Monday, 30 March 2015

The History of Brigid's Cross

Brigid's Cross

A strong symbol of Ireland, and typically woven every year from rushes
 to celebrate the early onset of Spring, around 1st February, St Brigid's Feast Day, these small and beautiful crosses are now mostly associated with the Christian story of St Brigid,  yet have roots that reach much further back into the distant past...

St Brigid's Cross

Crosóg Bhríde, St. Bridget, St. Brigit, St Brighid, St Bride

St Brigid, a contemporary of St Patrick, and the only one of the three patron saints of Ireland who was native to the country, was the founder of the first Irish monastery in Kildare. Historical information on her is scanty, but legend has it that she was a confident, caring and generous soul with infinite patience and compassion for those in need. There are several variants on the story of how the cross came to be named after her, but they follow a similar pattern:

St Brigid Wikimedia Public Domain
St Brigid Wikimedia Public Domain

She was called to attend the deathbed of a pagan chieftain (in some versions it is her father,) and found him delirious, so was unable to converse with him. Struck by inspiration, she began to weave a cross from the rushes that covered most floors at this time in history. The sick man seemed to notice what she was doing through his fever, and asked her about it. She explained about her beliefs and the significance of the cross within them. As she spoke the man became calmer, his delirium faded and he questioned her further. This lead to his request to be converted to Christianity and to be baptised at the point of death. Since this day the cross of rushes (occasionally straw) has been venerated throughout Ireland.

Earlier Pagan Origins

With its structure of four arms (there are also three-armed versions,) Brigid's Cross is possibly related to similar symbols such as the sun cross and swastika, which are both very ancient symbols, far predating Christianity.

The tradition of St Brigid's day comes from the Gaelic/Celtic festival of Imbolc, (or Imbolg which means literally, in the belly or womb,) the festival being dedicated to women and fertlity (hence the association with Brigid) and celebrated on either the 1st, or 2nd of February - the beginning of the lambing season and the quickening of the year.

Brigid's Cross image By Culnacreann Wikimedia Commons
Brigid's Cross image By Culnacreann Wikimedia Commons

The Goddess Brigid is one of the most important deities in Irish mythology, the daughter of Dagda, she was one of the Tuatha De Danann, an early mythical race in Ireland.

Brigid's name comes in many forms: Brigit, Bride, Bridey, Biddy, Briggidda, and was one of the most widely worshipped Goddesses in Iron Age / Celtic Britain and Ireland, a solar deity  associated with healing, fertility, wisdom, poetry, creativity, childbirth, and the craft of the smith (fire.) She is, a complex Goddess, incorporating many different strands of ancient myth. It is quite possible that the Northern British Tribe, the Brigantes, who were the largest single tribe (or confederation of tribes) in Britain, derived their name from Brigid, who was certainly very important to them. She has left her mark across the whole of the British Isles in the names of rivers, wells and stones. In the North, it is possible that Ilkley's Swastika Stone was associated with her worship.

Swastika Stone: Image TJBlackwell Wikimedia Commons
Swastika Stone: Image TJBlackwell Wikimedia Commons

There are many rituals linked to Brigid's Cross that are an echo of these earlier times, such as the tradition of the cross being hung within the home to protect it from fire, and, although many of the other original meanings of this enigmatic image may have been lost to us, it still remains a powerful symbol to this day.

Brigid's Cross sculpted plaque

So, there are very many different layers to Brigid, just as she is woven from multiple layers of rushes. She has a very old soul. She can mean different things to different people, and carries within her multiple meanings from the past. Just as we weave our own significances into the objects that we own and the objects that we make, imbuing them with power and significance, so these feelings and energies become a part of the whole.

St Brigids Cross in bronze and oak by Justbod
Brigid in bronze and oak from our 'Symbols & Motifs' Page

I have long loved this symbol and also have a 'bit of a thing' about the patterning of woven items. The beauty of Brigid's Cross, the simplicity and folk traditions at its core, and its longevity and powerful associations, have long appealed to me.

My Brigid is hand crafted in cold cast bronze or aluminium and then inset into a handcrafted 16 cm square oak plaque. Every part of the process is done by me, by hand. 

Thanks for reading!


Justbod Team

Brigid is available from our 'Symbols' Collection.

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Online Sources: 
Brigid's Cross - Wikipedia.
St Brigid - Cross Crucifix.
Brigantes - Wikipedia.
Brigid - Wikipedia.
Brighid - Mysterious Britain.

Book Sources: :
The Old Stones of Elmet: Paul Bennett
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Signs and Symbols


Saturday, 14 March 2015

Ways to kneel and kiss the ground: The Ancient Spring of St Helen's Well, Goodmanham, East Yorkshire

St Helen's Well, Goodmanham, East Yorkshire
I have visited quite a few Holy Wells and springs in my time, 
many being overgrown, untended and feeling quite forlorn and forgotten. 
It was quite a surprise to happen upon St Helen's Well, and find that it is obviously well used, and by a diverse range of people, of varying faiths.

St Helen's Well is located just off a disused railway track which has been reborn as a walkway and is now part of The Wolds Way and Hudson Way, leading between Goodmanham and Market Weighton.

