The Wheel of the Year Series: Imbolc
It’s still cold and windy. There is often snow on the ground, but other times it is simply wet, chilly rain. At the moment, most of nature, including the sky are shades of gray or muddled green, with some brown thrown in for muddy measure. The sparkling highlight of the Winter Solstice is gone, and we have moved into stretch of year where we hunker down and wait for the beauty and color of Spring to appear. It isn’t really a pretty time, nor one that we enjoy, but it is an important one, if we choose to experience it the right way. Enter the mysterious, under appreciated sabbat of Imbolc.
Imbolc, otherwise called St. Brigid’s Day, is a pagan sabbat that is celebrated on or around February 1st/2nd. Like Lughnasadh, Samhain, and Beltane, Imbolc is a Gaelic festival and has been celebrated for hundreds, if not thousands of years in some form. Although it feels ‘too early’ in many parts of the word, Imbolc is actually a celebration of the coming of Spring. It is a time of ‘budding’, of being ‘invitro’, of preparing for the sun to return and bring back the crops and warmth of Spring. Imbolc is closely associated with the Goddess Brigit, who was tied to poetry, fertility, spring, and healing. Imbolc is a special sabbat, often overlooked, but if we can tap into the history and meaning behind it, we can come to appreciate its special, pregnant-with-expectation energy.
Origins of Imbolc
As I mentioned, Imbolc is a Gaelic festival, and there is evidence that suggests it has been an important celebration for centuries. There are landmarks in Ireland that align with the sunrise on Imbolc and Samhain, such as the Mound of the Hostages. Imbolc is thought to have been associated with the Irish Goddess Brigit (Brigid), and then Christianized to be associated with St. Brigid. It is now known as Imbolc or St. Brigid’s Day.
The word Imbolc is an interesting one with much debate about its etymology. Each one of the proposed origins adds another layer of meaning to the festival in my opinion. Some say it comes from Old Irish “i mbolc”, which means “in the belly”. This is in reference to the time of year where ewes (female sheep) became pregnant. Another proposal is Old Irish “imb-fholc”, meaning “to wash or clean oneself”, which could point towards a ritual cleansing of sort. Then there is the Proto-Celtic “embibolgon” meaning “budding”, the “oimelc” = “ewe’s milk” and a Proto-Indo-European root word that means “milk” and “cleansing”. Okay. So, unless you’re a linguist this is probably enough etymology for you, however, we can see that whichever is the ‘correct’ origin, this holiday obviously has to do with sheep, pregnancy, the milk that comes from pregnant sheep, and the idea of budding/growing in-utero and possibly of cleaning or washing away of something.
Let’s look briefly at the Goddess Brigit and Saint Brigid, as these figures are closely tied with Imbolc. As mentioned Brigit was an Irish Goddess. She may have been a triple goddess figure according to some stories, and she was certainly a goddess of healing, poetry, and fertility. She was by all accounts a mother figure goddess, which would make sense considering the association of Imbolc to ewe’s milk, the pregnancy of the animals, and the germination of seeds undergrounds.
At some point, Brigit was Christianized and “syncretized” with St. Brigid of Kildare. The St. Brigid figure was in charge of a sanctuary which housed a sacred, immortal flame. It was said that no men could go near the flame, so the women who protected it were revered. There are many stories about St. Brigid, including her expertise with dairy, her blood healing muteness, and her charity to others.
Customs of Imbolc
The ancients celebrated Imbolc in a number of ways. Of course there were feasts, and the home was one of the main focuses of this festival. To celebrate the coming of longer, warmer days, hearth fires and candles were lit, and divination performed. Cleaning the home (what we’d call Spring Cleaning) was also done. Specifically in Ireland, Holy wells were visited and those who trekked there did so for healing. Sometimes, in those towns close to the sea, milk or porridge would be poured into the water as an offering.
In regards to the Goddess or St. Brigid, there were also many customs. The belief was that Brigid would come to visit on Imbolc and if she was provided with a place at the table and a room to stay she would bring blessings and good fortune in the Spring. Often, people would leave food out for Brigid, and she would be invited into the house to a guest bed. Sometimes a ritual would be acted out where a family member would walk around the home three times, knock on the door, and be let in on the third time. They might say something like “Brigid, Brigid, come in, your bed is ready”, or leave a birch wand by the guest bed, which was believed to be used by Brigid to cause the plants to begin to grow. Sometimes items were left out for her to bless. Brigid’s Crosses were also made, unique in their square center and design, and hung by thresholds in the home for protection.
