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The Irish Celtic Magical Tradition

The Festival of Imbolc

By Peter Vallance
Imbolc is one of the four major Celtic Festivals. It is closely associated with the goddess Brighid who in turn gave her name to the Christian Saint, Brighid, the Mary of the Gaels.

Just as the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain has been adopted and adapted by the Christian Church so too has the equally ancient festival of Imbolc. This word, sometimes given as Oimelc, literally means butter bag and this is an indication of the festival's pastoral origins. Originally the festival would have been celebrated when the local sheep started to lactate. This of course means it would have been celebrated at different times in different places. Later, when the festival was adopted by the Christian Church, the date was fixed at February 1st. Unlike Samhain which is very much a festival for the whole community and any visiting guests to celebrate jointly, Imbolc is much more personal and localised. This aspect was also carried forward into the Christian era when the festival tended to be celebrated with the family at home, at least in the Scottish Western Isles, as opposed to a communal act of worship in the church.

The old name Imbolc occurs only in the very old literature and the modern Gaelic name for Imbolc is Óiche Fheil Bhrighide which means the Eve of the festival of Brighid. It is normally called Candlemas in non-Gaelic speaking areas. This title clearly identifies the festival with St Brighid, or St Bride as she is sometimes called. This again is a carry forward from Celtic times when the festival was very closely associated with the goddess of the Tuatha De Danann called Brighid. Brighid was the daughter of the Daghda and was wife of Breas, a Fomhorian king and temporary ruler of the Tuatha De Danann. Her son was Ruadhan and during the Battle of Moytura he was killed and Brighid was so overcome with grief that she expressed her sorrow through keening her dead son. This was the first time keening, open weeping and wailing in grief, had been heard in Ireland. Brighid had two sisters, who were also called Brighid, and collectively they were the goddesses of poetry (or inspiration), healing and smithcraft. This occurence of a goddess, or sometimes a god, having two brothers or sisters is common throughout the Irish legends and is in fact indicative of the triple aspect of one god or goddess.

There was however an historical Brighid who is often confused with the mythological Brighid but who probably owes her existence to her anyway. According to tradition, the historical St Brighid was born at sunrise neither within nor without a house. The importance of this state of being in-between is our first indication of her pre-Christian origin. She was fed from the milk of a white, red eared cow and, again, there are clear Celtic origins to this. The feeding by milk associates her with the pre-Christian Brighid whose festival is to do with lactation. The description of the cows being white with red ears is a standard description within the Irish legends for Otherworld creatures.

She was credited with being able to hang her wet cloak on sun-rays to dry and this brings in the mythological Brighid's mantle and also her association with fire. The fire association is further emphasised by the belief that whatever house Brighid was in shone as if it were ablaze. She became Abbess of Kildare in 525 AD and in her sanctuary, which no man was allowed to enter, a sacred flame was kept alight continously until the Norman invasion of the 12th century when it was briefly extinguished. It was relit but eventually dowsed forever during the reign of the English king Henry the Eighth. The flame was said to have been tended by nineteen nuns although some versions claim it was nine. It was tended by them carefully for nineteen nights but on the twentieth it kept alight of its own accord. The fiery aspect of the pre-Christian goddess can clearly be seen to have attached itself to the Christian saint.

The importance of this sanctuary at Kildare was so great that the nuns there were considered to be more important than the bishops themselves. This reverence was so embarassing to the male dominated Roman Catholic Church that a Papal decree had to be issued in 1151 to put an end to it. The skull of St Brighid was taken by the Normans to Portugal where up until very recently cattle were driven past it in an act of purification. Clearly such adoration of what was, after all, a relatively minor saint stems from a very deeply in-built respect, reverence and remembrance, of the ancient pre-Christian goddess who was called upon by all women during childbirth to make their delivery an easy one.

