One of the main roles of Brighid is that of healer. The various images throughout my house depict Brighid the healer in a number of ways: holding what appears to be a knife, which may denote the preparation of herbs or even surgery; holding a dandelion, a healing herb par excellence and often known as her flower; holding a baby in the role of midwife.
She is not the only Celtic deity of healing. Dian Cecht is the physician-god, and was accompanied on the battlefield by his healing-god children: Miach, the god of miracles; Airmid, the goddess of healing plants; and Ochtriullach, a god seldom mentioned, who joined his three siblings and his father in healing incantations. Perhaps oddly, I also invoke Aoghus Og for healing, particularly when it comes to sleep, as he is the god of dreams as well as love, springtime and growth.
River- and well-goddesses were often associated with healing, and had healing shrines. While I haven’t invoked the local manifestation of Boann for this purpose, I suppose one could.
In summary: There are quite a few healing gods, which makes perfect sense. We tend to view the world of the ancestors as eminently healthful and pure, following what I’ll call the natural fallacy: closer to nature = healthy. This isn’t necessarily or even often so. Mortality rates were high, particularly for children. A virus, a parasite, a broken bone, even a cut or scrape that leads to tetanus or gangrene: the world was full of risks, sans the benefits of modern medicine. Yes, they had herbal preparations, but their effectiveness is nowhere near as consistent as that of refined drugs. There was little comprehension of vectors of infection — utterly understandable when you realize that so much of health is dependent on things we cannot see with the naked eye. There were no antibiotics other than moldy bread, no modern anesthesia to put you under for surgery, save for whiskey or poppies.
Healing — if it did occur — involved a good deal of pain and a whole lot of luck. No wonder the ancients frequently petitioned the gods for health. Nature, alas, is not forgiving on the individual scale; whether you live or die has little meaning in a system that operates on a planetary basis.
In Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” the oiler — the strongest man on the lifeboat — drowns after the boat overturns. And so it is with physical existence. Do everything right, and you still may sicken and die thanks to genetics, chance, a misstep, a banana peel. There are vegan yoga teachers who die of cancer, and people with various strikes against them — smoking or obesity, for example — who live to a ripe old age. In that light, you can appreciate why the ancient Romans held Fortuna — Lady Luck, with her rudder — as the mightiest of gods.
“Health” is an Old English word, and it ultimately derives from the proto-Indo European “kailo,” meaning “whole, uninjured, of good omen.” Etymologically, it’s linked to the words “hale,” “whole” and “holy.” To be healthy is to be physically complete — and blessed by good fortune. Omens, of course, are signs of divine inclination, also known as luck.
In a world in which germs and genetics were little understood, illness was often seen as divine disfavor. This belief still persists in some quarters; not too long ago, people spoke of cancer only in hushed voices, with the unspoken assumption that the sufferer must have done something to royally piss off Jesus. These days, we often excise divine influence from blame; rather, we tend to blame the sufferer for bad habits, even bad thoughts. If we do not witness these habits ourselves, well, they must be hidden somewhere deep and dim. There has to be a reason, we surmise, with the unspoken assumption that nature, left to its own devices, means perfect health.
Our bodies are amazing, miraculous even. With the multitude of cell division that occurs daily, so few turn cancerous. With the multitude of operating systems, so few go awry — but those few can dance the samba of life and death. Nature is full of opportunities — also known as mistakes and challenges. It’s an open, ever-changing system, which is what makes life — not one particular life, or even one particular species — so resilient. Life doesn’t play favorites; it plays a long game.
Where, then, are the gods in all this? As a polytheist, I believe that the gods are subject to the universal laws of the cosmos as much as we are. But they do care. Brighid hears your healing prayers, and notices the clooties hung on the branch. She, or Jesus, or whomever god you are pledged to, will try to tip the hand in your favor, but that’s not always possible. Sometimes, the little push the gods provide — whether through what we call “magic” or via inspiration — is enough to effect healing.
And sometimes you’ve just been dealt a bad hand. They will listen, and offer comfort or advice, but that is all. They cannot reshuffle the cards for you.
We can’t always get what we want — healing included — because the universe isn’t personal. It’s not about you. Rather, it’s a beautiful and terrifying system with its own logic, and we are simply another particle in the heap. The universe doesn’t mean us ill, but it doesn’t notice us, either. It doesn’t tape our crayon depictions of sun and family to its refrigerator, or attend our soccer games or staff meetings, or hand out red ribbons. And if that sounds a bit mean, realize that we don’t do such things for our cells, or the host of bacteria that reside in us and make our systems work. It’s simply a matter of scale.
The gods, being smaller parts of said universe, can notice us and often do, but they aren’t the whole. Only the whole is the whole — and, as such, totally beyond our limited comprehension. It’s important to strive and to learn about the multiverse, but equally important to remember our essential ignorance and our tiny place in a complicated vastness.