigm and a new community, and settling in to the new community.

What is Pagan theology, and why do we need it?

Pagan theology is the discussion of pagan ethics and values and a discussion on the nature of the gods, and our relationship with them and the world.

The Pagan Temple in Garni - Wikimedia Commons

The Pagan Temple in Garni – Wikimedia Commons

It is not the laying down of dogma for all Pagans to believe. It is always discursive, and always provisional. It is a conversation amongst the community, not the laying down of the law by experts.

Right-wing Christianity is deeply concerned with what its members believe, not for practical reasons about how they relate to the world, but because right belief is held to be the means to salvation. Gus di Zerega is right that we do not need that sort of theology in Paganism. We do not need systematic theology, we do not need dogma, and we do not need creeds.  But we do need a discursive, organic, and relational theology.

The theology of left-wing Christians and Unitarian Universalists is much more discursive and exploratory. It is about relationships between people as much as it is about relationships with the divine. It seeks to explore a way of being in the world that encourages human flourishing. I believe that that theological conversation is worth having.

If polytheists are so keen to articulate the manifold nature of divinity, it is precisely because what we think about deities is mirrored in how we think the world works. As both P Sufenas Virius Lupus and Julian Betkowski have pointed out, if you think the Divine is a single unified entity that is immanent in the world, then you are likely to erase and dismiss distinctions between things and not value diversity as much as perhaps you might.

If you think that the nature of the divine is a transcendent being who is completely separate from the world, then you are likely to despise the world and want to go and be in the presence of your deity.

If you think that the nature of the divine is one God and one Goddess, then you are very likely to view them as a heterosexual couple, and to elevate heterosexual union above other forms of union.

If you think that there are many gods, then you probably think that there are many ways of being a god, and there are many ways of being human, and many different experiences of the world that are irreducible to each other.

If you think that the answer to the question, “why do bad things happen to good people?” is “because they did something to deserve it” (e.g. in a previous incarnation, or something) that is a theological answer, and your attitude to people to whom bad things have happened is going to be less than compassionate.

One of the reasons we need to articulate a Pagan theology is to present an alternative to bad theology like “bad things happen to good people because they did something to deserve it” and “all religions are really one so they should all merge into one big happy family” or “the Earth was given to humanity to subdue and use”. Whilst that last attitude is not a Pagan one, it is deeply entrenched in Western culture, due to the influence of right-wing Christianity, and needs to be replaced with the idea that the Earth is a being in Her own right, to be respected and cared for. If we do not articulate Pagan theologies and discussions, bad theology will rush into the vacuum and affect the way we relate to each other and the world.

If we do not talk about what the gods are and how they relate to the world, we will just end up with a very shallow view of what they are. I think it is well worth exploring apophatic theology, which emphasises the mystery of the nature of the divine. What would an explicitly Pagan apophatic theology look like?

I am fed up with Pagans saying that we do not need theology. We do need theology, we just need good theology, not bad theology. Good theology is any theology that promotes flourishing of all life; bad theology is any theology that makes people miserable.

People who say that we don’t need theology want to sweep all dissent under the carpet. They don’t want to think deeply about the nature of deities and how we relate to each other and the world. They seem afraid of other people having a better articulated position than they do. Perhaps they are afraid that their authority will be undermined by the “new kids on the block” who are not afraid to discuss theology, because they are not afraid of a difference of opinion.

Paganism for Beginners: Theology

Pagan theology is non-dogmatic, experiential, and descriptive. Usually people have an experience or perform a ritual, and then develop a theory to explain the experience. Quite often, Pagans will deny that this is theology – but to my mind, theology is any theory to explain the relationship of humans with the numinous.

PILGRIM ON A FOREST ROAD -- Into the Mist of Old Japan, by Enami

PILGRIM ON A FOREST ROAD — Into the Mist of Old Japan, by Enami (uploaded to Flickr by Okinawa Soba) [CC by NC SA 2.0]

The term theology was coined by the pagan philosopher Cicero in 49 CE, in his work of pagan apologetics, De Natura Deorum (‘On the Nature of the Gods’).

You are ‘doing theology’ whenever you explain how magic works, describe what you think a deity is, talk about the soul, or what happens after death. You are ‘doing theology’ when you wonder why bad things happen to good people.

Theology – and Pagan conversation in general – tends to confuse a lot of people because it involves specialised terminology. Here are some of the most common terms used in Pagan theology, with a short explanation. You can find out more information on all these terms by looking them up on Wikipedia.

  • Animism – the idea that everything (trees, rocks, animals, etc) has a spirit or a soul
  • Apologetics – the process of explaining your religion to other people (not apologising for its existence!)
  • Dogma – theology codified as a compulsory set of beliefs, such as a creed
  • Duotheism – the idea that there are two deities, a god and a goddess (sometimes expressed as “all the gods are one God, and all the goddesses are one Goddess”)
  • Henotheism – the view that there may be many deities, but the henotheist worships only one of them
  • Immanent – intertwined with or present in matter. Pagan deities, spirits of place, genii loci, land wights, etc are usually regarded as immanent
  • Land wights (Landvættir) – a term used by Heathens to describe the powers and spirits of the land, who may protect whole countries, or smaller regions.
  • Monism – the idea that there is a single underlying unity of everything – spirit and matter
  • Monotheism – the idea that there is only one deity, who is often, but not always, seen as transcendent.
  • Naturalism – the idea that there is nothing beyond Nature, and usually, no spirit(s) within Nature either.
  • Numinous – the power or presence or realisation of divinity; the experience of the supernatural or the preternatural
  • Orthodoxy – a religion that emphasises that all its practitioners should believe the same set of ideas is orthodox
  • Orthopraxy – a religion that emphasises that all its practitioners perform the same or similar rituals is orthopractic
  • Pantheism – the idea that deity (usually a single deity) is present in Nature, or in the universe.
  • Pantheon – a group of deities worshipped by a specific culture (e.g.  the Greek pantheon, the Roman pantheon, the Norse pantheon, the Hindu pantheon)
  • Polytheism – the idea that there are many deities
  • Prayer – having a conversation with, or communing wordlessly with, a deity or spirit
  • Preternatural – a term suggested by Michael York to describe the experience of immanent spirits and deities
  • Spirits of place – spirits of trees, rocks, and specific places, often guardians or protectors of the place (Latin: genii loci)
  • Supernatural – the idea that spirits and deities are transcendent and exist outside of nature
  • Theology – a set of theories about the gods and our relationship with them (not necessarily dogmatic, as many different theologies can co-exist peacefully in non-dogmatic religions)
  • Transcendent – existing above or beyond something
    • Epistemologically transcendent – the experience of something beyond the ego, such as the sense of being swept away in a crowd.
    • Ontologically transcendent – existing beyond matter (usually referred to simply as ‘transcendent’)
  • WorshipA ritualized expression of respect and honour – offered to anything or anyone that you respect and honour.

