Imbolc Combed Over: The God of Wool and the Patron of Throats

Imbolc Combed Over: The God of Wool and the Patron of Throats February 3, 2022

I was initiated into the Gardnerian tradition on Imbolc 2005, so this season always brings back a lot of warm memories and fuzzy feelings. Like the time Trothwy and I decided to bless a year’s worth of candles at once, which seemed like an excellent idea until we were 90 minutes in and exhausted and just waving a wand around like, “Blessed, blessed, blessed. Let’s go get a drink.”

It turns out that Catholic priests also consecrate candles on February 2 as part of Candlemas (which, depending on who you ask, commemorates the Purification of the Virgin Mary, the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, or St. Brigid’s Day), and that strikes me as lovely. But the awesome stuff goes down on February 3, when the priests use those candles in a ritual blessing of throats to honor St. Blaise, protector of livestock, stray animals, veterinarians, and those who work with wool.

Double the Imbolc, double the fun. (Image via Pixabay.)

To perform the blessing, two white tapers are crossed into an “X” formation, then tied together with red cord (to symbolize Blaise’s martyrdom) and held against the throat, while a traditional invocation to Blaise is recited:

Ain’t no other man can stand up next to you
Ain’t no other man on the planet does what you do (What you do)
You’re the kind of guy a girl finds in a blue moon (Hey!)
You got soul (Hey), you got class (Ooh), you got style, you’re badass (Oh yeah)
Ain’t no other man, it’s true (Alright)
[guitar solo]

It seems kind of odd that the patron of woolworkers would be tasked with overseeing healthy throats, but Blaise comes by the attribution honestly. According to Christian mythology, a small child was choking on a fishbone, and Blaise miraculously saved them — possibly by miraculously whacking them on the back until they miraculously yacked it up. (My brain is trying to work up a whole connection between the white of the candles representing the bones of fish, but that feels like a stretch, even for me.)

All the animals looking up at him with expectation, and his face is like, “I am just here to bless throats. I don’t have any treats.” (Icon courtesy of Sean Wells.)

Because of his curative powers, Blaise is listed as one of the 14 Holy Helpers, a group of saints invoked against the Black Plague during the Middle Ages. Each of the Holy Helpers has dominion over one of the symptoms of the plague, and most of them are officially categorized as “legendary” by the Church, which means that there is no proof of their physical existence on Earth.

The thing about legendary saints is that they almost always turn out to be Christian perceptions of older Pagan Gods. Veneration of Blaise, for example, traces back to the Slavic horned deity Veles (whose name means “wool”), God of earth, water, cattle, magic, wealth, and the Underworld. Much like what happened with Poseidon and St. Nicholas, at least one church dedicated to St. Blaise was constructed on a site where a shrine to Veles once stood.

We don’t know much about where Veles came from, but there was a reference to Him in the Rus-Byzantine Treaty of 971: which is His earliest known mention: Apparently, those who signed the treaty swore by Veles to uphold it, under threat of being killed by their own weapons and turning “yellow as gold.” Modern scholars have taken “yellow as gold” to mean “cursed with disease,” and if this is the case, it could offer some insight as to how Blaise ended up with a health-related jurisdiction. Pharyngitis and strep can both cause the inside of the mouth and throat to turn yellow, so who knows? Maybe those were big issues in 10th-century Bulgaria.

A modern carving of Veles, who is not having it, whatever it is. (Photo via Dreamstime.)

If you look at photos of priests blessing throats, you’ll notice that they sometimes grip the candles in one hand with their index and pinkie fingers outstretched, in a manner suspiciously reminiscent of la mano cornuto, i.e. the corna, i.e. “Hook ’em Horns.” Historically, the corna is a symbol of protection, used to ward off bad luck and the evil eye… or, in this case, the evil throat.

So basically, making the sign of the horns and calling upon the wooly God of the Underworld is better than cough drops.

Sounds legit. Count me in.

Unfortunately, the Catholic church down the street from my apartment isn’t offering a throat-blessing service. But Houston is about to get hit with an ice storm, so I’m going to do the next best thing and ritually wrap myself up in a cozy, wool scarf, which will cover all my Veles/Blaise bases. And okay, yes, it’s actually washable acrylic, but Ben made it for me, and it’s 13 feet long and has my entire name crocheted into it. It is the greatest scarf in the history of fiber artistry, and if Blaise and Veles aren’t impressed with it, then frankly, I want nothing to do with either of them. (But they’re totally impressed.)

I feel like the Flying Nun, just without all the pesky celibacy or Academy Awards.

In a full-circle turn of the loom wheel, this Imbolc weekend will find me and Trothwy attending a Gardnerian initiation, where someone I initiated will be initiating someone I briefly went out with. It was years ago that we dated, and we very quickly decided that we made better friends than anything else, but in the moments we were a pseudo-couple, some naysayer cast disparaging remarks at us about the difference in our ages and was like, “Really, Thumper, you’re almost old enough to be his father.”

Not to make things awkward for you, That Guy, but after this weekend, I’ll be his grandfather. I make a remarkably youthful-looking patriarch, though. I burn a lot of candles to keep it that way.

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About Thumper
Thumper Marjorie Splitfoot Forge is a Gardnerian High Priest, an initiate of the Minoan Brotherhood, an Episkopos of the Dorothy Clutterbuck Memorial Cabal of Laverna Discordia, a recovering alcoholic, and a notary public from Houston, TX. You can read more about the author here.

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