The Heroic Age

Issue 7

Spring 2004

Milk Symbolism in the

'Bethu Brigte'


by Thomas Torma

University of Ulster

Center for Irish and Celtic Studies, eDIL Project


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.

In early Irish hagiography, Brigit exerts patronage over production and supply of milk and other dairy products. This article will focus on the ninth century Bethu Brigte, the earliest vernacular life of Brigit or of any Irish saint.[1] This article seeks to explore the role that dairy products play in the Bethu Brigte while treating the text as a work of literature, a work that is whole and complete in itself. Much as we are able to find many examples of milk symbolizing purity in other works of Irish literature, we also find that milk demonstrates and exemplifies Brigit's holy purity.


Dairy in Ireland

Bray argues that the connection between women and milk is the result of an obvious connection between women and lactation - namely an ability to produce milk with their own bodies after giving birth (Bray 1989, 33).[2] Dairy products were a vital part of the medieval Irish diet and presumably an important part of the economy as well, the work of which was mostly performed by women (Kelly 1997, 323-30, 450-55; Lucas 1989, 41-67).[3]

Additionally, there was the belief that a cow would not give milk without its calf present, strengthening this supposed bond between milk and maternity (Lucas 1958, 80; 1989, 45). This is witnessed in Bethu Brigte §22, when a women loses a calf that she had intended to give to Brigit; she complains that the cow was of no use without its calf. The calf then appears in accordance with the will of Brigit. The appearance of the calf allows the cow to give milk, which was the economic goal of having the cow. The connection between maternity and milk meant that it would make sense for a maternal figure to protect dairy products, and no saint has as many miracles associated with dairy products as Brigit.

Milk was an essential part of the Irish diet. The lack of sunlight in Ireland means that human bodies were physiologically not able to produce enough vitamin D. Fortunately, milk is a source of vitamin D, as well as a number of important proteins. Thus it was an essential part of the Irish diet (Edwards 1990: 57). The importance of milk in the diet can be seen in the ninth century triad that defines the three renovators of the world as being 'the womb of a woman, the udder of a cow, and the moulding-block of the smith' (The Triads of Ireland §148). Furthermore, the Audacht Morainn states that an abundant milk yield is a sign of a king's truth, while dryness of milk results from injustice (§18).



In addition to being a vital source of nourishment, milk also served as a symbol of purity. That the festival of Saint Brigit falls on the same day as the pagan holiday of Imbolc is probably more than coincidence. Of course, we must remember that even though the Saint's day is the same as the holiday, we have no warrant to presume that the pagan celebration was associated with the goddess of the same name.

Professor Hamp has argued that the Indo-European root for Imbolc was *uts-molgo, meaning purification, and that it eventually became *ommolg, meaning milking, which would have appeared similar to Oímelc, another term in Cormac's Glossary for Imbolc (Hamp 1979/80: 109-11). Because of this, there may be grounds to suspect a link between purity, milk, and the holiday of Imbolc. According to Cormac's Glossary, Imbolc was "the time the sheep's milk comes. milking i.e. the milk that is milked" (Stokes 1868, 127). However, other scholars have rejected this explanation, instead choosing to argue that this may be a false etymology based on , meaning 'sheep', and melg, meaning 'milk' (Ó Catháin 1995, 7; Hamp 1979/80, 106-07).

However, in 1752 the calendar was changed resulting in a loss of eleven days, meaning that Imbolc, and Saint Brigit's day, would have originally been held in what is now mid-February, a much more likely time for the ewes to begin their lambing (Ryder 1983, 679-80). If lambing was associated with Imbolc, Cormac's Glossary does not tell us what the role of the lactating sheep might have been (Ó Catháin 1995, 8).

Furthermore, there is no evidence for sheep having a ritual purpose among the Celtic speaking peoples (Powell 1958, 148). While Cormac may not have given us an entirely accurate account of the proceedings of the festival of Imbolc, he did help to reveal the important connection between milk and purity in the minds of the Irish during his time.

Milk and the Bethu Brigte

It should come as no surprise then that a festival associated with purity would come to have an association with Saint Brigit. Of the forty-six miracles in the Bethu Brigte, six of them are concerned with milk. Milk is used a tool to promote the purity of Brigit and to promote her claims by showing her control over such an economically important commodity.[4] For Brigit, as with any saint, purity was an essential part of her personality An example of this can be seen in §5 of Bethu Brigte, when she was nursed by a white cow with red ears due to the impurity of the druid's food. Other saints nourished by mystical kine include Cainneach (Plummer 1910, VSH I, I), Coemgen (Plummer 1910, VSH I,ii) and Enda (Plummer 1910, VSH II, xxii). In spite of these cows' special associations with purity, they did not seem to have any additional financial value above that of any other colour of cattle. While the price of cattle can never be fixed for a very long period, Kelly points out that a cumal (female slave) was often given the worth of three milch kine in the legal texts (1997, 58). One early Irish text claims that seven white kine with red ears were worth two cumals (Binchy 1978, CIH vi 2114.3), roughly the same price one would expect to have paid for milch kine. More specifically we cannot ignore the fact that the druid feeds her the milk on the grounds that his food is impure, implying that the cow is also a symbol of purity (Bethu Brigte §5).[5]

The white red-eared cow was a symbol of the other world in the Irish saga texts as well. Although we do not know if Brigit as a goddess possessed any such cattle, we do know that there was a close association with the Morrígan, who owned a herd of white red-eared cattle, and Midir who gambles for fifty of these kine in the Tochmarc Étaíne (Lucas 1989, 240-43).[6] However, as a saint, Brigit was not perceived of as being a part of the pagan past. Indeed, the very reason why the druid was nourishing the child on the cow is because, as a pagan, the food that he produced was impure.

