In many ways, Imbolc is my favourite festival. Even as child, long before I had ever heard of the great Celtic fire festivals, I waited anxiously for Groundhog Day. On the morning of that fateful day, I would rise early and scan the skies, hoping to observe clouds so the shy sibyl would see no frightening shadow that might send her scampering back into her burrow for another six weeks. There is a tradition in Ireland that hedgehogs come forth on Bride’s day. If they stay out of their holes or burrows spring will be early, if not, spring will come late. At the beginning of February, we still look for signs of spring. What could be more joyous and hopeful than spying the first snowdrop or crocus?
The Roman Christians have hallowed this time of year to St. Brigit but our Celtic ancestors gave it to the Goddess Brighid. She begins Her transformation from Cailleach to Virgin. The quarter days originally related to the cycles of the moon. Imbolc actually fell on the first new moon following the Winter Solstice. Imbolc or Oimelc means ‘first milk’ or ‘new milk’. It was a festival centered on an agricultural event, the birth of the spring lambs and the first milk of the ewes. Along with the new milk: butter, whey and cheese are once more available, foods that build up the old and the young and the weak. Winter loosens her freezing grip. Hope is born.
This is also a time of cleansing. The Purification of the Virgin Mary is celebrated at this time. This feast designates the end of Mary’s post-natal confinement. Imbolc marked the return of Breo-saight, the Lady of the Fiery Arrow of Wisdom and Inspiration. This is the mid-point of the lunar Year of the Little Sun, which began at Samhain and ends at Beltane. In the temperate Celtic Isles, Imbolc is the season of first plowing. Seeds are set out in cold frames to start the seedlings. New life is burgeoning and the frosts of winter begin to thaw. We are blessed with a new beginning.
Because travel in this season is difficult, Imbolc is a very personal festival, celebrated at home with one’s family and nearest friends. The house was white washed inside and out on St. Brigit’s Eve. A big fire was laid, clean sweet grasses strewn on the floor, and all was made ready to welcome the Bride. More than any other sacred day, Imbolc was the festival of women. Women made all of the preparations, and there was much to be done. First, the house had to be cleaned. Any greens remaining from the Winter Solstice were taken down and, often, burned. Special cakes were baked. The old hearth fire was put out and a new one carefully laid.
When all was done indoors, the women and girls went out into the fields and glades, the groves and glens, to search for signs of spring. Snowdrops, primroses and other early flowers were gathered and taken back to the house. The oldest woman would find a birch wand and carefully peel the bark from it. Both the Leaba Bride or corn cradle and the dolly were decorated with flowers, ribbons and bright strands of red wool. In Ireland, a sheaf of corn is placed in the Leaba Bride. The corn dolly of Imbolc is the same one brought from the fields at the end of the last harvest. Sometimes the eldest woman would wrap the corn dolly in a garment belonging to a member of the household, especially one who engaged in a dangerous occupation, such as fishing. She would then carry the Bride out of the house through the back way and prop her beside the door.
When the cradle was decorated, and all was in readiness, she would leave the house by the front door and retrieve the Bride. As she walked, sun wise, around the house three times she called out that the Bride was coming. Everyone in the house cried out, “Bride is welcome.” The Bride was then carried triumphantly in, through the front door, and placed in the cradle. The matriarch then laid the birch wand in the Leaba Bride, beside the corn dolly. The new fire was lighted and the men invited in to pay their respects to Her. Each left some small token, a shell, flower, stone, or coin. Afterwards the Bride might be laid upon the sick, both human and beast, for healing. Before going to bed on Imbolc, the woman of the house raked out the ashes of the new fire and laid the birch wand on them. The next morning she looked for Brighid’s footprint or the mark of Her wand in the ashes. Finding the mark of Her foot is considered good luck; the coming spring will bring health and prosperity.
In Scotland, at Imbolc it was tradition to pour milk into hollow stones, which are called gruagachs or gruagach’s stones. The Gruagach is a solitary faery. She is a cailleach. Because she is covered with hair, she has a frightening appearance but her heart is loving and gentle. She leads the herds of cattle and flocks of sheep to water and guards them from more mischievous faeries. The Gruagach (Hairy One) may be the same sort of Otherworld creature as the Sasquatch, Yeti and Mugwump are. Like the Yeti, she is most often seen in the mountains. She loves to sit by a nice, warm fire but, because she is a faery, she cannot make her own. She sometimes appears at the doors of remote homesteads and cottages, begging rest beside their fires. It is a good idea to entertain this guest. She will bring blessings on you and upon all of your descendants for seven generations.
