In this Pagan exploration, I, your Resident Witch, will attempt to explain the Pagan holiday of Imbolc, which falls on February 2nd, and just what it has to do with cross-dressing children, the patron saint of abortion providers, voodoo angels with a hankering for hot peppers – and, of course, Groundhog Day.
Imbolc is the time at which the Goddess is reborn as the maiden, having recovered from giving birth to the God. The God is still an infant, so this festival centers mainly on worship of the Goddess, though some Pagans will incorporate Lugh, the sun god, into their rituals. The Goddess most commonly celebrated at this time is Brigid, who is also worshiped on this day by many Christians (especially in Ireland) as “Saint Brigid”. Later on we will examine the evolution of Brigid from Goddess to Saint.
Imbolc was acknowledged by the ancient inhabitants of Ireland. Evidence of this can be found at the Mound of the Hostages in Tara, Ireland, built between 3000-2500 B.C. Here the inner chamber of the passage tombs are perfectly aligned with the rising sun of both Imbolc and Samhain (Halloween – read about it my previous diary here). When the sun rises on Imbolc, the light shines down the long passageway and illuminates the inner chamber of the tomb. When the sun rises on Samhain, the same.
I find this very interesting, as the current Pagan calendar sites Samhain and Beltaine as the two most important holy days. Yet the people who built this mound overlooked Beltaine in favor of Imbolc. I wonder why. It is also interesting that this mound is built in a similar fashion to both the Loughcrew burial mounds, which are said to be dated between 3500 to 3300 B.C. At this location, a small beam of light permeates the inner passage on the vernal equinox. At the Newgrange mound, a small beam of sunlight falls briefly inside the tombs on the winter solstice. This makes me think that these three sites were built by the same people, which is fascinating, because the Newgrange mound is said to have been built around 3400 B.C., which makes it 500 years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza. So not only have people been celebrating the winter solstice for the last 5,300+ years, but it is possible that Imbolc, Samhain and Ostara (vernal equinox) have been celebrated for just as long.
As Imbolc is exactly between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, it is a celebration of the early signs of spring, and a time for weather prognostication (more about that later). Candles are lit to signify the awakening of the earth, and to draw the power of the sun to the people. Much candle magic is done on this day. Since Brigid is the Goddess of creativity and Imbolc is her day, I lit a yellow candle (for creativity) and burned it as I worked on my book.
An interesting Christian/Pagan fusion has emerged in regards to Imbolc celebrations. On the eve of”St. Brigid’s Day” as the Christians call it, all girls and young unmarried women fashion a corn dolly to represent Brigid (Saint or Goddess, depending on your preference) and dress it up with ribbons, shells, stone and the like. Corn dollies are often used in Pagan rituals and are especially popular during harvest festivals. The girls then make a bed for the Brideog (“little Brigid”), then all of them gather together in one house to stay up all night with the Brideog, perhaps hoping to encounter Brigid herself (Saint or Goddess), who is said to walk the Earth once more on this night.
Before going to bed, each member of the household may leave a piece of clothing or strip of cloth outside for Brigid to bless. The head of the household will smother (or “smoor”) the fire and rake the ashes smooth. In the morning, they look for some kind of mark on the ashes, a sign that Brigid has passed that way in the night or morning. The clothes or strips of cloth are brought inside, and believed to now have powers of healing and protection.
The next day, the young men of the community visit the house, ask for permission to enter, and treat the women and the corn dolly with the utmost respect. Later:
the girls carry the Brideog through the village or neighborhood, from house to house, where this representation of the Saint/goddess is welcomed with great honor. Adult women – those who are married or who run a household – stay home to welcome the Brigid procession, perhaps with an offering of coins or a snack. Since Brigid represents the light half of the year, and the power that will bring people from the dark season of winter into spring, her presence is very important at this time of year.
Interesting enough, it was those who honored Saint Brigid who began the tradition of having cross-dressing boys and girls carry a turnip-headed Brideog through the streets on St. Bridgid’s Eve. I can find no information about whether or not this is still done, but I certainly hope it is.
Now a bit about Brigid. She is a celtic triple-goddess, which means that she is able to represent all three forms of the Goddess: maiden, mother and crone. Most Goddesses can only represent one form. In her maiden form she represents poetry, as the mother she represents healing, and as the crone she represents smithcraft. In all forms she is revered as Goddess of creativity and healing, which is why she is one of my favorites.