The meaning of having a Christian saint nourished by a symbol of the other world is intriguing. It occurs as Brigit was being weaned, presumably off her mother's milk, which was itself a symbol of purity (Hamp 1979/80: 111-12). She could not digest normal food because an impure druid offered it to her; the seemingly illogical choice to remedy this problem was to have the Christian child fed by a symbol strongly associated with the non-Christian other world. Whether this was the result of Christian syncretisation of a pagan symbol or whether the Christian authors were simply using a symbol of wealth and purity into the texts, we cannot know. It has been argued the white red-eared cow, sometimes associated with pre-Christian goddesses, has become a heavenly cow in the hagiography. Its dispersal of pure and heavenly milk seems to be symbolic of the milk of salvation which was equaled by Brigit's faith (Bray 2000, 295-96).

Interestingly, the druid, despite his apparent knowledge of the holiness of Brigit, only converts after Brigit feeds his guests with the butter of one and a half churnings (§12). Brigit's miraculous churning puts the druid into Brigit's debt. In return he abandons his pagan beliefs and agrees to be baptized and to never leave Brigit again. His conversion after receiving the butter, even though he was well aware of her spiritual importance indicates that his conversion helps him to pay a debt.

The purity of milk seems to have been an important symbol in the Christian faith. Milk appearing as a symbol of purity occurs when as a child Brigit was bathed with milk as was appropriate to 'the brightness and sheen of her chastity' (Stokes 1890, 184.92). We have no evidence of widespread bathing of children in milk until 1171 CE, when Henry II held a church council in Cashel which demanded that children be baptized in churches by priests and states:

For it was formerly the custom in various parts of Ireland that immediately a child was born, the father or some other person immersed it three times in water and, if it was the child of a rich man, he immersed it three times in milk and after that they threw that water and milk into drains or other unclean places (translated in: Lucas 1989, 6-7).

This bathing may have been a secular practice, and was not necessarily baptism (Lucas 1989, 7). However, the washing of the child in this manner bore a remarkable similarity to baptism, and was almost certainly a form of washing and thus purification. Whether bathing in milk was a secular or religious behavior, the practice was obviously one that was enough of a concern to the church that the practice was banned.

As well as symbolising Brigit's purity, milk has a close tie to healing. Milk as a tool of healing is not confined to just Saint Brigit; for example, in the Book of Lecan milk is described as a cure for poison darts (Cohen 1977, 123). Brigit herself used milk as a tool for healing, as in this episode from the Bethu Brigte:

'Is there anything in the world that you would desire?' said Brigit. 'There is' she said, 'if I do not have fresh milk, I will die now.' Brigit calls a girl and said, 'Bring to me my own cup, out of which I drink, filled with water. Bring it concealed on your person. It was brought to her then, and she blessed it so that it was warm fresh milk so that she was instantly better when she tasted it. So that those are two miracles at the same moment: that is changing the milk from water and healing the woman.(Bethu Brigte §24)[7]

In addition to an obviously being a version of Christ turning water to wine (John 2: 1-11), this miracle also illustrates milk being used to heal. Brigit's ability to control dairy products ensured not only healing and nurturing, but also that there would be bountiful supplies of food.

Transforming milk into dairy products is an extremely difficult process, in addition to which animal husbandry has never been an easy process. Questions such as how many calves to keep and how many to cull, were difficult to answer, largely because there were so many variables, such as the weather or the possibility of raids that could considerably impact on the well-being of the herd. Bad weather in particular was difficult because harsh conditions might mean that there was not enough feed to keep all the calves alive.


The Brigidine Claim to Cell Laisre

In one episode in the Bethu Brigte, the authority that milk production can bring is illustrated dramatically in an incident involving Saint Patrick. Lassar has milked and killed a milch ewe so that she could provide a feast for Brigit. When Patrick arrives there is not enough food for them all; 'There is no food save for twelve loaves, and a small amount of milk that you have blessed and one lamb that has been cooked for you.' (Bethu Brigte §44)[8]. However, in spite of this shortage, when they eat there is enough food for them all.

While seems to be a version of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the emphasis on dairy aspects is striking. It is clearly stated that the ewe had just been milked, and that a little bit of milk has been blessed. Also being demonstrated is Brigit's virtue. Hospitality was an extremely important virtue to the Irish that brought prestige to its giver (Bray 1992, 109). Lucas points out that milk was especially important to this hospitality as it consistently receives high placement on lists of food items for guests (1960-62, 19). Finally, it must be stated that this miracle has a functional aspect: a claim to a church at this site, for it ends with Lassar giving Brigit a church at Cell Laisre; and the story ends by claiming that Brigit is venerated at this site.

While it is clear that a claim to a church for Brigit is the point of this miracle, it is the background to that claim that is interesting. In order for Brigit to successfully make the claim, she needs to show that there is legitimacy in that claim. Lassar is depicted as actually giving the church to Brigit, which gives Brigit a legal and human claim to the location. Brigit's claim to the church receives verification when she displays her ability to affect the production of food on that land. While being able to do this does not always indicate a claim to a certain area it would seem in this case to indicate that her claim to this church is both human and divine. Saint Patrick does not make either human or divine claim to this area, so he is not credited with the food production, nor given the church. His presence, as well as being a catalyst for the miracle itself, serves to validate the claim being made by the Brigidine cult.



Milk then was of central importance in the Brigidine vitae. Her associations with milk are established at childhood, where it helps to establish her purity, and thus her status as a saint. Furthermore, her ability to produce an abundance of milk and dairy products continued to prove her purity, as well as providing a means for her biographers to claim status for their patron. By depicting Brigit as a master of such a crucial element of the early Irish economy, the cult was able to lay claim to status and land. By keeping others in Brigit's debt the Brigidine cult was able to maintain their claims for Brigit's high status within Ireland.