Use Imbolc to Ask for Brighid’s Inspiration
by Melanie Fire Salamander
At a Northwest Imbolc, grey days pass under grey skies. The furor of the solstice holidays is over, and cold and rain face us for the next six weeks, or six months. Here, Imbolc lacks even the bracing snow of winter. Nor is it time for flowers and fresh breezes. A few crocuses may poke their heads above ground, but Imbolc, the first pagan holiday of spring, doesn’t speak of spring’s fulfillment, rather of spring’s promise.
Imbolc is the pregnancy of spring, the first stirring of seeds sown in autumn. One derivation of the holiday’s name, which is taken from the Irish, is “in the belly,” according to R.J. Stewart in Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses. Animal life also begins to stir. Around Imbolc, ewes begin to lactate, a time important to hungry traditional peoples. This association is reflected in medieval European writings. Cormac’s Glossary, composed around year 900, derives “Imbolc” from “sheep’s milk,” Ronald Hutton writes in The Stations of the Sun. In the tenth- or eleventh-century Irish tale “The Wooing of Emer,” this holiday is called “Imbolc, when the ewes are milked at spring’s beginning.”
At Imbolc, early Europeans also rendered fat for candles, having saved the fat from meat eaten through the winter. Hence the holiday’s alternate name Candlemas, from the Christianized version of the day. Christian Europe observes Candlemas with candlelight processions, parades that may hark back to ancient torchlight ceremonies for purifying and reviving the fields at spring sowing, according to Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. The February ceremonies of the pagan Romans were also rites of cleansing and preparation for the coming year. Likewise, February 2 is the Aztec New Year, observed with early-spring agricultural rites and renewed fires. After other purifications, covens at Imbolc traditionally initiate new witches.
Around the Northern Hemisphere, Imbolc is a time of beginnings, of hopes for success in the coming year. But hope is double-edged; the ancient Greeks put it into Pandora’s box with other human ills, a lying daemon. In this grey weather, it’s easy to see hope as a lie. Of all holidays, Imbolc is the most based on faith. If you don’t feel faith, if you lack inspiration, Imbolc is a good time to seek it.
Imbolc comes strongly associated with a Celtic goddess who oversees inspiration. The Irish, Scots and Manx considered this holiday to belong to Brighid or Bride (pronounced breed), a patroness of smithcraft, healing and poetic inspiration whose name can be derived from the Gaelic “breo-aigit” or “fiery arrow.”
Brighid’s attributes are many. She was known as a smith and fighter, patroness of the armies of Irish Leinster. As a healer, she rules wells and streams. Worshippers in medieval times walked around her holy wells deosil (sunwise) on hands and knees and left valuable pins or buttons in the water, or hung rags in the trees nearby, asking for relief.
An Irish celebration of Brighid’s day reflects another healing aspect. In this observance, Hutton writes, a family would hold a formal supper, during which they would place food, usually cake or bread and butter, on the windowsill as a gift for Brighid. The family might also leave a cloth, garment or ribbon on the sill overnight, asking Brighid to bless it. Family members would wear it later in the year to prevent headaches.
Brighid also oversees childbirth. In the west Scottish Highlands as late as 100 years ago, midwives would bless newborns with fire and water in Brighid’s name, Caitlin Matthews reports in The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom. Fire and water come together also in Brighid’s water, which you make by plunging a burning coal into water while asking for the goddess’s blessing. The water, used to anoint and purify, combines Brighid’s natures of smith and healer.
Brighid’s midwife aspect perhaps conceals an earlier goddess of fertility, a corn-mother, as shown in the tradition of Bride’s bed. To create this bed, Pauline Campanelli in The Wheel of the Year has you decorate a grain maiden made at the autumn equinox or from the last harvest’s wheat or corn. You dress the maiden in white, lay her in a basket and set across her a priapic wand — an acorn-tipped wand of oak — twined with ribbon, so that wand and bride form an X. You then place lit candles to either side and hail the maiden with a chant, or incorporate her into a ritual saluting the fertility of the coming spring. After the ritual, you undress the maiden and at sunrise place her on your dwelling’s front door. There she forms an amulet of prosperity, fertility and protection, which can remain till the next Samhain.
