Lighting Fires at Imbolc
by Sylvana SilverWitch
If you have been living in the Northwest for long, you must be used to frigid aluminum-gray skies glistening with cold soggy drizzle. Barren tree branches scratch the side of the house as if the chill will come in, past the walls, past your skin into your very bones — and it shouldn’t scare you anymore. Clouds obscure the pale, faint sun till you can’t remember the feeling of it fiery hot on your shoulders. Darkness falls for so many months on end that every so often you must turn every light in the house on just to have some brightness in your world. Wild windstorms knock out the power for hours and days at a time, so you have to use candles for light and heat with the fireplace.
It is the time of year that, for me, best reminds me of how things were, way back when. It is the time of year that I can best appreciate the contrast between cold darkness and warm light. I am ready for change! I am ready for the return of the light to my world!
Seattle winters are dreary, and by the time we get to Imbolc, we are all more than ready for a little lightheartedness and to leave the darkness behind, at least for a few hours. We are ready for purification from the heaviness of the long winter months, and we are ready to celebrate, if not the warming of the land, at least the hope that the heat will soon return and we will yet again bask in the sunshine.
There are many traditional ways to celebrate Imbolc or Bride. These include decorating natural springs and sacred wells, leaving wishes tied on the branches of trees and making corn dollies in honor of the Celtic goddess Brigid (another name for Bride). Making Celtic crosses or Bride’s crosses from wheat straw and braided cornhusks and making and charging (or blessing) candles are other traditional tasks for this time of year. The holiday is also known as Candlemas, this name taken when the Christian church adapted the pagan holiday and made it a candle blessing and the feast of Saint Brigid.
In this culture, most of us were raised to go outside on this day and look for our shadow. If we saw it, there would be six more weeks of winter, as this is a weather marker day — also known as Groundhog’s Day. One of my sisters had the audacity to be born on Imbolc, and she’s seemingly been running from her shadow every since!
You can find more about Imbolc traditions in a multitude of published books. Following, I will tell you about some of my favorite ways to celebrate, purify and get in touch with the energy of fire, water and the earth and that of the Goddess at this time of year.
Creating Beeswax Candles
One of the things we almost always do in our coven is make candles. We save the glass containers from seven-day candles and at Imbolc wash and reuse them to make our own magickal candles. On this day, I also like to create rolled beeswax candles with herbs, oils and stones and infuse them with a specific purpose, for my own personal use all year long.
Making candles is easier than you might think. We ran an article on making your own seven-day candles last year. This year, I’ll talk a bit about the beeswax type, since you can make one, a few or a bunch with little muss and fuss.
First, you’ll want to visit some place that sells candle-making supplies, I personally like Pourette, located in Ballard, that bastion of pagan life. Pourette has been in business for a long time, and the employees there can tell you most anything you want to know about how to make candles and what you will need for a particular kind of effect. Not the magickal effects, unfortunately, but then that’s your department, right?
First, decide what magickal intentions you want to make the candles for — you can have more than one, just concentrate on one at a time. Choose colors accordingly and get a few sheets of the colors of beeswax that you want to work with. For example, if you want to work for money and prosperity, you might choose green. For healing, you might want blue. Psychic work and divination would be white or purple; for love and sex, you might choose red or pink. Look up color correspondences in the back of some of your books; Scott Cunningham has some good correspondence tables for herbs, flowers, stones and oils as well as colors and astrological influences. Don’t forget that your own associations are also important. If gold means money to you, then use that. You’ll want some kind of cotton wicking as well.
You can also include in your candles runes, little bits of paper or parchment with the purpose written on them rolled up in the candle, symbolic charms or figures representing what you want and bits of paper money (corners work well) or stones. The more thought and effort you put into creating your candles, the better results you will have.
Gather all of your ingredients together, planning to make one type of candle at a time. You’ll want a clean, soft surface to work on so as not to crush the beeswax pattern; for this, you can put down an old towel or T-shirt as padding. Also, you should decide at this point how large a candle you want to end up with. I usually cut the sheet of wax into two pieces, so I have two sheets about 4 inches high each. Otherwise, you end up with a fairly tall candle. With herbs, oils and magick inside, they tend to burn very hot. An 8-inch candle can burn up rather quickly.