It is said that when Brighid was born at sunrise, a tower of flame roared from the top of her head to the heavens. This is why the meaning of her name is “fiery arrow”. Other possible meanings are”flame keeper” and “exalted one”. She is a fire Goddess (many Goddesses are associated with one of the four elements: earth, air, fire & water). She is the Goddess of poets, writers, personal excellence, hearth and home, sacred flames, wells, livestock (and so presumably pets as well) and beer brewers. She is said to brew her own beer, which is unmatched in taste.
Just how ancient Brigid is is a matter of debate. Some scholars see a reference to her in the ancient Indian Sanskrit word ‘Brihatî,’ meaning ‘the exalted one’.
A natural, eternal sacred flame has been maintained in her honor at Kildare, Ireland (whose name means “temple of the oak” – oak being the sacred wood of the druids.) for more than a thousand years. It was tended by 19 virgin priestesses called “The Daughters of The Flame”. They each took turns at tending it for one day and on the 20th day Brigid herself was said to tend the fire. The cycle then began anew. The priestesses were not allowed to consort with men, and no men were allowed to approach the fire . It was said to be surrounded by a hedge that no man could cross. Those men who attempted to cross it were cursed with insanity, death or the withering of their “lower leg”.
In Kildare, there is also a holy well dedicated to Brigid, the water of which is said to contain healing powers. Many other wells throughout the ancient Celtic lands are dedicated to Brigid and the practice of well dressing or tying “clouties” (bits of cloth) to the trees next to healing wells in order to petition Brigid is still prevalent today.
Brigid may have made it all the way to Haiti in the form of the voodoo Lwa (a kind if saint or angel) “Maman Brigitte”. Many Irish were kidnapped and enslaved alongside Africans in the Caribbean, and due to intermarriage and cultural blending, it is possible that Haitian voodoo is partially influenced by Celtic beliefs. Maman Brigitte is worshipped a the Lady of the Cemetary because she guards graves. She is characterized as a hard-working, foul-mouthed woman who enjoys a special drink consisting of rum laced with 21 hot peppers. People suspected of faking possesion by her are asked to drink this concoction, or are sometimes subjected to having hot peppers rubbed on their genitals, another favorite pasttime of Maman Brigitte.
Those who are not truly possessed are soon identified.
Indeed. I was able to find a recipe for this, jokingly referred to as “Haitian Tear Gas”, and will post it if anyone asks.
The earliest accounting of her life was written in 650, 150 years after her death. The monastic annals from early Ireland list two birthdates (452, 456) and three different dates for her death (524, 526, 528). Not so strange, considering no one knows the exact year Anne Boleyn was born either.
That she shares both her name and her feast day with those of the earlier pagan goddess Brigid may indicate that Saint Brigid is partially or entirely a fictional creation based on the pagan figure in order to convert Celts to Christianity; the euhemerization of pagan figures and tradition was a common practice of Christian missionaries. However she may merely have been named after her. Given the struggle Christian missionaries faced in their efforts to preach the Gospel in Ireland, even though they Christianized some elements, the adoption of a pagan goddess into the Communion of Saints may have been an effort to Christianize one of the most enduring pagan goddesses.
Another explanation for the name similarity could be that in the accounting given of her life, Saint Brigid was the daughter of the Pagan chieftan, Dubthach (whose descendents may have be the modern “Duffys”), who named her after the Goddess he worshipped. She supposedly became a virgin in service to the Goddess Brigid at Kildare, where she ascended to high order. Then in 468, she converted to Christianity and founded a school of art metalworking (both of which Goddess Brigid is known for).
Indeed many of the legends surrounding Saint Brigid are much more Pagan than the stories that surround your average saint. Much of the mythology and characteristics of Goddess Brigid were attributed to Saint Brigid as well. It was believed that flowers bloomed wherever she walked, and that at springtime her cloak passed over the earth to bring it back to life. As the “Queen of Heaven” she was considered by Irish Catholics on par with Mary, some legends claiming that she was in fact Mary’s sister (which is, of course, realistically impossible). Impossible too is the idea that she assisted Mary in labor and was nursemaid to the infant Christ, to whom she gave her “sacred milk”.
In “How the Irish Saved Civilization” Thomas Cahill relates how one of the miracles attibuted to St. Brigid was the “curing” of the pregnancy of a young nun before her mother superior found out. This has led the irreligious to call her “The Patron Saint of Abortion Providers”.
