Imbolc means 'in the belly', im - within, bolc - belly, but has many variant names. Another possible source for the name is from the Irish 'imb fholc', washing oneself. This could result from the purification aspects of the holiday.
The Irish called it Óimelc (Middle Irish) or Ouimelko (Old Irish), meaning 'ewe's milk' (oi - sheep, melc - milk). Other spellings for the holiday include Imbolg, Oimelk and Oímelg. In Scots Gaelic, the holiday is called Là Féill Bhride (holiday of Brid or Brigit). Another Irish name for the holiday is Lá 'il Bríde (day of Brid or Brigit). In common modern Irish and Manx, the holiday is called Candlemas Day.
Explore some of the ways you can add folk practices into your Imbolc celebration.
Imbolc is a festival of purification and a celebration of the first signs of spring. It is the time when the milk begins to engorge the udders of the livestock in preparation for the first births of spring. It is an important date in the beginning of the agricultural year. Preparations for spring sowing, hiring of farm workers for the coming season, fishermen taking out their boats after staying in for the winter season, seaweed gathering on the coast to be used for fertilizer, and the gathering of shellfish all begin at that this time. The larder of the housewife and the hay stores of the farmer were also checked to make sure that only half had been consumed.
Most of the elements of the traditional celebration can be seen, as referring to sexual intercourse and fertility: the men, having the charge of making the "little Brid doll" often from the phallic dasher of a churn; the women preparing the "bed" for the don; the churning of butter; the emphasis on birth and milking; and the use of straw, which was the traditional material for the birthing bed for human and beast alike, etc.
In folk practice, it appears mostly as a holiday centered on the household, but it can easily be turned into a community celebration as well. Below are some customs that have long been associated with this sacred holiday. Feel free to modify them to match your needs and the particulars of your family and community.
This is the time to give your home a good thorough cleaning in preparation for a visit from Brigit. If you happen to have a fireplace, it especially should be cleaned very well. As a part of the magical purification of the house a birch branch should be used to symbolically sweep the floors. Birch has strong associations with Brigit, and has long been used for rites of purification and new beginnings.
All of this work should be completed prior to the eve of Imbolc, when a small dish of butter should be placed on a windowsill and a fresh fire kindled in the hearth or a candle lit in honor of Brigit.
Making the Brideog
If possible (and applicable) this work should be done by the man of the household or a group of men in your grove. Long pieces of straw or rushes should be gathered and fashioned into the shape of a doll. The image should be dressed in white doll clothing or merely wrapped in a white cloth in the manner of a dress. Her image should be decorated with bits of greenery, early flowers, shells and pretty stones. An especially pretty shell should be placed over her heart. For the greatest magical effect, the doll can be built around the handle of an old butter chum dasher. When finished, she should be consecrated with a few sprinkles of sacred water while invocations to Brigit are spoken. The resulting effigy is called a Brideog (BREE-JOG), or "little Brid" and is an important component of the traditional Imbolc celebration.
This is the most widely practiced custom associated with Imbolc. Following the making of the Brideog, the extra straw should be gathered up and saved, for use at the family or grove feast on the eve of Imbolc. For the best results, the straw should be soaked in water for a couple of days prior to the feast. Pan of that evening should be devoted to making Brigit's Crosses. These are weavings of straw that can be as simple as a few strands or amazingly elaborate. Most folks are familiar with the three or four-armed variety but there is a great number of different regional patterns including what most people in America know as a "God's Eye" pattern woven around two sticks. At the end of the evening each person should take their cross home, sprinkle it with a bit of sacred water and speak a request of Brigit for blessing and protection of the home and family members. Old crosses from previous years should be moved to the rafters or attic of your home, and the new crosses hung in their place near the entryways to the dwelling. Crosses that were woven by the children should be hung on the wall over their beds, and if you happen to have a barn or out-building you should hang one there as well. They are especially effective in protecting the household and its inhabitants from fire and lightening.
Throughout the year, the crosses may be taken down temporarily when a Brigit blessing is needed: the a healing of a sick child; tucking between the mattresses to assist in conception; placed upon a basket of seed being carried out to the garden for planting, etc.
The eve of Imbolc is the best time of the year to perform divinations specifically pertaining to the future welfare and prosperity of your family.
