Celtic Women International

Imbolg - Fertility and Spring
Mary Mullins - Galway, Ireland

Imbolg (February 1st) is the first day of spring and one of the 'quarter days' in the Celtic Calendar. It lies between the feasts of Samhain on November 1st and Beltain on May 1st with Samhain being the most magical of the ancient pagan feasts. Little is known about this pastoral feast but it is associated with the lambing season and lactation of ewes and also with the goddess Brigit. The word Imbolg is thought to derive from oí-melc ('ewe-milk') meaning 'when the sheep's milk comes'.

In Irish mythology the chief god was called the Dagda or 'Good God' and came from the Tuatha de Dannan. He was the father figure who was seen as the protector, made the harvests fruitful and averted plague and famine. He is said to have held a cauldron of plenty or hospitality, from which no one went away hungry.

Morrigan, an earth-goddess, was his mate, and she personified sexuality, fertility and maternity. It is said they had three daughters, all called Brigit or Brighid - a trinity of goddesses. Brigit was also known as Danu - from the Daanan - and is seen to be the female ancestor of the Celtic people.

She wears threee mantles - matron of healing, smithcraft and poetry and is lauded by gifted artisans and poets as the mistress of inspiration and prophecy.

In Celtic Mythology Ireland had two personas, both of them female. One was of a beautiful, fertile queen and the other of an evil hag, called the Cailleach. (I have memories of my father referring to one lady in our village, known to be sharp and unfriendly, as 'she's a cailleach that one'.) Ireland is often referred to as Mother Ireland and our world as Mother Earth.

The winter months are said to be affected by the Cailleach, when she hardened the earth with her hammer at the beginning of Samhain, winter. Brigit was believed to make it soft again with her white wand, leading to new birth and growth.

Celts have always revered the earth and their worship was (and still is for many) inspired by natural sources. Trees abound in places of religious worship and ceremonies, and the oak, ash and yew trees often stood on the land where sacrifice was offered. This tradition carries on in its Christianised way with religious ceremonies celebrated in the open air at sacred or blessed wells. In Ireland there are many springs, wells and rivers dedicated to St. Brigid or to Mary. Beside us here in Athenry we have 'Lady's Day' at a blessed well which is celebrated on August 15th one of Our Lady's feast days. Huge crowds gather around this well for Mass and prayers and later in the day are celebrations. There is a village in Donegal called Doon, where a bush is bedecked all year round with spectacles, kerchiefs and garlands of asthma inhalers and baby items, as people pray to St. Brigid for a cure of their own particular affliction. The picture here is of The Turoe Stone in Bullaun, County Galway - renowned locally as the fertility stone.

The spiritual way of the Celt is to perform each and every activity of daily life in a mindful way. There is no separation of life from this spiritual dimension and there are prayers of all sorts for every aspect of life. In Celtic spirituality every act, no matter how mundane, expresses the sacred, and Celtic spirituality is not just assigned to within church walls or Sundays or Sabbath day. This is often evident in the everyday speech and blessings of the Celt, particularly the Irish.

As with all things Celt, we see the link with the ancient, pagan world carried forward into the Christian world. In Ireland our second patron saint is St. Brigid of Kildare, famed for her generosity and hospitality, and her feast day is February 1st.  This first day of February has become known as Lá Fhéile Bríde - St.Brigid's Day.

St. Brigid is accepted as the most important link between the pagan and Christian traditions in the Celtic world. She is seen, as foster-mother to Christ and in Ireland is known as 'Mary of the Gael'. Traditions continue to this day about her, one of which is the making of crosses from reeds or rushes. These are made by school children that bring them home to be hung in homes, barns and stables throughout the year and replenished again the following spring. Another tradition which is not as prevalent now as it was only some 20 years ago, is that of little girls going from house to house with a doll dressed in white and called the brígeóg. Perhaps the old pagan links with fertility breaking through, as is so often the case in Celtic traditions? Mothers still invoke St. Brigid's protection during childbirth.

Brigid lived from 450 to 523 AD. It is said that when she founded her monastery she had a perpetual sacred fire lit which burned down through more than ten centuries until the time of the Reformation, when Ireland's monasteries and abbeys were sacked by Cromwell and his troops. This 'fire of faith' was inflamed by St. Patrick and St Brigid in the dark ages and brought with it the light of learning and the warmth of culture.

In some areas this tradition of fire associated with St. Brigid continues with prayers being said on lighting the morning hearth and smooring or covering the home fire at night. Celtic spirituality is a religion of the hearth, of the mind in the heart, and life is lived in communion with this natural relationship between nature and the creator.

I'll finish with an old Celtic prayer taken from the life's work collections of Alexander Carmichael called Carmina Gadelica or Ortha nan Gaidheal. This massive 6 volume work in both Gaelic and English has gathered together prayers, charms, blessings and customs of the Gaelic speakers who inhabited the west coast and Isles of Scotland in the 19th, century. This night prayer is from a beautiful little book called: "A Little Book of Celtic Prayer - A Daily Companion" by Anthony Duncan.

Smooring The Fire

I smoor the fire this night
As the Son of Mary would smoor it;
The compassing of God be on the fire,
The compassing of God on all the household.

Be God's compassing about ourselves,
Be God's compassing about us all,
Be God's compassing upon the flock,
Be God's compassing upon the hearth.

Who keeps watch this night?
Who but the Christ of the poor,
The bright and gentle Brigit of the kine,
The bright and gentle Mary of the ringlets.

Whole be house and herd,
Whole be son and daughter,
Whole be wife and man,
Whole be household all.

(To smoor is to smother, kine are the cattle.)

Read more of Mary's Reflections on her website.
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Last modified: November 12, 2004