Imbolc is a holiday many celebrate in early February but what is it all about?
For those that are not apart of the ancestral culture or aware of its customs this is a very brief overview of what this festival is all about. Lets begin with the etymology of name Imbolc. In modern Irish the name of the feast i-mbolg, meaning 'in the belly' is aptly named for a time when Winter is pregnant with Summer. Thought to be derived from the root m(b)lig meaning 'milk' which actually means something more akin to 'lactation'. Alternatively there is also another common name this festival is known by which is Oímelc (modern Oímealg) which stems from the Old Celtic word Ouimelko, 'ewes milk'.
This feast was said to be celebrated when the milk first began to flow in the ewes. This is about a month or so before the lambing season begins. This would place the date somewhere near the 1st of February with a window of two weeks before to two weeks after depending on the season and geographical location.
In Old Irish it's Brigit, modern Irish Bríd, modern Scotts Gaelic: Brìghde or Brìd, anglicized as Bridget. Lets then leave behind Saint Brighid here as it is conjecture to weather or not her existence actually happened since so much of her life is based on the Goddess that predates her by thousands of years. Our focus is who Brigit the Goddess is since we are talking about Imbolc and not Lá Fhéile Bríde (The feast day of Brighid)
So what's in a name?
It has been suggested that the name Brigit goes back to Brigantia or Briganti from the insular Celtic tradition. Possibly from Brigindu mentioned in Gallic lore. Her names stems from Brig meaning height, like in brigâ which is applied to in hills and mountains. From Brigantia it could translate to something closely to, "she who raises herself on high, who is exalted." Though the roots of Brigâ are much more complex than just height. In Irish Brí, Scots Gaelic Brigh, Manx Bree all have wide range of meanings such as; 'power, force, meaning, invigorating essence', along with 'hill'. In the Brythonic languages like Welsh we see that Bre means hill but Bri could also mean, 'fame, value, respect'. No doubt the upwelling force that is both raised up and that which imparts strength. It's the Brigantia/Brigindu from Gallic lore that develops linguistically into Brigit of the Medieval Irish Period.
In Irish Mythology Brigit is the daughter of the Dagda champion of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Some say she was the link between the Dannan and the Fomorian before the Lugh lore happens. Besides many of her characteristics being tied to the land, her bigger role is mostly seen as tied to the welfare of the Tribe. It is hard not to see her in triple form as banfhile (female poet) the one who brings inspiration to the poets and bards, she is a patroness of the forge and consort to the smiths, she is said to be associated with the weapons of the forge that the warriors carry. Brigit is also the healer, the herbalist and associated with cleansing the home and hearth. This element of fire related to her character is seen throughout in all of the previous mentioned functions. From the forge, to hearth, to the sun; Brigit and fire can not be separated. Her fire is the inspirational life giving force. With the fire of fertility within the earth and that of its quickening of solar light it is no wonder why so many still use candles to honor her.
Brigit is associated with the White Cow, from her mother Bó fhionn goddess of the river Boyne. Although many consider the dandelion-caisearbhán in Irish, bearnan bride Scots Gaelic to be her flower it is was most likely coltsfoot (adhann) with its similar appearance, medical properties, and its blooming date much closer to the actual Imbolc festival itself. Brigit is said to have a messenger bird, the oystercatcher called bridean, brid-eun - Bríd-bird in Scotland & giolla Bríde (Bríd's servant) in Connacht. Some also see her associated with the Adder. Given her Formorian connection (more on this adder lore later).
Traditional Surviving Customs
There are common themes which Imbolc addresses. There is the re-awakening of the land and its fertility with the new agricultural cycle beginning. The creative force of the tribe and land merged into one. It is when forces of creativity of Tribe and Land merge that we take part in such customs. Many invite the spirit of this Goddess into their homes, & at their hearths welcoming her to bless them with protection. Often times a corn dolly or even a woman of the family would play the role of Brigit. Blessing the Clan with fire and water is very common as well as making the Cros-Bríde (Bridget's cross) though sometimes it is called crosóg (little cross) or Bogha Bríde (Bridget's bow) Most of the ones we see today are made from either plaited rushes or straw, but it isn't uncommon to see them made from sedge, cord, or vines. The well known four armed cross in its swastika shape was 1st found to be used in Ulster but today it's the most well known of the crosses. There are trefoil type designs that symbolize Birigt's threefold nature, as well as very intricate woven crosses like a sun wheel that are also used. The symbol shows movement, cyclical change, that light returns again and offers hope like that of the symbolism of the Snowdrop flower. Lets not forget it is both the symbolism os fire and water used in this festival, as in the medieval Irish we have the word imb-fholc which means "to wash oneself".