When you begin, you will want the room to be reasonably warm, so that the wax stays pliable and does not crack when you roll it. I commonly put down the beeswax, then cut a piece of wick the desired length, about an inch or so longer than the wax is tall. Then I get out a bit of everything I want to put into the candle. I use eyedroppers for essential oils and rub a small quantity of oil on what will be the inside of the candle after the wax is rolled around the wick (the part of the wax that’s facing up).
Next, I sprinkle a small amount of each flower or herb I am using onto the wax, so they are evenly distributed from top to bottom. I generally try to keep things simple and only use one or two kinds of herbs in any given candle. Then I include the other things: stones, symbols, paper, and so on that have meaning for me. Next, I slowly and carefully roll the candle tightly around the wick. It helps to fold the wax over the wick a little bit prior to adding the ingredients. Being careful to keep the wax level so I don’t disturb the ingredients’ distribution, I keep rolling until the whole candle is rolled around itself. During this process, I think about the desired results of my magickal candle, as if they have already manifest. I keep the purpose in mind during the whole process and put as much positive energy into it as possible.
When you finish rolling, you’ll want to gently heat the edge of the wax (a hairdryer works well for this) so that you can press the wax into itself and seal the candle, being careful not to crush it in the practice. This process gets easier the more you do it. Don’t be discouraged if your first efforts are a tad messy. You’ll get the hang of it!
When you have finished all of the candles you wish to create at this time, you’ll want to bless and charge them with energy. To do so, cast your circle and do a ritual imbuing them with your purpose. Then you can burn them in your spell work for the rest of the year. Make sure when you burn these candles that you attend them closely, keeping in mind that they should be on a nonflammable surface and being cautious that there is nothing in the vicinity that can catch on fire. When candles have flower petals, herbs, oils and paper inside them and are magickally charged, they tend to burn like an inferno. Your candle may be burning nicely and then all of a sudden flare up and be consumed in a matter of seconds. So guard them closely!
Making Bride’s Water
Another thing I like to do at Imbolc or Bride is to make Bride’s water, water holy to Brigid. We usually do this during a ritual where we invoke Brigid and raise energy for the many things that she represents to us. She is the patron goddess of wells, fire, the forge, music, storytelling, poetry, arts and crafts and much more. She is central to my artistic inspiration, and so I honor her at this time of year by purifying myself with her holy water and with fire (more on that later).
To makes Brigid’s water, we place a huge cauldron in the center of the altar, filled with alcohol and Epsom salts; when lit, it emits a beautiful blue flame. We have ready purified and blessed water in a large container, several pieces of charcoal, some long barbecue tongs and enough small containers with corks that we can each take some Brigid’s water home.
Once we cast the circle and invoke the goddess, we raise energy for Her by chanting, dancing or whatever we have determined. During the energy raising, the charcoal (self-lighting incense charcoal, not barbecue charcoal!) is lit from the fire in the cauldron, and it is allowed to burn for a few minutes until it is glowing red. At the apex of the energy raising, we chant, “Bride, Bride, Bride, purify me… Bride transform me!” Then when we all stop, the charcoal is thrust into the water with a great amount of sizzling, smoke and steam. We then file past the fire and water and are anointed and blessed with the Brigid’s water for purification and inspiration. Each covener takes some home to use much as one would any holy water, to bless and purify house, tools, self family, and so on.
Purifying with Fire
My very favorite form of purification is that of fire. It is odd to think that I — a Pisces with Cancer rising, very watery signs — would enjoy fire so much, but I do have a lot of Aries in my chart, as well as Moon in Leo. A veteran firewalker since 1984, I have a good and close personal relationship with the powerful fire elementals. They are a means to profound transformation, bringing change wherever they occur, whether we like it or not!
I have been working with fire for so long that it takes me by surprise when people are irrationally afraid of it. Don’t get me wrong, I have a healthy fear and respect for what fire can do if I am not careful! I have seen people badly burned, and when I lead my coven in firewalking rituals, I admonish them to be very, very afraid. But I add that if you allow fear to stop you in life, you’ll never do anything worthwhile. Don’t be careless with fire, though, or it will most definitely teach you the hard way!
With this in mind, I offer my version of purification by fire. You can do this as the first part of the former ritual or all on its own; it is very powerful all by itself! If you want to do a combination, do the water ritual second, as a blessing after purification by fire.
For the fire purification, you’ll need a cauldron full of 90 percent rubbing alcohol and Epsom salts, which you will light. You can also use 151-proof rum for the alcohol content. Use alcohol and salts about 50/50 by volume; the alcohol should just cover the salts.
