The Birth of Fire – A History of Imbolc Traditions

The Birth of Fire – A History of Imbolc Traditions January 23, 2017

Imbolc tends to be a very busy holiday for me each year.  Brighid is one of the Deities whom I honor, and for the last few years I’ve made it a point to do something special and public at Imbolc as a way of honoring Her and giving people the opportunity to connect with Her.  Last year, for instance, I organized a ritual service for my UU congregation based on traditional Imbolc/St. Brigid’s Eve practices from Ireland’s northern counties.  With Imbolc fast approaching, now is a good time to examine the roots of Imbolc from a Gaelic standpoint.  And there’s a lot for us to look at and consider: What is Imbolc all about?  What exactly are “traditional” Imbolc practices?  And what does any of this have to do with Brighid?

"Brigid - color" by Eltzero
“Brigid – color” by Eltzero

Imbolc is one of the four Celtic “fire festivals”, the principle feasts of Iron Age Celtic tradition [3]. These were the major agrarian holidays that divided up the Celtic ritual year, falling roughly halfway between each of the four solar festivals common to most Neo-Pagan religions (the equinoxes and the solstices). Each of these fire festivals were considered to be separate from both the season that was ending and the new one that was just about to begin. In this manner, they were liminal days, existing outside of normal time and space to the ancient Celts.

Unfortunately, very little is known about ancient Imbolc practices [3]. What we know for certain is that Imbolc marked the beginning of Gaelic springtime, as it was the time of winter in the British isles when the first hearty crops begin to poke out from the ground, and when the female sheep begin to lactate ahead of lambing season [1]. We also know that Imbolc is quintessentially tied to Saint Brigid, an Irish divinity associated with healing, learning, smithcraft, and dairy work. But there is much more that is uncertain. For instance, we don’t know how widespread its’ practice originally was, with the possibility that it may have originally been localized to one specific population or group (such as wool weavers) [3]. We also aren’t certain on the origins and meaning of its’ name. One popular but etymologically inaccurate explanation derives it from the Old Irish i mbolc, meaning “in the belly” (much like a baby) [1][4]. A more etymologically-sound explanation derives from the root m(b)lig, meaning something like “lactation” [1]. But even that is uncertain, with other possible origins coming from the Old Irish imb-fholc (“to wash/cleanse oneself”), and from a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European word meaning both “milk”and “cleansing” [4].

The head of a Brigantia devotional statue found at an Arbeia Roman fort in South Shields at the easternmost end of Hadrian’s Wall.
The head of a devotional statue of Brigantia [10]
The central figure of the holiday is Brighid, an ancient Celtic deity who famously became Christianized as Saint Brigid. There is little information available on the Pagan Brighid, whose major appearance is in a single episode of Cath Maige Tuired [5][6]. It is reasonable to surmise that She has Proto-Indo-European origins, as Her name is cognate with the Sanskrit Brhati (“The Exalted One”) [3]. We also know that She is related to the Gaulish Brigindu [1] as well as to Brigantia, the tutelary goddess of the Pre-Roman British tribe known as the Brigantes [8][9]. And She is certainly representative of the “Minerva”-type goddess that Caesar described in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico as being among the chief divinities of the Continental Celts [2],

They worship as their divinity, Mercury in particular… Next to him they worship Apollo, and Mars, and Jupiter, and Minerva; respecting these deities they have for the most part the same belief as other nations: that Apollo averts diseases, that Minerva imparts the invention of manufactures [handicrafts], that Jupiter possesses the sovereignty of the heavenly powers; that Mars presides over wars.

Most of what we know of the goddess Brighid comes by way of extrapolating from the Saint’s hagiography and folklore, both of which contain considerable Pre-Christian overtones [1][7]. She is associated with healing, smithcraft, poetry, animal husbandry, dairy production, and domestic arts. There are a number of Irish healing wells associated with Her, notably Dabhach Bhríde (Liscannor, County Clare), Sruth Bhríde (Faughart, County Louth), and Tobar Bhríde (Oughtaragh, County Leitrim) [7]. In her role in Cath Maige Tuired, she invents keening at the death of her son Ruadán; this is a form of funerary lamentation associated solely with female poets [6]. Most importantly, Brighid is closely associated with fire, as illustrated by an incident in Her hagiography,

One day, the people of the area saw that the house in which the child Brigid lived was on fire. They rushed to the house to extinguish the flames but found on arrival that there was no fire at all. The people concluded that the child was filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit. [7]

One of the most important institutions associated with the Saint was a perpetual fire maintained by Her nuns at Kildaire. Tradition tells us that there were a team of nineteen nuns who managed the fire over twenty nights, with Brighid Herself tending the fire on the twentieth night. The fire was situated in the center of a circular hedge, beyond which males were forbidden to cross. It was said that this fire remained lit until extinguished in 1220 by Henry de Loundres, Archbishop of Dublin, and that it was re-lit and kept burning until the final abolishment of the Irish monastery system during the Protestant Reformation [7].

