The Irish called this month Feabhra or an Gearran, the gelding or horse. The horse was used to draw the plough, but Gearran also means 'to cut' and 'Gearran' can be used to describe the 'cutting' Spring winds. To the Anglo-Saxons, this was Solmonath, "sun month," in honor of the gradual return of the light after the darkness of winter. February 4, Toda is King Frost day in some Celtic Traditions. On this day in 1814, a fair was held in London in honor of King Frost on the river Thames, which was completely frozen. The celebration of King Frost day died out in WWI, but it is still celebrated by some Celtic followers. February 29 was added to keep the calendar in line with the solar year. This is a day for women to propose marriage, a custom formalized in 1288 by the Scottish Parliament.
"Imbolg mostly originates from Ireland."7 This is a passage from Edain McCoy’s book, The Sabbats. She gives the impression of being an authority on the subject, but offers no evidence to support her claim.
"In the Nordic tradition Imbolc, known as Disting-tid (Feb 14), was a day to ritually prepare the earth for future planting by strewing it with salt, ashes, and sacred herbs."7 What kind of salt was used; what kind of wood did the ashes come from and what herbs were used?
This passage also came from Edain McCoy’s book, The Sabbats. I am not yet certain of where she obtained her information about Disting-tid because she did not cite her source. If it was cited, it was not in relation with the quote (which wasn't actually quoted). The passage continues that, "the Norse did this even if there was ice and snow on the ground." If this is true, then the salt might have been used to melt the ice and snow because salt is not a fertilizer. Sodium dehydrates and would rob the earth of moisture, which is not desirable for planting unless a plant requires dry soil. On a ceremonial note, we do use salt in circle casting because of its protective element. The Norse may have been casting a protective circle around the area to be planted, but this is merely conjecture. Regarding the wood ashes, white ashes from burned oak is the best botanical source for potassium--an ingredient in fertilizer and necessary plant nutrient. This has absolutely nothing to do with Druidism and it is questionable as to whether the Norse incorporated this method. I am also unaware of any herb that supplies the soil with nutrients; the best we can hope for is using fallen leaves as a mulch and frost protectant. Then again, those fallen leaves would not have been laid in the middle of winter; it would've been after the leaves had fallen in Autumn. I contacted a professor of Norse Studies in Denmark two years ago by email inquiring of this practice and he said that he had never heard of it. I would still like to know where McCoy obtained her information about this "ancient" Norse practice that according to an expert, never existed.
“Imbolc is the time when ewes are milked at the beginning of spring."4 The original source for this passage is The Stations of the Sun: A history of the ritual year in Britain by Ronald Hutton. Neither Imbolc nor the month of February is the beginning of Spring in the British Isles or anywhere on the Northern Hemisphere.
“In Ireland, the land was ploughed and seeded, calves were born, and fishermen waited for winter storms to subside."3 Why would a farmer in Ireland plough and sow seed in nearly frozen soil in the dead of winter? During which time period was this supposed to have taken place? Mara Freeman, though a respected author, fails to answer these questions. Crop seeds require heat to germinate and Ms. Freeman, like other authors, paints a picture that the beginning of February is actually the beginning of Spring which it is not. Referring to Imbolc, spring activities, and winter all in conjunction is confusing to the reader. What we all need to keep in mind is that Imbolc symbolically marks the first stirrings of Spring and not Spring itself. Calves can be born during Imbolc, so long as the cattle are bred around April 22. 'Fishermen waiting for winter storms to subside' is logical, so I will not argue with that.
"Imbolc was originally on Feb 1. When Christians took over the holiday, they changed the date to Feb 2 and called the day Candlemas. They then forbade Pagans from celebrating Imbolc [festivities during] a Christian holiday."7 Again, Edain McCoy proves her talent for giving us the wrong information. We do not know for certain that Imbolc was celebrated by the Celts on February 1. Secondly, referring to Christians in general is misleading as is giving the impression that they took over the celebration of Imbolc. It was the ancient Christian Roman emperors, specifically, who replaced their own festivals of Lupercalia and Feralia with the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin. It was those same emperors who forbade only the Roman populace from celebrating the old Roman Pagan festivals during a Christian holiday. Those living outside the city of Rome (the paganii or pagans) were unaffected by this mandate. When Christianity was introduced to the Celts, Imbolc was accepted by the missionaries, as was the Goddess Brighid because that was the only way to convert them. Therefore, the Celtic religion was never usurped by Christianity. On the contrary, it may be argued that the Celtic religion usurped and changed Christianity with the holidays, Imbolc (Feast of the Purification of the Virgin/Candlemas), Ostara (Easter), Samhain (Halloween, All Hallow's Eve, All Saint's Day), and Yule (Christmas).
"This season belongs to Brigit, the Celtic goddess who in later times became revered as a Christian saint. Originally, her festival on February 1 was known as Imbolc or Oimelc. Later, the Catholic Church replaced this festival with Candlemas Day on February 2, which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and features candlelight processions."3 Mara Freeman does a better job than McCoy, but again, the Catholic Church did not replace Imbolc with Candlemas Day. Imbolc was adopted by the Catholic Church and officially renamed, but the name of Candlemas Day was not adopted by all cultures. In Ireland, it is referred to as St. Brighid's Day. In Scotland, it is St. Bride's Day. In France, it is St. Blaize's Day. Even among Christian cultures, the day is consistently recognized by the indigenous people as a day to honor an ancient Goddess in the form of a Christian saint. Therefore, nothing really changed; it simply evolved and took on a new expression.
Images © Lady Dairhean
February 1 and 2 are very important dates in agricultural and pastoral societies. After animals were domesticated and people's lives became sedentary, permanent houses were built. The idea of a two-story house came from bringing livestock into the home for the winter rather than building a barn for them. Why would ancient Celtic farmers want their livestock to be born during the dead of winter, knowing that a newborn lamb or calf would either freeze to death or die of pneumonia? People slept in the second story while the livestock was housed on the ground floor. The added body heat from the animals helped to heat the home during winter, and therefore less fuel was required for heat. The dried animal manure also supplied fuel for the hearth. Imbolc was most important to early society because the birth of livestock meant prolonged sustenance through the winter. The word 'Imbolc' literally means, "ewe's milk." The only way to obtain milk from an animal is through birth. Therefore, lambing during Imbolc and the availability of fresh milk goes hand in hand. Cheese, an important food item, as well as butter and cream can only be obtained from fresh milk. Sheep were originally bred solely for milk and wool. Parchment was also made from sheep skin after the animals were slaughtered. The birth of spring lambs was certainly a time for celebration.
The question here though is, how can we be certain that sheep were born on February 1/2? What knowledge do we derive this certainty from? And, why are we so certain that it pertains to sheep and not to goats? Both sheep and goats appear to have been domesticated at roughly the same time, between 10,000-8,000 years ago in relatively the same region. Sheep were domesticated first in the Mediterranean, while goats were domesticated in southwestern Asia. Both are also well known for decimating grassland habitat and turning it to desert. There is record of some early civilizations farming themselves out of existence by domesticating goats or sheep. It is a historical fact that the Egyptians hated the Canaanites because they were goat herders and the Egyptians were grain farmers. The Egyptian word for the Canaanites, Hebrew, means enemy in Egyptian. There may be more than a grain of truth to the Biblical story of Job. The Canaanites tried to combine grain farming with goat herding and were starving because they couldn't keep the goats out of the grain. As a result they sent some of their number to Goshen in Egypt and consequently became captives of the Pharoah. Why then would goats play such a prominent role in our society?
