February 1st is Brigit’s Day, a celebration known in Ireland as Imbolc, one of the four great festivals that are gateways into the seasons of the turning year. Among the many rituals and traditions is leaving a brat bríde (Brigit’s cloak) outside to receive Brigit’s blessing as she passes by in the night, the day having begun at sundown for the Irish and Celtic peoples. This piece of cloth is then torn into strips and used for healing – perhaps tied around a sore throat or sprained ankle.
A principle Irish goddess Brigit is also believed to be one of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the indigenous spiritual ancestors of Ireland. The Church, not able to eradicate her powerful personae, effected a transition to St. Brigit and replaced the celebration of Imbolc on February 1st with a celebration of Candlemas on February 2nd. However these transitions were likely not as successful as the Church hoped for. Yes, the Irish embrace St. Brigit as a patron saint, but they also continue to visit the goddess’s holy wells with ceremony and ritual. For all its efforts the Church really gave the Irish people two mystical women to celebrate. And St. Brigit was indeed a shamanic wise woman.
It’s tempting to transcribe the entirety of Meda Ryan’s book on Biddy Early, as it offers such wonderful insight to the mystical and shamanic wise woman tradition that thrived in Ireland in spite of, and in many cases within, the Catholic Church. As Imbolc is upon us it will be good to honor Brigit, goddess and saint, for her contributions. Yet the echoes of this ancient and deep Earth based knowing were heard well beyond Ireland.
In Germany, some 700 years before Biddy’s time, a remarkable woman was on a similar path. Hildegard Von Bingen, nun and abbess, was deeply rooted in the tradition of creation spirituality. From this world view she honored the sacred in all things and named a deep connection with the Earth as the source of her wisdom and power. And indeed she was powerful. As a poet, healer, visionary, artist, writer and teacher her tenacious and prolific expressions of spiritual and sacred wisdom were a source of great consternation for the Church hierarchy.
Spiritual teacher and author Matthew Fox has spent much of his life exploring the teachings and writings of Hildegard. In his latest book he writes: She calls for an awakening of the kind of creativity she refers to as “greening power”, leading to an honoring of Mother Earth and the return of the Green Man….an archetype that underscores the deep relationship between human and the plant world, the human and natural world. Hildegard was fully cognizant of the Green Man movement of her time…she even calls Christ “a green man” who caused “all the greening power of the virtues.”
For their wisdom these women were ridiculed and persecuted. Biddy was tried as a witch, Hildegard was condemned and eventually, along with her entire monastic community, ex-communicated for a year. But the power of their wisdom, the truth of this ancient Earth based knowing is too strong to be silenced. Too strong and too vital for our lives today. It is both astounding and encouraging that last October the Catholic Church canonized Hildegard of Bingen.
Biddy Early had a knowing of events and conversations that was unnerving to many. Here is one story, again from Meg Ryan’s book.
It is reported that Biddy seldom took money (some say she never took it) in return for any favours which she granted, but was always willing to accept gifts in kind – the decision of giving rested entirely with the receiver.
The acceptance, however, rested with Biddy.
People going to Biddy Early would sometimes take a hen. A woman who was going to her went out to get a hen. The first hen she caught was a fine fat one, and she said: ‘the devil a one of her will get you’. And she got another hen. The hen she got this time was one whose bones were out through her. Then she put on her fine plaid shawl, and gave the road a welt.
When she came to Biddy’s house, Biddy said, ‘Why didn’t you bring the first hen your (sic) caught? I know well why you didn’t bring her, you thought she was too fat. Well you can go about your business now, and leg it home as quick as you came. As long as you begrudge to give me the fat hen, I’ll begrudge to give you a cure.
A man on his way to Feakle fair was passing Biddy’s house, he called in to light his pipe and she bade him be seated as usual. He sat down, and they began to discuss various topics, and during the conversation the man himself drew down about the ‘black art’. When he said this, Biddy said to him, “I suppose you drew down this because you hear people talking about me, and they say that I am working in the power of the devil. But I tell you that I am not, my power comes from ‘the good people’ who are rightly named Good. It’s the priests are the cause of my unpopularity with many people.”
In this excerpt from Meda Ryan’s book Biddy is characteristically assertive. But in fact Biddy likely was working with the devil, just not the Church’s devil. By this time in history the Church had imposed a demonic aspect on Earth and Spirit energies and in this transformation the natural world Green Man became the Devil, other spirits became faery, known popularly as the Good People.
As a child Biddy spent many reclusive years in the gardens and woods around her mother’s cottage and some speculate that during this time she went away with the faeries for seven years. Her mother’s teachings and a deep connection with the Earth would be the true source of her healing powers, an alliance with Otherworld entities would be the source of her omnipotent knowing. Which was considerable as in the story for the next post….
Curing and foretelling…did not find favour with the local Catholic clergy, who openly spoke out against the deeds and words of Biddy Early. Her ‘magic’ cures were treated by them with great suspicion, many believing that her power was obtained from evil sources – ‘The Devil’ they said. She had, therefore, several heated confrontations with the priests.
