Wytch Hazel Cottage

Reclaiming Our Ancestral Folkways

Category: An Old English Spring

Old English Spring Traditions

Humans have revered the hare for thousands of years and early hunters believed that the hare was a worthy kill due to the challenge of catching such an agile and swift creature. As centuries passed, a belief that the mysterious hare was from the Otherworld grew strong and as a result it was treated with such caution that it was taboo to eat hare in many parts of Europe including Wales, Germany, Breton, Switzerland and Denmark. Even Julius Caesar observed this behaviour among the Celtic people of Britain. In some regions just saying the word ‘hare’ was not tolerated and this went on right up until the 19th century. There is even a story of a Germanic tribe that once descended upon Rome at the very same moment a hare was seen dashing towards the city walls. On seeing the Teutons running behind the hare, the Roman soldiers immediately abandoned their positions.

The most well known story, however, which portrays the otherworldly attributes of the hare comes from the Iceni tribe and their goddess Andraste. Whether this goddess took the actual form of a hare is not known, but the Greek historian Dio Cassius, recorded that this war goddess was invoked by their queen Boudica before they revolted against Roman occupation.

“Let us, therefore, go against [the Romans], trusting boldly to good fortune. Let us show them that they are hares and foxes trying to rule over dogs and wolves.” When she [Boudica] had finished speaking, she employed a species of divination, letting a hare escape from the fold of her dress; and since it ran on what they considered the auspicious side, the whole multitude shouted with pleasure, and Boudica, raising her hand toward heaven, said: “I thank you, Andraste, and call upon you as woman speaking to woman … I beg you for victory and preservation of liberty.”

It appears in this case, that the hare was divine and possibly even revered by the Iceni tribe.

To understand the reasons behind why an animal is reviled we need to go back to the time of the Christian conversion and more often than not the trail leads back to a deity. With the arrival of Christianity, layer upon layer of superstition and fear were applied to these primal gods in an attempt to erase them from history, especially if they could not be moulded into the Christian mythos. An example of this comes from Germany with many tales of ghostly hares causing mischief particularly three legged ones. Yet, despite attempts to erase this sacred creature, the symbol of the hare has endured across the centuries hidden within the arts of folk medicine and magic.

Further evidence of the hidden symbolism of the hare can be found in Leicestershire. For there was once a tradition called ‘Hunting the Easter Hare” which took place on Easter Monday. A hare would be hunted then chased towards the Mayor’s house, after which a fine banquet was enjoyed with the hare being the main dish .

The Hallaton ‘Hare Pie Scramble’ has unknown origins, but a piece of land was once left to the rector of Hallaton village in order for him to be able to provide two hare pies and twenty four loaves for the local community on Easter Monday. Hares are not in season after March so mutton, steak and veal would have been used instead. Straight after morning mass the pies were blessed and all the food was shared among the local folk. In the afternoon a procession led by a man with a hare topped staff made its way to a place called Hare Pie Bank, that was situated on the south side of the village (in ancient times this would have been perceived as a sacred boundary). Once there a game of bottle kicking began.

The bottles were actually not bottles at all, but wooden casks two of which were filled with ale and the other which was left empty. Two teams of men, one from Hallaton and the other from the nearby village of Medbourne had to kick the casks over a water boundary of two streams. A full cask was thrown up in the air first and then fought for, followed by the empty one and lastly the remaining full one. The winners shared the ale between them which they received at a ceremony at the market cross. This tradition survives today and still takes place on Easter Monday. It is believed that the hare pie tradition goes back as far as Anglo Saxon times as part of a spring ritual sacrifice to a deity for a successful springtime sowing and autumn harvest. The bottle kicking tradition may go back even further than that, possibly  representing the symbolic struggle between winter and spring.

