“The Mother . . . at Imbolc is still with us, protecting, holding us through the process of change. There are times when the steps we take through our fears must be taken alone. But, yes, we begin at Imbolc, rebirthed from the darkness. And we return to the Mother, again and again.”
– Emma Restall Orr
This festival, known as Imbolc or Oimelc, or, in Wales, Gwyl Mair, falls on the second day of February. To Christians, this day is Candlemas and in secular modern America, it’s Groundhog Day. “Gwyl Mair” means “Feast of Mary” in Welsh. Mary is an expression of the Goddess in Christian terms and this day has associations with new motherhood. Its Irish name, Imbolc, means “ewe’s milk.” It is sometimes translated as “in the belly,” which Kondratiev considers a folk etymology. Both are appropriate names for this time. We have used the term “in the belly of the whale” in our discussions about this time, and this feeling of being deep within the dark, held within, capture the essence of the time.
Gwyl Mair’s association with milk and pregnancy also relates to the lactation of ewes, which begins at this time. In the British Isles, sheep begin lambing in February, and Imbolc would have been the time when it became apparent that this new life was immanent. Kondratiev says that the lactation of ewes begins a month before lambing, and that this is a small, subtle sign of the returning spring. I see this idea in other sources as well. A veterinarian in the Sisterhood set us straight on this one, though I already had my doubts. It’s impossible that ewes would lactate so far before lambing, and the very earliest lambs would arrive in February. I suspect Kondratiev misinterpreted a source and this idea of early lactation got passed around as something that sounded sort of plausible to people who have never actually spent any time around breeding animals. By Imbolc the ewes would be big and round, and I think the image of pregnancy and expectation is more appropriate to the season.
The goddess most often associated with this time is Brighid. It is her symbolism that one finds most often in Pagan practices on this day. In Ireland, it is the feast day of St. Brigit. While St. Brigit is a Catholic saint, her iconography indicates that she is can be seen as a newer expression of the old goddess Brighid. According to Kondratiev, there are two themes to this festival: the reawakening of the land and the beginning of a new agricultural cycle. To mark this, Brighid was called to bless and purify the tools of agriculture and the land itself. An equal-armed cross was woven from wheat as a symbol of the four seasons and Brighid‘s blessing. These crosses were hung as protective talismans against fire and lightning. Dolls were woven from wheat or other grains to represent the Goddess. These were laid in baskets and blessed in an Imbolc ceremony.
Brighid is often described as a fire goddess. She is also the goddess of wells and springs, crossroads and midwifery. Her association with wells, crossroads and childbirth mark her as a liminal goddess, a goddess of boundaries. These types of goddesses (of which Ceridwen is also one) assist at times of transition. When things begin to change, a goddess like Brighid or Ceridwen is there to give aid. Gwyl Mair is the moment when Winter begins to give way to Spring. Kondratiev describes this time as winter pregnant with spring. The Celts, he points out, saw the new day as beginning in the darkness at sunset; similarly, the spring begins while still in the dark of winter.
Even Christian tradition has it as a day for looking to the returning light; as Candlemas, it is the day that the candles to be used in the upcoming year are blessed. In Wiccan practice, it is a time for reawakening the Goddess, who is said to clumber underground as the growing light of the God begins to awaken her. They also associate Imbolc with lactation, as it is the time when the Goddess nurses the child that she bore at Yule. It is a time for initiations, for declaring the work that is to be done.
This is also a time for divination for the coming agricultural cycle. In Scotland, snakes were said to come out of their holes. If the snake returned to its hole, then winter would continue; if it stayed out, then a thaw was coming. In Ireland a hedgehog was the animal harbinger, and in America we have the groundhog. All of these are animals that sleep within the earth during winter and only emerge with the spring. It is the time for these animals to stir and begin to awaken, just as the land begins to stir and awaken at this time. It is also time to bless the tools of agriculture. Imbolc marked the first day of ploughing in some places and ploughs were decorated or blessed with whiskey.
Imbolc is also a time for purification. It’s when spring cleaning starts, when we start to move out of our winter lethargy and into the new energy of spring. Dianne Sylvan describes it as the moment when our space has been cleaned and dusted, but before we have decided what to do with our newly clean place. It’s not time yet to do the work; it is time to prepare for the work, just as blessing the ploughs prepares for the work of planting and blessing the candles prepares the church for a new year of ceremony.
Those of us who garden know that this is the time when seed catalogs start to arrive. It’s too early to plant, but it’s not too early to plan, and now is when we go through those pages and pick out the plants we want to nurture in the coming growing season. It’s a time to take stock of what we already have as we prepare for the new. It’s correct that these come now in terms of the growing season, and the same energy that motivates us to peruse these catalogs and make plans is the energy that pushes out the first crocuses and snowdrops.
Here we look within and steadfastly face that which has been in shadow. It is a time for stillness. Just as winter is a time for rest and contemplation, so Gwyl Mair is a time to hold still and look within.
Blamires, Steve. Magic of the Celtic Otherworld. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 2005.
Greer, John Michael. The Druidry Handbook: Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth. York Beach, ME: Weiser Books, 2006.
Hopman, Ellen Evert. A Druid’s Herbal for the Sacred Earth Year. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1995.
Kondratiev, Alexei. The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual. New York: Kensington Publishing, 2003.
Myers, Brendan Cathbad. The Mysteries of Druidry. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books, 2006.
Orr, Emma Restall. Spirits of the Sacred Grove: The World of a Druid Priestess. London: Thorson, 1998.
Sylvan, Dianne. The Circle Within. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 2005.
Telyndru, Jhenah. Avalon Within: Inner Sovereignty and Personal Transformation through the Avalonian Mysteries. BookSurge, 2004.
Sheep. Candlelight, starlight. The light returning, the pale light that comes before dawn. Milk. Running sap. Corn dollies. “Brighid’s Cross” Snowdrops, crocuses. Quiet. Dark. Still. Reawakening. Purification. Cleansing, Awakening the Goddess.
note – this is an edited version of a paper I wrote for the SoA’s Station of Confrontation. I took out most of the Avalon references – it’s too tradition-specific to be of interest to anyone outside of the Sisterhood, and I wanted to post something of more general interest here.