Imbolc/Oimealg 31st Jan-2nd Feb
Imbolc/Imbolg (pron. Im-Bulk), Oimealg (pron. IM-mol’g), Candlemas, Brigantia
Stones: Garnet, Bloodstone, Ruby, Turquoise, Amethyst
Colours: White, Yellow, Light Green
Tarot Card/s: The Star
Herbs/Incense: Bay, Basil, Angelica, Tansy, Violet, Heather For many years, Imbolc has passed me by as a time of in-between weather (my least favourite weather, personally); a sort of midway stop between Yule and Ostara. This year, due to the many months I’ve spent trudging along through all kinds of weather in a bid to stay sane during multiple lockdowns and I have begun to notice and appreciate the subtle weather changes that this unsung festival offers.
The breeze feels a little brighter, the sun keeps doing its best and creatures really are beginning to stir in the undergrowth. This year, Imbolc brings with it an air of hope and renewal that I think is easy to miss when we are screen bound or impatient for the drama of summer. Imbolc in Scotland is a little different from my Cotswodlian or Kentish childhood homes, the light is returning beautifully but the temperature changes and welcome return of the snowdrops are often a week or two behind – so gathering for an Imbolc altar is a little trickier here! However, different hardy characters pop through the icy hillsides with relish. Heather, catkins, scotch pine and dogwood all bring some welcome colour through the snow and work perfectly in small quantities as a token on an altar.
Researching Imbolc, unfortunately, did not bring me the same tranquil thaw-like sensation as the season itself! There seem to be many conflicting accounts of its origin, the deities related to the festival and different associated traditions. In this post, I will attempt to collate some of these in that most comprehensive way that I can, but by all means, investigate Imbolc yourself and find the way to celebrate that works best for you!
The Viking Sagas barely seem to mention any specific celebration taking place between Yule and April, but they did call February ‘Sol Monath’ or ‘Cake Month’ (which we should definitely bring back) and throughout the month, would offer cakes to their deities. Imbolg is said to mean ‘In the Belly’- representing the idea that the Earth is pregnant at this time. In Rome, this coincided with a festival of Pan called Luperci, where priests would run through the streets dressed in goat skin and whip women to make them fertile in the coming year (similar to the Czech Easter tradition today).The last of the Yule evergreens are disposed of and burned, if possible - this is a minor fire festival, after all.
I really need to mention Brigid/Breed (pron. Breed) here- despite there being no discernable evidence to confirm whether she was a living being that met with and protected the weak; a Goddess with one or three faces that walked the earth; or an actual saint- the point remains that many writings associate the 2nd of February with Brigantia. Potentially this was a festival specific to the Goddess Brigid and later attributed to St.Brigit. No clear records remain of the actual celebrations and traditions of this time (9th-12th century AD) but it is believed that some traditions remained, specifically in parts of Ireland and the Hebrides. Brigid in her many forms, has captured the hearts and minds of worshippers over a vast array of religious and spiritual backgrounds. St. Brigit of Kildare (believed to have previously been worshipped as a triple Goddess of light, fire and healing), had a small cult in her honour; 19 women, tasked with attending a perpetual fire in a shrine near their church. It was protected by stakes and spined hedges, no man could enter the space and no bellows could be used to grow the flames, only the breath of women. This was said to represent the original flame that the Goddess had maintained at the time that her followers converted to Christianity – a group of 19 women are reported to have kept the fire burning until the year 1220.
Another popular celebration of Brigid is the Breedhoge or Biddy – a large ear of corn or dolly made of straw, dressed in clothes and brought into the home by the youngest female of your household on St. Brigit’s eve for protection. Often, women would have weaved a wicker box or crib for the dolly and would ‘Lay the Bride’ – making her comfortable on a bed of straw and each member of the household bringing a small gift to please the Goddess. St. Brigit’s Crosses are a well-known tradition today, the twisting of reeds or straw into a cross shape (the shape of which has been found in prehistoric cave paintings)- a woman would have to bring the reeds in and speak some words to welcome Brigid into the home. These crosses were then hung near the doorway, left up all year and believed to protect the house from fire.
St. Brigit is known to have brewed beer and is sometimes known as the patron saint of cooking and kitchens, so there are plenty of references in late 18th- early 19th century writings, of the poor in Gaelic speaking countries having left an offering of bread and butter or honey cake on the windowsill on St. Brigid’s Eve to ensure a blessing on the house from Brigid herself in the night. Ribbons and strips of fabric left on the sill over the St. Brigid’s (called Ribbin Bride) to be lessed by Brigid and hep with headaches throughout the year. Lots of the traditions around leaving bread or cheese out to appease the Goddess involve specifically sharing your own meal with her, as she was known in all her faces, to be a helper of the needy.
Which brings us on to one of my favourite topics- delicious festive foods for Imbolc. Lamb tends to be the food of choice for the season, the name Oimealg is believed by some to derive from the Gaelic meaning ‘Ewes Milk’ and some Lambs have already been born at this time of year – but here’s the thing, dear reader- I’m predominantly Vegetarian, so I don’t want to dwell too long on the consumption of the cute and the cuddly. Young vegetables, garlic, early spring greens, pancakes, preserves from the Summer, fruit tea and frozen fruit are all great alternative ways to eat through this festival. Bannocks or Bannock Bread is a Scottish staple for Imbolc and Mabon – a heavily fruited or plain buttermilk bread, often made using a griddle pan (can confirm that it is particularly lovely eaten with salted butter). There has also been a tradition documented in the Scottish Highlands, of a decorated Plough being dragged door to door on the 1st or 2nd of February by children in costumes that ask for food, money or drink. If you refuse them, they plough up your garden! More Scottish and Northern English traditions involve pouring whiskey over the blades of the plough or leaving pieces of bread and cheese on the blades over night to become food for nature spirits – sometimes in Ireland, even leaving food in the furrows or throwing it out into the fields.
Unusually, there seems to be no definitive link between Imbolg and the Christian Candlemas – even the use of fire in Imbolc traditionally is debateable. The tenuous link between Brigit and Candlemas is the idea that Mary was said to have had to disappear for 40 days after giving birth to Christ to‘purify herself’ and 40 days after His birthday is the 2nd of February. This is also mixed in with some Irish writing that somehow places Brigid at the birth of Christ and eventually has her breastfeeding him…It’s all a little unclear.
If all of the above has your scratching your head, may I turn your attention to PLANTS. The weather outside is still a little chilly, but planting seeds or bulbs in your home is a lovely way to celebrate Imbolg. Take a moment or two to hold the seeds before you plant them and pour some intention into them about the things you would like to grow over the coming months. Please do not panic if you are rubbish at gardening or if your seeds fail- this doesn’t mean anything energetically, it just means you might want to try nurturing a little house plant or doing some guerrilla gardening in a local park next time instead! Take good care of your plant friends, watch them grow and enjoy being mindful of their stages of growth, it really is the season.
I found another small ritual idea that I really liked in ‘The Real Witches Handbook’ By Kate West (I love her ‘Real Witches Kitchen’ too, it’s a staple from my youth!). This ritual asks you first to call in your guides and the elements. Then, to take a piece of ice in your writing hand and allow the heat from your hand to melt the water into a bowl. You can say a few words here, but the intention is that the ice melting represents the Crone, the lady of Winter and of the land still resting; being warmed and thawing the land into the Maiden phase - bringing hope and light again. Once the water is at room temperature, use it to water your seed or house plant (and thank your guides/ the elements for helping out).
Happy Imbolc, everyone! Whatever you get up to, please - GO OUTSIDE - and find yourself some loud birds, green shoots and fresh air!