The name Simnel was applied to all cakes that were baked throughout the duration of Lent. Early Christians decorated these cakes with a figurine of Jesus or the Virgin Mary which gave them religious significance. On Simnel Sunday, young people would visit their parents with gifts of cakes and trinkets especially for the mother. Called ‘going a mothering’, this tradition eventually became Mothering Sunday. The word simnel which can also be spelt symel, simnell and simbling is very closely related to the Old Saxon ‘symbel’ meaning feast or banquet. These richly decorated cakes are very likely remnants of cakes eaten by the pre-Christian Anglo Saxons during celebrations, such as festivals that took place during the month of Solmonath. The Venerable Bede wrote that, ‘Solmonath can be called the month of cakes, which they offered to their gods in that month’. Simnel cakes made from fruit, spices and marzipan could at one time only be found in Lancashire.  Geoffroi Gaimer’s Anglo Norman story ‘Lay of Havelock the Dane’, written in the late 13th century, even mentions Simnel cakes.

The same can be said about hot cross buns (from the word bous meaning sacred ox) which some say are also likely to be a remnant of a much earlier pre-Christian observance. No doubt the church realised that they couldn’t stop people from offering cakes to their gods, so they absorbed this tradition into the Christian faith by adding a cross on top of them.

The symbol of the cross is much older than Christianity and Germanic people carved crosses onto ancient bridal and boundary oak trees (boundary oaks were a Saxon institution). An oak tree that grew near Dahl in Germany was at one time visited by newly wed couples who danced around it three times before carving a cross onto its trunk. Dr Thomas Kuhn, an American physicist, philosopher and historian believed that the cross was the original symbol of Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, which was used at one time to bless marriage unions. In the Poetic Edda’s Thrymskvitha, Thor dressed in a wedding gown has his stolen hammer placed on his lap.

Whether the cross symbolised Mjolnir or not we just don’t know, but we do know for sure that the oak tree was sacred to Thor and that hammers were used to consecrate weddings and also births for example. Interestingly, there is a Thor’s hammer pendant that was discovered in Iceland dated to the 10th century and it is in the form of a cross melding the pagan and Christian faiths together. Perhaps hiding the pre-Christian faith in plain sight?

For ease of conversion during Europe’s Christianisation, the early Church incorporated many of our pre-Christian customs and traditions into its own. The Church realised it could not stamp out the folkways of our ancestors entirely and conversion by sword and fire could only go so far. So despite their Christian veneer, the Old Ways are still with us today; if you know where to look.

Sources:

A Dictionary of Superstition, 1989, Oxford University Press

The Moon Myth and Image, 2003, Jules Cashford

The Easter Hare, 1892, Charles Bilson

Origins of English History, 1890, Charles Isaac Elton

Eostre; The Creation Of A Goddess

Ostara, as it is known by pagans today, is a spring festival that is celebrated around the time of the vernal equinox. There are many opposing opinions about its origins as well as the validity of its namesake the elusive goddess Eostre; a goddess who may or may not have been honoured before the nineteenth century.

Up until recently, I believed wholeheartedly that Eostre was not a goddess at all, but simply the misunderstanding of an early Christian monk who had witnessed the first days of Britain’s conversion to Christianity. Across the centuries, this misunderstanding flourished into an elaborate whimsical tale of a spring goddess who transforms a dying bird into a hare to save its life. However, with the celebration of Ostara upon us, I decided to revisit this subject once more and I have discovered that things are not as clear cut as I had originally believed. So is it possible that Eostre was indeed a goddess that was honoured by the Anglo Saxons? Let’s look at the evidence.

The first piece of evidence begins with the Venerable Bede, a 7th century scholar and monk of the early Christian church who wrote of the Anglo Saxons; ‘Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated Paschal month and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month’. This is the only record we have that mentions an Anglo Saxon goddess named Eostre and this has led some some of us to question Bede’s credibility because no other Germanic or Scandinavian myths, images or Medieval texts exist of her. Even though Bede lived at a time when he must have had direct contact with people who practised the old ways and would have surely been aware of what gods and goddesses were being honoured, why then is his writing so vague?

