We stand now in the depths of winter. For many January is the bleakest time of the whole year. The warmth and celebration of the holiday season is over. Yet the weather has grown colder. Even though we know the sun has begun its long journey upwards, summer feels as if it is a life time away. Everything around us stands lifeless and grey.
And yet hope lives. As the calendar turns to February the days are getting noticeably longer. For many people, winter is now half over. From this point on our thoughts can turn towards spring. Soon it will be time to prepare for our endeavors in the coming year.
For witches this time is known as Imbolc. We have seen the wheel move into the light half of the year. At Yule we celebrated that transition, but now it gains strength. We turn our thoughts towards spring. In the process we will begin to plan and organize. The world will once again be full of life, but first the seeds must be sown. It is now that we must decide what will live through the winter and what will wither 1.
Some of our ancestors may have seen things the same way. As with Lughnasadh, Imbolc is Irish in origin. It is referenced in early literature as a festival marking the end of winter. There are several variations in the name including Imbolg or Oimelc, although they all refer to the same festival. As with the modern festival, Imbolc was always celebrated around February 1 2.
Outside of Ireland, such was not the case. Elsewhere in the British Isles another holiday known as Candlemas, was celebrated on February 2. The name derives from a catholic ceremony involving candles being blessed before the altar 3. Whether or not there is any relation to Imbolc is less clear. While the name of the month of February is Roman in origin, there is no solid connection to the later Christian celebrations 4. Nevertheless the timing of all these festivities indicates that, at least for Europeans, February held some significance.
The name of the festival of Imbolc is noteworthy as well. As with the rest of the holiday, it originated in Ireland. A precise explanation of its history is difficult to trace. The word was first defined in about 900 CE as denoting “sheep’s milk”, but today linguists do not believe the translation is accurate 5. Imbolc is thought to more precisely mean “milking” although how it relates to the celebration is unclear 6. Still others assert Imbolc as meaning “in the belly” and refer to the pregnancy of ewes 7.
Regardless of the meaning, Imbolc was historically associated with the figure of Brigit. Here we have one of the most interesting aspects of the holiday and also a source of continuing controversy. Brigit is best known today as a saint and is considered to be the patron saint of Ireland alongside St. Patrick. Yet while records of the latter exist, little is known about the historical figure behind the name Brigit 8.
The official story goes as follows. Brigit, known as Brigit of Kildare or Brigit of Ireland, was born around 451 CE. In her life she performed a number of miracles such as curing the sick and helping women with household tasks. She was said to have founded a monastery on the site of a shrine to the pagan goddess Brigit as well as a school of art. Eventually she died around 525 CE and her feast is celebrated on February 1 9.
However the sources for her life were all written much later. In between when Brigit was alleged to have lived and when her biographies were written, Ireland transformed from a pagan land to a Christian one. Naturally then, the texts are entirely Christian and only reflect a single point of view. And as one scholar put it “to examine texts and discover only Christianity, to question the existence of paganism, is to ratify the result of colonialism while ignoring the process by which it is reached” 10.
In Imbolc then we have another clear example, even more so than Yule, of where a pagan festival was absorbed into a Christian one. Brigit was originally a pagan goddess. Over time, Ireland changed. When the new religion replaced the old, Brigit remained as a Christian saint 11. It seems reasonable to postulate the same thing occurring for the feast dedicated to her. Sadly few details remain of pre-Christian Irish religion.
One wonders, then, with what the goddess Brigit was associated. According to Irish folklore, Brigit was a daughter of the god Dagda. She was said to be a triple goddess of poetry and learning, smithcraft and healing 12. Brigit was also associated with fertility. Indeed many of the rites practiced on the later St. Brigit’s day were concerned with the fertility of both crops and humans 13. She shared such an association with the god Lugh and there may have been a connection between them 14. Imbolc and Lughnasadh are separated by six months and both have their roots in Irish tradition. So such a thing is certainly plausible.
Yet while such matters are the subject of much debate, it is more than possible to enjoy the modern festivities. As mentioned above, Imbolc is today a time of hope and renewal. With less introspective times ahead, now is perhaps the last opportunity before spring to look within one’s self and decide what is no longer needed. There is, after all, only so much such activity one can do. As light must be balanced with dark so inner work should be countered with outer work and in a few months the call of sun and warm weather will be felt. So take the time to see what seeds should be planted.
Cleaning and cleansing are natural outgrowths of such activity. Instead of merely throwing things out, clean mindfully 15. Ask what each object in your home means and if it is truly necessary. The same can be done in one’s personal life. Not every person or habit has a place. Now is a good time to re-examine those relationships and routines with an eye for getting rid of that which is no longer needed.
Alternatively, one can craft those items traditionally associated with Imbolc. These include the Brigit’s Cross, brideog, or Brigit’s mantle. The first is essentially two pieces of fiber woven together to represent a sun wheel. A brideog, on the other hand, is a small doll dressed in the image of the Brigit. Historically this would have been left on a bed overnight and would bless all of those within the house. Lastly a Brigit’s Mantle is a piece of cloth left out in a window. It was believed to absorb the energy of Brigit and be useful for healing purposes 16.
But however one chooses to spend their holiday, the most important thing is to do so in a safe and meaningful way. The wheel of the year will continue to turn. In the coming months the power of the light will build and will soon overtake the darkness. The world is returning to life, slowly but surely. Yet now is not the time for complacency. Summer is as yet a long way off.
River Loneruner is an active member of Hecate's Cauldron's Inner Circle and a second year student of the Temple Tradition.
As mentioned above, an old custom called for the womenfolk to craft a “corn dolly” the night before their Imbolc celebration. These dolls were not actually fashioned from corn, but from common grains such as wheat, oats, and rye. Our ancestors saved the last bit of the previous year’s harvest to fashion the doll, or plowed the grains back into their fields to continue the cycle of growth. The dolls were paraded around the village in honor of Brigit or placed in the “Bride Beds” to bring prosperity to the home.
If you fashioned a corn dolly during the previous year’s harvest festival, you may wish to dress her as a bride and make a small bed for her. A white handkerchief, lace, or even Barbie clothes can serve as her gown. A small decorated basket makes a perfect bed for your bride. Add a wand to her hand or the bed as a sign of fertility. For a more subtle effect, you can toss in a few acorns or other nuts. Display your dolly on the mantle or another place of honor to bless your home with prosperity. Don’t forget to thank Brigit for her gifts.
If you’d like to make your own corn dolly, About.com offers an excellent tutorial.
1 Robin Fennelly, “The Quickening Wheel: Imbolc.”
2 Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 134.
3 Ibid., 139.
5 Ibid., 134.
6 Séamas Ó Catháin, “The Festival of Brigit the Holy Woman,” 242–243.
8 Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 134.
9 “Brigit of Kildare.”
10 Carole Cusack, “Brigit,” 96.
11 Ibid., 95.
12 Ibid., 85.
13 Ibid., 92.
14 Séamas Ó Catháin, “The Festival of Brigit the Holy Woman,” 254.
15 Bridget L. Rowan, “Five Ways to Celebrate the ‘Season’ of Imbolc.”
16 Morgan, “Imbolc: Traditional Celebrations for a Modern Time.”