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Imbolc - Welcoming Brighid, welcoming Spring

The word Imbolc stems from the older Celtic Oimelc, which means "of  milk" or "in the belly". Traditionally it was a time when the ewes from the sheep flocks began to lactate, having just given birth. This was an incredibly important time for our ancestors, as the winter's stores would be running low and the fresh milk available would provide nourishment and sustenance to get people through until the first crops began to appear. Fresh butter, cream and cheeses could be made to supplement the restrictive winter diet. Imbolc occurs around the beginning of February, if we are working with the traditional gestation period of the ewes. Nowadays, farmers have the sheep give birth at times that are more convenient; for example, a few villages over, one farmer has his lambing season during the Christmas holidays, as that's when he and the rest of his family are home and can help out.

If we are following the calendar, the dates for Imbolc are 31st January to 1st February. As the Celtic day began at sunset, we start the night before. Imbolc is often confused with the Christian holy day of Candlemas, which occurs on 2nd February. No doubt this was intentional, in order to compete with the beloved Pagan celebration of the lambing season and Spring.

Imbolc is a holiday that is dedicated to the goddess Brighid. She is so entwined with the season and the time, that most traditions honour her in some way during this festival. She is the goddess of poetry, smithcraft and healing, and is also often seen as a goddess of Spring. She is the sacred waters of the wells and springs, and the sacred flame tended first by nineteen priestesses, and then later by nineteen nuns dedicated to her in the guise of St Brighid. In Wales, Brighid is known as Braint, and is connected to the river Afon Braint which floods around this time every year. [1] The name, Brighid, has been adapted all over Britain and Europe, and indeed Britain is named after her, in the form of Briganti (Romanised to Brigantia). There are also myths that link the goddess Brig with the Spring in the form of the maiden, who alternates with the winter goddess the Cailleach. At Imbolc, the Cailleach drinks from a sacred stream, or makes her way to the seashore before dawn, and there transforms into the young maiden, Brigid. Other myths tell of Brigid immersing a white wand into the mouth of winter, which awakens the earth and brings in the thaw.[2] Brighid's name might also come from the Gaelic Breo-Saighead, which means "fiery arrow", and many modern-day devotees of Brighid see this as her aspect in the flow of awen, the fire in the head of the poet and artist as well as the returning light of Spring. For those who celebrate Imbolc by the signs in the vegetation, it is when the first snowdrops appear, pale white and green against the stark greyness of winter.

There are many customs associated with Brighid and Imbolc. It is the time when Brighid walks the land, and so offerings of milk, bread, butter, cheese and beer are left to sustain her and thank her for her gifts. The hearthfire is extinguished, the hearth swept clean and a new one lit in honour of the lengthening days and the return of the light. [3] As Brighid is said to visit every home, a piece of cloth or ribbon is left out all night, to be covered with dew and then brought inside at dawn. This cloth can be used to bless and heal for the rest of the year, and is known as the brat Bhríde, having been blessed by the goddess. A Bridie doll can also be made, a poppet that represents the goddess, which is laid down in a small bed made for her so that she may pass the night in comfort and peace. Sometimes this doll is made from the last sheaves of the previous harvest, and prayers are said over it to bring abundance for the coming year. Brighid's crosses are woven at this time of year, and it is traditional to use rushes that have been pulled from the water, not cut.

Around Imbolc is when the swans leave their winter grounds in Ireland, and the ravens come back to nest. The North American Groundhog day is a version of another custom of Imbolc, where it is said that the snakes emerge from their winter hibernation to bask in the sun (apart from in Ireland, where there never were any snakes). In the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of charms and prayers collected by Alexander Carmichael to preserve the old folklore and history, we see an invocation for Imbloc that pertains to this phenomenon:

Early on Bride's morn

The serpent shall come from the hole.

I shall not molest the serpent,

Nor shall the serpent molest me.

Imbolc was also a time for divination, many of them involving fire. On Imbolc eve, you could smoor the fire and in the morning if you saw Brighid's footprints in the ashes, it meant luck and blessing for the coming year. Another custom is to light a candle for each member of the family, and the first one to go out will also be the first to die. This was recorded by Lady Wilde, who also spoke of the first person to hear a lark at dawn receiving good luck for the rest of the day.[4]

Imbolc is a gentle holy day, one of welcoming and rejoicing in the longer days, and counting our blessings during the cold nights. On Imbolc eve, open the door to your home and say "Welcome Brighid, Brighid is come! Brighid is welcome!" and allow the blessings of Spring into your life.



[1] Hughes, Krisoffer The Book of Celtic Magic, 2016 Llewellyn

[2] Courtney, Weber Brigid: History, Myth and Magick of the Celtic Goddess, 2015 Weiser Books

[3] Weatherstone, Lunea Tending Brigid's Flame, 2015 Llewellyn

[4] Ibid.

Artwork by Joanna Powell Colbert   https://www.gaiansoul.com/

 

 

 Joanna van der Hoeven is a Druid, Witch and best-selling author. To find out more, please visit www.joannavanderhoeven.com.

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  Joanna van der Hoeven is a Hedge Witch, Druid, and a best-selling author. She has been working in Pagan traditions for over 20 years. She is the Director of Druid College UK, helping to re-weave the connection to the land and teaching a modern interpretation of the ancient Celtic religion.  

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