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Celtic Well> E-Journal> Imbolc

(Left, sometimes pilgrims hammer coins into the bark of a tree instead of tying clooties onto them. Photo © 1999 Shae Clancy.)

Imbolc in Yesterday's Ireland & Scotland

By Francine Nicholson

Almost all of the customs associated with Imbolc are no longer performed, even in rural areas. This essay describes some of the customs found in archives and collections.

The Evidence for Imbolc

Most of the evidence of how Imbolc was celebrated in Ireland derives from folklore collected during the last two hundred years and cross-cultural studies of similar customs in Scandinavia. Folklorists have collected a great deal of data about Imbolc. Much Irish data now lies in the archives of the National University, Dublin. In Festival of Brigit, Séamas Ó Catháin did an important study of this material and compared it to similar traditions in Scandinavia, but this is only a first step. Kim McCone and others have done important analyses of the medieval hagiography of St. Brigid and what it tells us about her cult and pagan roots. Similar studies need to be done of Imbolc and Brigid in other Celtic cultures. Alexander Carmichael collected some material on Imbolc in the Highlands for his Carmina Gadelica but his study was far from exhaustive. Until such wide-ranging analysis and collation takes place, suggestions about the original rituals can only be preliminary hypotheses, suggestions for further study.

This essay presents the customs as we know them from the folklore archives and some suggestions of the original meaning, context, and actions that lay behind the more recent activities.

Customs of Imbolc

There seem to have been two basic types of rituals associated with Imbolc: those performed by the community and those that centered on the family and household. Even some of the community activities involved going from home to home.

Most of the customs focus on the figure of Brigid and depend on the belief that on the evening before 1 February, the holy woman was thought to visit each home, acknowledging the offerings left for her.

Taking Time Off

In some places in Ireland, work used to cease on the feast and devotions at holy wells took place instead. In some places the ban on work was confined to activities we know to have been associated with St. Brigid: ploughing, smithwork, and anything that involved turning wheels (spinning, carting, milling, and sewing machines). (Danaher, 1972, pp. 14-15)

Fire and Light

An Irish saying noted the lengthening day that marked the time of Imbolc: "On St. Brigid’s day you can put away the candlestick and half the candle." (Danaher, 1972, p. 14) Many of the folk customs focus on the increasing warmth and light, the rebirth of the cold earth into pliability, and the birth process itself. It is likely that myths and stories underlie these customs, but at this point it is difficult to say exactly what those stories were. However, the rituals probably were or finally, in some cases, re-enactment of the myths.

In the Highlands of Scotland, the married women of the house created a Brigid figure from a sheaf of grain and decorated it with ribbons, flowers, or other objects. With rushes and grain, they made a sort of bed next to the hearth. After ritually inviting Brigid to fill this bed, the women placed the figurine. Beside it, they put a straight, peeled stick of birch or similar wood to serve as "Brigid’s wand," a symbol of sovereignty or perhaps a phallic symbol. Then they carefully smoothed the ashes of the hearth. The next morning, the women examined the hearth for signs of Brigid’s favor: the imprint of a foot or the wand. If there were no such marks, the family assumed that Brigid had been offended. Steps to appease Brigid—such as burying a cockerel or pullet alive at the junction of three streams—were then taken. (Jones, pp. 105-6)

Weather Omens

Imbolc was a time when farmers and fishermen depended on steady imporvement in the weather. They also believed that the kind of weather they occurred on Imbolc gave them some idea of how the coming months would go, too. To start with, the weather on Imbolc should be better than average, but a truly fine day was a bad sign. The prevailing wind on Imbolc would continue for the rest of the year.

The appearance of a hedgehog up and about was a sign that weather would continue to improve. If the hedgehog came out but then returned to its burrow, it was thought that wintry conditions would persist for several more weeks.

A rainy February generally was thought to predict a good summer.

