Imbolc ~ History & Origins

by Jenwytch

Posted on July 20, 2010 by Jenwytch at The Other Side. This article is also in the August 2008 edition of the “Axis Mundi”.

Imbolc (pronounced “IM-bulc” or “EM-bowlk” meaning “in the belly”) is a cross-quarter day midway between the winter solstice (Yule) and the spring equinox (Ostara). The name is derived from the Gaelic word “oimelc” which means “ewe’s milk”. Although we celebrate the day on February 1st (Northern Hemisphere) or August 1st (Southern Hemisphere), in the past the date varied from community to community. Traditionally the date of the festival was associated with the onset of lactation of ewes, soon to give birth to the spring lambs. This could vary by as much as two weeks before or after the start of February.

Imbolc’s name is in recognition of the reawakening of the earth – new beginnings, things yet to be born, and the associated events of spring-time; the earth bristling with new life waiting to bud, herd animals’ wonderfully swollen bellies about to bring forth the years offspring, who are to be nurtured with the milk of life, chickens and geese beginning to lay their first eggs. It is the time in the natural calendar of the year in which we banish the winter and rejoice the coming of spring. It is a time for planting seeds and to recognize one’s duty to nurture inner seeds of growth as well as the physical seeds of the earth. It is the time to consider personal goals and dreams, and to embrace inspiration. It is common to bless and burn candles of inspiration at Imbolc rituals.

Imbolc is the Sabbat which honors the Goddess as the waiting bride of the returning sun God. Before the Nordic influence, it was also the Sabbat in which the Celts saw the sun as being born anew. The importance of Imbolc 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. Similar to the phenomena seen at Newgrange, the rising Imbolc sun shines down the long passageway and illuminates the inner chamber of the tomb. In Ireland it was, and still is, a special day to honor the Goddess Brid in her guise of bride. The modern Irish know this as St. Briget’s Day, St. Briget being a vaguely disguised and Christianized version of the Pagan Goddess.

Since Brigid represents the light half of the year, and the power that will bring people from the dark season of winter into spring, her presence is very important at this time of year. Celts would often dress grain dollies, representations made from dried sheaves from the previous harvest, as brides, and set them in a place of honor within their homes. They were usually placed in cradles called Bride’s Beds, and nuts, symbols of male fertility, were tossed in with them.

On the night of Imbolc, bonfires would light up the hills as a welcome to the return of heat and fire. During the day, chandlers would be praised. Traditionally, especially in Europe, Imbolc would be spent making candles for the year, as candles made at this time were considered to be lucky. Other customs included the lighting of candles in every window of the house and keeping a perpetual candle on the alter of Brid. Interestingly, up until 1220 BCE St Bridgid’s Shrine at Kildare had a constantly tended fire, which was cared for by the priestesses of the Goddess, the care of which was taken over by virgin nuns after Christianity. It is the tradition of the lighting of candles that was partly the inspiration for the Christian celebration of Candlemas. The significance of fire and the burning of candles (other than Brigid being the Goddess of fire …go here for more about Brigid) is that Imbolc is a celebration of light. Winter is dying away, and the fire of the sun grows stronger. In times past, people would jump bonfires at Imbolc to be cured of their winter colds and aliments. The candles and fire are all symbolically adding their energies to the waxing sun, bringing forth the joy of spring with the waxing sun.

“The Everything Paganism Book” by Selene Silverwind, 2004.