The holy thief: a curious lesson from St Brigid

By Robin Herne

Saint Brigid of Kildare, courtesy of Jurand via Shutterstock

The relationship between modern Paganism and early Christianity is a curious one, filled with twists and turns. There is a widely held belief that Christianity purloined a lot of stories, teachings and festivals from polytheist traditions.

The commonalities between the two are certainly widespread and partly fuel the accusations made by the puritanically minded towards Catholics that they are one step removed from Paganism – as if that were an insult!

Many modern Pagans have sought to reclaim traditions from church lore. In the enthusiastic rush, partly fuelled by all those Victorian folklorists who saw every odd festival and peculiar nursery rhyme as proof positive of ancient Pagan roots, we often end up claiming things that were never Pagan to begin with.

So there are times when the pot is very much calling the kettle black. Ronald Hutton has written on this, examining the claims that this or that eccentric folk tradition really does date back to ‘ancient times’.

Irish lore provides us with a notable figure that stands at the intersection of Pagan and Christian, illustrating the tendency of one tradition to absorb ideas from the other and vice versa.

Brigid, goddess of the Iron Age tribes, merges into Saint Brigit, the canonised founder of the former abbey at Kildare. There are a number of early written accounts of Brigit’s life, principally those by the monks Broccán Clóen and, later, Cogitosus. As a child, she once gave away her mother’s stock of butter, it being magically replaced as a result of prayer.

The illegitimate daughter of a Pagan chieftain, she was similarly fast and loose with her father’s property – especially a gem-encrusted sword she was asked to
look after but instead gave away to a beggar.

Done in the service of Christ

Later on in her life she convinces another chieftain to grant her land in Kildare, as much as her cloak will cover. In a typical act of saintly disingenuity, her cloak grows to vast proportions and so her primary abbey was founded on a far larger stretch of land than the chieftain ever intended to part with.

Giving away the sword, which was not hers, is at best dishonest and arguably outright theft. However, there is a long history of saints engaging in immoral behaviour then gaining absolution because it is done in the service of Christ.As to whether there were any Pagan myths about Brigid purloining goods, we can only postulate. However, there are numerous Irish myths about cattle raids, in which the act of stealing cows was the basis for heroism and adventure.

The Brehon Laws of Ireland make a clear distinction between aurrad (members of one’s tribe and allied tribes) and deorad (anyone else), wherein the first group of people were protected by the law and the second are not. In such a cultural paradigm, an act is defined as immoral or illegal not so much by the nature of the act itself but by the status of the person it is directed towards. Taking goods from someone in a rival tribe who has no legal standing in your own was not a crime but a daring act for the greater benefit of one’s own people.

In reading the tales of saintly trickery, we may be seeing an extension of this – tribe being redefined from blood relatives to spiritual fellows. Young Brigit’s loyalty to the brotherhood in Christ overrode her expected devotion to blood kin. Her Pagan father was therefore deemed outside the fold and a viable target for the dishonest acquisition of goods. Such attitudes are not entirely consigned to the ancient world.

Few British people these days would willing let their eight year-olds work in a sweatshop but they will still knowingly buy clothes made by children in far-flung
countries. Most people object when political cranks target them with violence but some are willing to bomb not only on those cranks but civilians who cannot get out of the way fast enough. Does this concept of kinship granting protected status have anything to teach 21st century Pagans?

Decidedly tribal in their loyalties

While the people of the ancient world were decidedly tribal in their loyalties, feeling little sense of what we might call universal philanthropy, modern Pagans often evince a desire to do away with barriers and embrace all and sundry. While preaching a desire for tribal living, liberal modern Pagans simultaneously reject the more visceral side of tribalism as too redolent of the EDL, for example.

Recent tragedies in France and concerns about the volume of refugees fleeing such strife-torn countries as Syria highlighted two noticeable camps of Pagan thought in social media and real world gatherings. There are those whose liberalism and inclusivism makes Guardian readers sound like Alf Garnett and those who cannot dig the moats deep enough. Accusations fly and tempers flare fast in both directions with the end result that people tend to dig their heels in: they refuse to listen to a word the other camp has to say.

So gulfs widen in a community which is already too small to indulge in such conflicts – and the same division of views can be seen in the Pagan communities of countries much larger than Britain.

While the attitudes of isolationist nationalist political parties are usually unpleasant, perhaps byrecognising that such attitudes do go back to our distant ancestors, we could build bridges betweenincreasingly polarised groups of people. In the long term, that has to be better than each side hoping the other will just die out and fall silent. It seems to be a fairly universal human instinct to privilegeone’s own in-group and want to see them on a better footing than rivals.

While we might sensibly question which group is a genuine rival and which hostilities are being exploited for newspaper sales, or some other ulterior motive, it is a common feature of Pagan traditions to revere nature for what it is. This, surely, must include human nature – warts and all? Understanding the shadow side of tribalism does not mean we have to indulge it but vilifying those who cleave to it is equally unhelpful.

Is Brigid a goddess who can help find common ground between universalists and tribalists? Maybe, though doubtless other deities could also help. In fractious times, we would all benefit from moving forward in a spirit of bridge-building and harmony, where both sides learn from each other. Mutual learning may lead to growth and evolving views on all sides of the argument. Hopefully, all without any need to nick anyone’s cattle.

Robin Herne lives in Suffolk and is a founder member of Druid group Clan Ogma and the Ipswich Pagan Council, as well as being Chief Bard of the Fens. Visit roundtheherne.blogspot.co.uk