Imbolc sometimes spelled Imbolg and pronounced as i-molk or i-molg, also known as Brigid’s Day or Oimelc – February 1st – or 1st Full Moon of Aquarius or when the Sun reaches 15 degrees in Aquarius in the Northern Hemisphere. Or August 1st or the 1st Full Moon of Leo or when the Sun reaches 15 degrees in Leo in the Southern Hemisphere. It falls midway about between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. This is a celebration of banishing the winter season. Imbolc is the 1st of the 3 spring sabbats welcoming the change from old to new. It is a time or rebirth, new beginnings, and emergence. It is the celebration of the triple Goddess Brigid; whose breath gave life to the dead. Imbolc marks the time that the 1st stirrings of Mother Earth maybe felt and the time when the Maiden makes Herself known. Though this is the middle of winter one can feel the promise of spring. Energy, conception and inspiration fills the air. Traditionally Imbolc marks the beginning of spring in the Celtic calendar. This is a time to get rid of things that aren’t working for you and start planning alternatives.
Ancient Rome had several celebrations at this time. First was the Roman festival of Februalia. This festival took place between January 30th and February 2nd. This was a time for a ritual of purification and also a time to honor Februus and the dead. Next, starting on February 13th, was the celebration of Parentalia, which was a celebration honoring the family’s dead. Originating from the Etruscan tradition, the celebration begins with a ritual held in the home and then followed with a public festival. Families often went to the family tombs and offered up libations and offerings of bread for the dead. Last was the celebration of Lupercalia, which began around February 15th, and was a week-long festival in which two male goats were sacrificed and then the hides were dipped in blood and used as scourges. Not only were the fields touched with these hides but women as well, all to encourage fertility. During this time, the god Faunus and the goddess Juno were honored.
The ancient Egyptians celebrated the Feast of Nut whose birthday was February 2nd. Nut was the mother figure to the sun-god Ra. In Ireland, this was the time of the spring lambing, after which the ewes would start to lactate, thus the term “ewe’s milk” as Oimelc. At Neolithic sites in Ireland underground chambers align perfectly with the rising sun on Imbolc.
An old but not really ancient tradition in the Shetland Islands of Scotland is the Up Helly Aa celebration; held on the last Tuesday of January. It involves both some Scottish as well as Viking aspects. It became an organized celebration in the 1870’s. It’s a post-Christmas celebration, but having no Christian connotations. A torchlight procession and a flaming longship are just two aspects of it. There is much revelry involved and there is a public holiday the day after which most use to recover from the night before. Basically, there is lots of fire, food and drinks.
Of course, in the United States, February isn’t complete without Groundhog’s Day. On February 2nd, Punxatawney Phil, a cute groundhog, is pulled from his burrow and looks for his shadow. If he sees it then winter will continue hard for another 6 weeks. If he doesn’t, then spring weather will be soon upon us. This ritual is held in several cities and towns all throughout the United States. This little ceremony actually has ancient roots. The Europeans had a similar tradition only with an animal called a dachs, much like a badger, and when settlers came to the United States in the eighteenth century, they brought the ritual with them and simply switched over to the groundhog. The Greeks believed that an animal’s spirit was in his shadow and the time for hibernation was a time for its spiritual renewal and purification. Thus, if the animal that emerged in early spring saw his shadow, it would mean that he needed to go back inside while its misdeeds were expunged. The Celtic celebrated their own version of Groundhog’s Day only with a serpent, singing this poem :
Thig an nathair as an toll (The serpent will come from the hole)
La donn Bride (on the brown day of Bride [Brigid])
Ged robh tri treaghean dh’an (Though there may be three feet of snow)
Air leachd an lair (on the surface of the ground)
And for many out there, February means Valentine’s Day on the 14th. Millions of valentine cards and heart shaped chocolates and candies are passed to those they have a special affection for. However, this day of love and romance has its roots in ancient Rome. February was the month in which Lupercalia was celebrated. This is the festival celebrating the birth of Romulus and Remus who were the founders of the city of Rome; as time went on it changed into the celebration honoring fertility and the coming of spring. Young women would put their names into an urn and young men would draw out a name and they would pair off for the rest of the festival…sometimes longer. At about 500 C.E. when Christianity came to Rome, the celebration was declared Pagan and immoral and was ended. About the time that the pope declared Lupercalia pagan he declares February 14th the saint day for St. Valentine as a saint for lovers.