Be sure to take safety precautions, such as having a number of wet towels and a fire extinguisher available within reach. Move all furniture out of the way and pull back the drapes, or just do the ritual outside, away from anything flammable if you can. Take off any loose clothing that could catch and tie up your hair if it’s long. It helps if the participants are skyclad, or at least topless, as it is easy to accidentally catch clothing and extremely difficult to put it out! Then get ready for an intense encounter with fire.
Depending on whether you want to in fact light people on fire (very temporarily, and safely) or just allow them to experience the energy of fire, you’ll need one or two torches — one torch if you’re not lighting people, two if you are. If you are not lighting people, you can pass the lit torch slowly over various parts of the body so that the fire just touches the skin. It is instinct to pull away, and it sometimes takes a few moments for people to allow the fire to interact with them. That’s okay. Take time and go slowly, and you will have better results.
If you do want to actually light people on fire, you’ll need a couple small torches. You can make these by wrapping cotton batting around a wooden rod that’s about 10 to 12 inches long and small enough around to be comfortable in your hand (see drawing below). Wrap the cotton around the rod five or six times, then follow that with a complete wrapping of plain gauze. Wrap the gauze around the cotton six to ten times until you have covered it all, and you have a good torch. Finish the torch by tying it with cotton thread wound around the handle at the top and bottom and around the middle several times, so the thread goes from the bottom up, around and ends up back at the bottom. The thread winding ensures the torch stays together.
To light people on fire, you’ll need 70 percent rubbing alcohol. Do not use a higher concentrate than this, or you’ll really burn people! Put the alcohol in a small spray bottle with a mist capability. Before working with a whole coven, it’s not a bad idea for you and a friend or two to try this out yourselves first, just to get familiar with how it works, timing, the feeling it has on different body parts and so on.
During the ritual, you’ll want to have a person or two who do nothing but “spot” people and be ready to put them out if necessary. You put the fire on skin out by using a petting action from the top down, smoothing out the fire. Don’t allow any body part to burn for more than about 5 to 10 seconds, or it may scorch the skin, and you’ll end up with a sunburnlike burn. Be sure and go over the safety procedures before anything is lit! If anything gets out of hand, use the wet towels on people, the fire extinguisher on objects.
When you are ready, the cauldron is lit and the chanting or music begins. Whoever does the lighting holds two torches, one to spray with alcohol and apply to people’s skin, one to remain lit.
To light the ongoing torch, spray it generously with alcohol, being very careful not to drip or get any alcohol on anything else. Then, light the torch from the fire in the cauldron. Next, spray the second torch with two or three mists of alcohol. You’ll then use this torch to apply alcohol to the body part to light.
The safest body part to light is the hands. Have participants hold these out, palms up very flat and together. When you apply alcohol, make sure not get ritualists’ hands too wet or to let alcohol pool on their hands.
After you have applied alcohol, light it with the lit torch, saying something like: “Be transformed!” Let the flame burn for a moment or two and then have the ritualists clap or rub their hands together to put it out. Don’t let them shake their hands in the air while lit; that just makes the fire burn hotter.
The fire will go out of its own accord fairly quickly as the alcohol burns away, but it is more empowering for people to feel able to control it and put it out on their own. The first inclination will be for them to want to put it out right away, as soon as it’s lit. Let them try it a few times, and as they learn that it won’t hurt them, they will be more inclined to allow it to flicker for a few seconds. Suggest that they put their hands on a body part that they want purified by the fire energy, such as over their heart, but only after the fire on their hands is completely out!
We have done this ritual many times with only minor incidents. One year, when we were doing symbols on people’s backs, one man who had said he only wanted to light his hands changed his mind and wanted us to light a symbol on his back. He had longish hair that wasn’t tied up, and though we had him bend over, he stood up before the fire was out and his hair caught slightly and was singed a bit. It wasn’t a disaster, but it was scary enough that I want to reiterate the precautions. If you intend to light anything, including hands, be very careful and do a practice session out of ritual space first.
We use this very powerful energy to transform ourselves, our projects and our lives — coming out from darkness and lighting up our purposes. This ritual has a tendency to be very intense, so keep in mind that people can get carried away by the energy and forget the safety precautions! Make sure to be responsible with the fire and always err on the side of caution.
Afterward, breathe and ground well and share your experiences of the fire energy with one another. It’s amazing the different perceptions people will have.
Whether you choose to enjoy one or more of these suggestions or something else entirely, have a great Imbolc and a wonderful year!