Imbolc, also called Oimealg by the Druids, is the festival of the lactating sheep. Yes, you heard that right. It is derived from the Gaelic word oimelc meaning ewes milk. At this time of the year, many herd animals have either given birth for the first time of the year or they are just about to. It’s the first breath of Spring and it marks the center point of the dark half of the year. It is the festival of the Maiden and from February 1st to March 21st, it is her season to prepare for growth and renewal. On Feb. 1st, Brighid’s snake emerges from the womb of the Earth Mother to test the weather (Ground Hog Day anyone?) and in many places the first flowers begin to pierce the grounds of winter and start to bloom. Brighid’s Crosses are made and exchanged as symbols of protection and prosperity in the coming year.Home hearth fires are put out and re-lit, and candles are lit and placed in each room of the house to honor the re-birth of the Sun. It is a festival of fire and renewal and one of the first celebrations of Spring.
Brighid was the patron goddess of the Druids. She was the goddess of all things perceived to be of relatively high dimensions such as high-rising flames, highlands, hill-forts and upland areas; and of higher learning and elevated states of consciousness such as wisdom, excellence, perfection, high intelligence, poetic eloquence, craftsmanship, and healing ability. She was such a popular goddess that even when Christianity came to the isle, there was no way to stop her influence – so the church made her a saint, renamed her Mary of the Gaels and left her wells intact. On Imbolc, or Brighid’s Day, many pilgrims sleep overnight in her sacred spaces.
There are no fewer than 15 wells in Ireland dedicated to Brighid. My favorite is near the base of the Cliffs of Moher. The energy of the place radiates outward and it’s near impossible to drive by it without stopping. The grotto is astoundingly beautiful and behind the well on a higher level where the steps lead, is an ancient cemetery in which the Uí Bhrian, the Kings of Dál gCais, are buried. It is a magical site, steeped in both Pagan and Christian roots and is decorated with the symbols of each. The tunnel and the trees are adorned with rosaries and crosses, even while the grounds are home to Ogham, and other Pagan symbols.
It is another one of those places in Ireland where the mists are thin and the lines between the religious and the Occult are blurred. It is worth the stop – and if you are near there now, spend the night to honor Brighid and bless yourself with her magical waters. Make a wish, thank the universe, or say a prayer while you’re there and be sure to explore the cemetery as well.
Happy Groundhog Day and have a wonderful Imbolc.