On the eve of Imbolc, a family or community feast should be held. When all is prepared, and the table is set, the persons who were involved in the making of the Brideog should go outside and retrieve her. The doll should be placed on the outside of the building next to the open door. The men should get on their knees before the doll (the traditional gesture of respect for the Brideog) and shout into the house, "Go on your knees, open your eyes, and admit Brigit!" The celebrants inside should answer, "Welcome! Welcome! Welcome to the holy woman!" The Brideog should then be carried into the house and leaned against a leg of the feasting table. Begin the feast with a prayer of thanks.
As the evening of the Imbolc £east winds down, the women of the household or grove should gather up the last of the straw and fashion an oblong basket in the shape of a cradle called "leaba Brid" (LAWA BREE) or "the bed of Brid". Place the bed near the hearth If you have one. Then place the Brideog into the bed and place a small straight wand of birch with the bark peeled in the bed beside the figure. This wand is called "slatag Brid" (SLAH-TAHG BREE) or "'the little wand of Brid. If you have burned a fire during the evening the ashes of the fire should be scraped smooth. In the morning check the ashes for marks of Brigit's wand or better yet, her footprint to prove that she had visited during the night. If no marks are found, burn some incense in the hearth or near the spot where the bed was placed, as an offering.
This is a special type of procession similar to caroling that members of your grove can do on the eve of Imbolc (or one of the preceding nights if necessary). Arrangements should be made ahead of time so that people can sign up for a visit and know what to expect. They should also be advised that it is best to do the spring cleaning before the Brideog visits. Assemble a company of participants, called "Biddy's" or Brideogs and prepare the songs for the event. Take the Brideogs from house to house to offer blessings and entertainment to the families who live mere. Dressing in unusual clothes and wearing funny hats will add to the fun of the event and, is quite traditional. A young lady, traditionally the prettiest of the crowd, should be selected to carry the Brigit doll.
When you arrive, ask for admittance to the house (it is considered very bad luck to be uncivil to a Brideog) and everyone should file in. Entertain the household with a couple of songs (traditionally song, rhymes and music on flute, violin, and later, accordion were used) and recite a prepared Brigit blessing for them. If the household does not already have one, they should be presented with a Brigit's cross for protection and blessings through the year. Before going, the family should present the Brideogs with an item of food, especially one associated with dairy, to be used at the community feast (or as an alternative you can collect non-perishable food items for a homeless shelter).
Blessing of the Brat Brid
During the day before Imbolc, the woman of the house or women of the grove should take a small piece of cloth (larger if it is for the entire grove) and lay it on a bush outside. During the night, as the goddess roams to bless the houses of her followers, she will pass by, touching and blessing the cloth. Collect the cloth in the morning and tear it into small pieces. These pieces of doth, individually called a Brat Brid (BRAHT BREE]), should be distributed among the children and females of the household. The Brat Brid will give them protection throughout the year where ever they go. These pieces of cloth may be sewn into the clothes or jackets of the children to insure that it won't be lost.
Blessing the Bratach Brid
The Bratach Bree (BRAH-TOCK BREE) is a large piece of cloth, such as a shawl that Brigit will bless in the same fashion as the Brat Brid. Instead of being torn into pieces on the next day this cloth should be kept as a sacred relic and charged repeatedly year after year. The Bratach Brid can become quite powerful over time and can be used to help insure safe childbirth and to cure sterility by placing it over the patient and asking for Brigit's help. It was once fairly standard equipment for country midwives in Ireland. In addition to being used for human mothers during childbirth it was also spread across the back of birthing cows to ensure the health of the calves and an abundant supply of milk.
A Solitary Imbolc Ritual
If you've got your Dedicant's shrine set up, you should use that for this ritual. If you don't have such a shrine, you can make do with representations for the well (a bowl of water) with a piece of silver for the Well offering (a coin is fine), the fire (a candle - three candles, or a three-wicked candle, would be best), and the tree (a branch placed in a pot of soil is good). You'll also need:
o a separate bowl of water and a candle (to receive the blessings of Brigit)
o offerings for Brigit (see below for suggestions)
o offerings for the Outsiders (food or drink)
o For purifications: mud or red ochre; salt water; incense or smudge stick
o a straw "dolly" or rowan stick to represent Brigit, and a straw bed for her (optional)
o For the return blessing: red, white, and black ribbons attached to the frame of a doorway (optional)
Irish words used in the ritual:
Biodh sé [bee sheh] -- let it be so!