Goats were more sought after because they are multi-purpose animals used for meat, fiber (mohair), milk and to some extent light draft work (pulling carts). Goat milk is considered more digestible and less allergenic than cow's milk because they are not susceptible to brucelosis, the virus in cattle that causes tuberculosis in humans. Pan, a well-known Greek male deity is depicted as half goat-half man. Cernunnos is actually depicted with Ibex antlers. And finally, what about the constellation of Aries? It isn't depicted by a sheep ram, but a goat ram. Aries is a goat, even though it was named for the domestic sheep, Ovis aries. Both goats and sheep are historically polyestrus, so they would have mated and birthed twice per year. Our modern-day selective breeding schedule actually mirrors natural reproductive cycles. In any case, the celebration of Imbolc would not have come about until after the domestication of the goat/sheep. Exactly when it was first celebrated however, is anyone's guess.
C. hircus (domestic goat), worldwide in association with people, feral in many areas. Present evidence indicates that the earliest domestication of Capra took place in southwestern Asia 8,000-9,000 years ago. Herds of goats have been highly destructive to natural vegetation, especially in the Mediterranean region and Middle East, thereby contributing to erosion, the spread of deserts, and the disappearance of native wildlife. Indeed, the domestic goat has been a major factor in the decline of its wild relatives by competing with them for available food. Permanent female matriarchal groups were joined by the adult males during the August rut. Resulting births occurred in February, a time when the weather was severe but a time allowing maximum exploitation of the following spring growing season. Females probably produced a single kid annually over a reproductive life of 8 years.23
Puberty - 4-8 months
Breeds of goats to recognize:
O. aries (domestic sheep), worldwide in association with people. Available chromosomal and archeological evidence indicates that the domestic sheep is descended from a mouflonlike animal and that domestication occurred about 10,000-11,000 years ago in the eastern Mediterranean region. No wild sheep has a woolly coat comparable to that of O. aries. O. musimon (which, as pointed out, may actually represent primitive introduced populations of O. aries) has a woolly underfur in winter, but this is well hidden by the coarse heavy coat. It has been reported that when domestic sheep become feral, they gradually lose much of their woolly pelage and develop a coat of coarse hairs, approaching the kind found in the wild species. These animals are valued for the production of wool and meat but also are sometimes considered detrimental to natural vegetation and wildlife. Feral populations of O. aries have become established in many parts of the world, notably islands, where they have contributed to the extinction and endangerment of numerous native species. In fully domestic flocks the sexes are usually kept apart, mature individuals being brought together for breeding, but even then there may be dominant rams that do most of the mating.23
Sheep were introduced to Ireland by the Race of Parthelon between 3900-3000 BCE. The first record of sheep in Ireland was in 1149 when it was reported that a yew tree of St. Kieran was struck by lightning and 113 sheep taking refuge there were killed.25 Wicklow Mountain sheep, indigenous to Ireland, were first noticed in the mid-15th Century. These sheep are now cross-bred with the Cheviot breed.26 Black face Highland sheep were introduced to Ireland from Scotland in 1780.25
Puberty - 5-7 months most breeds
Breeds to recognize:
Now we know that the celebration of Imbolc is centered around goats as opposed to sheep. I believe that as goat herding grew out of practice among western Europeans, the festival of Imbolc was attributed to sheep with no thought as to their natural breeding cycle. However, goat herding is still practiced in Northern Ireland.
Bird Mating Season
Images © Lady Dairhean
Wild birds and domestic fowl also begin mating during February,
which is why I refer to Valentine's Day as Bird Mating Day or the
beginning of bird mating season which lasts throughout the year
until the onset of winter. Birds are an important part of our
natural ecosystem because their droppings disperse the seeds of wild
plants, and whatever else we feed them. They also control ground
insect populations, particularly ticks and fleas. "Spring lambs were
born, ravens began to build their nests, and larks sang with a
Birds begin to mate around Feb. 14, so I’m assuming that ravens and
probably other birds as well began building their nests in
preparation for mating and new arrivals. ‘Larks singing with a
clearer voice’ may refer to mating calls. "Ravens mate from
Jan-March."10 "Lark is a common name for
about 90 species of small songbirds, all of which are found in
Eurasia. Only one species, the horned lark (known as shore lark in
England), has reached the Americas. European larks include the wood
lark, so called because it is one of the few species that will perch
in trees."11 “Larks sing while
they are in flight."12
Bird mating behavior is related to the
increasing sunlight associated with the change of seasons.
Long before Valentine, February 14 was sacred to Sjofn, the Norse goddess of love. The archer god Vali was also honored. Valisblot is named after Vali, son of Odin and defender of the family. He symbolizes the new light after darkness and in Norse myth slayed the blind Hother and so is a herald for the approaching of Spring. Rays of light are often called "shafts" and as a light bringer he is often depicted as a bowman firing shafts of light. He thus is also a God of love and it is entirely possible the "Valentine" motif of lovers being targeted by arrows of love is based upon the earlier mythology of Vali. Valentine's Day also has its origins in the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia which was held on February 15 in honor of the she-wolf, Lupa, who nursed Remus and Romulus. During this festival, priests of Pan ran through the streets of Rome lashing young women with strips of goatskin to make them fertile. The women often stripped off their clothes to make for better targets. Afterward, young men drew the names of young women whom they would court during the following year--a custom that may have grown into the giving of valentine's cards. The festival has also been attributed to the God Lupus.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the saint whose feast was celebrated on the day now known as St. Valentine's Day was possibly one of three martyred men named Valentinus (a priest in Rome, a bishop of Interamna, and a martyr in the Roman province of Africa) who lived in the late third century, during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. The most famous of them is the Bishop of Interamna. In the year 270, the Roman emperor, Claudius II outlawed marriage because he believed that men would remain soldiers longer if they were not married. Bishop Valentine earned the wrath of the emperor by secretly marrying young couples. Claudius ordered Valentine's execution after he refused to deny Christ. Before his head was cut off, Valentine restored sight and hearing to the daughter of his jailer. Legend has it that he left a note to the girl that read, "From your Valentine." St. Valentine later became the legendary patron of young lovers.
Incidentally, there is speculation among linguistic scholars that the very name of 'Valentine' has Pagan origins. It seems that it was customary for French peasants of the Middle Ages to pronounce a 'g' as a 'v'. Consequently, the original term may have been the French 'galantine', which yields the English word 'gallant'. The word originally refers to a dashing young man known for his 'affaires d'amour', a true gallant. The usual associations of Valentine's Day make much more sense in this light than their vague connection to a legendary 'St. Valentine' can produce. Indeed, the Church has always found it rather difficult to explain this nebulous saint's connection to the secular pleasures of flirtation and courtly love. 20
The first recorded association of Valentine's Day with romantic love is in Parlement of Foules (1382) by Geoffrey Chaucer in which he wrote a poem to honor the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia. A treaty providing for their marriage was signed on May 2, 1381. On the liturgical calendar, May 2 is the saints' day for Valentine of Genoa. This St. Valentine was an early bishop of Genoa who died around AD 307. Readers incorrectly assumed that Chaucer was referring to February 14 as Valentine's Day. Chaucer's Parliament of Foules is generally set in a supposed context of an old tradition, but in fact there was no such tradition before Chaucer. Using the language of the law courts for the rituals of courtly love, a "High Court of Love" was established in Paris on Valentine's Day in 1400. The court dealt with love contracts, betrayals, and violence against women. Judges were selected by women on the basis of a poetry reading. The earliest surviving valentine is a fifteenth-century rondeau written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his "valentined" wife.28
As a side note, on February 15, 1521, Pope Leo X issued his order to ensure that all those convicted of witchcraft by the Inquisition would be executed.