So, who was St. Valentine? He was thought to be a Christian priest during the time of Emperor Claudius, who, against the wishes of the Emperor, performed weddings. While jailed he was visited by a young woman, perhaps his jailer’s daughter, and fell in love. Before he was executed, he supposedly sent a note to the young woman signing it “From Your Valentine”. No one knows if this story is real. Valentine’s Day eventually fell out of practice and during medieval times the lover’s lottery came back in fashion again; the young man sometimes wearing the name of his lover on his sleeve for a year; thus, the saying, “Wearing your heart on your sleeve”. Around the eighteenth century, Valentine cards began to appear. First as pamphlets that young men could copy and send to their lovers, then as actual pre-made cards that could be sent as is. Christmas is the only holiday that sells more cards than Valentine’s Day.
One name for this sabbat is Brigid’s Day. In the Gaelic Celtic societies, Brigid was the keeper of the flame, thus the guardian of home and hearth. Purification and cleaning were wonderful ways to honor Her and a great way to get ready for the coming spring. Brigid’s name meant “Bright One”. In the Scottish Highlands She was viewed in Her crone aspect Cailleach Bheur with mystical powers who was older than the land itself. As Brigantia, She was seen by the Brigantes tribe near Yorkshire, England as a warlike figure. Brigid is the goddess of fire, change, poetry and inspiration, transformation, wisdom, metalworking and the fire of the forge, healing, creativity, water, prophecy, education, and learning. It is said that She brought the written word to the human race. She is also a goddess of childbirth, and is called upon to deliver both mother and child safely.
Brigid was called the Goddess of the Eternal Flame and was charged with its protection. Her shrine in Kildare, Ireland, held the ‘Eternal Flame’ and was guarded night and day by only Her priestesses. Because She was the goddess of fire, Brigid was often called upon to protect the home from its destructive powers. She was also called the “Great Teacher” and was one of the earliest advocates of women’s education.
Brigid, in our modern world, is an amazing goddess. She not only survives today successfully as a goddess but She made the transition from goddess to saint and now back to goddess again. Few deities have done this. In one form or another, Brigid has been worshiped since prehistory. Brigid also has empowered women to be strong while still being feminine. She shows that women can be anything they set their mind and will to be; men as well.
There are several Gods and Goddesses other than Brigid that are honored at this time. Aenghus Og is a Celtic god of love, who had to identify His love, who had been turned into a swan along with several other young women. After He identified her, He turned Himself into a swan to be with her. Aphrodite, a Greek goddess, who was known for Her sexual escapades is known as the Goddess of Love, Her festival is called Aphrodisiac. Bast, an Egyptian cat goddess, is known to be a fierce protector. She is the protector of mothers and childbirth and became a hearth goddess. Ceres, is a Roman agricultural goddess, and crops planted in Her name flourished. Rituals were performed in Her name prior to spring to assure the fertility of the land and that crops would grow. Eros, a lusty Greek god, was worshiped as a fertility god. His counterpart in the Roman culture was Cupid. Faunus is a Roman agricultural god who is similar to the Greek god Pan. There are several more deities who were worshiped and celebrated at this time.
It can be difficult for us in this modern era to understand the significance of Imbolc as it was to the ancient Celtics of Ireland, Scotland and other parts of Europe. Winter had been raging and the ancients were beginning to worry about food supplies. Many of the things we take for granted in our modern times were not heard of back then. Food preservation was much more limited. Canning wasn’t even invented until the reign of Napoleon in the nineteenth century in France. And forget plastics, refrigerators and freezers. So, the coming of the first ewes’ milk and the birth of the new lambs was important to them with the knowledge that spring was almost upon them. They did know, however, how to use the cold of winter to store foods as well as the use of salt, fire and fermentation to preserve food. However, even the best-preserved foods were subject to mold and vermin. So, winter was a scary time and sometimes people didn’t make it through the harsh winter season.
There are various ways to celebrate Imbolc. Here are a few. Do a ritual or in other ways honor Brigid. You can do an Imbolc candle ritual or a ritual saying farewell to winter. Of course, an end of winter meditation is always good. Initiation rites are great at this time as well as renewing your dedication to your path. It is a time when new plans and ideas are made. It is also a time to discard things we don’t need and get rid of things that are holding us back. Like all sabbats, Imbolc is celebrated with fire, but unlike the other sabbats where torches or bonfires are lighted, Imbolc is celebrated with candles. This is because it is the light at the end of the tunnel and this light is small like the light of the Sun is small at this time of year. Unlike most sabbats, Imbolc is many times quietly celebrated, usually in the home. This can be because of the general weather that might prevent traveling but also because it’s a sabbat for quiet introspection.
