The Celtic pagan festival of Imbolc, 1st February, celebrates the emergence of spring. The days can finally be seen to lengthen despite bitter frosts and the first green shoots begin to break through the hardened winter soil. Imbolc or Oimelc ‘Ewe’s milk’ celebrates the first lambs being born, and the precious gift of ewe’s milk which can be used to feed the youngest and oldest members of the family. Sacred to this time is the Celtic goddess Brighid (Breo-saighead ‘fiery arrow’ signifying her solar aspects) as the return of the sun begins to overturn the cold. In the Irish tradition she is the daughter of the Dagda ‘the good god’, and is often said to be a triple goddess or to have two sisters, also known as Brighid. She was the wife of Bres and when her son Ruadan was slain she made the first keening, the first lamenting shriek to ever be heard in Ireland. She is likely to be the same goddess as Brigantia, ‘exalted one’ the goddess of the Brigantes tribe in northern England.
Brighid’s attributes are many, but she is usually considered the patroness of poets, healers and smiths, although she is also connected with midwifery, as she births the spring. Scholars now sometimes connect her with various grain goddesses across Europe and this may be supported by our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon tradition, where libations of milk and bread were given to the fields on the first of February, in order to ensure the fertility of the crops. By that time Brighid had been Christianised into St Brigit, in Ireland St Br’d. Her name, legends, characteristics and holy places were subsumed wholesale by the church and her holy day was renamed Candlemas, yet her fiery attributes survived. Brighid’s Crosses, solar wheels made of straw, or sometimes of willow and wool, are still popular amulets for protection and blessing in Ireland and across Celtic Britain.
Brighid and later St Brigit held a sanctuary at Kildare, which was famous for its healers and was likely to once have been a pagan druidic college. Thus she is associated with poetry, as the bard, or filid was the preserver of Druidic wisdom well into the Christian Era. The sanctuary at Kildare held a sacred perpetual fire, of both healing and inspiration, which was maintained for centuries until it was extinguished in the Reformation (it has now been re-lit). The link between Brighid, fire and the resurgence of life-force at springtime, suggest that she was once associated with a Celtic version of Kundalini, which rises up through the earth at this time. This can be seen by the association Brighid has with serpents, one of her sacred animals, which signified life force, health, the phallus and potency to our ancestors. Old Gaelic hymns for Candlemas reflect the pagan nature of the celebration and her kundalini aspect;
‘Early on Brides morn, shall the serpent come from the hole.
I will not harm the serpent, nor will the serpent harm me.’
In the Hebrides, where Brighid is known as the midwife of Christ, her sexuality is barely veiled. As part of the Imbolc celebrations she was represented by a corn-doll which was prepared and dressed as a ‘bride’ by the women and paraded about the houses before being led to her marriage bed, where she was lain next to a phallic acorn tipped wand, representing her lover the god. Consider this when lighting candles this February, or when noticing the green shoots burst up from the soil, and let the potency of the earth, as well as the sun, bring you a season of new life, vigour and blessings.
Copyright Danu Forest 10 First published in the Glastonbury Oracle.