Mirror of Isis - An Official Fellowship of Isis Publication

Brigid of the Mantle

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Imbolc altar with Brigid wall hanging made by Lamia Tesenisis. Photo Lamia Tesenisis

 Brigid of the Mantle
Brighid nam Bratta

By Linda Iles
 
 
Use of ‘Mantle’ versus ‘Cloak’

One definition of the word ‘mantle’ reads: “A loose sleeveless coat worn over outer garments; a cloak.” And most definitions of  ‘mantle’ are worded similar to this one, with mantle and cloak the equivalent of each other. Although ‘mantle’ and ‘cloak’ are used to designate the same type of garment, a comparison of the definitions of ‘cloak’ and ‘mantle’ show marked differences in their meaning and use.

Cloak: 1. A loose outer garment, as a cape or coat. 2. Something that covers or conceals disguise; pretense; affairs conducted under a ‘cloak of secrecy.’ 3. To be covered as if with a cloak, or to hide, conceal, as in ‘cloaked with mystery.’

Besides the definition it shares with cloak, mantle has several other meanings:

Mantle: 1. The outer covering of a wall. 2. A zone of hot gases around a flame. 3. A device in gas lamps consisting of a sheath of threads that gives off brilliant illumination when heated by the flame. 4. In Anatomy The cerebral cortex. 5. In Geology The layer of the earth between the crust and the core. 6. The outer wall and casing of a blast furnace above the hearth.

Brigid, a Goddess with a strong association to fire, is commonly referred to as possessing a mantle (rather than cloak), a word which by definition has several meanings corresponding to heat, lamps, fire, illumination, flame, a blast furnace, a hot layer of earth between the crust and core. It is interesting that the word 'mantle' has an association with our cerebral cortex - the part of our brain that plays a large part in consciousness, memory, awareness, language and the processing of information to our senses. This is because the influence of Brigid as a Patroness of Poets, Artists, Craftspeople, and Celtic Shamanism, has been described as “a fire in the head” after a line in the poem “The Song of the Wandering Angus” by William Butler Yeats.

The common use of these two words offer more clues - for the two terms ‘cloak’ and ‘mantle’ are used in very different ways, even though they refer to the same type of garment. The cloak is generally used in myth and symbolism as a means of protection, usually through granting invisibility or imperviousness to harm. It is used to disguise, to hide. Manannán mac lir had a magic cloak, which according to Manx myth, was many-colored, changing from blue-green to silver in the daytime sun, and to purple in the evening. When He wore this cloak He could not be wounded. It was also a cloak of invisibility, which has been likened to the mists and fog of the sea.

Like the cloak, a mantle could be for used protection. But unlike the cloak, a mantle, as generally used in the English language, is employed to signify the taking on of a new role, as in ‘assuming the mantle.’ This new ‘taking on’ implies the culmination of a period of change, transformation, renewal, birth and rebirth.

Mantle on a Sunbeam - Symbolism of Color
 
Just as Manannán mac lir used His cloak for protection, the mantle of Brigid was similarly invoked. The term ‘fd bhrat Bhrighde,’ meaning "under Brigid's mantle" placed friends and loved ones under Brigid’s protection. Manannán mac lir’s cloak changed color to blend with a particular time of day, or it became the grey mist or fog to conceal through subtlety.  Brigid’s mantle on the other hand is referred to as being ‘bright’ something that was definitely noticeable.

A Bhrigid, scar os mo chionn
Do bhrat fionn dom anacal

Translation:

O Brigid spread
Above my head
Your mantle bright
To guard me.

Notice the reference to Her mantle as ‘bright.‘ According to legend, after becoming soaked in a storm, Brigid hung Her wet mantle on a sunbeam to dry. One thing everyone knows, something that is wet, generally has either drops of water on it, and if very wet indeed, dripping from it. When water droplets catch sunlight they often sparkle. Drops of water act in the same way as a prism, under the right conditions, showing a real rainbow effect - not unlike the rainbow cloak of Manannán mac lir. Also, this imagery  - the wet Mantle of Brigid hanging on a sunbeam - contains the triplicity of Druidic elements, earth, air and water.

