Imbolc – The Earth Begins to Awaken
Image courtesy of Astrocal
The wheel turns once more, and we move through into the time of Brigid! – Imbolc, one of the most joyous and beloved festivals!
Imbolc, pronounced Im-olc, falls at the beginning of February in the Northern hemisphere, around the 1st and 2nd of the month, and is an ancient Celtic celebration to welcome back the return of the Sun and Spring, of new life returning to the Earth after the long dark days of Winter.
It is one of the eight festivals that many of us who identify as witches and as pagans celebrate. Four of the festivals have Celtic origins, these are Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh (Loo-na-sah) and Samhain (Sow-een), and are known as the fire festivals. The other four are associated with points on the solar calendar, the Spring and Autumn Equinox, (Ostara and Mabon), when day and night are equal and the Summer and Winter Solstices (Litha and Yule) the longest and shortest days of the year.
What Is The Festival Of Imbolc and Why Ritual is Important?
Imbolc was one of the most important times in the Celtic farming calendar, as the Winter stores would be getting low. The days are getting longer, new life is returning. Imbolc translates as “ewe’s milk” or “in the belly”, because this is the time that the sheep are pregnant and lambs are on the way. The cold harsh days of winter are almost behind us. Even though the days are still bleak and frosty, the energy differs from the deep reflection, withdrawal and hibernation energies that Yule and the Winter Solstice bring to us…here at Imbolc there is a sense that within the earth things are beginning to wake from their slumber. Imbolc celebrations centered around the lighting of fires to welcome in the return of the Sun, and for cleansing, also fertility, to bring in new life.
Image courtesy of Janie Olsen
Our farming Ancestors relied on the seasons and the land, their lives depended on it! These are pastoral / agricultural markers, which have lost their importance for most of us in our modern world, where all our needs are taken care of – food is easy to get hold of, we have warmth and shelter (well, unfortunately it is a sad fact that there are too many homeless and in poverty here in the UK and globally, but for those of us who are fortunate, we have the modern comforts) so we have lost touch with that aspect of our Mother Earth, the connection with the seasons. How the weather affects us is reduced to mere inconvenience – no longer is it a matter of life or death if the crops fail, and thank goodness for that!
Because of the loss of the deep connection that we used to have with those cycles, most of us have lost the importance of creating ritual and ceremony in our lives. These are the things which keep us connected with the earth and the cycles of nature, and to one another… when we reconnect and deepen this it can have profound positive effects within us and our environments and the people around us. We can create a feeling of community, of belonging – healing ourselves and the land. We are intrinsically connected, when one is sick or does not thrive, neither does the other. That is what we are seeing across the globe right now….but things are changing, we are reconnecting, which is amazing and so needed. We don’t need to over complicate things to be present, to perform little rituals that honour the seasons, cycles and ourselves.
As we move into the time of Imbolc, we begin to see new life emerging all around us in the natural world, buds on the trees, the first snowdrops begin poking their heads up through the warming soil, birds beginning to build nests, their song getting louder and more melodic. The days are getting longer, and despite the cold frosty , even snowy, days, the gentle warmth from the sun can be felt when it’s out. There is a subtle shift in the energy, an almost imperceptible hum or buzz. The signs are there all around for us to see and connect with if we so choose. Can you see them?
The Goddess Brigid
This time of year is associated with the Goddess Brigid, sometimes pronounced “Breed”, Bridie, Brigit or Saint Brigit as she was later called by the Christians, showing what a beloved and powerful figure she was, they couldn’t get rid of her so they made her a saint!! (this time is also known in the Christian calendar as Candlemas) Brigid is a Goddess of fire and water, of healing and fertility, the Goddess of childbirth, midwives, poetry and blacksmithing!!
