Why was the Brighid’s fire at Kildare tended by nuns? Not hard. It is because Brighid had been an abbess, so the fire assigned to her was in a convent. Or it is because in medieval Ireland being a nun is what religious women did. Religious questions do not always have simple answers, however, and I will suggest in this paper that even if these two reasons had not been true the flame of Brighid would have been tended by unmarried women, and that their marital status was of great significance both in Pagan and Christian times.
Gerald of Wales tells us (67, 69; pp. 81 - 82) that there was a convent in Kildare at which there was a circular hedge with a perpetual fire in it. The fire was tended by nuns, and no men were allowed to cross the hedge. The main points of this description may be listed as 1. At Kildare 2. an eternal fire 3. in a round hedge 4. which men may not enter 5. is tended by nuns (who are unmarried women, whether virgins or widows).
It is commonly accepted that St. Brighid is a conflation of an actual abbess and a Pagan goddess who was associated with fire, especially the fire on the hearth (MacCana, 1968, 1983, pp. 33 - 34). Because of this, looking at Pagan goddesses from other Indo-European traditions will prove useful in answering our question. It will be helpful to keep the five main points in mind during the investigation.
The clearest parallel is with the cult of Vesta in Rome. In her round temple was a perpetual fire tended by virgins. Their virginity was taken quite seriously; any of them who violated it was walled up underground. Men were forbidden to enter her temple, which was next to the regia, a building which was considered to be the dwelling of the Roman sacred king. Each hearth fire was treated as the very presence of Vesta (Adkins and Adkins, 1996, p. 237).
In Greece we find the goddess Hestia. She also was worshipped in round temples, this time by widows rather than virgins (Plutarch, p. 89). Her fire was kept constantly burning. When colonies were formed, fire was taken from the fire of Hestia in the founding city and used to light the new fire in the temple of Hestia in the colony. The temples were open to men, and in fact were the buildings in which governing bodies met (Nilsson 1940, p. 75).
Before continuing, it would be useful to consider each of the five elements of the Kildare fire to see what the similarities among these three cultures are.
I will return to the significance of the location of the Irish fire. For now it should be noted that the other two cultures there is a relationship between the sacred center of the fire, and the political center. We see this in Rome, with the temple of Vesta and the regia close to each other. In Greece the two functions, sacred and political, have been combined. The fire of Hestia is in the building which is the political center of the colony. That the fire of each of these two cultures is eternal is likely a reflection of its relationship with the political structure; the fire maintains the political power of the land.
The hedge in Kildare, the temple of Vesta, and the temples of Hestia were all round. The common shape for temples in all three cultures, however, was rectangular or square (Wait, 1985, p. 171; Dumézil, 1970, pp. 315 316; Volpe, 1992, 91). I don’t believe that the meaning of the roundness of the temples can be determined, but for the sake of this paper it is enough to note that it is so.
The ban on men entering the sacred space in Rome and Ireland is significant mainly for the fact that it identifies the fire strongly with women.
This brings us to the question of this paper, that these sacred fires were tended by unmarried women -- virgins (Rome), widows (Greece), and virgins or widows (Ireland). The answer is found through comparison with another Indo-European culture, that of Vedic India.
Vedic ritual was performed in temporarily marked out rectangular spaces. The number of ritual fires used varied with the ritual performed, but the canonical number was three. At the south was a semi-circular fire, the dakshina (“south fire”), on which offerings were made to ward off the dead. In the center was the ahavaniya (“fire of offering”), a square fire which was the main sacrificial fire. In the west was the round garhapatya (“master of the house”), which represented the hearth fire of the sacrificer (Renou, 1971, p. 97).
These rituals were devoted to a single sacrificer; they were individual rather than corporate. The garhapatya was tended by the wife of the sacrificer (Dumézil, 1970, p. 313). It was lit from the sacred fire in the home of the sacrificer.
The most important thing about the garhapatya is that it was the primary fire. It was lit first, and the other fires were lit from it. It was not to go out; there were procedures if it did (Aitareya Brahmana 220.127.116.11 (Keith, 1920, 292)), but none was considered authoritative, and they were clearly seen as ways to correct a serious error. If the other fires went out, on the other hand, it was a relatively simple matter to relight them from the garhapatya. The round fire, then, was the central fire of the space, if not in location then in importance.
It was not the only center, however. (In sacred space it is possible to have more than one center.) As the main fire of offering, the ahavaniya was also a center, presided over the sacrificer, the husband of the tender of the garhapatya.
Both the garhapatya and the Western fire temples are round, but beyond that the differences between the Vedic system and the western Indo-European ones seem at first glance to be great, especially for our question. A fire which must be tended by unmarried women and one that must be tended by a married woman don’t, on the surface, have much in common. But if we search for a way in which they are similar we find that rather than contradicting the Western Indo-European evidence the Vedic explains it.
The differences all arise from the individual vs. corporate distinction. In the West the fire is the ritual center of the land, in a relationship with the political one (the regia, the assembly house). In India the ritual space is itself the land. And in it we find the round fire as the sacred center of the ritual, but the square fire is presided over by the ruler of the ritual, the husband of the woman who tends the garhapatya. Just as in the West there are the round fires in relationship, within their lands, with the political power, so in India there is the same relationship within the ritual space. The wife is the fire tender and the husband is the king.
The link between East and West, the explanation for the different married states of the tender of the round fire, is the patriarchal nature of Indo-European society. In short, the tender of the garhapatya is married for the same reason the tenders of the Western fires fire are single -- the husband of the tender of a ritual hearthfire is the king of the space within which that fire exists. In Greece and Rome, with no kings, there could be no husband.
If the relationship between fire and king is clear in Greece, Rome, and, with a ritual change, in India, it is not so clear in Ireland. It is worth noting, though, that there are two centers to Ireland described in the medieval tales, Tara (the political center) and Uisnech, which appears to be the religious center from the Pagan period. Rees and Rees (1961, pp. 156 - 163) discuss these in great detail. However, the characteristics of Uisnech, as given by the tales, are those of Brighid’s convent -- it is associated with religious personnel, with fires, and with a sacred well. The accession of Christianity, though, required a new, Non-Pagan center. The fire and holy well cults were kept but assigned to the newly sanctified Brighid, and the sacred fire moved to her abbey in Kildare, which would henceforth serve as a source of the sacred. The priestesses who would have tended the Pagan fire came with it, to be transformed under St. Brighid and Christianity into nuns.
This change which is not a change gave the system a new twist. The nuns at Kildare were both unmarried and married. At first glance they were unmarried, but they were in fact the brides of Christ. The shift from the unmarried priestesses we may assume for Pagan times to the nuns who are both unmarried and married, was a political statement for the Church. The unmarried tenders of the flame now had a husband, and He was the true king of Ireland. The gods may have changed, but the fire was still to be tended by the king’s women. Only now they were to be the King’ women.
Suitably reinterpreted, the ancient Pagan practice continued to have meaning far into the Christian period. There in their round hedge, out of the sight of men, the nuns of Brighid kept the fire going; that on their hearth, that of ancient tradition, and that of Christianity.
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