In 2010 I wrote in this blog “Imbolc is one of the less intensely celebrated Sabbats, I think because it has fewer real world connections in our lives. In most places the coming Spring Equinox, Ostara, is well suited to its symbolism of the triumph of the sun and powers of growth and regeneration. Yule, our previous cross-quarter Sabbat, celebrated the Winter Solstice, and the wealth of meaning it carries symbolically and experientially.”
I think I had only begun to understand this Sabbat.
At Yule we celebrated the turning of the year from the sun’s decline and growing darkness to its slow return and growing light. But at the time there was nothing particularly visible. Here in northern California it was dark at 5 before the Solstice and just as dark after it. Something had changed, but our knowledge of it was based, for most of us anyway, on hearsay. Only those who watched where the sun rose in the morning could tell anything happened.
On Brigid, or Imbolc, this is no longer the case. The sun rises noticeably earlier and sets noticeably later. Here in northern California daffodils are sprouting from the earth and the first hints of wild flowers shyly peep from a landscape where summer’s brown has been tuned green by winter’s rains, but where the cold ensures summer’s green is still mostly brown, bedraggled, or manifesting as the fractal angular limbs of Valley Oaks rising nakedly against the sky.
Change is in the air, but is still more a promise and a hint than daily experience. Farther to the north and in the mountains, my other favorite places, even these hints are mostly absent. The snows and cold of winter still predominate and the signs of the very different future to come are mostly revealed in slowly increasing light. This remains true in many other places as well.
Last year I had grown in my comprehension of this time from 2010. I wrote then that my personal way of making sense of the Sabbats, both symbolically and mythically, “is to try and link our cross quarter Sabbats with what is happening around us. The solar ones are universal (at least in each hemisphere) but the others carry a different meaning. To ‘make them ours’ and root them in our place and time is a counterpoint to the universalism of the solar Sabbats.” Brigid, or Imbolc, is one of the cross quarter Sabbats with its roots in the Celtic agricultural and grazing cycle. This means the symbols of its meaning are local, not universal. “Imbolc” is a reference to when the ewes began to give milk in many Celtic lands. In my mind it is tied to those lands. “Brigid,” a Celtic Goddess, is more universal, and open to wider interpretations based on who and where we are.
Last year I wrote of how focusing on how Brigit’s qualities manifested where we lived could help lead us in discovering a more deeply rooted way of being at home wherever we live. None of that is less relevant this year. I think we should seek to adapt our celebration of Brigit to where we are on the earth.
But today I want to explore a different theme this powerful Goddess raises.
As a deity Brigid (Brigit, Brhide) is closely associated with poetry, learning, healing, prophecy, smithcraft, and perhaps war. It seems to me these qualities fall into two broad categories: the kinds of knowledge that can come from something other than from reading books and thinking in a logocentric way, and transformation through suffering, transformation that if not conducted wisely will bring destruction rather than bringing out the best that is hidden within. But transformation none the less.
What bridges these two themes is that both kinds of transformation, both the heat of the forge and violence of war as well as the deeper meanings within poetry, prophecy and true learning, bring out what cannot be explicitly seen beforehand. Good poetry takes us to the point where words fail, and then a step or two beyond. True learning opens our horizons to what we never imagined before we knew. It opens us to the unknown rather than completing and filling a circle of knowledge. The smith sees the gleaming instrument, be it tool or weapon, hidden within a lump of metal, and through fire and many blows can shape and reveal it as an object of beauty and power. Even war, disaster that it is, transforms societies foolish enough to engage in it, and does so in ways they could not have expected and often did not want.
Brigid is a time to honor how the potentialities hidden in the year to come, potentialities that can with skill and wisdom be transformed into what is visible. If we are uncertain as to what they are (and how can we not be?) we can invoke Her in whatever aspect seems most appropriate, and ask Her to help them manifest in a good way, and as gently as possible. But if the blows from Her hammer within the forge are mighty ones and Her fires overwhelmingly hot, know it may take such blows and such heat when the material to be shaped into its inner promise is strong and perhaps also recalcitrant.
I rarely talk about my personal life on this blog or anywhere else, but I will say that some years back in a Reclaiming Brigid ritual She told me “You are in my forge.” Not really happy news. Not at all. 2008-2010 in particular were absolutely the worst years of my life (and I am 64). Blow after blow rained down that first year, starting in January and finally ending in December. It took two more years to recover mentally and emotionally. But by the end of 2010 something felt new, a corner turned, and 2011 was the best year of my life. No other year came close although I am looking forward to this one. In retrospect those blows from the hammer, that time in unbearable heat, were a blessing, a very well hidden one.
Transformation in the world
The United States seems to me to be rapidly approaching a transformation into either something hideously ugly, or alternatively, towards a rebirth after going through a cultural, spiritual, and political transition from the old transcendental monotheistic order with its roots in hierarchy and a search for salvation from suffering to a new one emphasizing sacred immanence and learning to live in harmony with our world. The first is encapsulated in the pathological masculine values of the Tea Party, the strutting aggressiveness of too many men who have sold their souls in their quest for power and wealth. In the other we see in a rebirth of a progressive movement, and a desire to live lightly and well upon the earth, to live by right livelihood. Spiritually we Pagans are overwhelmingly but not universally in harmony with the latter and those dominating the former would destroy us if they could.
My personal view is that Sabbat rituals should be focused either on the universal or on the personal, the world of our face-to-face lives. But the stakes are so high we need all the insight and wisdom to act on it we can attain. Perhaps this Brigit we could ask Her for guidance in navigating the transformations around us, that we can play our part in assisting them in a way we will long look back on with satisfaction.
Not such a minor Sabbat at all.