This is the first post in the 2022 Sabbat Series.
When I research Pagan holidays, I tend to avoid Pagan-focused sites. I prefer to pull from scholarly historical sources (such as museums, newsletters, the BBC, etc.) to learn unbiased history. But the more I looked into Imbolc, the less Pagan it became. Most of Imbolc’s history is rooted in Christianity, albeit with obvious Pagan roots.
So today, I want to relay Imbolc’s real history–not as some modern Pagans like to tell it, but how it actually was.
What Is Imbolc?
Imbolc, pronounced “oi-melc,” marks the halfway point between winter and spring. It lands on February 1st and 2nd, although Brigid's Eve (January 31st) was also important in ancient rituals.
Imbolc comes from the ancient Irish word im bolc (im bolg in modern Irish), which means “in the belly.” It refers to milk being in the belly of a sheep. This is the time when farm animals start to reproduce and lactate. The holiday was celebrated in Medieval Ireland and Scotland, although some scholars believe that it was pre-Christian.
According to the ancient Celtic calendar, Imbolc was the first “Fire Festival.” Fire Festivals were the four cornerstones of the year; they represented weather and harvest changes. The other three Fire Festivals also made it into the modern Wheel of the Year: Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain.
Although there are many traditions and beliefs associated with Imbolc, three symbols come up over and over again:
The History of Imbolc
The earliest mention of Imbolc is from poetry that was written between the 7th and 8th centuries. The most famous example was Táin Bó Cúailnge, "The Driving-off of Cows of Cooley.” Often called “The Irish Iliad,” this epic poem tells a group of tales that take place in 1st century Ireland.
Poetry from this period associates Imbolc with ewe’s milk, which in turn represents purity. Some also connect it to St. Brigid (whom I will discuss later).
Remember when I said that Imbolc might be pre-Christian? There is some evidence for that. To start, Christianity did not arrive in Ireland until the 5th century. (Some evidence indicates that Christianity might have been there earlier, but we don’t know for certain.) And conversion was not immediate. Contrary to popular belief, the British Isles flip-flopped between Paganism and Christianity for centuries. It is unclear when Britain became fully Christian, as rural communities often held on to their Pagan roots during the early Middle Ages.
And although Táin Bó Cúailnge was written down in the 7th century, it was an oral tradition long before that. Since most people were illiterate, most religious traditions were oral, which makes them very difficult to track from a historical perspective.
Some evidence suggests that Imbolc was celebrated in Neolithic Ireland, albeit under a different name. Some Neolithic tombs, including the Mound of the Hostages and Cairn L, were aligned with the sunrise on Imbolc and Samhain. To clarify, though, this is not enough evidence to ensure that Imbolc was 100% Neolithic, as some websites claim.
But the biggest aspect of Imbolc–the part that is simultaneously the most “Christian” and the most “Pagan”--is Brigid. Both the Irish Goddess Brigid and St. Brigid, patron saint of Ireland.
Brigid vs. St. Brigid
Despite Brigid being such a well-known Goddess, not much is known about how She was worshiped. (I won’t dive too deep into Her worship because this is an Imbolc post, not a Brigid one.) One of the earliest written records of her was Cormac’s Glossary, a 9th-century Irish glossary written by Christian scribes. It spoke about Her mythology, but not Her worship or rituals.
Most of what modern Pagans now associate with Brigid actually relates to St. Brigid.
St. Brigid, according to medieval Irish records, was an abbess who founded Ireland’s first nunnery, Kildare. Along with her charity work, she was said to have performed various miracles, mostly related to healing. Although the earliest records of St. Brigid came from the 7th century, she was said to have lived from 451 to 525.
Historians debate over whether St. Brigid was a real person. Most believe that she was a Christian version of the Celtic Goddess. The two share many similarities; for instance, St. Brigid is the patron saint of blacksmiths, farmers, livestock, children, travelers, watermen, and poets. See the similarities?
The process of converting a Pagan deity, tradition, or church into a Christian one is called syncretism. Not only was it a common method of conversion–it was the most effective. When I took a university course on the conversion from Paganism to Christianty, I learned that conversion accelerated when missionaries started tweaking Pagan traditions.
