Imbolc: Shadows Past, Underground Springings


This article appeared in a 2016 issue of an international Druid ezine, as well as other esoteric publications. I’ve been a member of several Druid organizations, including AODA / | \ USA and Belgium New Order of Druids.

Today’s Druids celebrate, preserve, and bond with nature, the seasons, and the turning of the wheel; and interpret and contribute to sacred knowledge. To understand ancient (female/male) Druids, we must largely rely on fragments written by Greeks and Romans (Caesar, Cicero, Tacitus, Pliny…). They wrote Druids served as ovates and bards, acted as teachers, seers, judges, healers, poets, and keepers of esoteric knowledge. At some point during the Roman occupation, Druids went underground. If you would like to reawaken your inner Druid, consider learning about or joining one of the many Druid (non-secret) societies stateside or worldwide. I’ll be posting other published articles about the mysterious and revered Druids soon…

I was born on Imbolc (Gaelic ‘in the belly’), a few miles outside Philadelphia, more than several decades ago. That’s a blink of the cosmic clock when compared to the thousand years of celebrations and festivals held to prepare for spring, to purify, to celebrate transition and change, and honor ancient forces. I lived a few counties over from where Puxatawney Phil makes an annual February weather prognostication, and am 3nd generation Irish/Welsh. My Welsh granny and Irish granddad spun tales about the Irish festival of Imbolc and Brighde, the Welsh celebration of Gwyl Mair, and attempts Christians made to remove all traces of pagan and earth mother reverence. They urged me to investigate and learn why I was born on a principal old calendar festival.

My father was born on Lughnassadh, and in the southern hemisphere, Lughnassadh is celebrated in February, while Imbolc is celebrated in August. What is harvested at Lughassadh is typically gone by Imbolc—so there is an interesting link between these two festivals. In some respects, my father and I were polar opposites, although we both shared a love of nature, poetry, craftsmanship, and a dislike of outdated rules and over governance.

As a young girl in the late 1800’s in Wales, my ancestors observed villagers checking local ground holes. If a snake (adder) or hedgehog was seen emerging, then spring would soon arrive; it was time to sharpen ploughs and ready seeds. If no animals were spotted, hopping, slithering or otherwise peeking out—then spring was months away. This was a time, among the secret pagans there, to go wassailing—to ensure fertile livestock and crops. The Welsh festival was not held at a fixed date; the celebration was dependent upon signs—like lactating ewes and flowing springs. Early born lambs were typically slaughtered and eaten if born in February.  It was unlikely they would survive since their mother’s milk wasn’t yet rich, and the community strengthened itself by eating the delicate meat.

This ancient festival, held during the wolf or dead month, at a time when food supplies were dwindling in the western part of the world and many were feeling the rigors of confinement—offered something for many. To the impatient, it was a time to search for signs of an early release from winter’s grip; to the hopeful, it was a time to make a corn dolly (called a Brideog) and await the visit of the goddess Brighed (a member of the Tuatha De Danann). To the resourceful and creative, it was a time to recite ancient tales and ballads, repair the plough, and ready the grain and seedlings Greeks celebrated the Eleusinian mysteries in early February, and the Japanese held Matsuri, a shouting festival.

The Druids set aside this date to honor the goddess of poets, healing, childbirth, purification, and transformation. In the turning of the wheel, it’s considered a major festival, welcoming the return of the light and new beginnings. The old, grey crone (cailleach) is reborn as the white bride, but no one should mistake the bride for an ingénue, for she is also the goddess of smithcraft, metal working, and the flame that burns through all. This daughter of a Druid, according to one myth, was born in a doorway—or ‘in between’ place, where the Otherworld and this world blurs—and magical sparks create marvels and enduring legends. This formidable triple goddess is associated with snakes, with a white cow with a red ear, and much later, with badgers and hedgehogs. She turns rock into metal, illness into health, and according to some sources, may have created the Ogham alphabet, poetry, and fires that (symbolically) still burn—despite many efforts to douse her flame.

Imbolc was part of the celtic agrarian past; a synthesis of myth, legend, and tradition, according to my granddad. Tales of Brighed were woven into tamer Christian stories of St. Brigit and the Festival of Candlemas (a blessing and lighting of candles). At the burial mounds at Loughcrew, at Drumeague in County Caven, at Kildare, and the Mound of Nine Hostages at Tara, the legend of Brighed endures. At Drumeague, it’s said a stone representation of her head was worshipped as a triple goddess, and later hidden in a Neolithic tomb with the arrival of the Christians. It eventually was placed at a church (that had formally been a pagan site and the source of a spring), near Knockbridge. It disappeared in 1847, and many suspect it was thrown into a bog. A much earlier account says a headstone, or possibly the skull of Brigit, was moved to Portugal in the 12th century by the Normans. Every spring it is brought out to purify cattle that pass by.

Loughcrew Ireland

It was important to travel to Ireland to see how this festival might have been celebrated in earlier times. I visited the burial mounds at Loughcrew and passage tombs at the Mound of 9 Hostages (at Tara), which were aligned so the sun would  appear in the tomb chamber on Imbolc (and on Samhaim as well). At Faughart, in County Louth, I observed ritual bathing on a very chilly, clear morning. At Kildare, I found the stain glass doorway designed to show a bright flame. It’s home to the Order of Brigidines, keepers of the Kildare shrine and flame—but I couldn’t induce my feet to cross the threshold. There was too much religious interference, I suspect. And at Liscannor, near Hag’s Head, I entered the damp well house known as Brigid’s Vat, crowded with offerings—bits of ribbon, feathers, poppets, canes, crucifixes, melted wax, and many Brigit crosses. I thrust my hand into the frigid water; it felt burned, reminding me this shrine was also associated with the warm weather celebration of Lughnassadh. In this area, the Cailleach sheaf cut at Lughnassadh was made into Brigit crosses at Imbolc.

Regardless how one remembers or observes Imbolc or the many turnings of the wheel, a Druid, as teacher and steward of a rich past heritage, is charged to observe all important dates, and to link the mythology with the reality and cosmology of the event. We embrace ancient rituals and rekindle our inner fire by reimaging these early rites and forging strong new links and connections. Collectively, we spring from our underground hibernations rested and hungry. On Imbolc, honor the past, toast the future, and roll up your sleeves. The sun is rising in the east, over a wounded mother earth. Light a candle and Druids, get to it!

PS: a group of sinisterly suspicious women, the Brigida’s, figure significantly in my book in progress PERDURA: THE END OF HER or could be
REMAINS to be SEEN (working titles), a psychological thriller that sweeps from ancient Greece and Ireland to modern day London and Washington DC. It weaves tales & compelling stories of revenge, family angst & redemption, loss, occult traditions and secrets, and the orneriness of love. More to come…

A Partial List of References:

Adler, Margot, Drawing Down the Moon…, Boston, Beacon Press, 1979.

Bonewits, Isaac, Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Druidism, NY, Kensington Publishing, 2006

Chadwick, Nora, The Celts, London, Penguin, 1970.

Danaher, Kevin, The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs, Dublin, Mercier, 1972

Davidson, Hilda Roderick Ellis, Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe, Routledge, 1993.

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 Sacred Earth Year. Rochester, VT: Destiny Bk, 1995.

Kondratiev, Alexei. The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual. NY: Kensington Publishing, 2003.

Orr, Emma Restall. Spirits of the Sacred Grove: The World of a Druid Priestess. London: Thorson, 1998

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