Imbolc: Traditional Celebrations for a Modern Time

Imbolc: Traditional Celebrations for a Modern Time

Author:   Morgan 

This holiday is called many names including Imbolc, Oímealg, Lá Fhéile Bríde, Laa’l Breeshey, and Gwyl Mair Dechrau’r Gwanwyn and was originally celebrated when the ewes first began to lactate. Some older sources mention Imbolc being celebrated on February 13th, although now the date is fixed on February 2nd. This holiday is a celebration of the loosening of winters hold on the land and the first signs of spring’s immanent arrival. Three main types of ceremonies could be undertaken – purification with water, blessing with fire, and consecration of talismans or charms. In addition, the main ritual theme centered on inviting the goddess Brighid into the home, either in effigy or in the form of a person acting the part.

The fire represents the growing light of the sun. Candles are lit to celebrate the increased daylight, and often candles were blessed for use in the year to come; this connection to candles offers another alternate name for the holiday, Candlemas. In my personal practice I light special “sun” candles, and bless my candleholders for the year to come.

Ritual washing was done to cleanse and prepare the people for the agricultural work of the coming seasons. Water was blessed and then used to ceremonially wash the head, hands, and feet. Each year when I do this, I dip my fingers in the blessed water and run them over the body parts in question, asking that I be cleansed of winter’s cold and filled with summer’s warmth to work towards a new season. Then I pour the remaining water out onto the earth thanking Brighid for her blessing.

The main charms and talismans of Imbolc are related to Brighid. First there is the Brighid’s cross, a woven sun wheel shape which represented the cycle of the year and the four main holy days, according to the book Apple Branch. On Imbolc, you can weave new Brighid’s crosses, or bless ones you already have, although it may be better to burn the old and weave new each year when possible. A Brighid’s cross is protective and healing to have in the home.

A second talisman is the brídeóg, or “little Brighid” a small cloth or straw doll wearing white clothes which is an effigy of the goddess. In some cases, the brídeóg would be made from straw saved from the previous Lughnasadh. This doll played a role in ritual after being brought outside, usually carried by the eldest daughter, then invited to enter the home where it was led with all ceremony to a specially prepared little bed. The doll was left in the bed over night and its presence was believed to bless all those in the household.

Another talisman connected to Imbolc is Brigid’s mantle, or an brat Bríd, a length of cloth left out on the window sill over the course of the holy day and night. It is believed that this cloth absorbs the energy of the goddess during the ritual, and can be used for healing and protection throughout the year. This talisman would be kept and recharged every year, attaining full power after seven years.

The ritual for Brighid on Imbolc centers on inviting the goddess in and offering her hospitality. In some cases a woman was chosen to play the part of the goddess, in other cases the brídeóg was used. The door would be opened to her and she would loudly be invited in, shown to her “bed” and offered specially baked bread. Candles would be lit at the windows and next to her “bed”, songs would be sung and prayers said calling on Brighid to bless all present in the coming seasons, and grant health and protection to the household.

A small broom or white wand would be placed next to the “bed”, and the ashes from the fire would be smoothed down in the hopes that the morning would reveal the marks of the wand, or better yet, the footprints of the goddess herself, either of which would be a sign of blessing. Placing the doll in her bed at night would be followed by a large family meal.

In Scotland a hundred years ago when entire communities still celebrated Imbolc in the old way, a sheaf of corn would be dressed as Brighid and taken from house to house by the young girls. The girls would carry the doll from home to home where the “goddess” would be greeted and offered food and gifts. After visiting each home, the girls would return to the house they started from where a party would be held with music, dancing, and feasting until dawn; all the leftover food would be handed out to the poor the next day.

Other rituals involve blessing the forge fires for blacksmiths and Otherworld divinations. In some Scottish mythologies, it is believed that Brighid is held by the Cailleach Bhur during the winter months but escapes, or is rescued by her brother Aonghus mac óg, on Imbolc. In others, it is said the Cailleach drinks from a hidden spring and transforms into Brighid on this day.

For modern people seeking to celebrate Imbolc in a traditional way, there are many options. Rituals can be adapted to feature the brídeóg. If you celebrate in a group, you could have one person wait outside with the doll while the other members prepare her bed, and then the group leader could go to the doorway and invite the goddess in. This could even be modified for use in an urban setting with the brídeóg “waiting” out in a hallway or separate room to be invited in.

