• Tag Archives Imbolc
  • Imbolc: 2013

    Imbolc                                                                           Cold Moon

    In the early Celtic faith this day was a holy day and a market day, a cross quarter holiday that celebrated the freshening of the ewes.  When the ewes became pregnant–lamb in the belly, in the belly=imbolc, they would once again have milk, adding some variety to a food supply that had been stable since Samhain or so, the last harvest.

    Brigid, the Celtic triple-goddess of hearth, smithy and inspiration, all fire related–is the goddess honored on this holiday.  She was, like so much of the old religions, hoovered up into Catholicism as St. Bridget, reportedly born of a good Christian woman and a Druid, thus straddling the transition from the old faith to the new.

    She had a center at Kildare in Ireland, where the Catholics built cell dara, or cell/church of the oak.  A great oak was there.  This Cathedral of St. Bridget went up in 480 ad.  That is very early, the Roman Empire was not quite dead.  Even so, the followers of the Goddess had been there much longer, with 19 priestesses who kept lit an eternal flame.  Catholic nuns dedicated to St. Bridget kept up this practice until the Reformation era.

    “On February 1, 1807 Daniel Delany, Bishop of Kildare, began the restoration of the Sisterhood of St. Brigid. Their mission was to restore the ancient order and bring back the legacy and spirit of this amazing figure. In 1993, Brighid’s perpetual flame was finally re-kindled in Kildare’s Market Square by Mary Teresa Cullen, who at that time was the leader of the Brigidine Sisters. The sacred flame was kept by the Brigidine Sisters in their home and on February 1, 2006, the flame was brought back to the center of the Market Square where it has been permanently housed in a large glass enclosed vessel.”  see website sourced above.

    (Brigid’s fire temple)

    There was, too, a holy well dedicated to Brigid, also in this same location.  There are holy wells all over the Celtic lands, many dedicated to gods or goddesses, others revered as places for certain kinds of prayers, both blessings and curses.  These wells have since ancient times been considered portals to Faery or to the Otherworld, thus offerings left by the wells honor those of Faery as well as those who have died.  Dressing the well makes an offering at a holy well, i.e. surrounding it with flowers, plants, homemade things.  The Celts also use strips of cloth tied onto tree or shrub branches as offerings in a fashion very similar to certain native american traditions.

    Given Brigit’s triple orientation–hearth, smithy and creative inspiration–today is a day to celebrate domestic life where the fire of the kitchen activates the home, and the fire of the smithy where the tools and weapons of a life lived close to the land are shaped, and, finally, the inspiration which comes to each of us from the holy wells deep within our own being.

    This is a time to stop, take a look at the home fires.  How are they?  It is also a time to think about the tools for gardening.  Are they sharp and oiled, ready for the spring.  Then, too, especially for those of us who rely on the mystery of creative inspiration, are you being careful to tend your inner well?  Keeping it dressed and well-maintained?

  • Imbolc 2011

    Imbolc                                                                              Waning Moon of the Cold Month

    This is the holy day of Bridgit, the triple goddess; she of the eternal fire at Kildare, a goddess who tends to the fire of creativity at home, for the poet and in the smithy, the place where things are made by hand.  As with so many things Celtic, the Roman Catholics appropriate her, given her a birth story.  Her father, the story goes, was a druid, her mother a good Catholic.  She became a Catholic woman known for good deeds and miracles.  After her death she became a saint.  Many Catholics know her only as St. Bridgit, but her origins as a religious figure had their beginnings and much larger compass within the ancient Celtic faith.

    It was the Celts who first tended the eternal fire at Kildare, devoting men and women to the task.  Later, in the days of the Celtic Christian church there was a double monastery there, men and women in separate units, abbot and abbess respectively.

    Imbolc itself means in-the-belly, referring, as I wrote a few days back, to the lamb in the belly of the ewes.  The quickening of the ewes meant fresh milk.  After at least three months + of stored food, little meat, and chill weather a small cup of milk or its use in cooking must have been a reason for great celebration.  The lambs also were a reminder that the rebirth of spring would come again, just as they had come.  Nature’s cycle could be trusted.

