What is Imbolg in Nature? : Tony Kelly

[From the Ethos Group Discussion Papers]

Yule is the birth of the New Sun while Midsummer is his culmination and both events have a precise time and can be timed with astronomical precision. They're events of minimum light and maximum light respectively. The Earth rites of Bealtaine and Samhain in May and November are older and more diffuse; they come from the events and moods of the Earth, the burgeoning of life and sexuality in May and the dying and decay of November. The Harvest Rite too is old, though not as old as the May Rite or Samhain, and is a time of fruitfulness, often identified with Lughnasadh on 1 August, though in fact it varies with the crop and from place to place. But what of Imbolg or 1 February?

A glance at a temperature graph throughout the year will show that the coldest months are January and February and they're about equally cold, which means the coldest day is, on average, in the middle of the period, which is 1 February, and unlike the other Earth rites, this one is the same irrespective of locality all over the northern hemisphere. The Earth is at her coldest though the the Light is growing. It's not, of course, a celebration of the Earth being so cold, but of the Sun at last grown strong enough to chase the cold from the Earth and warm her. It's an occasion not of the growing light of the Sun, but of his growing heat, and the consequent warming of the Earth who is grown young again. How shall we share in this event, or in this process, since it's not a precisely defined date but a period subject to the wiles of the weather?

Yule, or the Winter Solstice, occurs on 21 or 22 December, varying a little from one year to another. From the occasion of Yule to 1 February is, as exactly as we can estimate it, 40 days. And 40 is a number of rather widespread traditional significance. My first thoughts turned immediately to Jesus' forty days in the wilderness after his baptism. Christian mythology is particularly strong in the period from Yule to Imbolg, though it becomes confused thereafter. In the Yule Rite I wrote: "... for the westering star had come to his rest." Traditionally, the resting place of the Star was over the town of Bethlehem, and a carol has it: "We three kings of Orient are / Bearing gifts. We travel so far; / Field and fountain, / Moor and mountain, / Following yonder Star." And the chorus goes: "O Star of wonder, Star of light, / Star of royal beauty bright, / Westward leading, / Still proceeding, / Guide us by thy perfect light!" A lot hinges on the meaning of the word Star', and speculation has ranged from a conjunction of the major planets to a flying saucer. It's quite likely that Star' does in fact mean Star', quite literally, but a rather special star, namely, the Sun. Who of the stellar host more deserves the description, "Star of royal beauty bright" The adjective royal' virtually identifies the King. Notice too that the Star travelled consistently westward, which is the diurnal arc of the Sun in the sky. And lastly, notice that the Star came to rest precisely over the birth place of the baby. At Midsummer the Sun sets in the north-west. Next day, his setting is slightly advanced along the horizon towards the south, and next day slightly more advanced, and so on, until by the Autumn Equinox he sets due west. Thereafter he sets a little to the south of west, moving more southerly each time. At first, his movement along the horizon is quite rapid after the Equinox, but his progress becomes gradually slower until in the days before Yule he is hardly moving at all. And then at Yule his movement comes to an end; he stands still for an instant, and then, at first very slowly, begins to move northward along the horizon again. So the Star's coming to rest over Bethlehem is an allusion to the Sun's setting place coming to rest at the point from which the new year's Sun will begin to move his setting place further to the north again.

But it's many days before the New Sun is strong enough to warm the Earth, and in fact it isn't until Imbolg that he begins to give her new heat as fast as she is losing the remnant of the heat of the Old Sun. And thus is it said that Jesus wandered for forty days in the wilderness before he knew his work. And who is the Wilderness? You don't need me to tell you her name.

The period of forty days occurs again, though very confusedly, in the story of Noah, and Jesus is described in a genealogical table is descended from Noe, which is probably an alternative spelling of Noah (Jesus' father was Joseph, both names cognate with Yahweh, and Joseph was the son of Heli, whom I feel tempted to equate with Helios, the Greek Sun-god; there are many of his progenitors with names like Mathias, which means gift of God' or, I would suggest, New Sun'; and I'm wondering too if we can see the same in Math ap Mathonwy in the Mabinogion). I wonder if the story of Noah and the Ark is an allusion to the Night-boat of Ra, the Sun-god. Rather speculatively, I wonder if we might equate the name of Noah, or Noe, with the Arabic Noor' which means light' and hence, again, an epithet of the Sun. And carrying speculation yet farther, can we equate these epithets of the Sun with Nod, or Nudd (Gwlad ap Nudd, the Land of Nod) as the fallen Sun?

Again, there is the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves' from the Arabian Nights. Baba' means Father' and who were the forty thieves? Who other than the forty days after the birth of the New Sun while the Earth is still growing colder? And where sesame seed is a the staple food, what better magic could there be from the Sun-father than "Open sesame!"

Jesus' forty days in the wilderness come after his baptism, which was a rite of immersion. I suspect that the rite is symbolic of birth and emergence from the amniotic fluid of the womb. This would certainly suggest a parallel with the Night-boat of Ra, and with an Indian custom whereby, if a man is declared dead and later found to be alive, he is nevertheless officially still dead' until he has spent a day in a tub of greasy water, symbolising his rebirth. Jesus' baptism, then, suggests the birth of the New Sun from the womb of the Earth, immediately followed by forty days of apparent inactivity.

