Monday, February 1, 2016

IMBOLC, St Brighid & the arrival of Spring

by Elaine S Moxon

In the northern hemisphere, February is a harsh month, but long-hoped for signs of new life begin to emerge at this time. The first shoots appear - the first stirrings of spring in the womb of Mother Earth; the first ploughing is carried out; lambs are born; calves are born; larks sing; the sea can be calm enough to occasionally launch fishing boats and corvids nest in the trees. Well, the pair of crows is back in the oak tree outside our house and it’s wonderful to see them. It means February is here and spring is around the corner. They always arrive around Imbolc, or ‘Ewe’s Milk’ as our Celtic ancestors called it. A Pagan festival for the returning of the light, often associated with St Brighid, it is my personal favourite of the 8 Celtic festivals (and incidentally the only one associated solely with a female deity within this polytheistic belief system). For many it is a time of wondrous inspiration as we emerge from the dark nights and into the lighter, longer days; re-birthed if you will.

Celebrations at this time of year are not confined to a single belief however. It is, or has been, a significant time in many cultures around the world including Aztecs, Christians, Druids, Greeks, Romans and Tibetans. It remains the Tibetan New Year as well as the Aztec New Year (the latter now celebrated in Mexico). The Romans carried candles through the streets to celebrate the Goddess Februa, the mother of Mars. An old hag figure would also release a dragon to be fought and overcome, possibly representing winter, while a young maiden released a lamb. For Christians it is Candlemas, representing the presentation of the infant Christ in the Temple. In the pastoral calendar it is the lambing season, and so is fitting that this festival celebrates the bringing of children into the world and provides a derivation for its Celtic name.

Connecting with the candle-carrying of Candlemas, it is interesting to note that Imbolc is a ceremony of light. For the Celts and Druids, of which I write about in my books, it is the time of the maiden/virgin goddess. Known as Bride or Brighid, from the Celtic name for a fire goddess – Breo (fiery) Saigit (arrow) – her symbol is the 3 fire arrows of ‘inspiration’, ‘healing’ and the ‘hearth’ or ‘forge’. One might say her influence on our ancient ancestors was so strong, Christianity embraced her into their light ceremonies and Breosaigit the fiery goddess merged with the image of Mary: virginal maidens who both gave life.

Part of 'Feast of Presentation' by Bellini, via www.churchyear.net

Brighid is the muse of the poet, the midwife and the smith and can be found depicted with 3 objects: the mirror, the spinning wheel and the cup or grail. The goddess worshipped by our Celtic ancestors was portrayed with a comb and mirror, as the mermaid still is to this day. The mirror, used for scrying and divination reveals other worlds as it does for Alice in Wonderland. The spinning wheel depicts the revolving cycle of sun and moon, the great cycle of life-death-rebirth and the Norns of fate, spinning the threads of creation in Norse mythology. Its power reveals itself even today through fairytales such as ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Lastly the cup is the womb, from which all life is born (and as was shared from the Holy Grail – the cup of life) and from which all things are sustained, as the ewe’s milk sustains the new-born lambs. Also known as Imbolg or Oimelc, in Gaelic it means ‘in the belly’.

Usually portrayed in a white cloak, Brighid bears a lantern and birch walking staff with a wolf by her side. The staff – a fertilising phallus – is used to regenerate life in the land and its animals. Birch, having white bark, is associated with purification and was used by the Celts and Druids to ritually drive out dark spirits and unwanted, lingering remnants of the old year. Brighid is also known as the ‘White Swan’, hinting at other ancient forms of the goddess in snake or bird form. This connects too with her image cloaked in white and an older tradition of Celtic women painting themselves and going naked to honour ‘the Veiled One’. Swans also echo Nordic legends of the ‘Swan Maidens’, a form of Norns or Valkyries who lure men as do, incidentally, mermaids. The wolf is a guardian, ruler of the winter quarter of the year beginning at Celtic New Year with Samhain and ending at Imbolc. February was ‘the wolf month’.

Detail of antlered figure, via archeurope.eu

Gundestrup Cauldron, via en.wikipedia.org

Wolves and hounds appear frequently in Celtic mythology as helpers or guides. They are the companion of the forest god Cernunnos and appear on the Gundestrup cauldron. The mother of the Celtic god Lugh, whose son is venerated at the festival of Lughnasadh (August 31st-September 1st) was killed while in the form of a hound. The Irish King Cormac claimed to have been suckled by wolves and tribes often claimed descent from wolf-packs, both Celtic and Germanic. In my novel ‘WULFSUNA’ the tribe name literally means ‘Wolf Sons’ and the warriors affiliate themselves closely with the animal, in behaviour as well as appearance, by wearing wolf pelts; the howling and gnawing on shields by ‘Berserkers’ is very animalistic and was done to instil fear into the hearts of the enemy.

For the Celts and Druids, the virgin goddess or ‘Bride’ is the Winter Goddess or Hag who has regained her youth, emerging from the womb of the Earth anew. The custom of corn dolls made at the last and first ploughing to safeguard crops evolved into the St Brighid’s Cross made today from rushes or straw – these are not a crucifix, but a cross of equal points reminiscent of a more ancient sun symbol.

Cross of St Brighid

In Scotland, young girls would make the ‘Bride’ dolls and visit neighbours, who would pay homage by giving gifts of bannocks, butter or cheese. Older women would make the ‘Bride’ doll a bed in a basket and welcome the effigy of the saint into their home for the night. The next day young men visited to pay tribute after which there was much merrymaking and feasting and sharing of the food gifts with the poor. An elderly neighbour, who a few years ago had to go into a home, would secretly leave me a small pot of hyacinths on my back windowsill. He did it for 15 years and it warmed my heart. So in these lean times, in the spirit of our ancestors, I invite friends or family for a meal, or make apple butter for neighbours from my winter store of home-grown cooked apples. However you show it, bring some light into another’s life and spread the spirit of spring!

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Elaine writes historical fiction as 'E S Moxon'. Her debut Wulfsuna was published January 21st, 2015 and is the first in her Wolf Spear Saga series of Saxon adventures, where a Seer and one named 'Wolf Spear' are destined to meet. She is currently writing her second novel, set once again in the Dark Ages of 5th Century Britain. You can find out more about Book 2 from Elaine's website where she has a video diary charting her writing progress. She also runs a blog. Elaine lives in the Midlands with her family and their chocolate Labrador.

2 comments:

  1. Great post! I love Imbolc as well as the other Celtic holy days, especially Beltane and Samhain. I didn't realize King Cormac was raised by wolves, that's pretty neat:)

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  2. Thanks for posting the information about our Celtic/Roman Catholic history. I have shared it on all of the social media. We pray for the conversion of England.

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