The Celtic traditions behind this pagan practice are many and varied. In the Isle of Man, according to Hutton, followers of Brighid left her an empty bed in a corner of the house or barn, beside it bread, cheese, ale and a lighted candle. In the Scottish islands of the Hebrides, where householders made a figure of Bride from oats, families would leave her abed overnight and look for an impression of her wand in the hearth ashes the next morning. A mark meant a good crop and a prosperous year, and a footstep was held marvelous, but if nothing appeared the family took it as a bad omen. To avert misfortune, members would bury a cock at the junction of three streams or burn incense on their hearth fire.
Elsewhere in Ireland, people plaited a criosog Bridghe, St. Brighid’s cross, of rushes or straw, hanging it on Brighid’s Eve over a door or window or in the rafters to welcome her. Others set their crosses in stables to ask for blessings on the animals. The Irish left their criosogs up through the year, replacing them the next Brighid’s Eve.
Besides giving health and agricultural fertility, Brighid lends clear sight into the future and creative fertility. According to Matthews, she presided over a special type of Irish augury called a “frith,” performed on the first Monday after a cross-quarter day, such as Imbolc, to predict what the year’s next quarter would bring. Brighid was said also to inspire poetry, and many Irish poems hail her. Cormac’s Glossary calls her “a poetess… the female sage, woman of wisdom, or Brighid the goddess whom poets venerated because very great and famous for her protecting care.” Matthews attributes to her the “nine gifts of the cauldron” mentioned in the Irish poet Amergin’s “Song of the Three Cauldrons”: reflection, lore, research, great knowledge, intelligence, understanding, wisdom, meditation and poetry. If inspiration is what you seek at this grey Northwest Imbolc, Brighid is a good goddess to turn to.
A Ritual to Seek Inspiration
This ritual is to find hope and inspiration in a project or your life as a whole. Before you start the working, I’ll ask you to spend some time in journal work and meditation. For these and the magickal rite, give yourself at least one undisturbed hour (two is better). Turn off the phone, and put your pets in another room.
A good time for this ritual is first thing Imbolc morning. If that doesn’t work, try the night before, or during a waxing moon. It’s best done in spring, but don’t let the season prevent you from doing the ritual if you want.
Have on hand:
- A white or pastel candle to meditate by, and a candleholder for it.
- Paper and pen to create a journal entry and for use during meditation. (You can create the initial journal entry using a computer, but you’ll definitely want the old-fashioned tools later.)
- A cauldron or earth-filled bowl large enough to contain a burning piece of paper safely.
- Anointing oil or Brighid’s water.
- A candle of a color that says inspiration to you, possibly rainbow-colored, silver, gold, lavender or
green — use your own personal associations.
- A candleholder for this inspiration candle.
First, create a journal entry looking at what you’re thinking and feeling. Whether or not you keep an ongoing journal, writing about your thoughts and emotions helps clear your head before a ritual and make sure that unconscious ambivalence doesn’t color your work. Even if you already know what’s in your head, getting your feelings out on paper may reveal new information or connections. And the simple act of formally acknowledging a thought or emotion by writing it down can help that energy move.
So ask yourself: How do I feel? Why?
Next, ask yourself: What do I want out of this ritual? Write the answer on a separate page as a single, formal statement; this will be the statement of your working.
Then ask yourself: What within me stands in my way? What benefits do I get from not succeeding here?
This ritual assumes you are already dealing with any practical roadblocks preventing your success. For me, it’s rarely the outer blockages that most hinder me — it’s the inner ones.
So look at the inner urges that block your desires. As they come up, don’t judge them, if you can avoid it. These shadows all exist for a reason. If you can honor these urges, understand them, talk to them, promise they will be met in some way other than preventing your success, you will clear the way for inspiration.
On a separate piece of paper, write out a list of your inner blockages for use in meditation, following.