Further reading

This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost. 

“No One Understands About Black”

My daughter wrote me a poem for Mother’s Day:

Mom, I love you the blackest!
I love you the color of a mystery cave.
I love you the color of a blackbird singing its territory.
A summer midnight.
A bat’s wings.
And an evening talk with no meaning.


(Yes, I’m proud.)

“You really describe black so people can feel how bright and beautiful it is,” I told her.

“I know,” she said with rapture in her voice. “Isn’t black wonderful?” And it’s true. She has always loved black. When she was two she took her black crayola marker and (re) colored our living room couch (usually sage green) black. She was very proud.

The next day after school she came back and said to me, “No one understands about black.”

“You can help them understand,” I told her. “By writing poems and stories. By making art. You can share your thoughts about how warm and comforting, how strong and glorious black is.”

One of the tropes I am most tired of is the binary opposition of “light/good/white” versus “dark/bad/black.” This is everywhere in our language and culture, and especially deeply entrenched when we talk about religion, soul, spirit, knowledge and wisdom.

Darkness nurtures the seed, the babe. The dark nests us all when we sleep. Dark allows us space to mourn, and also space to grow, to change, to cast off an old skin and try on a new. Night is the nurturing mother of us all.

Light without dark is the intolerable bright glare of torture and interrogation.  We need our shadows. We need the dark. We need black.

And those of us who are makers, writers, story tellers, artists, songwriters and creatives of all stripes, we have a responsibility to help our culture(s) rethink this binary. We need to find a way to embrace black, and the trope of darkness. We need to remember—and to say, repeatedly—that light (and white) is not always good and beneficent.

This is not about race.

This is about race.

Mandala Things Come Together

Stephen Fry, burrowing insects, and lions and tigers and bears

The Horse Botfly, which lays its eggs on horses' skin and infests the horse's intestines.

The Horse Botfly, which lays its eggs on horses’ skin and infests the horse’s intestines. (Wikipedia)

Recently, Stephen Fry was asked how he would respond if he met God. His response was entirely understandable within the context of Christian theology. If there is an all-powerful supernatural creator god, why does he/she/it allow hideous suffering like parasitic insects burrowing into the eyes of children? As Fry so aptly pointed out, who would worship such a god?

But what he has done is take Christian theology and turned it on its head, as so many atheists do. There is more to life than Christian theology. There is no supernatural creator god (as atheists have very ably demonstrated). That does not mean that the concepts of deity and deities are completely redundant, as a supernatural creator deity is only one possible mythological or theological construct.

Indeed, Fry went on to say that if he turned up at the gates of the afterlife and it turned out to be run by the Greek gods, he would have more respect for them, because they do not claim to be anything other than human in their appetites and capricious in their ways. I think even this is still too close to the idea of a creator (or creators), because the Greeks did not actually believe that the universe was created – and most ancient pagan creation myths actually acknowledged the existence of death and conflict as the very basis of the creative act (the killing of the giant Ymir in Norse myth in order to create the world, or the slaying of the dragon Tiamat by Marduk to make the earth, for example). But he is going along the right lines towards understanding the pagan worldview (both ancient and modern).

Yes, insects that burrow into children’s eyes are horrible, but they are neither evil nor good, they just are. They have their own agenda, like all other beings, and that agenda – finding something soft and squishy to lay their eggs in – happens to be massively in conflict with our agenda.

Right-wing Christians assume that humans are the pinnacle of  “creation” and that the world exists for our benefit. Atheists often turn this on its head and claim that the universe is hostile, but fail to notice that we are just one species among other species. The universe is neither 100% hostile, nor is it 100% benign. There is food that we can eat, and oxygen to breathe, and most of the time, the temperature is about right (until we screw it up by causing unprecedented climate change). But the fact that we exist at all, as oxygen-breathing animals, is at the expense of the organisms that existed on Earth before the atmosphere had oxygen in it – and there was a mass extinction of those non-oxygen-breathing organisms when oxygen entered the atmosphere. One animal’s beneficial environmental feature is another animal’s deeply hostile environmental feature.

The world was not created for our benefit – indeed, it was not created. The sooner humans realise this and stop behaving as if we own it, the better. There are other sentient beings who deserve our consideration – elephants, dolphins, whales – all intelligent and sensitive. And the other (supposedly lesser) animals also deserve our consideration. That doesn’t mean that I would not kill the insect that was trying to lay eggs in a human eye – but I recognise that the insect is not evil, it is just doing what comes naturally to it.

Neither atheists nor Christians seem to consider that we could only have evolved in the environment we are in (and that the the same applies to nasty insects). The environment in which we live is generally quite hospitable, but it also happens to be hospitable to some things that we consider unpleasant. Monty Python nailed it with their wonderful send-up of All Things Bright and Beautiful, aptly entitled All Things Dull and Ugly. (Listen to it on YouTube here.)

Each little snake that poisons,
Each little wasp that stings,
He made their brutish venom.
He made their horrid wings.

All things sick and cancerous,
All evil great and small,
All things foul and dangerous,
The Lord God made them all.

Yep, the universe contains both “all things bright and beautiful”, and “all things sick and cancerous”. This means that any theology worth its salt must deal with this fact somehow. (To be fair to Christian theology, it kind of gets around this by explaining that the Devil put the nasty stuff there, because he’s spiteful – but obviously there is still a flaw because in order for this to happen, the Devil must be just as powerful as God, and then you get Manichaean dualism, which is not allowed in mainstream Christian theology.)

The universe just is, as it is. Not created, not hostile, not especially benevolent, but many diverse beings and species, each with their own imperative to survive and thrive, and some of those in harmony with our imperative to survive and thrive, some of them in conflict. We have to learn how to manage those conflicts, not blame them on an all-powerful supernatural creator (or creators). As Terry Pratchett wrote, “There’s no justice. There’s just us”, implying that we have to create our own justice.

Pagan theology deals with the fact of death and predators and icky parasites by taking the view that there are many beings (including deities and nature spirits), all with their own agendas, their own imperatives for survival, some of which may be in conflict with ours. Lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) and sharks, and horrible insects, all have to eat, but we would rather they did not eat us. So, for the most part, we stay out of their way. Hurricanes emerge from the weather system and wreak havoc in their path, but this is an unfortunate fact of existence. Nature spirits also have their own agenda, and sometimes that aligns with ours, and sometimes it does not. That is why Icelanders take care not to demolish the dwellings of the huldu-folk (elves and trolls), and why British folklore advises against cutting down hawthorn trees, because the Fair Folk live there.