The invention of Valentine's Day as a holiday occurred in the United States in 1847. The first American publisher of valentines was printer and artist Esther Howland, who sold elaborate handmade cards for as much as $35 at the end of the 19th century. Complex and beautiful machine-made cards brought the custom of valentine exchanging within the reach of many Americans.27
Image Source: Stormfax © Punxsutawney Chamber of Commerce
There is a long-held belief that if a hibernating animal (bear, snake, groundhog, or hedgehog) sees its shadow, it means that there will be six more weeks of winter that will continue through the month of February and into the first week of March. The reality is that hibernating animals have no forecasting ability. Climatic conditions give the illusion that animals forecast six more weeks of winter, which actually occurs regardless of whether or not an animal sees its shadow. "A sunny winter day, one that would cast a shadow, is the result of a cold high pressure system that may last up to three days. Cold high pressure systems are experienced throughout winter and are most noticeable when temperatures reach into the 60s and 70s in the middle of December or January."1 There is nothing special about this occurrence, even if it happens to fall on February 2. Cold weather will always ensue after the system has passed, even if no shadow is seen. "A cold winter day with gray skies and weak sun indicates a frontal system or cold front, generally with an influx of warmer, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico. However, it will likely be followed by a surge of cold arctic air within a few days."1 As far as meteorology is concerned, the event of a hibernating animal seeing its shadow has no significance on the actual weather. Why then is this day so important that we have turned it into a national holiday? I believe the answer to this question lies in astronomy, American folklore, and its Pagan origins.
"Rural folk took this day as a point to turn their backs on winter and look forward to the coming spring chores on the farm. They derived a variety of signs to watch for at that time, but most have a common thread: sunny foretells continued cold; cloudy, the quick end to winter. In Germany, shepherds would rather a wolf entered their flock than see a sunny Candlemas. French farmers believed a sunny Candlemas meant another winter surge was on the way. In Spain, a wet day indicated the coldest weather was behind.
Folk legends have long endowed certain animals the ability to foresee the coming weather. The hedgehog, bear and the badger in Europe stir from their hibernation around early February and folks believed that they poked their noses out of their burrows or dens to see if it was time to come out or time to roll over for another month. (Western European winters, like those along the North American west coast are generally milder and shorter than those along the North American east coast.) North America has no hedgehogs so European settlers endowed the New World groundhog or woodchuck with this predictive insight.
European religious lore also gave special weather foretelling powers to certain holy days, most celebrating a saint. Like the weather on St. Swithin's Day or St Joseph's Day, weather on Candlemas Day was taken as a harbinger of weather to come."1 An old American saying states: "If the sun shines on Groundhog Day, half the fuel and half the hay."2
"In 1723, the Delaware Nation settled Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania as a campsite halfway between the Allegheny and the Susquehanna Rivers. The Delaware considered groundhogs their ancestors. According to the original creation stories, their forebears began life as animals in "Mother Earth" and emerged centuries later to hunt and live as men. The name Punxsutawney comes from the Delaware name for the location of their campsite, "ponksad-uteney," which means, "the town of the sand flies." The name woodchuck comes from the Delaware legend of "Wojak, the Groundhog," considered by them to be their ancestral grandfather. When German settlers arrived in the 1700s, they brought a tradition known as Candlemas Day, which has an early origin in the pagan celebration of Imbolc. For the early Christians in Europe, it was the custom on Candlemas Day for clergy to bless candles and distribute them to the people in the dark of winter. A lighted candle was placed in each window of the home. The day's weather continued to be important. If the sun came out February 2, halfway between Winter and Spring, it meant six more weeks of wintry weather. An animal would cast a shadow, thus making the prediction. Germans watched a badger for the shadow; in Pennsylvania, the groundhog was selected as the replacement."2
"So Protestant North American settlers combined the sayings of folklore surrounding a Catholic holy day and the believed forecasting prowess of animals, notably a sleepy rodent, and produced Groundhog Day. The day caught the fancy of the modern media, in the same vein as the Old Farmer's Almanac and astrology have. Every year it gives them something light to base a feature story on. The most famous groundhog is Punxsutawney Phil in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania where the local chamber of commerce has made their groundhog the prime 'hog for the U.S. Canada has Wiarton Willie, an albino groundhog who resides northwest of Toronto, Ontario, outside the community of Wiarton. Willie often sees the weather picture from a different perspective than Phil, several hundred kilometers to the north."1
According to the Punxsutawney Chamber of Commerce, Phil weighs 15 pounds and thrives on a diet of dog food and ice cream in a climate-controlled home at the town library. Every year on the morning of Groundhog Day, he is placed in a heated burrow underneath a simulated tree stump on a stage called Gobbler's Knob, before being pulled out at 7:25 a.m. to make his prediction.
Image source: Magickalmoon © Ashlyn Price
That Imbolc was an important time to the ancient inhabitants of Ireland can be seen at a number of Megalithic and Neolithic sites, such as at the Loughcrew burial mounds and the Mound of the Hostages in Tara, Ireland. Here, the inner chamber of the passage tombs are perfectly aligned with the rising sun of both Imbolc and Samhain. The date for the solar celebration (fire festival) of Imbolc is based on the astronomical calculation of when the sun reaches 0 degrees Aquarius and the season continues until the sun reaches 15 degrees, thereby changing the date each year. When the celebration of Imbolc occurs on 15 degrees Aquarius, it is referred to as, "Candlemas Old Style." It is ironic that Aquarius is a Summer constellation, and can be best viewed in the night sky during the month of September. February 5 marks the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox. This date has significance in the Northern Hemisphere due to the increase of solar energy, and for the next three months the length of the day will continue to increase until it reaches its peak on the Summer Solstice. Even though the exact date of Mid-Winter is February 5, we begin to feel the effects of increasing solar energy and clear sunny days as early as February 1 or 2. I believe this inner feeling, this instinct, is what wakes animals out of hibernation temporarily to enjoy the increase of solar energy. They can feel this change just as we do, and I also believe that we rely on these cute, furry critters to confirm our own feelings. They also give us reassurance that spring is only six more weeks away.