Once invited in the goddess can be offered food and gifts as was done in Scotland and stories about Brighid from mythology could be told. Water can be used for purification; blessing with fire or of candles can be done, as well as making and consecrating the charms associated with Brighid. After ritual, the doll could be left in the bed while the group celebrates with a party; to keep the spirit of the way this was done for a modern time all members should bring food to donate to a local food pantry. A solitary celebration could still include inviting the goddess in, placing the brídeóg in her bed, making offerings to her, and a private celebration and food donations.

Imbolc is a powerful holy day with many beautiful traditions. By understanding how this day was celebrated in the past, we can find ways to incorporate those methods into modern practice and preserve the traditions that have surrounded Brighid’s day for so many generations

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Footnotes:
Carmichael, A. (1900) . Carmina Gadelica. Floris books. ISBN-10 0-86315-520-0
Evert Hopman, E. (1995) . A Druid’s Herbal of the Sacred Earth Year. Destiny Books ISBN 0-89281-501-9
Kondrariev. K. (1998) . The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual. Citadel Press ISBN 0-8065-2502-9
McNeill, F. (1959) . The Silver Bough, volume 2. McLellan and Co.

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Seasons Of The Witch – Ancient Holidays (and some not so ancient!)

Fornax

The Romans celebrated the festival of Fornax, goddess of ovens, by hanging garlands of flowers on ovens and wreaths on the necks of the mules who turned the mills.

Field, Carol, The Italian Baker

Vestalia

– In ancient Rome, this was the day set aside for a public festival for the hearth goddess Vesta. Women walked barefoot around her round temple with offerings. The Vestal Virgins prepared the ritual food: mola salsa, a cake of salt and the first grain. The water came from vessels that could not be set down without spilling and the salt was pounded in a mortar, baked and sawn. It became a holiday for millers and bakers. Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc, Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Book of Days, Oxford University Press, 2000
Monaghan, Patricia, The Book of Goddesses and Heroines, Llewellyn 1981

St Columba*

Day of Colum Cille the beloved
Day to put the loom to use
Day to put sheep to pasture
Day to put coracle on the seas
Day to bear, day to die
Day to make prayer efficacious
Day of my beloved, the Thursday.

This is the luckiest day of the year when it falls on Thursday (alas! This year it falls on Monday). St Columba was one of the most beloved of Celtic saints. The magical herb, St John’s Wort, which flowers around summer solstice, was said to be his favorite herb. He wore it underneath his armpit to ward off all kinds of evil. If find some accidentally and you say this charm when you pick it, you can use it the same way:

Arm-pit package of Columba the kindly
Unsought by me, unlooked for
I shall not be carried away in my sleep
Neither shall I be pierced with iron
Better the reward of its virtues
Than a herd of white cattle.

In Norway, this is considered the day the salmon start leaping.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc, Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Book of Days, Oxford University Press, 2000
Carmichael, Alexander, Carmina Gadelica, Lindisfarne Press

 

Reference:

School of the Seasons

Remember the ancient ways and keep them sacred!

Beltane Prayers

 

Am Beannachadh Bealltain (The Beltane Blessing)

 

In the Carmina Gadelica, folklorist Alexander Carmichael shared with readers hundreds of poems and prayers that he had collected from residents in various areas of Scotland. There is a lovely prayer in the Gaelic entitled simply Am Beannachadh Bealltain (The Beltane Blessing), which pays tribute to the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This is a much shorter version, and has been adapted for a Pagan-friendly format.

Bless, O threefold true and bountiful,
Myself, my spouse, my children.
Bless everything within my dwelling and in my possession,
Bless the kine and crops, the flocks and corn,
From Samhain Eve to Beltane Eve,
With goodly progress and gentle blessing,
From sea to sea, and every river mouth,
From wave to wave, and base of waterfall.

Be the Maiden, Mother, and Crone,
Taking possession of all to me belonging.
Be the Horned God, the Wild Spirit of the Forest,
Protecting me in truth and honor.
Satisfy my soul and shield my loved ones,
Blessing every thing and every one,
All my land and my surroundings.
Great gods who create and bring life to all, I ask for your blessings on this day of fire.

