“Goddess Disguised in a Threadbare Cloak”
By Linda Iles
Isis, Lotus of Alexandria Lyceum
Sir James Frazer wrote of St. Brigid: “An old heathen goddess of fertility, disguised in a threadbare Christian cloak.” – “The Golden Bough”
The forms of Brigid’s name are many. She is known as Brigid or Brighid in Ireland, Bride in Scotland, Brigantia in northern Great Britain, Brighid and Bride in the middle and southern areas of Great Britain, and Brigandu in Brittany. Other forms of her name include: Brede, Brighde, Bridey, Briggidda, Brig, Brigit, Bridge and Brigitte. The name of Brighid may come from the Sanskrit ‘brihati’, which is an honorific reserved for Deity. Her name is translated today as ‘exalted’ or ‘lofty’ Traditionally the name of Brighid has been interpreted variously as ‘bright’ and even as ‘fiery arrow’ (‘breo-aigit’). Her bright arrows bring illumination to the spiritual seeker and inspiration to artist and poet, which is described as a ‘fire in the head.’
Although She is known as a fire and solar Goddess, Brigid is also associated with rivers and often particularly with wells. Originally (and still) a Goddess, She came to be cloaked in the guise of Christian sainthood, and in this manner Her veneration survived. Throughout Great Britain and Ireland there are many wells named after Brigid. When pools of water appeared without an apparent source, ancient people thought these waters originated from springs the Otherworld – they arose from within the‘oimbelc’, the belly or womb of Mother earth. Their waters could impart knowledge and healing. The waters of different wells offered an array of virtues. One might restore sight to the blind or cure diseases of the eyes, one might have the power to bring an individual back from insanity or to cure arthritis, one might make a barren woman fertile.
Tobar Bríd na hÉireann
“The Holy Wells of Ireland” by author Patrick Logan lists fifteen wells dedicated specifically to St. Brigid in eleven counties. Holy wells proverbially dot the landscape of the land of Ireland. Those dedicated to Brigid are named “Tobar Bhríde” in Irish Gaelic. They are still actively visited and attended to. Two wells of special significance are located in the western portion of County Clare. One example is St. Brigid’s Well at Liscannor, which still receives many votive offerings left by visitors. A ‘prayer round’ circles this well and the nearby cemetery. Once a pilgrim has visited spots on the prayer round, water is drunk from the well. The other is located in Kildare situated a few miles outside of the town. Both are still visited regularly today, St. Brigid’s Holy Well draws large numbers, particularly on St. Brigid’s Day, February 1st. St. Brigid is called “Mary of the Gael.” She is one of the best loved saints in Ireland.
The well at Faughart, according to tradition, is located at the birthplace of Brigid. This well is located near an old cemetery, like the one at Liscannor. Here, pilgrims recite the rosary as they enter the grounds of the cemetery. They walk three times clockwise, circling round the ancient ash tree which stands by the ruins of the old parish church. Afterwards, they continues to the well to kneel in prayer before walking three times clockwise around the well and drinking the water. Along the pilgrim path there are three stones, called the Head Stone, the Eye Stone and the Knee Stone. At the Head Stone they place their head onto it, praying for cure of any ailment of the head. At the Eye Stone they bathe their eyes with the well water. At the Knee Stone they kneel in the marks on the stone, praying for health and healing.
The well of St. Brigid at Castlemagner is situated across the river near the ruins of Castlemagner castle in the northern portion of County Cork. It is believed to have been used by the druids, dedicated to Bride, daughter of the Dagda. The well was refurbished in 1771, and given a cover by a man named Eoin Egan of Subulter. He had been a cripple, and upon making pilgrimage to the well was miraculously cured. The stone covering over the well is shaped to resemble a beehive with at the eastern side. The left side of the opening hosts the best preserved effigy in the world of Shíla-Ní-Gig, an ancient symbol of female fertility which was brought by Eoin Egan from the ruins of an 8th century church in Subulter. On the right hand side of the opening is an stone carving of the Archangel Michael once the centre keystone on the arch of the main entrance to Castlemagner castle, dated approximately to 1200 AD.