Most interestingly of all, I think, is the popular belief of the early Irish Christians that Brigid was both the mother and bride of Saint Patrick. Of course, the mother/lover role of the Goddess is an ancient pagan belief prevalent in many cultures. It is the model on which the wheel of the year is based. It is certainly not a very Christian idea. It was even said that Saint Patrick died as one of her sacrificial victims and entered the underworld via her sacred grove at Derry Down, and that the two of them were buried in one tomb at this grove.
Of course, St. Patrick, whose existence has been proven, was also gifted with the attributes of an ancient Celtic God, the Dagda, God of the earth and plenty, and consort of Goddess Brigid. Some accounts claim that he was able to win so many converts to the new faith because the people saw him as a new version of Dagda. The legend of Saint Patrick chasing all the snakes from Ireland takes on a new meaning when one considers that snakes were sacred to the Druids and represented the earth, the male life force and esoteric knowledge.
Whatever the case, even her Christian followers were deeply, deeply mired in Pagan sensibilities.
As a druid convert to Christianity, Saint Brigid is credited with founding the first convent in Ireland.
She was said to have many convents, but had her largest following in Kildare. Perhaps the people thought she was in incarnation of their beloved Goddess Brigid? Saint Brigid kept the sacred flame burning, though the women who tended it were now called “nuns”. Whether the original priestesses were thrown out or converted (truly or in name only), and whether this transition was entirely peaceful, I don’t know.
The flame continued to be tended by 19 virgins in 20-day cycles, and after the death of Saint Brigid on the 20th day the fire was said to be tended by Saint Brigid herself. Who tended the time on the 20th day while she was still alive in unknown.
The no-man policy was still strictly enforced. St. Brigid somehow even managed to install an abbess as convent overseer, a tradition that continued until 1220, when a Bishop became angered and insisted that as the nuns were subordinate to priests, they must open their abbey to inspection by a priest. They refused, and asked that another abbess or other female official perform the inspections, at which point the Bishop became incensed, admonished them to obedience, and decreed that the keeping of the eternal flame was a Pagan custom and ordered that it be extinguished. The nuns simply rekindled it, and though several more attempts to extinguish it were made, it survived up until the the minions of Henry VIII (1509-1541), during the raids of monasteries and convents that accompanied the formation of the church of England, put it out.
In 1993 the flame was rekindled by the Brigidine sisters, who were founded on Imbolc of 1807 by six women and one Bishop, in order to revive the “sisters of Brigid”. Until 1992 the Brigidine sisters were not based in Kildare, but finally they decided that they would found a center there in order to get in touch with their roots. The flame was lit during a peace and justice conference in cooperation with AFRI (Action From Ireland) entitled Brigid: Prophetess, Earthwoman, Peacemaker. Afterwards it was tended by the Brigidine sisters in their center, to be re-lit in the market square every Imbolc. In 2007 it was moved permanently to the market square. The Brigidine sisters profess to be Christians, but their website says they celebrate both Samhain and Winter Solstice, two pagan holidays. It seems that they are Christians, but do not deny the Pagan roots of their Saint. Many people take home a bit of the flame and tend it themselves in their homes. I like the idea of this and hope to do it someday myself; I also wouldn’t mind visiting the healing well and gathering water.
This is where the original natural flame was. It hasn’t been re-lit since the 1600s, even though a gas line was laid to enable it to burn once more. I hope it is rekindled some day.
The Catholic holiday of Candlemas is also held on February 2nd. Christians contend that it bears no relation to Imbolc, since as they put it
there is no reasonable explanation for a small local Gaelic commemoration making its way to Jerusalem by the 4th century.
However, this doesn’t mean it is free of Pagan roots. The Roman festival of Lupercalia (which some claim morphed into Valentine’s Day, as it was held from February 13-15) is a strong contender. The Catholic Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia Britianica dispute this, but this quote from Pope InnocentXII the seems to confirm it:
Why do we in this feast carry candles? Because the Gentiles dedicated the month of February to the infernal gods, and as at the beginning of it Pluto stole Proserpine, and her mother Ceres sought her in the night with lighted candles, so they, at the beginning of the month, walked about the city with lighted candles. Because the holy fathers could not extirpate the custom, they ordained that Christians should carry about candles in honor of the Blessed Virgin; and thus what was done before in the honor of Ceres is now done in honor of the Blessed Virgin.
