Brighid’s Runes in Sweden: The Völva and the Sun
by Kirsten Brunsgaard Clausen
"Brighid is here, Brighid is here!” The children in Gaelic areas still merrily announce Her coming to this day.
It is the 2nd of February. Icy cold. The earth is frozen deep. The landscape black, white, grey. No life. The world is dreaming, still and deep. Cailleach, the Wise Mother, has reigned throughout the winter - now even Her time has come. On every hearth the fire is put out, the last glow cooling to coal and ashes. Silence.
That is the time when She comes! Newborn from the wells in the green woods She comes walking, accompanied by Her white cow (our Sun and life-giver). She is all dressed in white, a long red ribbon around Her waist and the golden star of the sun on Her chin. Where She walks the land again turns green and She promises light, warmth and abundance to all. New fires are happily lit in every home.
Brighid – Brigid – Breo – Bride – Ffraid - Braido - Brud – Birgitta – from time immemorial She has been the sun-bride.
In 2006, on an excursion to a large bronze-age rock art site near Norrköping in Sweden, we stepped over a rune inscription with six letters, overgrown, unknown. It said: BRAIDO. “A goddess” said the guide. Puzzled, we ran through all the Nordic goddesses who were familiar to us – Freya, Siv, Idun, Urd, but Braido we had never heard of!
The archaeologist Arthur Nordén wrote in 1925: “BRAIDO, meaning The Exalted One, could be some local witch”. He dates the runes to 200-400 CE, saying “this means that they are extremely unique and so ancient that rune writing in Scandinavia cannot be dated earlier”. New examinations of today agree on the dating. The name ending in –O is the ancient feminine, today turned into –a (Swedish) or –e (Danish), Braida/Braide.
A great and exalted goddess, a high Scandinavian Völva and Gydia (Scandinavian Gydia seems to be equivalent to the Greek “Pythia” meaning High Priestess/shaman). Who wiped Her out of our knowledge? This was the question that started my journey of tracing Her back.
We know first of all that at around this time the war-like people arrived in Scandinavia and seem to have turned over the old culture. They started building small family houses instead of longhouses, they introduced war, patriarchy, aristocracy and the subordination of women. They did not come in peace!
Knowing how first the Aesir-religion, and later Christianity, usually treated old deities: killing them by silence, demonising them or - if they were too popular - turning them into gods´ wives or Christian saints, I first went to Britain, as we have no saints left in Sweden. Here, even today, we find the highly honoured and most beloved St Bridget. The stories of well-dressings, the connection between Her white cow and the ever-flowing milk and abundance whispers to us and discloses a figure presumably much older than Christianity: Braid, the Bride of Spring, in a new guise.
At the end of a Brighid/Bride ceremony the old women will put a little white wand in the Bride-doll´s hand. This is the attribute of the Völva, the shaman, connected to the tree of life (the axis mundi) and the life-creating forces. The Nordic word “volr” means staff. The Völva is “the staff-carrier”. Today the staff has become the magic wand in Disney films, but bishops and kings still carry them as signs of dignity. In archaeological excavations in Scandinavia the staff is found in several rich women’s graves.
Bride is goddess of fire – protector of cooking, bread making and smithcraft, and allied to inspiration, poetry and consequently to oracle, seid and shamanism. As life-giver and sustainer She is connected with midwifery, healing and plant medicine.
The verb “to braid” means to weave and plait and tradition says that Bride originally taught women how to spin and weave. Bride, like the norns, will even spin the life threads of humans, intertwine them, bind them together - in friendship, and all kinds of good relationships.
So the Maiden Bride has the fullest potential of life-giving and possesses the greatest mysteries of the life force. She surely is the “The Exalted One” as Arthur Nordén wrote in 1925.
Braido in Sweden
Tracing Her abroad from Britain to France and Germany, where various traditions have also carried forth surviving fragments of Her story, I started by finding parallels and associations to fragments of Her even in our Nordic tradition.