It is extremely unlikely that he would have fabricated a goddess, considering the Church would have wanted to discourage any worshipping of pagan deities. Bede may have known more about the goddess Eostre, but wanted to stay clear of any pagan associations. Or perhaps it truly was a misunderstanding and Eostre was actually the name of a festival and not a goddess. We do need to keep in mind, however, who Bede’s audience was, the censorship involved and any assumptions or personal opinions he may have had.

The Anglo Saxons named all of their months, apart from the two that Bede says were named after goddesses, after seasonal weather conditions, customs or calendar events. Bede wrote that not only Eosturmonath (April) was named after a goddess, but Hrethmonath (March) as well. If these goddesses were so important, in the eyes of the Anglo Saxons, to have had months named after them, then why don’t we know a single thing about them apart from a few lines written by Bede himself? Perhaps these months were in fact just like all of the others and their names simply reflected the time of year.

The word “hrethe” can mean fierce, harsh and rough, which does describe March’s weather extremely well, so could this be the case or is “Hretha” an actual war goddess, as suggested by Kathleen Herbert in her book ‘Looking for the Lost Gods of England’? There is written evidence of a tribe called the Hrethgotan or Hreda’s Goths, but I believe that this name means ‘fierce Goths’ rather than a tribe that called themselves after a possible war goddess. As for Eosturmonath, Ronald Hutton believes it is not named after a goddess of spring. In his book ‘Stations of the Sun’ he says. “Estor-monath” simply meant the ‘month of opening’, or the ‘month of beginning’ and that Bede mistakenly connected it with a goddess who either never existed at all or was never associated with a particular season, but merely like Eos and Aurora, with Dawn itself”.

In his book “Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World”, Philip Shaw explains that both Hretha and Ostara were goddesses local to Kent, a county in the south east of England, where Bede gathered most of his information from. If this is the case then it might explain why no other traces of Eostre have been found. He then goes on to say that Anglo Saxon missionaries took these names with them when they travelled to what is now France and Germany. I am doubtful that was the case.

Another piece of evidence comes from Einhard (770-840) a Frankish scholar, historian and close adviser to Charlemagne. His work entitled “The Life of Charlemagne” chronicles his twenty three years of service in the powerful king’s court; a king who succeeded in uniting most of western and central Europe under his rule and who fought the Saxons. Charlemagne Christianised the Saxons on penalty of death and destroyed all of their idols, even changing the Saxon names of the months of the year. So if Eostre was genuinely a Saxon goddess then why would a fanatical Christian king name the month of March ‘Oster-monath’ when all he would have wanted to do was to wipe everything pagan off the map?

Many centuries later Jacob Grimm, of the famed ‘Grimms’ Fairy Tales’, who thought very highly of Bede’s work, published his book ‘Teutonic Mythology’ in 1835. In it he gives Eostre the name ‘Ostara’ and calls her a goddess of the dawn, which he derives from the etymology of her name (‘eos’ being the Greek word for dawn). He writes, ‘the divinity of the radiant dawn…whose meaning could easily be adapted to the resurrection day of the Christian God.’ He continues, ‘This Ostara, like the Anglo Saxon Eostre, must in the heathen religion have denoted a higher being, whose worship was so firmly rooted that the Christian teachers tolerated the name and applied it to one of their own grandest anniversaries’. So from the pages of ‘Teutonic Mythology’ Ostara as we know her today was brought into being.

However, the name ‘ostara’  is a plural noun and its singular form is actually ‘ostarun’ which Grimm explains away by saying that the spring festival lasted for several days. He assumes this is the case because Bede wrote ‘feasts’ and not ‘feast’ when discussing the honouring of Eostre.

Whatever festival Bede was describing it would have been a grand affair and a very large undertaking. There are Christian writings that describe oxen being sacrificed for pagan feasts that stretched over three days. We know that Snorri Sturlusson when writing about Olver of Eggja mentions that there were three sacrificial feasts a year, of which one was in the spring. So did the Anglo Saxons at least celebrate a spring festival at the same time? In Germany today, many people celebrate traditions that have been passed down from pre-Christian times. The town of Lugde and its famous Osterrader is one of them.