Although Brighid the saint and Brighid the goddess are Irish their appeal stretched across the waters to the Scottish Hebridean islands where a very great deal of lore, rituals and sayings have evolved around her. In the isles she is sometimes referred to as Mary of the Gael and she almost supersedes the Virgin Mary in importance and reverence. Just as the ancient Celtic women called upon her for assistance during childbirth so too do the women of the isles and one surviving rune is:

There to my assistance,
Mary fair and Bride;
As Anna bore Mary,
As Mary bore Christ,
As Eile bore John the Baptist,
Without flaw in him
Aid thou me in my unbearing,
Aid me, O Bride!
As Christ was conceived of Mary
Full perfect on every hand,
Assist thou me foster-mother,
The conception to bring from the bone,
And as thou didst aid the Virgin of Joy
Without gold, without corn, without kine,
Aid thou me, great is my sickness,
Aid me, O Bride!

This little rune although plainly Christian in sentiment displays a great deal of ancient Celtic influence, especially in the reference to foster-mother. Fosterage was a common affair amongst the ancient Celts and carried on for some considerable time amongst the Highlanders and Islanders of West Scotland. The bond between foster-parent and foster-child was regarded as being stronger and more important than the bond between natural parent and natural child. One Highland proverb says, "Fuil gu fichead, comhdhaltas gu ceud.", blood to the twentieth, fostership to the hundredth. Other names given to Brighid are Muime Chrisda, foster-mother of Christ; Bana-ghistidh Mhic De, god-mother of the son of God. Christ is referred to as Dalta-Bride, foster-son of Brighid; Daltan Bide, little fosterling of Brighid, a name which is still used as a term of endearment in some Gaelic speaking parts of Scotland. One of her present day Gaelic names is Ban-chuideachaidh Moire, the aid-woman of Mary, bacause of an old legend that says she helped deliver the Christ child.

In this legend it is said she is actually born the daughter of a poor inn-keeper in Betlethem. During a bad drought her father left in search of water and gave strict instructions she was not to give food nor water to anyone as there was only enough left for herself. Presently two strangers appeared, an old man and a beaufiul young woman heavy with child, who asked for food and drink. Brighid in her heart could not refuse this weary couple and she gave them all she had. The strangers thanked her and went on their way. When she went to close the inn for the night she found that her food and water had been replenished as full as if they had never been touched. She went in search of the strange couple and, seeing a brilliant golden light above a nearby stable, she entered just in time to help the young woman with her childbirth. As the young woman slept Brighid wrapped the silent baby in her mantle and allowed the exhausted mother to recover. Brighid's father returned and, seeing the light, angels and Heavenly Host above the stable, knew the Messiah had arrived.

In both Ireland and West Scotland the Eve of Bride is a time for much celebration and ritual. The main form of celebration is for the women to make an oblong basket in the shape of a cradle called Leaba Bride, Brighid's Bed, and place within it a sheaf of corn. This sheaf was kept over from the previous year's harvest specifically for this purpose and is fashioned in the shape of a woman. This festival is regarded as signifying the first day of spring and therefore the corn woman is bedecked with primroses, daisies, snowdrops and any other flowers that happened to have pushed their heads through the snow, along with bright ribbons, shells and stones. When all is ready one of the women goes to the door and calls, "Let Bride come in, Bride is welcome. Bride come in, thy bed is made." The corn figure of Brighid is then placed in the basket along with a small white wand of birch, broom, bramble or white willow. This wand is straight to signify justice and to signify peace and purity and mirrors the wand given during the coronation ceremony of the Irish kings when they too were given such a wand for the same reasons.

The men of the community are then invited in to pay their respects to Brighid. Note they are only there at the invitation of the women, another very early Celtic trait. They too give her their gift which is usually a shell, stone or flower, and thereafter rejoicing and celebration take place. Once the main celebrations are over, and any guests have gone, the woman of the house very carefully smooths the ashes of the peat fire and places the wand amongst them. The entire household then retires for the night. Next morning the ashes are carefully examined and if the marks of the wand are found it is a good sign. If Lorg Bride, the footprint of Bride, a disturbance in the ashes in the shape of a footprint, is found then the household is especially blessed. If, on the other hand, no trace is found of either then it is seen as an indication that Brighid is offended and this is very bad luck.