The many colored robe, mantle or cloak is featured in stories from cultures the world over. Color is used in symbol, ritual and myth universally, because human beings respond strongly to it. We can be stimulated, energized or become calmed and relaxed through the use of color. The psychology of color works on a deep subconscious level. Studies have shown that color can change our moods, enhance our sense of well being, and colored light can be used to heal. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” according to an old saying, but perhaps even more immediate is the message sent through use of color. It is employed in ritual and ceremony in all faiths and traditions, it is used to symbolically represent the forces of life, death and rebirth. Color has the ability to communicate ideas immediately without the use of words or images.

People in modern society tend to take color for granted, any color is now readily available in clothing, paint and dyes. When studying ancient cultures, one has to take into account how color was originally acquired. Some natural sources for colors were harder to obtain than others, making them more costly and rare.

There was a definite prescribed use of color in Celtic and Gaelic societies. Tighernmas introduced the colors of yellow (or saffron), green and blue to Ireland in 900 BCE, while trading with the Phoenicians. He is credited with formulating the use of colors, as worn by the different classes of Irish society. Green and blue were held particularly dear. Blue, along with green, crimson, red and purple were reserved for royalty in Ireland. In Scotland, only the Scottish high king could wear purple - as a stripe in his tartan.

Descriptions of the colors of upper classes are preserved in traditional texts. The Tain Bo Cuailgne, when describing the cavalcade of Bodb Derg, contains this passage: “There was no person among them that was not the son of a king or a queen. They all wore green cloaks, and they wore kilts with red inter-weavings, and borders or fringes of gold thread upon them …” A description of Edain from the Tale of the Bruidean Da Dearga reads: “...he saw a woman on the brink of a fountain, having a comb and a casket of silver, ornamented with gold, washing her head in a silver basin …A short crimson cloak, with a beautiful gloss, lying near her; a brooch of silver, inlaid with sparkles of gold, in that cloak. A smock, long and warm, gathered and soft, of green silk, with a border of red gold, upon her…” We see that red and crimson were featured in the dress of both men and women of the upper classes, often containing a fringe or interweaving of golden threads.

In the city of Bruges, Belgium there exists a piece of woolen cloth taken from what many believe to be the authentic mantle of Brigid, preserved as a holy relic. Located in the Cathedral of St. Sauveur in Bruges, this wool mantle is the object of special veneration on February 1st.  It measures twenty one by twenty five inches and is referred to as “La Manteline de Sainte Birgide d’Irland.” There is documented evidence of the existence of this mantle dating back to 1347. The fragment of the mantle is dark crimson, almost a dark violet in color. Chemical tests conducted in 1936 showed it was dyed with iron oxide. H.F. McClintock, writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries in Ireland, found in his research that a similar type of woven material, died with iron oxide, had been found in early Bronze Age burials in Denmark. The cloth has been described  as 'fleecy' on one side, a type of weave that was used during this same time period. Though this collaborative evidence is by no means conclusive, it does substantiate that this woolen cloth could date back to the time of the fifth century Saint Brigid.

The earliest known written record of the mantle dates to 1347, in the records of the Cathedral of St. Donaas. The Battle of Hastings and Norman conquest of 1066 resulted in the death of the Saxon king Harold. After his death, his family, including his sister Gunhild fled to Flanders. According to oral tradition (not written record) the Princess gave the mantle and various other valuable objects including jewelry to the church of St. Donaas as a repayment for their protection and shelter. The mantle and other valuables were removed from St. Donaas, prior to the destruction of St. Donaas Cathedral during the French Revolution. A similar type of woolen material with the same type of weave to samples found in Denmark, was produced both in Ireland and the British homeland of king Harold and his family.

Brigid is described variously as red haired, having hair that is golden red, or golden haired.  Besides the red (sometimes gold) of Her hair, the golden red of Her flame, and the fragment of what is believed to be Her crimson cloak at Bruges, there are two other colors closely associated with the Goddess Brigid, blue and green. Like red or crimson, both were colors of royalty, of sovereignty.
 
According to some sources, the mantle of Brigid was blue, and not crimson, a royal blue such as produced with Tyrian blue - a blue dye developed by the Phoenicians. Just like Tyrian purple, the Tyrian blue color was produced from a species of marine snail although a different species was used. Hexaplex trunculus, also known as murex trunculus, whose common name, ‘banded dye murex‘ is a rock snail that lives along coastal areas. The rock snail used for Tyrian blue occurs off the coast of Spain and Portugal in Europe, and along the coasts of the Canary Islands and Morocco. A chemical in the mucus of this snail turns whatever is dipped into it a rich blue when exposed to sunlight.