Pagan deities are not seen as all-powerful, but beings on their own journey, who may sometimes walk with us and help us. They are not there for our benefit, and we are not here for their benefit. Just as you make friends and forge alliances with other humans for companionship, or to further some collective goal like campaigning for social justice, the same applies to deities – we make alliances to further a common cause, or we make friends with them.

The universe contains both great beauty and great brutality (as Stephen Fry also acknowledged). You can’t ignore one and focus entirely on the other; they are both part of a complex picture. I recommend anyone who thinks that Nature is all fluffy bunnies and cuddly animals to spend a few hours on the Wikpedia category on parasitic insects. But for anyone who thinks that Nature is entirely hostile, go outside and bask in some warm sunshine, look at some nice trees recycling our exhaled carbon dioxide, and browse the list of edible foods that you can gather in the wild. And gaze up at the stars to be reminded of just how big the Universe is, and be thankful that you can behold such beauty, and reflect that you yourself are formed of atoms forged in the heart of a star.

The Three Brigits of the Ulster Cycle and the Forgotten Origins of Neopagan Theology

This week, we are pleased to once again host an original research article by Christopher Scott Thompson, exploring an alternative origin for the “maiden, mother, crone” Goddess theology that has been so influential in contemporary Paganism. Thanks, Christopher, for the intriguing argument!

Image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

Three Brigits: Just Not the Three You’re Thinking Of

Any Brigidine pagan, on hearing the phrase “Three Brigits” would think immediately of the famous passage from Cormac’s Glossary:

Brigit, i.e., a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit the female sage, or woman of wisdom, i.e., Brigit the goddess whom poets adored, because very great and very famous was her protecting care. It is therefore they call her goddess of poets, by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit the female physician (woman of leech craft), Brigit the female smith (woman of smith work), from whose names with all Irishmen a goddess was called Brigit.[1]

Some would also be aware that there were other Brigits, women mentioned in passing in the medieval Irish lore. There’s been some debate about whether these women had anything to do with the goddess Brigit or not, and in any case they are very obscure figures. Because Brig means power, a woman with the prefix Brig in her name may be the power of a particular thing; for example, Brig Brethach could be read as “Brigit of the Judgments” or “Power of Judgment.”

The known Brig-figures include Brig Ambue (“Brigit of the Cowless”), Brig Euit (“Brigit of Piety”), Brig Briugu (“Brigit of Hospitality”), Brig Brethach (“Brigit of the Judgments”) and Great Brid of the Horses.[2]

The reference to Brig Euit makes it clear that she was actually St. Brigid. Brig Brethach is used several times as a nickname for Brig Ambue and at least once as another name for Brig Briugu, but there was also another Brig Brethach, the wife of Sencha MacAilella. Great Brid of the Horses is arguably a duplicate of this Brig Brethach. In a later era, the legendary (if not infamous) poet Senchan Torpeist had a wife named Brigit, who makes a brief appearance in “The Proceedings of the Great Bardic Assembly” and stars in its derivative tale “Great Brid of the Horses.”

Senchan Torpeist has deep links to the Ulster Cycle (he is the bard who recovered the Tain, among other things) and the name Senchan is obviously close to Sencha. This implies that Sechan and his wife Brigit are later reflexes of Sencha MacAilella and his wife Brig Brethach.

If we set aside Brig Euit and Great Brid of the Horses for now, we have three Brig figures: Brig Briugu, Brig Brethach and Brig Ambue, all of whom were sometimes referred to as Brig Brethach. However, these are not three random Irish women mentioned at disconnected points in the medieval lore. Instead, they are three generations of the same family!

According to a footnote by Eugene O’Curry:

Several women of the name of Brig are mentioned in. the ancient laws as female judges; some of them appear to have been connected with each other. The mother of Senchan, chief judge and poet of Ulster in the time of Conchobar Mac Nessa, was called Brig ban Brughad or Brig the female Brugad; his wife was called Brig Brethach or Brig of the judgments; and his daughter, the Brig A mbui alluded to in the text, was also it would appear called Brig “of the Judgments”, and was wife of Celtchoir Mac Uthichair, a renowned personage of the Tain Bo Chuailgne, and other heroic tales of that period. She is mentioned as one of the nine, or rather ten, women who accompanied Queen Mugan, wife of Conchobor Mac Nessa, at the Fled Bricrind or Bricriu’s Feast.[3]

Brig Ambue was the wife of Celtchar MacUthechair of the Ulster Cycle, but she was sometimes referred to as Brig Brethach or “Brigit of the Judgments,” supposedly because she gave a famous legal judgment in correction of her father Sencha mac Ailella, poet and judge to Conchobar MacNessa. The name Sencha is very similar to senchas, a word that means lore or tradition. This is especially significant because the references to Brig Ambue come from the Senchas Mor or “Great Tradition,” a medieval collection of Brehon law.

Brig Brethach was her mother, the wife of the same famous judge and poet.

Sencha’s mother was Brig Briugu or “Brigit of Hospitality,” but the glosses to a story called Din Techtugud identify this Brig as the Brig Brethach who corrected Sencha’s false judgment.[4]   

Three Brigits: the mother, wife and daughter of a famous poet whose name actually means Lore or Tradition, and who are known mostly from a book called the Great Tradition.

We are not dealing with scattered references to women named Brigit, but with a second trinity of Three Brigits. Unlike the more well-known trinity of three sisters from the Mythological Cycle, these three are from the Ulster Cycle. As such, they are described as being human women- but their connection to the goddess is now unmistakable, and they are probably best described as avatars.


Brig Briugu

O’Curry calls the grandmother Brig ban Brughad. According to the Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language, briugu means:

Landowner, hospitaller, in later sources also farmer, yeoman. In legal texts the b. is a rich landowner with a public function of dispensing unlimited hospitality to all persons in his hostel, which must be in an accessible position. For this he is given the same honour-price as the king of a túath… recognized as common intervener in disputes.[5]

According to eDIL, the word briugas means “function of a briugu; hospitality, riches, abundance:; plenty,” and briugaid is a form of this word.[6] All the other meanings of brugad are not relevant, so Brig ban Brughad must mean “Brigit the Female Hosteler,” a variation on the name Brig Briugu.

A hosteler in ancient Ireland was a wealthy peasant or successful farmer who could attain a semi-noble status by offering free hospitality to travelers. Hostels figure prominently in Irish lore, and especially in the lore of this particular family. A hostel was essentially an inn where you didn’t have to pay for food or lodging. So, Brig Briugu is connected with agriculture, hospitality and the Celtic ideal of open-handed generosity without thought of reward. It seems likely that anecdotes about St. Brigid’s generosity with food and drink derive from the lore about Brig Briugu.


