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Imbolc Celtic Style
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The First of February belongs to Brigid, (Brighid, Brigit, Bride,) the Celtic goddess who in later times became revered as a Christian saint. Originally, her festival on February 1 was known as Imbolc or Oimelc, two names which refer to the lactation of the ewes, the flow of milk that heralds the return of the life-giving forces of spring. Later, the Catholic Church replaced this festival with Candlemas Day on February 2, which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and features candlelight processions. The powerful figure of Brigid the Light-Bringer overlights both pagan and Christian celebrations.
In most parts of the British Isles, February is a harsh and bitter month. In old Scotland, the month fell in the middle of the period known as Faoilleach, the Wolf-month; it was also known as a’ marbh mhiòs, the Dead-month. But although this season was so cold and drear, small but sturdy signs of new life began to appear: Lambs were born and soft rain brought new grass. Ravens begin to build their nests and larks were said to sing with a clearer voice.
In Ireland, the land was prepared to receive the new seed with spade and plough; calves were born, and fishermen looked eagerly for the end of winter storms and rough seas to launch their boats again. In Scotland, the Old Woman of winter, the Cailleach, is reborn as Bride, Young Maiden of Spring, fragile yet growing stronger each day as the sun rekindles its fire, turning scarcity into abundance. Of her, Alexander Carmichael wrote:
Bride with her white wand is said to breathe life into the mouth of the dead Winter and to bring him to open his eyes to the tears and the smiles, the sighs and the laughter of Spring. The venom of the cold is said to tremble for its safety on Bride’s Day, and to flee for its life on Patrick’s Day.
THE EXALTED ONE
…woman of wisdom…a goddess whom poets adored…— Cormac’s Glossary
It is tempting to view this tender goddess of the early Spring only as she is pictured in Scottish artist John Duncan’s famous picture, The Coming of Bride: a wide-eyed, golden-haired girl, encircled by children. But behind her girlish innocence is the power of a once-great ancestral deity, Brigid, whose name means “The Exalted One,” queen and mother goddess of many European tribes. She is also known as Brigid, Bridget, Brighid, Brighde, Brig or Bride and some scholars consider her name originated with the Vedic Sanskrit word brihati, an epithet of the divine.
The 10th century Cormac’s Glossary describes her as the daughter of the Daghda, the “Great God” of the Tuatha de Danaan. He calls her a “woman of wisdom…a goddess whom poets adored, because her protection was very great and very famous." Since the discipline of poetry, filidhect, was interwoven with seership, Brigid was seen as the great inspiration behind divination and prophecy, the source of oracles.
She is said to have had two sisters: Brigid the Physician and Brigid the Smith, but it is generally thought that all three were aspects of the one goddess of poetry, healing, and smithcraft. Elsewhere she is described as the patron of other vital crafts of early Celtic society: dying, weaving and brewing. A goddess of regeneration and abundance, she was greatly beloved as a provider of plenty who brought forth the bounties of the natural world for the good of the people. She is closely connected with livestock and domesticated animals. She had two oxen called Fea and Feimhean who gave their names to a plain in Co. Carlow and one in Tipperary. She was also the guardian of Torc Triath, king of the wild boar, who gave his name to Treithirne, a plain in West Tipperary. These three totem animals used to raise a warning cry if Ireland was in danger.
Some Irish rivers bear her name, as do places as far apart as Breconshire in Wales, Brechin in Scotland and Bregenz in Austria, which was once the capital of the Brigantii tribe. This tribe was under the tutelage of the goddess Brigantia, who is thought to be another aspect of Brigid. The most powerful political unit of Celtic-speaking Britain, the Brigantii mostly held sway in Northern England, where place-names and rock-carvings still echo the presence of their mother-goddess.
SAINT OF THE FLAME
…she shall arise like a shining sun… — Lives of Saints, The Book of Lismore
With the coming of Christianity, the powerful energy of the pagan goddess was transmuted into Ireland’s much-loved saint, second only to Patrick himself. Her transformation happened almost literally in Drumeague, County Cavan, at a place called “The Mountain of the Three Gods.” Here a stone head of Brigid was worshipped as a triple deity, but with the coming of Christianity, it was hidden in a Neolithic tomb. Later it was recovered from its burial-place and mounted on a local church where it was popularly canonized as “St. Bride of Knockbridge.” [iii]Though many legends are attached to her, there is certainly no firm evidence of her as a historical figure. Accounts of the saint’s life reveal what Sir James Frazer once called her: “a goddess in a threadbare cloak.”
