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The Festival of Imbolc

This post was written by Anna
on January 10, 2012 | Comments (11)

Readers, please enjoy this guest blog post by Ellen Evert Hopman, author of Priestess of the Forest, The Druid Isle, and the forthcoming Priestess of the Fire Temple.

As a Celtic Reconstructionist Druid I am always interested in the practices of the ancient Celts. I read about them, write about them and then put them into practice, as best I can. It’s my own small effort to keep the traditions alive and to pass them along for future generations.

The Festival of Imbolc is the next great Fire Festival in the cycle of the Celtic year. It is essentially a milk festival in honor of the lactation of the ewes who under natural conditions don’t give milk until just before they give birth. It is generally celebrated around February 1, but I have discovered that here in New England the sheep lactate about February 15.

For the ancient Celts Imbolc, or Oimelc, was a time to celebrate. They did not have supermarkets to go to for milk and there were months when no milk was available. The re-appearance of milk was a cause for rejoicing and to celebrate with a milk feast.

Imbolc was a festival of girls, something our culture has completely forgotten. The girls of the village would make a “Bride doll” out of straw, symbolizing the Goddess Brighid (Irish) or Bride (Scottish), out of the last sheaf of the previous year’s grain harvest, which they would carry from house to house. In this way they brought the blessings of Bride and of the fertility of the last year’s harvest, to every home. The girls collected cakes, bread, and butter as they went.

When they were done they would put the doll into a bed of rushes by a hearth. A stick of birch called a “slachdan” was placed in the bride doll’s hands. Brighid or Bride was the summer face of the Winter Hag or Cailleach, She who controls the weather. The wand symbolized her magical ability to influence storms and climate.

The girls would dance and sing until dawn and in the morning the ashes of the hearth were examined to see if Bride had left her footprint. If no foot print was found, an offering had to be made at a place where three streams met, for luck.

The men folk celebrated by preparing for the first plowing; the plow and other agricultural tools were blessed with a sprinkling of whisky and fields were “sained,” or purified, by carrying a lit torch around the boundaries.

Weather omens were taken; good weather at Imbolc meant winter would continue, but if a snake or hedgehog was seen to emerge from its hole that meant that winter was on the wane (this is the origin of Groundhog Day). Rain at Imbolc meant a good summer growing season was ahead.

Special crosses were woven out of reeds on Imbolc Eve. These crosses were equal armed (not the Latin cross with the longer base) and symbolized the sun. They were sacred to the Goddess Brighid, a Fire Goddess. Once finished, the crosses were hung in house and barn. In the Highlands these crosses were also made before weddings and placed under the mattress to ensure fertility.

A “Bride’s Girdle” was made of straw rope, nine feet long. The rope was tied at the ends to make a circle through which each family member would step (women sometimes pulled it over their head). Three solar crosses were tied to the rope.

A Brat Bhríde or Brighid’s mantle was placed outside on the eve of Imbolc, to receive the Goddess’s blessings. The cloak would be placed over sick people or animals throughout the year. A bit of butter and an oat cake or a sheaf of grain were left on the doorstep to feed Brighid’s donkey as she passed by.

The Monday after the festival offerings were left for the Fairies, because by tradition they move house on the first Monday after every Fire Festival and are in need of refreshment. Appropriate offerings included mashed potatoes with butter, oatmeal with butter or cream, bread and honey, and possibly a wee dram of whiskey or milk with whiskey added.

You can learn more about this festival and all the Fire Festivals through my books: Priestess of the Forest: A Druid Journey, The Druid Isle, and Priestess of the Fire Temple: A Druid’s Tale. These are a trilogy of novels that incorporate traditional Celtic beliefs and practices.

Our thanks to Ellen for her guest post! For more from Ellen Evert Hopman, read her articles “10 Foods and Spices You Can Use for Healing” and “5 Herbs for Healing.”

Reader Comments

Written By Melanie
on January 10th, 2012 @ 9:32 pm

How can leaving mashed potatoes be an ancient celtic tradition? Potatoes came from the Americas and didn’t reach Ireland and Britain until the 1600’s. The lack of references and this obvious inaccuracy mean I won’t spend money on this author’s books.

Written By Éan Oíche
on January 11th, 2012 @ 7:49 pm

How can this person claim to “a CR Druid”? This blog by Miss Hopman is full of so many inaccuricies which show a lack of familiarity with the weather, seasons, and practices of the Celts (both ancient and modern). Druids know these things and she just doesn’t.

Miss Hopman claims the “ancient Irish” made “Bride dolls” for the “ancient” Goddess Brigid in February. Where is the scholastic proof the ancient Celts did this (outside of post-Christian people, but only in some areas)? Hopman confuses this recent practice with the harvest traditions of a related but different Goddess, The Hag. Brigid is not The Hag! Hopman then claims the “ancient” Celts used “whisky”…but whisky was introduced by the Christians! She instructs people to offer potatoes to the “Fairies” but potatoes are an alien species to Ireland and more likely to offend The Folk than bring their blessings. Those who want to learn but follow this advice will anger the Good Neighbors, and they will have a hard time because of it (that is, if they want to live this path and not just talk about it like so many).