An interesting quote dating back over one hundred years ago comes from the work of Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde, in her book “Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland,” 1887:
“the last-named well is the Bride’s Well, Tober Breda (the holy well of St. Bridget). There is a stone oratory here of fabulous antiquity, with a doorway fashioned after the Egyptian model, sloping towards the top; also an ancient white-thorn covered with votive offerings, amongst which one may see many a long lock of the splendid dark hair of the Irish southern women, who adopt this antique traditional symbol of self-sacrifice to show their gratitude to the patron saint.”
Another quote from “Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered,” by Norman Lockyer reveals more about the traditional practices as they had survived into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries:
“I have often inquired of your tenants what they themselves thought of their pilgrimages to the wells of Kill-Aracht, Tobbar Brighde, Tobbar Muir, near Elphin, Moor, near Castlereagh, where multitudes annually assembled to celebrate what they, in broken English, termed Patterns (Patron’s days); and when I pressed a very old man, Owen Hester, to state what possible advantage the expected to derive from the singular custom of frequenting in particular such wells as were contiguous to an old blasted oak, or an upright hewn stone, and what the meaning was of the yet more singular custom of sticking rags on the branches of such trees and spitting on them, his answer, and the answer of the oldest men, was that their ancestors always did it, and that it was a preservation against Geasa Draoidecht, i.e., the sorceries of the Druids, and that their cattle were preserved by it from infectious disorders; that the daoini maithe, i.e., the fairies, were kept in good humour by it; and so thoroughly persuaded were they of the sanctity of these Pagan practices that they would travel bareheaded and barefooted from ten to twenty miles for the purpose of crawling on their knees round these wells, upright stones, and oak trees, westward, as the sun travels, some three times, some six, some nine, and so on in uneven numbers until their voluntary penances were completely fulfilled.”
The fifteen wells dedicated to Brigid listed in Patrick Logan’s book “The Holy Wells of Ireland” are:
St Bride’s Well, Kilbride parish, Co. Mayo
St. Brigid’s Well, Ardagh, Co. Longford
St. Brigid’s Well, Buttevant, Co. Cork
St. Brigid’s Well, Castlemanger, Co. Cork
St. Bridid’s Well, Chiffony, Co. Sligo
St. Brigid’s Well, Dunteer, Co. Louth
St. Bridid’s Well, Faughart, Co. Louth
St. Brigid’s Well, Inismagrath parish, Co. Leitrim
St. Brigid’s Well, Killinagh parish, Co. Cavin
St. Brigid’s Well, Kilranelagh parish, Co. Carlow
St. Brigid’s Well, Liscannor, Co. Clare
St. Brigid’s Well, Marlerstown ,Co Louth
St. Brigid’s Well, Mullingar, Co. Westmeath
St. Brigid’s Well, Outeragh parish,Co. Leitrim
St. Brigid’s Well, Tully, Co. Kildare
Ireland has as many as three thousand holy wells, according to surveys. Many of their names have been changed over to Christian saints, so there may well have been a deal more than the fifteen listed above dedicated to Brigid. Of those wells dedicated to Brigid not listed above, there are two known to me. One is St. Brigid’s well in Clondalkin in south Dublin. The Christian attribution is believed to have been established by the 5th century Irish Christian Abbess Brigid. This St Brigid’s well is locally venerated in Clondalkin throughout the year but particularly on her feast day of Imbolc or ‘Là Fhéill Bhrìghde’ on February 1st. The well water is believed to have curative properties particularly for sore eyes and the drying rags and other votive objects are tied to an Ash Tree, the original tree, according to surviving records was a Whitethorn. During the 1990’s, road improvements impacted the underlying water source or spring. The well is now covered and a channel has been created to duplicate the original stream outlet, to the north.