Brig Brethach

Brig Brethach or “Brigit of the Judgments” is the wife of Sencha the judge and poet. The fili in ancient times combined both roles, so Brig Brethach was presumably a fili as well. Sencha was one of the men who volunteered to serve as foster-fathers for the hero Cuchulain. Sencha never became a full-time foster-father to Cuchulain, but did teach him the skill of eloquence — presumably with the assistance of his wife Brig Brethach. In Gaelic folklore, St. Bride is often referred to as Muime or “foster-mother,” referring to the legend that she was the foster-mother of Jesus Christ. Considering this fact, it seems significant that a pre-Christian Brigit was a foster-mother of sorts to Cuchulain, the son of the god Lugh.

Sencha’s role in the Ulster Cycle is that of peacemaker. Considering that this was a typical role of the briugu, he may have inherited this position from his mother. When the stubborn, vainglorious and recklessly violent warriors are about to lose their tempers, Sencha shakes his “branch of peace” and persuades them to either submit the matter to arbitration, talk it out instead of fighting or at least agree to a cooling-off period. He is described as having a voice as sweet as music, which must have helped him in his profession[7]. Although Sencha is described as reciting a rosc or battle-incitement poem by royal request on one occasion, he is essentially a professional deescalator, like the “violence interruptors” who try to prevent gang violence in modern Chicago.

Confusingly enough, Bretha for Conslechtaib states that the wife of Sencha was named Brig Ambue, so there is no clear distinction between the three members of this trinity. They are all, apparently, Brig Brethach.


Brig Ambue

Brig Ambue or “Brigit of the Cowless” is a complex figure. On the one hand, she was a famous female jurist (“the female expert of the men of Ireland in wisdom and prudence”) known for her role in defending the rights of women. On the other hand, she was a femme fatale, whose manipulations led to the deaths of her own husband Celtchar Mac Uthechair and the hosteler Blai Briugu.

Brig Ambue’s name implies a connection to the Ambue, a class of people with no property in old Irish society. As the granddaughter of a hosteler and the wife of a famous Ulster warrior she would have been quite wealthy, so she most likely earned this name by rendering legal judgments on behalf of the disenfranchized and powerless. P. Sufenus Virius Lupus, in the article The Hidden Imbolc, has suggested that Brig Ambue was connected to the purification and reintegration of “cowless” or outlaw Fian warriors around the time of Imbolc.[8]

Brig Ambue plays a role in two of the Ulster Cycle tales, although she is referred to as Brig Brethach in one and not mentioned by name in the other. We know the Brig Brethach in these stories is really Brig Ambue thanks to O’Curry’s footnote- Brig Ambue was the wife of Celtchar Mac Uthechair, not of Sencha Mac Ailella who was her father.

Her father Sencha is the wise counselor and peacemaker at Bricriu’s Feast who oversees the “War of Words of the Women of Ulster” after Bricriu incites the wives of the Ulster heroes against each other. As Brig Ambue’s husband Celtchar is mentioned as having been in attendance, she must have been one of the participants in the War of Words, although her speech is not given.

Sencha shows himself to be a misogynist in this tale by blaming all the trouble — and all warfare in general — on the women:

“It is through the fault of women the shields of men are broken, heroes go out to fight and struggle with one another in their anger… It is the folly of women brings men to do these things…”[9]

He received his comeuppance for this sort of attitude from his own daughter Brig, who earned her nickname Brig Brethach by correcting his judgment on a legal matter affecting the rights of women. Sencha had ruled unfairly, causing blotches to magically appear on his face. When Brig gave the correct judgment, his blotches disappeared.

Despite this obvious reference to Brig Ambue as a figure of justice, The Tragic Death of Celtchar mac Uthechair portrays her as either a ruthless schemer or a destructive embodiment of destiny, depending on how you interpet her role.

For whatever reason, Brig Ambue seems to have determined on the death of Blai Briugu, because she deliberately put him in one of the geasa traps beloved by old Irish storytellers. In the story, she travels alone to Blai’s hostel despite knowing that he has a geis or taboo requiring him to sleep with any unaccompanied woman under his roof. When he complains that she’s going to get him killed, she replies “It is a wretched man that violates his own geasa.” Blai has sex with her, and when her husband Celtchar hears about it he hunts Blai down.

Blai attempts to escape his fate by staying as near the king and Cuchulain as possible, but Celtchar comes up and stabs him dead with a spear while he’s watching his two protectors play a board game. The blood splatters on the board, but it’s a little bit closer to the king’s side so the duty of revenge for Blai’s death falls to him.

Celtchar flees south to Munster, but is lured back with guarantees of safety. His fine or “blood-price” for Blai’s murder is to protect Ulster from its three worst threats. He successfully disposes of a warrior with sword-proof skin by promising his daughter Niam to the man and then getting her to find out his weak point. He kills a giant, maneating mouse by ripping its heart out. However, the third monster Conchobar asks him to kill is his own dog, which is running wild and killing people. When Celtchar does so, a drop of the dog’s blood rolls down his spear and burns right through him, killing him instantly.[10]

The presence of a wild dog in this story may be significant, as outlaw warriors of the Ambue class referred to themselves as being wolves or werewolves, and there was no distinction in the Irish language between a wolf and a dog. According to Katherine Simms, the Irish law tracts refer to Brig Ambue as the first person ever to train a lapdog[11].

It could be that the dog in this story is no dog at all, but an Ambue warrior once loyal to Celtchar but now gone rogue- or simply carrying out Brig Ambue’s desire to see both Blai and her husband dead. The story gives no explanation for why she sets this destructive train of events in motion, but three possibilities come to mind.

One is that she could have been seeking retribution for some wrongdoing committed by both Blai and her husband.

Two is that the storytellers could have cast her in the role of the otherworld woman who forces a doomed man to violate his geasa  for no other reason than the fact that he is doomed.

Three is that her role in this myth is actually a metaphor for the nature of justice. Blai knows what he is supposed to do but he’s scared to do it; she reminds him of his obligations and he fulfills them – even at the cost of his own life.

Brig Ambue appears in another anecdote under the odd nickname Cúicthi or “Five,” again to correct her father’s judgment. In this case, a mysterious woman interrupts a duel between Conall Cernach and Láegaire Buadach to ask them to delay the fight and seek arbitration. They ask Sencha how long they should wait for, but he doesn’t know so they ask the woman. She tells them to wait five days, and they ask her name. She tells them her name is Cúicthi or “Five,” but a gloss on the manuscript says the woman was really Sencha’s daughter “Brighi”- in other words, Brig Ambue. Her father didn’t recognize her because of a magic veil. Strangely enough, it also says she was married to Cuchulain — perhaps after Celtchar’s death?[12]

In any case, this anecdote is used as precedent for setting the standard waiting period before distraint at five days. For instance, if a man lost a judgment and had to pay a fine of ten cows, the plaintiff would have to give him notice and then wait the required number of days before staging a cattle raid to recover the fine. The waiting period created space and time for the defendant to pay the fine, reducing the likelihood of violence. Distraint also applied to cases involving women, but the rules were different. This was the primary theme of the “judgments of Brig.”