The Grimm brothers, who were nationalists, lived at a time when Germany was not yet a country, but was made up of several different principalities. Their fervent research and writing of myths and folk tales were ways for them to reclaim their people’s ancestral culture which they believed had been lost to them for centuries under the rule of the Roman Catholic Church. The creation of the modern day ‘Ostara’ was a clever attempt to incite a pagan revival.

I find it extremely unlikely that pagans living in northern Europe honoured a goddess called Eostre at the vernal equinox due to the fact that April is the following month after the equinox. If the early Anglo Saxons did honour a goddess around the time of the equinox then it would have possibly been the goddess Hrede.

Since the nineteenth century, many tales and myths pertaining to Ostara have been told and sadly there is no great age to them. They are just simply modern day fairy tales. There has also been no evidence found, whatsoever, that associates rabbits, hares, eggs or spring with Ostara, despite what some pagans are led to believe.

Some pagans have also been misled to believe that the Christian holiday of Easter superseded Ostara and that Christianity is to blame for taking it away from the early pagans, but from what I have read and understood, the early Christians only took the name Ostara and never actually replaced a pagan festival because there never was one to replace. Bede insists that it was the English people that wanted to keep the old name (in German it is Ostern) while interestingly enough other European countries accepted the Hebrew ‘Pesach’ which means Passover which was exactly what the Church wanted (Paques. Pasqua, Paske, Pascua, Pastele etc).

Historically, the equinoxes only became major pagan festivals due to the practice of Wicca and its invention of the Wheel of the Year. I don’t believe that our ancestors, who would have been preoccupied with sowing or harvesting, would have honestly had the time for organising a three day celebration at these times of year.

We do need to be extremely mindful of neo-pagan literature where opinion is stated as fact. Some neo-pagan writers have great difficulty with staying impartial and their personal beliefs naturally influence their writing. This can be demonstrated with the origins of painting eggs at this time of year for example. There is no actual pre-Christian evidence for this custom. The first mention of the Easter Rabbit and painted eggs dates back to sixteenth century German literature where it is written that good children were rewarded with painted eggs if they decorated their hats with nests. We also need to remember that eggs were one of the things that Christians were forbidden to eat during Lent, so Easter Sunday would have been an even greater cause for celebration when eggs were abundant once more. This time of year also coincided with chickens laying eggs again after the long winter.

A writer that comes to mind is Nigel Pennick who is one good example of fabricating facts. In his books he has claimed that Ostara was celebrated at the vernal equinox, that her name comes from ‘estrus’ linking it etymologically to oestrogen and also Saxon poets likened Ostara to the goddess Kali! This is pure unsupported nonsense and dangerous to those who believe it as truth.

After all I have read over these past few months, a seed of Ostara’s existence has been planted in my mind and perhaps there is a possibility that she was once a local minor goddess and the Anglo Saxons of Kent did indeed honour her. There is no evidence that she was a goddess of spring nor that she was honoured at the vernal equinox. However, the wonderful thing about history is that it is not set in stone and archaeologists are discovering new finds every day that are constantly changing what we think we know of the past. So who knows, perhaps one day an intrepid metal detector enthusiast will dig up a little piece of jewellery with Eostre’s image on it in the middle of a field in Kent.

Sources:

The Pagan Book of Days and Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition Nigel Pennick

The Stone Men of Malekula 1942 and The Lady of the Hare 1944 by John Layard

Teutonic Mythology first published 1835 Jacob Grimm

Looking for the Lost Gods of England 1994 Kathleen Herbert

Stations of the Sun 2001 Ronald Hutton

History of the Goths 1990 Herwig Wolfram

Life of Charlemagne early 9th century Einhard  (can be found for free online)

Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World 2011 Philip A Shaw

The Moon, Myth and Image 2003 Jules Cashford

Heimskringla Snorri Sturluson 13th century (can be found for free online)

The Saga of Icelanders 2001 Penguin Edition

De Temporum Ratione, 725, Bede

The painting is by Marie Spartelli Stillman

Ploughtide Traditions

The very little evidence we have on how our northern European ancestors celebrated the return of spring, dates back only as far as the Medieval period. We can assume, however, that due to these festivals being closely connected to the agricultural year, that these rites have been passed down from generation to generation, in one form or another for thousands of years. Even up until the 1950’s, when these customs disappeared, there was still a deep desire to sow a successful harvest.