 

 

A Prayer to Cernunnos:

God of the green,
Lord of the forest,
I offer you my sacrifice.
I ask you for your blessing.

You are the man in the trees,
the green man of the woods,
who brings life to the dawning spring.
You are the deer in rut,
mighty Horned One,
who roams the autumn woods,
the hunter circling round the oak,
the antlers of the wild stag,
and the lifeblood that spills upon
the ground each season.

God of the green,
Lord of the forest,
I offer you my sacrifice.
I ask you for your blessing.

A Thanks to the Earth Mother

Great earth mother!
We give you praise today
and ask for your blessing upon us.
As seeds spring forth
and grass grows green
and winds blow gently
and the rivers flow
and the sun shines down
upon our land,
we offer thanks to you for your blessings
and your gifts of life each spring.

 

Honoring the May Queen

Make an offering of a floral crown, or a libation of honey and milk, to the Queen of the May during your Beltane prayers.

The leaves are budding across the land
on the ash and oak and hawthorn trees.
Magic rises around us in the forest
and the hedges are filled with laughter and love.
Dear lady, we offer you a gift,
a gathering of flowers picked by our hands,
woven into the circle of endless life.
The bright colors of nature herself
blend together to honor you,
Queen of spring,
as we give you honor this day.
Spring is here and the land is fertile,
ready to offer up gifts in your name.
we pay you tribute, our lady,
daughter of the Fae,
and ask your blessing this Beltane.

Goddess Of The Month

DEMETER

Goddess of grain and agriculture, pure Nourisher of youth and the green earth, health-giving cycle of life and death, and preserver of both marital fertility and the Sacred Law.

In Greek mythology, Demeter (Greek: “mother-earth” or possibly “distribution-mother” from the noun of the Indo-European mother-earth) is the goddess of grain and agriculture, the pure nourisher of youth and the green earth, the health-giving cycle of life and death, and preserver of both marital fertility and the sacred law. She is invoked as the “bringer of seasons” in the Homeric hymn, a subtle sign that she was worshiped long before the Olympians arrived. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter has been dated to sometime around the seventh century B.C.E. She and her daughter Persephone were the central figures of the Eleusinian Mysteries, which also predate the Olympian pantheon. The Roman equivalent is Ceres, from whom the word “cereal” is derived.

Demeter is easily confused with Gaia or Rhea, and with Cybele. The goddess’ epithets reveal the span of her functions in Greek life. Demeter and Kore (“the maiden”) are usually invoked as to theo (‘”The Two Goddesses”), and they appear in that form in Linear B graffiti at Mycenaean Pylos in pre-classical times. A connection with the goddess-cults of Minoan Crete is quite possible.

According to the Athenian rhetorician Isocrates, the greatest gifts that Demeter gave were cereal, which set humans apart from wild animals, and the mysteries, which give humankind higher hopes in this life and the next.

The Eleusinian Mysteries

Without a doubt, the most important role of Demeter was as a goddess of the Elusinian mystery religion. In this capacity, her primary function was to provide the cultic adherents with hope for eternal life (or a pleasant afterlife). Though little is known of the specifics of worship, it appears that it involved a hidden knowledge (gnosis) being shared by the participants:

The object of the [mystery] is to place the [participant] in a peculiarly close and privileged relation with the divinity or the deified spirit…. all of the members of the city, gens or household could freely join in the cult, if they were in the ordinary condition or ritualistic cleanliness; and the sacrifice that the priest performed for the state might be repeated by the individual, if he chose to do so, for his own purposes at his own house-altar. Both in the public and in the mystic service a sacrifice of some sort was requisite, and as far as we can see the religious conception of the sacrifice might be the same in both. But in the former the sacrifice with the prayer was the chief act in the ceremony, in the latter it was something besides the sacrifice that was of the essence of the rite; something was shown to the eyes of the initiated, something was done: thus the mystery[.]

These rites are one of the most compelling enigmas in human religious history, as the vow of secrecy that all participants were obliged to take has remained largely unbroken—meaning that many elements of these practices have been lost to the mists of time.

