by Claire Hamilton
My festival is Imbolc ‘in womb’ time, so besides being the Maiden, I am also the Mother who bears the burden of the coming spring.
This is my lineage. I am the daughter of the Dagda, the Good God, king of the Tuatha de Danaan, the faerie people. With them I came, blown in a magic mist across the sea to Erin . But the mist was the far-furled smoke of our ships as we burned them on the western shores of Connemara . For we pledged ourselves to that land and swore we would never turn our faces towards the sea again. And so we shared that land with the Fomorians, the ancient giant race who lived there.
When I had grown to womanhood, my father married me to King Bres. Bres the Beautiful he was called. And, though half-Fomorian, he was fair indeed – no giant but a flower of a man. It should have been a good match, one that would foster peace between our two races. And I, the shining child, was to be the peacemaker.
And so I went, the shining bride in my crystal white gown with buttercups in my yellow hair, and lay with the man of perfect form in the bridal bed. But though it was with the goddess of fertility that he lay – with the shining one, the fiery woman of passion and desire and beauty, yet he saw only my whiteness, my virginity. He took me as a possession only and used me harshly.
For Bres was flawed. His heart was hard as flint and he was cruel not only to me, but to my people.
First he laid heavy taxes on them, levying dues on every hearth, every kneading-trough, and every quern. Then he laid a poll-tax of an ounce of gold on every person. As if this was not enough, he cheated them, asking only for the milk of the brown and hairless cows and, when this was agreed, singeing all the cattle between the two fires at Beltaine and then claiming all their milk as his due. As to his treatment of my cattle, I felt the deep pain of it in the two breasts of my body, for, in former times, the cattle were under my care – the care of the Mother Goddess, and their milk was my gift to the people.
Then Bres set my father, the Dagda, to work, making him labour as a common man, building raths and digging trenches. And then my brother the god Ogma, he of the silver tongue, father of the mystic art of poetry, was forced by Bres to carry bundles of firewood.
And this was the first spearing of my heart. For it is I who breathe life into the word, and foster inspiration and creativity in all the arts.
And, while I lived in the palace, with my light shrouded, my joy wasted, my gifts unused, Bres laid a pall upon my people. On his orders, no bard who came to the king’s court was given courtesy or hospitality. No grease sat upon his knife, and no ale upon his breath. Neither the poets, the bards, the harpers, pipers, jugglers, athletes, nor the fools were welcomed. And when Cairbre the chief poet of my people, who was used to being treated with great honour, came to visit Bres, he was housed in a low, dark cabin with no fire to warm himself and not even a bed to lie on. Just three small dry cakes were brought to him on a tiny dish. So outraged was Cairbre by this treatment that, at first light, he went out and pronounced this satire against the king:
Without food served upon a dish,
Without the milk of a cow which feeds a calf
Without hospitality for a man in the dark night
Without pay for a company of bards
Let that be the plight of Bres
Let there be no increase for him.
Cairbre’s poem was the first satire ever made in Ireland . And the power of his satire, the poetic power that Bres scorned, took hold of the king and raised boils upon his face. Thus he became so marred and disfigured that he was forced to abdicate the kingship, being no longer perfect in his form – for no maimed person could sit upon the throne.
Then Bres left the palace in disgrace and disfigurement. But even with his removal, the Formorians still levied their harsh taxes on my people. Meanwhile, the stricken Bres went to seek out his long lost father, hoping with his help to muster an army from among his Fomorian kin. And so, aided by his mother, he found out where his father lived in the land of the Fomorians and went to him.
‘What has brought you to me from the land over which you ruled?’ asked his father.
‘Nothing, replied Bres, ‘but my own pride and lack of justice. I have levied taxes and taken the prize possessions of a people who have never been under such constraints before.’
‘What you have done is bad indeed,’ said his father. ‘It would have been better for you to rule a prosperous people and to receive prayers instead of curses. So why have you come to me?’
‘Father, I have come to ask you for champions,’ said Bres, ‘for I plan to take back my throne by force.’
‘You should not regain by injustice what you did not first gain by justice,’ replied his father.
‘Then what advice would you give me?’ countered Bres, undaunted.
And so persistent and determined was he that, though his father was sorrowful and angry at his behaviour, he finally gave in, and sent him first to Balor of the doleful eye, and afterwards to Indech, the king of the Fomorians, and both offered him their support.
Over the next few years, Bres raised a great army and prepared to march on the Tuatha – the people of his former kingdom. And it is said that never before had an army descended upon Ireland more terrible than the host that Bres raised against us.
And that was the second spearing of my heart. For I, Brighid, saw and suffered all this under his hand. I, who champion a people of the arts, a people of music, of storytelling, of fire, of feasting and fast-flowing ale.
But yet there was hope for us. Bright hope came to us even as Bres began mustering his troops. For a new god came to the Tuatha – Lugh the young sun lord, brilliant to behold, with burning hands and flame-dripping golden hair, wielding a spear of fire. He appeared at the Assembly of our gods and rulers and dazzled us with his skills. So, straightaway, Nuada of the silver Hand, who had taken the kingship after Bres, stepped down and gave him the throne.
Then, under Lugh’s leadership we planned our warfare, for seven long years we planned it and made our weapons. And, at Lugh’s command, the three powers that are mine – the arts of smithcraft, healing and poetry, became the chief arts that we used against the Fomorians.
