Winter still sits heavily on us during the month of February. We bundle ourselves against the cold, light candles against the dark. And yet the pulse of nature quickens.
If we live on the land, we greet the first new life of the year. Snowdrops and nettle shoots sing the sweet promise of spring.
Photo by Licht
Sheep give birth to their lambs. One of the old names for the midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox is Oimelc, or "ewe's milk." It is also known as Imbolc, which means "in the belly."
This season belongs to Brigid. Long ago in the Celtic lands, the coming of Brigid was celebrated in early February with heartfelt prayers and songs and stories. Today, as we hunger for meaning, context, hope and connection, stories that flow forth from the natural cycle of things can help build a home and hearth within our hearts. So close your eyes and sink into a place beyond place and perhaps you will hear me telling you this Imbolc tale with my harp...
Photo by Kmax
There’s no denying it. When Cailleach Bheur woke up, she was a crotchety old crone. Maybe she was tired of people complaining about her. Maybe she’d heard enough gossip about the way she looked - they said she was old and ugly with a blue face and only one eye. True, she wasn’t getting any younger and she leaned more heavily on her holly staff than she had when she was born - already an old woman! - at Hallowe’en. Sure, she had stirred up a couple of good storms – one had even caused the roof to blow off McTavishes’ cow barn. But hadn’t these people anything better to do than sit around and grumble about the weather? They blamed her for the long, cold nights, for their barren fields and emptying larders. She was just doing her job.
by Andrew L. Paciorek
Cailleach sighed. Maybe she needed a change of vocation. Or a vacation? But who then, would keep the land in winter’s grasp? Cailleach stretched her aching limbs, put on her tattered cloak of decaying leaves and left the cave where she’d been sleeping curled up beside a wolf. As she walked, she tapped the earth with her gnarled staff. Everywhere she tapped, the ground froze and the grass turned to ice.
Photo by Licht
Cailleach stopped to catch her breath. She was getting weaker. To test her powers, she raised her staff and called forth a bitter, howling wind. In December, this would have been easy. But now, in early February, it nearly sapped her strength.
Braced against the strong wind, Cailleach slowly walked across the moor towards the water’s edge. With a sigh, she eased herself down upon a cold grey boulder, her ragged cloak and long white hair streaming behind her.
“Cailleach Bheur” she heard on the voice of the wind, “Cailleach Bheur, it is time!”
Then as suddenly as the wind she'd summoned had started, it stopped, and the grumpiness that had been with Cailleach since early morning was gone too. Squinting her tired eyes, she looked out upon the horizon and saw a weathered blue boat heading towards the shore. When it landed, Cailleach carefully eased herself up and waded through the shallows to climb aboard.
Wee Blue Boat - Photo by ian Cameron
As the sun set and all through the night the boat moved purposefully to the west, as if propelled by an invisible sail, its course steady and assured. Just before morning, the vessel reached an island covered in groves of oak and holly. Slowly, the old one got out of the boat. Her joints creaked and groaned as she walked, even more gingerly than the day before, to the Well that sat at the center of the island. As the first light of dawn awoke the sky, Cailleach picked up a ladle, worn smooth by touch and time, that lay on the ground and dipped it into the Well.
Brigid's Well, Faughert, Ireland
“It is time,” she muttered, bringing the water to her lips, delighting in its sweetness as it ran down her throat. As she swallowed, her body grew light and lithe, her skin smooth, her hair glossy and her holly staff transformed into a white birch wand. Leaning over the Well, she looked at her reflection. She was no longer Cailleach Bheur, the Old Wife of Winter. She was Brigid, the Spirit of Spring.
Brigid sprang to her feet, spinning and smiling and admiring her new gown - white with bits of green and yellow trim around the sleeves. Joyfully, she scampered back to the boat and sailed back to shore. When she landed, everywhere she skipped and danced the land turned gently green beneath her feet. Everything she touched with her birch wand stirred with new life. Slowly, the sap in the trees started to move. The birds in the south grew restless and felt the first pull to head north. Her breath was a warm wind that brought the people hope.
Windflower by John Waterhouse - 1903
When Brigid arrived at the village no one recognized her. They praised her youth and beauty and welcomed her in their midst. That day, she sat amongst them on the greening hills and they watched in awe and wonder as she wove the most beautiful cloth they’d ever seen, stitching into it healing threads which would keep their powers for as long as she was remembered.
And so, in the lands where the people remember still, on midwinter’s eve, Imbolc, the eve of the birth of Brigid, they place a piece of linen or other cloth outside or on the window sill. It is said that on this night, Brigid travels all over the land and if she sees this cloth she will bless it and give it healing powers with this special prayer:
Let the cloth of life be mended.
Let the thread be linked again,
restored, cleansed - the forests growing,
native plants in field and fen.
Let the cloth of life, in beauty,
be restored by will to be.
People with the plants and creatures,
tending earth and sky and sea.
Brigid with Snowdrop Faeries
by Wendy Andrew
And that is the story of the Birth of Brigid