Preparing for Imbolc

We are fast approaching Imbolc, one of the quarterly festivals of the old Irish, and one of the eight sabbats of the modern Pagan year. The term Imbolc (alt. Imbolg/ Oimelc) only occurs in the literature of Ireland, and probably means ‘parturition’ or ‘lactation’. [1] A fifteenth century quatrain said this of Imbolc:

“To taste of every food in order,

This is proper at Imbolc,

Washing of hand and foot and head;

It is to you thus I relate.” [2]

This suggests it might have been a time of feasting and purification. Little else is recorded of its customs except that it was accounted the first day of spring and the time ewes came into milk. In Christian times it seems to have been completely subsumed in the feast day of St Brighid (alt. Brigid/Bride/Brigit), [3] and indeed, modern Pagans often celebrate Imbolc as the festival of the goddess Brighid. The tenth century Cormac’s Glossary tells us that:

“Brigit i.e. a poetess, daughter of the Dagda. This is Brigit the female sage, or woman of wisdom, i.e. Brigit the goddess whom poets adored, because very great and very famous was her protecting care. It is therefore they call her goddess of poets by this name. Whose sisters were Brigit the female physician [woman of leechcraft,] Brigit the female smith [woman of smithwork]; from whose names with all Irishmen a goddess was called Brigit. Brigit, then, breo-aigit, breo-shaigit, ‘a fiery arrow’.” [4]

This single source gives us most of the ideas we have today about the goddess Brighid: three sisters or a triple deity with the Brighid of poetry, prophecy and inspiration; the Brighid of healing, and the Brighid of fire who oversees the hearth and forge and who is the patroness of craftsmen and women.

Most of the tales we have that expand these concepts come from the later legends of the saint the Christian Church turned her into. [5] However, since many of the practices around the saint’s feast day concern fire, fertility and the birth of young animals, it seems entirely probable that these originally related to the goddess Brighid at Imbolc. [6] While Cormac’s interpretation of her name as ‘fiery arrow’ may be fanciful, she was certainly connected with fire. [7] In one tale, St Brighid was born at sunrise on threshold of the house as her mother was on her way out to milk the cow, and immediately a tower of flame emerged from her forehead that stretched from earth to heaven, fulfilling a druid’s prophecy that she would be neither born inside or out, or during the day or night. Later a house she was in flamed up to heaven and a fiery pillar rose from her head. She also hung her cloak on sunbeams, cow dung blazed before her, and flames engulfed her body without burning her. In another tale, she carried a burning coal in her apron. Furthermore, the saint is said to have founded an abbey at Kildare (Cull Dara = ‘Temple of the Oak’), where a perpetual fire, said to burn without ash or waste, was kept burning by a college of nineteen women called Inghean an Dagha (‘Daughters of the Flame’) who fed the fire each night and kept it from dying; on the twentieth day it was believed that Brighid herself tended the flame.  Men were forbidden to enter this sanctuary.  This sounds very much like the rites of a Pagan temple, a sacred hearth tended by virgin priestesses akin to the fire of the Vestal Virgins of Rome, given a thin Christian veneer.  Nevertheless, the abbey kept the flame burning until 1220 CE when Henry de Loundres, the Archbishop of Dublin, shocked at this evidence of fire-worship, issued an edict ordering the flame to be extinguished, condemning it as “pagan superstition”.[8]

In 1969 the Catholic Church officially removed Brighid from the list of accepted saints, finding no evidence that she ever existed.  The goddess Brighid, however, was certainly a pan-Celtic deity. Her association with the hearth fire, by way of the erstwhile saint, persists in Ireland to this day. Within living memory, the domestic fire was kindled with invocations to Brighid. [9]

We might see Imbolc as the festival of the flame – the domestic hearth fire, so crucial at this cold time of year, as well as the fire of the Sun as the days increase in length. Both of these fall under the auspices of the goddess Brighid.  She is called ‘daughter of the bear’ as she comes after the first rising of the star Arcturus the Bear Keeper over the horizon at Imbolc. She is born at sunrise and is the herald of new beginnings. When she comes, she kindles the first stirrings of spring in the belly of the earth.[10]

There is another aspect to Imbolc, that of purification. There is a Scottish tradition that at the beginning of spring the Cailleach (‘Hag’ or ‘Veiled One’) drank from the Well of Youth and transformed into the youthful maiden Bride. [11] The Cailleach ruled the winter months, while Bride (Brighid/Brigit) ruled the summer months. [12] The Cailleach is the female personification of winter [13]. Her staff freezes the ground [14] and she brings storms and bad weather, though she protects deer and wolves, and is the mother of all the gods. [15] Là Fhèill Brìghde (St Bride’s Day, 1 February) was said to be the day that the Cailleach gathered her firewood for the rest of the winter. If she intended the winter to last a good deal longer, she made sure that the weather was bright and sunny so she could go out and gather plenty of fuel. [16] If the weather was terrible, it meant that the Cailleach was asleep and would soon run out of wood, so winter was nearly over. 