This is how they were to be employed:
First Goibniu, the smith, promised to forge magical weapons for my people – swords spears and javelins:
‘No spear-point which shall be forged by my hand shall miss its target,’ he declared, ‘and no flesh it pierces shall survive.’
He made this pledge in the heat of his furnace and in the power of his craft and his making.
Then Diancecht, the physician, pledged himself to heal my people:
‘Every man who is wounded I will make whole on the following day,’ he said. ‘Every man, that is, who has not lost his head, or broken his spine.’
And afterwards Cairbre, the poet, pledged himself to use the glam dicenn, the magic power of satire:
‘I will wield it like a biting sword upon the enemy’ he said, ‘and raise such shame among them that they offer no resistance.’
And I, Brighid, bearing the mantle of Danu the Great Mother of the Tuatha, breathed these three powers, my three arts, into my people so that they would win the great battle.
And after battle was joined, Goibniu the smith kept fashioning new weapons in the heat of my fire, and, in that same heat, Luchta the wright made the spearshafts, and Credne the brazier added the rivets in three quick turns and cast the spear rings on them so that they held fast. And because of this, there were always weapons and spears in plentiful supply, and each possessed a keen magic.
Also, as the battle raged, those of our people that were slain were carried to the waters of my healing well, the Well of Slane, and cast into it. And while they were there the two sons of Diancecht together with his daughter Airmed sang spells over them. And the power of the invocation of the spells hovering over the healing waters restored our dead warriors to life.
Meanwhile the spears and swords of the enemy became broken and blunted and there were none to replace them. And when their men died they were not seen on the field again. So when the Fomorians saw that our weapons were unblunted and our dead were rising up again, they appointed a spy to find the cause of it. And the man they chose was my son Ruadan.
Ah, Ruadan, my child! My only legacy from a cold king! Ruadan, the babe who once gave his mother joy in a palace empty of song and laughter. Ruadan, who saw the parting of ways between his mother and his father, who looked from one to the other, who reached the threshold of his manhood, the time of his dreadful choosing – and caused the last and greatest spearing of my heart!
Ruadan came to the place where the weapons were being forged, and saw the work of Goibniu and the others. He heard the incantations and saw the healing Well of Slane. Then he stole away to the camp of the Fomorians and reported all these things to his father. And Bres sent him onto the battlefield again with a secret and terrible mission, to kill Goibniu, my magic smith.
Then Ruadan came into the smithy with an innocent look on his young face and asked for a spear. And, because he was my son and three-parts Tuathan, my people gave him one gladly. Then Ruadan took it and weighed it in his hands as if to test its strength, then suddenly turned and hurled the spear at Goibniu, wounding him in the chest. But Goibniu took hold of the weapon and pulled it out of himself and, with the warm blood flowing from his wound, hurled it back with such force that it pierced right through Ruadan. Then Goibniu plunged into the well and healed himself.
But in the last of his strength, Ruadan dragged himself to the Fomorian camp. There he fell at the feet of Bres, his father, with the spear struck through his body like a bolt. And there he died.
When I heard that my son had died, I ran to the smithy and implored Goibniu to lay him in the well of healing. But Goibniu refused. He said my son had sided with the enemy and exposed our secret, so he deserved to die. I wept in all the desperate agony of a mother, and begged Goibniu to save his life, but all my tears and entreaties came to nothing. At last, in my grief and despair I wandered onto the battlefield.
Then, on the battlefield, my keening, the caoine of Brighid for her son, was the first lament to be heard in the whole of Erin . The mother shrieking and keening for her child. The mother keening for her child. The mother first shrieking, then wailing, then weeping for her child, the child too soon returned to earth.
My shrieking and my keening were for the loss of my son – the deepest and cruellest spearing of my heart. Yet my weeping was also for his betrayal of my people – the people of our Mother Danu. For Ruadan had forsaken the way of the Mother and pledged himself to his father.
This I could not understand. For it was the rule of his father Bres that stopped the mouths of the bards and poets throughout the land, that silenced the horns and pipes, that dumbed the harpstrings and let the fire die within the feasting hall. And it was Bres who sent Ruadan to kill Goibniu, wielder of magic, guardian of my sacred fire, forger of my sunbright spears. And it was Bres who, on the word of my son, ordered his men to carry stones to the Well of Slane and block the healing waters of my well, so that the dead could no longer be revived.
After the death of my son and the stopping up of my well, it was through the might of our arms rather than our magic powers that we won out in the end. But the cost was great. For, in the wake of battle, the heaped corpses that lay pale as snow on the ground were as numerous as the spill of stars in a black sky.
Early next morning, in the spear light of the new day, I went out and walked on the blood-soaked battlefield among the ruins of my people. And as I looked on the twisted faces of the dead, I knew the end-time of the Mother had begun.
Yet I am the goddess who endures. Maiden of the spring am I, and also Mother. Protecter of women in the pangs of childbirth, and midwife to the sacred son, the Mabon. And it was Lugh and not my son who carried my torch and led the people of the Goddess Danu against the oppression of the Fomorians. For my Mother time was done.
But I, Brighid, am also Seer and Wise Woman. So afterwards I went, in my Crone form, into the darkness.