Brighid has been associated with the February 1st High Day since antiquity, that being the Saint’s feast day and likely having itself a pre-Christian origin. The next day (February 2nd) is the Feast of the Presentation of Lord at the Temple, although from the ninth century until the Second Vatican Council (1965) this feast was known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary in areas north of the Alps, and as Candlemas in Ireland [7]. The rites associated with Candlemas involved blessing the household’s candles for the coming year, and in some areas torchlight processions.

Central to the folklore around Saint Brigit’s feast day is the idea that on the eve of the feast, She returns from the Otherworld with Her white cow and visits the homes of the faithful to bestow blessings [7]. While there are many different Imbolc traditions recorded, all of them hinge on the idea of Her divine presence gracing and blessing the household and its’ occupants. One of the most common is that of the Crios Bhríde, or Brighid’s Cross. This is a woven talisman made out of straw or rushes, found either in a four-armed “swastika” shape, a three-armed “triangle” shape, or a diamond-like “lozenge” shape [7]. In some areas, it was hung on the front door to let Brighid know to visit the home (and bless the talisman) on Her return from the Otherworld. In other areas, it was hung in the kitchen of the home and in all outbuildings to bless them with Her protection, sometimes even being woven into the roof thatching.

Four-armed “swastika”-type Crios Bhríde on left, with Brat Bhríde wrapped around candle on right

Another common tradition was that of the Brat Bhríde, or Brighid’s mantle. This was a strip of cloth or a garment that was to be blessed by Brighid as She went about Her rounds on Imbolc Eve. In some variants of this tradition, the Brat would be tied to the front door of the home before sundown on Saint Brigit’s Eve. Much like the Crios Bhríde, the Brat would then let Brighid know to stop by the home where she in turn would bless the fabric. It was then considered to hold healing and protection properties for the wearer for the coming year, provided they did not wash it [7]. In some areas, it was believed that it would take seven years of use (and yearly re-blessing) for a Brat Bhríde to reach its’ full potency [1].

Brideóg in basket
Brideóg in basket

Still other traditions revolved around the Brideóg, or “corn dolly”, an effigy of the Saint made out of straw or rushes. In some cases this would be treated as a childlike representation of Brighid, and a bed for it would be made inside a decorated basket or cradle and placed next to the fire. The fire would then be kept going for the evening to keep the doll warm. A variation on this included leaving the front door open for the Saint and the fire going for the night, in case She wanted to come inside and warm up. Some Imbolc divination practices would then involve examining the fire’s ashes to see if Brighid had stopped by to use it during Her travels. The Brideóg could also be carried from house-to-house in a mumming tradition known as the “Brideóg procession”. Here, a small group of all girls (or all boys, or all boys dressed as girls) would visit homes in a circuit while carrying the small effigy of Brighid. At each home, they would ask for alms “for Biddy” (Brighid). In return for giving them money, the mummers would perform music, a dance, or some other form of entertainment, and bestow the blessings of the Saint on the household for the coming year. In some areas, the collections were given to a widow or a family in need.

While the Brideóg procession was the central component of the Imbolc rites in Ireland’s southern counties, a tradition known as the “Threshold Rite” prevailed in the north [7]. There were many variations across central and northern Ireland, but in general it went as follows. On Saint Brigid’s Eve, households would prepare a feast for the holiday that included at least a pot of potatoes. Before sundown, the head of the household would cut a bundle of rushes or straw and hide it in an outbuilding. When night came, the pot of potatoes was readied and somebody from within the house would go outside. They would then gather up the bundle and proceed to walk once around the house deosil (sunwise). Upon reaching the front door, they would announce:

Go down on your knees;
Open your eyes:
And let Saint Brigid in.

To this, those inside would respond:

She is welcome, she is welcome.

Instead of entering the house, the person outside would then take the bundle of straw and make a second circuit. They would repeat the threshold dialog, and then circuit a third time. After a third iteration of the threshold dialog, they would enter the house and place the bundle of rushes underneath the pot of potatoes. Someone would then mash the potatoes (completing the meal) and then serve it to the assembled family. In other variations this was combined with the Brideóg, the bundle of straw having been assembled into the rough outline of a person before the first circuit began. In this case, the Brideóg would be leaned against a table leg while the potatoes would mash, and would observe the family’s meal. But in either case (Brideóg or not), the bundle would be picked apart after the meal, and the family would set themselves to the task of weaving Brighid’s crosses. Here we see that the bundle of straw representing Brighid needs to make contact with the food, imparting Her healing and protective energy onto it to be consumed. It should be noted that the bundle of rushes could also be wrapped in cloth, from which Brat Bhrídes would be made [7].