Failte romhat [failcheh rowat] -- be very welcome
Go raibh ma agat [GO ruh ma A-gat] -- thank you (singular)
Go raibh ma agibh [GO ruh ma A-giv] -- thank you (plural)
Slán agat [slan A-gat] -- go well (singular)
Slán agibh [slan A-giv)] -- go well (plural)
--a is pronounced [ah] for the most part.
Go to the center and place a dab of red ochre or mud from your local area upon your forehead and wrists, or toss upon the ground a handful of seeds, dirt or salt, saying "Upon the firm and life giving land I stand."
Then take some salt water, walk the boundary of your space sprinkling it—preferably in nine splashes—and say "The sea surrounds me, separating the wild from the tame."
Third, light a stick of incense or a smudge stick and wave it in an arc over your head, saying "Above me the sky, realm of order and of wonder, that shall not fall as long as time endures."
Consecrating the Shrine
Pour water into the Well, saying:
"By the Goddesses of Waters
By the Gods of Waters
By the Powers Under the Earth
I give thanks for the Waters of the Well.
Let this vessel be as the Triple Well of Blessing in this Sacred Grove of Druidry."
Light the Fire, saying:
"I kindle this Fire
To be a Flame of Magic
To be a Flame of Claiming
To be a Flame of Inspiration
To welcome the Gods and Spirits to this Sacred Grove of Druidry."
Walk around the ritual space three times, clockwise.
"Thus do I call and name the Brilliant one; Queenly Bríd, - brings the smith's fire, the healer's fire, the hearth fire, the well of vision, the well of inspiration, the well of healing, - midwife and baker, brewer and weaver, singer and wise one, giver of all great gifts. I call upon Brighid of the blessings, Brighid of the graces, giver of the blessings of inspiration- fire in the head that enflames us with holy words, silver on the tongue that shall fall sweet as honey on the ears of the gods and non-gods this day, grace of eye and hand, grace of voice and carriage, grace of intention and action, so that all that I do here will honour Her this day. Biodh sé!"
Invoking the Earth Mother:
"Earth Mother, Mother of Peoples, Source of Waters. Your child thanks you for bringing the life to the land, for giving me a place and a foundation upon which to place my hearth, and I honor you."
Take an offering of food or drink and set it outside the ritual space, saying:
"Outsiders, forces of chaos, you who choose not to be part of our workings, you dwell beyond our firelight and our gates, in the dark places between, you who are primal and unbounded, raw and untamed. I make you this offering, and ask that you not disturb us during this rite."
Two Powers Attunement:
You shouldn't read this section out loud while doing it, since it wouldn't work well with the deep breathing you're supposed to be doing. If you can, record a tape of yourself reading this, then play it back during the actual ritual. If you can't, then you can read it from a script and do the best you can with the visualizations. Of course, if you can memorize the whole thing, that would be the best way to handle it!
Begin, O seeker of wisdom, with your breath... breathe deeply, from your belly... in... and out... make your body comfortable... stretch if you need to, settle in place... and focus on your breath... observe your breath as it flows in and out of your body... and with each breath, allow your body to relax... let your breath carry away tension from your flesh.. relaxing your feet and legs... letting your belly soften and relax... breathing away tension from your shoulders and arms... from your neck... relaxing your face and mouth, your eyes... with each breath your body becoming warmer, comfortable and relaxed... your mind alert and prepared for magic...
Now, with your body still and calm, imagine that from your feet, or the base of your spine, roots begin to grow downward... roots reaching and growing into the earth, down through soil and stone... deepening and spreading... reaching to touch the waters under the Earth... the Earth current... the dark, cool, magnetic power that nourishes and sustains life... as your roots touch this current it is drawn in and up toward your body... your breath draws the Earth power upward... into your body... the invisible, magnetic power fills your legs, energizing and strengthening... waters rise from the earth, into your legs... rising... into your loins... and pooling in your loins, a cauldron of Earth power... You breathe the power upward... rising from the earth, through your loins, rising up your spine... into your heart... pooling and filling a cauldron in your heart with healing, restoring energy... power rising from the deep, through your loins, through your heart... rising up your spine and into your head... filling a cauldron of wisdom and vision behind your eyes... and rising still, filling all your body and flowing out again through the crown of your head... through your hands... flowing out around your body and back into the earth... the power under the Earth flows in you... grounding you in the source of life...