At Candlemas the herbs of winter (such as holly and mistletoe) were removed for fear that if they lingered it would spell death. I find this strange, since in Heian Japan (794-1192) it was traditional to switch the herbs adorning their homes in anticipation of a festivals celebrating the change of season.
Armenian Pagan customs remain in Candlemas celebrations: the spreading of ashes by farmers in their fields each year to ensure a better harvest, keeping ashes on the roof of a house to keep evil spirits away, and the belief that newlywed women needed to jump over fire to purify themselves before getting pregnant. Young men also leap over the bonfire.
In certain regions of Mexico, this is the day in which the baby Jesus of each household is taken up from the nativity scene and dressed up in various colorful, whimsical outfits. This is of course reminiscent of the Brideog custom.
In France, Candlemas (French: La Chandeleur) is celebrated with crêpes, which must be eaten only after eight p.m. If the cook can flip a crêpe while holding a coin in the other hand, the family is assured prosperity throughout the coming year.
In the UK the Imbolc tradition of weather prognostication persisted on Candlemas. Candlemas then evolved into Groundhog Day here in the U.S. Brigid is considered an oracle and could predict the success of the growing season. Often people would watch to see if badgers or serpents came from their winter dens. The serpent was said to be “Brigid’s serpent”, and from it’s movements the druids could whether or not there would be six more weeks of winter. The following Scottish Gaelic poem illustrates this:
The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bride,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.
Bride is of course a variation on the name “Brigid”. Other variations include “Brighid, Brigit and Brid. Even today Irish Christians struggle with whether or not they should celebrate Groundhog Day, given its Pagan origins.
An interesting weather prognostication idea is this:
According to gaelic folklore, Imbolc is the day the Cailleach – the crone godessed (sometimes called a hag goddess, but this conotation is considered negative) – gathers Her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she intends to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on Imbolc is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood. Therefore, people are generally relieved if Imbolc is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep and winter is almost over. On the Isle of Man, where She is known as Caillagh ny Groamagh, the Cailleach is said to have been seen on Imbolc in the form of a gigantic bird, carrying sticks in her beak.
It is also said that from Imbolc to the vernal equinox, Brigid will be locked in a desperate battle with the Cailleach to help us make it through to spring safely. The Cailleach is also said to ride about with her minions on wolves and wild boars, especially during February storms.
Some ideas about how the weather prognostication business began:
In western countries in the Northern Hemisphere the official first day of Spring is about six weeks after Groundhog Day, on March 20 or March 21. About 1,000 years ago, before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar when the date of the equinox drifted in the Julian calendar, the spring equinox fell on March 16 instead. This was exactly six weeks after February 2, assuming that the equinox marked the first day of spring in certain medieval cultures, as it does now in western countries, Groundhog Day occurred exactly six weeks before spring. Therefore, if the groundhog saw his shadow on Groundhog Day there would be six more weeks of winter. If he didn’t, there would be 42 more days of winter. In other words, the Groundhog Day tradition may have begun as a bit of folk humor.
Alternatively, the custom could have been a folk embodiment of the confusion created by the collision of two calendrical systems. Some ancient traditions marked the change of season at cross-quarter days such as Imbolc when daylight first makes significant progress against the night. Other traditions held that spring did not begin until the length of daylight overtook night at the Vernal Equinox. So an arbiter, the groundhog/hedgehog, was incorporated as a yearly custom to settle the two traditions. Sometimes Spring begins at Imbolc, and sometimes Winter lasts 6 more weeks until the equinox.
Perhaps the earliest known American reference to Groundhog Day can be found at the Historical Society of Berks County in Reading, Pennsylvania. The reference was made February 4, 1841 in Morgantown, Berks County, Pennsylvania storekeeper James Morris’ diary:
Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.” (Legend has it that the groundhog is a timid creature, and the sight of his own shadow will scare him.
The National Climatic Data Center reportedly has stated that the overall predictions accuracy rate is around 39%
This concludes today’s schooling in the Arts of Paganism. I know this edition was a bit more history lesson than spirituality lesson, but I hope you enjoyed it all the same. Any and all questions are welcome and encouraged.
Thanks to CrustyPolemicist for the interesting tidbits offered for this diary.