Imbolc is Coming!
The wheel is turning and Imbolc will be here before my next article is due so I thought I’d make an early start, first on how it’s pronounced basically “Ehm-bowlk” or “Im-bulk” and in Druid tongue “Im mol’-gh” which is usually spelled Oimealc. This greater sabbat has a number of names including The Snowdrop Festival, The Festival of Lights, The Feast of the Virgin, Candlemas, St Briget’s Day, Brigid’s Feast, and Brigantia. I’m sure there are other names and festivals that have links to the day as well, feel free to add them in comments on the article. There’s a bit of controversy about Imbolc, some say it’s from the Gaelic oimlec that means ewes milk, other sources say it means in the belly, as in the womb of animals and soil. Either way it’s time when new lambs are born, dairy animals generally start producing milk for their new born or soon to be born offspring.
This is the festival of the Maiden, and straw or wheat sheaves gathered before last Samhain are made into bundles, or dolls and placed in baskets with white flowers. Depending on the area and tradition sheaves were left outside to receive blessings from Brigid as she passed by, in some areas of Ireland cloth strips or mantles were left outside to be touched by the Goddess and/or Saint. These cloths became sacred and had the power to heal sickness or injury during the year, sun wheels or Brigid’s crosses were made to bring protection and blessing to the house, the previous year’s rush cross was often tucked into the rafters of a house or barn, if the luck had left the cross it needed to be buried or burned to return to the goddess and earth.
In Celtic lands this marked the beginning of Spring; seeds that had rested in the soil over winter began to swell and crack and send roots into the ground. It was time to begin preparing the fields for the upcoming planting, stones were removed, any remaining stubble from the previous year’s harvest was turned under, drainage ditches were repaired or new ones created, furrows would be ploughed, the plans for what one wanted to grow had to be made, and seeds carefully chosen all before the planting could begin. It was a time for assessment, what grew well the previous year, what didn’t survive the growing season and why? Did you want to try growing a kind of food for harvest that you had never planted before? What did you want to cultivate, change or keep from the previous year?
The time between Yule and Imbolc is called The Cleansing Tide, because it was literally time for cleaning the house, stables, yard as well as the fields. If there was unfinished work from winter’s projects it could be put aside or laid to rest, the focus was changing to outdoor labour once more. The home was swept clean and everything was washed and tidied to get rid of winter’s hold and to welcome the spring, farm animals that were kept in shelter during the cold could now return to the pastures, all stables, stalls, coops, and belongings were cleaned, acts of sympathetic magic to let winter pass.
Farmers looked to the animals for omens of the growing season to come, if a hedgehog or badger appeared from a burrow on Imbolc it meant the planting weather around Ostara would be fair, if the animals weren’t seen, the coldness would stay and planting would be hard with cold soil and rain, yet the seeds had to be planted at the right time if there was any hope of harvest. In North America we have Groundhog day, which fulfills the same purpose, though most folks have forgotten the origins of the tradition.
Imbolg is Brigid’s day, she is the Goddess of poetry, inspiration, divination, and healing, the Lady of cattle, dairy work and food production as well as the forge, the Goddess made into a saint that is. Traditionally a young girl dressed in white would travel from home to home giving Brigid’s blessing in exchange for an egg, sugar, cakes, a penny or bread. The maiden or youngest girl of the home would go to a well dedicated to Brigit and first bless herself with the water, then carry some home to be sprinkled inside and outside the home, on all the animals , over the fields and on every household member. I’m sure many water fights have been invoked in Brigid’s name! Rush crosses were made and carried through the home, then hung by the hearth to bring the Lady’s blessing throughout the year. In some places they made a Brideog, a corn dolly that was dressed in white representing Brigid, it was taken house to house to bless the community, these dolls were patted to release their seeds and the kernels would be mixed with new seed and planted to bless the crops.
It was a day for extinguishing the hearth fire, sweeping the ashes out and rekindling the new fire, fresh candles and lamps were placed in rooms and lit to welcome and celebrate the sun’s return. The day also marked a time of renewing vows to the gods one served and for blessing candles to be used in the year’s rituals, magical tools were consecrated or rededicated and pledges to work with and learn about specific deities were made. In some areas the ploughs were blessed with milk or alcohol and offerings of cheese, bread, milk and honey were left in the fields for the nature spirits, they hadn’t had a gift since Samhain night. Some people think it’s taboo to cut white flowers on Imbloc because they are symbols of the Goddess, while some say cut fresh ones early morning for the altar, as always do what feels right to you.
Whether you go for a walk, make a spirit lamp or Brigid’s cross, enjoy your day!