An Eternal Flame: Reflections on Imbolc

This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the eight points of the wheel of the year. It is written by a good friend of mine and member of our community, Tony Marshall Griffiths. Tony lives in the North of England but grew up in Wales. He loves the landscapes of the British Isles and the stories and old names that attach to them. You can read more of Tony’s writing on his website, The Enchanted Silence.

Now it’s St Brigid’s Day and the first snowdrop

In County Wicklow, and this a Brigid’s Girdle

I’m plaiting for you… 

Seamus Heaney, A Brigid’s Girdle

As the Wheel of the Year turns again, the feast of Imbolc now comes around, halfway between the winter solstice and the approaching spring equinox. Imbolc is an old Gaelic name and celebration, intersecting November’s Samhain and May’s Beltane, Calan Gaeaf and Calan Mai, the mainstays of the Celtic year, and balancing August’s Lughnasadh on the opposite side of the year. The name Imbolc is given various translations including ‘ewe’s milk’ and ‘in the belly’; both these two, at least, suggest the natural world preparing for new life as the lambing season comes around.

The seasonal meaning of this time of year seems clear. Having passed through mid-winter and, hopefully, the coldest of the winter weather, the more expansive months ahead can now be anticipated. The sun is a little higher in the sky, feeling warmer on the skin, and the days are an hour or so longer than midwinter, although changes to the weather and the natural world are barely yet manifest.

Growth is underway but for the most part happens out of sight, not yet ready to push out into the world, although snowdrops make up the brave vanguard of the returning life of Spring. The Waldorf Steiner schools celebrate this season by lighting candles set in the earth, helping along the slow warming of the soil by the rising sun and giving warmth to the new life hidden in the soil.

Some practices celebrate Imbolc on the solar cross-quarter day slightly later in the month, or on the night of the nearest new moon, or on Candlemas, February 2nd, but most often, Imbolc is celebrated on the night of 31st January into the 1st of February, aligning the celebration with Là Fhèill Brìghde or St Brigid’s Day on 1st February.

This intertwines the season of Imbolc with the figure of Brigid, who is both a goddess of the Irish myths and also, in the person of St Brigid of Kildare, a Christian saint whose feast day was chosen as 1st February. A legend of St Brigid’s birth says that she was born on her mother’s threshold at the break of day and Brigid, in a singular way, is a figure who sits at the intersection of two worlds, the mythical world of the Tuatha de Danann and the world of the Christian saints.

The person of Brigid celebrated on Là Fhèill Brìghde in Gaelic folk traditions is certainly a fusion of the Celtic saint and the older deity. Brigid would represent the light and warmth of the coming year and be eagerly invited into the home on Imbolc Eve. In Ireland, square-form Brigid’s Crosses were woven from rushes and placed around the house, particularly under the eaves and over doorways, as a ward against fire and evil and also an invitation for Brigid to enter the house, where a place-setting or a serving of food would often be set at table for her or a bed would be ritually prepared for the night.

Throughout the Gaelic lands (Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man), there would be merry-making as Brigid was processed from house to house around the village. Although different traditions developed, her attendants were often the girls and unmarried young women of the village.

In the Scottish Hebrides for example it was recorded that the girls would dress all in white with their hair unbound. One of the party would impersonate Brigid, or alternatively an effigy called a Brídeóg or ‘Biddy’ would be carried. This would sometimes be made from straw or rushes, and in some areas the effigy would be crafted from the first-cut sheaf of the previous summer’s harvest. In the Western Isles, a bright shell or crystal called the reul-iuil Bríde (guiding star of Brigid) was set on its chest and decoration would be added as the Brídeóg went from house to house. 

St Brigid of Kildare herself is one of three principal Irish saints along with Patrick and Colmcille.  Her standing in the national imagination is such that it has now been announced that the nearest Monday to her feast day on 1st February, will be a bank holiday in the republic starting from 2023.