An old Gaelic name for Brigid was "Brighid of the Tribe of the Green Mantles." The green of Brigid comes to us in the promise of the return of spring, the promise of renewed life on earth, through the birthing of the new calves of the season which takes place during the time of the Festival of Brigid. Green shoots begin to appear in dark, cold earth as the sun begins to melt away remaining drifts of snow. St. Brigid asked the King of Leinster for land to build an abbey. He agreed She could have as much land as could be covered by Her mantle - which magically expanded to cover all the land She needed. In the Lebar Brecc (speckled book of  Mac Egon)  there is a description of eight Eucharistic Colours and their mystical or hidden meaning.  The Celtic-Christian symbolism of color in this work points to an earlier or perhaps universal source. Here is a passage about the color green:  “This is what the Green denotes … green is the original colour of every earth, and therefore the colour of the Robe of Offering is likened unto green.”

The Girdle with Four Crosses

The female tartan mantle was called brat (pronounced braht), full length from neck to heel, and made of wool, fleece and even silk. It can take up to three yards of material! A Scottish nursery rhyme speaks of ‘Seynt Brigid and her brat.’ ‘Brat’ or mantle, is inferred to be synonymous with Brigid Herself.

Traditionally, Brigid imbues any piece of cloth that is left out at Imbolc with Her healing power by blessing it as She passes by. This piece of cloth is then known as Brigid's Mantle. Each subsequent Imbolc blessing the cloth receives, adds to its healing power year after year. This cloth was wrapped around any part of the body that needed healing and used by Irish midwives to ensure a safe birthing for expectant mothers. It was also used as protection during birthing of animals. Brigid is invoked to guard the cradle of the new born infant while a woman hangs a rowan cross over the cradle. Wooden carvings of afflicted body parts offered to Brigid as a petition for healing have been found at ancient sites.

“Brigid's girdle is my own girdle, The girdle with four crosses.
Arise, housewife and go through three times.
May whoever goes through my girdle be sevenfold better next year.”

There is an herb, whose folk name is Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla Alpina) which grows in Western and Northern Europe. It appears in some of the earliest herbals, including “History of Plants” which dates to 1532. The rootstock is astringent and edible and the leaves are eaten by sheep and cattle. It can be used in the form of an herbal tea. Lady's mantle has a long history of use. It is rich in tannin, it is an effective astringent and styptic. It is used for external cuts and wounds, and internally in the treatment of a number of women's ailments, including healing of lesions after pregnancy.

Was it named after Brigid? Most scholars say it was named after Mary, mother of Jesus. The use of herbs in Europe precedes the coming of Christianity by a long period of time. I can only tell you what I think. Just as it is known that Mary was given attributes and titles that formerly belonged to Isis, she was given attributes from Goddesses in other lands, other cultures. Given the folk name of this plant, the long history of use and it’s application for ailments of women and healing after pregnancy - there is a good chance it was originally named after the mantle of Brigid rather than of Mary.

White Mantle, White Wand: Cailleach and Brigid

During Imbolc or Oímelc, singers rejoiced in the awakening of the fire-goddess Bríde. Here is a verse that comes from Scotland:

On the day of Bríde of the white hills
The noble queen will come from the knoll …"

Folk scholars Alexander Carmichael and Donald A. Mackenzie believed the observance of weather omens on this ancient holy day pre-dates Christianity. Since ancient times, Brigid has been honored at wells in whose vicinity are placed burning candles. It was common in earlier times to dress these wells with flowers and greenery as well as candles. Coins and objects of silver, gold and bronze were offered to Her at these wells. Some have been associated with Her for thousands of years, their waters said to heal all manner of disease and to offer psychic vision.

Fheill Brighid, is the day when Brigid kindles fire within the Earth to prepare a way for the coming of Spring. Fires for hearth and home are blessed and straw crosses made of rushes are hung on the door. It is a day of joy and festivity, when cups are filled with Fion Sméar (Blackberry Wine) and drunk to the health of Brigid. It was celebration of a transformation, when Cailleach turned Her face to reveal another one, that was beautiful. It was the face of Bríde, or Brigid. The dark half of the year gave way to the light.