In Scotland, St. Bride’s Day was considered the beginning of spring, with Bride melting the river ice. [17] According to Scottish folklorist Alexander Carmichael “Bride with her white wand is said to breathe life into the mouth of the dead Winter and to bring him to open his eyes to the tears and the smiles, the sighs and the laughter of Spring. The venom of the cold is said to tremble for its safety on Bride’s Day and to flee for its life on Patrick’s Day.” [18] As Nigel Pennick puts it “…at this time of year, Brighid symbolises the opening out of enclosed, invisible nature concealed in the darkness of wintertide into the visible world of light.” [19]

In Scotland, the serpent, sometimes called the noble queen, is supposed to emerge from its hollow among the hills on St Bride’s Day:

On the day of Bride of the white hills
The noble queen will come from the knoll,
I will not molest the noble queen,
Nor will the noble queen molest me.
[20]

The serpent throws off its skin annually and is thereby renewed, making it an ancient symbol of regeneration. Snakes and maidens also featured in the February celebrations of the Roman goddess Juno Sospita (Juno the Saviour). At the beginning of February, the consuls made a sacrifice to her, while young girls offered barley-cakes to the sacred snake in her grove. If their offerings were accepted, their virginity was confirmed and the year’s fertility assured.

During this month animals begin to shake off their winter sleep and emerge from hibernation. Some are said to come out to check the weather on Bride’s Day or Candlemas, testing whether it is safe to emerge or if they need to go back to sleep. Badgers were reputed to emerge at noon and if they saw their shadows, they went back to their setts. If they didn’t see their shadows, they stayed out, and the worst of winter was over. In Huntingdonshire the day was even called ‘Badger’s Day’. [21] A similar folk belief persists in America as Groundhog Day.

The year is awakening, new and pure, waiting for life to mark it. The lengthening days that follow Imbolc hold the promise of spring and the rebirth of plant life, and the yearly cycle of work on the land begins once more as the earth is prepared for the seed. [22] I think of February as a time of purification during which we can banish negativity in all its forms, a time to cleanse, physically and spiritually, and prepare for the busy season to come as, day by day, the light increases, as we embark on the many personal and spiritual lessons the year will bring. 

© Anna Franklin, 2021

Illustration © Anna Franklin, Pagan Ways Tarot, Schiffer 2015


[1] Dr. Dáithí Ó hȮgáin, Myth, Legend and Romance, An Encyclopaedia of Irish Folk Traditions, Prentice Hall Press, New York, 1991

[2] Kuno Meyer’s translation as found in Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson’s Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry

[3] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999

[4] Cormac’s Glossary, online at https://archive.org/stream/sanaschormaicco00stokgoog/sanaschormaicco00stokgoog_djvu.txt, accessed 10.4.19

[5] Gilbride & Aster Breo, Finding Brighid in the Ancient Lore, https://clannbhride.wordpress.com/articles-and-essays/finding-brighid-in-the-ancient-lore, accessed 26.9.18

[6] [6] Dr. Dáithí Ó hȮgáin, Myth, Legend and Romance, An Encyclopaedia of Irish Folk Traditions, Prentice Hall Press, New York, 1991

[7] Gilbride & Aster Breo, Finding Brighid in the Ancient Lore, https://clannbhride.wordpress.com/articles-and-essays/finding-brighid-in-the-ancient-lore, accessed 26.9.18

[8] Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick, A History of Pagan Europe, Barnes and Noble, 1995

[9] Kevin Danaher, The Year in Ireland, Leinster Leader Ltd., Kildare, 1972

[10] Anna Franklin, Pagan Ways Tarot, Schiffer,

[11] Alexander Carmicheal, Carmina Gadelica, Volume 1, T. and A. Constable, Edinburgh

 1900, online at sacred-texts.com, accessed 17.10.18

[12] F. Marian McNeill, The Silver Bough, Vol.2: A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals, Candlemas to Harvest Home, William MacLellan, 1959

[13] Donald Alexander Mackenzie, Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend, 1917

[14] K. M. Briggs, The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature. University of Chicago Press, 1967

[15] Donald Alexander Mackenzie, Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend, 1917

[16] Katharine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies. Pantheon Books, New York, 1976

[17] Donald Alexander Mackenzie, Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend, 1917

[18] Alexander Carmicheal, Carmina Gadelica, Volume 1, T. and A. Constable, Edinburgh
 1900, online at sacred-texts.com, accessed 17.10.18

[19] Nigel Pennick, The Goddess Year, Capall Bann, Chieveley, 1996

[20] Alexander Carmicheal, Carmina Gadelica, Volume 1, T. and A. Constable, Edinburgh

 1900, online at sacred-texts.com, accessed 17.10.18

[21][21] Nigel Pennick, Folk-lore of East Anglia, Spiritual Arts and Crafts Publishing, Cambridge, 2006

[22] Trefor M. Owen, Welsh Folklore Customs, Gomer Press, Llandysul Dyfed, 1994

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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