The Judgments of Brig

Modern pagans often interpret Brigit as a goddess of social justice or even of activism, partly because of several stories that cast St. Brigid in this role and partly because of fragmentary references to the judgments of Brig Ambue or Brig Brethach.

According to Katharine Simms, references in the legal tracts to a work called Bretha Brígi Ambue or “The Judgments of Brig Ambue” do not mean that such a document ever actually existed. Instead, the Bretha Brígi Ambue was a mythical book, invoked when it was deemed necessary to make changes to established law. When the judges of medieval Ireland came to the conclusion that a particular law was unfair, they would make up an anecdote in which Brig Ambue or Brig Brethach gave a judgment on the matter.[13]

In culturally conservative traditional societies, change is managed by pretending it isn’t change in the first place. One way to do this is to invoke a fictional ancient precedent, so that the new law isn’t  described as being new but as an older and more authentic tradition more in line with what the Irish called firinne or universal Truth.

The blemishes on Sencha’s face were caused by his deviation from firinne, and they went away automatically when firinne was restored. If a medieval Irish judge had been around when Americans were debating about giving women the vote in 1920, he would have made up a story in which the first justice of the Supreme Court ruled against women’s suffrage and immediately got blisters on his face until his daughter Brigit corrected him. Then our time-traveling Irish judge could feel totally comfortable about his support for the 19th Amendment, because it would no longer be a radical new idea but an older and more traditional tradition.

So, the “Judgments of Brig” do not actually represent pre-Christian myths, but changes to early medieval law justified by reference to a shadowy pre-Christian figure called “Brigit of the Judgments.” The specific cases described as “Judgments of Brig” all have this characteristic.

Brig Ambue’s most famous judgment involved cases of distraint over inherited property. Under ancient Irish law, a man who inherited property but didn’t have physical posession of it was expected to follow a detailed procedure. First he had to bring two yoked horses and one witness over the boundary line to give legal notice of his claim on the land. If the current owner refused to acknowledge his claim he could return ten days later with four horses and let them graze for a little while. If he returned ten days later with eight horses he could move into the house and make a fire, at which point the land was his regardless of what the original owner said[14].

Acording to the story, a woman named Ciannachta asked Sencha whether she could use this process to press her claim to a piece of land. Sencha told her she couldn’t do so; it was only for men. While this was obviously a sexist law, the logic behind it was based on the clan mentality of ancient Ireland rather than on hatred for women per se. If a man inherited property it would remain within his fine or kinship group; if a woman inherited property the fine could lose it if she got married. In addition, property owners were expected to show up for military service at the king’s request, and while there may have been some female warriors most women were not trained as fighters.

Regardless of the logic behind Sencha’s sexist judgment, blisters appeared on his face overnight- it was a violation of firinne. He tried to get rid of the blisters by telling Ciannachta she could use the same process, but the blisters stayed.[15] This second attempt at a judgment was something of a cyncial ploy on Sencha’s part, as a man was a lot more likely to have access to eight horses than a woman was. If this judgment had been upheld, women would have had the right to inherit land in name only, because it would have been much harder for them to press a claim.

This is when Brig Ambue stepped in, ruling that Ciannachta could use a different procedure. All she had to do was bring two sheep and a witness, bring the sheep back to graze after eight days and move into the house after another eight days. As soon as she baked bread in her new house it was legally hers[16].

Although the legal logic involved is obviously specific to ancient Ireland, this law would clearly be considered “progressive” in modern terms, because it modifies an existing law to make it more just to women.

This anecdote was then used as precedent for similar changes in Irish law on distraint. Men were required to follow a variety of different procedures with different waiting periods depending on the urgency of the situation and the rank and gender of the defendant, but the law was reformed to allow women to give only two days notice regardless of the defendant.

Another “Judgment of Brig” gave women the right to pass down property to their daughters in some circumstances. This had previously been illegal, because it would cause the father’s kinship group to lose some of its land. However, there was apparently a custom in which a new husband pleased with how the wedding night had turned out could give his bride a piece of property as a gift. This was called “land of hand and thigh,” and Brig is supposed to have ruled that land of hand and thigh could be passed down to daughters. Leaving aside the several layers of archaic thought in this entire concept, this is once again a progressive law. Women previously could only hold life-interest in any land belonging to the clan and couldn’t own it outright, but after the law was changed it was possible for women to own some of this land outright.[17]

These examples suggest that the modern understanding of Brigit as a goddess of social justice and progressive reform is fully supported by the lore, since “Brigit of the Judgments” was invoked to validate progressive changes to medieval Irish law.

Mother, Wife and Daughter

Despite Sencha’s sexist tendencies, the man clearly had his good points, foremost of which was his role as a peacemaker and “violence interrupter.” Sencha’s use of verbal eloquence to deescalate and defuse potentially violent situations is in line with traditions that the goddess Brigit and her animals keened and mourned for any violent conflict.

If we think of Sencha not as a human being but as a personification of Tradition- which is what his name implies- then we get an interesting pattern. Brigit of Hospitality, a farmer and commoner as all hostelers were, is the mother of Tradition. Brigit of the Judgments is the wife of Tradition. Brigit of the Cowless, who challenges her father’s unfair judgments, is the daughter of Tradition.

This can be read as a kind of commentary: “The mother of Tradition is the wisdom of the common people, the wife of Tradition is good judgment and learning, and the daughter of Tradition is the willingness to challenge Tradition in the name of justice.”

All three of them are Brigit.


Nora Chesson’s Three Brigits

The Three Brigits of the Ulster Cycle were virtually forgotten for many centuries before early Celtic scholars such as Eugene O’Curry and Henry O’Neill recorded their existence in passing. When O’Curry wrote On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish he didn’t draw any particular attention to the Three Brigits- his reference to them is only a footnote in a very large book. O’Neill’s reference is also quite short:

The right of women to inherit property was admitted at a very early period, certainly long before their exemption from war, if we can be sure that it really was St. Adamnan who secured their freedom from obligation to serve, and not some early pagan legislator of whose act this is merely a Christian echo. Tradition states that it was a learned woman who secured for women in Ireland a part of any succession, namely, a third part of the landed estate if there were no sons. Later the whole property went to the daughters in default of male heirs.