By suggesting the same native plants, animals, and seasons exist in all the particular Celtic regions, the author shows this is all a vague fantasy to her. Celtic paths are not a fantasy! They are from the land some of us have a relationship with. You can’t take a practice from just anywhere and claim it is all “Celtic”. Very different things are happening in the different areas she mixes, as they have different weather and native species.

I’m learning reconstructionist traditions aim for accuracy not vague fantasies. This blog is not reconstructionist and in my opinion it takes a lot of nerve for this author to claim she is a druid of a tradition she is not part of. Druids are knowledgeble, not spreading fantasy. I think this is a promotion for her fantasy fiction, and not about reconstrucionist paths at all. It is misleading to those of us who are trying to learn and causes problems for those we try to learn from.

Yes, while experienced readers know to avoid these vague misleading blogs and books, those of us newer to a Celtic Path do not. It just makes us confused if we are given incorrect information about our ancestors and about the traditions that do survive. We can’t buy all the books so we need to know which ones are accurate. I won’t be wasting my money on books by this uninformed “author”.

Written By Ellen Evert Hopman
on January 12th, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

Dear readers: Thank you for your interest in this little blog post. What I was attempting to do in an informal way was to give some ideas for ways people can celebrate Imbolc (irish) or Oimelc (Scottish) using actual Celtic folk customs. The Goddess Brighid is an ancient Goddess, so popular that she eventually morphed into a saint. The people could not let go of their devotion to her and so many customs to honor her evolved over the years.
As far as potatoes, the ancient Celts did not have them but they eventually became a staple, especially in Ireland. In my experience the Fey are very happy with a bowl of freshly mashed potatoes and butter. Whiskey (Ireland) and Whisky (Scotland) came later too and libations of the drink became a part of folk tradition. This little blog post was not meant as a scholarly primer. If you want more detailed evidence please visit http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cg1/cg1074.htm

Carmina Gadelica, Volume 1, by Alexander Carmicheal, [1900], at sacred-texts.com

It is great to see Llewellyn readers that care about actual Celtic folk practices! Brighid dhuit!

Written By Morgan
on January 12th, 2012 @ 2:49 pm

I enjoyed your blog Ellen. It is a nice summary of the Irish and Scottish folk practices around Imbolc. Certainly it’s confusing for people new to Celtic Reconstruction to understand that while reconstruction is intended to study and revitalize the pre-Chirstian Celtic polytheistic practices most of our information is based on post-Christain sources. Indeed without using the modern folklore we would have almost nothing to work with at all. Most CRs that I know also put a lot of emphasis on incorporating modern Celtic beliefs and practices as well, so while I can see that the references to potatoes and whiskey may have seemed anachronistic those are widely accepted modern practices within the criedeamh si (fairy faith).
For the two commenters looking for further resources I agree with Ellen’s recommendation of the Carmina Gadelica, but would also add Daneher’s The Year in Ireland and McNeill’s the Silver Bough series, to start. Alexie Kondratiev’s Apple Branch is also worth the read for tidbits of folklore and history.

Written By Donald Ervin
on January 20th, 2012 @ 9:58 pm

Sadly the zeal of Éan Oíche’s post shows their naivete when it comes to CR. Morgan is correct about needing to use modern practice to augment ancient traditions that we have little to go on. To try to forge a completely “authentic” path that is completely true to the Iron Age Celtic Pagan lifestyle is truly a disservice and almost a form of role-playing or reenactment and not a viable Celtic path. To dismiss the last 2000 years of Celtic culture and it’s contribution to Paganism in general is sadly missing the point. It would create a path that is not viable to our modern world, which is the point of CR in the first place. Ellen Hopman is a fine author and someone that Éan Oíche could learn a lot from. I did when I was on the Whiteoak e-list group ages ago. She is brilliant and talented and knows a lot more that our friend is giving her credit for.

Written By Magickal Hummingbyrd
on February 3rd, 2013 @ 1:02 am

♣ /|\ I personally would think that dropping the “reconstruction” label would be more sensible and accurate and more desirable in all respects. The Iron Age Celts lived their daily life with what they found at their fingertips in the area they lived… if they lived somewhere else or in a another time… they would have done everything very differently. The purpose of any vaild mystical, spiritual, magickal life is *direct mystical experiences of the Deities and the Divine within all nature, things and beings and the elements etc. There is nothing spiritual nor mystical about trying to copy the necessary daily life doing of people in the Iron Age… or in any other Age. These are just external materialistic daily duties to just survive… and using things found around one’s home. Copying such things has *nothing* to do with actual direct mystical experiences within Druidism or any other path. One’s true mystical spiritual practices and experiences are always unique to oneself and inspired from within. This is what pleases the Deities… Goddesses and Gods… and our own Highest Spiritual Self. If one is following a Druidic path… it is enough to refer to oneself as a Druid/ess… and leave off the *impossible* “reconstruction” part. This makes for a much more happy and expansive and mystical and truthful Druid/ess… and frees one of much criticism from all sides. /|\

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