Artwork Source: The Goddess Art of Jonathon Earl Bowser
"Imbolc marks the return of the Goddess in the first stirrings of Spring. Thus Imbolc represents and celebrates the transformative powers of the Goddess as She changes from the death-crone, the Cailleach of the winter, and returns as the radiant Maiden of Spring. The word Imbolc itself is believed to derive from the Old Irish and Gaelic word, "Oimelc," meaning, "milk," or "milking" (Old Irish) and, "ewe's milk" (Gaelic.). As such it is connected to the lambing season, and therefore purity, rebirth (9 months from the fertility of Beltane), and it has been suggested that the Old Irish may stem from an Indo-European root term for 'purification,' although this may be only conjecture. However, there may be some truth to this considering that the name, "Brighid," may have originated from the Sanskrit word, "brihati." The Festival is a celebration of the returning life, a time when the Sun's warmth began to glow in the Land with the promise of Spring, and the quickening of the year. Imbolc is named by Emer, in the Irish medieval tale 'Tochmarc Emire', as the opening of spring, when she sets her suitor Cu Chulainn to the task of going sleepless for a year. The ancient cult of Brighid is dedicated to this day. In legend, the cult was associated with poetry, divination, healing, learning and metal-working. Its celebration gives particular prominence to women in a community. Imbolc was also a time of magic and divination, in order to encourage the growth of the Goddess in all Her children, especially the crops and livestock of our Ancestors. Within this sphere, and the lore of trees, Imbolc was predominantly connected with the ash and the rowan, which appears in the mythology as Yagdrasill (Norse), the axis mundi, or world tree of the shamanic universe. Rowan especially was also revered because its berries resembled the flaming brand and were particularly relevant to the mythological journey in the Underworld from Samhain to Imbolc."4
This festival honors fertility to celebrate things that are yet to be born, just barely waking under winter's cold shroud. Depending on where you live, it seems quite impossible that the holiday of Imbolc should be considered the beginning of Spring. In most of North America on February 2, one may see a blanket of snow cover the Mother. Or if the snow has gone, one may be sure the days are filled with drizzle, slush, and steel-gray skies. In short, the perfect time for a Pagan festival of Lights. And as for Spring, all the little buds, flowers, and leaves will have arrived on schedule before Spring runs its course to Beltane. For some people, the old Pagan names of Imbolc and Oimelc have been replaced by the Christianized name of Candlemas or St. Brigit's Day, etc. Imbolc also means, "in the belly," or pregnant. For in the womb of Mother Earth, hidden from our mundane sight but sensed by a keener vision, there are stirrings of life. The seed that was planted in Her womb at Beltane is quickening and the new year grows. The term, "Candlemas Old Style" refers to the old dates of February 14-15, or 15 degrees Aquarius, when the old Feralia/Lupercalia festivals were celebrated in Rome. This is a bit puzzling considering that those old festivals were replaced by the Feast of the Virgin in the 5th-6th Centuries AD, far too long ago for anyone to recall. Exactly when was Candlemas adopted by the Roman Church, and what custom did it Christianize?
Images source: Brigit
It is tempting to view this tender goddess of the early Spring only as a wide-eyed, golden-haired girl, encircled by children. But behind her girlish innocence is the power of a once-great ancestral deity, Brighid, whose name means 'The Exalted One,' queen and Mother Goddess of many European tribes. She is also known as Brigit, Bridget, Brighde, Brig or Bride and some scholars believe that her name originated with the Vedic Sanskrit word brihati, an epithet of the divine.
The 10th century Cormac’s Glossary describes her as the daughter of the Daghda, the “Great God” of the Tuatha de Danaan. He calls her a “woman of wisdom…a goddess whom poets adored, because her protection was very great and very famous." Since the discipline of poetry was interwoven with seership, Brighid was seen as the great inspiration behind divination and prophecy, the source of oracles.
She is said to have had two sisters: Brighid the Physician and Brighid the Smith, but it is generally thought that all three were aspects of the one Goddess of poetry, smithcraft, and healing (especially the healing touch of midwifery). This tripartite symbolism was occasionally expressed by saying that Brighid had two sisters, also named Brighid. Brighid is Bride, and it is thus She bestows her special matronage on any woman about to be married or handfasted, the woman being called 'bride' in her honor.) Elsewhere she is described as the matron of other vital crafts of early Celtic society: dying, weaving and brewing. A goddess of regeneration and abundance, she was greatly beloved as a provider of plenty who brought forth the bounties of the natural world for the good of the people. She is closely connected with livestock and domesticated animals. She had two oxen called Fea and Feimhean who gave their names to a plain in Co. Carlow and one in Tipperary. She was also the guardian of Torc Triath, king of the wild boar, who gave his name to Treithirne, a plain in West Tipperary. These three totem animals used to raise a warning cry if Ireland was in danger.
Some Irish rivers bear her name, as do places as far apart as Breconshire in Wales, Brechin in Scotland and Bregenz in Austria, which was once the capital of the Brigantii tribe. This tribe was under the tutelage of the goddess Brigantia, who is thought to be another aspect of Brighid. The most powerful political unit of Celtic-speaking Britain was the Brigantii, who mostly held Northern England where place-names and rock-carvings still echo the presence of their mother-goddess."3
It is a commonly held belief among Wiccans and Pagans that Brighid gave birth to the Sun God during Yule or the Winter Solstice. However, this is where the mythology of the Goddess Brighid is confused with the mythology of the Virgin Mary in Christianity. In order to clear up this discrepancy, one must identify who the Sun God was in Irish mythology. Most sources point to Lugh whose mother was Ethnea Ni Bhaloir, not Brighid. Brighid was actually Ethnea's granddaughter. Brighid's sons were Brian, Iuchar, and Iucharba. Therefore, Brighid did not give birth to the Sun God. In examining the mythology of Brighid, we must answer one critical question. What exactly does the Goddess Brighid represent? The answers to this question alone seem to create conflict.
1) Brighid represents the pregnant Maiden or Virgin. This symbolism is an exact parallel with the pregnant Virgin Mary. We must now discern which of these two myths pre-dates the other. Firstly, Pagan Romans occupied Gaul and Britannia in pre-Christian times and would have been exposed to the mythology of Brighid and the religious practices of the Celts. However, little is known of the Roman occupation of Britannia and we can not therefore discern how much of Roman religion was influenced by the Celts of the region. According to history, the occupants of Gaul and Britannia were more influenced by contact with the Romans as evidenced by the above photos of Gallo-Roman statues of Brighid. The Virgin Mary myth may have been a way of incorporating a Pagan Roman Goddess into Christianity. This possibility will be examined further.
2) Brighid represents the regeneration of the earth after winter, rebirth, and the first stirrings of life before the arrival of Spring. Brighid is pregnant with the seeds of life at Imbolc. The clue lies in the word, "seeds," which is a metaphor for what is occurring in nature at this time. Since Imbolc occurs exactly nine months from Beltane, it is only logical that if Brighid represents the cycle of female reproduction, she too should experience a nine-month pregnancy and give birth at Imbolc the same time as the ewes. This also represents the agricultural association of Brighid, and the human dependency upon domesticated livestock.
3) The Virgin Mary is pregnant with and gives birth to the Sun/Son God, which symbolizes the return of the sun's light, at Winter Solstice. This aspect of the mythology of Mary explains what occurs astronomically. We can conclude that Mary would also have been impregnated by God, as Brighid was impregnated by a Fertility God. However, Mary was impregnated during March while Brighid was impregnated during Beltane. This is the distinct difference between the two. Only Mary gives birth on the Winter Solstice.