There are several ways you can set up your altar for Imbolc. Here is just one suggestion. Drape your altar with a white altar cloth with a smaller red cloth across it. Of course, candles are important for this sabbat so green as well as red and white candles are appropriate. Greenery as well as spring flowers are good. Potted bulbs work great and they don’t have to be blooming. Making a Brigid’s Crown works great too for a centerpiece. Add any craft items you wish. Don’t forget a cauldron or chalice as Brigid is the goddess of the sacred well. A small anvil or hammer can be placed on the altar as She is also the goddess of smith craft. And healing herbs can be placed on the altar as She is also a goddess of the healing arts. These are just a few suggestions. Use what you like and add what you think is appropriate too.
In modern Paganism, Brigid walks the earth on the eve of Her day. Many will put a piece of clothing out for Her to bless. If you have a fireplace, smoother your fire and rake the ashes smooth before going to bed. If in the morning, you find the ashes disturbed then you know Brigid has been there. The clothes are brought inside, and now have powers of healing and protection thanks to Her.
It can be very hard for many Pagans and Wiccans to understand the significance of Imbolc as the weather where they live is very different to Northern Europe where this sabbat has originated from. It’s difficult to prepare for the spring planting when you still have 2 feet of snow and the winter thaw is still months away. Some Pagans and Wiccans feel that this sabbat has no meaning for them. Still looking at the other aspects and history behind this sabbat, I feel that it is still relevant to me. I suggest that you might wish to adjust how you celebrate this sabbat by having it reflect more to your local weather. Remember that no matter where you are, winter is now at least half over and spring will soon be here. Celebrate that if nothing else. You could also adjust the date that you celebrate this sabbat to something closer to when the first flowers begin to poke their heads through the snows in your area. It’s up to you how or when you celebrate this sabbat.
Magic that are good at this time are workings for new beginnings and fire magic. This is the time of the feminine aspects of the Goddess and is a good time to focus on increasing your magical gifts and abilities as well as divination. Fire scrying is a particularly good form of divination to do at this time. And of course, because so many of us celebrate Valentine’s Day, love magic is often performed. Various types of cleansings, especially house cleansings, can be done at this time as well as seeking Omens of spring as well as spiritual walks through the year and the ‘Blessing of Seeds’ before planting, etc. This is a celebration of fertility and things yet to be born from winter’s snowy blanket. Purifications are done at this time, and preparations are made for new growth and renewal. This is also a time to focus on clearing away blockages. During the time of this sabbat, light candles to honor Brigid and invite Her to inspire artistic works and guide your healing practice. Give offerings of seeds and other foods to the wild birds and other animals.
At this time remove the three ears of dried corn you bought back in October. Tie them together with spring colored ribbons or yarn and use in a ceremony. Later hang the corn outside the house for wealth and protection until the day after Mabon, and then bury them in the garden. The three colors of ribbons sometimes used are white, blue and black and represent each stage of the Goddess – Maiden, Mother and Crone. This is a good time to look over your magical supplies to determine what you are low on and what you may need for the coming months. Other craft items that are good to make at this time are making a Brigid’s Cross, which is made from wheat or straw, and corn dollies, which can be made not only from corn or maze husks but traditionally from woven grain such as wheat and oats as well as reeds and grasses. This dolly can be reused in 6 months for Lughnasadh. Also, a Brigid’s Bed can be made at this time, which is simply making up a bed in which Brigid can rest in. It doesn’t have to be large as it is more symbolic than actual. There are many other things you can do.
Things you can do with your children for this sabbat is : create a family kitchen altar, do a hearth blessing with your children if you have a fireplace, do many of the crafts listed above or others with your children, have your children create a family altar in the living area, with your children saying daily prayers at that altar, do a family ritual to welcome the coming spring, teach your children about doing meditations, do a house cleansing ceremony with the children, and teach your children about an easy divination they can do like the pendulum. You could also have the children help you pick out some of the plants you hope to grow when it’s time to start your planting. Many people start their plants indoors so as to get a head start on the growing season. Your children could help with the planting and care of these tiny plants.
Foods for this sabbat are seeds, dairy items and pomegranates as well as breads and vegetables stored from fall such as onions, potatoes and carrots not to mention grains. Meats are also appropriate for those that aren’t vegan or vegetarian.
The colors are white and red. Though green is also appropriate.
Incense for Imbolc
3 parts Frankincense
2 parts Dragon’s Blood
1/2 part Red Sandalwood
1 part Cinnamon
1/4 part Lily of the Valley
Use for Imbolc ritual, or simply to attune with the symbolic rebirth to the Sun and the fading of winter and the promise of spring.