Imbolc means “the belly of the mother” or Oimelc “the feast of ewe’s milk” and its celebration falls around 1st February. 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 keeping their families and livestock safe during the bleak winter season.
At Imbolc today, many Pagans honour the Goddess Brigid the patron 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 flames inside of us. Nourishing flames that sustain us in difficult times.
She is a Celtic Goddess who was incorporated into Saint Brigid of Kildare, Ireland, during the sixth century and Bride in Scotland. She is also linked 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 from generation to generation.
Doll like figures of Brigid called Brideog were 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 months. 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 costume or 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 magickal girdle or belt had the same healing powers as her cloak and the four crosses that were said to be embroided on it symbolized 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.
There are many more myths and legends surrounding Imbolc, particularly about Brigid and if you know of any I haven’t mentioned or you know of some traditions, then I would love you to share them.