La donn Bride,
Ged robh tri traighean dh’ an t-sneachd
Air leachd an lair.
serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bride,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.
Scottish proverb ~~
as it does in the second half of winter, Imbolc can be a rather
worrisome time of the year, and acts of celebration and ritual
provide a positive outlet of energy during the grimmest of seasons.
The spiritual significance of this time of year predates the Celtic
presence in Ireland. Just as Newgrange is aligned in such a way
as to allow sunlight into the megalith on Winter Solstice, the
Loughcrew burial mounds and the Mound of the Hostages at Tara
are actually aligned with the rising sun of both Samhain and Imbolc–in
other words, the respective emergences of the first signs of winter
and the first signs of spring. Perhaps partly due to the physical
influence of these sites, Imbolc was equally significant to the
Celtic-speaking people who came later. There was undoubtedly much
anxiety during this time over how much longer the winter would
last; even an extra week of bad weather could mean the difference
between scraping by and suffering the effects of malnutrition
or succumbing to starvation.
Iron Age, the Irish did not practice agriculture to the same extent
after it was later introduced to their culture. Livestock, particularly
cattle, were the chief food staple and the main form of currency.
Wintering a large number of livestock was not practical, and so,
before winter, the majority of them were slaughtered, their meat
salted and stored, and everything else of practical use was similarly
taken from the carcasses. Signs of the beginning of spring meant
that it would not be so long before the numbers of livestock would
swell again, and the perilous days of winter would flow into the
surety of vegetation, meat, and dairy once again made plentiful.
the implications of this all-important seasonal transition, it
is not surprising that traditions of weather prognostication are
closely associated with this time of the year. The prediction
of weather by metaphysical means may seem archaic in light of
the satellites and other advanced technology employed today for
the same purpose. Consider, however, what the simple event of
even a slightly strong storm would have been to our ancestors
who farmed the fields, tended livestock, and fished. Lives could
be lost and months of hard work could be torn asunder in the blink
of an eye. This being the case, it is easy to see that weather
prognostication would not have been something that only Druids
did. Anyone intent on preserving their own lives and the continuity
of their families and communities would have had at least some
rudimentary knowledge of how to read signs in the sky, land, or
water. Simply put, reading the weather would have been an integral
part of everyday life.
Much weather lore that
survives our pre-satellite days is very accurate. Take these two
rhymes, probably of English origin:
sky and mares' tails make lofty ships carry low sails.
rain comes before the wind, dories, gear and vessel mind;
When wind comes before the rain, soon you'll make the set again
tails” in the first rhyme are the cirrus clouds that indicate
the low air pressure preceding wind and rain by about a day. As
for the second rhyme, rain before wind can mean a front, and therefore
bad weather for one or two days, whereas wind before rain usually
means a rainstorm that will blow over quickly.
Irish weather proverbs are a little less direct, but both relate
directly to a discussion of Imbolc:
iomaí athrú a chuireann lá Márta dhe.
There is a lot of weather in a March day.
annamh earrach gan fuacht.
Seldom is Spring without cold.
of weather prognostication are closely associated with Imbolc.
Groundhog Day is a survival of such observances in North America,
and the holiday is thought to have originated from an association
with the badger in German folklore. If the badger or groundhog
sees his shadow–in other words, if the weather is sunny–then
winter is doomed to last another six weeks. On the surface, this
is a contradiction. If the weather is good, why would the winter
be longer, and not shorter? There is certainly an echo of the
modern expression “take the bad with the good” here,
but there is also deeper symbolism at work.
The connection between
sunny weather and a longer winter is reflected in an Irish tradition
about the Cailleach, the Goddess in her crone aspect, a fearsome
reminder of the power of winter to take life. The Cailleach gathers
firewood for the rest of the winter on Imbolc, and she makes the
weather clear on that day so she can fetch extra wood. Caillagh
ny Groamagh is her name on the Isle of Man, and there she appears
on Imbolc as a gigantic bird, carrying sticks in her beak. This
reminds of the association that other crone goddesses such as
the Morrigan are given with carrion birds. Fascinatingly, Lady
Wilde cites a tradition that Irish witches often take the form
of hares or weasels. Rabbits have long had a close folk association
with spring, while the weasel is in the same mammal family as
the badger, the animal thought to be the German folklore prototype
that gave way to North America’s Groundhog Day. Did the
Cailleach also sometimes take the form of a badger or weasel–or,
to stretch things a bit, the form of a serpent as cited in the
traditional rhyme at the beginning of this article–when
she emerged to see how much longer the winter might last?
Similarly, the goddess
Brighid, the most central figure in Imbolc celebrations, also
shows great power over weather, particularly the ability to evoke
daylight. St. Brighid asked God for clear weather every other
Sunday, the better for her to preach the good word. Her request
was said to have been granted and to have stoked a touch of jealousy
in St. Patrick, who then asked the favor of having his holy day
free of foul weather as well. In another legend, St. Brendan gets
frustrated upon observing the ease with which Brighid is able
to hang her cloak on a sunbeam, and only after getting huffy and
copying her three times is he able to accomplish the same feat.
At this point,
the line between Brighid the mother Goddess/Saint and the Cailleach,
the starved and wretched hag of winter, begin to blur. Two additional
stories further illustrate how intricately interwoven these two
Spreads Her Cloak
When she was
a poor girl she was minding her cow one time at the Curragh of
Life, and she had no place to feed it but the side of the road.
And a rich man that owned the land came by and saw her and he
said "How much land would it take to give grass to the cow?"
