In February, the wheel of the year turns once again to Imbolc. Imbolc is a celebration taken from the roots of the ancient Celtic fire festivals and marking the return of the maiden for Wiccans. This Sabbat for Wiccans is time to give thanks for the ever-increasing daylight. The goddess is in her form as the maiden, and the god is coming into his strength and power through puberty. The heat and warmth of the sun from the growing light germinates seeds deep within the earth’s soil, awakening them to sprout forth shoots of new life. In many places, the Crocus flowers have sprung forth and broken through the frozen ground. New life is stirring just underneath the surface of the cold and dark winter. Nature’s rhythms pulse once again from the light of the sun ready to emerge in the coming months.
Long ago, most homes had a single fire called the hearth fire from which warmth and nourishment abounded. The flame was tended for heating the house, cooking the food, and preparing hot water. In many homes, the fire was kept burning throughout the year. During Imbolc, also known as the feast of fertility, the hearth fire was put out and relit to symbolize the end of one season and the beginning of another. In some areas, a broom (or besom) was placed in front of the door to show that the old had now been swept away to make room for the new.
Imbolc is the festival when Brigid, the Gaelic goddess, is honored. Brigid, the triple goddess who exalts herself, is known by many names across various lands. Brigid is a triple goddess, and as such, each of her manifestations are celebrated during this time. She is the fire of inspiration as the patroness of poets, the fire of the hearth as the patroness of healers and fertility, and the fire of the forge as the patroness of artisans, smiths, and warriors. For many practitioners today, she is closely aligned with holy wells, sacred flames, and healing.
Brigid is the daughter of the Dagda, the oldest god in the Celtic pantheon Tuatha du Danann. Brigid is said to have been born with a flame rising from her head. As she dropped to the land, it burst forth from the top of her hair. This initial fire during her birth is a symbol of the sparks inspiration and creativity she provides to her worshippers. As a baby, Brigid is said to have drank milk from a mystical cow that was from the spirit world. She is also credited with the creation of keening when her son, Ruadán, died. Keening is a traditional form of lamentation and wailing that is traditionally associated with female poets at Scottish and Irish funerals. While not much is known about the goddess historically, we do know that she was one of the most powerful Celtic gods.
In addition to the fire goddess Brigid, there was a historical person in Ireland named Brigid. Born in 453 AD, accounts of her life were written by monks. They state she was the daughter of a slave and a chieftain who became known for her ability to work with the land and animals. Her knowledge of agriculture, coupled with her intense desire to help the poor made her well known throughout the nation. She became friends with St. Patrick and was so moved by his message; she became the first Irish nun. She created a monastery in Kildaire on a former shrine to the fire goddess and lived her life there.
Brigid is most known for the perpetual fire she and the nuns maintained in Kildaire. The stories tell of nineteen nuns who tended the fire over a period of twenty days and nights, with Brigid taking the twentieth. The fire was located in the center of a circular hedge. There was a specific unmarked line around the fire beyond which no males were allowed to pass. The fire burned long after Brigid’s death in 524 AD. , says that the fire burned continuously with no ash until it was extinguished in 1220 AD by the Archbishop of Dublin. Even then, it was relit until the final abolishment of the Irish monastery system. Eventually, the Catholic Church recognized Brigid as the patron saint associated with Irish nuns, midwifery, and cattle.
Fire is a strong theme and an important symbol during Imbolc. Fire physically represents the clearing of land and even awakens some seeds from their dormancy. This time of year is often used to clean and purge our homes, just like a fire would do to the earth. It also awakens our dormancy by sparking new life into our projects and ideas. Fire during Imbolc symbolizes the external flames lit as well as the internal fires that burn deep within ourselves.
The light of the fire warms those around it and provides a ray of hope for a better future. While we can’t all help to tend the flame in Kildaire, we can illustrate the importance of that flame by lighting candles. During this time of year, candles were placed throughout the house in each room to welcome and honor the rebirth of the sun. The lighting of candles represents the return of warmth both on the earth and within our spiritual selves.
Whether or not Brigid was a myth created by the early inhabitants of Ireland or a tangible woman who spread her light across the country for those in need, she embodies the concept of fire with passion and light with hope and life. She is the fire that burns even on the coldest of nights, fanning the flames of our inner fire ready for the spark of energy to burst forth in the coming months.