The one who reflected this change for women was Brig or Brigit Ambui, the daughter of Senchan, chief poet and judge to King Conchobar mac Nessa of Ulster, and the third of her name. For her mother was Brig Brethach, or Brigit of the Judgments, and her grandmother Brig ban Brughad, or Brigit the Farmerwoman. The name recurring so often makes one suspect that we have to do with matters so far back that the name of Brig the goddess of learning has been varied to suit poetic treatment.[18]

However, these short references must have made a big impression on at least one person: the English poet, writer and mystic Nora Jane Hopper Chesson (1871-1906), whose Ballads in Prose was published in 1894.

Chesson was a dreamer of the Celtic Twilight type, and although she had an Anglo-Irish father and a Welsh mother she had no personal connection to Celtic folk traditions and never visited Ireland in her life. Despite this fact, she was surprisingly influential in the Irish literary renaissance, influencing Yeats among others. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Yeats was irritated by her mildly plagiaristic habits, but inspired enough by her version of Celtic mysticism that he considered founding his own occult order along Celtic lines.

Chesson created at least two new myths about Brigit, along with at least one poem. All three of them are overtly pagan, so Chesson could be considered the first Brigidine pagan of modern times.

Chesson herself claimed that all of her writing was nothing but “moonshine,” and told others she had based none of it on genuine Celtic lore[19]. However, this appears to have been false modesty on her part, as the following piece could only have been written by someone familiar with one of these passing references to the Three Brigits, and only someone very well-read in Celtic lore would have even stumbled on them:


From “Ballads in Prose” by Nora Chesson, 1894

They sat in the uncertain sunshine of a wintry day, the three Brigits: Brigit, the Farmer, old and brown and withered — her daughter, Brigit of the Judgments, a tall and comely woman ripened and sweetened by fifty autumns — and the grand-daughter Brigit, straight and slim as a rush, with all the beauty of her face folded and sleeping still.

Now the eldest Brigit sat nodding in her carved chair, with the sunlight warm on her blind eyes, but the house-mistress, Brigit of the Judgments, sat spinning busily, and her daughter stood in the open air under the blessed thorn, watching her busy mother, with a smile in her dreamy eyes. And as she dreamed, there came a step on the ringing road, and a shadow fell across the girl’s feet – the shadow of a tall woman with a face kind and sad and beautiful, who carried a sleeping boy in her arms.

“The gods save all here!” she said, softly, “and bless the work!”

“Come in, and welcome,” said Brigit of the Judgments, heartily. Then she raised her eyes to the stranger’s face, and her own grew white and strange, as does that face which looks on something that is not of this world.

“Who are you ?” she cried.

“My name,” said the woman, softly, “is Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan: and his — ” looking down with a smile in her grey eyes at the lad in her arms, “Oh, one may call him Aongus (Love), or Eireag (Beauty), or Aighneann (Lover), or Gort (Sourness); he has nigh as many names as he has faces. What will you call him, Brigit of the Judgments?”

Brigit of the Judgments turned a hungry face to meet her guest’s clear eyes.

“He is the child I lost long ago,” she muttered, “he is my little Culainn, and he has his father’s eyes — there never was a comelier lad than my Eoghan: and because his dead beauty kept the door of my heart I never kissed the lips of thy father, Brigit, good mate though he made me. Let me have the child, daughter of the stranger: he is mine.”

Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan smiled. “Told I not that he was Moran of the many names? Now,” turning to the youngest Brigit, ” tell me what he seemeth to thee, O little maiden of the yellow cool?” And the third Brigit drew back with a face that blossomed red as the leaves at a rose’s heart.

“I see –” she said, and put back the yellow hair that the wind blew in her face, “I see — Oh mother I see what you saw in Eoghan’s face – and now shall I say all that I see? I see short joy and long sorrow, shame and severance and suffering, patience and pride — and do I not also see that I would thole the sorrow for the sake of the short joy? Oh mother, hold me fast lest I gather the shame, too.”

“I said,” quoth Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan, “that he was Moran of the many names. Aongus or Aighneann wouldst thou call him, O little one? and to thy mother is he her lost child and her lost husband: and what to me? Ah, when last I looked him in the face, I called him Conasg (War): for I saw a light in his eyes that was like the light of swords. And now, O old mother, rise up and say what thou seest in his face.”

“I am blind, Lady,” muttered Brigit the Farmer. “I am blind and I cannot see.”

“Rise up,” said Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan, as if she had not heard, “and look on him, and say what thou seest in his face.”

So the old woman rose and came to her side, without help of either staff or guiding hand, and she fixed her blind eyes on the face asleep on the breast of Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan. Then to the watching mother and daughter it seemed that the blind eyes gathered colour and depth as they gazed: and last, the light that had left them. And then with a cry the grandmother fell back into Brigit of the Judgments’ arms, and women came from the house and bore her in, and laid her softly on her bed, seeing that she was stricken with death. And Brigit of the Judgments wept over the happy face of her gray mother, and never heeded that she hindered her soul from passing: and, outside in the winter sunshine, Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan waited with her back against the holy white-thorn. And beside her the youngest Brigit stood, dreaming, looking past bawn and barn away to the silvery ribbon of the Boyne running swiftly away to wooded Brugh where Aongus Oge was still thought to have his golden house. And Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan turned her eyes on the girl’s face, and, holding them there, again she turned back the mantle from the face of him she bore on her bosom. And softly she said, ” Look!” and Brigit obeyed her. And as she looked, there came a smile over the sleeping face, and the smile smote to the girl’s heart with sorrow as sharp as a spear: but Kathaleen’s look kept back the tears from her eyes and the cry from her lips: and for a little while the twain kept silence. And then Kathaleen covered the sleeping face, and with that Brigit’s tongue was loosed, and she cried out, sobbing, ” Oh! fair he is and dear he is, Dark Woman, and a while since would I have died to walk the world with him: and now it seems to be better to live and die without him – and that your frowns were dearer than his praising, Beauty of the World!”

“I am not she!” said Kathaleen NyHoulahan. “She passes away, and I can never die-for even when my own children stone me, I must rise again, and go on my road. And – oh! Flesh of my flesh, but you have stoned me often !” she cried. “And oh! but how good it were to feel the shamrocks growing over me!”

“But then the world would end, Pulse of our hearts,” said Brigit. “And must you go on your way again, you and Moran of the many names? Will you not stay a little – and we would serve you well?”

“It is for me to serve my people,” said Kathaleen. “But I must not stay: for I was born when the wandering wind met the wandering fire, and the twain are in my blood.”

“Then take me with you,” Brigit cried, “for I shall never be wife or mother, and what use is there for me in my mother’s house? Take me with you, Heart of hearts, and let me wander, too, till I die.”