The timing of these spring festivals varied greatly and depended entirely on location and seasonal transitions; unlike today where most people who follow a nature based spirituality celebrate all on the same day, no matter where they are in the world. Our ancestors, however, having a much closer connection to the land, waited for the subtle signs before commencing their rites.

During the Middle Ages, the Christian church and its religious calendar appear to have taken control over these rites and the Plough Sunday and Monday celebrations always began with the local priest blessing a brightly decorated plough covered with ribbons and bows. These blessings would then have been said for whoever worked the land, as well as for a fruitful harvest. In the religious calendar ‘Plough Mundy’ or ‘Hansel Monday’ in Scotland, was traditionally the first Monday after the Epiphany (Twelfth Night). This date marked the beginning of the agricultural year and the end of the Christmas season.

Ploughtide was the time when farming tools were mended, cleaned and sharpened. The land having laid dormant since the last harvest was now ready to be ploughed. Everyone had to go back to work after the Christmas period with women returning to their spinning on St Distaff’s Day. Funnily enough St Distaff was never a real person or saint and a distaff was actually the name given to a spinning tool. It was customary on this day for men to try and steal the women’s flax and burn it; after which the women would pay the men back by throwing water over them!

After the blessing of the plough, thirty to forty men would assume the role of the oxen and pull the plough out of the church and into the village. Going from door to door the men would shout, “Penny for the Plough Boys”, as they collected money for the church. Other donations such as food was gratefully received especially as they would not have been paid during the Christmas holiday.

The money that was collected paid for the ‘Plough Candle’ which would burn before an image of a saint. The burning candle was believed to bless all of those who worked the land or who were connected with it in some way, such as the threshers, the reapers, the carters, the smiths and the millers.

The Plough Boys always wore white clothes that normally consisted of a shirt that was worn over a waist coat. Their arms and shoulders were covered in colourful ribbons tied in large bows and their faces were disguised under layers of black earth, soot or red ochre. On their heads sat a tall hat with small bunches of dried corn which fell to the ground when they moved.

The procession was accompanied by an old woman or a young boy dressed up as one, called the ‘Bessy’. Someone else would be dressed up as the ‘fool’, covered in fox fur, a hood and a tail. This character also carried a pig’s bladder on the end of a stick. It is believed that the character of the old woman might possibly be a remnant of an ancient mother/crone goddess from the Roman festivals called ‘Compitalia’. These extremely old festivals honoured the spirits of the family and home and could take place anytime between Saturnalia and 5th January.

It was traditional during Ploughtide to damage the front garden of anyone who refused to make a donation by using a plough. If this act of vandalism took place during Ploughtide it was not seen as a punishable crime.

The celebrations lasted several days and consisted of music, dancing around the plough and intricate sword fighting plays (folk plays that enacted a symbolic death and resurrection of one of the characters; a remnant of an ancient fertility rite). The dances were usually only performed by the farm workers who hoped that their high jumping would determine the height of the grain.

In Scotland, there used to be a rite called the ‘Streeking of the Plough, where the workers would symbolically wrap up a portion of their food and tie it firmly to the beam of the plough as well as pour some of their drink (normally whiskey) over it. The food that was tied to the plough was not to be touched or removed. This was seen as an extremely important custom to ensure a prosperous ploughing, sowing and subsequent harvest; perhaps an offering to the goddess. In Cairney, after the first furrow had been ploughed, bread, cheese and milk porridge was given to the ploughman and the first slice of cheese was always offered to the herd boy. The consistency of the porridge had to be just right because if it was too thin, then it didn’t bode well for the next season’s crops.

