The time of Imbolc (pronounced ‘imolg/immolk’) is almost upon us, falling on February 1st or sometimes the 2nd, of each year. In modern times, Imbolc is celebrated as one of the seasonal festivals of Wicca, witchcraft and other pagan paths but its origins are garbled and confusing. Imbolc is also celebrated in Christianity as St. Brigid’s Day and Candlemas.
In paganism, Imbolc is one of four seasonal fire festivals, the others being Beltane (1 May), Lughnasadh (1 August) and Samhain (31 Oct – 1 Nov). It marks the emergence of life after winter, renewal, rebirth, the beginning of spring and is traditionally associated with the lambing season (Imbolc can be translated from Old Irish as ‘In the belly‘, referring to the pregnancy of ewes).
A History of Imbolc
The date of Imbolc is believed to have been celebrated in Ireland and Scotland since the Neolithic period. Some passage tombs and other megaliths in Ireland have been found to line up with the sunrise on Imbolc and Samhain. It is known that our ancestors followed the cycles of the year and as Imbolc is at the halfway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox, it makes sense that this would be a cause for reverence and celebration.
The earliest known mention of Imbolc in text was recorded in Irish literature around the 10th century, referring to a celebration that took place at the time of sheep breeding season and the beginning of spring. Traditionally, Imbolc begins on the eve of January 31st and celebrants create a kind of doll of Brigid, called a Brídeóg or a Brigid’s cross from reeds. A bed is made for the Brigid doll and is left with offerings of food and drink to encourage the Goddess to visit ones home and bring blessings.
Although it seems that a festival as old as Imbolc should have a lot of records, the truth is that we don’t know how the actual ancient holiday was celebrated. Nearly all of our information on ancient pagan festivals in the British Isles come from the writings of Christian monks at the time.
Although Imbolc is believed to have been an ancient Celtic festival, it is mostly associated with Ireland and there is no proof that it spread beyond that. Similar festivals may well have been held across the British Isles at the same time that eventually merged or complimented that we now know as Imbolc.
A Deity of Many Faces
The celebration of Imbolc is heavily associated with the Irish-Celtic Goddess Brigid (also spelled Brigit, Brighid or Brig) who is known as a protector of hearth and home and is associated with fire, poetry and fertility. Although Brigid seems to be confined to Ireland according to historical writings, it is likely a very similar deity was worshipped throughout the rest of the Celtic world. In reality we don’t know how widespread Brigid worship was.
Through the christinization of the British Isles, Brigid later became St. Brigid, though many will claim that St.Brigid is a separate entity from the pagan pantheon. There is no contemporary proof that St.Brigid existed around the time Imbolc was first recorded, though she does appear as many individual people throughout later Christian literature. Brigid as a Goddess and a saint is shrouded in mystery even now, and her actual origins are unclear.
There is a debate between scholars on if Candlemas is truly a christianization of Imbolc or if it had it’s roots elsewhere. It is believed that Candlemas was celebrated in Greece in the fourth century and was later adopted by the Roman Catholic church. What seems likely is that there were multiple festivities around the time of the beginning of February and due to trade, travel and exchanges of myth and legend, many of the ancient holidays merged into the Imbolc and Candlemas we know today.
Imbolc is still celebrated, albeit in a revived form in modern paganism and Christianity. It is celebrated as a cultural and religious holiday in Ireland and the Christian church and as a sabbat/festival in paganism all around the world.
The beginning of February is celebrated not only in these faiths, but also in Shinto. Setsubun (節分), commonly known to Westerners as ‘the bean-throwing festival’ marks the beginning of Spring in Japan and is translated as ‘seasonal division‘. This time of year is important not only to particular faiths but many cultures across the world due to its timing and significance related to the start of spring and the agricultural year.
No matter how it originated, Imbolc is certainly an interesting time of year as we come together not as pagans and christians, but as humankind. We celebrate the end of Winter and the beginnings of Spring in a festival of light. This is a time of year that is commonly associated with spring cleaning after a long winter, planting new seeds, setting goals and focusing on the year ahead.
Imbolc is a wonderful example of how a tradition can come to us through faith, time and place and illustrates the common ground that we have, along with our roots as beings that depend on spring arriving to conquer winter once again.
Further Reading and References
Patheos: The Right and Wrong of Imbolc
Patheos: Preparing for Imbolc: Weaving a Brigid’s Cross
Patheos: 18 Celtic Imbolc Customs & Traditions for the Feast of Brigid