Through the wet and the cold, buds are swelling on bush and tree. The willows are sending out new shoots and the days are lengthening. It’s the beginning of the end of winter in Ireland and food stores of grain and salted meat are starting to run low. But the ewes are in milk and the first lambs are on the way. It is Brigit’s Day.
In ancient Ireland, the festival was known as Imbolc [pronounced IM-molk] and was a celebration to honor the mysteries of rebirth and motherhood, over which Brigit presided. Imbolc comes from the Indo-European word oimelc, which is “derived from an old compound oi + melc, ‘ewe-milk’….” (MacCrossan, 1991, p. 212).
Before she was adopted into the Christian tradition as the foster-mother of Jesus, Brigit was the goddess of the arts, science, domestic skills, and “protectress of women in labour and childbirth. Birthwort, the plant analgesic collected and dried in summer, may have been administered by priestesses in her name.” (King, 1994, p. 136).
Like many aspects of Gaelic culture, Brigit is manifested in a triplicity. In spring, she is the Maiden, pure as the untilled land before the seed is planted. In summer, she becomes the Mother as the fertile earth nourishes growing crops. After the harvest is gathered, she withers with the earth and all growing things as the Crone. During the winter months, she sleeps until spring brings her rebirth.
“She was born, we are told, at sunrise neither within nor without a house, is fed from the milk of a white, red-eared cow (that is, by Irish usage, a supernatural cow), hangs her wet cloak on the rays of the sun, and the house in which she is staying appears to the onlookers to be all ablaze.” (MacCana, 1983, p. 34).
Second only to St. Patrick, Brigit became one of the most popular Irish saints. “She was worshipped in a monastery at Kildare in Ireland, where a perpetual fire was kept burning, an observance undoubtedly derived from the perpetual fires of pagan temples, suggesting that the monastery was based upon a druidic sanctuary. The medieval historian Gerald of Wales writes that no male was allowed to enter the sacred enclosure surrounded by a hedge, in which the holy fire burned….” (Stewart, 1990, p. 96). Brigit may have been the patroness of the family hearth, as her saintly counterpart is to this day in the Gaelic communities of Scotland. February 1 is her feast day, the beginning of lambing season.
In spring fertility customs, Brigit was represented by a corn doll, dressed as a new bride and carried in a procession of maidens about the fields to ensure their fertility. “Gifts of food were given to the doll, and a special feast was held by the maidens, in a locked room. Eventually, the youths of the community, after asking admission to pay honor to [Brigit], were admitted to the feast, and restraints were foregone.” (Stewart, 1990, p. 98). Imbolc festivities may have also involved the ceremonial drinking of first milk and the welcoming of new-born lambs.
According to Monaghan (1990, p. 60), Brigit invented whistling one night when she wanted to call her friends, a myth which may have been inspired by the return of birdsong to northern climes in early spring. “And when her beloved son was killed, [Brigit] invented keening, the mournful song of the bereaved Irishwoman.”
King, J. (1994). The Celtic druid’s year: seasonal cycles of the ancient Celts. London: Blandford.
MacCana, P. (1983). Celtic mythology. New York: Peter Bedrick Books.
MacCrossan, T. (1991). The sacred cauldron: secrets of the druids. St. Paul: Llewellyn.
Monaghan, P. (1990). The book of goddesses and heroines. St. Paul: Llewellyn.
Stewart, R.J. (1990). Celtic gods, Celtic goddesses. London: Blandford.