Mid-Winter, or “Imbolc”, as many Neo-Pagans call it, tends to sneak up on me every year — probably because I don’t belong to any Pagan ritual group and there is no closely corresponding secular holiday of significance (unless you live in Punxsutawney).
I celebrate Mid-Winter a few days later than most Pagans, since the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox (Mid-Winter) actually falls a few days after February 2. This year it falls on February 4. Since I don’t celebrate with a Pagan group, there’s no conflict with the traditional Neo-Pagan celebration of Imbolc. And since Groundhog’s Day isn’t widely celebrated, there’s no conflict there either. If I’m being completely honest, celebrating a few days later than is traditional also works for me, because as I’ve said, the date usually sneaks up on me. So when I start seeing Imbolc articles in the Pagan online world, it reminds me I need to start planning my Mid-Winter ritual and having a couple of extra days is nice.
Here in the Midwest, February is the coldest time of the year on average. There might be snow on the ground still, or it might have melted, but it’s likely we still have more snow to come. But since it’s the peak (or should I say the trough) of cold temperatures, I can look forward to the beginning of warming (or at least less freezing) temperatures. So, for me, Mid-Winter is the end of the Great Freezing and the beginning of the Great Melting.
Mythologically, I relate this to the triumph of the Bright Youth over the Darkness, which releases of the waters that have been frozen. The flowing of these waters begins the transformation of the Goddess from the Crone back to the Maiden, looking forward to the renewal of the spring equinox. At the same time, the Goddess begins her journey from the underworld, to which she descended after the Autumn Equinox in search of her dead Lover, and where she has stayed since All Hallows, and from which she will emerge at the spring equinox. At the same time, I feel myself beginning the slow climb out of my state of emotional hibernation that I enter into every winter.
My personal eclectic ritual draws on Vedic, Celtic, and Sumer-Babylonian sources — with a good deal of modern Neo-Pagan revisionism. The ritual has three parts, corresponding to each of the sources.
Part 1: Katharsis, the Release of the Waters
In this part of the ritual, the Bright Youth who was born at Midwinter battles and triumphs over the Darkness, releasing the previously frozen waters in a great catharsis. In preparation, I will gather some snow in a container. Usually, I will do this weeks in advance and keep it frozen in the freezer, in case the snow has already melted on the date of the celebration. In a pinch, I will use ice from the freezer. The night before the ritual, I will set the snow out to allow it to melt.
Before dawn, I will take the snow-turned-water outside in a vessel and bring a second, smaller vessel. I set the smaller vessel on the ground and put some coarse salt in it. I will then read the text below, revised from the Rig Veda, about the triumph of Indra over the monster Indra and the release of the imprisoned waters.
Indra, great is his might, the first high exploits were his own:
There the darkness stood, the vault that restrained the waters’ flow, the belly of Vritra.
Huge in length extended, Vritra stretched against the seven rivers, waxing in the gloom which no sun lightened.
Impetuous as a bull, Indra forged the thunderbolt of overpowering might for the battle, golden, with a thousand edges, and ascended his car, scaling heaven to smite Vritra.
Chariot-borne, sun-bright, and truly potent, he poured forth, bursting the clouds, giving life to Sun and Dawn.
His wrath thundered, splendor encompassed him, and forth shone his warrior might.
His bellow shook the foundation of the earth as the wind stirs the water with its fury.
In a wild joy, Indra fought the flood-obstructing serpent, vast, coiling Vritra, whom darkness compassed round.
He grasped thunder for his weapon and smote death to the firstborn of the dragons.
With the speed of thought, he cast his bolt down upon the jaws of Vritra, rending her joints, as of a boar.
Heaven itself, at the dragon’s roar, reeled back in terror when Indra hurled Vritra down, breaking the strongholds as she fell.
Thunder-armed, he cleft through the serpent, like a new-made pitcher, and the belly of Vritra burst asunder, setting the imprisoned waters in motion, as from a streaming udder.
Eager for their course, forth flowed the life-fostering rivers; along steep slopes their course tumbled, inundating the deserts.
Roaring Indra, the fairest courser of them all, drove on the flood; the torrent made a roaring sound like rushing rivers, and the mountains trembled at the birth of his effulgence.
Now I pour the melted snow/ice water from the larger vessel into the smaller one, so that it overflows onto the ground.
Part 2: Lavatio, the Purification
In this part, the Goddess washes in the melted waters, which initiates her transformation from a Crone back into a Goddess. The text below, which is revised from the Celtic Lament of the Old Woman of Beare, is a despairing one — but it ends on a hint of hope. This expresses well how I feel during the cold and grey time of the year.
Ebb tide has come to me as the sea.
The sea crawls from the shore, leaving weeds like a corpse’s hair.
The sea slouches away from me, leaving me with salt on my lips.
Time was the sea brought kings as slaves to me.
Now the sea brings only images of the drifting dead.
Women love only riches now.
But when we lived, we loved men,
young men whose horses galloped in the open plain,
beating lighting from the ground.
I loved such men.
I feasted by the light of many bright candles.
Now I pray in the darkness of the oratory.
I drank my fill of wine and mead with kings,
their eyes lingering on my hair.
Now I drink the bitter dregs with shriveled hags and my hair is gray.
My skin, where glorious kings once pressed their lips, is now tight and thin.
My arms that once practiced the pleasant craft,
caressing the bodies of comely youths, are now bony and thin.
Then I wore garments of every hue and a cloak of green.
Now the veil that covers my hair is black and mean.
The wine thrilled me to my fingertips.
And I stretched at the side of him who would take me briefly for his bride.
The storms have long since reached the stone chair of the kings.
Their tombs are old and crumbling.
The maidens rejoice when May Day comes to them.
But I have spent the summer of my youth.
I hold no sweet converse.
No gelded rams are killed for my wedding feast.
What the flood-tide brings, the ebb-tide takes away.
I have known the flood and I have known the ebb.
The sun does not touch me.
In me I feel the cold.
But still a seed burns there.
The time is at hand that shall renew me.
I then wash my face and hands in the water, allowing the water to fall onto my lips and tongue, savoring the bitterness of the salt and feeling the longing for fresh water.
Part 3: Janua Coeli, the Gate of Heaven
The last part of the ritual recalls the ascent of Inanna/Ishtar from the underworld, passing through the seven gates of the underworld.
I will light one candle on my seven candle candelabra, representing the seven gates through which the Goddess passed on her way to the underworld, and through which she must travel as she returns. I will then carry the candelabra inside and place it on my altar. Over the next six weeks, until the spring equinox, I will light one additional candle each week, symbolizing the Goddess’s return to the land of light and life.
I have yet to find a text for this part of the ritual. The text of the ascent of Inanna/Ishtar just doesn’t seem poetic enough. So instead of a text, I will play John Murphy’s Sunshine/Adagio in D Minor.
Before the ritual is over, I will blindly choose a card from a Tarot or Oracle deck, as kind of divination. I don’t really believe in divination, per se. But I use tarot cards as I kind of imaginative/meditative practice. I will place the card on my altar and keep it there until the spring equinox.