Although many weeks of wintry weather may remain at this time of year, it is the beginning of the agricultural cycle. The ploughs are decorated with flowers and red wool. Libations of whiskey, milk or cider are poured over plough blades and into the new furrows. Bread and cheese may be placed on the plough for the faeries. All of the agricultural tools are consecrated for the coming year, and blacksmiths’ tools are also blessed.
Bride’s Crosses are woven of straw and given away as good luck charms or hung in homes and barns for protection. Many traditions are centered on healing. The Cris Brid is a woven circle of cord about three feet in diameter. Three or four crosses are woven to it. It is passed three times over the body, from head to toe, for abundance and good health. Bearing in mind that Brighid is the Mother of Smiths, it is not surprising that many healing traditions are associated with that profession. The great blacksmith of Ireland is Gobnui, son of Brighid. She is also the same Begoibne who forges the Cauldron of Death and Re-birth. Blacksmiths have long been associated with healing. Until well into the 19th century, blacksmiths pulled teeth and performed ritual cures, and in Scotland practised bloodletting. Smithcraft was a hereditary and semi-magical occupation.
There were several famous ‘cures’ effected by smiths throughout the Celtic Isles. For instance, in Leeds, England, sick children were held over blacksmiths’ anvils to cure rickets. The healing powers of a third generation or a seventh generation smith were especially efficacious. In one healing ritual, the child was laid naked on the anvil. The smith would gently strike the child three times with his hammer to effect the cure. The ‘hammer cure’ for depression in adults is similar to this, except that the smith brings the hammer down in an apparently violent manner, so that the client believes his head will be smashed. Of course, at the last moment, the blacksmith ‘pulls his punch’; leaving the client so relieved to be alive, he quickly recovers from his depression! In another cure, the child was first bathed in the quenching trough and afterwards laid on the anvil. All the shop tools were then passed over it. As each tool was produced, the parents would ask the name of the tool and its use. The blacksmith would solemnly answer their questions. No cure or ‘lay’ would work if the smith asked for a fee.
Imbolc is completely, and without question, dedicated to Brighid: Goddess of the Three Fires, Mother of All Arts and Crafts, Lady of the Hearthfire, Lady of the Forge Fire, Breo-saight the Fiery Arrow of Wisdom and Inspiration,Mother of Sorrow, High Queen, Goddess of Childbirth, Lady of the Mirror, Lady of the Spindle, Lady of the Cauldron.
She is Brighid of the Swans. The vulture, the cow, the wolf and the hound follow in Her train. She is the Lady of the Flocks and Herds. She protects women in childbirth and presides over all domestic arts. She is Brigantia, Athena, Isis. In Libya, she is Neith, the Celestial Cow who gives birth to the sky. She weaves all of creation with Her shuttle. She is Lady of Healing, Mother of Compassion. Goddess of Wisdom, Patroness of the Children of Dana, Mother of Memory. She is Bride of the Waters, Brigit of the Air, Begoibne of the Fire, Brighid of the Earth, Breo-saight of the Spirit. She is the Great Archer whose arrows of oak and rowan defend the land. Her arrows are 3 in number: Knowledge, Wisdom and Inspiration. Although they tried to eradicate the honour in which She was held by the Celts, the Christian missionaries did not succeed. Brighid became St. Brigit, whose birth is celebrated on February 1st. She is Brigit of the Mantles, Brigit of the Peat-heap, Brigit of the Twinning Hair, Lady of Augury, Brigit of the White Feet, Lady of the Calm Heart, of the White Palm, Brigit of the Kine, the Mild Tress of Mary, Nurse of Christ, Foster-mother of Christ, Mary of the Gael.
To this day, she is invoked for protection from poverty and arrest. She is called on to save from death by drowning and burning. Charms ask her to protect the kine, goats, sheep, horses, and herds. She protects all domestic beasts from wounds, predators, falls from heights, and from mischievous faeries. As both saint and Goddess, She is associated with rivers and water. The River Brent, in Middlesex, and the River Braint, in Anglesey (Mona), bear Her name. Even to this day, there are Bride Wells all over Britain. She is the strength of the new moon and the spring of the year, the Lady of the Flowing Sea. In some locations, it was custom to place a representation of Her in a chariot, which was then floated on a lake or the sea. She is the Guide of Shamans, most easily contacted at Her wells and springs, in groves and barrows, or in the fires of the hearth and forge. She presides over the first days of the returning spring and we remember Her at Imbolc.
Tira Brandon-Evans is the Founder and Moderator of the Society of Celtic Shamans, editor of Earthsongs: Journal of the Society of Celtic Shamans, and is herself a Faery Shaman. She has written many books, published by Elder Tree Press, and her articles may be found on the website www.faeryshaman.org.