According to the Lives written of her, the oldest of which dates to the middle of the seventh century, she lived from the fifth into the sixth century, possibly from AD 451 to 525, and founded a number of religious communities including the double foundation at Kildare, where communities of men and women lived in parallel to each other. Kildare gained influence as a monastic site during the medieval period, becoming the first amongst Ireland’s monasteries at least in the report of Cogitosus, one of Birgid’s biographers, and its scriptorium is said to have produced an illuminated Gospel, now lost, that was the equal of the surviving Book of Kells. 

In one of the most intriguing aspects of her living legend, a tradition has grown up that St Brigid’s successors maintained a perpetual flame kept burning in a sacred enclosure at Kildare even in the high middle ages. However, this rests on a single source, Topographia Hibernica by Girald de Barri who visited at the end of the twelfth century in the company of England’s Prince John.

In his account of the journey, he described a company of nineteen holy women (Christian nuns) who tended a sacred fire which had been burning without accumulation of ash “since the time of the virgin”. The place of the sacred fire (whose supposed foundations can still be seen in the grounds of the cathedral church of St Brigid in the town centre) was “surrounded by a hedge, made of stakes and brushwood, and forming a circle, within which no male can enter” and each of the nineteen sisters tended to the fire for twenty four hours at a time before committing the fire to the care of their patroness on the twentieth night.

If true, this would be an astonishing survival and act of assimilation of the old ways. Regardless of Giraldus’ reliability however, the flame now burns strongly in the imagination and has been rekindled in modern times with a new perpetual flame tended by the order of Brigidine Sisters at their convent of Solas Bhride in Kildare, and a sculpture of St Brigid’s flame now installed in the centre of the town. (Brigid herself is often shown in stained glass windows and other imagery bearing a flame or lamp.)

There is a subtle but powerful symbol in some other of St Brigid’s stories. In the story of St Brigid’s cloak, Brigid asks the King of Leinster for a grant of land to found her convent, and is refused. She then requests, and is laughingly granted, as much land as her cloak would cover. Unfortunately for the King, her cloak grew miraculously to cover the whole of the Curragh, the plain around Kildare, and the rest is, eventually, history.

In a different set of stories, Brigid was accidentally ordained as a bishop when the Holy Spirit inspired the wrong prayer to be read over her. A bishopric was indeed a rare honour for a woman of the first millenium. In both these stories, divine intervention raises Brigid up in the face of intransigent male privilege. It’s almost as if irrepressible divine energy finds in Brigid a sorely needed feminine expression, a hunch that is only compounded when you remember that Brigid has long been known as “Mary of the Gaels”.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, the annual Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney PA is underway. If the day is sunny, Punxsutawney Phil, famous rodent resident of Jefferson County, will see his shadow and return to his hole, and this will be taken as a sign of six more weeks of wintery weather. If there is no sun to cast a shadow, Phil will stay out of the burrow and signal an early spring. The business about shadows and six more weeks of winter may seem obscure, but these are the performance of old traditions brought by the settlers from Europe, and the Gaelic peoples have a story which explains why clear weather on these first days of February is such a bad sign.

The Cailleach is an aged crone (bearing in mind that the word ‘crone’ comes from the Germanic krona / krone and suggests an elder who is ‘crowned’ with the glory and wisdom of old age), a supernatural figure with power over the winter weather and over the shaping of the landscape. On a year when she has decided the winter will drag on, she will make sure the weather on Là Fhèill Brìghde is bright and sunny, so she can venture out and gather plenty of firewood to keep herself warm in the coming weeks. On the other hand, foul winter weather on St Brigid’s Day is taken as a good omen, as it means the Cailleach is asleep, will soon run out of firewood, and winter is almost over. 

Some folklorists suggest that the Cailleach and Brigid are alternate aspects of the divine feminine and that, notwithstanding the above, Imbolc is the mystical night when the Cailleach yields her power to the maiden Brigid, yielding the sleep of winter to spring’s new birth of life. Brigid will soon walk the woods and the hills, dropping snowdrops from the hem of her cloak as she walks.

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