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(Left, sometimes pilgrims hammer coins into the bark of a tree instead of tying clooties onto them. Photo © 1999 Shae Clancy.)
Talismans for Imbolc
By Francine Nicholson
Many of the folk customs associated with Imbolc and St. Brigids day in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands center on the preparation of talismans to be used for protection and healing throughout the year. It was thought that such talismans were blessed by Brigid herself as she traveled from one household to another on the evening before her feast. Their effectiveness depended on her blessing.
Water and Salt
Dishes of water or salt were sometimes left out overnight for Brigid to bless. These would be put aside for use in healing illness.
Brigids cross was a symbol derived from ancient solar symbols known from early times in Europe. There were several regional forms but none resemble the classic Christian cross. The crosses were made from straw, sheaves of grain, rushes, or grass, depending on the region of origin. They were hung in the house and farm buildings as protection against illness and other misfortune.
In the Scottish Highlands, women also made Brigid crosses before a wedding and placed one in the mattress of the marriage bed to ensure fertility.
Making the crosses themselves was a ritual. The exact procedure varied and in some places the crosses were made ahead of time to be distributed as part of the bríde óg procession. But in most places in Ireland, they weaving material was ceremonially brought into the house and laid under the table where the feasting would occur. After the meal, the household created the crosses. A farmer might also make circlets to hang round the necks of lambs as they were born. Any leftover materials were used to create a bed for Brigid or sprinkled in the byre for good luck. The crosses were hung the next day.
The brat or cloak or mantle of Brigid was a ribbon, piece of cloth, or an article of clothing. They were left outside on the evening before the feast of Imbolc to receive the blessing of Brigid as she passed through the household. After wards, the cloths and ribbons were used as talismans of protection and healing, particularly aiding childbirth. Ribbons and strips of cloth were sewn into clothing or carried in a pocket. Articles of clothing were worn in times of stress and need; for example, a woman might wear a mans vest while giving birth. Shawls that had been blessed might be laid on ailing human or animal while a prayer of healing was recited.
The críos or girdle of Brigid was a rope of plaited straw or rope three or four meters long and formed into a circle held vertically aloft while those gathered ritually passed through, reciting a charm. The ceremony appears to have symbolized regeneration.
Sun, Moon, and Stars
In some counties of the north of Ireland, people created a unique alternative to the Brigids cross. From straw, they would fashion symbols of the sun, moon, and stars, and with a symbolic ladder, paste them all onto a piece of paper or cloth. Later they were hung in home and farm. While this collage was probably some sort of fertility symbol to ensure the rebirth of the earth, its exact meaning is unknown.
Consecrating the Seed
Even if the sowing did not begin on Imbolc, the seed might be blessed for later planting. The following blessing is from Alexander Carmichaels Carmina Gadelica. One can visualize what actions must have been spoken as the words were recited:
AN COISRIGEADH SIOIL 
An ainm an Ti a thug da fas,
Cuirim m' aghaidh anns a ghaoith,
Is tilgim baslach caon an gird.
Ma thuiteas silc air lic luim,
Cha bhi fuinn aige gu fas;
Mheud's a thuiteas anns an uir,
Bheir an druchd dha a bhi lan.
Di-aoine la nam buadh,
Thig dealt a nuas a chur failt
Air gach por a bha 'n an suain,
Bho na thainig fuachd gun bhaigh;
Friamhaichidh gach por's an uir,
Mar a mhiannaich Righ nan dul,
Thig an fochann leis an druchd,
Gheobh e beatha bho 'n ghaoith chiuin.
Thig mi mu 'n cuairt le m' cheum,
Theid mi deiseil leis a ghrein,
An ainm Airil's nan aingeal naodh,
An ainm Ghabril's nan ostal caomh.
Athair is Mac is Spiorad Naomh,
Bhi toir fas is toradh maoth
Do gach cail a ta 'n am raon,
Gon tar an latha caon.
La Fheill Micheil, la nam buadh,
Cuiridh mi mo chorran cuart
Bun an arbhair mar bu dual,
Togam an ceud bheum gu luath;
Cuirim e tri char mu 'n cuart
Mo cheann, 's mo rann ga luadh,
Mo chulaibh ris an airde tuath;
'S mo ghnuis ri grein ghil nam buadh.
Tilgim am beum fada bhuam,
Duinim mo dha shuil da uair,
Ma thuiteas e na aon dual
Bithidh mo chruachan biochar buan;
Cha tig Cailleach ri an-uair
Dh' iarraidh bonnach boise bhuainn,
Duair thig gaillionn garbh na gruaim
Cha bhi gainne oirnn no cruas.
THE CONSECRATION OF THE SEED
In name of Him who gave it growth;
I will place my front in the wind,
And throw a gracious handful on high.
Should a grain fall on a bare rock,
It shall have no soil in which to grow;
As much as falls into the earth,
The dew will make it to be full.
Friday, day auspicious,
The dew will come down to welcome
Every seed that lay in sleep
Since the coming of cold without mercy;
Every seed will take root in the earth,
As the King of the elements desired,
The braird will come forth with the dew,
It will inhale life from the soft wind.
I will come round with my step,
I will go rightways with the sun,
In name of Ariel and the angels nine,
In name of Gabriel and the Apostles kind.
Father, Son, and Spirit Holy,
Be giving growth and kindly substance
To every thing that is in my ground,
Till the day of gladness shall come.
The Feast day of Michael, day beneficent,
I will put my sickle round about
The root of my corn as was wont;
I will lift the first cut quickly;
I will put it three turns round
My head, saying my rune the while,
My back to the airt of the north;
My face to the fair sun of power.
I shall throw the handful far from me,
I shall close my two eyes twice,
Should it fall in one bunch
My stacks will be productive and lasting
No Carlin will come with bad times
To ask a palm bannock from us,
What time rough storms come with frowns
Nor stint nor hardship shall be on us.
Kevin Danaher, The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs, (1972) Irish Books & Media (1972); ISBN: 0-9377-0213-7
Kevin Danaher, In Ireland Long Ago Irish, Amer Book Co (1997); ISBN: 0-8534-2781-X
Noragh Jones, Power of Raven, Wisdom of Serpent, Floris Books, 1995; ISBN 0-9402-6266-5
Séamas Ó Cátháin, The Festival of Brigit, DBA Publications, 1995; ISBN 0-9519-6922-6
This article in the Celtic Well E-Journal is © Copyright 1999 by Francine Nicholson. Sections may be freely quoted, provided the author is properly cited with the URL and the words"electronic version." You may link to this site, but please do not copy this web page and its dependent web pages without contacting one of the Celtic Well List moderators.