To meditate, start with relaxation. Light your white or pastel candle, and sitting in front of it relax your whole body. If this doesn’t come easily, try tensing each body part, then releasing it. (For more meditative techniques, see other articles in this issue.) Looking at the candle flame — if you don’t want spots before your eyes, look at the base of the wick — take 20 deep breaths, breathing into your belly, saying to yourself that each breath relaxes you further. Count each breath.
Once relaxed, ground and center. Make your grounding cord strong and deeply rooted, and center yourself in the middle of your head — your third eye, a neutral space. Neutrality is a good tool when looking at inner blocks. Next, create a protective energetic circle around yourself in whatever way you prefer.
For the following step, give yourself some latitude. Don’t force yourself to do work you’re not ready for; doing so will enforce rather than clear obstructions.
From your list of inner blocks, choose one. Let it be personified in a way that you can be neutral about — not a monster, simply a presence. Then ask the block in meditation: What do you want?
For me, the answers to this question always surprise me and usually simplify matters. What your blockage will usually want, first, is acknowledgement. Then it might have some specific request. Nine times out of ten, at least for me, such requests can be dealt with in ways that allow me to move forward with my desired goal.
On a separate piece of paper, write down what the block wants. If you can, promise to fulfill that need, but at very least write it down for your knowledge.
Thank the block, bless it and let it go.
Then choose the next block on your list (unless you have only one), and repeat the process, collecting all the blocks’ requests on one sheet.
When you’re done figuring out what your blockages want, briefly decide how to address the requests. Often the action required is something simple, such as recognizing and honoring a formerly hidden emotion. Sometimes addressing the blockages’ needs will take further practical or ritual work. The answer isn’t to do the work right now, but to make an honest commitment to do it over time. If you don’t feel you can do what your blocks request, at the very least promise to keep thinking about the issues raised till solutions can be found. However works best for you, make a commitment to do the work to satisfy and thus release these blocks.
Write that commitment down on the page with the blocks’ requests, fold the paper and, when you can, set it in some place you will see daily, such as on your altar.
Now ground and center once more. Connect with the energies of earth and sky, and from the sky draw down cleansing, healing energy. Let it meet healing earth energy within you, and fill yourself completely with healing and comfort. Wash any pain or negative emotion down your grounding into the earth. Take time to do this slowly and fully and come back to equilibrium.
The Rite Itself
Now that you’ve done your personal work in journal and meditation and cleansed yourself, it’s time to ask for inspiration from the goddess.
Connect again with your grounding, center yourself and renew the circle around you, this time so as to work magick. Call the elements, directions, fey or all three to your circle as you usually do.
Now call to your circle the Celtic goddess Brighid. Do so in a speech inspired in the moment; call to her from your heart. The description earlier should give you a feeling for her attributes and nature. Call her strongly; let her fill your circle.
Besides your original journal entry and the page listing your blocks’ requests and your commitment, you should have two slips of paper: the list of the blocks themselves and your formal statement of ritual intent. From that statement, read aloud what you want this ritual to do. Feel free to amend your statement based on what you learned from journal work and meditation.
Now take up the list of things obstructing you. Say aloud the following, or something like it:
“To do (my project), I have committed to satisfy these blocks. Having made that commitment, I release them.”
Focusing on letting go your inner blocks, fold the page and light it in the flame of your meditation candle. Let the flame burn up everything that stands in your way. Drop the burning page in your cauldron or earth-filled bowl, and watch till it flares out.
Now pick up the anointing oil or Brighid’s water. Hold it above your head, and call out the following or something similar:
“I dedicate this (oil or water) to the Goddess Brighid and her brilliant inspiration!”
With the dedicated oil or water, anoint the candle you’ve chosen to represent inspiration. Holding the candle above your head, stand and raise the energy of inspiration either by toning wordlessly or by chanting:
“As this candle flames and fires,
Let me be renewed, inspired.”
Pour energy into the candle, imagining yourself filled with inspiration and hope. Imagine too the goddess lending you her aid.
When you have sent the power you raised into the candle, touch the surface below you and ground out any excess energy. Set the candle in its holder, ready for use. Then thank and release the goddess and other entities (directions, elements, fey), and take down your circle.
Light the candle whenever you work on the project you created it for, or whenever you’re in need of inspiration or hope.