The Swedish word for healing, helbräjda, discloses Braido, meaning “to become whole (hel) again with the help of Braido (bräja)”.
In Nordic mythology (Gylfaginning 17)1 I found Her home, Braida-Blick. The myth says: “…then there is also this place called Braida-blick (Bride-Gleaming), and there is nowhere a fairer dwelling”. Into this place the Aesir gods Balder and Nanna moved once She was gone.
I found children’s nursery rhymes in both Danish and Swedish, beautifully disguising Her. Mothers might have been able to pass on their knowledge to the next generation camouflaged in tales and rhymes and little girls were not subjected to the Church’s magnifying glass, searching for heathendom and heresy.
And imagine my astonishment when I one day caught sight of our Lucia and really saw Her as for the first time.
Lucia is the most beloved of all traditional collective Swedish figures – outshining both Father Christmas and Jesus, and anybody else, for that matter! As mentioned earlier, we have no saints in Sweden, but when this young woman comes walking slowly into the totally dark bedroom, city hall or church before dawn in December – all dressed in white, with a long red ribbon around Her waist, and bringing forth the light in a huge crown with tall burning candles on Her head, singing Her promises of peace and joy, not one single eye is dry. It does not matter how many times in your life you witness a Lucia morning, you will weep for joy and beauty every time. Everyone is touched deeply in their hearts by the symbol of a young woman bringing light and hope into the dark, whatever aspect it may refer to in life for you.
In Her arms She carries a huge tray with Lucia buns. Remember that Bride brought abundance; the Lucia buns are swastika formed (bronze-age sun symbols), super yellow sun-coloured buns rich with expensive saffron, filled with raisins, butter and almonds! And along with Her come Her 19 maidens. Catching sight of Her I suddenly realised that this was actually BRAIDO still coming!
Considering that in Britain, because of Her popularity, Bride could not be subdued and thus was converted into a Christian saint, St Brighid, one might guess there was a similar process in Scandinavia. As the church could not get rid of our Braido they might at one point have accepted facts and made a quick decision to keep Her, but transformed into a harbinger of “Christ, the light of the world” instead of the bringer of spring. They might have clapped their hands on finding an insignificant and unknown Italian saint, who had nothing to do with Sweden, far in the north, but who happened to bear the name Lucia, meaning Light. And thus they succeeded in making Braido a Christian, changing Her name to Lucia and Her place in the calendar from February to Christmas, and in giving Her a new story, Lucia’s story – the thing was settled and She could stay!
From around 200-400 CE women at the old cult mound near Norrköping carved six runes in the rock beside the huge area of rock art. They did not write them in coal, nor did they cut them in wood. They carved them into the mountain. They are the only runes so old in Scandinavia – until a few months ago unknown and unattended. Now, because of this article, they have been painted red again
The war people had come by that time and they were glorifying violence in a way never heard of before, honouring the merits of young men as they murdered on the battlefield over that of the old women’s wisdom of life.
At some point these old women at the cult mound might have come fully to realise that the times had changed forever, and their own time and traditions were over. Maybe they were under threat, or perhaps most of the tradition bearers were already slain, when somebody made their way to the ancient mound one night and in the flickering light of a torch did the only thing left to do – to put Her name into stone to show those who came after that surely She, the loving goddess, the great BRAIDO, once was here.
Without the testimony those old women left us, today we would have had a hard time verifying that BRAIDO was very present here in Scandinavia. Thanks to these women’s courage, determined will, devotion and sense of responsibility we can see that it is very likely that She was here. And thanks to women throughout all time, who kept honouring Braid in the British Isles, telling stories of Her in Europe, and celebrating Lucia in remote parts of Sweden, we may put together a picture of Her – BRAIDO, the Maiden of Abundance, the most beloved giver of Light and Life - the full potential of every young woman.
Kirsten Brunsgaard Clausen
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