For seacoast dwellers, the spring tide closest to the feast was considered the highest and an opportunity to gather seaweed for fertilizing. Around Galway Bay, a live limpet or periwinkle was placed at each of the four corners of the house to ensure good fishing and shellfish gathering in the coming months. (Danaher, 1972, pp. 13-14)

In Scotland, a charm was chanted that referred to a snake coming from a hole. Doubtless, this referred to some divinatory or fertility ritual whose origins and details have been lost. (Jones, p. 107)

Ploughing the Land

Depending on the geographic location, Imbolc was a time to make at least a show of beginning the planting season. In some areas, the farmer would turn over token soil and wait for warmer weather to plough and plant. In more temperate areas, sowing might begin at Imbolc. (Ó Catháin, pp. 4-5)

Checking the Stores

Heads of household checked quantity and quality of flour, salted meat, and other food, and the supplies of hay and other food for animals. From these, they estimated the economies they would have to take to make the supplies last until harvest. (Danaher, 1972, p. 14)

Spring Cleaning

The house was tidied and prepared for the visit of Brigid. (Danaher, 1972, p. 15)

Ritual Washing

Devotions performed on Imbolc at the holy wells of Liscannor (co. Clare) and Faughart (co. Louth) include ritually washing in the water. (Berger, p. 72) Also, a Highland Gaelic verse associated with Imbolc mentions ritual washing by Brigid as a means of ending the winter cold. (Jones, p. 105) This notion must reflect an earlier, pre-Christian myth in which a goddess took some action to end the winter.

Lambing, Milk, and Butter

Around Imbolc, sheep began to lactate in preparation for birthing lambs. The Imbolc rituals would be performed at least in part to ensure a new crop of healthy lambs.

The new sheep milk was a welcome supplement to the dwindling stores, especially since cows would generally not be milking at that time. Numerous writers note that the Irish diet depended heavily on milk products, known as "white meats" during the spring and summer months. Milk was often soured and processed into different forms of curds and soft cheeses. Hard cheeses were uncommon. Imbolc rituals were also focused at ensuring the steady supply of milk.

Butter was a very important food for the Irish prior to the twentieth century. Recipes even called for hares to be boiled in butter. After being churned, butter was put in wooden containers and buried in bogs to "cure." The result was a rather sour flavor considered characteristic of "country butter." Freshly made butter was an important element in the Imbolc feast, although various foods were associated with celebrating Imbolc, depending on the region. The making of the butter – the action of the dash working in the churn – would itself represent the fertility being sought at the feast. The churn dash was often used as the basis of the bríde óg, the figure of Brigid carried in procession (see below).

Food Offerings and Feasting

A bit of soda bread, cake, better, and/or porridge might be left on the window sill for Brigid to enjoy as she passed by, perhaps with some feed for her favorite white cow. Sometimes the food was given to the poor later. (Danaher, 1972, p. 15) Food was also offered as part of other rituals. In some houses, a place was set at the table for Brigid.

Feasting among the family was a central part of the rituals held in the home. The rushes to be used in creating Brigid’s cross were put under the table while the feast took place.

The Parade of the Bríde Óg

In ancient and early medieval times, a pagan ceremony of a particular sort was held in areas throughout Europe, especially ones of Teutonic and Celtic heritage. The ceremony consisted of a procession in which an image of a goddess was carted about the community, especially the fields, accompanied by dancing and singing devotees, priests, and designated attendants. Animals to be sacrificed and possibly designated human victims also formed part of the procession. After being drawn or carried through the fields, the goddess figure was bathed in a lake or spring. The procession is thought to have occurred in late winter or early spring, the time of Imbolc. Celtic remains that may illustrate such a procession include a bronze cart unearthed from a grave in Strettweg (see figure, left) and a panel of the Gundestrup cauldron. (Berger, pp. 25-36)

Nineteenth-century folk practices at Imbolc in Ireland and Scotland included processions that visited homes throughout the community and resemble the processions described by Berger. In some places, the central figure was a woman chosen to represent St. Brigid as An Bhrídeog. Beforehand, talismans of woven straw or grass—called the Cros (cross), Sgiath (shield), and Crothán (veil) of Brigid—were distributed at each home and farm, to be nailed up as protection for all within. Surrounded by an accompanying group, An Bhrídeóg processed to each home and farm where she engaged in a ritual dialog with the residents and distributed a set of the talismans.