Image courtesy of Wendy Andrew
Brigid is a Goddess of many things to many people, and is one of the most enduring and beloved Goddesses of them all. Because of her association with water, she is connected to wells, and holy springs – “well dressing” is something that was practiced and still occurs today. To honour the spirit of Brigid the local well would be bedecked in flowers and offerings, “clooties”, ribbons and bells, especially at Imbolc and Beltane. The water supply was so important to the village, and the sacred spring or well was often the focal point. In these times of being mindful about the environment its better to leave something that is not permanent, and will degrade into the earth – a food offering that will feed the birds, small pieces of cake, a drop of apple juice or blessed water poured into the ground, a feather, or stone found nearby – flowers and greenery, things that are natural to the local environment and left with loving intention are better than fancy ribbons and crystals, even better, leave nothing but love and healing, and pick up litter wherever you see it, this to me is really honouring and respecting the land.
Where I live we have a sacred spring, and at Imbolc I go there to connect with Brigid and ask for her blessings, leave an offering and collect water to use in my ceremonies.
Brigid was credited with bringing civilization to the Celtic people. Similar to the Roman myth of Vesta, Brigid was thought to be attended by an all female priesthood. Every year at mid-winter, festivals were thrown in honour of the goddess, as a way to encourage the return of springtime, and then again at Imbloc, as she really began to grow in her power.
According to Skye Alexander in her book The Modern Guide to Witchcraft, Imbolc has three main associations:
Veneration of fire & water – Brigid was the patron of smith work (think of the fire in a blacksmith’s forge) and waterways in Ireland.
Quickening on new life in the womb – Bridgid was the Celtic goddess of fertility, and was honoured during this season of birth and rebirth.
Lactation of ewes – By mid winter the food supply of Northern Europe in the Middle Ages relied on grains harvested in the previous season and the butter, cheese and milk of lactating animals. This is why dairy products and grain products are both popular foods to make during Imbolc.
It is also associated with intention setting and inspiration- planning the garden, planning what we want to achieve, to nurture and grow throughout the year. Even though there are cold days to come, we can sit and dream, and plan, feeling hope grow within us.
Brigid Becomes St. Brigid
Like many pagan customs, the Goddess Brigid was adopted by the Christian church in the middle ages and was canonized as St. Brigid of Kildare, whose saint day is February 1st. Her shrine was attended by 19 nuns, similar to the all female priesthood of the Goddess Brigid. In the town of kildare in more modern times they have re-embraced Brigid, and an eternal flame now burns there again. Reaching back into pre-Christian times, a sacred fire burned in Kildare. Scholars suggest that priestesses used to gather on the hill of Kildare to tend their ritual fires while invoking Brigid to protect their herds and to provide a fruitful harvest.
Image courtesy of Wendy Andrew
The sacred fire/flame was re-lit in 1993, in the Market Square of Kildare, by Mary Teresa Cullen, the then leader of the Brigidine Sisters, at the opening of a justice and peace conference. On February 1st 2006, St. Brigid’s Day, the flame was turned into an “eternal flame”, perpetually lit in the town square from the flame tended in Solas Bhride. you can read more about that here.
This flame makes up part of the many peace flames from around the world that also stays perpetually lit in the goddess Temple in Glastonbury, the heart chakra of the world (along with Avebury).
So this shows what an important goddess Brigid is still to this day! If you want to read even more about Brigid there is a great article here on Mythopedia.
But….. we are not out of the grip of winter yet! I could not talk about Imbolc without mentioning the Cailleach! – one of my most favourite deities. (alongside Brigid, The Morrigan, Hekate, Cerridwen and Blodewedd)
Image courtesy of Angela Ferreira Magic paintings
And The Cailleach (pronounced Kai-lee-ach), the Old Woman of Winter
Now I am stepping into my crone years I really resonate with The Cailleach, especially through the winter months, those times when we need to be most introspective, to hibernate, to go within for deep inner healing, to be more solitary and self-sufficient.
She is one of our most ancient creator goddesses. Known as the old woman of winter, the Veiled One, and the Queen of Winter, among many other names (often that’s how you can tell that a deity is ancient, they have many names).