Demeter and Poseidon

Demeter and Poseidon’s names are linked in the earliest scratched notes in Linear B found at Mycenaean Pylos, where they appear as PO-SE-DA-WO-NE and DA-MA-TE in the context of sacralized lot-casting. The ‘DA‘ element in each of their names is seemingly connected to an Proto-Indo-European root relating to distribution of land and honors (compare Latin dare “to give”). Poseidon (his name seems to signify “consort of the distributor”) once pursued Demeter, in her archaic form as a mare-goddess. She resisted the sea king’s advances, but she could not disguise her divinity among the horses of King Onkios. Poseidon became a stallion and “covered” (read: violated) her. Demeter was literally furious (“Demeter Erinys”) at the assault, but washed away her anger in the River Ladon (“Demeter Lousia”). She bore to Poseidon a daughter, whose name could not be uttered outside the Eleusinian Mysteries, and a steed named Arion, with a black mane. In Arcadia, Demeter was worshiped as a horse-headed deity into historical times:

The second mountain, Mt. Elaios, is about 30 stades from Phigaleia, and has a cave sacred to Demeter Melaine [“Black”]… the Phigalians say, they accounted the cave sacred to Demeter, and set up a wooden image in it. The image was made in the following fashion: it was seated on a rock, and was like a woman in all respects save the head. She had the head and hair of a horse, and serpents and other beasts grew out of her head. Her chiton reached right to her feet, and she held a dolphin in one hand, a dove in the other. Why they made the xoanon like this should be clear to any intelligent man who is versed in tradition. They say they named her Black because the goddess wore black clothing. However, they cannot remember who made this xoanon or how it caught fire; but when it was destroyed the Phigalians gave no new image to the goddess and largely neglected her festivals and sacrifices, until finally barrenness fell upon the land.

Demeter, Persephone and the Eleusinian Mysteries

The central myth of Demeter, which is at the heart of the Eleusinian Mysteries, is her relationship with Persephone, her daughter through a dalliance with Zeus. In the tale, Persephone becomes the unwilling consort of Hades (Roman Pluto, the underworld god of wealth) and is taken from her mother’s side into her new spouse’s dusky kingdom. Demeter, distraught over the loss of her precious daughter, devoted the entirety of her time and attention to seeking her, which had the consequence of halting the progression of seasons. During her search, she had many additional adventures, though none of them were sufficient to distract her from her maternal concerns. Eventually, the situation on Earth grew so dire that Zeus found it necessary to intercede directly, imploring his brother to return Persephone to her mother. Before she was released, however, Hades tricked her into eating six pomegranate seeds, which forced her to return to his realm for six months each year. When Demeter and her daughter were together, the earth flourished with vegetation. But for six months each year, when Persephone returned to the underworld, the earth once again became a barren realm. This myth, in addition to providing an aetiological explanation for the progression of the seasons, also explain the connection between Demeter/Persephone and the Eleusinian Mysteries (which were centered around the achievement of eternal life).

Demeter’s stay at Eleusis

While Demeter was searching for her daughter Persephone, she found it expedient to adopt the guise of an old woman (Doso). In this form, she received a hospitable welcome from Celeus, the king of Eleusis in Attica (and also Phytalus). He asked her to nurse Demophon and Triptolemus, his sons by Metanira.

As a gift to Celeus (in thanks for his hospitality), Demeter planned to make Demophon as a god, which was achieved by coating and anointing him with Ambrosia, breathing gently upon him while holding him in her arms and bosom, and by burning away his mortal spirit in the family hearth every night. Unfortunately, Demeter was unable to complete the ritual because one night Metanira (the child’s mother) walked in and saw her son in the fire and screamed in fright. This angered the fertility goddess, who lamented that foolish mortals did not understand the power of her ritual.

Instead of making Demophon immortal, Demeter chose instead to repay her host’s generosity by teaching Triptolemus the art of agriculture. From him, the rest of Greece learned to plant and reap crops.

Portrayals of Demeter

  • Demeter is usually portrayed on a chariot, is frequently associated with images of the harvest, including flowers, fruit, and grain. She was also sometimes pictured with Persephone.
  • Demeter is not generally portrayed with a consort, though the exception is Iasion, the youth of Crete who lay with the goddess in a thrice-ploughed field and was sacrificed afterwards.
  • Demeter placed Aethon, the god of famine, in Erysichthon’s gut, making him permanently famished. This was a punishment for cutting down trees in a sacred grove.

Reference:

New World Encyclopedia