Imbolc Lore & Poetry

The dandelion lights its spark
Lest Brigid find the wayside dark.
And Brother Wind comes rollicking
For joy that she has brought the spring.
Young lambs and little furry folk
Seek shelter underneath her cloak.

~~ W. M. Letts

From The Celtic Book of Days by Caitlin Matthews:

“As the light lengthens, so the cold strengthens” goes the old saying. The Stark coldness of February seems winter-locked until we see the emerging tips of snowdrops to herald the return of Spring. As the lengthening shafts of sunlight pierce the earth, all growing things put forth shoots; buds begin to open and flowers bloom in great variety. The season of Imbolc encompasses the sprouting period of young growth when we emerge from the introspection of Winter to the fresh hope of each new Spring…

I felt the earth yawn this morning
As if awakening from a long slumber
Longingly toward the amber dawn
Saying to the universe
"My days of sleeping are done."

~~ Leanna Aker ~~

The storm-days, or “wolf-month”, are the first days when Spring is come but Winter still has its hold upon the land. The different forms of winds which usher in the Spring are given distinctive names:

Month of Faoilleach – a sharp and ravening wind
Nine days of Gearrain – a galloping wind
A week of Feadaig – a sharp and piping wind
Three days of Sguabaig – a soughing blast which ushers in Spring

In the Gaulish calendrical tablet, the Coligny Calendar, the month of January-February was called Anagantios, or “Stay at Home time”, since it was usually impossible to go far due to weather conditions…

"For winter's rains and ruins are over,
And all the season of snows and sins;
The days dividing lover and lover,
The light that loses, the night that wins;
And time remembered is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten,
And in green underwood and cover
Blossom by blossom the spring begins."

~~ Algernon Charles Swinburne, Atalanta in Calydon ~~

In the Irish Tree Alphabet, the letter B is represented by beith or birch. This tree, which stands as the first letter of the ogham alphabet, is also the first tree to emerge from the glacial ice when vegetation grows after an Ice Age…

"Each leaf,
each blade of grass
vies for attention.
Even weeds
carry tiny blossoms
to astonish us."

~~ Marianne Poloskey, Sunday in Spring ~~

Birth customs in the west of Scotland entailed the newborn child being passed three times across the fire, then carried three times around it, always sunwise of course. Lastly the child was washed in a bowl into which a gold or silver coin had first been put. The following prayer was then spoken by the knee-woman or midwife when a child was born and acted as an informal baptism. In celtic tradition, the ninth wave was the official demarcation beyond which exile was prescribed. The nine waves with which the child are here blessed perhaps represent the coming into incarnation of a new soul…

Prayer of the Nine Waves

A little wave for your form,
A little wave for your voice,
A little wave for your speaking,
A little wave for your life’s share,
A little wave for your giving,
A little wave for your dowry,
A little wave for your wealth,
A little wave for your life’s time,
A little wave for your healing.
Nine waves of grace upon you,
Waves of the Doctor of salvation.

Taking Time Off

In some places in Ireland, work used to cease on the feast and devotions at holy wells took place instead. In some places the ban on work was confined to activities we know to have been associated with St. Brigid: ploughing, smithwork, and anything that involved turning wheels (spinning, carting, milling, and sewing machines). (Danaher, 1972, pp. 14-15)

An Irish riddle asks, “Where is the center of the world?” The correct answer is: “Between your own two feet”.

The utterance and movements of crows were regarded as prophetic, as in this Scottish weather rhyme:

In the Gaulish calendrical tablet, the Coligny Calendar, the month of February-March was called Ogronios, or “the time of ice”…

On the first of March
The crows begin to search;
By the first of April,
They are sitting still;
By the first of May,
They’re all flown away;
Crowping greedy back again,
With October’s wind and rain.

Nemetona, the Goddess of the Sacred Grove, was worshipped by the continental Celts and by the citizens of Aquae Sulis (modern Bath in Avon). Among the Romano-British, Nemetona was often partnered by Mars Rigonemetris – Mars, King of the Nemeton. A nemeton is a grove of trees that forms a sanctuary for the gods; such nemetons were the venues for ancient Druidic assemblies. Nemetona is the matron of trees, as well as of sacred assemblies; her attributes are a libation dish and a cask of water…

The curious custom of “Bundling” was quite common in Wales among courting couples who were permitted to remove their shoes and spend the evening reclining on the bed in conversation – usually strictly separated by individual bed-coverings. Although bundling was supposed to be a preparation for marriage, it did not always follow, but, under the humane laws of Hywel Dda, the rights of women and of bastard children’s inheritance were maintained, so that, even if the couple went further than conversation, it was not considered to be a terminal loss of honour. Bundling was also common in other parts of Europe and was a sensible method of courting during the winter months…

"The sun is brilliant in the sky but its warmth does not reach my face.
The breeze stirs the trees but leaves my hair unmoved.
The cooling rain will feed the grass but will not slake my thirst.
It is all inches away but further from me than my dreams."