Being the first day of Spring, snakes were thought to come out of their winter hiding places and strange sayings and runes were chanted on this day. Few of them have come down to us intact and most are only remembered or recorded fragmentarily. The main theme is usually:

Early on Bride's morn
The serpent shall come from the hole
I will not molest the serpent
Nor will the serpent molest me.

Some versions change the word serpent for Daughter of Ivor or the Noble Queen but basically they all make the same announcement. Too little remains of these sayings to form any definite opinion as to their meanings or origins. The reference to the serpent would imply a pre-Christian origin considering the frequency with which serpents appear in our native pre-Christian tradition. In Ireland the saying was slightly different and referred to a hedgehog, presumblay because of the lack of serpents in Ireland. It was believed the hedgehog came out of his winter hole on this day to inspect the weather. If he stayed out it was an indication of a good Spring to come but if he returned to his burrow it meant that the wintry weather was to continue.

A common practice, and one still carried out in parts of Ireland and the Western Isles, is to make Cros Bride or Bogha Bride which means St Brighid's Cross. The most usual shape is a diamond or lozenge of straw woven around a little wooden cross although a very great deal of variation is to be found in these crosses. Some have as many as thirty lozenges, some are simple crosses within circles, some are made entirely of rushes bent over on each other and so on. Basically though there are two main types four armed crosses and three armed crosses. The four armed ones are hung in the house for the benefit of the humans and are a protection against fire and lightning. The three armed ones are hung in the stable or byre to protect the horses or cattle. It is interesting to note that despite the very clear pre-Christian associations of these customs, most priests gladly bless the St Brighid crosses knowing full well the "superstitious" use to which they are put. Nine months later however these same priests will more often than not actively discourage the celebration of Samhain. The festival of Imbolc is also the origin of the Christian festival of Candlemas which is usually celebrated on February the second. This is when candles are blessed in the church. There are two slightly different legends giving rise to this custom.

The Irish version is that Brighid promised to distract the attention of the crowds when Mary took Christ to the temple. She did this by wearing a head-dress which was covered in lit candles and it worked so well Mary declared that that day should be remembered henceforth by the blessing and purification of candles in the church. The Scottish version states that as Mary and Jesus entered the temple their candles were in danger of going out due to the draught. Brighid came from the crowd and took their candles and walked in front of them into the temple. The candles did not flicker or move at all as she held them and they seemed to burn with unnatural brilliance. Again Mary decreed that the day should be remembered by the blessing of candles. Whichever version you prefer the ancient Celtic association of Brighid with fire and illumination is still there.

The festival of Imbolc then can be seen to be one with ancient Celtic origins in honour of the goddess Brighid and the returning of Spring. It is also one honouring the Christian saint of the same name and her role in the delivery of the Christ safely into this world. It is a festival, both in its pre-Christian origins and its latter day continuation, very much for women. It is a mystery to the men who play no part in its preparation or ritualistic side and who only participate in the celebratory part at the specific invitation of the women. It is a very positive festival marking as it does the return of Spring and the lengthening days with their steady increase in warmth. It does not carry with it the same intensity of purpose as the very magical and mysterious festival of Samhain, the rather gloomy festival of Lughnassadh or the very down to earth festival of Bealtaine but it makes up for this in its own serenity and beauty.

Peter Vallance can be contacted at: Runic Cross Cottage, Waverley Road, Innerleithen, Pebbleshire, Scotland. EH44 6QH.

This article was first published in Seanchas, Volume 6, no.2. by The Celtic Research and Folklore Society, 7 Doughlas Place, Brodick, Isle of Arran, Scotland.

This occurrence of a goddess, or sometimes a god, having two brothers or sisters is common throughout the Irish legends and is in fact indicative of the triple aspect of one god or goddess.
The fiery aspect of the pre-Christian goddess can clearly be seen to have attached itself to the Christian saint.
One of her present day Gaelic names is Ban-chuideachaidh Moire, the aid-woman of Mary, because of an old legend that says she helped deliver the Christ child.
Imbolc is a mystery to the men who play no part in its preparation or ritualistic side and who only participate in the celebratory part at the specific invitation of the women.

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