Comparing Brighid to Mary
Images Source: Medieval Art & Architecture
As previously stated, Brighid is a Virgin or Maiden Goddess like Mary, even after giving birth. How is this possible? It is accomplished through Purification, and this idea is where the mythologies of Brighid and Mary become fused. In fact, this may also be the point at which Christianity took over Paganism and forever changed it--at least so far as Roman Paganism is concerned. To the best of my knowledge and in my opinion, no other Pagan deity or festival has become so deeply embedded within Christianity that it is difficult to separate the two. Many of these Christian practices, or Christian justification of Pagan practices, have been adopted by Wiccans and Pagans in an effort of Pagan Reconstructionism. The idea of the Purification of Brighid is one of these instances.
The need for purification requires that whatever is being purified was impure. This Judaic idea of impurity was applied to women after childbirth and refers to the healing of the perineum after it has been stretched, torn, or cut and sutured as the result of an episiotomy. Even today, doctors and midwives recommend 6 weeks of healing after childbirth. That is to say that a woman should not engage in strenuous activity or sex. Impurity was a masculine description of this healing time, which also refers to a woman's menses. This description especially held true in patriarchal societies. This time of impurity lasted for 6 weeks or 40 days, which corresponds mathematically with Brighid or Mary giving birth at Winter Solstice. It was also a Judaic custom for women to enter the temple and be purified at the end of this period. This custom is known as, "churching women." The number 40 is a number of completion in western numerology and is mentioned several times throughout the Judeo-Christian Bible. Therefore, the 6 week or 40 day period has its foundation in both logic and numerology. Upon Imbolc, both Brighid and Mary would need to be purified, especially after giving birth to a male child. If the 6 week period is accepted, the last day would fall on February 2. If however, one refers to 40 days as the time period of impurity, the following day would be February 1. The end of 40 days, beginning with Christmas, falls on February 2. This time of impurity following the birth at Winter Solstice is what sets the date for Imbolc, which Christianity refers to as the Purification of the Virgin Mary. Celtic Christians refer to this day as Brighid's Day or St. Brigit's Day. Brighid was almost an exact parallel to Mary, even to the point of being a Trinity for there are also three Marys in Christianity. Aside from the Virgin Mary herself, there was: Mary Cleophas, Mary Magdelene, and Mary Salome all pictured in the fresco above on the right.
I have found several references by Wiccan authors who state that the original Pagan date for Imbolc was February 1 and that the Catholic church changed it to February 2. However, according to my own findings and my calculations above, this change would not have been necessary. Simply changing the date from one day to the next would have made no difference. The fact remains that the date was set by the Judeo-Christian practice of churching women. "Counting forward from December 25 as Day One, we find that Day Forty is February 2. A Jewish woman is in semi-seclusion for 40 days after giving birth to a son, and accordingly it is on February 2 that we celebrate the coming of Mary and Joseph with the infant Jesus to the Temple at Jerusalem."13
The truth is that we may never know what the original Celtic date for Imbolc was. I believe that the date changed with astronomical cycles and the festival was only celebrated when the sun's rays shone through the mouth of Loughcrew and the Mound of the Hostages. What we do know is that the modern date loosely corresponds with the astronomical occurrence of Mid-Winter. Our Pagan Celtic ancestors certainly had a working knowledge of astronomy. And, herein lies the Pagan justification for the date of Imbolc. I do not feel that the idea of Purification should apply to the Goddess Brighid, not because it is Judeo-Christian, but because it conflicts with the modern Pagan belief that all acts of the Goddess are pure and that neither childbirth nor menses causes a woman to be impure, dirty, unclean, or untouchable.
Furthermore, Imbolc was not replaced by the Purification of the Virgin Mary anymore than was Yule or Ostara replaced by Christmas or Easter. The Catholic church never changed the practices or customs of the Pagan festivals that it laid claim to. Imbolc was simply accepted because of the vast similarities of Brighid to Mary. Surprisingly, the festivals that were actually banned and replaced by the Purification were Roman. Before Christianity, the Romans dedicated the month of February to the festivals, Feralia and Lupercalia. "Emperor Constantine I and his co-emperor, Licinius, issued the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313, which mandated toleration of Christians in the Roman Empire. Constantine also tolerated Paganism among his subjects. In A.D. 390, Emperor Theodosius I outlawed the practice of the old Roman Pagan religion and set Christianity as the only legal religion of Rome. Lupercalia was abandoned in A.D. 494 when Pope Galasius I replaced it with the Christian Feast of the Purification of the Virgin. The festival of Feralia was replaced by the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin by Justinian I in A.D. 541 or 542 who declared that it would be celebrated on February 2"5 because that was the date established by Judaic custom.
I would also like to point out something that I alluded to previously, that the Virgin Mary myth may have been a means of incorporating a Roman Goddess into Christianity. This incorporation would have been necessary for the Roman populace to accept Christianity in place of the old Pagan religion. Februa was one of several Roman Goddesses who was invoked to aid a woman in childbirth. Like all Roman deities, Februa had a specific function or duty. "After the child was born, it was Februa who cleaned the mother of the placental membrane."6 This is what is meant by purification and cleansing among Pagan cultures, at least among the Romans. After the birth, the woman must be "purified." After the purification, or the process of cleaning out the afterbirth, the woman's body once again belonged to her and not to the baby. Therefore, a ritual of purification would make sense. Childbirth, and all of its accompanying stages, takes on special significance.
The mystery of life and the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth have a spiritual meaning that is no less important today than it was to the ancients. Considering this, it is appropriate that childbirth would include a religious ritual of some kind. The spiritual or religious significance of the ritual of purification after childbirth can not be overlooked. Even though we today think of cleaning a woman of her afterbirth is a trivial matter, it was obviously very important to the ancients. Februa, though a lesser deity of the class of family deities (Dii Familiaris), was so revered by the Romans that they named the month of February in her honor. What raises Februa's status among the deities is her association with the major goddess, Juno, who is the goddess of childbirth and of women in general. Juno is second in importance only to Jupiter, the head god in the Roman pantheon, and together with Jupiter and Minerva, these three deities formed the Capitoline Triad--the cornerstone of all Roman religion.
According to the book, Guide to the Gods, the Roman Goddess Februa was a, "goddess of purification who presided over the delivery of the after-birth and over purgation."7 The dictionary defines purgation as "the act of removing something undesirable, impure, or imperfect."8 Cleanliness and purity was of great importance to the ancient Romans who are historically well-known for their public baths. This also explains why the Romans would have held Februa, or Juno (Iuno) Februa in such high esteem. This also explains why a woman was considered impure after childbirth or during her menses, biologically speaking. One of the definitions for virgin is: "a pure, natural, or clean state."8 Once a woman had been purified after childbirth, she then became clean and pure--virgin. Every woman would have been considered virgin after being cleansed of her afterbirth. Thus, the concept of the Virgin Mary after the birth of Christ or the Maiden Goddess after the birth of the Sun God. The term is a reference to returning to a state of physical cleanliness. It has nothing to do with the presence or absence of a woman's hymen.
Central to the ideology of the Roman religion was Pietas (piety), and it was the duty of every Roman citizen to pay daily homage to the household deity. Feralia was a cleansing and purification festival held on February 14, during which it was mandatory for every business to close its doors for a day dedicated to cleaning. Roman citizens bathed daily and especially before attending a feast or partaking in any religious activity because they could not approach the gods or be in their company unless they were clean or pure. To the Romans, cleanliness was truly close to godliness. The custom of the religious purification ritual of Feralia involved the cleansing of the home in preparation for the arrival of the new year upon the spring equinox and has nothing to do with childbirth, either real or mythological. This ritual of purification is where we derive the idea of spring cleaning. We may now see how Christian moral dogma has its roots in the pietas of the Pagans of ancient Rome. In conclusion, the original Roman purification ritual that is often associated with Mary has to do with childbirth. The idea of a post-partum ritual of spiritual purification was adopted and applied to Mary to facilitate the Roman acceptance of Christianity.