Image courtesy of Jane Brideson
Cailleach is a Creator Deity, one of the Ancient Giantesses – she lives up in the high mountains of Scotland (or Ireland) and created the landscape by dropping boulders and rocks from her apron, and forming valleys with her footprints, although whether she did so intentionally remains unclear. Her tools of creation and destruction included her hammer, with which she was able to control storms and thunder (similarities to Thor in Norse mythology). In some legends, she also controlled a well that would occasionally overflow and flood the land. Visually she appears primarily as a veiled old woman, sometimes with only one eye (notice the similarity to Odin, the God of Norse mythology and father to Thor here! Thor’s mother being Jord the Earth Goddess / the personification of Earth). Her skin was deathly pale or blue, while her teeth were red and her clothes adorned with skulls (much like Kali, goddess of destruction and rebirth…so many similarities with other deities!) She could leap across mountains and ride storms.
Neither fully good nor evil, a natural, wild, destructive force. The patron of wolves and deer, she was said to help deer escape from hunters. Ageless and immortal, both young and old, in some tales she becomes Brigid at Beltane, also a Goddess of the grain, mother at Litha, and becoming crone at Samhain!… she fully embodies the triple Goddess aspect of Maiden, Mother and Crone. She is a sovereign of Winter and also of Imbloc, so at this time its wise to honour her too.
Image courtesy of Naomi Cornock
The Cailleach was both ageless and immortal; as winter gave way to spring, she would take a magical drink that returned her to youth – (the sacred spring waters of immortality featured in many myths and legends). In Manx legend, she spent half the year as a young woman (Brigid?) and the other half as an old crone – she was only known as the Cailleach during the latter half. In Ireland, she had seven periods of youth, after which she remained old permanently.
The seasonal division between summer and winter – where the Cailleach ruled winter and Brigid ruled summer – highlighted the association of the two goddesses. On Samhain, or October 31st, the Celtic year ends and winter begins, marking the return of the Cailleach. In Scotland and the Isle of Man, the Cailleach transforms into Brigid during Beltane, the fertility festival held on May 1st.
The Cailleach was also a goddess of grain, a key resource in surviving winter. The last sheath of grain harvested was dedicated to her, and used to begin the next planting season. Connections to life, death and rebirth.
Like many Irish goddesses, the Cailleach was linked to sovereignty and rulership. Before anyone could rule the land, they had to first win her approval.
As a Goddess of transformation and death, She oversees the culling of the old, and lets die all that is no longer needed, hence her reign beginning at Samhain, when the animals would be culled to save the grain over winter and feed the tribe.
With the passing of the winter months, the Cailleach finds and guards the seeds for the coming re-birth of Spring. She stands at the cusp of life and death, intimately connected to the witches of old, the wise women who presided as midwives over birthing and who prepared the dead for burial, which connects to my soul midwife and witchy side!
As the “Veiled One” the Cailleach guides us through our inner realities and dreams. She teaches us to let go of (allow to die) all that no longer serves our higher purpose and guides us through the many deaths and rebirths of our life’s transitions. She is the final phase of the Triple Goddess who rules the wheel of reincarnation. She teaches us to embrace the transformative power of darkness and leads us into the light of re-birth.
Image courtesy of Wendy Andrew
When we journey with the Cailleach in her time of winter she is asking us to go within to join Her in her cave, the dark womb of the Earth, to honour our deepest desires, our deepest innermost selves and ask ourselves what do we want to create? What of those darkest parts of ourselves, the parts we shun, we feel are ugly, can we name them, and love them? What do we need to let go, what needs to die so we can create fertile ground for ourselves? The Cailleach can help us to let go of those things and dream our rebirth into being.
It’s so easy at Imbolc to get carried away, to want to plant those seeds – but the Cailleach teaches us patience. This is where working with and learning about the Goddesses associated with the seasons has really helped me to connect with cycles of Nature, so I can better be aligned with myself and the world. It is they who have taught me the lessons of patience, and to use this time wisely, to value the need for intention setting and planning instead of rushing ahead and sowing those seeds! Now, instead of planting seeds, I plan the garden, I buy seeds, get out last years seeds that I saved, hold them in my hands, send healing intention to them, asking for them to be fruitful and set strong roots, and feel the energy of the Cailleach as I do so.
I will be posting a special meditation on my podcast, The Holistic Witch to journey with her, I’d love for you to join me.
Tradition has it that at Imbolc, the Cailleach runs out of firewood, if the day is sunny and bright, its a good day for her to collect firewood, and so winter will last longer. If the day is grey and rainy, she stays in bed, and the winter will end sooner! An interesting fact, in the United States this was transformed into Groundhog day! Losing the Cailleach, but retaining the ritual!
