The Heroic Age

Issue 7

Spring 2004

Milk Symbolism in the

'Bethu Brigte'


by Thomas Torma



Of particular importance to the Brigidine hagiographers was Brigit's close association with dairy products. This article explores the role that dairy products play in the Bethu Brigte, the ninth century Old Irish biography of St. Brigit. In particular this article focuses on the relationship between milk and purity in these lives.

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© 2004 by Thomas Torma. All rights reserved.
This edition copyright © 2004 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.



1. This article is based on the Bethu Brigte. Paragraph numbers are based on those in the edition and translation by Ó hAodha.

2. This connection would possibly be seen to give women control over milk for processes such as butter and cheese making, as well as in the more negative sense of milk going sour.

3.This is not to suggest that men had no involvement with milk. Indeed, Kelly suggests that the milkers may have been of either sex, one of the few examples of male milkers is Brigit's milker, described in the Book of Leinster [Hereafter LL] genealogies as a man named Colmán (Kelly 1997, 450-51, LL vi.1663.50985).

4. This happens in § 42, which reads "After that she healed the old peasant woman who was placed in the shadow of her chariot at Cell Shurd in the south of Brega."

5. A version of this miracle can be found in the Vita I (§11).

6. Lucas lists various characters in the texts that have associations with red eared white cattle (1989: 240-43).


'In fil ni beth mian duit?' ar Brigit.
'Fil', olsi, 'manam-thi lemlacht, at-bel nunc'.
'Tuc dam mo chuad feisin lán, asi n-ibim linn, de uisciu. Du-n-uc fot choim'.
Do-breth diCon-gair Brigit cuci ingin, 7 dixit:
-si iarum, 7 sensi combó lemnacht inbrothach, 7 ba ógslan statim filia ubi gustavit. Condat da firt sin simul, id est lactis de aqua factis, sanitas filiae.

8. Nihil est cibi, duodenis exceptis panibus 7 parco lacte quod tu benedixeras unaque ovicula quae praeparata est tibi.


Works Cited

Binchy, D.A., ed. 1978. Corpus Iuris Hiberniae. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Bray, Dorothy.1989. "Secunda Brigida: Saint Ita of Killeedy and Brigidine Tradition." In Celtic Languages and Celtic Peoples: Proceedings of the Second North American Congress of Celtic Studies, eds. Cyril J.Byrne, et al.; Halifax: D'Arcy McGee Chair of Irish Studies, Saint Mary's University.

Bray, Dorothy.1992. "Saint Brigit and the Fire from Heaven." Études Celtiques 29: 105-113.

Bray, Dorothy. 2000. "Suckling at the Breast of Christ: A Spiritual Lesson in an Irish Hagiographical Motif." Peritia 14: 282-296.

Cohen, David. 1977. "Suibhne Geilt." Celtica 12: 113-124.

Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition (CELT). 1997-2002. Tochmarc Étain (Accessed 3 Oct. 2002).

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Kelly, Fergus, ed. 1976. Audacht Morainn. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Kelly, Fergus. 1988. A Guide to Early Irish Law. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Kelly, Fergus. 1997. Early Irish Farming. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Lucas, Anthony. 1958. "Cattle in Ancient and Medieval Irish Society." In The O'Connell School Union Record 1937-58, Dublin: The O'Connell School Union.

Lucas, Anthony. 1960-1963. "Irish Food Before the Potato." Gwerin 3: 8-43.

Lucas, Anthony. 1989. Cattle in Ancient Ireland. Kilkenny: Boethius Press..

Meyer, Kuno, ed. 1906. The Triads of Ireland. Dublin: Hodges, Figgis, & Co., 1906.

Meyer, Kuno, ed. 1913, repr. 1994. Sana's Cormac: Cormac's Glossary. Lampeter: Llanerch Publishing..

Ó Catháin, Séamas. 1995. The Festival of Brigit. Dublin: DBA Publications.

Ó hAodha, Donnacha, ed. 1978. Bethu Brigte. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

O'Sullivan, Anne, ed. 1983. The Book of Leinster (Volume vi). Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

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Stokes, Whitley, ed. 1868. Cormac's Glossary. Annotated and translated by John O'Donovan. Calcutta.

Stokes, Whitley, ed. 1890. Lives of Saints from the Book of Lismore. Oxford: Clarendon Press.