Image Source: Wikipedia
"The Roman Catholic Church could not very easily call the Great Goddess of Ireland a demon, so they canonized her instead. Henceforth, she would be 'Saint' Brigit, patron saint of smithcraft, poetry, and healing. They 'explained' this by telling the Irish peasants that Brigit was 'really' an early Christian missionary sent to the Emerald Isle, and that the miracles she performed there 'misled' the common people into believing that she was a goddess. For some reason, the Irish swallowed this. (There is no limit to what the Irish imagination can convince itself of. For example, they also came to believe that Brigit was the 'foster-mother' of Jesus, giving no thought to the implausibility of Jesus having spent his boyhood in Ireland!)"20
Well, that's one story and the one most Pagans like to believe. However, there really was a Brigit in Irish history who was later canonized as a saint. The downfall though is that much of the mythology surrounding St. Brigit, has also been attributed to the Goddess Brighid making it nearly impossible to distinguish the two figures. Also, we need to keep in mind that the Roman Church has a well-documented history of posthumously canonizing living persons who either died while defending their Christian faith "passion" (St. Perpetua d. 7 March 203 AD) , lived the life of a martyr (St. "Mother" Teresa of Calcutta d. 1997 AD), had distinctly Christ-like "stigmata" (St. Francis of Assisi d. 1226 AD), Virgin Mary sightings (St. Bernadette of Lourdes d. 16 April 1879), or Mary-like "healing-rose scent" (St. Catherine of Bologna d. 9 March 1463) miracles attributed to them during their lifetimes.21
I found five reliable sources of information for St. Brigit, all of which conflict in their testimonies of her life. However, there were some common facts as well as some common myths in all of them. I will discuss the myths in the section titled, “Mythology.” Here I will discuss the facts and conflicting information. I will also point out that Brigit was born during a period of early conversion and that according to Irish history, the indigenous religion still held power. St. Patrick and his fellow missionaries concentrated their efforts on converting the female Pagan slaves, such as Brigit’s mother Brocessa to Christianity. It was through St. Brigit and not St. Patrick that the nobility was converted after St. Patrick’s death. Dubthach (Brigit's father) was still Pagan when St. Patrick died, which blows the long held belief that he single-handedly converted the whole of Ireland. When in fact, it was only the bondswomen who were converted. Furthermore, St. Patrick died in 461 when Brigit was ten years old. I will venture to say however that St. Patrick converted Ireland through Brigit’s help. It was she who established religious communities throughout Ireland after St. Patrick had established the first churches.
Brigit was born in Offaly (?) ca. 451 to Dubthach who was a wealthy farmer (of the sept of Eochaidh Find Fuath Airt), descendant of the second-century High King, Felim22 and a Christian slave mother named Broicsech (Latinized, “Brocessa”). A bit of unconfirmed information is that her mother was a Pict. That is plausible because any slave would have been captured from an enemy nation. It has also been purported that Brocessa was a Christian of British stock. Whatever Brocessa’s origin, she was certainly the Christian slave of a Pagan master. There is also conflict with her place of birth, Faughart Hill. According to one source, early documents placed her birth in Offaly (the same birthplace as St. MacCaille) and where she built her first nunnery at the foot of Croghan Hill.22 However, all sources agree that Faughart Hill was the home of Dubthach and the place where she spent most of her late childhood.
Upon hearing the news that Brocessa was pregnant, Dubthach’s wife ordered him to send Brocessa away. So Dubthach sold Brocessa to a poet [bard] from Connacht. Only Brocessa was sold however, and the child was to be returned to Dubthach when she was reared. The bard who purchased Brocessa then sold her to a Druid, and it was while under the Druid’s bondage that Brigit was born in a slave’s hut. Then from this unknown place of birth, the Druid traveled with Brocessa and Brigit to Munster where Brigit lived until she was reared. She was then returned to her father, Dubthach in Faughart where she spent the remainder of her childhood. Brigit did as she pleased and in defiance of her father, visited her mother in Munster often and relieved her of her work as herder and dairymaid. The Druid master and his wife were so pleased with Brigit’s work that they offered her the cattle and butter along with her freedom. Brigit bargained the cattle and butter with the Druid for her mother’s freedom and it was granted. She then returned her mother to her people at Clogher in Ulster. A well-known part of the story of Brigit’s life tells us of her generosity to the poor at her father’s expense, which angered Dubthach’s wife. Dubthach sold Brigit to Dunlang mac Enda, King of Leinster. While waiting outside in her father’s chariot, Brigit gave his sword to a beggar. When asked by Dunlang what she would do with all his wealth, Brigit is quoted as saying, “If I had all your wealth, I would give it to the Lord of the Elements.” The story tells us that Dunlang was Christian and understood Brigit’s charity as, “an act done to God in His creatures.” Dunlang then released Brigit from her slavery. She was now a free woman and by her birthright was a full member of Dubthach’s clan. When Brigit attained the status of womanhood, the clan wished her to marry. Prospective suitors included cousins by today’s standards. One poet [bard] who asked for her hand was Dubthach moccu Lugair, obviously a relative of her father, and an old man at the time. Otherwise, the man was perhaps a son of the elder poet by the same name. Legend states that Brigit refused to marry because she had consecrated her virginity to God and disfigured her face so that no man would be attracted to her. Her beauty was restored after receiving her vows.22
In 468, to escape marriage, Brigit became a nun. She received the veil from Bishop (St.) MacCaille at Croghan. After receiving her vows from St. MacCaille, she and seven other virgins settled at the foot of Croghan Hill. Then, from Croghan, both St. MacCaille and Brigit with the seven other virgins went to St. Mel at Ardagh, County Meath where he conferred abbatial powers to her.17 Around 470, the nuns later moved to Druin Criadh, in the plains of Magh Life (Liffey), where under a large oak tree she erected her famous Convent of Cill-Dara, that is, "the church of the oak" (now Kildare), in the present county of that name, which later became a double monastery.17 One source states that the land on which she built her abbey was given to her by Dunlang, the Christian King of Leinster. It is widely accepted that she converted a pre-existing Pagan sanctuary built of oak into her convent. Some writers theorize that she may have begun her life as the last high priestess of Brighid at the same Druid temple of Cill-Dara that she later converted. This would help to explain why, in some of her Lives (biographies), St. Mel, Bishop of Ardagh, is said to have ordained her a bishop. When questioned about doing this, Mel responded that she alone of the abbesses of Kildare would be a bishop, but her successors would continue to have a bishop's jurisdictional authority. Indeed, they did. The other Irish bishops customarily sat at the feet of Brigit's successors until the Synod of Kells ended this custom in 1152. Brigit's double monastery at Kildare was built at a location previously sacred to her divine namesake. It had a perpetual fire which was kept burning by the nuns in St. Brigit's memory until it was extinguished by the reformation in 1540. “It has been frequently stated that she gave canonical jurisdiction [over her monasteries] to St. Conleth, but she simply selected the person to whom the Church gave this jurisdiction. Her biographer tells us distinctly that she chose St. Conleth to govern the church along with herself. Thus, for centuries, Kildare was ruled by a double line of abbot-bishops and of abbesses, the Abbess of Kildare being regarded as Superioress General of the convents in Ireland.”17 She also founded a school of art at Kildare, where was penned the Book of Kildare which disappeared during the Reformation. It is also stated that the school included metal work and illumination [of manuscripts].
