If you're familiar with the Celtic wheel of the year, you probably
know that it's based on an agrarian cycle. And while most people
reading this are probably not farmers or particularly tied in with the
growing seasons of the earth, the archetypes upon which the wheel of
the year rely are so deeply rooted in our collective consciousness that
we understand quite easily how to connect the points on that wheel with
our mundane and spiritual lives. For example, it makes sense that
Ostara (spring equinox) is a time to begin new projects. It makes sense
that Beltaine (May Day) is associated with fertility and flowers and
romance. It makes sense that Litha (summer solstice) is a time for
heightened activity, and that Yule (winter solstice) is a time for
sleep and dreaming. Heck, even most people get that Lammas (August 1)
has to do with giving that final push to projects already bearing fruit.
So. What's the deal with Imbolc?
Imbolc falls on Feb. 2. Its name comes from the Gaelic oimelc for "in
milk." This refers to ewes, whose udders become full with milk at this
time in preparation for their lambs, who usually arrive in the middle
There. Do you now understand the meaning of Imbolc and why it deserves a cross-quarter spot on the wheel of the year?
Yeah, me neither.
Well, let's imagine ourselves living on a farm. It's been -- and
still is -- a long, cold winter. The ground's probably still too hard
to turn. Frost is not just a threat, it's a certainty. We've been
sitting inside for months, living off the now dwindling supply we set
aside in the larder in the Autumn.
Then, we look outside, and see the ewes. Their udders are
swelling. That means lambs are on the way. That means we've got to get
ready, to help get them ready. A new cycle is beginning, and it's
signaled by the appearance of new nourishment, nourishment not stored over from last year -- milk.
I talked to Lugh about it this morning. He said that February was
always an exciting time around the farm when the ewes were ready to
deliver. If you knew one was ready to give birth, you could pen her up
inside and try to make her comfortable, bringing her fresh hay and
water. But you'd also have to be on the lookout for ewes who would
deliver outside; if the newborn lambs did not get under shelter soon
enough (either on their own or with human help), they might freeze to
death. Some ewes needed help with breech births. Of course, adding a
different element to the excitement was the payoff -- tiny lambs are
just so cute!
So think about it -- after sitting inside all winter, all of a
sudden it's time for action, watchfulness, and care. It's that first
spark of activity that heralds the not-too-distant spring. And if an
adorable, fleecy baby lamb not much bigger than a small dog is tough
enough to make its debut before the last frost, chances are, it's not
too early for you to make the first earnest steps into the new year as
At its most basic level, Imbolc is the very first sign of the
spring to come. But unless you live on a farm or frequent the petting
zoo, the sheep component is a bit removed from our everyday existence.
Still, it's the most concrete way I've found of understanding why this
holiday is important. Let's take a look at some other ways we can come to
understand the deeper meaning of Imbolc.
Imbolc and the Goddess
As we turn the wheel of the year, we note the progress of the
relationship between the goddess/Earth and the god/the Sun. We see the
Sun awaken the Earth at spring equinox, and we watch their romance
flourish (literally) at Beltaine. Over the rest of the year we see the
Sun gain power, then begin to lose it, and as the Sun/god becomes more
and more distant, the Earth/goddess ages into a crone and finally slips
into a long sleep sometime after Samhain.
At Yule, we get a look at the goddess's dream: she is a mother
again, giving birth to the new god, the Sun. Her dream comes true: the
days begin to get longer after Dec. 21/22. Most of us have no trouble with
this turn of the wheel because we are so used to the idea of Christmas
and story of the birth of Christ, also known as "the light of the world."
But something happens to the sleeping, dreaming crone between
December and February. She becomes young again.
Now that's what I call
As goddesses go, Imbolc is most closely associated with Brigid,
the Celtic goddess of the hearth, smithcraft and poetry. In other
words, she's just the sort of person you want around when it's time to
get working again after winter: she'll keep a pot of stew over the stove, help
you look after the ewes and lambs, sharpen or fashion a new axe for
chores in the season ahead, and she'll sing you songs while she does
it. (Gee, Mary Poppins must have been based on Brigid.)
But more to the point: Brigid's name shares the same root with the
word 'bride,' and I think that this is another juncture where we might get a
little lost on the journey between Yule and Imbolc. How can the crone
become young again? How can the mother become a virgin again?
There are a couple of threads to bring together when considering these questions, and to do so requires a magical mindset.
We become quite fixated on the Sun's progress and how we relate to
it throughout the year. From our standpoint here on the Earth, the Sun
moves around us. But we know that the Sun does not move. We move around
it. The goddess, in fact, moves around the god. She circles, and while
circling she turns; she continually transforms.