Saint Brigid was said to be the daughter of a druid who had a vision that she was to be named after a great goddess. She was born at sunrise while her mother was walking over a threshold, and so "was neither within nor without." This is the state known as liminality, from the Latin, limen: a threshold – the state of being “in between” places and times. In Celtic tradition this is a sacred time when the doors between the worlds are open and magical events can occur.
Another legend tells how her mother was carrying a pitcher of milk at the time, with which she bathed her new-born child. As a child, Brigid was unable to eat ordinary food, and was reared on the milk of a special white red-eared cow. White animals with red ears are frequently found in Celtic mythology as beasts of the Otherworld. We have also seen how the pagan goddess owned two magical oxen. In Celtic society, cattle were the most highly valued of all animals, revered as symbols of plenty, and Saint Brigid was very closely associated with livestock in general, and dairy cows in particular. As an adult, she was accompanied by a cow who also supplied her with all the milk she needed.
When she became abbess of Kildare, she miraculously increased the milk and butter yield of the abbey cows; some accounts say that her cows produced a whole lake of milk three times a day, and one churning filled hundreds of baskets with butter. When Saint Brigid died, her skull was kept at Kildare after the pre-Christian custom of revering the head as sacred. Norman soldiers were supposed to have stolen it from the abbey and taken it to Portugal. Here it played its part in a spring ceremony where cattle were driven past it. In Scotland she was invoked as “Milkmaid Bride,” or “Golden-haired Bride of the kine,” patroness of cattle and dairy work. Medieval Christian art often depicts her as holding a cow, or carrying a pair of milk-pails.
She also provided abundant ale-harvests: At one Easter-time, one measure of her malt provided ale for seventeen churches. Her miraculous powers changed water into ale and stone into salt. With boundless generosity she fed birds, animals, and the poor, and they all loved her in return. The bountiful mother goddess of the fruitful earth shines through the generosity of the Christian saint.
Early writers believed Brigid’s name stemmed from breo-aigit: “fiery arrow,” a false but somehow very fitting etymology for a goddess of smithcraft, and one who kindles the fires of creativity and regeneration. Her association with fire and the sun continues into the folk-lore of the Christian saint. In one version of her life from the Book of Lismore, a druid prophesies that she will be “a daughter conspicuous and radiant, who will shine like the sun among the stars of heaven.” As a child, a fire was seen rising from the house where she and her mother were asleep. Yet it did not burn the house, but glowed like the burning bush of the Old Testament. When she first began to pray to God, a column of flame was seen rising from the house. She emerged unharmed, but “full of the grace of the Holy Spirit,” a reference to the Pentecostal flames. A charming story tells how stories of Brigid’s deeds drew the attention of the famous Saint Brendan who stopped by on an unannounced visit. She had been out working in the fields on a showery day, and was so surprised to see the great man in her house, that she flung off her rain-cloak without bothering to hang it up. The cloak caught on a sunbeam and to the older saint’s astonishment, hung there till it dried.
Like the rising sun, she belonged to the East, where her influence radiated out from her convent at Kildare in the heart of Leinster. Within the convent burned a perennial flame which became known as one of the three inextinguishable fires of the Irish monasteries. Stories about the flame's miraculous properties told that it stayed alight through the grace of God while the ashes from the burnt wood never increased even though it burned for a thousand years, from the 5th to the 16th centuries. Gerald of Wales wrote about it when he visited the convent sometime in the twelfth century. He tells that there used to be twenty nuns keeping watch over the flame during Brigid's lifetime; since her death, nineteen took turns, one each night, in guarding the fire. When the twentieth night came, the nineteenth nun put the logs beside the fire and said:
“Brigid, guard your fire. This is your night.”
In the morning, the wood was found burned and the fire still alight.
Brigid's flame was housed within a sacred enclosure, surrounded by a withy hedge which, Gerald reports, "no male may cross." A terrible fate awaited any man who tried, although the nature of the punishment was not specified. It seems probable that Kildare was once a pagan sanctuary attended by priestesses, similar to the Vestal Virgins of Roman tradition. Some scholars have seen a connection between Brigid and Sulis Minerva whose sacred fire burned at Aquae Sulis (Bath) in the 3rd century. Elsewhere only nine maidens are described as guarding the Brigid’s flame, a scene reminiscent of the nine maidens in the Welsh poem, The Spoils of Annwn, whose breath warmed the magical cauldron of the Underworld. Goddess of the Sun and Christian saint of the Eternal Fire are equally invoked in the beautiful invocation known as Brighid's Arrow:
Most Holy Brighid, Excellent Woman, Bright Arrow, Sudden Flame;
May your bright fiery Sun take us swiftly to your lasting kingdom.