“Brigit the Farmer served me well in her eighty years, and never she served me better than when she milked her kine in the byres of Conor the King. And well has Brigit your mother served me, and all the better for the loss of her fair Eoghan: and when your father Senchan sang before Conor MacNessa he was serving me, though he knew it not. And now,” said Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan, “do you also serve me, Brigit. My daughters dwell in their father’s houses, and see the green lands pass to the thriftless man and the hard man: and are they better than hostages even in their husbands’ houses? Go out and cry shame till this thing cease, my Brigit: till the women that have no brothers take the wasted lands and deal gently by them. Cry out — and cry loudly, though every Brehon in the land say you nay: Conor MacNessa has ears to hear.”

Then she turned and went, and young Brigit stood alone under the thorn-tree, making ready for the task laid upon her: and from the house came the voice of women keening for the dead, but very softly, lest they should wake the dreadful hounds that lie in wait to catch the naked soul. But they might have shrieked their shrillest, for the soul of Brigit the Farmer walked safely in the shadow of Kathaleen Ny-Houlahan.

The flowery language of Chesson’s story makes her a little hard to follow, but the Three Brigits in this myth are clearly the Three Brigits of the Ulster Cycle. “Brigit the Farmer” is Brig Briugu, as every hosteler was a farmer. Brigit of the Judgments is Brig Brethach the wife of Sencha, as the story makes plain. The youngest Brigit is Brig Ambue, although Chesson makes her an idealistic maiden who chooses a life of chastity — a very different life than the one the Ulster Cycle gave her.

Chesson also makes Brig Ambue self-consciously feminist. Kathleen ni Houlihan (the personification of Ireland) describes women as “hostages even in their husbands’ houses” and directs the young Brigit to go out into the world and “cry shame till this thing cease.” The story refers directly to the specific laws Brig Ambue is credited with changing, so at least some of Chesson’s “moonshine” turns out to be genuine ancient lore of the sort the strictest reconstructionist would find congenial.

“TheThree Brigits” is a story about three human beings, but Chesson also wrote a myth about Brigit the goddess. In this second story, a starving boy named Maurice becomes a voluntary human sacrifice to Brigit to stop a famine, and his sister (betrayed in love as a teenager) spends the rest of her life as a virgin in Brigit’s service, later to become a ghostly specter who selects other girls for the same fate.


From “Ballads in Prose” by Nora Chesson, 1894

Fever and famine were in the country of Tirconnell, and betwixt these two fires the people forgot the gods: women turning their faces to the wall, and dying with never a prayer, while men held up accusing hands to the blank blue skies, and cursed Kasar among the gods of the Fomoroh, and Lug and Dagde of the De Dananns. Even the Shee were neglected, and everywhere the Vanitha (mistress of the house) forgot to scatter crumbs and spill drops of milk upon her threshold for Dark Joan and Oonah and Cleena and Donn of the Sandhills: and the little People went hungry past the closed doors at twilight, while within the famished human things made short work of the thin milk and the poor bread.

At last even the lights in the great House of Brighid went out one by one as, one by one, the holy women died of hunger or plague, till at last there was left alight only one of all the gold and silver lamps, and just as this one lamp had been refilled and lighted before the great carved image of Brighid, sitting with a huge golden book open on her knees – just as the scented oil gave out its odour of pine — the last recluse dropped her oil-cruse and fell dead at the feet of the holy statue. Some good women, coming to do hopeless worship to holy Brighid, found her lying there, and having done the last kind offices for her, and laid her with hurried prayers in the common grave of her sisters, went back to their hungry homes, leaving the door of the shrine wide open. Presently there came two small figures timidly across the threshold, and so into the deserted holy place — a boy and girl dressed in mere rags, for all the cold March wind that whistled outside, twin children whose dead mother had mocked at holy Brighid adying, and whose living father would have torn down her very shrine if his hands had been as strong as his hatred.

“Breed,” said the boy, lifting his gentle blind eyes from the ground, “where’s the wind that I feel blowing?”

“It comes from the open door,” Breed answered hurriedly, “and never a stir will it stir for all my pushing – bad cess to it for a stubborn door! And the blessed lamp will be blown out altogether, Maurice, unless we can do something to save it.”

“There’s the lamp at home,” Maurice said slowly, “and it’s full of oil, Breed. You might run and fetch it here, machree, and light it from the blessed lamp yonder. I’ll wait till you come.”

“Will you? It’s lonely here,” little Breed said, warningly. “‘Tis a mile home and a mile back, and the hunger makes me run slower than I used.”

“Set me close to the holy lady Brighid,” Maurice McCaura said, smiling, “where I can touch her with my hands: and then ye can go, Breed; I’ll be safe enough in Brighid’s own house.” Breed led him forward a step or two, and guided his hands till they touched the feet of Brighid’s image; then she turned and her bare feet pattered softly down the dusty aisle, across the threshold and out into the sparse pale sunshine outside. Her blind brother stood still where she had placed him, clinging to Brighid’s golden feet: and presently, when they began to quiver and move under his clinging fingers, he stood, if possible, even stiller than before.

“Who holds my feet?” said a deep sweet voice. “Who, of all my children?”

“It’s Maurice McCaura,” the boy said, faintly. “Lady Brighid, will you give us bread? Breed and Michael and my father are hungry, and baby Caitlin’s dead: and there’s the black Death in nearly every home in Munster.”

“And yourself, child?”

“I’m not so hungry now,” the boy whispered. “It’s Breed — and-and little Michael — and there’s no bread in the house, and no potatoes in the kish –”

‘”How many mouths to feed?” said the deep voice.

“Three, Lady Brighid. Will you feed them?” pleaded the blind lad.

“And yours is the fourth. Hark. — Now would you like to give bread to the children’s hungry mouths, and to your father’s? Will you give yourself to me to be my servant, child?”

“Yes,” said Maurice quietly. Two strong gentle arms closed round his slight body now and lifted him from the ground — lifted and held him breast-high, till he felt the goddess’s breath warm upon his blind eyes.

“Breed and Michael and your father shall have food this very day – and Breed shall not grieve long for you: I promise that,” Brighid said gently. “Now, child, let me seal you to my service.” She held him to her bosom and kissed his blind eyes with soft cold kisses, until the dull hunger pain and the fluttering heart stopped together; and Breed, come back and lighting her lamp from the sacred light, found only a dead boy awaiting her, at the feet of holy Brighid. There was but little moan made over Maurice McCaura; even Breed, who loved him better than herself, watched him buried in his mother’s grave with very few tears, and those not tears of bitterness. Smiles and tears were not plentiful with Breed henceforward: the moonlight quiet of her small white face was not disturbed for her drunken father, or Michael, rosy and romping when the fever and famine ceased as suddenly as they had come; her whole care was for the lamp she had lighted from the one which had long ago burned out in Brighid’s temple, and whose flame she nursed and tended, as other girls and women tended the fire of another Brighid, in a house under mighty oak-trees at Cill-dara. Days and weeks went by, and months merged into years: and old Michael McCaura dug a grave for young Michael in another year of famine: and Breed came to her seventeenth year.

