Spring is Nearly Here

Spring is Nearly Here

31 January 2013

The garden's still covered in snow, and there's little enough going on beyond this beautiful blooming Phaius orchid to promise spring is really on the way. And yet, Imbolc, the pagan beginning of spring, is already here.

Most of us in America know this holiday as Groundhog Day, but its roots go back to Celtic weather magic. The Scots watch for snakes to emerge from their winter dens on that day. (The Irish, who St. Patrick kindly rid of snakes, keep watch for badgers.) Another Celtic tradition is that Imbolc is the day the hag Cailleach gathers wood to last her the rest of the winter. If she knows the cold weather will last, she'll ensure fine weather on Imbolc, so that she has time to gather her wood. Thus, Celts hope for foul weather on Imbolc, for it means the Cailleach has no need to gather much more wood.

As this primitive stone portrait suggests, the Cailleach is an aspect of the ancient Great Goddess, whose pagan avatars include Cybele, Artemis, and Hekate, as well as the Celtic goddess Brighid. Christianity quickly appropriated this powerful goddess, and transformed her into Brigit, the Mary of the Gael.

Nonetheless, many of her characteristics as a pagan goddess remain: Like Brighid, who was supposed to be the daughter of the Dagda and a poet, St. Brigit is a patron of poetry, who was supposed to have penned the legendary Lost Book of Kildare. Brighid's identity as a fire goddess is reflected in the story that the flame at Kildare was supposed never to have gone out. And Brighid's reputation as a healer was extended by medieval hagiographers to the point where St. Brigit was supposed to have gone back in time to serve as midwife to the Lord Jesus himself.

St. Brigit the healer was also said to have woven a cross as she comforted a pagan king on his deathbed, and plaiting a St. Brigit's Cross remains a traditional way to mark her feast, which is observed on Feb. 1, the same day as pagan Imbolc. The saint was said to walk the earth on the eve of her feast, and householders would rake the ashes of the fire smooth, so that they might catch a glimpse of the saint's footprints in the morning. Another way to mark the saint's passage is carrying a corn dolly called the Brideog ("little Brigit") from house to house. The customary way to greet the passing saint is by repeating "Welcome, Brigit" three times. And, although my enjoyment of folklore and legend does not make me an overly superstitious person, I can attest to the fact that when my husband and I did that one Imbolc Eve, the door to our kitchen slammed open, sounding very much like a saint who'd like to get in out of the cold and the wind.

Brigit's power as a goddess was such that her day spilled over into Candlemas, Feb. 2, which marks the Purification of the Virgin (the ritual cleansing after her pregnancy according to Jewish custom) and the end of the liturgical season of Christmas. (One of the genuine joys of teaching at a place like Fordham is that when you wonder aloud in the faculty room when exactly the Christmas season ends, a passing Jesuit will murmur, "Purification of the Virgin," and will be kindly enough not to add "of course.")

But Brigit's connection to the ancient power of the goddess is perhaps not as good an explanation of her enduring popularity as the beginning of a poem commonly ascribed to her:

I should like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.
I should like the angels of Heaven to be drinking it through time eternal.

Or, as one of the guides at St. Bride's Church, which she was supposed to have founded in London, was reported to have put it: "Ah, St. Brigit. She kept a fine alehouse."

© - Erica Obey
Photos © - George Baird