Now imagine the sky overhead... The sun and moon and, far beyond them, the stars... imagine a single star at the center of the sky, shining directly over your head... the center of your inner sky, your own pole-star...see a flash of light shining down from that star... streaming down between moon and sun... gold, silver and blue-white light... the bright, warm, electric power of the sky... the light touches your head, filling and illuminating the cauldron like sun on still water... shining from above... filling your head with warm, awakening power... flowing down into your heart... warming the cauldron... shining down through head and heart, illumining the waters... downward to reach your loins... The cauldron shines with sky power in your loins... Tingling, electrical light in head, heart and loins... the light flows downward into Earth, and you are shining and flowing with the mingled powers of Earth and sky... the raw material of magic... the chaos of potential and the world order...
These powers are balanced in you... yours to shape and use... always with you in some degree...
But for now, allow the powers to recede... waters to the Earth, light to the sky... knowing that each time you attune to them you become more attuned, more at one with the powers... breath deep... and allow your awareness to return to your common senses... as you open your eyes...
Opening the Portals
The Tree is aligned with the "World Tree," the center of our cosmos and the axis connecting all three Realms. The Fire when opened as a "gate" or portal carries our words throughout the realms on its smoke; and the Well or shaft becomes the portal to the Underworld and the connection with the primal waters of life. Once the portals are opened, we call upon Mannanan mac Lir in his role as a psychopomp (a fancy Greek word for "god who escorts the spirits of the dead") to guide and protect us in our rite.
Go to the center of your space and stamp a foot or tap a staff upon the ground, or thump a fist upon the wall if that's the center for you, or sprinkle water from your well upon the branch if you are using one, and say:
"Here I declare sacred center, where all times and places meet. Let it be as the world tree, the central axis of the world, so that all spirits and beings of good will may be welcome here to share in this rite!"
"World Tree, sacred center of the universe. Your roots delve deep into the earth, your branches reach the heights of the sky, and your mighty trunk connects them. May you be the strong center around which this rite revolves."
Visualize the roots of the tree growing deep into the earth, and the branches reaching up to the heavens.
Place the silver in the Well, saying:
"Sacred well, whose waters flow and swirl beneath us. May your depths connect my spirit to the great underground sea and the ageless powers below."
Visualize the bottom of the well connecting to an ocean in the depths of the earth.
Place some incense in the Fire, saying:
"Sacred fire, carry all offerings to the gods and the beloved dead. May you warm all my spirit and my life."
Visualize the smoke and flame connecting to shadowy, stylized places where graceful and dimly seen beings receive the smoke as if it were solid.
Invocation of Mannanan:
"Mannanan mac Lir, Grey Walker, Keeper of the Gates. You guided the Ancestors to the Isle of Avalon. Open now the way and convey my welcome to the Queenly mother, hearth goddess, and to all those others I would welcome at this hearth, that we may share in this celebration together.
Invoking the Kindreds
invoke each of the three kindreds, inviting them to be with us during the rite. You may want to visualize them as you invoke them.
"At this altar, with this candle, in this sacred place, I call to you o ancestors.
We welcome you to join me here, and to welcome as of old, Brigit, the hearth mother, who taught you - as you teach me - the ancient arts of brewing and baking and many great gifts. Ancestors, be welcome!"
Nature Spirits Invocation:
"Spirits of Nature, you who dwell within the land, gently waken to the steps of Bright Brigit.
Be welcome here, You oystercatcher bird and hearth cat, honey bee and milk cow, you serpent coiled to do no harm - you companions of our highest queen, I honor and welcome you
Among all that I welcome here today. Nature Spirits, Failte romhat!"
"High and Shining Ones, gods who are dear to me, be welcome here this day, be honored and join in welcoming Brigit, honored among you as warrior-smith, poet-teacher, weaver and healer and giver of plenty- gifts that each of you may share: Oh divine ones, share in the feast of Brigit."
Deity of the Occasion
Beside the hearth or the ritual fire, you will have placed a "Bride's (Scottish spelling of Brighid) bed" - a small straw or wood bed, made up nicely. Open your door, or go to the threshold, or stand by the hearth if you have one. Take a straw "dolly" or rowan stick to represent the goddess, or feel for her presence, and say:
"Brigit I invoke this day,
In the high places and the low,
Beside the hearth fire and at the sacred well.
The gentle queen I call to her hall,
The place where the bed is prepared.