~~ M. Romeo LaFlamme, The First of March ~~

In the Highlands of Scotland, the married women of the house created a Brigid figure from a sheaf of grain and decorated it with ribbons, flowers, or other objects. With rushes and grain, they made a sort of bed next to the hearth. After ritually inviting Brigid to fill this bed, the women placed the figurine. Beside it, they put a straight, peeled stick of birch or similar wood to serve as "Brigid's wand," a symbol of sovereignty or perhaps a phallic symbol. Then they carefully smoothed the ashes of the hearth. The next morning, the women examined the hearth for signs of Brigid's favor: the imprint of a foot or the wand. If there were no such marks, the family assumed that Brigid had been offended. Steps to appease Brigid—such as burying a cockerel or pullet alive at the junction of three streams—were then taken. (Jones, pp. 105-6)

The Imbolc sabbat was sometimes celebrated by an unusual form of folk dance, both in the British Isles and on the Continent. Men and women in pairs would stand back-to-back, link arms, and dance. Whether they were actually able to find a rhythm and do this gracefully is uncertain. However, maybe it was supposed to be awkward; for some it must have been hilarious low comedy, watching couples stagger about and fall over!

Two crescents, back to back (like the folk dancers), symbolized immortality. This symbol was quite popular among the Celtic tribes and appears, for example, on the coinage of Queen Boudicca’s tribe…

Calgary 2:00am

In spite of the fact that it's twenty below
and winter has gone on for five long months,

in spite of being starved, starved almost to death
for greenness and warmth, flowers and birds,

in spite of the deadness of endless classrooms,
shopping centres, television shows,

in spite of the pains in the gut, the migraines,
the wakings, the palpitations,

in spite of a guilty knowledge of laziness,
of failure to meet some obligations,

in spite of all these things, and more,
I have to report that the moon tonight

is filling the house with a wild blueness,
my children grow, excel, are healthy,

my wife is gentle, there are friends,
and once in a while a poem will come.

In spite of the fact that it's twenty below,
tonight I smile. Summer bursts inside me.

~~ Christopher Wiseman ~~

For seacoast dwellers, the spring tide closest to the feast was considered the highest and an opportunity to gather seaweed for fertilizing. Around Galway Bay, a live limpet or periwinkle was placed at each of the four corners of the house to ensure good fishing and shellfish gathering in the coming months. (Danaher, 1972, pp. 13-14)

Like an army defeated
The snow hath retreated,
And now doth fare ill
On the top of the bare hill;
The Plowboy is whooping-anon-anon:
There's joy in the mountains;
There's life in the fountains;
Small clouds are sailing,
The rain is over and gone!"

~~ William Wordsworth, March ~~

Devotions performed on Imbolc at the holy wells of Liscannor (co. Clare) and Faughart (co. Louth) include ritually washing in the water. (Berger, p. 72) Also, a Highland Gaelic verse associated with Imbolc mentions ritual washing by Brigid as a means of ending the winter cold. (Jones, p. 105) This notion must reflect an earlier, pre-Christian myth in which a goddess took some action to end the winter.

"I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze."

~~ William Wordsworth, Daffodils ~~

The Parade of the Bríde Óg

In ancient and early medieval times, a pagan ceremony of a particular sort was held in areas throughout Europe, especially ones of Teutonic and Celtic heritage. The ceremony consisted of a procession in which an image of a goddess was carted about the community, especially the fields, accompanied by dancing and singing devotees, priests, and designated attendants. Animals to be sacrificed and possibly designated human victims also formed part of the procession. After being drawn or carried through the fields, the goddess figure was bathed in a lake or spring. The procession is thought to have occurred in late winter or early spring, the time of Imbolc. Celtic remains that may illustrate such a procession include a bronze cart unearthed from a grave in Strettweg and a panel of the Gundestrup cauldron. (Berger, pp. 25-36)

"The cock is crowing,
The stream is flowing,
The small birds twitter,
The lake doth glitter,
The green field sleeps in the sun;
The oldest and youngest
Are at work with the strongest;
The cattle are grazing,
Their heads never raising;
There are forty feeding like one!

Though their evidence is fragmentary, the aura of fertility hangs about many of the rituals folklorists have collected: the churning of butter with the dash, the bedding of Brigid by the fire, the night-long revelry of young people, and so on. However, one key element is missing: a male counterpart to Brigid, for the saint is a virgin. Surely, a male deity once partnered the goddess in the Imbolc rituals, but almost all trace of him has been lost or suppressed. One Scots traditional story gives us a hint: it tells of Aengus mac ind Óg rescuing Bride from a hag and bringing spring in the process. This is an intriguing story, but offers too little evidence for certainty...

May the powers of the One, the source of all creation;
All persuasive, omnipotent, eternal, may the Goddess,
The Lady Moon; and The God, Horned Hunter of the Sun;
May the powers of the Spirits of the Stones
Rulers of the elemental realms; May the powers of the stars above
And earth below. Bless this place, and this time,
And I who am with you.

~~ Scott Cunningham ~~