The other well not included on this list is located in County Carlow in southeastern Ireland.
The Well of Brigid at Clonegal Castle
The Well of Vision
Over the years local tradition has survived concerning three wells in the direct vicinity of Clonegal Castle, the foundation centre of the Druid Clan of Dana. These wells had a connection with the ruined Barragh Church, and a now vanished monastery, both on the outskirts of the general region of the village of Clonegal, and the ruins of the old Abbey located on the grounds of Clonegal Castle. Accounts of the three wells sometimes vary, but all agree that the sites of these wells are very, very old. The most well known to members of the Fellowship of Isis is that of the Well of Brigid, situated in the Temple of Isis in the lower level of Clonegal Castle, home of the three co-founders of the Fellowship of Isis.
This famous well is located in the “Chapel of the Well” of the Temple of Isis at Clonegal Castle. It dates from Neolithic times, and is believed to have had Druidic associations. Some local accounts say that St. Brigid visited this well and that she drank from it’s water. This led to the founding of the former and now ruined Old Abbey that is located on the grounds of the castle. The Old Abbey ruins, called the “Dana Temple” by Lawrence Durdin-Robertson, were the site of the Druid initiations that led to the founding of the Druid Clan of Dana. The water of the Well of Brigid is known to have curative properties and to maintain good health for those who drink it. It has often been used to anoint during Fellowship of Isis rituals to promote reception of psychic vision.
Wedding Eve and Kingship
Ireland is not the only place where Brigid, ‘Saint disguised as Goddess’ is well loved. In Scotland she was named ‘Bride’. When folklorists of the nineteenth century began working to collect the traditional tales, charms and prayers, they found many that feature Bride. Sacred wells named after Bride, known as ‘Bride’s Wells’ exist all over Scotland from Wigton to Aberdeen. Bride’s Well at Pitlochry was known as ‘the place’ of pilgrimage for cure of respiratory diseases. Southwestern Scotland at Sanquhar hosts a Bride’s Well.
According to tradition, at Beltane young women would go to Bride’s Well and place nine white stones within it. The use of white pebbles is worth noting – in Scotland white pebbles were used as talismans put into graves, a tradition that was carried by early Christians in the area. Bride’s Well at Corgarrf (located between Braemar and Tomintoul) was a traditional pilgrimage spot for brides-to-be. The eve before their wedding, the brides-to-be would go to the well along with their bridesmaids, who would bathe the bride’s feet and upper body with water from this well. This ritual bath was thought to ensure fertility – thus offspring would be produced by the marriage.
Among the early inhabitants of Scotland, the Picts, “Bruide,” “Brude” or “Bridei” are forms of a name connected to the Pictish throne. It is believed they are forms of the name of the Goddess Brigid. The ‘Bruide Name’ was given to each Pictish king, who was supposed to be imbued with and manifest the essence of this great Goddess upon assuming the mantle of kingship. The site of Abernathy in Fife was the central sacred locale of the Pictish and it was dedicated to Bruide (or Bride) in ancient times. In the sixth century AD it was dedicated to St. Bride by Nechtan-Mor, who offered Abernathy to God and to Brigid, making her the patron saint of the entire Abernathy territory.
Circle and Cross
The Welsh called her Bride and Ffraid. In Wales there are several sites associated with Bride or ‘Ffraid’. as she is sometimes called in Wales, including St. Bride’s Bay in Pembrokeshire. The village of St. Bride’s is situated near the southern end of St. Bride’s Bay. Local tradition states that St. Bride sailed from Ireland about 500ce with a group of women and established a nunnery here. The most famous well in this area is not dedicated specifically to St. Bride, though it is located in her region. It is found at St David’s.
The well is situated just outside of the village on the cliff tops overlooking St. Bride’s Bay. The well pre-dates its dedication to St. Non, mother of St. David. The field by St. Non’s Well contains ruins of a very ancient well chapel, thought to be the oldest existing religious structure in Wales, with a marked orientation of north/south, differing from the churches of the region which are generally oriented east/west.
