By early February, here on the north coast of California, there are signs that winter — mild as it is — is losing its grip. In the vineyards that cover much of our rural valley, rows of winter cover crops show the first haze of bloom. They form careless bands of incongruous, shaggy growth between the neat, ordered lines of hard-pruned vines. Where the vineyards end in open pasture, newborn lambs walk on tentative legs. They hang close by their mothers who munch grass a shade of impossible green, luminous in the warm afternoon sun.
At this time each year, our little corner of the world transforms into an emerald earth, a vivid reminder of how miraculous plants really are. Soaking up the increasing sunlight and nourished by winter rain, their green pigment waxes with the sun and functions as a natural solar panel that absorbs energy for alchemy: the transformation of sunlight into sugar. In the process, plants perform another feat: "inhaling" carbon dioxide and "exhaling" precious oxygen. The ewes both breathe and eat the products of their green meadows, and in turn perform their own alchemy, converting green grass into milk for their young.
Imbolc — Spring in the Belly of Winter
Imbolc (pronounced i-molk or i-molg) is the name given to a Celtic festival long celebrated at this transitional time of year. Associated with the fire goddess Brigit, it marks the awakening — or quickening — of the Earth in late winter. Quickening, which means "to spring to life," is an archaic term for making a fire burn brighter, it also refers to the stage of pregnancy when a woman first feels the stirrings of life deep within. I remember those stirrings during my own pregnancy, no more than tiny butterfly flutterings — and like the first signs of spring, easy to miss. The Irish term Imbolc derives from the older imbolg which means "in the belly," a reference to the pregnancy of the ewes and lambing season which occurs at this time of year. A similar name for this day is Oimelc, Old Irish for "ewe's milk." Imbolc is also the beautiful, earthy way in which the Irish metaphorically referred to this time of year: that "spring was in the belly of winter."
Of the seasonal turnings in the wheel of the year, Imbolc is a "cross-quarter" day: the midpoint between the previous winter solstice and the coming vernal equinox. Winter-weary, ready for change, we search, at this time of year, for signs of spring. It makes sense then that so much of the lore associated with Imbolc has to do with weather forecasting. Will spring arrive sooner or later? — a special concern for our agrarian ancestors who were watching their winter food stores disappear, while outside a thick blanket of snow still covered much of the ground. Carefully watching for signs of spring was not just a nature lover's amusement, but serious business. Timing the first plowing of the soil and spring plantings were decided according to these seasonal observations that revealed the pace at which Mother Earth was emerging from her long winter's slumber.
Groundhog Day, celebrated on February 2nd here in America, is an example of the kind of weather divination lore common at this time of year. If it is sunny on this day, the groundhog will see its shadow and be frightened back into its burrow. Winter, then, will continue on for six more weeks. A groundhog, by the way, is a woodchuck, and in the American South, it is also called by the descriptive name "whistle pig" due to its habit of whistling warnings to its burrow mates when danger approaches. Groundhog Day is a cultural "echo" of older European weather lore, in which a badger, snake, or bear functioned as the "prognosticator" rather than a groundhog. An old Scottish-Gaelic proverb explains the custom:
Thig an nathair as an toll
The serpent will come from the hole
Lá donn Brìde
On the brown Day of Bride [Brigit]
Ged robh trà troighean dhen t-sneachd
Though there should be three feet of snow
Air leac an làir.
On the flat surface of the ground.
One of my favorite stories associated with Imbolc weather lore — which explains, like the groundhog's shadow, the paradox of good weather on Imbolc being a harbinger of MORE winter — is the dark goddess Cailleach. An old-woman crone figure in Celtic folklore whose familiars were the raven and the owl, the Cailleach represents winter, its terrible stormy weather, but also the wisdom that comes with age and trying experience. Cailleach derives from the Old Irish, caillech, which means "the veiled one." According to lore, if the Cailleach is in a foul mood and intends to make the winter last a lot longer, she makes sure the weather on Imbolc is bright and sunny so she can gather plenty of firewood. However, if Imbolc brings foul weather instead, that means the Cailleach is fast asleep in her cottage, not gathering firewood, and — happy days — winter will soon be over. On the Isle of Man, where she is known as Caillagh ny Groamagh (Gloomy Old Woman), she is considered a winter and storm spirit. According to legend, she appears on Imbolc in the form of a gigantic black raven carrying sticks in her beak.
Rising in the heavens at this time of year is another harbinger of spring, this one celestial. Close to the "Plow in the Sky" (The Big Dipper), is one of the brightest stars in the night sky, Arcturus. Known as the "Bear Keeper," Arcturus first rises over the eastern horizon in January and has signaled for thousands of years that spring is on its way. Arcturus is also associated with the Celtic Goddess Brigit who was called the "Daughter of the Bear." Imbolc, her end-of-winter festival, followed the rising of this bright, yellow-red star. As mentioned, a bear was sometimes the animal chosen as the weather prognosticator in old Europe, a choice which may reflect Arcturus's close proximity to Ursa Major. Arcturus is from the Greek Arktouros: arktos bear + ouros guard or keeper, a reference to the star's position, following the Great Bear, Ursa Major. In Greek mythology, Zeus placed Arcturus in the heavens to protect the nearby constellations. The brightest star in the constellation Boötes (the Herdsman), Arcturus is a red giant, fourth brightest star in our entire sky, many times larger than our Sun, and 37 light years away from the earth.