    We can buy green beans, strawberries, fresh fish, eggs, milk, butter, bread in a brightly lit store.  Aisles and aisles of food, so many versions of cereal, peanut butter, spices and salts, rice and pasta, beef, turkey, chicken, pork and, yes, even lamb.  In some vague way we know this food arrives at the grocery by truck, packed in cardboard boxes.  The workers remove and open the boxes, distributing the food to shelves, meat counters, produce bins, milk coolers.  We pick it up, put it in our carts, pay for it, then take it home and store it in cupboards, refrigerators, pantries. Until very recently there was not much attention given, at least by most of us, to the source of the food.

    The buy local movement has focused our attention especially on produce and meat.  Was the beef grass raised?  No antibiotics?  The eggs.  Were the chickens free range?  The leeks and the tomatoes, the lettuce.  Who grew it?  How far did it travel?  Is it organic?  Did the salmon come wild from Alaska or farm-raised from the Atlantic?

    As we once again allow the blurred image of our food sources to come into focus, I hope we will also allow the blurred images we have of the natural world to come into focus.  We may see that the sacred is not a notion found in texts, but in the world.  We might feel our way toward the vitality of the dog, the raven, the oak, the tulip, even ourselves, a vitality that emerges, has its day and then absorbs back into the world;  the universe represented here, for us, by our planet and its sun, by the web of life sustained by the inanimate, but also sacred world of rocks and water and air and fire.

    The Great Wheel, the cycle of solstices and equinoxes broken up the cross-quarter holydays of the Celts:  Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasa and Samhain turn us not outward or upward, not away from ourselves and our world, but inward and downward, toward ourselves and our world.  These holydays root us in the changing world, that, paradoxically, changes back into the world of last year, each year.  In this sense time for the Great Wheel cycles and recycles, never moving into tomorrow, always returning to yesterday.  We need this reminder, the Great Wheel’s reminder, because we are so much in the grip of chronos, the swift moving river of time that sweeps us along towards the gulf of our mortality, a great dead zone at the end of this wonder we call life.

    The Great Wheel reminds us that while our life will end, life itself does not.  That as we die, a birth occurs.  As tears fall, laughter rings out.  After the winter, the ewes will freshen, there will be milk.  And flowers.

  • The Value of Increasing Darkness

    Samhain                                         Waxing Thanksgiving Moon

    The daylight is gone, twilight has fallen and night is on its way.  Now that we have entered the season of Samhain, the leaves have vanished from the trees and the clouds, like tonight, often hang gray in the sky.  Samhain means the end of summer and in the old Celtic calendar was the half of the year when the fields went fallow while the temperature turned cool, then cold, hope returning around the first of February, Imbolc, when the ewes would freshen and milk would once again be part of the diet as new life promised spring.

    In between Imbolc and Samhain lies the Winter Solstice.  The early darkness presages the long twilight; it lasts from now until late December as we move into the increasing night until daylight becomes only a third of the day.  This has been, for many years, my favorite time of year.  I like the brave festivals when lights show up on homes and music whirs up, making us all hope we can dance away our fear.

    The Yamatanka mandala at the Minnesota Institute of Art gives a meditator in the Tantric disciplines of Tibetan Buddhism a cosmic map, brightly displaying the way to Yamatanka’s palace grounds.  In the middle of the palace grounds, represented here by a blue field with a vajra (sacred thunderbolt) Yamantaka awaits our presence.

    In the Great Wheel as I have come to know it, we visit Yamantaka on the night of the Winter Solstice, that extended darkness that gives us a foretaste of death.  Our death.  On that night we can sit with ourselves, calm and quiet, imagining our body laid out on a bed, eyes closed, mouth quiet, a peaceful expression on our lifeless face.

    We can do that, not in suicidal fantasy, but in recognition of our mortality, our finite time upon the wheel of life, awaiting our turn as the wheel turns under the heavens carrying us away from this veil of samsara.  If we can do that, we can then open ourselves to the thin sliver of light that becomes more and more, as the solstice marks the turning back of the darkness and brings us once again to life.

    When we can visit Yamantaka’s palace, sup with him in this throne room and see death as he, the conqueror of death sees it, we are finally free.

