Crocuses for Imbolc
I have a confession to make. It’s a terrible, embarrassing confession for anyone who’s a Druid or any kind of Celtic Pagan. Please don’t judge me, I can’t help myself. Here it is: I don’t celebrate the goddess Brigid at Imbolc.
Ever since I first became interested in Druidry and Celtic Neopaganism, I have tried to cultivate a relationship with Brigid, the great threefold goddess of Ireland. She is the daughter of the great god Dagda, the goddess of poetry, healing, and smithcraft, the protectress of hearth and household, the giver of milk and butter. She was so widely worshipped that She refused to go away but simply converted to Christianity along with the people, and Her sacred fire at Kildare (which is Cill Dara, the shrine of the oak) was tended by nuns in place of priestesses, but it was kept alive until the Reformation.
The flame at Kildare was re-kindled in the 1990s by an Irish Catholic nun, and it has been tended ever since. All around the world, devotees of Brigid as saint and as goddess take their turn tending Her flame, lighting it on personal shrines and altars, praying to the creative, nurturing, healing Lady of the flame. As She was widely honored before the coming of Christianity into Ireland, so She is widely honored now, by Druids, Wiccans, Christians, Pagans of all sorts. But not by me.
I’ve tried. I’ve been a member of at least two flame-keeping orders. I’ve written Her poems. I’ve prayed to Her. I’ve hung Her woven wicker cross around the house and at my workspace. And despite all my efforts, I’ve never felt a response from Her, nor have I felt more than a mild affection for Her. Once I had made contact with deities who were actually interested in me, it became apparent how tenuous and one-dimensional my relationship with Brigid had always been.
So every year at this time, when the feast of Imbolc rolls around, I’ve felt vaguely grumpy, vaguely guilty, and more than a little confused, because everyone around me is celebrating Brigid–even the Church–and I am not.
This year, however, I think I’ve finally figured out what Imbolc means for me.
Reconstructionist pagans like to point out that “the Wheel of the Year” is a 20th-century invention and that no pagan culture of the past celebrated all eight of its festivals with equal emphasis on each. Even in Celtic cultures, Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasad, and Samhain were not all equally important in all regions at all times. However, the Wheel of the Year works for us Neopagans, and I think it does so for three reasons: One, each of its festivals *has* been celebrated in European culture; two, each festival corresponds to regular climatic changes, though not the same changes in every environment; and three, each festival corresponds to an astronomical/astrological event. The old Celtic festivals, also called the “cross-quarter days”, correspond to the Sun’s arrival at fifteen degrees of what are called the Fixed Signs of the Zodiac: Imbolc in Aquarius, Beltaine in Taurus, Lughnasad in Leo, and Samhain in Scorpio.
Sometime in the past year, I began to make an effort to look around, pay attention, and sense what is really happening at those eight points of the year, in my environment, in my neighborhood, in my relationships, in myself. I determined to base my celebrations of the seasons not on traditional explanations, not on what other people were doing, not on what The Book said (no matter how helpful and reliable That Book seemed to be), but simply on What Was Happening. While I was slogging through the mild depression that often comes for me this time of year, I somehow noticed a number of important things.
The first is that February is often the coldest month of the year in my state. November and December can be very mild; we may not see snow till January. But in February, just as the days are getting longer and brighter, when you start to feel better because you’re not leaving for work *and* returning home both in the dark, the temperatures drop, the wind picks up, and snow, sleet, and ice arrive to coat the ground. Fire and ice, extremes of creation.
Despite the chill, the first flowers typically come up. I saw some hardy dandelions first, and by the end of last week, the crocuses in the neighborhood park had returned, purple and yellow. I greeted them like old friends back from vacation.
There’s an old legend that birds choose their mates on Valentine’s Day. As with so many old legends, there’s truth behind this notion: At least some species of birds in my neighborhood begin showing courting behaviors as early as Imbolc. Actual nesting may not take place till after the vernal equinox, or later, but a bird’s fancy may turn to thoughts of love while the days are still cold and fairly short. (Chaucer, who mentions birds mating on the feast of St. Valentine, was also right about birds sleeping “with open eyen”. I wonder how he knew.)
In the past couple of weeks, I realized for the first time that I always, annually, reliably have a creative surge around Imbolc. New creative projects suggest themselves which I may spend the rest of the year pursuing. This year I returned to writing practice, as taught by Judy Reeves and Natalie Goldberg, pulled out and read over stories I wrote in my late teens, found the germ of a new idea there, and began re-writing an early work. In addition, I’ve been playing the harp we were gifted at Christmas, and, as you can see, I’m starting to blog more frequently.
The creative surge rising up in me is the same surge that pushes the crocuses out of the ground and urges the birds to pair off–“the force that through the green fuse drives the flower/ Drives my green age,” as Dylan Thomas so memorably put it. There is something in the ground, driving upward; my Grand ArchDruid calls it “the telluric current”, R.J. Stewart calls it “the Rising Light Below”, other traditions have other names. It is a force of creation and creativity, and I said to myself, quietly, that the chief meaning of Imbolc, for me, is creativity, creative idea, energy, and action.
But there was more. I found myself looking up at the stars, spotting Orion and the Big Dipper, watching the orange twinkle of Mars creep from east to west overhead. I found myself thinking about the current running through the ground, rising up in creation and procreation, and the currents of the stars. And every Monday I lit incense in honor of a goddess who told me to call her Dana.
Others, I think, have called her Danu and Don. She is the goddess of the night sky, of space, and of the stars. The Milky Way belongs to her, that river of white light overhead which is how we see the galaxy of which we are a part. She is also the goddess of rivers; the Danube notably bears her name. I associate her with the river that runs through my state, through my city, that caused European settlers to build here; much diminished, much polluted, it is still swift, still numinous. The tracks of the light rail line run along its banks to the north of the city, and on a recent trip, I heard a man my age who sounded suspiciously Pagan talk about how he used to fish there and even ate what he caught, and how that wasn’t possible any more.
The same current that runs through the earth also runs through the sky, and vice versa. Druidry, whether ancient or Revived, knows this, as does the Hermetic tradition, which epitomized it in the famous dictum, “As above, so below.” The Milky Way in the sky, and the milk of lambing ewes on earth; the rushing of the rivers, and the rushing of the stars; the creative urge to write and make music in me, and the presence of Dana in the night, creating goddess, mother of stars and waters.
It all came together in a marvellous piece by the Irish choral group Anuna called “Shining Water” :
Shining water, silent daughter, face turn from the sun
Guiding light through silver night, your songs blend into one
Crystal morning dew is forming, falling through the trees
Deep inside your simple guidance whispers on the breeze
Danú, danú, danú, danú Dé
Danú, danú, danú, danú Dé
Danu, Don, Dana, the giver–however you pronounce her name, under her guidance, I have finally discovered Imbolc.
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