The goddess's Yule dream is both prophecy and reality. The way I
look at it, the goddess -- that is, the divine feminine, in the most
primal sense -- dreams to remember her true self, eternally bound to
renewal and fertility. That first spark of dream-Sun calls her back
to her tropism. As the divine feminine, she is the maiden, mother and
crone, but she must become the crone to become the maiden, and the
maiden to become the mother, and so forth. The dream calls forth the
transformation. It calls a new reality that spirals out of the existing
one. In essence, the goddess births her new, younger self.
How can I put it more clearly? If human thoughts can become
things, certainly a divine dream can come true. Depending on the sort
of magic you practice, you may create a 'spell' to effect some reality.
(And yes, all you "The Secret" disciples, it's the same concept.)
Whether or not your spell works has less to do with how well you
speak it, or the ingredients you throw into the pot, than it does
with how closely the reality you tried to induce was aligned with Truth
(be that quantum physics, divine will, or fate -- whatever you want to
call it, it is still the same unknowable, unnameable thing).
For example: against all odds, you triumph. You might shake your
head and say, "Wow, I guess it was just meant to be." Well, the dream
of the goddess that makes her young again at Imbolc is the dream of the
ultimate "meant to be." Of course it comes true.
Imbolc is, for the Earth/goddess, perhaps the
most profound (especially in its subtlety) manifestation of her power.
It is a pity that we focus so much at Imbolc and at Yule on the rebirth
and return of the male force, when the goddess's dream and
transformation presents just as mysterious and illuminating
opportunities for meditation on the true nature of magic and power.
Imbolc and the Change of Seasons, Elementally Speaking
In the Western mystery tradition, seasons cycle through elemental
correspondences. Spring is Air -- think of its fresh, warm breezes, and
the air needed to blow dead leaves away so that the sun and rain can
renew the earth. Summer, of course, is Fire. Autumn is Water -- think
of the sun descending in the west, at the end of the day, seemingly
extinguished by the ocean. Winter is Earth, when all return to it for
slumber. (Traditional Chinese Medicine folk, this is a different
elemental system from the one we use in healing, so just bear with me
We can see how one element transitions into another. Air fuels
fire. It gives the oxygen and dryness needed for Fire to burn. This
transformation represents the growing cycle; it is engendering. But as
Summer turns to Fall, the consolidating cycle begins. Water overtakes
Fire, gradually dampening its power. Earth contains water, draws it
down, conserves it.
But here's another place we get tripped up at Imbolc: How do you
go from the most dense element to the most etheric, rarified one? It is
technically part of the growing cycle, but how does Earth engender Air?
Well friends, I'm still trying to come up with a satisfactory
answer to that one. Obviously this is part and parcel of the dream and
transformation of the goddess mentioned above, but elements are so...
well, elemental, that you really have to define them in their own
terms. I looked at Big Bang theory and entropy, the Kybalion's axioms
of polarity, rhythm, vibration and causation, and how the elements as
they correspond to the four classical archangels are laid out on the
Tree of Life. All these provide important clues, I'm sure, but I
couldn't see a neat little packaged answer in any of them.
But so far the thing that makes the most sense to me comes from my
most rudimentary magical training. The element of Air, represented by
the blade, cuts through Earth, separating it from itself. Air makes
room for other elements. Adding other elements creates change -- new
life, to be exact!
In the spring (the time of Air) we plough or spade rows into the
soil (the element of Earth). Thus, by literally breaking up the earth
we are breaking up Winter (the time of Earth). The rows separate earth
from itself, and the air inside the rows makes room for sunshine
(Fire), rain (Water), and of course, seeds.
Perhaps the way Earth "grows" Air is that it gives Air focused
channels through which to travel; in other words, it gives Air
direction and sound. During the time of Imbolc, the ground readies itself to be cleaved, readies itself to receive the Air of springtime. Again, it's an incredibly subtle but profound point of transformation.
Never mind that groundhog
By the time Imbolc rolls around, most people can see that the days
are beginning to get noticeably longer. While the Sun, at this time of
year, usually means more in terms of light than in warmth, it's relief
All in all, I tend to look at this puzzling time of year as an
opportunity to take a second crack at any new year's resolutions
I made. Like the sheep and Brigid show us, the luxury of waiting is
over; now is the time time for action! The goddess, the earth, begins to soften to make way for the breath of a new season and new life.
The wheel of the year gives many
opportunities for renewal, but none quite so transformative as the one
that comes at Imbolc. May you find a way to transform into your renewed, refreshed
self. May all the happy dreams you dreamed during the Dark come true.
The St. Brigid's cross above was made by Lugh's cousin Seamus in Claremorris, Ireland. It hangs above our door year round. The statue of the Madonna and Child is from a reflective corner at the Chalice Well Garden in Glastonbury, England. The winterscape is of a farm in Western Illinois.