Like the goddess of old, Saint Brigid was renowned for her gift of healing. She wove the first piece of cloth in Ireland and wove into it healing threads which kept their power for centuries. Many healing wells and springs were named after her. Earlier this century, an old woman recounted her experiences at a well of Brigid’s on the west coast – one of many that are still active today.
“I had a pearl in my eye one time, and I went to Saint Brigit’s well on the cliffs. Scores of people there were in it, looking for cures, and some got them and some did not get them. And I went down the four steps to the well and I was looking into it, and I saw a little fish no longer than your finger coming from a stone under the water. Three spots it had on the one side and three on the other side, red spots and a little green with the red, and it was very civil coming hither to me and very pleasant wagging its tail. And it stopped and looked up at me and gave three wags of its back, and walked off again and went in under the stone….And in three days I had the sight of my eye again. It was surely Saint Brigit I saw that time; who else would it be?”
At Kildare her well stands just outside the town, and was refurbished by the local nuns in 1984. Near the spring, an upright stone tablet bears two crosses on either side. One is a Christian cross, the other is the cross of Saint Brigit, the fiery sun-wheel turning.
SAINT BRIDE OF SCOTLAND
“Oh the blessing of Brìd on the child of my heart” —Scottish Lullaby
In Scotland Brigid was known as Bride and like her pagan predecessor reigned over fire, over art, and over beauty, fo cheabhar agus fo chuan (beneath the sky and beneath the sea.) As she presided over the birth of Spring, so legends tell that she was the midwife at Christ’s birth. She was called Muime Chriosd, “Foster-mother of Christ”, while the divine Child was known as Dalta Brìde, “the Foster-Son of Bride.” Sometimes Brigid was conflated with the Virgin herself, for in the Highlands and Islands she was often addressed as “Mary of the Gael.”
Her presence was invoked at childbirths, as Alexander Carmichael recounts:
When a woman is in labour the midwife…goes to the door of the house, and standing on the door-step, softly beseeches Bride to come in:
‘Bride, Bride, come in!
Thy welcome is truly made,
Give thou relief to the woman,
And give thou the conception to the Trinity.’
Highland women also invoked Brigid’s presence at the hearth-fire, the center of the home. The hearth was not only the source of warmth and cooking but also symbolized the power of the sun brought down to human level as the miraculous power of fire. Every morning the fire was kindled with invocations to St. Brigid, the “radiant flame” herself:
I will build the hearth
As Mary would build it.
The encompassment of Bride and of Mary
Guarding the hearth, guarding the floor,
Guarding the household all. [xi]
THE FEAST-DAY OF BRIDE
Bride put her finger in the river
On the Feast Day of Bride
And away went the hatching mother of the cold. — Carmina Gadelica
It was said: "from Brighid's feastday onwards the day gets longer and the night shorter.” Although this refers to the time of the winter Solstice, the felt truth was that the goddess brought back the growing light. On the eve of Là Fhéill Bhrìghde (St.Brigid’s Day), the Old Woman of Winter, the Cailleach, journeys to the magical isle in whose woods lies the miraculous Well of Youth. At the first glimmer of dawn, she drinks the water that bubbles in a crevice of a rock, and is transformed into Bride, the fair maid whose white wand turns the bare earth green again. Another version of the story of Spring tells how Bride is a young girl kept prisoner by the Cailleach all winter long in the snowy recesses of Ben Nevis. She is rescued by the Cailleach’s son who elopes with her despite his mother’s attempts to keep them apart with fierce storms.
