Imbolc and the Cailleach

Imbolc, or Brigid’s Day, was traditionally the beginning of the spring season in the ancient world. It was largely marked by the beginning of lambing, the return of milk from dairy livestock, and the blooming of the blackthorn. But it is still the dark half of the year and the time of the Cailleach, and there is a lot of folklore connecting Imbolc and the Cailleach.

In one of the most well-known, the Cailleach is associated with the Winter Queen Beira, who ages throughout the year and then bathes in a magical spring once a year to restore her youth. It is said that the spring’s magic is at its most potent on the first day of spring, or Imbolc, which is when the aged hag of winter bathes in the waters and transforms into the spring maiden. As the year once again progresses, she ages, until by Samhain she is once again the hag of winter, ruling the dark half of the year.

But in other versions of this story, Beira captures the Summer Queen Bride (associated with Brigid), and keeps her as a drudge. But on the first day of spring, the Summer King Angus rescues her and names the day “Bride’s Day,” which is how the day is known in Scottish folk tradition. This struggle of Angus against Beira, and the liberation of Bride, represents the cycle of the seasons, with Beira representing the stormy time of winter and early spring, while Bride represents the calm times of summer and autumn.

One of the aspects I find so fascinating about this tale is the seeming inversion of the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone. Now, many modern enthusiasts and folklorists have taken another look at the myth of Persephone and Hades with the question of whether Persephone really was abducted, or if she was honestly in love with Hades and sought to escape an overbearing mother. In the same way, I like to take a second look at the story of Bride and the Cailleach and wonder if there is some other tale that has faded into the recesses of unrecorded history.

Finally, my favorite story of the Cailleach at Imbolc is the inspiration for a beloved American tradition. It was said that each year at Imbolc, the Cailleach gathers the rest of the kindling and wood she will need to keep warm until the storms of winter pass and spring and summer return. Because she controls the weather, she makes the day fair if she needs to be out for a long time to gather a lot of wood, but if she doesn’t make nice weather, it is because she doesn’t need much more wood because she foresees a short rest of winter. Now, this story has been change in the States and the wizened figure of the hag of winter has morphed into another familiar creature that is consulted as a weather augury around the beginning of February: a groundhog.

Blessed Imbolc and may the winter end soon!

[NB: You can find the stories of Beira, Bride, and Angus in Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Alexander Mackenzie]

Brigid: The Healer

Content warning: Mention of pregnancy loss.

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As January reaches its apex and slides into February, I can feel the influence of Brigid more strongly in my life again. We are nearing her feast day, La Fheile Bride, Imbolc, Candlemas. She has been a healing presence in my life since the loss of my first pregnancy over three years ago and her celebration, and the traditional beginning of spring, is always a bright spot in my year.

Brigid, or Bride, is one of the few pre-Christian goddesses who has been syncretized explicitly into Scottish folk practice, appearing in the Carmina Gadelica as the midwife of Mary, foster-mother to Jesus. The songs make it clear that this is not really a fifth-century Irish saint, but instead a goddess-like figure who appeared at the Nativity in a radiant golden light. She is invoked as an equal to Mary and is often associated with midwifery and fire, like the pre-Christian Brigid.

My experience with Brigid began about three years ago as I was trying to heal after losing my first pregnancy. Brigid is associated with grief and the loss of a child and so she was one of the goddesses I invoked to aid me. While her gentle presence was a balm to my grief, I found her most powerful when I invoked her on behalf of another. Shortly after my loss, a dear friend fell dangerously ill, and I was so worried for her that I prayed to Brigid to please protect her and help her heal. She made an astonishing recovery after that, faster than anyone expected. From then on, I knew that, while An Cailleach is my primary focus, Brigid would be a part of my life for good.

I associate Brigid with fire and water, so I invoked and honor her with a candle and either an offering of clean, consecrated water, or else a tea session with my favorite Baozhong oolong, which holds a deep association with water for me. Her presence is soothing, like a mother’s embrace, and as her feast day approaches, I feel the dark and cold of winter shaking loose from my bones and the warm hope of spring kindling in me.

In folklore, Brigid is the daughter of the Dagda, a goddess of poetic inspiration, healing, and smithing. She is honored with perpetual flames as well as holy springs and wells. This trinity is sometimes made explicit, with Brigid having two sisters, also named Brigid, making her a sort of triple goddess. In some folklore, she is associated with tricolor animals, such as calico cats. During the first battle of Magh Tuireadh, her son is killed and it was from her wailing in grief that the practice of keening was brought into the world. She is both revered as a spring or summer maiden, as in the stories of Bride in Scottish folklore, as well as a mother and midwife, in the stories of her grief and the syncretic practices of honoring her connection with Jesus.

Having felt her warm, gentle presence, I understand why the Irish and Scots wished to keep her in their traditions, despite the incursion of Christianity. And, perhaps, this benevolent presence is why the early Christian missionaries accepted her into their traditions, even going so far as to rewrite the Nativity for her.