Brigit died at Kildare on February 1, 525 AD. "She was buried to the right of the high altar of Kildare Cathedral, and a costly tomb was erected over her. About the year 878, due to the Norse raids, the relics of St. Brigit were taken to Downpatrick, where they were interred in the tomb of St. Patrick and St. Columba. The relics of the three saints were discovered in 1185, and on June 9 of 1186, they were transferred to a suitable resting place in Downpatrick Cathedral. The head of St. Brigit has been preserved in a Jesuit church at Lumiar near Lisbon, Portugal since 1587, and another relic is at St. Martin’s Cologne."17 22 Brigit was canonized as a saint pre-Congregation.
It has been theorized that St. Brigit is either a fictionalized Christian version of the Irish Goddess Brighid or that some of the traits of the Goddess have been transferred to a little-known but real historical figure. I will venture to say that she comprises a little of both. There are circumstances surrounding the saint that if they are indeed factual, would have made her easy to accept by the Irish people as a physical manifestation of the Goddess. The day of her death, for instance is documented by several primary sources to be February 1. This would certainly set the date of Imbolc, a.k.a, St. Brigit’s Day to that day. Faughart is associated with Queen Meave (Medhbh), the warrior-queen of Connacht and daughter of the King of Tara, who invaded Ulster with her monstrous army a century before Christ. Brigit grew up on this very ancient battlefield and no doubt listened to the retelling of the story throughout her life. The story also bore significance to her as a Christian. Sometime around the year of her birth, the birthplace of Ulster’s King Conchobar, Emania, had become Armagh, the capitol of the Church in Ireland. What happened here is that St. Patrick erected his church on the birthplace of the ancient King of Ulster and changed its place name from Emania to Armagh. This name change would also have changed the Pagan association with the story to a Christian association, by proxy. In conclusion, however there is no archeological evidence that proves the existence of a sacred well or fire before St. Brigit’s time. It can therefore be deduced that Wiccan authors may have bestowed associations belonging to St. Brigit upon the Goddess Brighid in order to legitimize their argument that the Goddess was Christianized. Much to our dismay, we may be mistakenly worshipping St. Brigit in the name of the Goddess Brighid without realizing it.
Image source: Brigit
Forever engrained in our psyches from time immemorial is the mythology of our belief system, whatever that may be. That mythology is as pre-rational and transpersonal as our primitive instincts, and it is to this primal seat of knowledge that mythology appeals. It brings joy to the heart, inspires the soul, and adds beauty to our day to day lives. Though mythology cannot be substantiated by any measure of science, we cannot deny its influence. It matters not whether one worships St. Brigit or the Goddess Brighid, or which is more real than the other because each is real to the individual who believes in them. It has long been said of myths and legends that myths are entirely the fabric of the imagination and legends were born of a grain of truth. By this reasoning, all religion would be the product of the imagination. If on the other hand, some credence were lent to mythology, then religion would also have more significance. There exists a fine line between myth and legend, spirituality and religion, faith and belief. My goal here is not to define that line, but to better understand its source.
"It [Imbolc] is the festival of the Maiden, for from this day to March 21st, it is her season to prepare for growth and renewal. Brighid's snake emerges from the womb of the Earth Mother to test the weather."14 This is the first reference I have found to Brighid possessing a snake as one of her associations. This seemed unlikely since Brighid is an Irish Goddess, and there are no terrestrial snakes in Ireland. According to archeological discoveries, the people who first settled Irelend ca. 8,000 BCE were the lost Scythians. Their homeland in the valley of the Russian Steppes was usurped by the Mongolians and the survivors left. They traveled to Egypt then Spain, and from there sailed to Ireland and became known as the Milesians of Irish myth. The Scythians were indeed Indo-European; their language and mythology certainly would have traveled with them. Now, it makes sense that Brighid's name may have originated with the Vedic Sanskrit word brihati, and that it has been suggested that the Old Irish word, Oimelc, may stem from an Indo-European root term for 'purification'. This discovery opens a huge can of worms. It was common for ancient cultures to share knowledge, mythologies, and practices. It is also well known that the snake, the cobra in particular, is sacred to Hindus. I also made the startling discovery of a similar myth that originated in Japan. "The Great Goddess Spirit Shining in Heaven, this Japanese Sun Goddess (Amaterasu Omikami) ruled weaving and agriculture.... The snake, draped on her arm, holds her brother's sword which she broke into 3 pieces that became Goddesses...."15 Was this information shared with the Japanese after the advent of navigation which originated in China, or was this a commonly shared belief across all Indo-European and Asian cultures?
"Bruide, the Pictish royal throne name, is said to be derived from the Pagan Goddess Brigit. The Bruide name was given to each Pagan Pictish king who was viewed as the male manifestation of the spirit of the Goddess. The most sacred place of the Picts was Abernethy in Fife. It was dedicated to Brighid, in Pagan times, and to St. Brigit, in Christian times. Columban monks tended a Celtic abbey there and hereditary abbots were of the Earl of Fife branch of the Clan MacDuff, which survived to the present day as Clan Wemyss (Weems). Another myth tells us that when Ireland was Christianized, veneration of the Pagan Goddess Brighid was transformed into that of St. Brigit, said to be the human daughter of a Druid. St. Brigit became a saint after her "death" and was supposedly converted and baptized by St. Patrick. Pagan lore was incorporated into the Christian traditions and legends associated with Her as a saint. For example, as St. Brigit, She had the power to appoint bishops and they had to be goldsmiths. She was associated with miracles and fertility. Into the 18th century a women's only shrine was kept to her in Kildare (meaning Church of the Oak) in Ireland. There, nineteen nuns tended Her continually burning sacred flame. An ancient song was sung to Her: "Brigit, excellent woman, sudden flame, may the bright fiery sun take us to the lasting kingdom."19
According to legend, Brigit was named after Brighid-Goddess of fire, whose manifestations were song and poetry, which the Irish considered the flame of knowledge. She grew up marked by her high spirits and tender heart, and as a child, she heard Saint Patrick preach, which she never forgot. She could not bear to see anyone hungry or cold. Brigit's aged mother was in charge of her master's dairy. Brigit took charge, and often gave away the produce. But the dairy prospered under her, hence her patronage of milk maids, dairy workers, cattle, etc. and the Druid freed Brigit's mother. At the invitation of bishops, she started convents all over Ireland. She was a great traveler, especially considering the conditions of the time, which led to her patronage of travelers, sailors, etc. Conleth, noted for his skill in metalwork, became its first bishop; this connection and the installation of a bell that lasted over 1000 years apparently led to her patronage of blacksmiths and those in related fields.18 When dying, St. Brigit was attended by St. Ninnidh, who was ever afterwards known as "Ninnidh of the Clean Hand" because he had his right hand encased with a metal covering to prevent its ever being defiled, after being the medium of administering the viaticum to Ireland's Patroness.17 This part of the myth is reminiscent of Nuadh of the Silver Hand.