Churches would be built on sacred Pagan spots; holidays such as harvest festivals became Christian celebrations; Pagan deities became Christian saints. These conversion techniques were incredibly effective because people didn’t have to change their daily lives. Knowing this, it’s not a stretch to assume that St. Brigid is a canonized version of Brigid.
Let’s start with Brigid’s cross, which has become a reclaimed Pagan symbol. Despite the name, the cross is associated with St. Brigid of Kildore. Historically, people would make these crosses and hang them above windows and doorways to prevent harm. Early versions also had three arms instead of four.
According to the Irish Central Newsletter, the biggest celebration of Imbolc was Brigid’s bed. Brigid was said to walk the earth on Imbolc Eve, and women would prepare for her arrival.
Women and girls made dolls of Brigid called Brideog (meaning “little Brigid”). Nowadays, most Brideogs are corn dolls, but people also made them from oats and rushes. The women would make a bed for the doll to lie in and stay up all night with her. In the morning, men would ask permission to enter the home and treat the doll with respect, as if she were a guest.
Other rituals were popular on Imbolc Eve. Before bedtime, women would lay a cloth or piece of clothing outside for Brigid to bless (called a “Bratog Bride”). These clothes were said to gain healing and protection powers. To ensure that Brigid passed by, the head of the household would smother the fire and rake the ashes smooth. In the morning, they’d check the ashes for any disturbance to see if Brigid walked by.
Like the Goddess, St. Brigid was said to bring the light back into springtime after a long period of darkness. Offerings to her included coins and snacks.
Modern Imbolc Celebrations
In terms of magic, spells having to do with cleansing, divination, fertility, and love will all be effective.
So Is Imbolc Christian or Pagan?
In short, it’s both. Imbolc is a perfect example of syncretism. The holiday’s traditions have become so blended that it’s hard to discern what belonged to which religion.
In the occult community, many people say that the more you study folklore, the less you know. The same goes for religious history. Even acclaimed historians struggle with the gaps in historical evidence. Modern Pagans can never perfectly reconstruct a holiday. We can only celebrate with what we know and what we want to do.
If you want to honor the Goddess Brigid, do it. If you want to connect to St. Brigid, do it. If you aren’t drawn to either figure but celebrate Imbolc still, do that. Approach this holiday however it may fit your spiritual path.
These articles greatly helped me in researching this post.
Thank you to my patrons, who encouraged me to make this Sabbat series.
“What’s the difference between necromancy and death witchcraft?” I receive that question often, which is why it’s in the “About Death Witchcraft” section of this website. But I want to expand upon it here.
To start, the term death witchcraft is relatively new. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were only a decade old. I first encountered it on Tumblr and Reddit forums around 2016, and very few people used the term. I actually changed my Tumblr URL to death-witch-envy so that others could find me.
Death witchcraft is a magical practice in which people communicate with and honor the dead. Death witches also work with the energy of death itself. We come to terms with our own mortality and work through spiritual “deaths” in our lives, such as a job loss, divorce, or moving to a new area.
If this sounds vague, it’s because every death witch path is different. Some people work with deceased children; others, only adults. Some work with dead plants and animals. There are religious death witches, secular ones, and ones who work as morticians or death doulas.
In most cases, death witches work to heal the dead. We help the dead through their trauma and pass on. We also honor the dead to keep their memories alive. While other magical paths focus on power, we aim for peace and charity.
It’s important that you understand how complex death witchcraft is, because necromancy is not nearly as varied.
The word necromancy comes from the Greek words nekrós ("dead body") and manteía ("divination by means of"). In short, it means “divination of the dead.”
Necromancers, both modern and ancient, communicate with the dead through divination. Why? Because the dead have wisdom. In almost every folklore and spirituality, the dead know facts about the past, future, and present that necromancers can learn from. The dead can also help with certain spells.
But what about “raising the dead”? What about raising corpses from their graves Lovecraft style? To understand where this idea came from, we need to examine the complex history of necromancy.
An Abridged History of Necromancy
Because necromancy is one of the world’s most ancient magical practices, its history is long and complicated. Necromancy has roots in ancient Babylon, Greece, Rome, and Egypt. It also went by many names; in ancient Greek literature, it was called nekyia.
Contrary to popular belief, the ancients viewed necromancy as taboo even back then. Most cultures believed that disturbing the dead came with spiritual risks. Necromancy was a last resort of sorts–think of Odysseus descending into the Underworld to learn how to sail home after 10 years.