"As much as my cloak would cover" said she. "I
will give that" said the rich man. She laid down her cloak
then, and it was spreading out miles and miles on every side.
But there was a silly old woman passing by and she said "If
that cloak goes on spreading, all Ireland will be free;"
and with that the cloak stopped and spread no more.
old woman in this tale is none other than the Cailleach. Another
story, entitled “The Hags of the Long Teeth” begins
with a troupe of gentleman engaging in a hare chase, leading them
to the doorstep of the Hags in question, who cannot be removed
from the forest they dwell in until the curse that keeps them
there runs its course. During the story a priest is maimed by
the dog that guards the Hags, but a robin brings the priest an
herb, and his health and senses are restored. The priest and his
Bishop are then able to help the witches successfully end their
curse forever. Here, I would argue that the robin represents the
sun itself, the child of Brighid. Lady Wilde writes that killing
a robin redbreast in Ireland is a grievous event that heralds
many generations of bad luck. Brighid herself can be associated
with the lark, for another folk tradition states that should the
lark be heard singing on Imbolc, it is not only a sign of good
weather, but also brings good luck for the entire day to whomever
hears it first that morning.
In the Auraicept
na nEces, the Scholar’s Primer, the lark is associated with
the Heather tree. The Word Ogham of Morann Mac Main entry for
this Ogham is “cold dwellings, the mould of the earth,”
while the Word Ogham of Mac Ind Oic states “growing of plants.”
Death precedes life; life and death complement one another. At
the same time, a tree that is very important to the celebration
of Imbolc is the Birch. The Word Ogham for this tree states, “of
withered trunk, fair haired the Birch.” The wounded and
sometimes peeling bark of the birch reveals pliant, sweet smelling
wood underneath. Consider this tree for a moment, and what a wonderful
contradiction we are presented with here. The tree is, itself,
an embodiment of the battle between Brighid and the Cailleach–the
fair hair of Brighid and the withered trunk, or body, of the Cailleach;
it is a picture of the Goddess between forms. It is a tree of
new beginnings, of life springing from death and death springing
from life, for just as Birch trees can give birth to a new forest,
they are overshadowed and sometimes killed by the shadows of the
bigger, heartier trees that they once nurtured.
The traditions of weather
working and prognostication illustrate the undertones of a battle,
and though the specifics are lost to us, we can piece together
the main message. The sun, or the light, dies at Yule, the longest
night of the year. On Imbolc, the first signs of the return of
the light are to be seen, carried into the house by none other
than Brighid. She represents the generative forces signaling the
subtle but steady changes that herald spring. The buds of flowers
are to be seen, and animals that were dormant or in hibernation
during the winter are once again becoming active. Brighid, “the
fiery arrow,” gives birth to the light, while her darker
counterpart and opposite, the Cailleach, fights her, tooth and
nail, every step of the way. Some years the Cailleach retreats
earlier, and some years she’s a little tougher for Brighid
to beat back. But the Wheel of the Year turns–Brighid’s
father, the Dagda, sees to that–and eventually, inevitably,
the light does win out.
the light grows longer
The cold grows stronger
If Candlemas be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight
If Candlemas be cloud and snow
Winter will be gone and not come again
A farmer should on Candlemas day
Have half his corn and half his hay
On Candlemas day if thorns hang a drop
You can be sure of a good pea crop
This is the Day of Bride
The Queen will come from the Mound
This is the day of Bride
The serpent will come from the hole
Traditional Folk Rhymes ~~
Carmichael, Alexander (1900) Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations,
Ortha Nan Gaidheal, Volume I, p.169.
O'Kelly, Michael J. (1989) Early Ireland: An Introduction
to Irish Prehistory. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
ISBN 0-521-33687-2 pp.104-7
“Weather Lore.” From Wikipedia. Last accessed
1/14/2008, page last updated 1/9/2008.
“Irish Proverbs.” From Daltai, online resource
for students of Irish. Last accessed 1/14/2008. http://www.daltai.com/proverbs/cat03.htm#title01
Fitzgerald, Waverly (2005). “Living in Season: Groundhogs
Day.” Online, internet. Last accessed 1/14/08. http://www.schooloftheseasons.com/newletters/news013105.html
Briggs, Katharine (1976) An Encyclopedia of Fairies.
New York, Pantheon Books., pp. 57-60
Wilde, Lady Jane (1991). Irish Cures, Mystic Charms &
Superstitions. NY: Sterling Publishing Company, pp. 95-96.
Wilde, pp. 119-120.
Gregory, Lady Augusta (1906). A Book of Saints and Wonders
Book I. Brigit, The Mary of the Gael. Online, internet, last
Hide, Douglas (1910). Beside the Fire. Online, internet,
last accessed 1/15/2008.
Blamires, Steve (1997). Celtic Tree Mysteries: Secrets of
the Ogham. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, p. 65-67.
“Candlemas: Some Gleanings by Autumn Moon.”
From By Standing Stone and Twisted Tree. Online, internet,
last accessed 1/15/2008. http://www.twistedtree.org.uk/candlemas.htm
Dillon Carlyon lives near the Gulf of Mexico in Texas. He
is currently a member of the Oak Grove, and has been practicing
shamanism and studying Celtic lore since his teens. A graduate
of Loyola University New Orleans, where he earned a degree in
English, he is now in the process of beginning graduate work in
Celtic and Irish Studies. His hobbies include a great deal of
reading and writing, making and performing both traditional Celtic
as well as goth/industrial music, DJ-ing, and karate.