With the first stirrings of Spring in the Northern hemisphere, we celebrate the festival of Imbolc, one of the eight High Days celebrated by ADF. Usually held around 1-2 February, it occurs midway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Imbolc “reminds us that daylight is growing and that winter will soon be gone” (Higginbotham, 2008) and is often celebrated as a fire or candle festival.
The name “Imbolc” may come from the Old Irish “Imbolg” meaning “in the belly” referring to the pregnancy of sheep and cattle, so important to the agricultural Celts. The 10th century Cormac’s Glossary refers to it as “Oimelc” meaning “ewe’s milk”, though this etymology is disputed.
Imbolc is strongly associated with the Celtic goddess Brigid, known in Britain as Brigantia. Bonewits (2006) writes that “this goddess was best known as a triple-aspected deity (originally a sun and fire goddess) of poetry/divination, healing and smithcraft, whose followers kept an eternal flame burning in her honour”.
There is evidence that Imbolc was celebrated since early pre-Christian times, but as Hutton (1996) points out, “there is absolutely no direct testimony as to its early nature”. We can infer from later, Christianised, celebrations, that customs may have included the blessing of fire and farm animals (Danaher, 1972). The festival was incorporated into the Christian calendar as the feast of St Bridget, who is often conflated with the earlier pre-Christian goddess Brigid. Today it is known as “Candlemas” and church candles are blessed for the year ahead. This can perhaps be seen as a continuance of ancient Brigantine fire-festivals.
Modern Pagans celebrate Imbolc in various ways, including candlelit rituals, making Brigid’s crosses from rushes and straw and simply going out to experience the burgeoning Spring and the newly-emerging snowdrops. Imbolc is also associated with purification or cleansing, “a time to clean out mental and spiritual cobwebs as we leave Winter behind and make room for Spring” (Higginbotham, 2008). ADF refers to Imbolc as a feast of the hearth and of Brigid as the goddess of fire and inspiration, a time for rekindling the world’s hearth-fire and celebrating the return of light.
ADF. Our Own Druidry: An Introduction to Ár nDraíocht Féin and the Druid Path. Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2009.
Bonewits, Isaac. Bonewits’s essential guide to Druidism. New York: Citadel, 2006.
Danaher, Kevin. The year in Ireland: Irish calendar customs. Dublin: Mercier, 1972.
Higginbotham, Joyce and River. Paganism: an introduction to earth-centered religions. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2008.
Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.