St. Brigit is affectionately known among the Irish and Scots as Mary of the Gael. As the name implies, she is considered equal to the Mother of God by the Christian Celts. Christianity may have risen the Goddess Brighid's status considering the increase of myths about her after its arrival. The myth describing St. Brigit as Mary's midwife during Christ's birth is the very myth that established her as Mary of the Gael and exalts her above Mary in importance in the eyes of the Celts. For without Brigit's help as a midwife, Christ may not have been born. The story about St. Brigit of Kildare confuses the Goddess with a Catholic saint, and may be more fantastic than the original myths surrounding the Goddess. Though there are several other myths about St. Brigit, these two are the most important. Her patronage, [like that of the Goddess Brighid] is: babies, blacksmiths, boatmen, cattle, children whose parents are not married, dairy workers, fugitives, infants, Ireland, Leinster, mariners, midwives, milk maids, newborn babies, nuns, poets, poultry farmers, printing presses, sailors, scholars, travelers, watermen. Representation: abbess, usually holding a lamp or candle, often with a cow nearby. Said to be the inventor of whistling and of keening.18 Similar to the association between St. Patrick and the shamrock, a tiny cross made of rushes was linked with St. Brigit.16
Image source: Brigit
"The Jewish Festival of Lights, also known as, 'Hanukkah' or 'Chanukah', which began in 165 B.C. is an eight day celebration that centers on the lighting of candles, feasting and the exchanging of gifts. Historically, it is the celebration of the Jews' successful revolt against the King of Syria's mandate that his subjects worship the Greek Gods."5 Also, Hanukkah begins at sundown on November 29 and continues until December 7. The Christmas custom of feasting and exchanging gifts is also in part derived from Hanukkah, but more on that in the December section. Early Messianic Jews carried these practices forward into Christianity and they were adopted by early Roman Christians.
"Numa Pompilius, 715-673 B.C., established the Temple of Vesta (Goddess of the hearth) which was presided over by a selection of Virgin Priestesses, commonly referred to as vestal virgins. Vesta is the Goddess of hearth and home, of domestic and religious fire. Her festival is the Vestalia, held on June 7, when Her temple is open to all mothers who bring plates of food. Vesta's temple was the hearth of Rome, where the sacred fire burned. The fire was tended by six Vestal Virgins, priestesses who were dedicated to the Goddess' service for thirty years, and who were headed by the Virgo Maxima, the eldest Vestal. Vestals were always preceded by lictors, the only women in Rome allowed the privilege. If a condemned man met a Vestal, he was reprieved. When a Roman made his will, he entrusted it to the Vestal Virgins. But Vesta has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets."6
This practice was also known among the Irish. Brighid's temple at Kildare was also guarded by virgin priestesses who kept an eternal flame in honor of the Goddess because she was also a Goddess of the hearth. At her shrine, in the ancient Irish capitol of Kildare, a group of 19 priestesses (no men allowed) kept a perpetual flame burning in her honor. Brighid's holiday was chiefly marked by the kindling of sacred fires, since she symbolized the fire of birth and healing, the fire of the forge, and the fire of poetic inspiration. Bonfires were lit on the beacon tors, and chandlers celebrated their special holiday. The Roman Church quickly confiscated this symbolism, and used Imbolc (re-naming it "Candlemas") as the day to bless all the church candles that would be used for the coming liturgical year. Since Brighid was a Goddess of healing, Catholics will be reminded that the following day, St. Blaise's Day, is remembered for using the newly-blessed candles to bless the throats of parishioners, keeping them from colds, flu, sore throats, etc. The Catholic church Christianized both the temple at Kildare and the concept of virgin priestesses in the form of nuns.
Other Pagan customs include: torchlit processions circling fields to purify and invigorate for the coming growing season (old Pagan), sacred fire of Brigit (Celtic Pagan), removing Yuletide greens from home and burning them (Celtic), burning old Brigit's wheels and making new ones (some parts of Ireland), cleaning up fields and home (old Roman, Februa "to cleanse" month), torch lit procession to honor Juno Februa/Regina (Pagan Rome; Christianized, 7th century), blessing rushes/straw and making Brigit wheels/crosses and placing them above the door to bless the home (Celtic). During one ritual, food and drink is put out for Brigit on Her eve (such as buttered bread, milk, grains, seeds), a chair by the hearth is decorated by women while a young woman carries in the first flowers and greens, and a candle. They open the door and welcome Her into the home. "Bride! Come in, thy bed is made! Preserve the House for the Triple Goddess!" A Scottish Gaelic Invocation is: "May Brigit give blessing to the house that is here; Brigit, the fair and tender, Her hue like the cotton-grass, Rich-tressed maiden of ringlets of gold." Making a Brigit's Bed is an old Scottish tradition. A grain effigy and a phallic wand is placed in a basket next to the hearth/candles at night and the people chant three times: "Brigit is Come! Brigit is Welcome!"19
Image source: Brigit
"In [the medieval churches] in Britain, Candlemas was celebrated with a festival of lights. Each member of the congregation carried a lighted candle in procession around the church, to be blessed by the priest. Afterwards, the candles were brought home to be used to keep away storms, demons and other evils. This custom lasted in England until it was banned in the Reformation for promoting the veneration of magical objects. In Wales, Candlemas was known as Gwyl Fair y Canhwyllau, Mary’s Festival of the Candles, and was celebrated as late as the 19th century by setting a lighted candle in the windows or at the table on this night."3
One of the nicest folk-customs still practiced in many countries, and especially by Witches in the British Isles and parts of the U.S., is to place a lighted candle in each and every window of the house (or at least the windows that faced the street), beginning at sundown on Candlemas Eve (February 1st), allowing them to continue burning until sunrise. Make sure that such candles are well seated against tipping and guarded from nearby curtains, etc. What a cheery sight it is on this cold, bleak and dreary night to see house after house with candle-lit windows! And, of course, if you are your Coven's chandler, or if you just happen to like making candles, Candlemas Day is the day for doing it. Some Covens hold candle-making parties and try to make and bless all the candles they'll be using for the whole year on this day. Other customs of the holiday include weaving 'Brigit's crosses' from straw or wheat to hang around the house for protection, performing rites of spiritual cleansing and purification, making 'Brigit's beds' to ensure fertility of mind and spirit (and body, if desired), and making Crowns of Light (i.e. of candles) for the High Priestess to wear for the Candlemas Circle, similar to those worn on St. Lucy's Day in Scandinavian countries. All in all, this Pagan Festival of Lights, sacred to the young Maiden Goddess, is one of the most beautiful and poetic of the year. 20 Other Christian customs include: lighting & blessing of candles (11th century, Christian), torch lit processions to honor Juno Februa/Regina (Pagan Rome; Christianized, 7th century), and the Christ child in the temple (Christian, Eastern church).19
Footnotes1) Heidorn, Keith C., PhD, ACM. "Weather Almanac for 1998: Celebrating Groundhog Day" 2/02/98 Visited 3/17/03
5) Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2003
7) Leach, Marjorie. Guide to the Gods. ABC-CLIO, Inc., Santa Barbara, 1992; p. 406
8) Microsoft Encarta Dictionary 2003
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