Your reference to Bridget, Frank, prompted me to look up Proinsias MacCana's Celtic Mythology. His words are worth quoting:

Her (Minerva’s) nearest counterpart in insular tradition is the goddess Brighid, of whom it is said in Cormac’s Glossary (c. 900) that she was expert in filidhecht, in other words poetry and traditional learning in general as well as divination and prophecy, and was worshipped by the filidh. By the same account, she was daughter of the Daghdha and had two sisters also named Brighid, the one associated with healing and the other with the smith’s craft, and from this common name among all the Irish a goddess used to be called Brighid’. As regards function, therefore, Brighid was patroness of poetry and learning, of healing and of craftsmanship, and, as regards status, such was her prestige that her name could be used as a synonym for goddess’.
But paradoxically, it is in the person of her Christian namesake St Brighid that the pagan goddess survives best. For if the historical element on the legend of St Brighid is slight, the mythological element is correspondingly extensive, and it is clear beyond question that the saint has usurped the role of the goddess and much of her mythological tradition.
The saint’s life infers a close connection with livestock and the produce of the earth. Appropriately, her feast-day, 1 February, coincides with Imbolg, the pagan festival of spring; even today it is still the occasion of various popular and patently un-Christian rituals.
She was born, we are told, at sunrise neither within nor without a house, is fed from the milk of a white, red-eared cow (that is, by Irish usage, a supernatural cow), hangs her wet cloak on the rays of the sun, and the house in which she is staying appears to onlookers to be all ablaze. According to Giraldus Cambrensis she and nineteen of her nuns took turns in guarding a sacred fire which burned perpetually and was surrounded by a hedge within which no male might enter.....
The name Brighid was originally an epithet meaning the exalted one’, just as its cognate brihat was used as a divine epithet in Vedic Sanskrit, and this perhaps gives point to Cormac’s remark quoted above that among all the Irish a goddess used to be called Brighid’..... she gives her name to rivers: the Brighid is Ireland, the Braint in Wales and the Brent in England..... She is, at all events, one of the principal goddesses of the Celts.”

The first paragraph leaves me cold, but the rest of it is very interesting indeed; There's no doubt that the sacred fire that was guarded is the Sun. I can't find an exact equivalent of brihat in my Sanskrit dictionary, but there are certainly some very close equivalents, namely: brihana (fattening), brihata (lofty), brihati (to increase, to rear), and there is brihaspati, composed of briha' and pati' meaning Lord of Devotion' (pati' is owner'). The meaning to increase' is particularly interesting. I don't know the origin of the epithet and the dictionary isn't helpful. I wondered about the English word bright', but the dictionary traces it back eventually to an Aryan bhrag', which I think an unlikely origin. Another possibility is broad', but the etymology goes back only as far as Old English, which isn't helpful. The pronunciation of Brighid is like the English word Breed', the gh' being silent, though it could possibly be pronounced as an h', but never as a g'. It's a familiar process whereby the sound of g' is gradually lost, via y' in English and, apparently, via h' in Irish and Sanskrit.

I wonder about the identity of the three kings from the Orient who attended the birth of Jesus, and the threefold Brighid. The kings bore gifts of gold, Frankincense, and myrrh. Gold is a suitable gift for a King and the emblem of the Sun. Frankincense is "an aromatic gum for burning as incense", while myrrh is "a gum resin used in perfumery and medicine, and in incense." How do these compare with Brighid and her two sisters of the same name, the one an expert in poetry and learning, divination and prophecy, another with healing, and the other with the smith's craft?

My own first feelings about Imbolg arose while writing the Yule Rite. The Old Sun laid his powers at the feet of the Hag, and the Black Queen gathered them up into the night, not as a marauder with predatory intent, but with tenderness for their safe keeping. The inevitable sequel will be her presenting them as a coming-of-age endowment to the New Sun. This, clearly, can't be a part of Yule for the New Sun's rule doesn't extend as yet beyond the cradle. So he receives his gifts from the Queen at Imbolg, and thereafer strides forth to forge a Summer. This is the central idea around which I want to build an Imbolg rite. The problem is to dramatise the event and provide a scene to sustain a sentiment. Perhaps you too, whoever you are, would like to try and develop the idea?

For further information, I recommend the following pasages from the New Testament of the Christian Bible, namely, Matthew 3,13-17, Matthew 4,1-3, 5-6, 8-9, Luke 3,23, Luke 4,1-3, 5-7, 13 and Mark 1,9-13 (though Mark gives very little). Bear in mind that those passages (as others) have been severely edited. Abrupt changes of subject indicate deletions, and the dialogue has been doctored' rather in the way that radio reporters record interviews, and then replace the questions they asked on the tape with substitute questions. In the case of the story of Jesus, it's the other way round. And I wonder about the sex of the devil in the original texts...

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