Tuesday, 29 May 2012

More notes: Brigid themed

Delving back into all of this stuff - the articles, the subject matter; it's like putting an old pair of shoes back on. My library membership lapsed in June of last year, so it's been a long while since I did some serious reading. It feels goooood...

Hopefully I'm not boring you all too much. The next couple of articles I thought I'd do some notes on are Brigid related, and content-wise, not quite what I'd hoped for, really, but a good read in their own way if only for challenging my own views. It's good to step outside of your comfort zone once in a while.

Body of a saint, story of a goddess: origins of the Brigidine tradition
Lisa Bitel 
Textual Practice 16(2), 2002

The main thrust of the article is examining Brigid's portrayal in the three hagiographies (biographies pertaining to a saint) that are still extant, and discussing her portrayal in each of them. Bitel argues that the earliest hagiography of Brigid, by Cogitosus - the earliest hagiography of any saint written in Ireland - does not hint at pagan origins for the saint at all.

The later hagiographies do, however, and Bitel argues that this is deliberate. Without any physical remains for the saint, the hagiographers essentially made a conscious decision to use native, mythological motifs to emphasise Brigid's strength and influence over the political and geographical landscape, just like an Irish goddess, all of which infused and intertwined with miracles and events modelled on the Bible, continental hagiographies, and eye witness accounts. This not only gave her a powerful presence, but also justified her political and ecclesiastical power as a woman:

"Brigit's hagiographers were also purposefully invoking 'pre-Christian' history in their allusions to territory and landscape. Once, they proposed, heroines, warrior-women and territorial goddesses from myths and king-tales had wielded feminine power in a land that denied women political authority. The writers of Vita Prima and Bethu Brigte used these traditional models to cast Brigit as protectress of the Leinster people in danger of invasion by their enemies, especially the invading Uí Néill." (222)

In theory the argument is compelling but I can't help but feel there are elements being glossed over here. It would have been nice to have seen more consideration of the merits of those who argue that there are genuine pre-Christian elements or influences at play here, rather than hammering home the argument that the later Lives made deliberate and conscious use of motifs that are entirely divorced from any possible pre-Christian Brigid.

The Image of Brigit as a Saint: Reading the Latin Lives
Katja Ritari
Peritia 21 (2010)

This one made a good companion to Bitel's article and is apparently based in part on the author's own dissertation, Saints and sinners in early christian Ireland: moral theology in the Lives of saints Brigit and Columba (2009). One for the wish list, I think.

Anyway, here we have more consideration of the boundaries between the Christian and pre-Christian Brigid, but ultimately it's a consideration of the saint's portrayal in hagiography, which emphasises her Christian virtues and purity. There are lots of fiery miracles in the two later Lives in particular, which have been used to argue evidence of the pre-Christian Brigid, but Ritari ultimately argues that whatever the origins or influences of the events contained in the hagiographies may be, the portrayals of Brigid as they stand in the hagiographies are entirely Christian in purpose. She ultimately concludes:

"According to Proinsias Mac Cana, the historical element in the Lives of Brigit is slight while the mythological element is correspondingly extensive. I wish to modify this statement: while the so-called 'pagan elements' in the Latin Lives of Brigit are almost non-existent or at least very scant, and the historical tradition pertaining to her is slight, the christian elements are vital in the representation of Brigit as we have her. The authors of the Lives were not writing of a euhemerised goddess but of a christian saint, and as such Brigit conforms perfectly with the christian image of holiness."

I suppose the problem with articles that are necessarily not too long is that it's difficult to really nail an argument conclusively, but if anything there are some good pointers towards other sources here that will help the reader do further research and make their own minds up, and that's the main thing you hope for in an article. It's worth a read for the pointers alone.


faoladh said...

Just a little note of encouragement to keep on with this sort of thing. Though I will take anything you want to write, these are especially interesting as pointers toward areas that seem like fruitful directions of study for the larger project of recovering (or constructing, which is a whole other discussion, though one that is increasingly becoming irrelevant to me) a Gaelic polytheism.

Seren said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Faoladh. I've come to the point where I need to get all of my articles sorted out and properly stored so I might delve through the archives as I go. Articles really do seem to be the most fruitful area of research at times so it's something I want to take advantage of while I have access to the library.

Since I don't have electronic access to journals (alas) I'm somewhat limited in what I can look up but I think all of the important ones for literary studies are there. It's just the folklore side I'm lacking.

nefaeria said...

I am really appreciating these article suggestions, Seren. Thank you.

It has been quite awhile since I read it, but you may want to check out "Land of Women" by Lisa Bitel if you have not yet. I read it in my early 20's and was into the whole Goddess-movement thing, so it would be interesting to read it from a more critical perspective now. ;)

Seren said...

Thanks Nefaeria! Yes, I got Land of Women out from the library a while ago and had mixed feelings about it. I enjoyed it and got a lot from it, but felt that Bitel is more than a little bit dismissive of anything that might be evidence of pre-Christian beliefs. I think this article reinforced my views of her as far as that's concerned. It's still a book I'd eventually like for the bookshelf, though.