That said, it was still a popular form of divination in some areas, especially Persia. Necromancy was usually conducted by priests or magicians. People contacted the dead to receive protection or prophecies. For example, if one believed that they were being haunted, they might have consulted a necromancer to ask what they should do.
Although the corpse was used in some cases, most forms of necromancy did not use the human body. Some magicians performed rites over the grave. Others used human bones for magical tools. But for the most part, the practice was similar to today: inducing trance states, chanting, discerning visions, calling upon deities, etc.
Necromancy was more taboo in Jewish and Christian religions. Because of this, it rapidly declined in popularity by the Early Middle Ages.
Medieval priests deemed necromancy as maleficium, or evil magic. They believed that, although necromancers could contact the dead, they needed the help of demons to do so. The Church claimed that demons took on the appearance of souls. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia,
“The Church does not deny that, with a special permission of God, the souls of the departed may appear to the living, and even manifest things unknown to the latter. But, understood as the art or science of evoking the dead, necromancy is held by theologians to be due to the agency of evil spirits.”
Despite necromancy being forbidden, classical magicians still performed it. The Middle Ages and early Renaissance periods feature incredibly complex necromantic rituals. This is where you find spells filled with garbled Latin, guttural trance states, seals, sigils, lengthy prayers–all the steps that many now associate with ceremonial magic.
Many ceremonial necromancers put the soul back into the corpse and let it speak. If you’re wondering where the idea of necromancy zombies came from, this is likely the origin. Necromancers would perform rituals in cemeteries and catacombs. Believing that the dead spoke softly, they would press their ears to the corpse’s lips.
But if you were to pick up a book on necromancy from the Late Middle Ages, these rituals would be few and far between. During this time, necromancy was associated with demonaltry and demonic magic. I’ve had a few people ask me why many necromancy books feature demons; this is why.
Obviously, I am generalizing here. Necromancy took on many different forms in different cultures and religions. For example, African necromancy looked nothing like European Christian necromancy. But I’m focusing on European necromancy to explain where the stereotypical “raising the dead” idea came from.
As a side note, “raising the dead” does not always mean “turn a corpse into a zombie.” The word raise, according to the Cambridge dictionary, also means “to cause to exist” or “to communicate with someone.” So this phrase still applies to divination.
But back to the history. Oddly enough, necromancy bounced back into popularity during the Victorian Era, mainly due to the Ouija board. Seances became the most popular method of necromancy during the 20th century. By the time of the New Age Movement, the word necromancy became associated with horror, fantasy, and D&D. Nowadays, most magicians don’t call themselves necromancers due to these connotations.
So What Are the Differences?
To summarize, divination of the dead, in any form, is necromancy. But death witchcraft encompasses much more: healing the dead, working with death energy, shadow work, and more.
You could say that necromancy is an aspect of death witchcraft.
If you’re reading this post to decide what to call yourself, know that you don’t have to choose between these terms. You can use both as I do. You could also use a different term, such as death worker, spirit worker, medium, or just witch. The label is not as important as the practice.
I’ve never been one to drink or smoke weed. However, I have been smoking herbs for years. While herbs can produce a hallucinogenic or sedative effect, they are not as strong as other drugs. That makes them ideal for a lot of people who don’t want to feel high but want some assistance in magic.
Herbal smoking blends can aid magic in many different ways. They can enhance psychic vision, induce trance states, promote sleep, and relax the body. Herbs are also cheaper and more accessible than other smoking ingredients.
In this post, I’ll talk about some magical smoking herbs and how you can use them for spirit work. I will not mention weed, tobacco, or other drugs because I don’t have experience with them. I’ll dive into correspondences first; then, I’ll discuss blends and uses for anyone who wants to try herbal smoking.
Chamomile: Chamomile frequently appears in tea recipes to improve sleep and dream work. In smoking blend, it also enhances prophetic dreams and divination. Smoke it to induce vision and bring about clarity during times of spiritual confusion.
Many like chamomile in smoking blends because it is gentle and has a nice flavor. The ancient Egyptians associated it with the Sun God Ra, but others associate it with the Moon for its dream enhancement.
Coltsfoot: Coltsfoot is a common base for herbal blends because of its neutral flavor and relaxation effect. In magic, people burn it to induce visions. This not only helps divination, but also wealth and business spells where you can use some prophecy.