  • Lughnasa: A First Fruits Festival and Beginning of the Harvest Cycle

    Lughnasa                                                       Waning Grandchildren Moon

    Turning round the star wheel we have come again to the first day of the month named after Augustus Caesar, First Citizen of Rome.  In Celtic lands this month was:  Welsh–Awst, Scots Gaelic–an Lunasdal and in Irish:  Lughnasadh.

    Though the coming of Autumn is not visible, the wind tells us it has come.   Fujiwara no Toshiyuki

    The Japanese word risshu means the first day of Autumn.  By solar equinox reckoning we are a good 8 weeks away from that day, yet Toshiyuki’s poem suggests another way to look for the fall of the year.  Are there signals in the air, in the plant world, among the animals?  Yes, there are. Lughnasa, a cross-quarter holiday in the Celtic calendar, marks the half-way point of the changes from the summer solstice to the fall equinox.

    The bees have put away honey all July and August is the month when their honey production wanes.  Many flowers and vegetables have already grown, flowered and fruited:  iris, daffodil, tulip, lily, dicentra, coral bells, hosta and phlox.  The long grasses have seeded as have many of the tall weeds, including the hemp that grows here in abundance.  There are stalks, brown stalks, in the garden, the signs of a more general senescence that will over take all the flowers and vegetables as August continues and becomes September.  Animal babies have begun to mature, witness the opossum pictured here a few weeks ago.

    The main signal of seasonal change though, for me, is the change in the angle of the sun light.  By August 20th, the sun’s angle of declination at its highest point in the sky, noon, will be 12 degrees less than the 69 degrees it achieved on June 20th, the summer solstice and the sun’s highest angle at our 45th degree of latitude.  This changed angle, subtle at first, becomes obvious as August moves on and creates the tone of seasonal change in advance of temperature and other meteorological signals. We now journey toward the sun’s lowest angle of declination here, 22 degrees, reached at the Winter Solstice on December 21st.

    In many webpages you will find confident reference to Lugh as the Celtic sun-god and to Lughnasa as his festival.  Maybe.  Celtic lore has a number of obstacles to clear understanding.  The most difficult obstacles lie in the sources of information that we have for ancient Celtic life.  Whatever written information, if any, the Celts left behind have been lost in the wake of the Roman invasions that began in 55 BC with the arrival of Julius Caesar.  As a result we always look at the Celts through the eyes of their conquerors.  Tacitus, for example, records the story of the Druids and their last stand across the Menai Straits in northwestern Wales.  It is Caesar’s accounts of the Gallic Wars (Celtic Wars) that gives us much of the scanty information we have about Celtic religious life.

    The next main source of information about the Celts comes from the Roman Catholic Church that overtook and weeded out both the ancient faery faith and the peculiar and attractive version of Christianity that evolved on its own before the Roman Church came.  This Celtic Christianity emphasized a close relationship with the natural world and retained practices resonant with the Celtic faery faith.

    Nowadays a different, but no less problematic type of interpretation occurs when the neo-pagan community takes up these holidays and puts into them the mythological narratives that appeal most to their sensibility.   They can do this, of course, and, in fact, they do, but it does not mean that the interpretation they place on the sacred days have much, if any, congruence with the practices and beliefs of the ancient Celts.

    Thus, the Celts and their ancient life exist behind by shrouds of interpretation motivated by ancient political exigency, motivated by medieval religious arrogance and now motivated by contemporary irrational adoration.

    Lugh, in other words, is a name put on a Celtic deity by the Romans, who tended to associate the gods of conquered tribes with gods of their own.  Lugh came to be equated with Hermes, Mercury to the Romans.  We have very little direct information about the Celtic pantheon, though there is some.

    What we do know for certain is that on and around August 1, for centuries, Celtic and English peoples celebrated the first fruits of the harvest on a day called Lughnasa.  Brian Friel’s wonderful play, Dancing at Lughnasa, gives an excellent account of the holiday as it was still practiced in the early part of the 20th century.  As the Burns poem below* attests, part of its celebration included going out into the fields of barley or wheat or rye or whatever, to practice human fertility rites.

    Like the rest of the Celtic holidays, Lughnasa involved a week of fairs and markets, a time of celebrations, gatherings of people from various rural areas.

