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.