It is one of four named natural springs in the area, and most of the articles that I've read state that it has been held sacred from at least Roman times, probably because of a nearby Roman road, and the dedication to St Helen. It is more probable that the spring has been held as a sacred place for far longer than that. There was a major pagan 'temple' in nearby Goodmanham, written about in Bede's History of the English Church and People.

Sign at St Helen's Well, Goodmanham, East Yorkshire

The 'well' is dedicated to St Helen - full name: Saint Helen Flavia Luila Helena, aka Saint Eleanor, Saint Helena, Helen Augusta and Helena of Constantinople (AD 248-329.) She was the first wife of Constantius Chlorus.

She was also the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great who was declared Emperor in Eboracum (York) in 306 AD. He converted to Christianity in 312.

St Helen's Well, Goodmanham, East Yorkshire
The spring emerges into a triangular stone 'bath.'

The natural water of the spring flows out of the northern hillside into a triangular stone 'bath.' I couldn't find any details on when this 'bath' might date from, or its original function. "It may have been used for healing purposes in centuries past," says the sign, "and, because of its proximity to the old railway line, a piped supply from the well was more recently used to refill steam engines."

The spring is fed by groundwater within the chalk, which cannot drain downwards, because the chalk sits on a bed of clay.

St Helen's Well, Goodmanham, East Yorkshire
A shaped 'seat' cut from a tree trunk, just next to the spring.

The 'well' and surrounding area was lovingly restored by the Girl Guides of nearby Market Weighton, for which they won a price in 1985, and they won a 'Keep Britain Tidy' award the next year.

More recently, it has been regenerated by a group of local volunteers. 'The Friends of St Helen's Well,' creating a new pathway, and clearing some trees. It is possible to park at the side of the nearby road and take the path down to the spring, rather than having to walk from either Goodmanham or Market Weighton.
St Helen's Well also now has a  Facebook page.

St Helen's Well, Goodmanham, East Yorkshire

At the base of the hillside and next to the pathway, the trees are decorated with ribbons, Christian crosses, prayers and requests for help and healing, and, when we visited, a chalked message to Odin adorned one of the stones. These offerings are in a tradition that almost certainly goes back into the mists of time. I found this extremely touching and moving, these feelings only slightly tempered by the quantity of non-biodegradable offerings, and I did send out a little wish that maybe in future, those who leave a wee offering, would think a little more deeply about its possible future impact.

I also found myself wishing that many of the other little ancient Holy Wells and springs that I have visited would somehow gain their own band of restorers, guardians and friends, as I love the idea of continuity of place, and the resurrection of some of the old, simple ways of nature as an inclusive sacred space where all are welcome to come and experience their own sense of spirituality and faith, whatever their creed, culture or beliefs.

"There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground." - Rumi

There is also a well-sited bench, which is an excellent place to sit and just soak up the touching and peaceful aura of the place.

Well worth a visit.

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Friday, 6 March 2015

The Beautiful and Rare Medieval Wall Paintings of St Agatha's Church, Easby, Yorkshire

St Agatha's Church, Easby, Yorkshire

Standing near the banks of the 'swirling, rushing' water of the River Swale, predating, but in the shadow of, Easby Abbey, is the beautiful St Agatha's Church, with its rare 13th Century Wall Paintings.

They were painted sometime around 1250, and only rediscovered in Victorian times during restoration work, having been plastered over during the 16th Century Reformation. They were further restored in 1994 by Perry Lithgow.

Medieval Wall Paintings, St Agatha's Church, Easby, Yorkshire

Up until the late 15th century, there were no printed books, and religious texts were few and far between. Coupled with this, most people were illiterate, and also unable to comprehend the language of religious services, which were mostly in Latin.

Medieval Wall Paintings, St Agatha's Church, Easby, Yorkshire

Paintings such as these, and the ones at Pickering Parish Church, were referred to as 'Bilblia Pauperum' - the poor man's Bible, and the parish priest would use them to teach his congregation about morality, the Bible and stories of the saints.

The surviving paintings in St Agatha's include scenes from the Garden of Eden, scenes of agricultural activity, and New Testament scenes.

Medieval Wall Paintings, St Agatha's Church, Easby, Yorkshire

The present Church building dates from just after the Norman conquest, but was probably built on a Saxon foundation.

Stood within the Chancel is a plaster copy of the Easby Cross, a beautifully carved apostle pillar, the original being in the Victoria and Albert museum in London. It was carved in about 790, from stone quaried near Whitby.

Copy Easby Cross, St Agatha's Church, Easby, Yorkshire

Copy Easby Cross, St Agatha's Church, Easby, Yorkshire

As well as many other interesting features, including grooves in church door jambs believed by some to have been made by archers sharpening their arrows, Queen Anne's coat of arms, a large Romanesque font dating from about 1100, there is a stone bench at the base of the back wall of the church. This provided limited seating to the medieval incumbents in a time before church pews, the origin of the phrase 'the weak go to the wall.'

St Agatha's Church, Easby, Yorkshire

St Agatha's Church, Easby, Yorkshire

Dedicated to the Sicilian saint, St Agatha, the Church at Easby is well worth visiting, a visit which can be combined with a walk around the ruins of the adjacent abbey, and maybe a trip to nearby Richmond, with its plethora of history.

As ever, please consider a donation towards the upkeep of the church. 

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