    These holidays were and are significant in the daily lives of rural folks in the Celtic Countries and England.  The Lammas Meadows are an example.  Lugg Meadows in Herefordshire, England are the largest and best preserved of 20 Lammas Meadows in England today, some of which still follow the medieval land tenure system that created them in the first place.

    In this system the lord of the manor, who owned the fields, would rent the prime bottom land to those who could afford the rent.  Bottom land was the most valuable land in the middle ages because it often had a sandy or rocky bottom with layers of fertile silt on top, creating a well-drained and rich field for growing hay.  Hay was critical for it fed the many animals used in farming and in the other work of the manor through the winter.

    The fee-holders would mark their holdings with ‘dole stones’, the holding being irregular strips of the bottom land on which they purchased the right to harvest hay.  From Candlemas (the Catholic holiday laid over the Celtic celebration of Brigid, the triple Goddess, Imbolc) to Lammas (the Catholic holiday laid over the Celtic Lughnasa) the fee-holders and the Lord kept the Lammas Meadows ‘shut for hay.’  Over this time only the Lord and the fee-holders could enter the land.  On Lammas Day, however, the fields would open to the commoner–the person who used the common land–who could browse his animals in them until Candlemas, February 1st of the next year.

    The farmer making hay from the Lammas Meadows (see pic) has an interesting graphic about his concept of sustainability.  It involves a triple bottom line:  social, environmental and economic.   Here it is:

    from a fascinating website:  Wilson’s Almanac

    *It was on a Lammas night,
    When corn rigs are bonnie,
    Beneath the moon’s unclouded light,
    I held away to Annie:
    The time flew by, wi tentless heed,
    Till ‘tween the late and early;
    Wi’ sma’ persuasion she agreed
    To see me thro’ the barley.

    The sky was blue, the wind was still,
    The moon was shining clearly;
    I set her down, wi’ right good will,
    Amang the rigs o’barley
    I ken’t her heart was a’ my ain;
    I lov’d her most sincerely;
    I kissed her owre and owre again,
    Among the rig o’ barley.

    I locked her in my fond embrace;
    Her heart was beating rarely:
    My blessings on that happy place,
    Amang the rigs o’barley.
    But by the moon and stars so bright,
    That shone that hour so clearly!
    She ay shall bless that happy night,
    Amang the rigs o’barley.

    I hae been blythe wi’ comrades dear;
    I hae been merry drinking;
    I hae been joyfu’ gath’rin gear;
    I hae been happy thinking:
    But a’ the pleasures e’er I saw,
    Tho three times doubl’d fairley
    That happy night was worth then a’.
    Among the rig’s o’ barley.


    Corn rigs, an’ barley rigs,
    An’ corn rigs are bonnie:
    I’ll ne’er forget that happy night,
    Among the rigs wi’ Annie.

    Robert Burns

  • Imbolc 2010

    Imbolc                                            Waning Cold Moon

    Though daytime begins to gradually increase right after the Winter Solstice, it is not until Imbolc that we begin to see actual signs of life’s return.  An early indication of life’s strong statement against the inertia of the cold comes as ewe’s become pregnant, have life within their bellies–imbolc.  Not many of us (Gentlemen Jim Johnson excepted, of course) have pregnant sheep in our lives, so this early pointer to the green means little to us.

    The weather in Celtic lands had rain and chilly, but not cold, weather in these months, so the grass and plant life would begin to emerge.  Here in Minnesota this week often has some of the coldest temperatures of the year and snow is far from unusual.

    The only U.S. ritual I know of directly related to Imbolc is Punxsutwaney Phil. Click this link for a direct immersion in this small Pennsylvania town which still celebrates an animal, the woodchuck, who comes up from a hole in the ground and checks the weather to give an indication of winter’s length.  His prediction stretches out six weeks which takes us close to the time of the spring equinox on or about March 20th.  In other words he predicts the weather during the season of Imbolc.

    It’s been a while since I’ve written about my favorite Celtic goddess, Brigit.  This is her holiday and the candles in the picture here allude to the sacred fire, kept burning day and night, for at least 1,000 years and probably much longer, in her honor in the Irish county Kildare.  Brigit is a triple goddess, common in Celtic lore; she is the goddess of the smithy, the hearth and the poet.

