The Confusion of Imbolc

I’ve always found Imbolc to be a rather confusing holiday from a theological perspective.  Most sabbats have a pretty clear meaning, and that meaning is consistent no matter where you live.  Beltane is a fertility rite, Lammas is about the harvest, Samhain is about death, etc etc.  Of course you’ll always find people who want to “tweak” the meaning of a holiday, or find a different angle of approach to it, but generally the trappings will always remain the same.  With Imbolc, that’s not the case.

Up until last year I resided in Lansing Michigan, where our Imbolc rituals often revolved around melting snow in a large bowl.  In Michigan, Imbolc is not really the start of Spring, it’s the height of Winter, and should be celebrated as such.  As a recent transplant to the San Francisco Bay Area, Imbolc has taken on an entirely new meaning for me.  Unlike in Michigan, Imbolc really is the start of Spring out here.  It marks the start of the rainy season, and there are flowers blooming in my front yard.  Trees are budding, and all of the things I tend to associate with April are happening right now.  It’s exciting, but also alien, because the traditions which worked so well back in Michigan seem like they were tailored for an entirely different holiday.

Sabbats should be shaped around what’s actually going on in your natural world, and not about what went on in someone else’s natural world two thousand years ago.  Yes, to the Ancient Celts Imbolc was the start of Spring, but the Celts also had only four holidays (they didn’t celebrate the equinoxes and solstices), and lived in an entirely different climate than that of most Americans.  It’s always important to look to our ancient pagan past for inspiration, but that past is not an absolute, just because someone once looked at something a certain way doesn’t mean that we have to now.  Besides, it’s hard to look to the really ancient past for inspiration at Imbolc, there’s no documentation on how it was celebrated.  (Though it’s probable, judging from medieval records, that the holiday had something to do with the birth of farm animals and the first milk from those animals that accompanied it.)

 

Last weekend I led an Imbolc ritual for my local open circle.  I had a lot of great friends drive (or train) in from distances great and small throughout the Bay Area.  One of those friends asked me what Brighid chants we would be doing for the ritual.  I told her none, and could sense her disappointment.  Imbolc has the unique distinction of being the only one of the eight Contemporary Pagan sabbats associated with a particular and specific deity.

Brighid is no archetype, or folk-tale turned into a goddess.  She was undoubtedly worshipped in ancient Ireland as the goddess of teaching, the forge, and healing, and her influence was so powerful that she was morphed into the Christian St. Brigid (1).  Many have argued that her worship might have encompassed a much larger segment of the Ancient Celtic World than just Irealnd, as the name Brighid (and variations of it) has been attached to a plethora of Celtic Goddess Figures.

Many of the traditions and rituals celebrated with the Feast of St. Brigid (February 1) have been absorbed into Modern Paganism (or perhaps they were pagan to begin with, but there are no records of them before the 1600′s), mostly because they feel Pagan.  Dressing up a bed for the “saint” to lie in while leaving her milk and cookies feels more like a Yuletide Santa tradition than a Christian one, but the tradition of “Bride’s Bed” is well documented throughout Catholic enclaves in the British Isles(2).  I’ve known a great many Pagans who annually weave a cross for Brigit out of straw or rushes and place it above their front doors for good luck.  Whether these traditions are truly Ancient Pagan or Irish Catholic is irrelevant, it’s more about what they do for the individual.

The Christian holiday of Candlemass is another piece in the puzzle of Imbolc.  Candlemass isn’t a corruption of Imbolc, but an entirely different holiday, just coincidently on the same day.  The earliest celebrations of Candlemass date back to the fourth century, with the holiday its self being dedicated to purification and the “return of the light” (possibly inspired by Christian imagery such as “Jesus is the light of the world”).    The Roman word februa (where we get February of course) signified purification; Spring cleaning has been around for a long time. (3) The most memorable aspect of Candlemass involved candles, the celebration of light’s return, a celebration that has been co-opted (or perhaps reintroduced) by Modern Paganism.

Out of the two holidays which co-exist with Imbolc, it’s Candlemass that I tend to take the most from.  Yule works well as a “return of the light” holiday as well, but at Imbolc it’s easy to see the days getting longer and the sun getting stronger.  It’s no longer a hope or a wish like at Midwinter, but an actuality.  Celebrating the return of the Sun as a young solar god meshes well with much of the cosmology found in Modern Eclectic Craft.  I don’t have a problem with Bridgit, it’s just that the worship of a mature, womanly goddess doesn’t coincide with how many of us view The Wheel of the Year in February.  For many Pagans, the Wheel of the Year isn’t just a seasonal journey, it’s a walk with the Lord and Lady as they proceed through the various points of life.  At Imbolc I celebrate the young Maiden who is beginning her walk through our world.  Unfortunately, that journey has nothing to do with Brigid, who is goddess enough that she deserves more than to be shoe-horned into a ritual.

So for many reasons, Imbolc is a boondoggle of a holiday.  It’s the only sabbat with wide variations from place to place.  It has a history that parallels two (at least) nominally Christian holidays, and the only sabbat set aside by many that specifically references one particular deity.  It also lacks a truly knowable ancient past, unlike Yule or Samhain.  Does this mean my Imbolc Ritual wasn’t enjoyable?  Certainly not, and I’ve always liked having a holiday during a relatively quiet point on the calendar, just don’t expect all of us to agree on what it means every year.

