I stepped down onto the rocky bank of the creek and looked down the flow of it, and I knew I was in a sacred place. It was striking, with the mountains arcing upward from the creek itself, trees lining either side, boulders jutting up from the bed of the stone-laden creek. The water rushed so loud over the rocks that we nearly had to shout to speak to each other, and the air was warm and thick with summer. I breathed in the fishy coolness of the water and the leafy scent of trees and water plants.
I greeted my friends and their little boy, got my kids what they needed to go into the water, and slipped out of my dress, laying it on a nearby boulder. I stepped into the water and shivered at the shock of its coldness against my hot feet. The water was so clear you could see straight to the bottom, and one of my friends pointed out the part that was deepest. I eased myself into it, wincing as the cold water wrapped itself around my pelvis and hips, my stomach, my chest. I curled up my knees and sank down to my shoulders in the water, paddling to stay put against the current. I felt refreshed here, playful and pure-hearted like a child.
At some point, I was swimming solo in the deepest part of the creek, and an urge swept into me. Swim against the current, it said. See if you’re stronger. So I swam against the current, the swiftest part, using all my arm strength to cut through the rushing water and advance to the middle of the stream. There, two branches of the creek converged at an outcrop of rock just barely risen above the water. As I neared the rocks, I felt exhilarated.
I’m strong, I thought. I can fight the current. I can push against it and go wherever I want. A dormant part of me — a part I hadn’t realized I’d laid to rest in my 20s during a period when I was struggling to control some harmful, disruptive behaviors — woke up. I told myself, I don’t have to ‘behave.’ I don’t have to be mild and passive. I don’t have to go wherever the current of life pulls me. I can do that, if I want, but I don’t have to. I can take my life into my own hands, fight the current, and go wherever I want. It’s permitted. And I’m strong enough.
It cracked the bright, hot core of me open, and until then I hadn’t realized that a shell had formed around my essential nature like a cocoon. It was a part of me that I’d been told for years was immoderate and needed to be tempered. And now it was blinking its eyes open, and I saw it for what it was: a bold, courageous, battle-ready heart, a heart that saw that sometimes risks were worth the rewards. It was a heart that had been battered but never beaten, and I was proud of it.
When I reached the forked center of the creek, a beam of sunlight was shining over it, and something bright red glimmered just under the surface of the rippling water on a shelf of rock. I grabbed it. It was a flat red sandstone, roughly in the shape of a heart. It’s the heart of the creek, I thought. I knew, very certainly, that it was a gift. When I held it, I felt supported; I felt secure; I felt whole.
I sensed a spirit connected to the water had given it to me, but I didn’t know what to make of them. Throughout that summer, I returned to the creek to feel that spirit out, to get to know them. There’s an old iron furnace further down the creek that must have been in use nearly two hundred years ago, based on the ages of similar furnaces I’ve seen in my region. These furnaces burned coal manufactured from timber in the woods to pull iron from ore. The liquid iron would run in channels from the furnace into molds laid across the small surrounding field and cool into pig iron.
Blacksmithy — the use of fire to transform raw, wild matter into a useful tool — seemed significant. The water, too, had this purifying, galvanizing effect: sharply cold and endlessly, loudly rushing. It cracked me open, my heart burning bright and fierce. Courage, fire, fortitude, transformation: these were the words that came to mind. The spirit felt large and powerful and feminine: a Goddess, then. For a long time, She was nameless to me, but I visited Her waters frequently to worship and commune with Her. I burned incense for Her; I poured libations of beer and homemade kvas; I crumbled bread into Her waters; I sang to Her. It seemed to me that brewed and baked things were appropriate and appreciated gifts. As time went on, I began to think She might be Brigantia.
Her name, Brigantia, comes from the Proto-Celtic root *brig-, meaning “high” or “exalted.” There are two Celtic tribes that share this etymology: the Brigantes of northern England, who worshipped Brigantia, and the Brigantii of the Alps near Lake Constance. The Brigantii lived in a fortified settlement called Brigantion, renamed Brigantium when it was given the status of a Roman municipality. Sometime later, after being destroyed and then occupied by the Alemanni, it became known as Bregenz. Northern England, too, is a highland region, populated by the Pennines and the Cheviot Hills.
In northern England, She was syncretized with Minerva during the Roman occupation. Sheena McGrath writes, “What with the Gorgon, spear, shield, and helmet, Brigantia is clearly being assimilated to Minerva” (33). Minerva was one of the patron Gods of the Severans, the Roman imperial family at the time of their invasion of Britain, and icons of Brigantia appear in northern England at this time. Clearly, She was important to the Brigantes and therefore important to Rome. But it seems unlikely that Brigantia and Minerva would be syncretized if they didn’t share similar qualities, such as high status within their cults, defensive power, and perhaps wisdom. McGrath also explains that “Healing water appeared in the dedication to the ‘nymph Brigantia’, which paired her with Salus, the health-goddess” (62). While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Brigantia is the same as, or an earlier version of, the Irish Brigid, the latter also has connections to holy waters and healing, weaponry and martial action, and political authority.
My identification of Brigantia at my sacred creek feels right: flowing water in the highlands; a connection to blacksmithy/weaponry; fire in the head and heart. I don’t believe that Brigantia is the only God of that forest and creek. Many spirits and Gods can emanate from a sacred place. We simply perceive the Gods and spirits Who intend for us to see Them, and These are the ones with Whom we can build sacred relationships. Brigantia, for whatever reason, appeared to me then and there to worship and serve Her, and I’m grateful. I can seek Her out and commune with Her there, worship Her, learn from Her, and serve Her.
She has helped me find myself again, to recover a piece of myself that I’d locked away out of fear and frustration. Over the years, I’ve healed in many ways, and it’s now safe for that part of myself to reemerge and reintegrate into the rest of my being. I have the red heart of the creek on my Matronae shrine, along with a piece of slag I found at another iron furnace farther north in the same forest. When I hold it, it reminds me of the strength and passion that burns in me. It reminds me that I can fight as well as anyone, and I have as much a right to do so as anyone. The fire is in me, and Brigantia is its fosterer and guide.
McGrath, Sheena. Brigantia: Goddess of the North. Boreal Publications, 2015.