Today, Imbolc is celebrated by a number of Neo-Pagan traditions in addition to Irish Catholics and the secular Irish state. Many of these traditions make use of some or all of the historical traditions discussed above. Imbolc is viewed as a “Women’s Day” in many forms of Wicca, with initiations into Dianic Wicca usually taking place on this day [12]. As they would with the other Fire Festivals, Celtic Reconstructionists will try to incorporate as many historical or reconstructed ancient practices as they can. A good example of this are the family Imbolc traditions Morgan Daimler discusses in [11]. ADF Groves that honor a Gaelic or Gaulish hearth culture will adapt the ritual themes discussed above to fit around the ADF Core Order of Ritual, although groves that honor other Indo-European hearth cultures (such as Welsh, Heathen, Greek, Roman, or Vedic) have other traditions for the February High Day [13]. In the Roman Catholic church, Saint Brigid’s Day isn’t widely honored outside of Ireland [14] as it is not a part of the General Roman Calendar (1969) [15][16].

Imbolc was an incredibly important holiday to the ancient Gaels, and it inspired a large body of tradition that existed well into the modern era. Because of its strong lineage and ancient roots, the surviving folk traditions around Saint Brigid’s Day has formed the basis for the modern Neo-Pagan and Neo-Druidic Imbolc practices. Unfortunately, this essay is only scraping the surface in describing the rich character of Brighid and the practices surrounding Her holy day. Luckily, there are several good books out there that document both in detail. Seán Ó Duinn’s The Rites of Brigid: Goddess and Saint [7] is a particularly useful resource, using Irish Folklore Commission reports to describe Saint Brigid’s Day practices as they existed between 1800 and 1945. It then compares them against surviving Pagan and folk traditions and other Roman Catholic traditions to knit together a view of “the ways the people of Ireland praised Brigid in the traditional rituals pertaining to her Feastday” [7]. Another excellent resource is Alexei Kondratiev’s The Apple Branch [1], which describes the holiday and a sampling of its rituals before going on to propose a modern interpretation appropriate for a Reconstructionist or Neo-Druidic group. Lastly, for those readers who want to learn more about the Pagan Brighid’s references in the extant Irish mythology, Clann Bhride and the excellent C.S. Thompson published what they call “[a]n annotated collection of direct or indirect references to goddesses and women named Brighid, Brig, Brid or Bride from pre-Christian Irish and Scottish lore”[17][18]. Given how Brighid is both a renowned poetess and the patron saint of students, reading some good publications on Gaelic religion and mythology sounds like a mighty fine way to honor Her.

Footnotes

1. Kondratiev, Alexei. The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual. New York: Citadel Press, 2003. Print. 209-19.
2. Caesar, C. Julius. Caesar’s Gallic War. Trans. W. A. McDevitte. Trans. W. S. Bohn. 1st Edition. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1869. Web. 23 Feb. 2016. 6.17-18.
3. Powell, Thomas George Eyre. The Celts: Ancient Peoples and Places. Rev. ed. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1958. Print. 116-21.
4. Wikipedia contributors. “Imbolc.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 31 Jan. 2016. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.
5. “Cath Maige Tuired: The Second Battle of Mag Tuired.” Cath Maige Tuired: The Second Battle of Mag Tuired. Trans. Elizabeth A. Gray. Ed. Benjamin Hazard, Beatrix Färber, Peter Flynn, and Julianne Nyhan. CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a Project of University College, Cork, 30 Sept. 2009. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.

6. Thompson, Chris, and Isolde Carmody. “Mythical Women 05: The Search for Brigid.” Audio blog post. Story Archaeology. Story Archaeology, 17 Aug. 2012. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.
7. Duinn, Seán Ó. The Rites of Brigid: Goddess and Saint. Dublin: Columba, 2005. Print.
8.Wikipedia contributors. “Brigantia (goddess).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 9 Apr. 2015. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.
9. Wikipedia contributors. “Brigantes.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 11 Jan. 2016. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.
10. “A Northern Goddess Discovered?WallQuest. WallQuest: Hadrian’s Wall and Its Legacy on Tyneside, 10 Sept. 2014. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.
11. Daimler, Morgan. “Irish-American Witchcraft: My American Imbolc.Agora. Patheos Pagan Channel, 19 Jan. 2016. Web. 27 Feb. 2016.
12. Wikipedia contributors. “Imbolc.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 31 Jan. 2016. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.
13. Ár nDraíocht Féin. Our Own Druidry. 2nd ed. Tuscon, AZ: ADF Publishing, 2009. Dedicant Path. ADF, May 2009. Web. 28 Feb. 2016. 60-72.
14. Tucciarone, Tracy. “Feast of St.Brigid.Feast of St.Brigid. Fish Eaters. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.
15. Wikipedia contributors. “General Roman Calendar.Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 Feb. 2016. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.
16. Wikipedia contributors. “Mysterii Paschalis.Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 15 Jul. 2015. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.
17. Thompson, Christopher S., and Aster Breo. “Finding Brighid in the Ancient Lore.Clann Bhride. Clann Bhride, 09 Feb. 2016. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.
18. “Update: MORE Brighid in the Ancient Lore.Clann Bhride. Clann Bhride, 10 Feb. 2016. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.

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