The protection of the Brigid's cross has a healing aspect that has spanned centuries of Irish culture. The early versions featured three arms arranged as the rays of the sun to honor Brigid's role as a Solar Feminine goddess. Later, four arms would become traditional as the pagan symbol was replaced by a more Christianized one. Nonetheless, the distinctive cross is set over doorways and in kitchens to protect from harm.
To learn why the transformative Brigid's cross, which marks the transition of death and rebirth, remains important to our ideas about healing and healing processes, we must follow the thread of the rushes. As Medicine Women, we travel back in time to the Middle Ages, when medieval housekeeping necessarily involved the placement of rushes on the white clay floors of homes of all sorts. This is where we get the term threshold, as the rushes would have been threshed stalks of grain, and the foot of the door held them in place. Underneath the straw lay all sorts of filth and debris: bits of food, dirt from the pig sty, vomit, and worse. If we look around, we would find inadequate plumbing systems, coupled with fleas and rat feces. Each of these factors is today implicated in the rise of the Black Death, or plague, of 1656.
The 1656 plague was pandemic. People died in such massive numbers that we still speak of that time with dread. The catacombs in France and Italy are lined with the dead in such massive numbers as to defy understanding â€“ and it would take generations to recover from the devastation. Yet understand, we must, for it is the first time that Europeans began to understand the connection between health and its connection to environmental conditions and self-care. In the homes of the lower classes, rushes on floors would have been changed infrequently, and the stench in close spaces would have been almost unbearable.
In those days, it would likely have been sweet flag (Acorus calamus). Other aromatics would have been added such as chamomile, rose petals, daisies and fennel. But disguising the bad smells and covering human detritus wouldn't be enough to keep the plague and other illnesses, such as typhoid, at bay.
Erasmus wrote about the problem of the rushes themselves; when the seasons changed, the dampness of the earth combined with the rushes increased health problems, likely due to creating conditions that were perfect for insects, rats and vermin, and mold and bacteria growth. He was convinced the rushes led to poor health. Healing herbs such as wormwood, fleabane, and shepherd's band would have been spread on top of the sweet flag floor coverings, either strewn or woven mats, to try and keep insects at bay. Writing in Elizabethan times, Thomas Tusser advised:
- While wormwood hath seed, get a handful or twain
- To save against March, to make flea to refrain.
- Where chamber is sweeped, and wormwood is strewn
- No flea for his life dare abide to be known
In the Middle Ages and prior, the most common, everyday threats to European peoples would have been fire originating in the kitchens, evil in the form of disease entering the body, and the ill effects of hunger and poverty. Each of these harms was known throughout the populace.
If you want to read something from this time to understand it better, Bocchachio's Decameron is a frame story similar to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in structure. The Decameron depicts a group of young Italian noblemen and women trying to escape the plague by travelling to a country home. The book is made up of a collection of tales which criticize the common hypocrisies of the age against the backdrop of the great tragedy of death. The criticisms are relevant to our own time.
In times of crisis, is it any wonder the people of Ireland turn to their patron, Saint Brigid? Brigid, the woman, was a 5th century figure, who embodied the characteristic of compassion, often helping the poor, hungry and dying. She was born in Forthairt, in County Louth, the daughter of a Druid priest and a Christian commoner. In life, the mother superior was a controversial figure: the women in her convent married, were highly educated and creative. Legend has it that she and Saint Patrick were frequently at odds. But, as Ireland became increasingly Christianized, her story and that of the Goddess whose name she carried became intertwined and associated with the earlier characteristics of the goddess. Imbolc, the earlier pagan holiday of the goddess Brigid, began to be recognized by the Catholic church as Saint Brigid's Feast Day on February 1.
The Brigid's cross is traditionally woven on Imbolc eve. In the Medicine Woman tradition, the four arms today could be said to represent common themes in healing:
1. Personal safety and cleanliness
2. Preventative or palliative care
3. Nutritional healing and quality of life
4. Compassion in action
Too, we are reminded of the role of healing herbs and fresh clean water, hand dried or freshly gathered, transformed by fire into the tonics and tinctures which balance the productive and destructive elements which restore well-being. As healers, we know aromatherapy balances or uplifts the spirits in times of trouble, and flower essences offer us a means to restore body, mind and spirit. These healing practices have stood the test of time and continue to ease and transform each stage of life from birth through death.
This year, as I write, we are told to expect a difficult winter flu season, perhaps of pandemic proportions. Should you choose to craft or hang a Brigid's cross, place it inside and over the front door to your home, or over the stove, for protection from harm. But as you contemplate this ancient fire wheel symbol, consider the ways you, as a healer, might embody the life-giving characteristics of the great triple goddess of the Tuatha De Danaan in this time, yours and mine.
As a Medicine Woman, how will you carry the eternal healing flame Brigid represents as you forge your own healing works in the world? And so it is.