Imbolc, (pr EEmulk), is an ancient fire festival that marks the end of the dead part of the year. Originally it was celebrated at the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox, and in other traditions on the night of the first full moon after that.
At the Mound of the Hostages on the Hill of Tara, in Ireland, the inner chamber is aligned with the rising sun at the midpoint between solstice and equinox, and so marks the dates of Imbolc and Samhain. Many other megalithic monuments in Northern Europe also have this characteristic, showing how important these dates were. They delineated the dead period of the year, which began at Samhain, when nothing grows and the shades of the dead and other supernatural beings walk freely in the world. Imbolc is the day the Goddess returns, not yet in her full glory and majesty, here a girl full of promise, one of the three forms of a triple-goddess.Imbolc is also marked by less celestial events. It has always been associated with the time at which ewes begin to lactate, the blackthorn begins to bud, snowdrops and other markers of the coming spring begin to appear.
Whatever the precise date in ancient times, however, Imbolc is above all else a Goddess festival. Because of this, it has long been associated with Saint Brighid’s Day, the 2nd of February, in Christianised cultures. Brighid or Bridget is the Celtic Triple-Goddess Bride, whose name gives us the term ‘bride’, a young woman at the point of marriage, when her fertility will be realised.
Bride, in turn, is the direct descendent of one of the earliest recorded forms of the Goddess we know of, Inanna, the great Sumerian Goddess of Love, Fertility and War. The roots of this festival go back deep in time, to long before even the Sumerians wrote down their myths and fables.
All over the Celtic world, this date is celebrated. Dolls in the form of the Goddess are made from rushes, straw or reeds and called bridéog or ‘Biddy Dolls’. In the Hebrides of Scotland, these are decorated with a shell to represent the ‘Star of Brighid’. Ever since Inanna, the Goddess has been associated with Venus, which is prominent in the evening and morning skies at this time. Brighid’s Crosses, four pointed stars made of rushes, were hung over doors and windows to welcome the Goddess, who would pass from house to house to bless the people and bring them good fortune for the year.
This is part of a much greater myth-cycle, in which the Earth, personified as the Goddess, having passed into the darkness or the Underworld to rescue her groom from death’s clutches, rises again with him, in glory, to be wed, to be fertile, to bring forth life, to grow old and to pass once again into darkness at the next Samhain. This is a cyclical understanding of life that goes deep, deep into our past and is quintessentially linked to the development of agriculture, and the seasonal rhythms of agricultural life. This cycle is the basis of all Western and many other world cultures. It is profoundly matriarchal, and indeed feminist in essence, even though, for thousands of years, the patriarchy has been suppressing it.
All women are the Goddess, and the Goddess is all women. Imbolc is their day; it is a celebration of motherhood and the regeneration of life from death. So I wish you all Happy Imbolc and hope that you reflect on what it actually means: that we are all tied to the Goddess, who is the Earth, our mother, of which we are made, and to which we shall return, in the never-ending cycle of death and rebirth.
For me, however, Imbolc has another meaning on top of this, for it is on the 8th of February that my own personal Goddess was born, my daughter Charis, and that will be the day I celebrate it. I think maybe the Goddess doesn’t have too much time for man-made calendars.