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February 2008

January 2008

What in the World is Imbolc? Plus, A Brief Primer on the Celtic Wheel of the Year

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 of February.
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 well.
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.
Chalicemadonna2 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 beauty sleep!
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 here.)
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 enough.

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.

"Now, Waitaminnit!"


One hundred percent. Pure. Awesome.

Here are photos of my friend Stu, the first circa 1985, when he was in college, and the other taken last week. One of my resolutions this year is to spend more time with friends (this means YOU, Chanders!) and just be better in general about keeping in touch.

We were able to enforce said resolution right away by spending a lovely long evening with our friends Stu and Ceci. Stu and Lugh were roommates and bandmates in college. At some point in the evening, after many glasses of wine, a shoebox of old photos came out, including a set of pictures featuring Stu in the outfit you see above. Turns out he not only has the same scarf, shirt and jacket at hand, but he fits them better now than he did as a younger man. If you're one of those wanting to age gracefully, I hope you're paying attention!

You Say You Want a Resolution
Admittedly, I'm a fan of new year's resolutions. Mine always follow the same formula: What did I suck at last year? Do I wish I didn't suck at it? Is it something I can feasibly improve, and is it worthwhile? If yes, yes, and yes, resolve to work on it. Becoming a better friend/correspondent, plus making a serious attitude adjustment concerning my cozy dead-end job, were at the top of the resolution bill this year. If I can just get those two down I'll be happy. Rock-hard abs and re-learning French .... maybe I'll put those off til next year.

Blogwise, I promise to finish off the Chinese Five-Element Theory according to South Park series. If there's anything you'd like to see more of on Herbis Orbis, drop me a line in the comments section.

My Last Act of 2007: An Herbal "Proving" of Ambrosia Artemisiifolia


Dec. 31, 2007: A New Year's weekend at our friends' farmette in Western Illinois.

Inside the house: the mild-mannered beast pictured above, Snowy (var. giganticat).

Wild card: an assignment to clean out a barn apartment, recently rid of mice, full of our stuff in storage.

In my body: a histamine cascade extraordinaire just waiting to overreact to cat dander and mouse poo.

No net: As alcohol would be a feature of the weekend, my Benadryl was left at home.

In my pocket: two ounces of ambrosia artemisiifolia tincture.

(Cue cheesy movie preview baritone:) In a world of airborne allergens, a novice herbalist protects her right to copious champagne libations and vows to meet the millions of invisible enemies head-on. Her only hope? A little-known medicine made of what most would consider a noxious weed -- ragweed. Who will win?


Snowy is our friends' cross-eyed, pigeon-toed, probably arthritic, and most definitely fat, cat. Now before anyone wants to know why he's called "Snowy" and not "Blondie," I am assured by his owners that he was quite white when he was little. He's got to be over 20 pounds now, so "little" was a long, long time ago.

Despite his personality, which can most accurately be likened to that of the Simpsons' Comic Book Guy, Snowy has become a favorite for me. Let's be honest: that face could disarm anybody.

But I've never been able to pet Snowy or even spend much time near him because, like most cats, he sets off my allergies.

Some time in November, my friend Ben sent me a bottle of his own ambrosia (ragweed) tincture, in exchange for some fresh wild cherry bark I'd harvested for him. I looked up its indications, and found that it could be effective at reducing allergy symptoms (in my case, a river of mucous, itchy throat and eyes, blotchy skin, constricting airways, hoarse throat). That's right -- the weed we blame for hay fever is said to actually arrest its symptoms.

But before Snowy even hobbled out to greet us, we were to make some room in the barn for our hosts' herb business. Little did I know, mice had gotten into the clothes and boxes. I had a dust mask on, but before long I was having a hard time breathing, and my dust mask was functioning more as a snot cup.

I went back inside the house, washed my hands, and took two big hits of ambrosia. I made it a point to let it coat my throat. Now, make no mistake -- the stuff is by no means palatable (a lot of herbs aren't). But it was either that or misery, so tastebuds be damned.

Fairly quickly, my symptoms subsided -- particularly that closed-up, itchy throat. I got away from the really mousy areas and spent the rest of the afternoon going through some boxes in the barn's dusty attic/hayloft, and I was fine.

Snowy2007 When we came in for dinner and a fire, Snowy trundled himself out for a snack, as did his much furrier but smaller friend, Pumpkin. All through our meal, anytime I felt my nose start getting stuffed up, or my throat getting itchy, I took another dropperful of ambrosia. As an extra measure of protection I brought my own pillowcases and sheets for the guest bedroom.

Result? A New Year's Eve holiday with dear friends where I wasn't literally itching to leave by the end.

Get your ambrosia tincture at Five Flavors Herbal Pharmacy in Santa Cruz. Ambrosia is the second entry on the Individual Tinctures store page.

Happy, healthy, 2008 everybody!