Researchers feel this attests to a pre-Christian origin. Surrounding both the well and the ruins of the chapel are five standing stones, possibly the remains of a stone circle, which may have been incorporated into the now ruined well chapel. Four of these stones mark the directions and one may have been built into the east wall of the chapel itself. It bears a carving of an equal-armed encircled cross known as St. Non’s Cross – a symbol which may date back to Neolithic times.
St. Non’s Well has long history as a pilgrimage site, the well is associated particularly with healing of the eyes, and Bride was a Goddess of vision (both mystic and physical) and healing. Nearby is the chapel with its stained glass windows dedicated to St. Catherine, St. Margaret, St. Non and — St. Bridget! Local tradition says if one cuts out a piece of turf from the ground nearby and stands on it, one will ‘see’ the invisible Blessed Isles of the Shining Ones to the west in the sea.
There are many churches dedicated to St. Bride and San Ffraid in Wales, including Llansanffraid Glan Conwy, Llansanffraid Glyn Ceiriog, St. Bridget’s in Dyserth. Bride or Ffraid can be found in villages named “Llansantffraid” and “Llansanffraid.” (The Cymric term “Llan” means a church settlement, and is usually followed by a saint’s name.)
In Great Britain
Bride of the White Flame and the Red
Brighid is one of the primary Goddesses associated with Glastonbury. A holy well at Glastonbury was dedicated to her. Bride’s Mound is an ancient site located in the vicinity of Glastonbury. It is situated in the west of Glastonbury, near Beckery and the base of Wearyall Hill. This mound has a long history of sacred activity. It has been considered a gateway to Avalon. Pilgrims from both Ireland and Wales would stop here to perform vigil through the night. The Great Goddess appeared here to King Arthur. Mary, with her son Jesus and even St. Brigid of Ireland are all said to have stayed here.
Both William of Amesbury (1135) and John of Glastonbury (1400) recorded that St. Bridget visited Glastonbury in 488 AD, spending time at Bride’s Mound. According to tradition, a spring named St. Bride’s Well, marked by a stone and a thorn tree on which women would tie rags or clouties as late as the 1920s existed in Glastonbury. The stone marker for this well has been moved.
A well dedicated to Brighid was located in London – St. Bride’s Well. It was located on Fleet Street close to the southeastern corner of the property of the church of St. Bride’s, one of the oldest churches in London, and like several other ancient sites was probably built upon a pre-existing shrine to the Goddess Brighid. The well was built over during the erection of a modern building, but existing records make it clear that the well was still accessible until sometime in the nineteen century.
Other sites that bear the name of Brighid can be found on the Isle of Man, which has ‘Bride’ or ‘Kirk Bride’ a parish five miles north of Ramsey near Point Ayre. There is a 14th century church at Bridstow in Hereford, dedicated to St. Brighid. In Cornwall there is a St. Bride’s Well at Tregaminion at Morvah and a St. Bride’s Well at Lezant, situated on a private estate near Landue, Kernow.
Clouties, Clooties or Cloughties
Prayers to the Goddess
Sacred wells frequently have small pieces of cloth tied to the branches of a tree nearby, or to the branches of bushes that grew there. These strips of cloth are called ‘clooties’ (Scottish: small clothes), also ‘clouties’ or ‘cloughties.’ They were tied onto the branches after washing, bathing or drinking from the well. There is a belief that these form a magical link between the cloth and the person who left it, forming a tie between the petitioner and the healing virtue of the well. The cloth disintegrates in the wind and the rain, releasing the illness, so that the petitioner’s illnesses are cured. Clooties, are not the only offerings left behind. It is common to find rosaries, candles, coins, crosses, flowers and medals left as offerings. In ancient times offerings to Brigid at wells included jewelry and other votive offerings made of brass silver or gold.