The coming of Bride was celebrated in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland with heartfelt prayers and songs. Of these all are gone except for a few evocative titles and fragments—“Mantle of Bride,” “Staff of Bride,” “Bride’s Prayer—empty sea-shells on a forgotten shore. But thanks to Carmichael’s work in collecting old customs, we do know more about the festivities of this joyful time. On Bride’s Eve, young girls made a female figure from a sheaf of corn, and decorated it with colored shells and sparkling crystals, together with snowdrops and primroses and other early spring flowers and greenery. An especially bright shell, symbol of emerging life, or crystal was placed over its heart, called in Gaelic, the “guiding star of Bride,” after the star over the stable in Bethlehem that led Bride to the Christ child. The figure was named Bride or Brideag, Little Bride, and was carried about the town in procession by the young girls who were called banal Bride, the “Bride Maiden band,” all dressed in white and wearing their hair down, personifying the spirit of purity and youth.
Everyone they visited had to pay homage to Bride and give her a gift such as a flower or a crystal, while the mothers gave bannocks, cheese or butter, reciprocating Bride’s lavish gifts of food. When they had finished their rounds, the girls spent the night at a house where the figure was made to sit in state, while the girls prepared the Bride feast for the next day. The young men of the town soon came knocking at the door and were let in to pay tribute to Bride, after which there were songs, dancing and much merrymaking until the break of day. At first light, they all joined hands and sang a hymn to Bride, and shared out the remains of the feast among the poor women of the town.
The older women of the town also conducted a ceremony on the Eve of Bride. They too made an effigy of Bride out of oats, lovingly decorated it, and prepared for her a basket called leaba Bride, Bride’s bed. Carmichael describes what happened next;
… one woman goes to the door of the house, and standing on the step with her hands on the jambs, calls softly into the darkness, ‘Bride’s bed is ready.’ To this a ready woman behind replies, ‘Let Bride come in. Bride is welcome.’ The woman at the door again addresses Bride, ‘Bride, Bride, come thou in, thy bed is made. Preserve the house for the Trinity.’ The women then place the ikon of Bride with great ceremony into the bed they have so carefully prepared for it.
In her hand they placed a small straight white wand, generally of birch, the tree of spring, or other sacred wood: straight to signify justice, white for purity and peace. Then, before retiring for the night they smoothed the ashes of the hearth. Their dearest wish was that she visit them in the night, and in the morning they eagerly examined the ashes for traces of her presence: if they discerned the marks of her wand, they knew they were favored; if the footprint of Bride was discovered in the ashes then they were overjoyed, and knew to expect increase in family, flock and field in the coming year. If there were no signs at all, they were downcast, believing she must be offended. To remedy this, they buried a cock as an offering at a place where three streams met—a three-fold confluence of sacred power—and burned incense on the fire the next evening.
There are places in Scotland where St. Bride’s Day festivities are still very much alive. For example, Canon Angus MacQueen on the Isle of South Uist celebrates all the Celtic feast days with his parishioners, especially Là Fhéill Bhrìghde, when the Brideog is carried round to each house on the island.
In Ireland, similar joyous rituals were enacted to welcome back the light on Lá Fhéile Bríde, St. Brigit’s Day. An 18th century account tells how every farmer’s wife made a special cake, the ale was brought out, the neighbors came round and a festive evening was had by all. Fresh butter was churned and always formed part of the meal; the more wealthy farmers gave gifts of butter to poorer neighbors, along with some roast meat, to celebrate the return of the bringer of bounty. At this time, Brigid herself was believed to travel about the countryside, blessing the people and their livestock, and so an offering of cake or bread and butter was left outside on the window-sill for her. Sometimes they left a sheaf of corn too, as sustenance for the white cow who traveled with her. Or a bundle of straw or fresh rushes were laid on the threshold for her to kneel upon to bless the house, or possibly so she – or the cow! – could wipe their feet before entering.
In many districts an effigy of Brigid was carried about from door to door as in Scotland. Often the figure of Bride was fashioned from a churn-dash covered with straw, emphasizing her presence in the dairy; sometimes it was a child’s doll decked out for the occasion, and sometimes a young girl dressed in white represented Brigid herself. The girl might hand out a Brigid’s Cross to each household, for the saint’s special cross was an important part of the Irish celebrations in all parts of Ireland. These crosses of rushes or straw were made on St. Brigid’s Eve and hung in the house and often in byre and stable too, to honor Brigid and to gain her protection. The crosses took shapes that are not traditionally Christian, but bear marked resemblance to symbols of the sun in cultures throughout the world. One kind was actually not a cross at all, but a figure with three legs, recalling the three-fold nature of the goddess-saint. It is, in fact, an ancient Celtic symbol known as the triskele.
