Who Milks the Cow on the Tor?

August 21, 2012

A recent visit to Glastonbury gave me a chance to see the image of a maid milking a cow into a pail, carved above a doorway to the last remnant of the fourteenth century church of St.Michael’s, the tower which crowns the summit of the Tor.  The depiction of what is often regarded as just a ‘mundane’, everyday activity actually conveys a wealth of associations in which ‘the mundane magic of the dairy’ has a celestial dimension, realised in traditions about the Milky Way and legends concerning a bounteous cow which gives inexhaustible supplies of milk before departing skywards or across the sea.  These themes are dealt with in more detail here: https://thegrammarofmatter.wordpress.com/till-the-cows-come-home-part-one-towards-a-natural-history-of-megaliths/.

I’m intrigued by the interpretation of this image as a depiction of St.Bridget in her role as guardian of the cows.  On the face of it it is perfectly consistent with the kaleidoscope of patterns which are recognisable when navigating the constellation formed by earthly practices and a cosmological dimension that includes rivers of milk and magical cows with their path across the sky.  Yet, something nags at me about this particular image.  The (possible) earliest reference I can find to this interpretation is on page 17 of the 1997 edition of Frances Howard-Gordon’s Glastonbury: Maker of Myths, that is assuming it repeats information found in the first, 1982 edition (Glastonbury: Gothic Image Publications) which I don’t have to hand.  Otherwise, the identification of the image with St.Bridget is asserted in The Goddess in Glastonbury, by Kathy Jones (1990 Ariadne Publications).

The legendary association of St Bridget with Glastonbury, recorded by two medieval chroniclers, as well as her association with Bride’s Mound, does give a context in which it can justifiably be proposed that the ‘milkmaid’ carving is a representation of Bridget/Brigid/Bride and, believe me, I’ve made some speculative leaps of my own with far less to go on.  Nevertheless, while the Irish saint, Brigid, has taken on the mantle of a pre-Christian goddess, I wonder how far the copious mythological material associated with her in Ireland and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland – such as her connection with the dairy – can be straightforwardly transposed to the symbolic repertoire of a medieval stonemason in Somerset.  Or am I wrong, is there a medieval text out there that unequivocally names her as Bridget?

The ‘Brigid-as-dairymaid’ carving, to the right of the door.




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