Imbolc has come and past and spring is almost upon us, yet I wanted to reflect on this holiday and share some thoughts that have been drifting around in the back of my head.
The word Imbolc (“IM-molk’) is Gaelic, and may mean ‘in the belly,’ or ‘ewe’s milk.’ It refers to the first lactation of pregnant ewes before they birth their lambs in early spring. I really don’t know for sure if these definitions are accurate (and I don’t speak Gaelic), but they are what have come down to us of old.
The holiday called Imbolc (also Imbolg, or Oimelc) is of ancient origin and was celebrated in centuries past in Ireland, Scotland, and on the Isle of Man. From old Irish literature we know that this festival was mostly held in honor of the Goddess Brighid, she of the flame of healing and illumination and of the fire in the poet’s breast. With the adoption of Christianity it became Candlemas, day of St. Brighid, who is thought by some to be the same woman, called saint instead of goddess.
In the modern Neo-pagan Wheel of the Year, Imbolc marks the beginning of Spring, and falls at the midpoint of time between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. It is a celebration of the first signs of spring, the re-birth of the Sun and the young year, and a time of purification and renewal. Among those who venerate the Triple Goddess and Her consort, Imbolc is seen as the time when the Crone is renewed into the Maiden.
I suspect, reader, that you likely know most of this already! But what does this particular time, this station on the year-wheel mean, anyway? Why a Holy Day now, save to make one of eight equal spokes on the round of seasons?
In my part of the world, which has a climate much different than the more temperate island clime of Ireland, Spring has not yet arrived. It’s not even around the corner just yet. The first signs of Spring won’t usually announce themselves outwardly till around Spring Equinox, six weeks hence. Early February means snow, or sometimes ice-storms that wrap the landscape in glinting crystal and tear down limbs and power-lines. Winter thrashes in its old age.
So, Imbolc to me doesn’t ring quite right as the first showing-forth of spring. It is, however, the time of the first shift of the energies of the earth towards spring’s coming.
Though still barren, at this season the land dreams under its mantle of snow, readying itself to wake. The Serpent Stirs -The Serpent in the Land who personifies all the whorls and eddies and rivers of energy that are sometimes called ‘Ley’ or ‘Dragon’-lines. The Great Snake that weaves under the earth with the intricacy of an illuminated gospel page from Kells or Lindisfarne. This season is the deep breath before waking, the rest of the spirit between lives.
It is a season of purification, cold and clear as ice; when the husks and sloughed skin of the old season are discarded with the dregs of winter. The buds of trees begin by slow degrees to fatten (though the buds have been there all the while. They were formed even as the leaves abscised and fell in autumn, born as the old summer lay dying). Soon sap will rise from their dreaming roots and wake them into spring. Not yet, not quite yet – but the subtle change can be felt even though the land is still shrouded in winter’s cloak. Beneath the stillness, it gathers momentum in preparation for the inexorable uncoiling of spring.
If we can liken the year-wheel to the passage of a single day, Imbolc is the coming of the dawn. Not the rising of the sun itself, not apparent, obvious dawn – but the first moment of the Opening of the Gate of Day.
Before the sun rises above the horizon, even before the Eastern sky shows its first faint light, there is a moment where, if you concentrate, you can tell that dawn has come. The air feels different; the energy has changed. A faraway birdsong trills. The breeze shifts with day’s coming. It is the moment when nightmares are banished from their haunting, when one’s night-time wards waver and vanish; a time as numinous as twilight, and as fey. The coming of dawn is like a great silent bell tolling with the energy of the turning Earth.
The colors I associate most with Imbolc are white and black and grey- snow and bare winter branches under overcast skies, and the ashes of the hearth.
This season is one of white candles burning with clear flame, and the ashes of purifying herbs. The water upon my altar is cold Snow-melt, and I anoint my face and body with it in a ritual of purification and renewal.
If sharing a feast for Imbolc-tide, I like to have as part of the meal foods that for our ancestors would have stored over the winter: Cheese (especially sheep’s milk cheese), pickled vegetables, preserved or salted meats, fruit jams, hardy apples, and so forth.
Milk is an important part of Imbolc for me as well, and if sharing a Chalice I fill it with milk at this season instead of wine or beer. I offer milk to the Serpent in the Land, and milk and cheese and preserves to the spirits of the land and to my ancestors. Milk is after all the stuff of nourishment and life, and a perfect symbol of the rebirth and renewal that embodies this season.
Now the white land sets to wake, and the Serpent stirs.
There is a lot of lore about Brighid and serpents and Imbolc in the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Scottish folklore collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The relevant parts are here, if you’re intrigued by the notions of serpent/maiden/renewal/light and want to delve deeper.
Also with regards to milk and snakes, I am reminded of the Zaltys of Lithuanian lore as well. Though not related at all to Gaelic tradition, some of the symbolism is relevant.
Ultimately there seems to be some Mystery about the Land Serpent, and Milk, and renewal, and the Earth shedding it’s skin, and the power of that Serpent for the witch to harness, and gifts of milk as the stuff of life to the force of life in the land…. that is wrapped up in my personal mythology of Imbolc. I am still figuring it out, but I know that it is Important, so I’m going to follow.