Imbolc

Imbolc

I am not a neopagan.  People get confused about that because I observe traditional Gaelic agricultural holidays. I do believe that cultivating spirituality through observance of customs is part of healing and connects us to the world around us.

Observing ancestral folkways is how I choose to do that.  In learning their culture, I am honoring those who have gone before me.  I am drawn to the wisdom of living a life more in touch with the rhythm of the land.   In teaching that wisdom to our children, I am honoring all that is past, present, and future.

Tomorrow is the new moon, but it is also a cross-quarter day, equidistant between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox.   For ancients, I am sure the celebration was very much one of having survived the worst of winter as they began to recognize the first stirrings of spring. It is celebrated in many cultures.

One of the oldest recorded names for this celebration is the Gaelic name Imbolg “in the belly” or oimelc “milk”, which makes sense when you consider the fact that this is the time the ewe’s milk would begin flowing as they prepared to give birth.   In the Wooing of Emer it is written “Oi-melc, then, is the time in which the sheep come out and are milked.” Kuno Meyer has translated the following passage concerning the quarter day which leads some scholars to believe that purifications rites were associated with this quarter day.

Tasting every food in order,
This is what behoves at Imbulc
Washing of the hand and foot and head
It is thus I say

Harley 5280 fo. 35 b, 2

Indigenous Irish gatherings tended to be held in a sacred place and the fires of each celebration were lit in that place.  In Ireland, for example, the fires of Beltaine  were thought to have been lit at Uisneach while the fires of Samhain were lit at Tlachtga.  Imbolc is thought to have been observed domestically as it occurs in the depths of winter, but we really don’t know.

 In Irish mythology the name Brighid is given to three daughters of the Dagda, one of whom was the goddess of medicine and medical doctors and another of poetry and wisdom. The third sister was the goddess of smiths and smithwork and by association. It seems possible that since the fires of Imbolc were lit in home hearths, that it became associated with Brighid. That is educated conjecture on my part, though.

That’s all we know about this goddess.  Anything more you read is nonsense neopagan rebranding. There is nothing in the ancient manuscripts linking her with the day, and there was no such thing as a triple goddess in Irish mythology. 

When Christianity came along the missionaries assimilated many folk beliefs and so emerged St. Brigid; patron saint of Ireland and Imbolg became a fixed date known as Lá Fhéile Bríde.  Irish folklorist Seán Ó Súilleabháin wrote, “Every manifestation of the cult of the saint (or of the deity she replaced) is closely bound up in some way with food-production.”  

Butter, cheese, and milk were favored foods of this feast.  Common sense dictates that it would be safer to eat up the stores of milk, in the form of cheese, because fresh milk was becoming available.   It is interesting to think of milk as a seasonal item, isn’t it?

The origin of Groundhog’s day is also rooted in ancient myth.  Cailleach is a name sometimes given to an ancient winter goddess depicted as a hag.  In some places, if Frazier can be believed, (which is honestly doubtful) it was believed that if the day was cloudy and gray this meant that Cailleach was sleeping and spring would come sooner but if the day was bright and sunny Cailleach was out and gathering more firewood to feed her fire; thus winter would be prolonged.

As time passed the groundhog became the symbol we watched for. As Cailleach was reputed to be quite an ugly and dark goddess, I am not quite sure the groundhog deserves that comparison but perhaps it was made by some disgruntled gardener who was tired of her brassicas being chewed to the ground every year.

So tomorrow we will burn the greenery that I brought in for the winter solstice  and weave Brigit’s Crosses to replace them.  We will leave the lights off and light candles which we made especially for today.   At dinner time, we will have a simple candlelit meal and be thankful for the light and warmth within our home.  In the evening, I will spend time basking in the glow of new candles divining what my intentions should be for the year. 

4 thoughts on “Imbolc”

  1. I feel so like you do, Stephany. The sacred is in the mundane and what we bring and do with it. A very lovely post indeed. Enjoy your family candle lit dinner and the day:)

  2. How lovely! You practically put my thoughts and feelings here. I’m glad you didn’t stem yourself in writing this and I hope you choose not to in the future as well. Not only do we light the actual fires, but this lights a fire deep within me and brings a warmth of comfort and joy. A feeling I’ve been missing for a long time. You words today helped heal something broken.
    Blessed be.

  3. i used to be so good at celebrating and doing the seasonal changes but i’ve been so burnt out these past few years, i have no energy for it. it was wonderful reading about it though!

    we’ve had 3 of our ewes lamb w/in the last 2 weeks, definitely the time of flowing milk!

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