It may not seem like it if you’re suffering from a blizzard like the one that’s been affecting the eastern seaboard of the U.S. (I hope you’re OK over there, folks), but here in the UK, there are signs that the year is on the turn. It’s noticeably lighter in the evenings than it was a couple of weeks ago. The unseasonably mild winter means there are already daffodils out in places, but the more normal later winter signs are creeping up on us too. Including round here, snowdrops (photo courtesy of Mr Magpie):
The beginning of February is known to Pagans in the northern hemisphere as Imbolc; a word of Irish origin variously interpreted as ‘in the belly’ (implying the first stirrings of life in in the womb of the Earth) or as ‘ewes’ milk’, because it’s about now that the sheep start lambing (haven’t seen any yet, but I’m guessing it won’t be long). It’s about that moment when, while it’s certainly not yet spring, it’s maybe the beginning of the end of winter. Which has to be a positive thing, whatever your belief system, right?
Imbolc is associated with light and fire, which makes sense given the lengthening days. In Christian terms, it’s Candlemas, or more formally, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (which seems a little odd – why would Herself, of all people, need purifying?). But Imbolc was traditionally dedicated to another powerful woman: Brighid.
St Brighid was the abbess of Kildare in the fifth century CE, a friend of St Patrick, and renowned for her wisdom and generosity. She performed some notable miracles – extending her cloak to cover enough land to build a convent on, churning vast quantities of butter for the needs of visiting dignitaries, and turning her bath water to beer! She was transported over land and sea (and back in time) to be midwife at the birth of Christ – and she was addressed as ‘Christ’s foster-mother’, which, given the crucial role of fostering in the ancient Irish social system, was a title of high honour. A sacred flame was kept burning in her name in Kildare until the Reformation – and has been revived in modern times. If you visit Kildare – which we did, some years ago – you can visit her sacred well and tie a token, a ‘clootie’ (traditionally a rag, but ribbons, items of clothing and written messages are also left) to the tree nearby. There’s little evidence that she actually existed, but she’s one of Ireland’s most beloved saints.
But Brighid was also a goddess – possibly, three goddesses, given how so many things in Irish myth come in triplicate. She was the daughter of the Dagda, the ‘good god’ who kept a cauldron of plenty (which fits in nicely with her brewing skills). She was the patroness of poets and blacksmiths, and a healer. She may be Brigantia, depicted in Romano-British reliefs, who gave her name to the Brigantes, the tribe inhabiting Northumbria, and whom the Romans, who liked to play spot-the-deity with the funny foreigners they met on their travels, seem to have identified as their Minerva, goddess of learning and trade. But as with much unwritten lore, we don’t know.
Nevertheless…here’s a female figure who’s associated with birth, fire, water, and healing, and who’s continually had a shrine in one particular spot in Ireland (not to mention the many Bridewells elsewhere around Britain). Who seems to also have a connection with early February – the month sacred, in Roman times, to Juno Februa, the Purifier…another goddess of childbirth. Then there are the many customs associated with the saint in Celtic areas, which centre around imagery of fire, the hearth, the sun (or its emblem in the form of a wheel or cross woven from rushes), water, and healing.
While traditions matter, they also have the meaning we choose to give them. And if Brighid wasn’t associated with Imbolc before, she is today.
I find, as an artist, an interesting symbolism in the three main areas Brighid is patron of.
First, poetry. Poetry – and music, given that poetry in the bardic tradition used to be sung or recited to music, not written down – is the most immaterial of the arts, so perhaps the closest to the initial point of inspiration – which literally means an intake of breath. That’s the start of the artistic process: the initial spark of an idea.
But then, you have to put the idea into concrete form, and that’s the second aspect of Brighid: as the patroness of the forge, where raw metal gets transformed into things you can touch. That process can be tough and sweaty, one way or another. So you’re not a metalworker…but you can end up with calluses on your fingertips or toes, paint on your clothes, endless balls of screwed-up paper in the trashcan, and all the things artistic solitude and frustration can do to the mind. But you also, hopefully, end up with something useful, or beautiful – hopefully both.
And then the final stage. Because while we make art, initially, for ourselves, it really needs an audience. Brighid is, finally, the midwife and healer. She shows the baby to the world, and she offers the results of the artistic process to other people. And what they make of it, how they metabolise it, can bring about profound change and healing. Making whole; making holy.
Brighid is also a goddess of the liminal, the in-between. The legends describe the saint as having been the child of a pagan chief and a Christian slave-girl, born on a doorstep, at sunrise. The goddess was a member of the Tuatha De Danaan race – the divine culture-bringers – yet married to one of their arch-enemies, the chaotic, elemental Fomorians. And of course, she’s both Pagan and Christian. As artists know, one of the things about not fitting in anywhere is that you can go everywhere.
There’s a ton of traditional customs associated with Brighid and Imbolc, especially in Ireland. (Kevin Danaher’s The Year in Ireland has a whole chapter of them.) But here are a few simple suggestions to attune with the season:
– Get outside. We’re all probably suffering from Vitamin D deficiency in this neck of the woods by now, and when the Sun shows its face, it’s as well to make the most of it. Just being outdoors gets the Magpie into a more springlike frame of mind.
– Bring in white and golden flowers, whether that means picking them from your garden (if you have snowdrops of any other early flowers) or buying them.
– Light candles.
– Eat traditional foods. Dairy foods (if you want to be agriculturally appropriate, Roquefort cheese is made with ewes’ milk), seed cake, barmbrack (a dense fruit loaf, which you can get in some supermarkets), and colcannon (an Irish dish made with cabbage and potatoes) are ideal. And dare I say, given the words ‘beer’ and ‘Irish’, a drop of Guinness might be a good offering for the season.
– Make something. If you feel the urge, you could make one of the Brighid’s crosses associated with this festival – traditionally made from rushes, but you can also use straw, or even paper drinking straws. Here’s how it’s done.
If you have other favourite crafts, or if you write, or paint, or have any other kind of creative pursuit, be thinking about how those three stages apply to your own process.
As this is a time of quickening, bringing to life, you might also want to think about the things you’d like to come to fruition later this year – whether that’s a work of art, job prospects, relationship issues, or (I’ll skip this one, but your mileage may vary) a literal pregnancy. Brighid is a midwife, but midwives don’t just assist with the muck and magic of the birth – ideally, they’re with you from the early months, making sure all is well and the new life is growing as it should. Because even before there are any signs of life, there can be a lot going on beneath the surface.
I leave you with a traditional carol from Wales, set to music by Benjamin Britten. While it’s officially a New Year Carol, the imagery of maidens and well water puts me more in mind of this time of the first stirrings of the year…