One of my proposal strands is looking at the Ritual Year and the traditional crafts associated with marking it. Currently we sit in a bit of a calender void – far too long since Christmas but not yet in sight of Easter. In this void however, sits an old celebration of winter’s end and the traditional start of Spring on the 1 Feburary. This festival is known as Imbolc, and today its remnants are seen in part as the feast of St Brighid on 1 Feb (in Ireland and the UK’s Celtic fringes), and in the rest of the UK elements of the festival are also seen in the Christian Candlemas on 2 Feb.
Imbolc marks the end of winter and the opening of spring – which on the 1st Feb we still note ourselves as the start of spring. The tradition which UK weather forecasters have taken on in recent times to commence spring at the vernal equinox is actually an American import – and a bit out of step with our actual weather. For me in the south of England, the start of Feb is the time we do start noticing the days getting longer at last; snowdrops are out and although there may possibly be more snow ahead, you can see the green shoots of spring rising.
The start of spring is part of the journey of the Great Goddess venerated in many worldwide traditions. Imbolc is the Maiden’s return, when the dormancy of winter is overcome – echoing the rebirth seen across nature at this time, not just the ascending sun but plants flowering and new born animals returning to the land. The word Imbolc itself is thought to come from the Irish imbolg “in the belly”, referring to the pregnancy of ewes. It is the first of the spring fertility festivals, leading up to the pinnacle on May Day to mark the start of summer. “When the plough opens the earth, it makes a womb of the tomb”.**
Imbolc is otherwise known as the feast of Saint Brighid (or Brigit or Bride), an Irish Saint’s Day named after Saint Brighid – a curious figure with no historical evidence to support she ever existed.* There is however written evidence of a Pagan Goddess of the same name who was worshipped on the same day. Brighid was a Goddess of learning, healing and metal-working. Myths have her as the daughter of the Dagda – the legendary leader of the Tuatha de Dannan. Many of the surviving traditions associated with the Feast of St. Brighid are more pagan in style than they are Christian – perhaps because of the Goddess behind the Saint.
It is believed that the saint/Goddess will visit virtuous households on the eve of her feast and bless the inhabitants. One of the most well known Imbolc craft traditions is the weaving of a Brigit’s Cross (Criosog Bridghe) out of rushes or straw, placed above the door or a window as a sign of welcome to the Goddess. Others include making a corn dolly (biddy) which is dressed in woman’s clothes, then brought into the house by a young woman and placed into a specially made bed. RH notes that “the feast at the opening of spring has developed into a means of paying respect to womanhood”*.
So! This is the history and symbology I have been drawing upon for my current set of making experiments. For ease of categorisation I will put these in a separate post to this one. Keep your eyes peeled!
*Stations of the Sun, by Ronald Hutton. Oxford University Press, 1997
** Ashleen O’Gaea