A fun correlation with Imbolc is the often though of as silly North American holiday of Groundhog Day. (honestly, as an American I never understood this holiday and thought it was dumb, but now…). It seems that the origins may have been a tradition stemming from Imbolc. Apparently at Imbolc one tradition was to watch and see if any serpents or badgers emerged from their dens. There is also a connection with the Cailleach, a divine hag in Gaelic stories. She comes out to gather firewood on Imbolc. If she wants to make the winter last she makes the weather bright and sunny (so she can gather more wood). Therefore, if it is bright and sunny on Imbolc more winter is to be expected; if it is cold and cloudy, the Cailleach is fast asleep and Spring is coming soon. This is similar to Groundhog Day, where Punxsutawney Phil emerges from his burrow and if he sees his shadow it’s six more weeks of winter.
Themes of Imbolc
As with all of the sabbats on the Wheel of the Year, the themes can be found by meditating on the energies of that time of year. As we’ve already seen, Imbolc is associated with the following themes:
- The coming of Spring, sun is returning fast
- Hearth and home
- Awakening and transforming
Symbols of Imbolc
Symbols associated with Imbolc are:
- seeds or seedlings
- snowdrops (flower)
- Burrowing animals
- clean, clear water
- Brigid’s cross
Correspondences of Imbolc
Some of the correspondences for are:
Stones: Moonstone, amethyst, garnet, angelite, clear quartz
Colors: White, silver, pastel yellows, pinks, greens, and blues
Herbs: Angelica, bay, birch, dandelion, blackberry, jasmine, mint, basil, rosemary
Foods & Drinks: Dairy, grains, dried fruits, vegetables (like potatoes – things that would keep in a root cellar), dried herbs, canned fruits and vegetables, breads
Magick: Imbolc is a great time to work with the following – introspection, patience, purification, healing, revision, new beginnings, awakening, creativity, renewal, self care, and perseverance
Ways to Celebrate Imbolc
As modern witches and pagans, we have to find new ways to celebrate the Sabbats. Surprisingly, it is really fun and easy to come up with ways to celebrate that honor Imbolc and also fit into our busy lives. As with all magickal practices it is the intention that counts. If you are able to center in on the energies of Imbolc by meditating on its themes, colors, stones, and other correspondences, you don’t need a flashy ritual (although there’s nothing wrong with it if you want to do one!) to celebrate.
Here are some celebration ideas. I’ve made them as simple as possible, so you can add on your own touches as your practice allows.
- Take time to set goals and intentions for the year. This is the time to “plant the seed” so to speak. Get the ideas germinating. Write them down and think about them.
- In that same vein, do something creative. Write a poem or a song or paint a picture – do something to honor the creative self within you.
- Begin seedlings. You can buy seeds for herbs and start them indoors. An idea I didn’t come up with but love, is to bury a piece of paper with your intentions underneath a seed so that at it grows, so will your manifestation of that goal.
- If you can, get outside. Or at least to a window with a nice view. Try to feel the energies of the natural world.
- Tap into the ‘fire’ and hearth energies by lighting a candle or fireplace, and think about the themes of the holiday.
- Work with dairy (if you do that…). Make cheese. Make butter. Make things that rely on dairy. Visit goats or cows if possible, or sheep!
- Start that Spring Cleaning
- Create a manifestation box where you put all your intentions and let them ‘bud’ in time
- Start a new project or hobby
- Bless your home/spaces/people
- (if it’s Covid safe) Invite someone to stay in your home, practice hospitality.
- Act out the Brigid ritual where she knocks on your door and invite her to stay.
- Make a Brigid’s cross and hang it in your home
- Drink some tea as you do some introspection and planning, and await the coming of the Spring!
Ok guys, I’m excited about this one. I was searching for an Imbolc recipe and getting frustrated. No, I didn’t want to give you mashed potatoes. Or bread. Or a milk drink. I kept thinking, man, I really think I want to find a good tres leches recipe for this one, but tres leches is not at all associated with Imbolc. But it literally has three kinds of milk, and I just can’t help but think that it really ties into the milk angle of Imbolc. Plus, it’s delicious. So I found this magnificent video from the Witches’ Cookery where she makes a tres leches Imbolc cake…shaped like candles! If you can’t go all out, a regular tres leches cake will suffice, but I thougth I’d share this awesome one. Good Luck!
Imbolc Candle Tres Leches Cake