    The link between these aspects of her is fire and creativity.  The smith, in the time of the ancient Celts was a wonder worker, developing strong tools, weapons and jewelry for the people.  The hearth is the center of domestic life and the Irish put it out once a year and relit it from a large bonfire built on the sacred hill at Tara.  Finally, the poet, a crucial element in Celtic political and creative life, drew his or her inspiration from the holy fire of Brigit’s presence.

    Imbolc, called Candlemas by Catholics, is a good time to examine the creative projects in your life:  at work, at home, in any location where you reach in to  your Self and offer something back to the world.  You may want Brigit to participate with you in that search, or you may want St. Brigit, the Catholic saint named after her.

    Live into this holiday and this creative season as a person on fire.

  • Ordinary Time

    Winter                              Full Cold Moon

    In just two days those of us who follow the Celtic calendar will celebrate the coming of Imbolc.  I’ll write more about it on Monday, but I wanted to note here the difference in timber and resonance between post-Epiphany January and the holiseason just ended.  We move now into the ordinary days, days when the sense of expectation and sacred presence relies more on our private rituals, our own holydays.

    In my own case, for example, Valentine’s Day lends this time period a certain magic as its pre-birthday spirit invades the present.  Also, for me and my fellow Woolly Mammoths, this next week marks our annual retreat, so we get ready for it, this time again at Blue Cloud Monastery in South Dakota.  It is, too, for those with any presence in the Chinese world, just a couple of weeks before the beginning of the spring festival, or, as we know it here, Chinese New Years.  This year it begins on my birthday.

    Imbolc, too, has sacred resonance and its six week period marks the beginning of the growing season here as seeds for certain long growing season vegetables like leeks must get started.

  • Imbolc: The Great Wheel Turns

    Imbolc  Waxing Wild Moon

    Imbolc.  The celebration of lamb’s in the belly, imbolc and the festival honoring Brighid*. (see information below from the Encyclopedia Mythica.This is my favorite web source for quick, accurate information about Gods and Goddesses.)

    When I came back to my Celtic roots during my transition out of the Presbyterian Ministry (the state church of a Celtic country), Brighid became central to the spirituality I began to develop.  As a fire goddess, her Imbolc celebration symbolizes the quickening of the earth as the reign of the Caillieach, the crone, recedes under the sun’s (fire) unrelenting return.

    As a fire goddess, the blacksmiths worshiped her, as did the housewife with her hearth-fire and the poet, the filid and the bard, roles critical to ancient Celtic society.   Brighid inspired the poets.  Thus, she supported craftspersons, domestic life and the spark of genius that kept kings and the ruling class in check and still gives Ireland fame in letters to this day.  She became associated with fertility, hence the ewe and the lamb in the belly.

    In one interpretation of the Great Wheel, the earth goes through three phases:  the first, or the virgin/maiden takes prominence with the beginning of the agricultural year, Imbolc.  The second, the Mother, takes the God as her husband at Beltane (May 1) and reigns over the growing season.  As the harvest comes in the Cailleach, the old woman or crone, takes charge.  The year proceeds in this way through virignity, motherhood and old age; a procession repeated over and over, as this archetypal linking of the year and the maturation of humanity repeats over and over in human society.

    On this February 1st, as the business cycle continues its skid, the Great Wheel can teach us that the cyclical nature of human events will right this plunge and prosperity, too, will return.  You might see the business cycle as going through its crone phase, except the crone was a wise woman and as near I can tell this phase of the business cycle represents foolish men.

    Time has many puzzling aspects, not the least is its appearance of linearity while we experience, too, and more profoundly, its cycles.  I see the cyclical nature of time as more true to my experience and more hopeful.  The Great Wheel, the natural cycle, does not require a cataclysm at the end to right injustice and imbalance, as do faith traditions invested in chronological time.  Each year each season brings its own opportunities for renewal, for celebration and each season is only that, a season.  In regular succession the next season will come.

    I used to close my e-mails with this quote I discovered carved into the Arbor Day Lodge wooden border in its reception atrium:

    There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrain of nature–the assurance that dawn comes after night, spring after winter.    Rachel Carson

    This is the great and wonderful gift the Great Wheel can bring to your life, if you let it. Continue reading  Post ID 18228