Thursday, January 30, 2014

Imbolc

The first of February is the date of the Irish quarter-year festival called Imbolc. Imbolc is Old Irish for "in the belly"; it refers to the time of lactation in ewes and lambing, and was the official start of spring.

Imbolc may well be a neolithic tradition [neolithic is from Greek νέος (néos, "new") and λίθος (líthos, "stone") "new stone age"; c.10,200 BCE to c.4500-2000 BCE]. In Leinster, Ireland there is a stone tomb constructed between 3000 and 2500 BCE; the rising sun illuminates the passage into it twice a year, on Imbolc and Samhain.

In the Middle Ages, references to Imbolc are found in Irish literature salting in the 10th century. It became a time to think about the lengthening days and therefore time to think about the plantings ahead. (Conceptually, it was probably a precursor to Groundhog Day.)

The day became connected with St. Brigid, one of the three patron saints of Ireland.* The conflation of the saint with a fertility goddess leant itself to adding a lot of rituals and traditions to the day. Brigid's Crosses were woven from rushes for the occasion by young females, who would carry them while singing a hymn to Brigid.  Brigid would be invited into the home on the eve of Imbolc so that she would bless the house and family members. The ashes of the fire were carefully raked and smoothed that night; in the morning, they would be searched for any disturbance that suggested that Brigid had passed through. Brigid would be called upon to bless livestock for the coming year.

*St. Patrick and St. Columba were the other two.

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