And it fell to her lot to find a shadow at her side wherever she went, and to have a voice in her ears, that whispered of love and gladness: and Breed learned to blush and tremble like other girls, but still she was faithful to her chosen work of tending the holy fire of goddess Brighid. There came a day, however, when the lover turned from Breed’s moonlight to the lilies and roses of a better dowered maiden: and another day yet there came, when a fall of earth from the mountainside buried bride and groom and half a score of wedding guests in one common grave, to which came Breed with her lamp at dead of night, toiling with bleeding and bruised hands till she had cleared the earth from the two faces in the world that she most loved and most hated. Other hands drew them out and gave them holy burial, not Breed’s; she and her lamp vanished from the eyes of men when she had looked upon those two dead faces: and only now and then a dreamy colleen sees a slender figure gliding among the trees on a misty night with a lighted lamp of quaint shape held high in her hand. And the girl who sees this figure of Breed, however glad her love may be, and however true her lover, will never be wife or mother, but like Breed’s her life will be broken and sorrowful here, though it may be made beautiful and complete in Tir na n’Og, in the service of Brighid’s three, whose names are Law and Wisdom and Love.

Note that the second myth ends with a reference to the Three Brigits of the Ulster Cycle as “Law and Wisdom and Love,” and describes them as being resident in Tir na nOg.

Chesson also wrote a poem about Brig Brethach.

Brigit Of The Judgments

By Nora Chesson

I am Brigit-Wisdom, Light: yea, I am Bride.
I loosen all the knots that wrong has tied;
I knot all threads that should be woven in one.
I am the giver of laws; all evil done
Is on my heart until I may unravel
Its web with heavy tears and bitter travail.
My hair is coloured like the heather honey;
My brows are cloudy and my eyes are sunny.
Judgment I hold in one hand, in the other
Pity; I am both maiden and a mother.

I am the judgment-giver; but I give
Compassion to all burdened things that live,
Struggle, and prey, and so are preyed upon.
Because the work-girl’s hollow cheeks are wan,
Mine are so pale. Because the red ant dies
Under a careless foot my deathless eyes
Are dark with dool. Because the red fox went
Snarling to death, the lilies have no scent
That are amid my breast-knots tied, to show
I am the mother of all that fade and grow.

One man may call me Wisdom who has heard
Some darkling midnight stabbed through with my word.
One man will call me Light who, ere he dies,
Grasps at my hand and looks me in the eyes.
I am no Lianan-sidhe; I will not follow
The soul that seeks me even in the hollow
Lands where the moon is not or any sun,
No travail ended and no quest begun.
I slay the man who called me Law and strove
To slay me, but one name of mine is Love.


Maiden, Mother and Crone

Although many Wiccans and other neopagans accept the theology of the Triple Goddess as Maiden, Mother and Crone without question, this trinity actually has no clear precedent in ancient myth. For instance, the Matres or triple mother goddesses of ancient Gaul are always portrayed as being the same age or as one young woman with two older women. The three sisters named Brigit in Cormac’s Glossary are obviously not a maiden, a mother and a crone. Nor are the three Morrigans. Hutton suggests that the poet Robert Graves invented the Maiden, Mother and Crone trinity when he was writing The White Goddess, but Chesson’s story suggests otherwise.

The Three Brigits of the Ulster Cycle are Sencha’s mother, wife and daughter, but the daughter Brig Ambue is definitely not a “maiden” in the original version. Chesson reimagined Brig Ambue as an idealistic girl who chooses a life of chastity so she can fight for the rights of women. Chesson’s story of “The Three Brigits” is about a maiden, a mother and a crone.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, one of the literary figures who “encouraged” Chesson in her research into Celtic lore was Alfred Perceval Graves, the father of Robert Graves. I believe Robert Graves must have read Chesson’s story of the Three Brigits, either through her acquaintance with his father or just because he was reading books about Celtic mythology. Chesson’s portrayal of the Three Brigits of the Ulster Cycle as maiden, mother and crone stuck with him and inspired the theology of The White Goddess. That book was so influential on the entire neopagan movement that Chesson’s version of the Three Brigits became the forgotten template for how neopagans conceive of their Triple Goddess.

I believe, after all these years, that she should get the credit for it.




[2]     From The Clann Bhride Book of Hours

[3]     O’Curry, Eugene, On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, 1873

[4]     Hollo, Kaarina, “The Ulster Cycle, the Law-tracts, and the Medieval Court: The Depiction of Senchae mac Ailella, Aurlabraid Ulad”



[7]     Hollo, Kaarina, “The Ulster Cycle, the Law-tracts, and the Medieval Court: The Depiction of Senchae mac Ailella, Aurlabraid Ulad”




[11]    Presentation by Simms, Katherine, “Bríg Brethach, Bríg of the Judgements”

[12]    Hollo, Kaarina, “The Ulster Cycle, the Law-tracts, and the Medieval Court: The Depiction of Senchae mac Ailella, Aurlabraid Ulad”

[13]    Presentation by Simms, Katherine, “Bríg Brethach, Bríg of the Judgements”

[14]    Presentation by Simms, Katherine, “Bríg Brethach, Bríg of the Judgements”

[15]    Hollo, Kaarina, “The Ulster Cycle, the Law-tracts, and the Medieval Court: The Depiction of Senchae mac Ailella, Aurlabraid Ulad”

[16]    Presentation by Simms, Katherine, “Bríg Brethach, Bríg of the Judgements”

[17]    Presentation by Simms, Katherine, “Bríg Brethach, Bríg of the Judgements”

[18]    O’Neill, Henry, The Fine Arts and Civilization of Ancient Ireland, 1863

[19]     Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, entry for  ‘Hopper, Eleanor Jane (1871–1906)’

Christopher Scott ThompsonUnder the religious name of Gilbride or “Servant of Brighid,” Christopher Scott Thompson has been active in the pagan community for a number of years, serving as the vice president (and briefly the president) of Imbas, a board member of the Fellowship for Celtic Tradition, a flamekeeper of Ord Brighideach and now the Cauldron Cill, and a member of the Kin of the Old Gods temple. He is a member of Clann Bhride, an organization of Brigidine devotees, and writes the column “Loop of Brighid” at Patheos Pagan.