"By her many graces I call to Brigit who graces us this day;
Grace of eye and grace of hand,
Grace of word and grace of will,
Grace of caring, grace of birthing, grace in mourning,
Grace of carriage, grace of courage,
Comforter and mother,
Brigit of the Blessings I name the one
Who blesses us this day!
"Let us greet her, we who know her blessings.
Come weaver and poet,
Come brewer and baker,
Come mother and healer,
Come blacksmith and wordsmith,
Beekeeper and hearth-keeper.
"Thus I call to the Mother and Queen; A bed is prepared at the seat of honor, Come grace the hearth seat, Brigit I invoke this day!"
Place the dolly or stick on the bed, or gesture to the bed by the hearth and feel for the presence of the goddess nearby.
You might place some bread and mead or ale beside the Bride's bed. A good offering would be preparing and kneading bread within the ritual. Write and recite some poetry, sing or tell a story to the goddess as you might do to entertain any guest. Spin or weave a small piece of work and offer it to the goddess- don't burn this one; put it on her shrine if you have one or give it to the next visitor who needs something comforting. Enjoy the sacredness and complexity of domestic work. Make a promise of hospitality to all who need it, or dedicate yourself as a healer, or vow to help a friend in childbirth. These are all the gifts and work of Brighid.
Omen of Return
ask the Kindreds, especially the Deity of the Occasion, whether our offering is pleasing to them.
Using your preferred method of divination, ask Brigit if your offering is acceptable. Since Brigit is a hearth goddess, fire scrying is an appropriate method. She is also sometimes associated with wells of vision and of healing, so you might choose to scry in water.
Take water from the bowl and anoint your head, hands, and feet, saying:
"I take of the water of Brigit, to be cleansed and blessed."
Take your candle and light it from the Fire, saying:
"I ask the blessings of the triple Brigit.
Blessings of inspiration - silver on the tongue;
Blessings of hearth and healing - golden riches of honey;
Blessings of courage, wisdom and strength.
And the light of her flame to guide me this day, as I go forward to rebirth."
Take your candle and go to the doorway, at which you will have placed long coiled ribbons in red, black and white. Uncoil and tape the ribbons around the door frame to make a sort of hoop. This is called the "críos Bríd"- the girdle of Bríd.
Step through this circle, with your left leg first, and feel yourself being reborn. If you are able to go around and come back in by another door, go through the Críos three times. This is a charm for health, plenty and fertility. Then place the candle some place where it can burn safely.
In exchange for our offerings, we ask Brigit to give us a symbolic rebirth. The water washes us clean of those things we wish to be rid of, the flame represents the spark of life and inspiration, and stepping through a circle... well, I'll let you figure that out. The traditional ritual involved stepping through a large woven hoop, called a "críos" (pronounced "crish"), that was held by two other people. You might not have two other people to help you hold a real hoop, and I wouldn't want you to try contorting yourself through a hoop by yourself while holding a candle, so I suggest using a facsimile or a visualization instead. Also, the traditional manner of stepping through the críos was for the men (wearing pants) to step through, left side first, while the women (wearing long skirts) would have the hoop lowered over them and down to the ground, where they could step out of it. You can choose whichever method you prefer.
Thanking the deity of the occasion:
"Bríd have I welcomed this day, to my hearth, to my home, to my life. May she go from here refreshed and made more joyous, as her blessing has renewed and uplifted me! Slán agat, a Bhrid!"
Thanking the kindreds:
"You shining ones, nature spirits and ancestors, I thank you for your presence in this rite and in my life! As I return to ordinary time and the daily world, your blessings travel with me. So to, let my blessings and love go with you. Slán agibh!"
Thanking the Outsiders:
"Outsiders, you whose ways are not ours, I thank you for your forbearance. Without you there would be no change, yet in this moment, your absence was as welcome as once your presence was needed! Go raibh ma agibh!"
Thanking the Earth Mother:
"Earth mother, I do not leave you, nor do you go from here, but as this rite comes to a close, once again I thank you for giving firm foundation to this hearth, for providing sustenance and life, that your child can give you love and honor. Earth mother, Go raibh ma agat!"
Closing the portals:
"Here have we met, gods and spirits, ancestors and I. But now the sacred well becomes once again a simple bowl of water, the ancient bonfire once again a candle, and this tree may no longer touch the very arch of the heavens nor its roots be those which hold the worlds in their embrace. Biodh sé!"
"By Land, Sea and Sky, By Fire, Well and Tree
I end this rite.
I go forth with blessing, to bless the world in turn.