Biddy was a force to be reckoned with. Try as they did, the Church was unable to thwart her power, as they were generally unsuccessful in banishing the old ways of knowing. They did instill some degree of fear, but the people, although perhaps conflicted, continued to seek the assistance of healers like Biddy. The tension between the old ways and new preachings is very evident in the stories and writings we will explore, these coming from Meda Ryan’s book Biddy Early: The Wise Woman of Clare. The following is but one of Biddy’s clergy encounters. Continue reading →
In 1576 Scottish woman Bessie Dunlop was burned alive for receiving herbs from the Queen of Faeries. She would be one of hundreds burned for witchcraft in Scotland. A horrifying number, yet it pales in comparison to the estimated 40,000 to 100,000 who died during the witch burnings in Europe between 1100 and 1750 CE.
The word witch comes from wicce/wicca which means to know, referring to those who hold deep knowledge of and connection with Earth, plant and ancestor spirits. These wise women and men were the healers, wisdom passed down from one generation to the next. The Christian churches could not tolerate this direct and popular connection with the Sacred and so hunted down and burned all they could find. In six hundred years, they were largely successful in purging this oral tradition from the land and the people.
Looking into her blue bottle Biddy was able to know the future, understand what cures to offer, and even listen in on distant conversations. It was said to be a faery bottle, given to Biddy by her son – whether before or after he died is one of many contradictions in the historical writings. When she died the bottle was thrown into a lake near her cottage, returned to the faery folk for safe keeping. Many have tried to find it, none have. From all accounts it probably looks like this first century piece.
Most stories about Biddy mention the bottle, including this one from the collected works of Lady Augusta Gregory.
She was as good, and better to the poor as to the rich. Any poor person passing the road, she’d call in and give a cup of tea or a glass of whiskey to, and bread and what they wanted. … One time she called in a man that was passing and gave him a glass of whiskey, and then she said to him, “The road you were going home by, don’t go by it”. So he asked why not, and she took the bottle – a long shaped bottle it was – and looked into it, holding it up, and then she bid him look through it, and he’d see what would happen him. But her husband said, “Don’t show it to him, it might give him a fright he wouldn’t get over”. So she only said, “Well, go home by another road”. And so he did and got home safe, for in the bottle she had seen a party of men that wouldn’t have let him pass alive.
Two years ago Biddy Early’s cottage, or what’s left of it, was for sale. After unsuccessful attempts to get the Irish government interested in acquiring the cottage, pictured here, as a heritage site, the owner hoped to sell it as a potential tourist attraction. Asking price, $75,000.
People often ask me if I ever plan to live in Ireland or buy property there. No. But if I did, Biddy’s cottage would not be the place. A daunting prospect as apparently Biddy comes with the land. Reports are she is still very present at the location, that she does not fancy cars and anyone parking on the road too close to the cottage path is certain to have car trouble, flat tires, dead batteries. I do absolutely plan to visit the cottage next summer. I hauled out my Ireland map and, to my delight, discovered that it’s is located near Shannon airport where I seem to spend quite a bit of my time. If Biddy’s energy is as present as her legend visiting will be quite the adventure.
There used surely to be enchanters in the old time, magicians and freemasons.
Old Biddy Early’s power came from the same thing.
Healer, seer, wise woman and witch, Biddy Early was all of these – and she was legend. Scores, and some say hundreds, of people would be gathered outside her cottage door each day for her sight and her cure. She charged nothing beyond what people could give – a loaf of bread, a box of tea, a side of pig or, very often, a bottle of poitín (pocheen), Irish moonshine. After Biddy died in 1874 Lady Gregory set about collecting reflections like the quote above and stories, often first hand accounts of her healing powers.
Biddy Early? Not far from this she lived, above at Feakle. I got cured by her myself one time. Look at this thumb, I got it hurt one time, and I went out into the field after and was ploughing all the day, I was that greedy for work. And when I went in I had to lie on the bed with the pain of it, and it swelled and the arm with it, to the size of a horse’s thigh. I stopped two or three days in the bed with the pain of it, and then my wife went to see Biddy Early and told her about it, and she came home and the next day it burst, and you never seen anything like all the stuff that came away from it. A good bit after I went to her myself, where it wasn’t quite healed, and she said, “You’d have lost it altogether if your wife hadn’t been so quick to come”.
Healers, seers, wise women and witches. Legacies of the old ways and powers. There is much to explore here…and we shall.
If you are Irish, or of Irish heritage, and superstitious you come by it honestly. The listings of charms, cures, spells and beliefs in Lady Wilde’s book cause me to wonder how our Irish ancestors got through the day. Throwing holy water on everything in sight, sewing salt or iron into the hems of baby garments, passing hot coals over livestock, throwing a hot coal of fire after a fisherman to bring him good luck, avoiding red haired people especially first thing in the morning because there is no other course of action but to return home and call it a day, not putting out a light while people are eating supper, not crossing the path of a ploughing horse, and more. The lists are endless, all proscribing ways to bring good fortune or avoid misfortune. Good luck, bad luck. Both can happen and you just never know when, as summed up in the following statement also in Lady Wilde’s book.
There is one hour in every day when whatever you wish will be granted, but no one knows what that hour is. It is all a chance if we come on it. There is also one hour in the day when ghost-seers can see spirits – but only one – at no other time have they the power, yet they never know the hour, the coming of it is a mystery.
All of this does tend to characterize the Irish as superstitious victims of fate. Yet this spiritual disempowerment didn’t take hold completely, as we shall see in the stories of healers like Biddy Early, perhaps the most famous wise woman/witch in Irish history – who, by the way, had red hair.