Imbolc – Symbols and Symbolism

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The first signs of spring appear in February, where the deep freeze of January begins to break; snowstorms turn to rain, and the land begins to thaw with the first sprouts of grass. When flowers like snowdrops and crocuses appear, it’s the promise of summer.

To the ancient Celts, this sacred period was Imbolc, a time for anticipation, hope, healing, purification, and preparing for spring. It’s the season for honoring the Goddess Brigid and planning what seeds will go into the field at the spring equinox.

Because Brigid was the featured deity, most of the ritual activities involved the female members of society. However, since the Christianization of the British Isles in the 5th Century AD, we know very little about the history of these practices.

What is Imbolc?

Wheel of the year
Wheel of the Year. PD.

Imbolc, also called Saint Brigid’s Day, is a pagan festival that marked the beginning of spring, celebrated from the 1st to the 2nd of February.

Imbolc was an important cross quarter day for the ancient Celts. It was a time of newness and purification along with hope for the coming warmer months. Birth, fertility, creativity, and fire were all crucial elements with women taking center stage.

In the celebrations of the seasons, also called “the Wheel of the Year,” Imbolc is a cross quarter day, or midpoint between seasonal shifts. In the case of Imbolc, it sits between the Winter Solstice (Yule, December 21st) and the Spring Equinox (Ostara, March 21st).

Imbolc has several names throughout Europe and the British Isles:

  • Oimlec (modern old Irish)
  • Goul Varia (Goulou, Breton)
  • La ‘il Bride (France)
  • La Fheile Muire na gCoinneal (Irish Catholic)
  • La Feill Bhride (Scottish Gaelic)
  • Laa’l Moirrey Ny Gainle (Isle of Mann)
  • Laa’l Breeshey (Isle Mann)
  • Gwil Mair Dechrau’r Gwanwyn (Welsh)
  • Gwyl Ffraed (Welsh)
  • St. Brighid’s Day (Irish Catholic)
  • Candlemas (Catholic)
  • Purification of the Blessed Virgin (Christian)
  • Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Christian)

Because of Imbolc’s long and vast history, there are a range of days marking this festival of light: January 31st, February 1st, 2nd and/or 3rd. However, Imbolc can come as late as February 7th when using astronomical calculations.

Spring imbolc symbols
Snowdrops – A symbol of Imbolc

Scholars theorize the word “Imbolc” stems from the modern old Irish, ‘”Oimelc.” This may reference purification with milk or some inference to “in the belly,” which links to the myth of Brigid drinking sacred milk from a special cow and/or signifies how sheep begin lactation during this time.

Imbolc was a welcome time of year because it meant the long, cold, and harsh winter was about to be over. However, the Celts didn’t observe this in earnest; they understood the delicate and fragile state they were in. Food stores were low and, in order to ensure survival, they honored Brigid and her powers in the hopes of a good growing season.

Great Goddess Brigid and Imbolc

Brigid, Brighid, Bridget, Brid, Brigit, Brighide and Bride, are all various names for this goddess across the Celtic world. In Cisalpine Gaul, she is called Brigantia. She is particularly associated with milk and fire.

According to myth, she holds dominion over royal sovereignty and is the wife of the God Bres, king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. She rules over inspiration, poetry, fire, hearths, metalsmithing, and healing. Brigid prepares the sleeping earth to bring forth summer’s bounty. She is the goddess of innovation, technology, and machinery.

Brigid’s association with the sacred cows demonstrates the importance of cows and milk to the ancient Celts.  Purification by milk conveys the belief in how the sun during this time of year is compared to a weak and helpless Child of Light. The land lies still in darkness, but the Child of Light challenges winter’s grip. Brigid is the midwife and nursemaid to this Child as she brings it up from darkness. She nurtures and brings him forth as a personification of new hope.

Imbolc as a Fire Festival

Fire at imbolc

Fire is an important aspect of Imbolc, and in fact, it could be said that the festival was centered around fire. While fire is important to many Celtic festivals, at Imbolc it was doubly so because of Brigid’s association with fire.

Brigid is a goddess of fire. The plume of fire emanating from Brigid’s head connects her to the energy of the mind. This translates directly to human thought, analysis, configuration, planning, and foresight. So, as the patron of art and poetry, she also guides craftsmen, scholars, and students. All of these are forms of divine service.

Her connection to agriculture and poetry is significant. It means we must tend to our creative pursuits as much as our sources of income, because both are equally important.

The ancient Celts believed creativity to be essential to human existence because it ensures a fulfilling life (https://folkstory.com/articles/imbolc.html). But people had to good custodians of their artistic talents and not let hubris take over or they can be taken away. According to the Celts, all creative gifts are on loan from the gods. Brigid bestows them freely and she can take them away in an instant.

Fire is not only an allegory for creativity but also passion, both of which are powerful transformative and healing forces. The Celts believed that we must extend such energy into every facet of life. This requires maturity, ingenuity, and effort along with a bit of finesse. Vitality is crucial but we must achieve a special balance so as to not end up consumed by the flames.