Coltsfoot is also a love charm and works in Venus magic.
Damiana: Although damiana is a well-known aphrodisiac in its native country of Mexico, it also aids spirit work. When burned, damiana sharpens one’s psychic vision. Any kind of spirit work that includes visions–such as psychic dreams, scrying, and astral travel–can benefit from damiana. So can any magic associated with Venus.
Damiana works as a base for smoking blends. It is also a mild hallucinogen. However, hallucinations tend to occur around 200 mg, so you’d have to smoke A LOT for these health consequences.
CAUTIONS: Can affect blood sugar levels.
Lavender: Lavender is a well-known magic ingredient that promotes sleep, calm, and love. In smoking blends, it relaxes the body. Since lavender is associated with the element of air, its smoke can also help people see ghosts and other spirits.
Lavender is also used in glamors. Smoking it can make you appear more attractive and help you feel joyous. Many love adding lavender to smoking blends simply for its smell and flavor. It is governed by Mercury and assists with purification and protection rituals.
Lemongrass: You might have heard that lemongrass tea can progress psychic powers; smoking it can do the same. Since this plant is ruled by Mercury, it improves psychic skills from divination to glamors.
Lemongrass has a slight lemon smell that makes it relaxing, and it can even help people sleep. I often include this herb in blends for flavor.
Marigold: Marigold, also called calendula, was well-known in ancient rituals. It appears in Dia de Los Muertos, on the altars of Hindu deities, and in Aztec and Mayan ceremonies. In smoking, it has a sweet citrusy flavor that relaxes the body.
In magic, it promotes spirit sight and visions. It is known to produce clearer and less frightening visions. Smoke it prior to trance work and scrying. Like rosemary, marigold is a fire herb associated with the Sun.
Mugwort: Mugwort has many uses for a spirit worker; magicians drink it as a tea before divination and wash divination tools with it. When smoked, mugwort can aid psychic workings, induce lucid dreaming, and help hedgecrossing. As a hallucinogen, it has a long history in spirit work and is associated with the Moon.
Mugwort can give you the “burning” feel in your throat. To prevent this, dampen it a bit before smoking.
CAUTIONS: Can cause nausea and is toxic in excessive doses. Do not use if you are allergic to daisies.
Mullein: Mullein is a mild sedative that many people smoke to relax their lungs. Magic-wise,its smoke is said to summon the dead; the Romans used them to make torches during funeral processions. Because it has the nickname “graveyard dust,” many people falsely claim that it is a substitute for graveyard dirt. (To be clear: it is not.)
Mullein is often hung, carried, or put in pillows to dispel evil spirits. In smoking, it calms and centers the spirit, which can help you with astral work, prophetic dreams, and divination. Practitioners debate over which planet rules it; Agrippa said it was Mercury, but Culpeper claimed it was Saturn.
Because mullein has little effect when smoked and a gentle smell, many use it as a base. It works well with any herb on this list and has few side effects.
Passionflower: Passionflower has a fantastic flavor and sedative effect. Unlike similar herbs, it can produce a “high” in large enough amounts.
Magically, passionflower aids sleep and brings peace. Many place it around the home to relieve troubles, and you might feel calmer after smoking it. Ruled by Venus and water, passionflower is a great addition to almost any smoking blend.
Rose: Although many label rose as “the love herb,” it has many other magical properties. Its soothing scent can relax people and relieve headaches. In teas and smoking blends, rose induces prophetic dreams.
Rose can be smoked before bed or before a ritual that requires a calm head and concentration. It’s a water herb associated with Venus.
Rosemary: Rosemary is a common incense in magic. Many burn it prior to magic to purify the area, but it can also boost divination. If you want an answer to a question, burn rosemary and inhale the smoke. The herb will grant you psychic clarity. The ancient Greeks associated rosemary with memory and would toss sprigs into graves. Using it in spells might improve your memory.
Rosemary is often paired with juniper for a purification incense, but I don’t recommend smoking juniper. The berries are incredibly oily and produce a lot of smoke! However, you can combine rosemary with other cleansing herbs prior to rituals. It’s a fire herb governed by the Sun.
Spearmint: The scent of spearmint increases psychic powers and intuition. It is a popular smoking herb for its flavor and ability to relax the lungs.