Brigit: Celtic Goddess, Irish Saint, Fiery Muse of Bards and Poets
Imbolc is closely associated with the Celtic-Irish fire Goddess Brigit, who was, according to Irish mythology, one of the Tuatha Dé Danann — a race of supernatural beings. Cheryl Straffon, in her book on Celtic spirituality The Earth Goddess: Celtic and Pagan Legacy of the Landscape, writes of Brigit:
"The production of food, the fertility of the land and the fecundity of Mother Nature were all key functions of Bridget, and they underlie the traditions associated with her day. The country people always regarded the advent of Feile Bride (Bride's Feast Day) as marking the end of nature's sleep during winter and her reawakening to the fresh activity of life."
As a fire goddess, Brigit's associated qualities are similar to the three astrological fire signs: Aries (self-determination, directness and the martial arts), Leo (self-expression and creativity) and Sagittarius (philosophy, high culture), for Brigit is credited as being the Goddess of activities and states of mind that are highly creative as well as psychologically lofty: wisdom, excellence, perfection, high intelligence, frank directness, and poetic eloquence. She is also considered a Goddess of craftsmanship (especially blacksmithing), of healing ability and warfare.
Among Brigit's brothers were Aengus (Oengus mac ind-Og), Irish God of Love and Youth, and Bodb Derg, king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. After they were defeated in battle, the Tuatha Dé Danann were given sovereignty over subterranean Ireland. The mischievous fairy folk, the sídhe, are understood to be the diminutive form of these old Gods and Goddesses still sore about the loss of their dominion over Ireland.
According to Irish mythology, Brigit is credited as having "invented" night whistling to alert her companions, and keening while mourning for her son Ruadàn, after he was slain in battle. The act of mourning for a lost child, the fire symbolism, and the ties to the emergence of spring, all strongly connect Brigit with the Roman goddess Ceres. It was a Roman custom at the beginning of February to form processions with lighted candles in honor of Ceres, who brought perpetual winter to the world while searching for her lost daughter Persephone.
Saint Brighid of Kildare
The Goddess Brigit is revered as Saint Brighid of Kildare, the Catholic church having brought her "into the fold" through canonization as saint. Her feast day, Lá Fhéile Bríde, falls on February 1st, and is also celebrated as the first day of spring. On this day Saint Brighid is said to awaken the land, to return the light of the Sun, and marks the start of new growing season. Like her pagan goddess antecedent, Saint Brighid is associated with an eternal, sacred flame, such as the one maintained at her sanctuary in Kildare, Ireland. She is also associated with holy wells and springs. At Kildare and other sites throughout Celtic lands, sacred wells and springs were dedicated to her. The custom of dressing the well — tying "clooties" (a strip or piece of cloth) to an adjacent tree — is an old custom in honor of Brigit that is still in practice to this day.
Candlemas, or The Feast of the Purification of the Virgin falls on the same day as Imbolc, February 2, and marks the end of the Epiphany season, 40 days following the birth of Christ. According to the Gospel of Luke, Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem forty days after his birth to complete Mary's ritual purification after childbirth. The concept of purity and purification has long associations with the month of February. Februa, after which the month was named, was a Roman festival of ritual purification, an early version of spring cleaning. According to Ovid, the Latin, Februare, means purification through washing or rinsing with water and stems from an earlier Etruscan word that means purging. Interestingly, the Latin word for fever, febris, stems from the same root and also associated with purification and purging, due to the sweating commonly seen with fevers.
Special woven crosses are associated with Saint Brighid and are traditionally made on February 1st, the day of her liturgical celebration. Many folk rituals are associated with the making of the crosses, among which is the belief that the crosses protect one's home from fire and evil. They are hung in the kitchen, by the door, and from rafters for this purpose. Made by weaving rushes or straw, they contain a characteristic square center from which four radial arms extend out. The cross is a symbolic cousin to the older pagan Sun Wheels that represent the seasonal turnings of the solar year. The crosses also represent the weaving of fate, and evoke the Greek Moirae, weavers of destiny who controlled the "thread" of life.
In my own garden here at Imbolc, new swellings on the branches of the plum tree mark where clusters of white blossoms will soon open, and the green tips of the daffodils are pushing up out of the ground among what remains of last year's yarrow. Each year they remind me of that autumn day, years ago now, when my daughter, a happy little three year old, and I planted those bulbs together. We have a special relationship with these flowers: planted on my birthday in late autumn, they bloom every year for her birthday in early spring.