Brighid’s Fires Burn High
by Miriam Harline
Imbolc is a white time, a time of ice and fire. In many places, snow still sheets the ground. The fire is traditional: Europe observes this day, February 2, the Christian Candlemas, with candlelight processions, parades that go back to ancient torchlight ceremonies for purifying and reviving the fields at early sowing, according to Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend.At Candlemas, the people of ancient Europe made candles for the coming year, having saved the fat from meat eaten through the winter. Mexico, too, observes February 2, the Aztec New Year, with renewed fires and a festival that echoes agricultural rituals of early spring.
At Imbolc, the earth begins to wake from winter sleep. As Starhawk writes in The Spiral Dance, at Imbolc “what was born at the Solstice begins to manifest, and we who were midwives to the infant year now see the Child Sun grow strong as the days grow visibly longer.” At night the Wild Moon shines, illuminating the earth’s initial quickening. Seeds sown in autumn begin to stir; nature is potential waiting to be fulfilled. The Goddess too is changing: from crone to maiden, from winter to spring.
To Banish Winter
In The Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life, Pauline Campanelli writes, “Now is the time for the banishing of Winter. On the first night of February, the eve of Imbolc, gather together all of the greens that adorned the house throughout the Yuletide season, including a branch or two of the fir tree that was hung with holiday ornaments. Then, as a part of the Imbolc Sabbat rite, add these greens to the Sabbat Fire (a little at a time, and carefully, because by now they are hazardously dry), dancing and chanting all the while with words like:
“Now we banish Winter!
“Now we welcome Spring!”
Of Brighid and Her Realms
Today’s witches take many of their Imbolc associations from pagan Ireland. There, Imbolc belonged to the goddess Brighid or Bride (either is pronounced Breed), mother of poetry, smithcraft and healing.
In their Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom, Caitlin and John Matthews quote the tenth century Cormac’s Glossary: Brighid is “a poetess… the female sage, woman of wisdom, or Brighid the Goddess whom poets venerated because very great and famous for her protecting care.”Cormac’s Glossary gives Brighid the poetess two sisters, Brighid the smith and Brighid the “female physician”; Brighid thus occurs threefold, called by the Celts the Three Blessed Ladies.
The three Brighids multiply, to three times three: Caitlin and John Matthews call Brighid “a being who has nine separate spiritual appearances and blessings, which are ubiquitously invoked through Celtic lore.” Hers are the “nine gifts of the cauldron” mentioned in Amergin’s “Song of the Three Cauldrons”: poetry, reflection, meditation, lore, research, great knowledge, intelligence, understanding and wisdom. The Christianized St. Bridget had nine priestesses, the “Ingheau Anndagha,” or Daughters of the Flame, who lived inside her shrine and tended her fire, whom no man could look upon, according to Kisma K. Stepanich in Faery Wicca, Book One. Brighid is also a midwife and protector, a war-goddess and a teacher of the arts of battle.
Celtic lore makes Brighid the daughter of the Dagda, the Good God, and marries her to Bres of the Fomors, by whom she bears a son Ruadan. But, as Janet and Stewart Farrar write in The Witches’ Goddess, “The fact that Dana, though goddess/ancestress of the Tuatha, is sometimes referred to (like Brighid) as the Dagda’s daughter; the hints… that the Dagda was originally the son of this primordial goddess, then her husband, then her father; the dynastic marriage between Brighid and Bres – all these reflect a long process of integration of the pantheons of neighboring tribes, or of conquerors and conquered, and also of patriarchalization.” Like many goddesses, Brighid probably once birthed the god later called her father. Brighid’s name can be derived from the Gaelic “breo-aigit” or “fiery arrow,” but the Matthewses prefer a derivation from Sanskrit, “Brahti,” or “high one.”
The entire Celtic world worshipped Brighid. She was Brigantia in Britain, the patron goddess of the tribe of the Brigantines in northern England and of the Brigindo in eastern France, Stepanich says. The Celts continued to worship her in Christian times as St. Ffaid in Wales, St. Bride in Scotland and St. Bridget or Bride in Ireland. St. Bridget was said to be the midwife and foster mother of Christ, the helper and friend of Mary.
Making Bride’s Bed
Long before she befriended the Mother of God, Brighid was the Mother herself, her agricultural roots going back to the Neolithic. Campanelli describes an Imbolc ritual for creating Bride’s bed, drawn from ancient rituals in which harvesters at the Autumn Equinox would bring the last sheaf of wheat or other grain into the house, believing the Goddess of the Grain lived within. The harvesters often made this last sheaf into a woman’s shape, the Corn Bride or Maiden, dressing her in white.
If you have autumn harvest left, say a sheaf of Indian corn, as part of your Imbolc ritual you can create a Bride’s bed. Dress her in white and decorate her as you like, then place her in a basket or on a square of white cloth. Across her, lay a priapic wand – an acorn-tipped wand of oak – twined with ribbon, so that wand and bride form an X. Then place lit candles to either side, and chant to her something like, “Blessed be the Corn Bride! Blessed be the Great Mother!” At the height of the chant, extinguish the candles. Then, at sunrise the next morning, place the bride without her dress on your front door. There she forms an amulet of prosperity, fertility and protection, which can remain till after Samhain. Campanelli suggests you return her to earth before Yule, perhaps scattering her in the fields for birds.