The less known cloak or mantle of Brigit (Brat Bríde) was traditionally just this, a cloak or mantle usually like a large blanket made of wool. It was hung at or out the window during the evening and over night of the feast and was said to absorb the powers of Brigit herself to benefit the family in their future times of illness or protection. Many today use a cloth, a ribbon or even a special reserved lap/couch blanket in place as their Brat Bríde. This was something you did every Imbolc and some suggest that it took seven years to gain its full powers of healing and protection.
One Imbolc tradition in Ireland is that when a young girl of the family goes out to cut and gathers the rushes and returns to the home and stands at the threshold of the house saying, "Be on your knees and open your eyes and let the blessed Bríd in." Téigi ar bhur nglúine, agus osclaigi bhur súile, agus ligigi Bríd bheannaithe isteach. The family would respond with sayings like, "Three times welcome, noble lady. - (Sé do bheatha , 'sé do bheatha, 'sé do bheatha, a bhean uasail.) Or " O Brigit Come in, you are a hundred times welcome." - (O Bríde, tar isteach, ta céad fáilte romhat.) Afterwards the young girl would enter the house with the rushes and either bring them to the feasting table and lay them upon or under it or to the hearth of the home. It would not be uncommon for her to bless he food or drink that might be out at the feasting table. After the feasting the family would make the crosses and the Draoi would bless them so that they could be hung from doors for protection. There are places in Ireland where the family would come together and make a special loaf of bread shaped like a Brigits cross and lay it upon a a bed of rushes. After the bread was consumed at the feast the rushes were used to make the family crosses. Sometimes each loaf of bread had a small cross under it, or even bread crumbs were sprinkled over it.
The well known corn dolly or straw doll called Brídeóg was often dressed in children's clothes and carried around the village by the children who went from house to house singing songs, reciting special prayers and giving families Brigits blessing at this time of year. Sometimes they would also hand over a Brigits cross to the house hold in thanks for their generosity of payment of either coin or food. In some communities a young girl was to take on the position of Brigit and wear a crown of rushes and a veil carrying a shield and wearing a Brigits cross as she lead a procession through the streets. In certain places the Brídeóg was put to bed with a wand by her side and over night would rise and leave a mark on the ashes of the fireplace. If a mark was seen it was an omen of good luck for the family. Some places in Scotland used no doll but prepared a bed for Brigit and invoked her at the threshold of the house saying, "Brighd, Brighd, come in: your bed is ready - (A Bhrighd, a Bhrighd, thig a steach: tha do leabaidh air a charadh)
There is also the custom of Brigit's belt/girdle (Crios Bríde) in which a larger hoop of braided straw was constructed. Four Brigit's crosses hung from it to mark the quarters. In Connacht, mainly in Connemara and the Aran Island where this tradition seems to have survived best the women were said to carry the Brídeóg (straw doll) where the men carried the Crios Bríde (Brigit's belt) Visiting house to house people were welcome to step through the hoop for encouraged blessings of health. Something like this was commonly sung:
Crios Bríde mo chrios,
Crios na gceithre gcros.
Eirigh suas, a bhean an tighe
Agus gaibh trí h-uaire amach.
An té rachas tré mo chrios,
Go mba seacht bhfearr
a bheidh sé bliain ó inniu.
My girdle is Bríd's girdle,
The girdle with the four crosses.
Rise up, women of the house
And go out three times.
May whoever goes through my
girdle be seven times better a year
It was standard that men would pass through the belt/girdle sideways beginning with their right foot. Women on the other hand passed trough by brining it down upon them over their heads before they stepped out of it with their right foot. This went on and on sometimes with the individual going through the hoop usually three times. We can see how this is like birth, how it reenacts the passageway and how we are invoking birth and spring during Imbolc.
In Scotland we find the connection to Brigit and the Adder. Just as we may be familiar with the watered down Groundhog custom where it sees its shadow or not prognosticating winter, so to a much earlier custom survives at this time of year. If the adder was seen and left is hole than you knew spring was soon upon you but if it came out and went back in you were indeed due for another month of unfavorable weather conditions.
Moch maduinn Bhride
Thig an nimhir as an toll.
Cha bhean mise ris an nimhir
Cha bhean an nimhir rium.
On Brede's morn the serpent
will come out of the hole
I will not harm the serpent,
nor will the serpent harm me.
Interesting to note in other versions of this the Adder or serpent is called Rioghan (Queen) Ireland lack of snakes gave way to using the hedgehog (gráinneog) for this divinatory rite. There is so much more that could be said about Birigit, the forge and the blessings of the Smiths tools but for the sake of length I will leave this out. Just know that the Tribes Smith is payed special attention and blessings during this time for it is they who provide our tool through a magical process of creation with in their forge through Brigits help and inspiration. I hope you have gained an insight into some of the traditions of Imbolc and understand it in a way that you might have before. I can only hope you have the means of actually celebrating it with a group having read this. There is no better way to understand something than to go through it, be apart of it and allow it to shape you.
How to make a Brigit's Cross