Imbolc – Another Turn of the Wheel

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A Turn of the Wheel of the Year with Panaradia

IMBOLC by Diana Paar

INTRODUCTION

Imbolc (also called Imbolg, Candlemas, St. Brighid’s Day or Brigantia) is the next stop on the wheel of the year. It marks the halfway point between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. Many pagans honor this time of year as the nadir of winter, when Mother Earth is in Her deepest slumber (for residents of the northern hemisphere of course).

MEANING & INTENTION

We begin by looking around us to see what nature is doing. I happen to be writing this during the first truly significant snowfall to hit the east coast this year, so I see several inches of snow blanketing our land. Even though it is cold, wet and occasionally treacherous – we can feel the mother’s heart beating deep within the womb of the earth. This weather compels us to slow down and if we listen perhaps we can match our heartbeats to Hers. Welcome to the mysteries of deep winter.

So, what is this holiday actually called & why are there so many names for it? Most practitioners refer to it with perhaps its oldest name IMBOLC (pronounced I-molk) which is believed to derive from the Old Irish word for “in the belly” and perhaps refers to the ewes of the flock being pregnant at this time of year. It was certainly important in Ireland, as many of their sacred sites include solar alignments and/or references to this quarter day. And it seems to resonate with those of us who are connected to the hidden realm of winter where the beauty and light of Spring is quietly gestating.

Then, there is Brighid. Her worship as Goddess and her continued reverence as Saint provide us with a nearly unbroken line of religious devotion to interpret, adapt and craft into our own living traditions. As one of the oldest female powers of Celtic lands, we are truly blessed to have many stories associated with Brighid handed down to us through time, since most Celtic spiritual practices were passed down only verbally.

We will go into more of Her lore, but it’s important to note that two of the names for this holiday are christianized versions of the older holiday. St Brighid’s Day is a feast day usually celebrated on February 1st and can include a special meal taken on its eve with strips of cloth laid outside overnight and/or the ashes of the hearthfire being touched by the saint is said to bring blessing to the household and of course, the making of Brighid’s Crosses (more on those as well). On the Roman Catholic calendar, February 2nd is Candlemas (Candle Mass) representing the purification of Mary forty days after the birth of her son and new candles are blessed for use in the home throughout the year. So, the themes of hidden blessings (cloths or ashes) and purification of light-bringing candles are woven through both pagan and christian traditions.

Finally, there is Brigantia named after the Romano-Celtic goddess of the British Isles who was known as the “high one” and shares many attributes with our Irish Brighid. Her associations are more in the realm of “protective mother goddess” than “virginal hearth tender” but we get many of our warrior stories from Her lore.

TRADITIONS & PRACTICES

WEANING

Initiation. One approach to the Wheel of the Year we haven’t covered yet is the Sun’s annual transit as an activating principle of consciousness. There is much more on this, of course, but it’s interesting to think about Yule (the Winter Solstice) as the “newborn Sun” after which our days begin to lengthen. There is a delicacy to this time of year and the beginning of February may be thought of as a time of “weaning” from the dependency of the mother and a standing up on one’s own. Perhaps this is a source of several traditions of Imbolc being a time for initiation – taking the first step on a new path or journey – because She is there to aide us.

PURIFICATION

I suspect this association is directly related to the purification of women 40 days after birth (as in Mary’s after the birth of Jesus), but seasonally this feels very appropriate. After all the indulgences of Yuletide and the new year resolutions to cleanse and purify ourselves – this is a wonderful time of year for lustral baths, fasting and other purifying spiritual practices. Most of these seem to be focused on the personal cleansing of body, mind & spirit rather than the spring cleaning of home and environment in a few weeks. There is also the Roman holiday of Februalia (source of “February”) which was later incorporated into Lupercalia, an annual cleansing & purification ritual.

BRIGHID

DEVOTIONAL

  • Brighid is a classic Celtic triple goddess and her most traditional aspects are Poetry, Smithcraft and Healing. As muse and inspirer, She is thought to whisper just the right word or phrase to the Bard for his/her story, poem or song. As guardian of the forge, She balances the powers of fire and water to teach the Smith his/her craft. And finally Brighid the Healer provides comfort and strength to those who are in need of Her gentle touch.       There are many stories and lore about these aspects. I encourage you to search them out and see which speak to you.
  • There are also non-traditional aspects which have been inspired by the lore, so some pagans worship Her as a ninefold goddess by adding these six attributes to the traditional three above: Midwife (healing & protective), Foster Mother (nurturing and kind), Warrior (fiercely protective), Sacred Wells (source of healing waters), Sacred Hearth (warming a contented home) & Initiation (providing light along the path).

FOLK PRACTICES

  • Much of our knowledge of the goddess Brighid comes from traditions still practiced today. See if you can associate them with some of Her aspects discussed above or perhaps even find new ones of your own.
    • Brighid’s Bed: a small doll is made of a sheaf, laid in a cradle or bed which is then placed by the hearth for Brighid’s blessing.
    • Bratog Brighid: Brighid is believed to walk the land on Imbolc Eve, so many lay out pieces of cloth or ribbon – called a brat or bratog – for Her to touch as She passes their home. Once touched, the bratog may be used for healing and comfort for the rest of the year.
    • Brighid’s Cross: is an equal-armed woven cross shape made from rushes or straw that is said to represent the goddess Herself. These are often hung over the hearth or entrance to the home to protect it from fire.
    • Brighid clootie: a strip of cloth placed over a sacred well as a prayer to the goddess for healing.
    • Weather Prognostication: the likely source of our locally beloved Groundhog’s Day is based on the tradition of watching for the serpent or badger to come out of its lair to foretell of the coming of Spring.

These are, of course, only the tip of the cauldron that holds the lore and practices of Brighid as goddess and saint. She is deeply loved by Her devotees and there are a multitude of stories of Her magic to be found in the pagan community of healing, protection and comfort. As you can see, there is so much treasure with Brighid that it is fun and interesting to weave Her attributes and folk traditions into a uniquely suited personal spiritual practice. Purification into Initiation, combined with offerings and crafts, then requests of blessing on cloth leading finally to prognosticating on the beginning of next season. Don’t forget to look at the ground for snowdrops or crocuses, often popping up in the snow to remind us of the warmth to come.

Diana is a practicing druid with Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) where she has served as Liturgist, Priestess and Ovates (Seeress) for over 20 years. She is also an initiate of a transformational spiritual path that integrates western mystery and shamanic traditions. A professional intuitive and mentor Diana offers consultations, classes and workshops in tarot, astrology and earth spirituality.

Note: she is not a scholar although she hangs out with several. Please feel free to do your own research into pagan histories and traditions – this column is about engaged spiritual practice. But you can contact her at [email protected] with a request for resources.