Spearmint can pair with any spirit work blend, but it also supports meditation, healing spells, and love spells (hence its association with Venus and water). If peppermint is too strong for you, try this.
Wormwood: The smell of wormwood is said to increase psychic powers. Many budding magicians carry or wear it for this purpose. Burning it attracts spirits, including the dead. The ancient Egyptians created inks with wormwood and wrote to the deity Bes as a form of divination.
Wormwood also has a protective element, especially when combined with mugwort. It is ruled by Mars.
CAUTIONS: While wormwood is not hallucinogen, it can be toxic in large amounts.
Three Herbal Smoking Blends
Anyone with the proper knowledge of herbs can create a smoking blend. But I have a few personal recipes to get you started.
I divided these blends into “parts” instead of grams and teaspoons because I don’t know how you smoke herbs. You can adjust the measurements to your smoking device.
Advice for Creating Herbal Smoking Blends
If you want to create your own blend, here are some tips.
Did I Miss Anything?
Is there anything else people should know about herbal smoking blends? Do you have a favorite ingredient that I missed? Let me know in the comments below!
Related Blog Posts:
Last summer, I wrote a post about how to choose a Pagan deity to worship. This week, I’m doing the reverse: what to do when a deity chooses you.
Perhaps a deity popped up during divination. Maybe you keep seeing signs associated with a deity. Or maybe you feel suddenly drawn toward a deity, despite not knowing why.
What do you do now? I’ll answer based on my experiences and shared experiences from others.
Ever since I started posting about Hades worship on Tumblr, I’ve received messages similar to this: “Hades is reaching out to me, but I’m not a death witch, and I’ve never had any significant experiences with death. Why me?”
I can’t answer that. The Gods and Goddesses think in ways that are beyond our comprehension.
That said, deities are more complex than many of us realize. For example, Hades doesn’t just aid with funerals and grief. He also governs justice, fair treatment, the fear of mortality, wealth and finances, fertility of the earth, and major life transitions. There could be a reason why you need this deity or vice-versa. But you won’t know until you start studying/working with Them.
You Can Say No
For some reason, many authors don’t mention that you can say no. A deity might invite you to work with Them, but it’s just that: an invitation. You may politely turn it down if you are uninterested or not ready. Even in Paganism and witchcraft, relationships are a two-way street. You won’t be punished or screw up cosmic law by declining.
In the same vein, some deities enter our lives momentarily. A God or Goddess might work with you for a while and then withdraw. If this happens, don’t panic. It’s normal. If you want to continue the relationship, then They will likely come back later.
If You Want to Proceed
One more thing. Notice that I have been saying “working with a deity” instead of “worshiping” throughout the post. Many practitioners will work with deities–pay respects, ask for support, and harness Their power for spells–without worshiping Them. If this sounds like you, then these tips still apply.
Study the Deity
Like I mentioned before, deities are more complex than most people believe. If you only know the deity through myths, then you do not know enough to start working with Them.
The ancients treated Gods and Goddesses differently than the myths did. After all, myths are only stories, and even some Pagans didn’t believe they were real. So if you really want to know who the deity is, research how the ancients worshiped Them.
Don’t know where to start? Here are some ideas:
If you want to worship this deity, then also research modern worship. Modern practitioners often tweak ancient rituals to be appropriate for the 2020s. You could get some creative ideas from them.
If you're approached by a minor deity, these might be harder to research. Check out this post for more guidance.
Decide How to Reach Out
These answers will help you decide what to say (or ask) when you first approach the deity.
When You Reach Out
There is no “right way” to reach out to a deity, as long as you’re respectful. That said, I know that many practitioners worry about being disrespectful. So I will give you an example ritual to introduce yourself to a deity. Feel free to adjust if appropriate.
If you're struggling with prayer--how to do it, what's appropriate, etc.--then this post might help you.
What Happens Afterwards?
What should you do after reaching out? I cannot answer this for you. That would defeat the purpose of establishing your own relationship with the deity.
You might not have received an answer after that ritual. Be patient. You might want to repeat divination (similar to how you do it with spirits), or you may wait for signs. If you don’t know whether something is a sign, read this post.
I hope this helped you start a relationship with a deity who reached out. If you have any other tips or experiences you want to share, please comment below!