A less common design from counties Cork and Tipperary is a shape we should by now be most familiar with: the circle-cross. An added beauty of its symbolism is that the figure is formed from triple-braided straw rope, thus marrying the sacred numbers of four and three. Another ritual object involving these numbers sounds as if it is from a much earlier time. Known as the Crios Bríde, or Saint Brigid’s Girdle, it was made from braided straw rope and carried in procession with the effigy of Bride throughout the town. At each house, the occupants were expected to pass through it, to obtain Bride’ protection and good health for the coming year. As they did this, the bearers of the crios chanted a verse. One version goes in translation:
Brighid’s girdle is my girdle
The girdle with the four crosses
And go out three times.
May whoever goes through my girdle
Be seven times better a year from now.
Rituals such as these anchored participants securely in the cosmic order represented by the four directions and the three worlds: lower world, physical world and upper world, mediated by the sacred presence of Brigid.
A wondrous force and might
Doth in these candels lie… — Barnaby Gouge: The Popish Kingdome
In keeping with the policy of the Catholic Church to subsume pagan festivals into Christian feast-days, the Day of Bride became equated with Candlemas on February 2nd, the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. At this time, forty days after childbirth, Mary was supposed to have gone to the Temple at Jerusalem to make the traditional offering to purify herself. As she entered the temple, an old man named Simeon recognized the baby as the Messiah of Israel, and a “light to lighten the Gentiles.” So, once again we encounter the archetype of the young Sun or Light come to redeem the darkness, but now in Christian clothing. Certainly, the service most used for this day in the medieval church made much of this symbolism, playing upon images of the appearance of divine light in the darkness of human sin, of renewal and rebirth of light in the dark time of the year, and of the new light of heaven come to transform an old world.
In Britain, Candlemas was celebrated with a festival of lights. In the dark and gloomy days of February, the shadowy recesses of medieval churches twinkled brightly as each member of the congregation carried a lighted candle in procession around the church, to be blessed by the priest. Afterwards, the candles were brought home to be used to keep away storms, demons and other evils. This custom lasted in England until it was banned in the Reformation for promoting the veneration of magical objects. Even so, the symbol of the lighted candles had too strong a hold on the popular imagination to be entirely cast aside. Traces of the festival lingered until quite recently in other areas of the British Isles like little lights that refused to be blown out. In Wales, Candlemas was known as Gwyl Fair y Canhwyllau, Mary’s Festival of the Candles, and was celebrated as late as the 19th century by setting a lighted candle in the windows or at the table on this night. Special Candlemas carols were sung by singers who processed from house to house. One of these contains the lines:
Hail reign a fair maid with gold upon your chin,
Open up the East Gate and let the New year in;
The carolers had to undergo a contest of riddles before being allowed to enter (an example of ritual at a liminal place.) When they were allowed in, they might see a young girl with a baby boy on her lap, surrounded by candles, to whom they sang once more and pledged in drink. She of course personified Virgin and Child, but in a country where Catholicism never had a strong hold, it is not difficult to discern a pre-Christian custom similar to the Scottish welcoming of Bride behind the Christian trappings.
In the county of Shropshire, the snowdrop, first flower of spring, took the place of candles, being named, “Candlemas bells,” “Purification flowers” or – with a faint remembrance of Brigid, perhaps – “Fair Maid of February.” And an interesting survival was noted in Cornwall, where until recently in the town of St. Ives, a silver ball was passed around from 10.30 till noon on this day throughout the streets and on the beach. It was started off by the mayor at the parish church, and whoever holds the ball at noon receives a small prize. The significance and history of this unusual and isolated custom is not known. Does the silver ball represent the pale orb of the returning sun?
Finally, traces of the festival of the growing light can even be traced to modern America in the Groundhog Day custom on February 2. If the groundhog sees his shadow on this morning, it means there will be six more weeks of winter. The custom comes directly from Europe, and Scotland in particular, where an old couplet goes:
If Candlemas Day is bright and clear,
there'll be two winters in the year.
A Scottish rhyme about the Feast Day of Bride begins:
This is the day of Bride,
The queen will come from the mound…
In other versions it is a “serpent” that will emerge from a hole, an allusion which Professor Séamus Ó Cáthain has linked to Scandinavian customs regarding the reappearance of the hibernating bear. For this is the time when the animal world begins to stir from its winter sleep in the depths of earth, and life and light is ushered in by Brigid, the Queen.
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