The warmth and healing offered by fire turns raw materials into usable goods like food, jewelry, swords, and other tools. Therefore, Brigid’s nature is one of transmutation; the alchemist’s quest of taking one substance and making it into something else.

Rituals and Ceremonies of Imbolc

Corn doll Brigid
Brigid Doll made of corn husk

All Celtic tribes celebrated Imbolc in some way, shape, or form. It was celebrated throughout Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. Early Irish literature mentions Imbolc, but there is very little information about the original rites and customs of Imbolc.

  • Keening

Some traditions relate that Brigid invented keening, a fervent mourning wail that women undertake at funerals to this day. This idea comes from the legends around fairies, whose cries echo through the night during times of grief. Thus, a period of mourning would be observed followed by a great feast of joy.

Renewal to the Celts almost always included bereavement. Because even though there’s freshness to life, it also means something else no longer exists. There is value in sorrow for it shows a deep respect for the cycles of life and death. This understanding keeps us whole and humble; it’s the crux of living in tune with the earth.  

  • Effigies of Brigid

In Scotland, the Eve of the Festival of Brighid, or Óiche Fheil Bhrighide, began on January 31st. People decorated the last sheaf of corn from the previous harvest in the likeness of Brighid. Bright shells and crystals would cover the heart called, “reul iuil Brighde,” or “the guiding star of Bride.”

This effigy traveled to every home in the village, carried by young girls dressed in white while wearing their hair down and singing songs. There was an expectation of reverence for Brighide along with offerings given to the girls. Mothers gave them cheese or a roll of butter, called a Brighde Bannock.

  • Brigit’s Bed and the Corn Dolly

Another popular tradition during Imbolc was called “the Bed of Bride”. As Brigid was said to walk the earth during Imbolc, the people would try to invite her into their homes.

A bed would be made for Brigid and women and girls would create a corn dolly to represent Brigid. When finished, the woman would go to the door and say, “Brighide’s bed is ready”or they would say, “Brighde, come in, thy welcome is truly made”.

This invited the goddess to imbue her spirit within the handmade doll. The woman would then place it into the cradle with a stick called Brighde’s wand, or “the slachdan Brighde”.

They then smoothed over the ashes in the hearth, protecting them from breezes and drafts. In the morning the woman closely inspected the ashes to see a mark of Brighde’s wand or a footprint. Seeing this would bring good fortune throughout the coming year.

Symbols of Imbolc

Symbols of imbolc

The most significant symbols of Imbolc were:

Fire

As a festival of fire honoring the fire goddess, fire played an important role at Imbolc. As such, fire and flames are the perfect symbol of Imbolc. Many pagans place candles on their Imbolc altar or light their fireplaces as a way to incorporate flames into their celebrations.

Sheep and Milk

As Imbolc falls during the time when ewes birth their lambs, sheep are an important symbol of the festival, symbolizing prosperity, fertility, and good luck. As the ewes’ milk is abundant at this time, it is also a symbol of Imbolc.

Brigid Doll

The Brigid Doll, made from corn husks or straw, symbolizes Brigid and the essence of the Imbolc festival. This was an invitation for Brigid, and by extension, fertility, prosperity, and good fortune.

Brigid’s Cross

Traditionally made from reeds, Brigid’s Cross are made during Imbolc and would be set over doors and windows as a way to keep harm at bay.

Snowdrops

Associated with spring and purity, snowdrops blooms at the end of winter, marking the beginning of spring. This represents hope and new beginnings.

Popular Imbolc Foods

Special foods associated with Imbolc were typically offered to Brigid to honor her and invite her blessings. The first milk of the season that came from the ewes was often poured onto the earth as an offering to Brigid. Other important foods included butter, honey, Bannocks, pancakes, bread, and cakes.

Imbolc Today

When Celtic cultures began to be Christianized in the 5th Century AD, Brigid and her mythology became known as Saint Brigid or Bride. Her worship was never really terminated, and while she survived Christianization, her role and back story changed significantly.

Imbolc turned into Candlemas and St. Blaise’s Day. Both celebrations involved flames to signify purification of the Virgin Mary after birthing Jesus. In this way, the Irish Catholics made Brigid the nursemaid of Jesus.

Today, Imbolc continues to be celebrated, whether by Christians or pagans. Neopagans celebrate the festival Imbolc in various ways, with some choosing to celebrate Imbolc in the same was as the ancient Celts did.

Wrapping Up

As one of the four main festivals of the Celts (along with Samhain, Beltane, and Lughnasadh), Imbolc played an important role for the ancient Celts. It marked the end of a period of hibernation and death, representing hope, renewal, regeneration, fertility, and new beginnings. Centered around the goddess Brigid and her symbols, Imbolc is today both a pagan and a Christian festival. It continues to be celebrated in various ways.

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