At the end of summer, the Cailleach washed Her mantle in a whirlpool off the west coast of Scotland, named Corrievreckan. As She drew it out of the dark cold and swirling water, the coldness that radiated from it whitened the hills and fields with snow. She struck the grasses with Her rod of power, turning them into shards of ice. She was pleased with this, because She could not bear the light and warmth of the sun.

The transformation of the Cailleach into Bríde can happen in various ways, depending on the tale. In one story She offers kingship to any warrior who would kiss Her while She was in the form of the hag. Once this is done, She becomes beautiful and offers the warrior kingship of all Ireland. Another account has the Cailleach traveling to a magical isle where lies a miraculous Well of Youth. At the first ray of dawn, She is met by Bríde to whom She hands Her rod of power. In another version of this same tale, Cailleach drinks from the water of the well and is transformed into Bríde. Her rod is also transformed into the white wand of Bríde, which turns the earth green once more. The rod of the Cailleach and the white wand of Bríde show Them both to be Goddesses of Sovereignty of the Land.

This association of Brigid as a Goddess of Sovereignty is tremendously important.  “I am older than Brigid of the Mantle …” wrote the Scottish visionary and poet William Sharp (as Fiona MacLeod) of this Goddess.  One of the most ancient forms of Her name is ‘Bríde.’ It appears in the oldest known inhabited areas of Western Europe, which were settled before the coming of the Celts. In some accounts both Brigid and the Cailleach have roles as intermediaries between the Celts and the pre-Celtic people whose land the Celts invaded. The older inhabitants of these lands were generally described as ‘dark’ and ‘dangerous’ and the Celts, especially the Tuatha de Danaan, were seen as civilized, cultured and ‘light.’ The imagery in the interaction between these two groups of people echoes the roles of these two Goddesses, who represent the dark and light halves of the year. 

Brigid as Faery Woman: Scotland

It was said of Brigid that wherever She walked, flowers grew. Before Christianity became the prominent faith in Europe, Faery women appeared to give healing, blessings and teachings, with golden blossoms blooming on or around their feet. William Sharp, under his pen name of Fiona MacLeod wrote: “Thine is the skill of the Fairy Woman …”

Fiona MacLeod (William Sharp) in his book “Winged Destiny” records many variations of the name of Brigid:

“I am Brighid-nam-Bratta, but I am also Brighid-Muirghin-na-tuinne, and Brighid-sluagh, Brighid-nan-sitheach seang, Brighid-Binne-Bheullbuchd-nan-trusganan-uaine, and I am older than Aona and am as old as Luan. And in Tir-na-h'oige my name is Suibhal-bheann; in Tir-fo-thuinn it is Cù-gorm; and in Tir-nah'oise it is Sireadh-thall ... ”

“*St. Brighid (in Gaelic pronounced sometimes Bríde, sometimes Breed), St. Bríde of the Isles as she is lovingly called in the Hebrides, has no name so dear to the Gael as "Muime-Chriosd," Christ's Foser-Mother, a name bestowed on her by one of the most beautiful of Celtic legends. In the Isles of Gaelic Scotland her most familiar name is Brighid nam Bratta - St. Briget or St. Bríde of the Mantle--from her having wrapt the new-born Babe in her Mantle in Mary's hour of weakness. She did not come into the Gaelic heart with the Cross and Mary, but was there long before as Bríde, Brighid, or Brithid of the Dedannans, …”

“The other names are old Gaelic names: Brighid-Muirghin-no-tuinne, Brighid-Conception-of-the-Waves; Brighid-Sluagh (or Sloigh), Brighid of the Immortal Host; Brighid-nan-Sitheachseang, Bridget of the Slim Fairy Folk; Brighid-Binne-Bheul-thuchdnan-trusganan-naine, Song-sweet (lit. melodious mouth'd) Brighid of the Tribe of the Green Mantles. She is also called Brighid of the Harp, Brighid of the Sorrowful, Brighid of Prophecy, Brighid of Pure Love, St. Bríde of the Isles, Bríde of Joy, and other names. Aona is an occasional and ancient form of Di-Aoìn, Friday; and Luan, of Diluain, Monday.”

