The Hidden Imbolc

The Hidden Imbolc February 1, 2011

Of the four Irish quarter-days (Samain*, Imbolc, Beltene, Lugnasad), Imbolc superficially seems like a fairly straight-forward festival. It is considered, even in modern Ireland, to be the beginning of Spring, and it is a festival that is particularly associated with the goddess Bríg or Brigid, who is considered to be fundamentally the same as the Christian St. Brigid of Kildare, who was feted on the same day (February 1). Various signs of the beginning of Spring, therefore, have been attached to the festival, and some of the folk customs that have survived into modern Ireland in connection with the saint have been adopted, adapted, and re-paganized by modern Pagans across a variety of traditions who celebrate the festival. There is still some debate within academic Celtic Studies on whether the characteristics of the festival have their origins in Christian notions of the saint, in certain practices associated with the adjacent Christian festival of Candlemas (in honor of the purification of the Virgin Mary and the presentation of Jesus in the Temple), or whether these customs do reflect genuine survivals and continuations from pre-Christian Pagan religions in Ireland. While it does seem likely that Celtic cultures outside of Ireland had some sort of festival on or around this date, what their character may have been is probably beyond recovery, and has made little impact in the surviving records. Some stone circles in the southwestern part of Ireland, dating to the Bronze Age, mark only the sunrise on the quarter-days of Samain and Imbolc, suggesting that this dark quarter of the year was of particular significance, for example; but the situation is far less certain in other locations. Thus, to talk about Imbolc and its customs as in any sense “Celtic” (understood to mean something that includes several different Celtic cultures) is a bit of an exaggeration, unless one counts all of the ways in which Brigid’s Christian cultus spread to Scotland, Wales, and elsewhere. But that is a side issue for the moment…

A further debate remains to be had, not only amongst the (often monotheistic, or at least monistic-inclined) scholarly community but also amongst various groups within modern Paganism, in terms of Brigidine theology. There are various figures who are called Bríg, Brigid, or Bríd in both the ecclesiastical literature of Ireland and Scotland, as well as in the so-called “secular” tales of gods and heroes (“so-called” because both literatures were produced by the same group of authors for the majority of history, often with these disparate materials existing side-by-side in manuscript miscellanies). Are all of these various Bríg/i/d figures the same, or different? Is the Brigantia of Northern Britain the same as the Brigid of Ireland? Much depends on one’s theological standpoint–a limited monism would suggest that they are all one, while a less limited monism might suggest that they all derive from the same figure ultimately, but are distinguishable in latter ages; but, a hard polytheist viewpoint would suggest that, at very least, Brigantia and Brigid are different. Looking at the actual sources involved, however, can shed some further light on this. The ways in which Brigid is characterized as poetess, smith, and healer in modern Paganism certainly has roots in Irish sources–specifically, Sanas Cormaic (“Cormac’s Glossary”)–and it is also there that Brigid is said to be the daughter of The Dagda. However, in that case, Brigid is not a singular figure: in fact, it is three sisters who are The Dagda’s daughters, and each of them has a specific proficiency. The liturgical formulation of calling upon Brigid as poetess, smith, and healer, then, presupposes a singular being, when it would in fact be more appropriate, based on the original sources involved, to refer to her as “the Brigid who is smith, the Brigid who is poetess, and the Brigid who is healer,” which would then allow those who think of the Brigids as three beings to interpret it in that fashion, and those who think of a singular Brigid to do so equally well, even within the same ritual. Precise use of language in ritual speech and theology is something that is always useful, especially when more attention to doing so can include this sort of theological diversity!

But, the significance of the holiday also seems to have several possible lines of inquiry, which have not been explored very heavily in modern Paganism before. Many holy days have a significance that varies for different people in a given society–the way that a householder would celebrate a festival might be different than the way that a warrior might, for example. And, the warrior-specific significance of the holy-day of Imbolc has emerged in recent scholarship. The usual folk etymologies given for Imbolc attempt to make it a seasonal or agricultural festival; the variation on the name, Oímelc, said to mean “ewe’s milk,” is actually not linguistically viable, nor is i mbolg (“in the belly”), nor imb-fholc (“washing oneself”), though the latter does have some applicability to the occasion. One recently proposed etymology is to take it as it stands, and interpret it as imb olc, “butter of wolves.” While this might conjure images of a Red Riding Hood-like grandmother with a wolf’s head in the shape of a dark bottle of maple syrup–“Mrs. Butterwolf makes the best warriors because she takes her own sweet time!”–a closer examination of the material relating to Brigid demonstrates that this simplest and most linguistically viable option may have a very good viability in context.