Good Friday was seen as a very unlucky day to start ploughing the fields in Scotland. This superstition was so strong that eventually all Fridays were seen as unlucky.

In Whittlesey, as part of the Ploughtide celebrations, a ‘straw bear’ man, completely covered in straw was led on a string and made to dance in front of every house in return for money. It is believed that the ‘straw bear’ represented the spirit of the corn bestowing its favours on every household and therefore ensuring a plentiful harvest. It is still a custom today and you can find plenty of photos online.

There is a strange tale that tells the story of a man and a boy who were in the fields ploughing one day when they both heard a little cry coming from a nearby copse. They stopped what they are doing and ran towards the sound where they found one of the little folk sobbing that he had lost his pick. The farmer searched for the tool and eventually found it for the little man, who rewarded them both with cheese, bread and cider. The man eagerly ate the food, but the boy does not because he was wary of the gift. As time went on a practice known as The Cake in the Furrow evolved and people began leaving offerings in the fields at the beginning of the ploughing season and some believe that this is how Plough Monday came to be in Worcestershire.

The Anglo Saxons, according to ‘De temporum ratione’ written by the Venerable Bede, named the month of February ‘Solmonath’; the month of mud or the plough (depending on how it is translated). People would offer cakes to the gods at this time of year, leaving them in the furrows. The only other time they did this was at harvest time ‘Hlaefmaesse’. It is interesting to note that they thanked the gods at the time of sowing and at the time of harvesting.

The Anglo Saxons also had a charm or blessing that they performed to encourage a plentiful harvest on a barren piece of land or to reverse a curse that had been placed on it. The aptly named ‘Field Remedy’ or ‘Aecerbot’ is a long complex ritual that requires specific list of ingredients to cleanse and heal the land. If you want to learn more about this incantation, then you can see it here http://www2.hawaii.edu/~kjolly/field.htm.  You will notice that there is a mixture of pagan and Christian elements within it.

No one knows for sure where these specific festivals originate from, however, there is one theory that points to the Danes. There is a possibility that the Danes could have bought these traditions over with them when they settled in England. The only regions where there is evidence of this type of festival being celebrated is in the north east of England and the east Midlands; regions that were under Danelaw. I highly recommend that you read the research of Pete Millington who goes into great detail and discusses the similarities and differences between the old Danish customs and the old English ones. If you do not have the time to read the whole paper then I suggest that you just read ‘Discussions’ and ‘Conclusion’. You can find it here http://petemillington.uk/ploughmonday/Origins.php

Plough Monday is believed by many to have heralded the start of the ploughing season. I am of the opinion, however, that this was only the case for southern Europe because the earth would have still been far too hard to plough effectively in northern regions. Perhaps rituals were performed well before the ploughing season so as to have plenty of time to prepare before the earth had warmed up. In some areas ploughing would have actually taken place in the autumn.

Sources:

Chambers Book of Days by Robert Chambers (1864)

The Every Day Book by William Hone (1825)

Stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton (2001)

The Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Weiser Francis (1958)

The English Year by Steve Roud (2008)

De temporum ratione by Bede (725)

The Goddess Brigid And Imbolc

Imbolc means “the belly of the mother” or Oimelc “the feast of ewe’s milk” and its celebration falls around 1st February each year. This festival of light also known as Disfest and Candlemas is a time that balances between two worlds. We can still see and feel the fingers of winter resting on the land, but if you look closely enough there are signs of the promise of new life breaking through the fog and ice. The time for awakening is now. All of our dreams and aspirations that have been gestating over the past season are ready to break forth and are searching for the nourishment of the sun. The period of contemplation and inner workings has come to an end and our determination and drive are now needed to create momentum.

Our ancestors, like farmers today, would have been busy with the lambing season, as well as mending their ploughs ready for working the soil in preparation for planting. Moreover, it was a time for them to give thanks to the Gods and spirits of the land for not only future harvests, but for having kept their families and livestock safe during the bleak winter months.