Wells of the Three Mothers
Spring and Summer, Dawn and Night
The traditions of these wells devoted to St. Brigid preserve some of the practices of the old beliefs, a faith that venerated the Goddess as The Great Mother of All. Other traditions throughout Europe associated a Goddess or Goddesses with wells. The Norns, Triple Goddesses of Fate, were guardians of the well at the roots of the World Tree, Yggdrasil. The Celtic tribes dedicated sacred wells to the Matronae, the Three Mothers.
On Midsummer’s Eve and on the Eve of Beltane, water is taken from sacred wells and drunk an hour after midnight in Denmark at a holy well located on the grounds of the church, Øster Nykirke north of Kollemorten, where a holy well was devoted to Saint Peter and another well located at Karup Church, which features a picture of the Virgin Mary, that could shed tears; and, like the pilgrimage done at St. Brigid’s Well in Faughart, Ireland, everything is done there in threes. Supplicants must always walk deisil (to the right, sunwise) circling the well three times. After the appropriate gestures have been made, the supplicant takes three sips of well water and leaves an offering at the site. Although there are instances, like at the wells in Denmark where the hour after midnight is the time set aside for well side pilgrimages, there is another time of day that whose use for this purpose was widespread. “The particular times when it was considered most propitious for the sick to visit the wells appear anciently to have been at daybreak or sunrise.” – ‘Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered,’ by Norman Lockyer.
Researchers Walter L. Brenneman and Mary G. Brenneman in their book “Crossing the Circle at the Holy Wells of Ireland” have shown these sites generally include three important features: (1) a well, spring, or other source of water (2) an ancient and sacred tree (3) a hill, mound or standing stone. The trees were often a type that was held sacred by Druids. These included oak, holly, rowan, hazel, ash, yew and thorn.“The common Gaelic phrase—Am bheil thu dol don chlachan – Are you going to the stones? – by which the Scottish Highlander still enquires at a neighbour if he is bound for church, seems in itself no doubtful tradition of ancient worship within the monolithic ring.” – ‘Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered,’ by Norman Lockyer.
Brighid and the Number Three
Quickening of the Triple Muse
“The important Celtic feast of Candlemas fell on February 2nd. It was held to mark the quickening of the year. In Ireland and the Highlands, February 2nd is, very properly, the day of St. Brigit, formerly the White Goddess, the quickening Triple Muse.” – Robert Graves, “The White Goddess”
On Imbolc, in Ireland and in Great Britain, people make Bride’s (or Brigit’s) Cross. Although they can be four armed, usually Brigit’s cross is three-armed forming a triskele, an ancient solar symbol.
In Irish folklore Brigid was the daughter of the the Dagda, the ’Good God’ or ’All Father’ of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The Dagda had three daughters who were all named Brigid, each of whom had a different aspect or area of patronage. Celtic Goddesses are commonly depicted in a grouping of three to become a “Triple Goddess.”
Traditionally both in Ireland and Great Britain, the three aspects of Brigid were: (1) Brigid the Patroness of Bards and Poets, and inventor of the Ogham (2) Brigid Patroness of Craftsmen, particularly associated with smithing and the hearth (3) Brigid the Patroness of Healers and Midwives.
Brighid, Patroness of Midwives was invoked at the door of any house where a woman was giving birth. Traditionally the midwife recited:
“Bride, Bride, come in!
Thy welcome is truly made,
Give thou relief to the woman,
And give thou the conception to the Trinity.
Hung over the cradle of a newborn child was a Cross of Brighid. Once a child was safely delivered it was “sained” by the midwife: three drops of water were placed on the child’s forehead, dedicating the child in the name of the Trinity. A candle was carried by the midwife around the bed sunwise three times. These certainly reflect the earlier veneration of Brighid the solar Goddess of healing wells.