 

1.  The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, Their Nature and Legacy by Ronald Hutton.  Blackwell Publishers, London England, 1993.   pg. 153

2.  Stations of the Sun, by Ronald Hutton.  Oxford University Press, 1996.   pg. 137

3.  Stations of the Sun, by Ronald Hutton.  Oxford University Press, 1997, pg. 139.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • http://www.facebook.com/elaposta Elizabeth LaPosta

    Great article which begins to illustrate a basic difference among Pagans…those of us who follow the Wheel of the Year focusing on the life of the Gods and Goddesses, and those of us who follow the Wheel of the Year focusing on the cycle of nature. Both are valid paths, but when putting on a ritual, these different focuses can come into conflict.

  • http://thispaganhouse.wordpress.com/ Meagan

    Great article! Where I live Imbolc truly is the coming of spring. In two weeks I’ll be planting tomatoes (crazy!), but we often have one last blast of winter before that happens. I can see that in more northern locales where spring doesn’t come on till May that Imbolc’s spring associations aren’t applicable. One tradition that might be helpful for people living in colder climates is the folklore tradition of Bride and the Cailleach from the Scottish Highlands: http://bit.ly/ycEfWY is a great link for more info.

    • http://www.facebook.com/elaposta Elizabeth LaPosta

      ….sortof like banishing winter vs welcoming spring..  Makes sense to me!

  • Angus

    Wow. Great article. Interesting words from a unique perspective. More from this author please!

  • Foxybelle

    Blessed be!  thank you for your write up.  For us aso, it represents on the inner levels as a return to being awake… of the light… the second half of bear medicine.. on one end of the year you head into the cave, and here, you decide that you need to come back out. In working with lose mythically, Lammas is the death itself, samhain is the underworld time which can suck, yule you ask for light cuz if it keeps gettin’ darker and you might die, and then imbolc is the actual first sign that things might look up.

    • Amandarenske

      Interesting, because researching for Imbolc, I have just learned that apparently Brighid invented keening (a traditional grief ritual) – just what might been needed to let go of the dead and return to the energies of the living.

  • Josephnichter

    Excelent article! I made similar points in mine!

    http://witchdoctorjoe.blogspot.com/2012/02/imbolc-bedtime-story.html

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephanie.metz Stephanie Cantrell Metz

    Great job, Jason!  Love your articles.

  • Henry

     ”It’s the only sabbat with wide variations from place to place.”
    That’s not accurate. Beltane/calan mai/ walpurgisnacht for one example, Lugnasadh/lunasa/lammas for another.Even Samhain. There are wide variations and some commonalities, depending on climate and location.

    • Jason Mankey

      I do tend to over simplify things while I’m writing, and you are right to some extent, however I’d also argue that much of our perception about the seasons is influenced by the media.  Beltane in Minnesotta is going to be a lot different than Beltane in Florida, but no matter where we live, we’ve been conditioned to look at that holiday as a celebration of Spring full of flowers, rejoicing, etc.  I know that it sometimes snows in the (upper) Upper Midwest during Beltane, but I bet that even with snow on the ground the ritual is written to reflect Spring and what most people think should be going on.  I’m willing to wager that 95% of Beltane rituals can be transplanted from place to place without the ritual feeling out of step with what’s going on in that specific locale.  A Wisconsin Imbolc ritual is going to have a tough go of it in Los Angeles.   

      The problem with a February sabbat is that we’ve been conditioned to think about Spring in February, regardless of where we live.  Even in the colder locations of the US/Canada stores start rolling out their lines of spring/summer clothing, and the seasonal decorative motifs tend to be flowers or other growing things.  Anything I write is just my perspective anyways . . . . .   :)     

      • Henry

        I’d agree with the idea of conditioning, not only media in general but also something akin to peer pressure as well. The notion of these 8 sabbats, and that folks are somehow obligated to celebrate all 8.
         
         
        The cross quarter days are tied moreso to actual seasonal changes readily observable in nature,phenomena tied to ‘earth’ and locale and really had no set date.The four quarter days, which are astronomically tied to the suns declination, or even simply it’s ‘height’ in the sky.These run at a regular period, to within a day or two calendrically.
         
        That they’ve been taken out of the contextual settings as far as culture and locale and been given a type of universality leads to a lot of confusion.Not every one of the 8 were celebrated in all locations, and what might pass for a Beltane celebration in one locale was done at midsummer etc. if one has a mind to do some digging beyond contemporary media on the subject one can find the Imbolg doesn’t necessarily have ties to Brig nor are Beltane and Mayday necessarily the same.
         

         
         
         

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  • Christopher Scott Thompson

    Imbolc is the beginning of spring for two main reasons. One is that days begin with sunset in Celtic tradition, so spring logically has to begin while it’s still cold. The other reason is that the winter food supplies would have started to run low around this time, but many of the farm animals would give birth around Imbolc so milk and other dairy products would be available to get the household through the next few months. 

  • Amandarenske

    The idea of Brigid as a midwife, one of her traditional roles, can clarify her presence at this festival. Even though she is more mature energy, not a maid, she watches over the new life – guards and feeds it, and supports the new mother too –  hence making the bed/ nest symbolism often found in Imbolc rituals..During this transitional time early after birth of the sun, at Winter solstice,  the new life needs to be protected and supported – new young dreams and visions need coaxing, feeding and yes …sometimes guarding, if they are to grow to their full potential.


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