Brighid the Midwife
Brighid is midwife as well as harvest mother. As late as 100 years ago in the west Scottish Highlands, the Matthewses write, the midwife traditionally blessed a newborn with fire and water in Brighid’s name. She passed the child across the fire three times, carried the baby around the fire three times deosil, then performed “the midwife’s baptism” with water, saying:
A small wave for your form
A small wave for your voice
A small wave for your speech
A small wave for your means
A small wave for your generosity
A small wave for your appetite
A small wave for your wealth
A small wave for your life
A small wave for your health
Nine waves of grace upon you,
Waves of the Giver of Health.
Brighid also protects and heals adults. She is a goddess of healing wells and streams; in her honor, Bridewell is one of the two most common well-names in Ireland, the other being St. Anne’s Well, remembering Anu, or Dana, the mother of the gods – a goddess sometimes conflated with Brighid. With Aengus Og, Brighid performs the role of soul-guardian, wrapping worshippers in her mantle of protection.
Making a “caim”
To protect themselves in Brighid’s name, the traditional Irish would recite a “caim,” the Matthewses write; “caim” means “loop” or “bend,” thus a protective circle. A caim would always name Brighid and the beings, household or body-parts to be protected.
Traditionally, you place a caim by stretching out your right forefinger and keeping that finger pointed toward the subject while walking about the subject deosil, reciting the caim. You can also say a caim for yourself. A caim can be made in all seasons and circumstances; it traditionally encircles people, houses, animals or the household fire. The Matthewses write:
“As her family prepared to sleep, the Gaelic mother would breathe these words (the caim) over the fire as she banked it in for the night…. As she said this, she would spread the embers into a circle, and divide it into three equal heaps with a central heap. To make the holy name of the foster mother (Brighid), she placed three turfs of peat between the three heaps, each one touching the center, and covered it all with ash. Such smooring customs and invocations are still performed in the West of Ireland. And so the protection of Brighid is wrapped about the house and its occupants.”
Augury in Brighid’s Name
Brighid is also a seer; the Matthewses describe her as “the central figure of the Celtic vision world.” She presided over a special type of augury, called a “frith,” performed on the first Monday in a year’s quarter to predict what that quarter would bring. The ancient Celts divided the year by Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasad, and Samhain, so the first Monday after Imbolc is appropriate for frithing.
To perform a frith, a traditional frithir would first fast. Then, at sunrise, barefoot and bareheaded, the frithir would say prayers to the Virgin Mary and St. Bridget and walk deosil around the household fire three times. Then with closed or blindfolded eyes, the frithir went to the house door’s threshold, placed a hand on either jamb and said additional prayers asking that the specific question about the coming quarter be answered. Then the frithir opened his or her eyes and looked steadfastly ahead, noting everything seen.
Frithing signs can be “rathadach” (lucky) or “rosadach” (unlucky). A man or beast getting up means improving health, lying down ill health or death. A cock coming toward the frithir brings luck, a duck safety for sailors, a raven death. About the significance of horses, a rhyme survives: “A white horse for land, a gray horse for sea, a bay horse for burial, a brown horse for sorrow.” The role of frithir passed down from generation to generation; according to the Matthewses, the name survives in the surname Freer, “held to be the title of the astrologers of the kings of Scotland.”
To perform a pagan version of frithing, fast the Sunday night before the first Monday after Imbolc and that night formulate your chief question about the coming three months. Monday morning at sunrise, say a prayer to Brighid and barefoot and bareheaded walk deosil around whatever seems the central fire of your house – maybe your kitchen stove, or if you’re not a cook your fireplace or heater. Then go to your doorway, put your hands to either side, and closing your eyes pray your question be answered. Then open your eyes, and note the first action you see. That action probably won’t be found in the traditional frithir’s lexicon, so the interpretation is up to you.
In another frithing technique, you curl the palms to form a “seeing-tube”; frithirs used such a tube to discover lost people or animals and to divine the health of someone absent. Frithirs also sometimes used divinatory stones; the Matthewses describe a “little stone of the quests” made of red quartz.
Imbolc Spells and Workings
Whether or not you try frithing, Imbolc is good for psychic work: still the dark time of the year, but looking toward spring. It’s also a good time to make your space hospitable for such work, banishing old energy to clear the way for new. Traditionally, witches purify themselves and their space at Imbolc. Any kind of cleansing or banishing will do, but consider ones that include fire and water, sacred to Brighid. Once purified, you’re ready to go further; at Imbolc, covens initiate new witches.
The spark of summer dances in the future now; Imbolc is a good time to seek inspiration, especially for healers and smiths of words or metal. To do so, try the following spell.
Bring to your ritual space a cauldron or chalice filled with earth or sand; a white, silver, green, purple or rainbow-colored candle; a candleholder; oil to anoint the candle; paper; and a pen you like or with appropriately colored ink. Ground and center, cast a circle and ask for Brighid’s presence. Then anoint your candle in Brighid’s name, and lighting it write on the paper the aspects of your work in which you want inspiration. When you’re done, raise energy and put it into the paper, then light the paper with the candle flame. Drop the burning paper into the cauldron, making sure the entire paper is blackened. Then thank Brighid and bid her farewell, and take down your circle.
The next day, relight the candle and by its light rub some significant tools of your work with the ashes. Then either sprinkle the remaining ashes onto your garden or houseplants or drop them in a park in a place that feels inspiring or pleasant.
Imbolc is a white time, burning with inspiration and protection, cool with healing and purification. Prophesy flares, painting luster on the dark. Light your candle, call on Brighid, and know that under the snow the seeds of spring stir.