The surviving hagiographies of St. Brigid include a huge number of miracles associated with food generally, but milk, butter, and other dairy products seem to get a particular emphasis at various points. She was said to have been baptized in milk, for example (at which mainstream Christian theology would balk, incidentally!), which suggests that milk was considered a spiritual cleansing product in Irish culture, which is borne out by examination of other narratives where milk is used in a similar fashion. Butter, and its obvious derivation from milk, was an extremely important food for the Irish, and was surrounded with many supernatural associations; it was used as a medium for certain spells, and as a general emollient and anointing agent, since oils of other types were not usually available. Butter was valuable, and could be preserved for much longer periods than milk, particularly if buried in a bog; and in fact, good stores of butter would have been essential in order to survive the winter in Ireland. Butter’s importance, and its connection to Brigid, therefore, are easy to establish. But, there are also a great many canid (meaning both canine and lupine) connections with Brigid–for example, one possible form of Brigid, Bríg Ambue (“Bríg of the Cowless/Outlaw Warrior”), is the only female listed in a group of people responsible for the innovation and patronage of particular types of dogs. Dogs and wolves are nearly interchangeable in Irish, with many of the terms used possibly meaning either one– can mean either “dog” or “wolf,” and cú allaid can mean “wild dog” or “wolf,” as just a couple amongst many possible examples. Furthermore, there are names for the season around Imbolc in both Irish and Scottish sources that indicate that the period was a “wolf-month,” e.g. Scots Gaelic Faoilleach, which is matched by names found elsewhere in the calendrical traditions of Europe.

According to some sources, the warriors of the fíanna (roving, usually youthful, quasi-outlaw warrior-bands closely identified with dogs and wolves), and their close relations the díberga (“marauders”), were active during the summer and were settled during the winter; but, some other narratives suggest that the time of Samain to Imbolc was one particularly associated with warfare. The great medieval Irish heroic epic, Táin Bó Cúailnge, focuses upon a cattle-raid that becomes an inter-provincial war, and the raid starts just before Samain and lasts until after Imbolc. During this campaign, in which Queen Medb of Connacht’s army besieges Ulster, the young hero Cú Chulainn–whose very name connects him to hounds or wolves–single-handedly defends the province of Ulster from the invading army, and his single-combats last from Samain to Imbolc. Thus, his final fateful battle against his foster-brother Fer Diad likely had its culmination on or around Imbolc. In other sources, Cú Chulainn seems to be particularly linked with this quarter-day, in the same way that his divine father Lug was connected to the quarter-day at the opposite end of the year, Lugnasad–and that particular period of the year, in Irish as well as in other European cultures, was the “dog-days.” So the winter in late January/early February seems to be the “wolf-month,” just as the days of late July and early August are the “dog-days.”

But, what is the direct connection between butter, wolves, and Imbolc? The status of the fían-warrior or the díberg in Ireland was a temporary one; it was a state tied to one’s age-grade and property- and legal-status, and it was something that many people would eventually leave, or may unexpectedly enter if they fell on hard times. In some of her hagiographies, St. Brigid cleanses the díberga of their “diabolical signs,” which seem to have been worn on their heads, and it marked them as people with oaths to kill and do harm, thus removal of these signs changed their status and relieved their obligations. The medieval Christian church in Ireland considered both the fíanna and díberga to be inherently evil and Pagan (in every sense!) classes of society, which they ruthlessly tried to stamp out. This entire warrior class seemed to carry on some of the traditions of pre-Christian Pagan Irish religion longer than any other class in Irish society, and they were not fully suppressed until about the fourteenth century CE, when a number of conquering Norman English settlers began taking up their ways and their hairstyles, and they were formally outlawed, where up until then they still had limited rights under the native system of Irish law. Perhaps, in these accounts of St. Brigid, she was simply playing a role that she always had in the pre-Christian Pagan religion, and was cleansing the warriors returning from their díberg or fían status. If the cleansing was not done with milk, perhaps it was done with butter, or an anointing with butter in blessing happened afterwards. Thus, “butter of wolves”!

