Before There Was Wonder Woman, There Was St. Brigid

Photo: Waring Abbott/Getty Images.

An early Irish legend tells the story of a sermon that St. Patrick (yes, that St. Patrick) once gave that was so dull that one of his listeners fell asleep. While she napped, she experienced a vision from God and woke to share what she'd seen with the rest of the congregation. This woman not only demonstrated that she was in closer communication with God than Patrick, but that his sermon was boring to boot. The woman from this story came to be known as St. Brigid, a patron saint of Ireland who straddled Paganism and Christianity and defended the plights of women. But today, in honor of her feast day, we can see that she also serves as a reminder that, sometimes, women have to make role models where we can find them.

Before Brigid was a saint, it's believed that she was a Celtic Pagan goddess, even though recorded history doesn't have much to say about her as a Pagan deity. Practicing Pagans actually still invoke her during healing and fertility rites and celebrate her during springtime. Who we call St. Brigid today is likely the result of several other, lesser known Pagan goddesses who were collapsed into a single figure as time went on, says Jennifer Paxton, PhD, clinical assistant professor of history at the Catholic University of America.

Whether or not Brigid originated in nature-based faiths, she held onto some supernatural powers after becoming a figure in Christianity. Dr. Paxton says that, in addition to the so-called "normal" miracles St. Brigid was said to have performed, like healing and other acts commonly associated with other Christian saints, it was believed that Brigid could also control the rising water in a river. "That’s the sort of thing that a Pagan goddess could do," Dr. Paxton says.

Despite the fact that Christianity was already a presence in the country, many people still remembered the powers that Pagan deities were supposed to possess. So it was important to the congregants that St. Brigid reflect the values of both faiths.

Brigid's story is not one about Irish political history or even religion, necessarily — it's about the making of an unlikely role model for women.

There may have been a real woman named Brigid on whom these stories were based, Dr. Paxton says, but Brigid's accomplishments grew greater (and more fanciful) as time went on in order to inflate the reputation of the monastery she founded in Kildare, Ireland (according to religious legend, at least). St. Brigid was essentially the representative symbol of the church in that region, and in a time when churches wielded political authority, it was in church leaders' interest to make their saint look extremely powerful.

As tales depicting Brigid as both a divine and supernatural force continued to spread, people got a clear message: St. Brigid was as close to a superhero as you could get — and she made the church of Kildare look, as Dr. Paxton put it, pretty badass.

But Brigid's story is not one about Irish political history or even religion, necessarily — it's about the making of an unlikely role model for women. Back in the middle ages, if you were a woman and you weren't a nun or an abbess, you probably didn't have much status outside of the home. So, a prominent female figure who wielded as much (albeit magical) power as St. Brigid did would have been a big deal.

Women looked to St. Brigid as an advocate and protector, someone they believed could defend them against harassment and assist them through pregnancy, Dr. Paxton says. (Within nature-based faiths, she is still believed to possess those powers.)

Ultimately, Brigid showed women at the time that they could be men's equals — they just might need to take an unconventional route to be seen as such. Sure, Brigid's most likely a figure of legend, but who says people need to be real to be inspiring? As Dr. Paxton put it: "Let me tell you, Wonder Woman helped [me] growing up."

Nowadays, we can look to wholly real women for inspiration (ahem, Ida B. Wells, Marie Curie, Sandra Day O'Connor, the list goes on). But if you're in need of some magical feminist inspiration, it might be worth adding St. Brigid to your list of sheroes.

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