Many modern day pagans honour Brigid at this time; who is a goddess of midwives, blacksmiths, poets, fertility and healing, as well as corn and cattle. She is known by many names and there are just as many myths and legends about her too. Brigid is a fire goddess who lights the hearths of the poor and who kindles the flame inside of us; the nourishing flame that sustain us in difficult times.

Brigid is a Celtic goddess who was absorbed into the Christian faith as Saint Brigid of Kildare, Ireland, during the sixth century and as Bride in Scotland. She is also associated with the Goddess Brig of the Brigantes, an ancient culture in the North of England. Personally, I believe that there are traces of her much earlier than this and you can catch glimpses of her during the time of the Picts and even as far back as the Neolithic.

This time of year was very important to the Celtic people and they had many customs and traditions that were handed down the generations.

Doll like figures of Brigid called Brideog used to be fashioned out of barley. This sheaf traditionally had a shell or small crystal over the heart and represented the guiding star of Brigid. A talisman of protection and prosperity it was believed to bring good fortune for the coming year. The doll was often greeted and blessings were asked of her. During the winter the doll was returned to the fields or forests once the shell or crystal had been removed.

Goddess Brigid was said to visit people’s homes at Imbolc, so in preparation for this, a small bed was made for her out of a box or basket. By welcoming Brigid to stay overnight our ancestors were symbolically asking that her gifts of fertility and healing be bestowed upon the household. The hearth was also dedicated to Brigid; it was a sacred space for food preparation, family gatherings and a source of warmth and light.

Brigid’s cross and sun wheel were symbols of sympathetic magic and were used to encourage the sun to grow in strength again after the harsh winter. These were also protective charms for thatchers.

It was customary to leave some bread, cake and milk for Brigid with a candle in the window so that she would know to come in. Another custom was to throw a sheaf of oats or some bread or cake against the front doorstep on the eve of Imbolc to drive away hunger during the coming months and an offering of hay, grass or corn was also made for Brigid’s cow.

In some areas of Britain a procession of young people would accompany Brigit around the village on Imbolc Eve to beg alms. Brigit was normally a girl dressed in a costume or simply a doll. If it was a group of girls they would dress in white and sing and dance as they went from house to house. They were known as the Bride Maiden Band. In some villages, boys dressed up as girls and known as Biddy Boys went begging from door to door. This idea was probably to emulate Brigid’s good work as she was known to collect clothes, food and money for the poor. People would give cheese, eggs, butter, biscuits or money because it was thought that this would encourage a good harvest, prosperity and good luck.

Some stories say that Brigid had a magical cloak that possessed healing and protective powers and could expand for miles on end. The cloak’s colour was originally green, but when she became a saint the colour changed to white. It was said that if you left a piece of cloth outside on Imbolc eve then Brigid would bless it with the same powers of her cloak. This was beneficial for sick animals and would have been kept for the whole year until the following Imbolc when it would be blessed anew.

Brigid’s magical girdle or belt had the same healing powers as her cloak and the four crosses that were said to be embroided on it symbolised protection at all four cardinal directions. People would craft a long belt from straw and step through it three times, kissing it as they went through right foot first. This was seen as a symbol of rebirth and would ensure good health and protection.

In ancient times pilgrims would travel from afar to bring offerings and ask for blessings at sacred wells and springs dedicated to Brigid. Long before coins were thrown into the waters, brass rings, silver and gold were offered. People would bathe in the healing waters and dress the well or spring with flowers, leaves and pieces of cloth.

Brigid is not the only Goddess that is remembered at Imbolc. The Cailleach was said to gather firewood at Imbolc so she would have enough to see her through to the warmer months. Legend says that if the Cailleach wants the cold to last a bit longer then Imbolc would be bright and sunny, so as to allow her to collect firewood. So you can imagine how relieved our ancestors must have been when Imbolc was overcast and wet. It meant that the Cailleach was fast asleep and winter was almost over.