The youthful wolf- or dog-identified warband existed throughout Europe, and in Rome, the twins Romulus and Remus who founded Rome certainly existed as hunter/warriors before they went on to found the city. On the annual festival of Lupercalia, held on February 15, the Romans had a ritual in which a group of youthful priests helped to perform a sacrifice of a goat and a dog, then spread the blood of these on their foreheads. Another priest then dipped some wool in milk, and cleaned the blood from their foreheads, whereupon they laughed. The Romans did not understand what the significance of these rituals was in late antiquity, but the traditions were held to have come from Arcadia, a place in Greece that was considered to be quite archaic, and which was associated heavily with werewolves, which are often simply another form of the youthful wolf/dog-identified warband. What may be going on in the Lupercalia ritual is that the “diabolical signs” (blood on one’s forehead) was being removed–and even though it was not being removed with butter, the fact that milk was used in this manner suggests that Lupercalia may have a great deal of suggestive power in terms of how St. Brigid (and her pre-Christian goddess predecessor or her human representatives) performed their ritual; and likewise, the Irish evidence may shed a great deal of light on the significance, origin, and meaning of the Roman ritual.

In Rome, the sacrifice and rituals of the limited Luperci priesthood took place somewhat privately, whereas the rest of the festival was public, and involved the Luperci running a race around the old boundaries of the city, flogging passers-by on the hands, who thought being so flogged was auspicious and promoted fertility (particularly for women). The fierceness of the warriors, when re-integrated into society, could be turned into the flowering and fertility of wider society by its active protection. Likewise, the exterior and householder, agriculture-based celebrations of Imbolc may have appealed to the majority of society, while the individual warrior re-integrations took place on a more limited and private scale. The two activities work in concert with one another, and the warrior institution ultimately supports settled life, while likewise the settled people support the warriors.

An interesting further comparandum, though one that cannot be explained by direct contact nor common cultural descent in the manner that Lupercalia and Imbolc share, is found in the Shinto festival of Setsubun, which takes place around the beginning of February each year. Setsubun means “season division,” and it is celebrated in a particular fashion with a practice called Mamemaki, “soybean-throwing.” Shinto priests shoot misfortune-dispelling arrows in the auspicious direction of the particular year, and then roasted soybeans are thrown in various directions for purification and blessings. In some celebrations of the festival, people dressed as oni (often translated “demons”) attack from the inauspicious direction of the year, and are pelted with the roasted soybeans! So, the significance is similar, only the primary medium of purification is not milk or butter, but instead soy! For vegans, the Shinto alternative is certainly a viable one!

But, apart from the specific cultural and seasonal celebrations involved in Imbolc (and Lupercalia), perhaps a wider significance can be taken for this festival, which is desperately needed in today’s society. Currently, the U.S. is engaged in wars on two fronts (even though Iraq is “officially” no longer a war), and soldiers of all religions are trained in the U.S. and sent off to do their duties in these various places without always being given clear ethical standards or rules of engagement, nor are they given sufficient transitional rituals to facilitate their re-integration into society after returning from combat. The rules of the battlefront are not the same as the rules of settled society. Without such recognitions of changes in status, both going and coming, the likelihood of PTSD, general levels of stress and strain on non-military relationships and situations, and a variety of other things are not only likely, they’re nearly unavoidable. The number of suicides in the U.S. Armed Forces last year is slightly larger than the total number of U.S. servicemember casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan for the year. While some may think this is an indication of the unfitness of service of the people involved, I think a great deal could be gained by people in every religion honoring their warrior-classes more, giving them the proper spiritual support, and allowing them to contextualize their experiences in a spiritual manner through these rites of transition, which might in fact do a great deal in preventing PTSD, suicide, and other forms of distress and trauma experienced by servicemembers. One does not have to necessarily “believe” in the gods and spirits involved in order to get a psychological benefit from a good ritual of transition. Just as aspects of Imbolc that suggest particular warrior significance are hidden, so too is the plight of many of our currently serving warriors, as well as the returning and returned wounded warriors and veterans who live among us.

By all means, thus, make the Brigid’s crosses and the corn dollies on Imbolc, and welcome in the coming Spring with great joy; but do not forget that the Brigid who is the smith, the Brigid who is the healer, and the Brigid who is the poetess each serve the warriors as well, by making weapons and equipment, by tending to their wounds of every sort while in battle and when returning, and by recounting their deeds and their stories as they happen and afterwards. And, there is also a Brigid, Bríg Ambue, who is the patroness of the “Cowless Warriors,” the equivalent of which in our own society are the often young and disenfranchised men and women who make up the majority of the enlisted servicemembers in the U.S. Armed Forces. She will always be their guide and their supporter, and the one who joyfully receives them back when they return, tending to their visible wounds and cleansing their invisible scars. We should never forget them, nor should we neglect Her in our observances.

*: Note that I prefer to use the Old Irish spelling of this festival, as well as most of the other Irish terms employed in this article.

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