The Coming of Bride at Imbolc
White Snow, Rushing Water
Brighid (Brigantia) had an associated with rivers along with a connection to wells, an inscription to her found at Irthington reads in part: “deae Nymphae Brigantiae.” The river Braint in Middlesex and Brant in Anglesey both bear a variation of her name. Sites where three streams came together were sacred to her. There are rivers that bear her name in Great Britain, Ireland and Wales. Among them, a Bride river in Dorset, and a Brent river in Great Britain; two rivers called Bride and a Brigit, Breedoge and a Breda river in Ireland, a Braint river in Wales.
How does a Goddess whose name is linked to light and fire become so closely associated with wells and rivers – with water? Fire and water are two elements so opposite in many ways, but they are inextricably linked in the creation of life. Brighid was a Goddess of Life and Motherhood. At Imbolc or Brigantia, she brought life back to the land, after receiving the scepter or rod of power from the Cailleach.
Traditional folktales relate the Cailleach kept Brighid prisoner, making her life wretched with harsh labor. None of this was known to the beautiful Angus, who was the son of Cailleach. He lived in the land of Everlasting Youth. Angus saw Brighid in a vision and fell deeply in love with her at once. He set his heart on finding her and marrying her. His mother the Cailleach knew if Brighid were freed, Cailleach would no longer rule the world with her harsh winter storms and cold. She would lose her power of sovereignty.
Although it was still winter, Angus borrowed three days from the summer months so that the sun appeared in a clear sky to melt the bitter snow. He searched hard and long, eventually arriving in the Grampian Mountains of northeastern Scotland where his mother the Cailleach lived. After a time, he heard a sweet, sad voice singing in the forest. Following her song, Angus found Brighid, the maiden of his vision. As he approached she looked at him and fell as deeply in love with him, as he was with her. According to the story, the day was February 1st. The date has been known as Bride’s Day from that day forth. Released from the harsh cold service of the Cailleach, Brighid’s warmth brought spring to the land. As she walked with Angus, snow drops, the flowers that herald the coming of spring, emerged from her footprints in the snow.
Her fire melts the deep snows and ice created by the touch of the Cailleach. Freed, the waters flow once more, nourishing the earth, filling rivers, streams, springs and wells. They soak deep into the earth giving new life to the soil and nourishing the seeds, buds and roots that lay hidden under the white mantle of the Cailleach. They spring to life under the gentle warmth of Brighid’s sun. Water as a mist, becomes the veil of Bride, her cloak alight with the light of her flame, creating a rainbow mist …
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Iles, Linda “Tara and Glastonbury: Mystical Pairing of Red and White,” article, published in Mirror of Isis, Lughnasadh, 2008
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Wise, Caroline, ‘The Alchemy of Isis’ from “The Call of Isis” printed by Neptune Press for Cesara Publications, 1993
Surviving traditional poetry, folklore and proverbs
About the Author: Linda Iles is an ordained priestess in the Fellowship of Isis and the Temple of Isis. She is certified and teaches as a head instructor in all branches of the Fellowship of Isis, including the Adepti Spiral, the College of Isis, Solar Alchemy of the FOI Priesthood, Noble Order of Tara and Druid Clan of Dana. Linda is a founding member of the Circle of Isis Advisory Board of the Fellowship of Isis, a member of the Circle of Isis FOI Central Website staff, and a founding member of the Temple of Isis, Geyserville Chapter of the Muses Symposium and Sister member of the Circle of Pelagia. She is a member of two of the Foundation Triad Unions of the Fellowship of Isis, the ArchDruid Union of the Druid Clan of Dana and Grand Commander Union of the Noble Order of Tara. Linda undertakes some of the editorial duties for the Mirror of Isis. She has been an active teacher, given presentations at FOI events in Los Angeles and Geyserville and contributed articles, poetry and illustrations for Fellowship of Isis publications since 1998.
All written material on this page is copyrighted © Linda Iles 2010 Photo on this page is copyrighted. © John Merron 2010