In other places in Ireland, the brídeóg was a figurine made by dressing a doll or encasing a churn dash or other pole with straw and adding a carved turnip for a head. The figurine was carried by a group of young men called brídeóga or Biddy boys, dressed in white shirts, masks, women’s skirts, and straw hats. These ambiguously dressed people carried the brídeóg from one farm to another, singing, dancing, or playing music, and receiving gifts of food, especially cakes, butter, and eggs. (Danaher, 1972, pp. 25-27). More recently, such groups wear masks and brightly colored clothing to which ribbons, patches, and fringes have been added, and the offerings they receive may be sweets or coins.

Visits to holy wells and streams, especially at Faughart, co. Louth, and Liscannor, co. Clare, have replaced the ritual bathing of the goddess statue. However, the devotions performed by pilgrims at those sites include ritual use of water from the well. (Berger, p. 74) Frequently the home, family, and talismans are blessed with water from such sites at Imbolc.

A Highland variation on the parade of the brídeóg holds specific reference to human fertility. The young women of the community created a figurine from a churn dash and carried it about to the various households, collecting offerings of bread, butter, and other food. Later the young women feasted on these in company with the young men of the community, followed by singing and dancing throughout the night. (Jones, p. 82)

Bears and Honey

In his carefully documented study, Ó Catháin suggests that the rituals originally associated with Imbolc were part of a cult of bears, honey, and mead. Figures of bears were made in Ireland long after the animals ceased to live there. All of these elements have associations with inspiration and knowledge. Also, because of their hibernation habits, bears were closely associated with the rebirth of the earth. It is difficult to say now what those early rituals might have been, but Ó Catháin’s suggestions deserve more study.

Birth and Rebirth

Séamas Ó Catháin has also noted the parallels between Imbolc rituals and those that traditionally accompanied childbirth in rural Scandinavia. The ritual of stepping through the críos or girdle of Bríg may be a symbolic re-enactment of birth. At this point, it is unclear exactly what well rituals of rebirth were once associated with Imbolc to ensure the fertility of the awakening land. However, at a time when the natural world was coming out of its wintry sleep, one would expect rituals to dramatically re-enact this fact. It is probably not accidental that the holy well at Liscannor is situated underground; perhaps devotees once descended into the well chamber and re-emerged ritually. (Brenneman & Brenneman, 104) MacNeill notes that Liscannor was primarily a site of pilgrimage at Lughnasa, but two of her sources attest that it was also a site used at Imbolc. (Mac Neill, p. 276-277)

This highlights the basic theme of Imbolc: the rebirth of the land from its wintry, death-like sleep into new life. It’s unclear whether the associated goddess was thought to be reborn herself or whether she was the agent for regenerating the land. Because the land is being reborn, new crops can be planted. Also, most of the animals were also giving birth or preparing to do so. This accounts for the emphasis on food production that is so much a part of Imbolc: the farmers needed to perform rituals they believed would ensure that crops grew and herds flourished. Finally, Imbolc emphasized human fertility necessary for families and households to grow and maintain their position on the land and in the tribe.

Though their evidence is fragmentary, the aura of fertility hangs about many of the rituals folklorists have collected: the churning of butter with the dash, the bedding of Brigid by the fire, the night-long revelry of young people, and so on. However, one key element is missing: a make counterpart to Brigid, for the saint is a virgin. Surely, a male deity once partnered the goddess in the Imbolc rituals, but almost all trace of him has been lost or suppressed. One Scots traditional story gives us a hint: it tells of Aengus mac ind Óg rescuing Bride from a hag and bringing spring in the process. This is an intriguing story, but offers too little evidence for certainty.

References

Pamela Berger, The Goddess Obscured, Beacon Press, 1985; ISBN 0-8070-6723-7

Walter Brenneman and Mary Brenneman, Crossing the Circle at the Holy Wells of Ireland, Univ Press of Virginia (1995); ISBN: 0-8139-1548-1

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

M/aire Mac Neill, Festival at Lughnasa, Oxford Univ. Press, 1962

Kim McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, An Sagart, 1990

Séamas Ó Catháin, The Festival of Brigit, DBA Publications, 1995; ISBN 0-9519-6922-6

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