How to Celebrate Imbolc
Because Imbolc is the midway point between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, it was regarded as a season unto itself. A time of change, when the days are longer and the sun is stronger. Celebrations included lighting fires to warm the frozen land, hanging a four cornered Bridgid’s Cross above doorways to bless and protect a home, and practicing weather divination as a way to predict the future. Similar to the idea of Groundhog’s Day, ancient peoples would listen for a lark to sing on Imbolc. If they heard the bird, it meant that the God had returned to the Goddess and spring would be early.
Modern Imbolc celebrations can incorporate ancient traditions such as lighting candles, making crafts, and baking bread. It is also a good time to continue that pause we are still embodying from the Winter and look inward, but in a more forward planning way – now is the time to think about what it is you would like to accomplish in the season ahead. Imbolc is a time to take what you have learned and apply it to new endeavours as the Wheel once more turns.
Here are a few easy Imbolc celebrations you can do:
- Engrave a candle with a word that has a special meaning to you, and light that candle on January 31st – February 1st, to signify a new beginning in your life.
- Bake a loaf of bread. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Just going through the rhythm of mixing, kneading, rising and baking is enough of a ritual. Soda bread is easy to make and very traditional to our Irish ancestors. If you have access, serve your bread with locally made butter and give thanks for the blessings in your life.
- Make a Bridgids Cross – You can use whatever materials you have on hand, such as paper, old magazines or cloth. Here is a tutorial on Youtube to help you get started.
- Start your spring cleaning – Imbolc is a great time to go through your home and give away things that you no longer need and do some cleaning. If doing a whole deep clean of your home feels overwhelming, pick one room or area in your home to declutter and spruce up, in honour of Bridgid and the return of the light.
- Plan your garden. Whether you grow vegetables, or just flowers, there is nothing nicer on a cold February day sitting in front of a warm fire pouring over a seed catalogue or getting out last years seeds.
- Feed the birds. This is a great time of year to see all sorts of wildlife in your gardens. The weather can be brutal for our feathered friends as the hedgerows are bare. You don’t have to spend loads of money on expensive bird food and feeders, you can make homemade bird treats out of cheap popcorn and lard, old dried fruit or christmas mince meat that has gone passed their best. As part of your Imbolc cleaning, by sorting through your kitchen cupboards you can help the birds, it could mean the difference between life and death for them. Remember to keep a bird bath topped up for them too, and ensure it is free of ice.
There is a great website called Pagan Kids, that has loads of good ideas for reconnecting with the festivals and things that the whole family can get involved with – they have more Imbolc ideas and inspirations in this article here.
Image courtesy of Gather Victoria – The Cailleach’s Red Ale Cake.
Your Imbolc Altar
I love setting up my Imbolc altar. One of the first things I do to prepare for Imbolc (after giving everywhere a good dust and polish) is to get to a garden centre and buy pots of snowdrops! I have loads in the garden, and this is where they will end up, but I like to have a pot in the house for a few days at this time as well. My mother in laws birthday is February 2nd, and it has become a bit of a tradition that I get her a pot of snowdrops too. I also place tarot or oracle cards or statues that depict Brigid or the Cailleach on my altar, alongside some fresh ivy, maybe buy myself a bunch of daffodils if they are available – there is nothing cheerier than seeing them.
Items such as ribbons, crystals, candles… lots of candles!, we are still calling in the light and the warmth. Colours of the season are white, or yellow or green, the colours of spring and of Brigid. A statue of Brigid, a corn dolly, a Brigids cross or anything that depicts Celtic knotwork (you could try and make one yourself using the tutorial on Colorful Crafts). Cauldrons and chalices. A book of poetry, or a poem you have written, anything connected with Fairies. Lambs.
But as always, it is your altar, place whatever resonates for you – stones from the garden, crystals, beautiful fabrics – the choices are endless.
At this turn of the wheel, Imbolc, I wish you so much love, health, peace and inspiration, and of course, always connection. Whatever you choose to do, I hope it brings you joy.