before groundhogs and superbowls

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Thig an nathair as an toll
La donn Bride,
Ged robh tri traighean dh’ an t-sneachd
Air leachd an lair.

Imbolc (pronounced im’olk) from the Old Irish meaning “in the belly” (i mbolg), referring to the pregnancy of ewes, and is the Celtic reconing for the first stirrings of spring. The holiday is a festival of the hearth and home, and a celebration of fire, the lengthening days, and the return of life. It is the yin to the yang of Samhain.

Bits and pieces of the ancient feast day survive in contemporary Western culture. Most secularized is the ritual of the New Years resolution. As a time of the year associated with beginning growth, Imbolc was the time to prepare for the activities of summer. Fishermen would begin preparing their gear to go out, farmers would make sure their plows and other tools were in good working order; warriors, likewise, their weapons. This was a time of preparation for one’s summer activities, what ever they may be. It was also a time to check one’s food stores, to see if they would last the rest of the season for there was still little fresh food for some time.[1]

Groundhog’s Day is another long-surviving bit of Northern European lore, as the Gaelic poem above suggests. Weather prognostication was part of Imbolc. Snakes, or somtimes badgers, were said to use their shadow to divine the length of winter.

Since dark, cold, and snow blankted the land, travelling for large holiday gatherings was culturally discouraged. Instead, the festive energy was focused inward, on the village, the household, family and friends. Large feasts, to share what remained of winter stores in the final weeks before spring thaw, are common on Imbolc. Likewise, in modern secular America, on Superbowl Sunday, intimate clusters of families and friends gather around the modern hearth (television) and consume large quantities of food in communion with each other, and by association, with all the other households performing the same ritual at the same broadcast time.

Spring cleaning, a dreaded phrase in many large suburban homes, was a ritual enacted in ancient Celtic (and later, early Christian) homes, in preparation for a midnight visit from Brigid (later, St. Brigid).

The high holy significance of Imbolc to the ancients cannot be justified by the folksy bits of cultural flotsam stuck in the corners of the collective unconscious, however.

Sacred sites, such as Loughcrew and the Mound of the Hostages, feature inner chambers at the end of long passage tombs, perfectly aligned with the rising sun of both Imbolc and Samhain. At Newgrange, the rising Imbolc sun shines down the long passageway and illuminates the inner chamber of the tomb.

  • Newgrange, a hallucinatory psy-ambient evocation of the Imbolc sunrise by AZukx.

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Fire and purification are an important aspect of this festival. Brigid (also known as Brighid, Bríde, Brigit, Brìd) is a fertitility goddess come in the form of creativity itself. She is the spirit of poetry, healing and smithcraft. She is the Brigidguardian of metal-workers — the technologists, and by extension, she is the goddess of the machine.

Imagine, in fact, that you are standing in the entrance to a forge in a forest, where a blazing fire is roaring, and in front of it stands a woman.

Thick, auburn hair is tied back, but a few rippling curls have escaped around her face. She is dressed in dark green with sleeves rolled up to the elbows, revealing strong white arms. Brigit, for of course it is she, stands over a large anvil where all her concentration is focused on beating a sheet of soft gleaming bronze with a great hammer…

At last, she looks up. She has finished her creation and holds it up to the light of the fire for you to see. As you look at it, it appears to continually change shape: first it seems to be a leaf, then a globe, … and now it has become a star.

Brigit laughs deeply, musically, and tosses the star into the air, where it sails into the night sky and takes its place among the glittering constellations… now Brigit turns towards you and asks: What have you come here to create?

You tell her of your vision, whether great or small, personal or for the wider community… and she beckons you over to the fire. As you look into the flames, pictures start to move and you see yourself at work, filled with enthusiasm and passion as you make your vision a reality… [2]

Various other names for this Greater Sabbat are Imbolgc Brigantia (Caledonni), Imbolic (Celtic), Disting (Teutonic, Feb 14th), Lupercus (Strega), St. Bridget’s Day (Christian), Candlemas, Candlelaria (Mexican), the Snowdrop Festival. The Festival of Lights, or the Feast of the Virgin. All Virgin and Maiden Goddesses are honored at this time, as are the maidens in the human communities beneath them.[3]

At around the same time, on the far side of the globe where the climate is opposite, the god Shiva begins his dance of creation. The male aspect of creation reigns there, while in the North it is female, contained within the protective confines of the womb and hearth.

As global climate systems slowly shift towards a configuration not seen in millions of years, will these ancient weather rituals surivive in an even further-mutated form, or will human belief shift with the rest of the planet to something different?

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Posted: February 2, 2007

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Category: Psy-Culture

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