In the traditional myths of Scotland, a wise Faery Maiden or Maiden Queen of Wisdom lived in a tree on a knoll, or in some accounts under a tree. She was considered most wise and though young and beautiful in appearance, She was ancient, and saw the entire world, but remained hidden from the uninitiated. Women would gather at the knoll "some to be see and some to seek wisdom." The Faery Maiden would then appear and offer milk to those that would drink. The milk conferred initiatory powers. The Faery Maiden appeared "holding in her hand the copan Moire ("cup of Mary"), a blue-eyed limpet shell containing the milk of wisdom." She gave this to each of her votaries. Limpet is a general name used in connection with many types of mostly saltwater but also some freshwater snails. The description of the ’blue-eyed limpet shell’ in the old tales of the wise Faery Maiden echoes the appearance of the marine snail used to create the dye for the Tyrian blue of the Mantle of Brigid.

May Brigid spread Her Mantle over you on this Sacred Day. And may Brigid bless each one of you, with the silver apples of the moon and the golden apples of the sun, and if you wish it, the milk of the blue-eyed shell.

 

Sources

Carmichael, Alexander, “Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations Collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the Last Century,” originally printed by T. and A. Constable, Edinburgh, 1900, reprinted by Lindisfarne Press, Hudson, New York, 1992

Ellis, Peter Beresford, “A Dictionary of Irish Mythology,” Constable, London, 1987

Ellis, Peter Beresford, “The Druids,” Constable, London, 1994

Evans-Wentz, Walter Y., “The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries,” originally published by Henry Frowde, London, Oxford University Press, 1911, re-published Colin Smythe Ltd., Gerrards Cross, UK, 1977 and Citadel Press, New York, 1990

“The Lebar Brecc (Speckled Book of Mac Egan),”Tractate on the Canonical Hours,” translated and edited by R. I. Best, in “Miscellany Presented to Kuno Meyer,” O. J. Bergin & C. Marstrander eds., Halle, 1912 (also spelled Leabher Breac)

Lockyer, Sir Norman, “Stonehenge and Other Stone Monuments,” Macmillan and Co., Ltd., London, 1909

Mackenzie, Donald A., “Scottish Folklore and Folk Life: Studies in Race, Culture and Tradition,” Blackie & Son, London and Glasgow, 1935

Mackenzie, E, “An Historical, Topographical, and Descriptive View of the County of Northumberland,” 2nd edition, 2 volumes, Mackenzie & Dent, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1825.

Mackie, Albert, “Scottish Pageantry,” Hutchinson & Co., Ltd., London, 1967

MacLeod, Fiona, (William Sharp), “The Winged Destiny - Studies in the Spiritual History of the Gael,” in particular a section titled “For the Beauty of an Idea, Part III, The Gaelic Heart,” Volume V,  William Heinemann, London, 1913

McClintock, H.F. The Mantle of St. Brigid at Bruges, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Volume VI, Dublin, 1936

Mitchell, Dugald, “History of the Highlands and Gaelic Scotland,” published by Alexander Gardner, publisher to Her Majesty the Queen, Paisley, Scotland, 1900

Smyth, Daragh, “A Guide to Irish Mythology,” Irish Academic Press Ltd., Dublin, 1996

Stokes, Whitley,  “Tripartite Life of Patrick, with Other Documents Relating to That Saint,” originally published by S. Baring Gould, London, 1890, reprinted Kessinger Publishing, 2007

von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang, “Zür Farbenlehre (Theory of Colors)”, originally published in German, 1810. Translated by Charles Lock Eastlake, R.A., F.R.S. published by John Murray, Albemarle Street, London, 1840, reprinted by M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, 1970

Yeats, William Butler, "The Song of Wandering Aengus," from "The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats," MacMillan and Co., Ltd, London and New York, 1933

Surviving traditional poetry, folklore and proverbs

 

About the Author: Linda Iles is an ordained priestess in the Fellowship of Isis and the Temple of Isis. She is certified and teaches as a head instructor in all branches of the Fellowship of Isis, including the Adepti Spiral, the College of Isis, Solar Alchemy of the FOI Priesthood, Noble Order of Tara and Druid Clan of Dana.  Linda is a founding member of the Circle of Isis Advisory Board of the Fellowship of Isis, a member of the Circle of Isis FOI Central Website staff, and a founding member of the Temple of Isis, Geyserville Chapter of the Muses Symposium. Linda undertakes some of the editorial duties for the Mirror of Isis. She has been an active teacher, given presentations at FOI events in Los Angeles and Geyserville and contributed articles, poetry and illustrations for Fellowship of Isis publications for eleven years.

 

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