February is the hardest month. On Alban arthan, the winter solstice, we celebrated the rebirth of warmth and life, always new but also familiar; we rejoiced in the now-lengthening days and what we hoped they would bring. Yet in many ways this solar festival was merely an anticipation, as we looked ahead to the fire festival that begins the month of February: Imbolc, (from Irish, meaning “in the belly”). What we conceived on the darkest night, now begins to quicken within us, and we feel the inner pangs and hungers stirred by this change. Our bodies begin to awaken a little more, yearning to be outside despite the need for heavy coats and thick gloves. Mornings seem to come sooner, with a tantalizing freshness despite the overcast gray skies and the browns of mud and matted grass beneath the soggy snow. Though February begins with a burst of eager energy ready to delve into the spring season, true warmth remains a long way off.
The legend of the serpent (or badger, or groundhog) that sneaks cautiously out of its earthy den on this day speaks to the irony and frustration expressed, honored and released in this celebration. The creature, startled in the brightening light by its own shadow, dives back underground for “six more weeks of winter,” and we must wait until the solar festival of the vernal equinox, Alban Eiler (Welsh, “light of the earth”), for another celebration anticipating the exuberant blossoming of spring in May. In temperate regions all over the world, it takes at least four months, sometimes closer to six, before the promised renewal comes to full fruition in warm sunlight and golden-green tree canopies. The time between can be frustrating and difficult, with our intuitive awareness of the growing light constantly rubbing itself raw against the reality of sharp winds and freezing rains.
Many Witchcraft and other Pagan traditions focus on these festivals as fertility rites of the turning year, seeing this period of time between Imbolc and the vernal equinox (which some call Eoster or Ostara, after the Germanic goddess of spring) as the gradual movement from cold and dark to warm and bright, the steady growth of the Goddess into maidenhood and beauty, and the God into manhood and potency. Druidry, however, also embraces approaches that are more ecstatic or mystic in nature, emphasizing the role of inspiration and creativity, and the harmonious uniting of the self’s song with the Song of the World. The story of the serpent, an animal associated strongly with the Celtic fire goddess Brigid, belies the easy assumptions about the coming spring and speaks instead to the uncertainty, danger and sense of hidden potentials that must be both encouraged and respected.
Coming into Light
Inspiration, or awen, can be both beautiful and dangerous, powerful and overwhelming. The pan-Celtic goddess of inspiration, Brigid, was one of the most widely-worshipped and highly-honored deities of the ancient Celtic world (some scholars even suggest she was the equivalent of Ana or Danu, the Mother of the Gods according to Irish mythology); her name meaning “exalted one,” she was said to be not only a triple-deity of poetry, smithcraft and healing, but also to have a dual nature, one side bright and the other dark. This sacred ambiguity reflects the nature of inspiration itself, that can both lift a person to heights of wisdom and beauty, and yet also threaten to burn away or drown out one’s sense of selfhood and stability. Our relationship with such a goddess within the Druidic tradition is not one of mere subservience, of course, but one of reverence and respect for the nature of deity itself as capable of both blessing and destroying. Although it is likely that Imbolc first came to be associated with Brigid because of her ties to motherhood and the healing arts, this tenuously balanced engagement with the sacred source of inspiration has echoes all through the fire festival as well.
The story of the serpent crawling from its resting place deep within the earth on this day is perhaps one of the most intriguing, especially as it has been preserved in various forms all the way to the present and is now celebrated as the secular, somewhat silly holiday of Groundhog’s Day. It may seem strange that a bright, sunny day at the beginning of February would be a harbinger of many cold winter weeks yet to come, but if we consider the story as a metaphor for divine inspiration, we may begin to understand its underlying significance. After weeks of living in darkness and cold, our longing for light and warmth can push us restlessly away from our comfort zones as we seek creative outlets and energetic release. Yet when we finally break through into the warm sunlight, so often we can be overwhelmed and frightened: for every light also casts a shadow, and the in-spiration that leads to our in-sight might also reveal to us ugliness and flaws that we had not noticed before. Like the startled badger or groundhog, we might flee back into the safety and familiarity of darkness once again and hide there for quite a long time before risking another venture. But in the story of the serpent, we find not this cowardice and retreat, but an affirmation that “I will not molest the serpent/Nor will the serpent molest me.” If we respect and honor both aspects of inspiration — the warmth of sunlight, and the shadow it casts — we can establish a reverent relationship with the serpent of wisdom and insight, and Brigid its goddess.
Priming the Pump, Doing the Work
And so, the fire festival of Imbolc is not merely a fertility rite to celebrate the birth of lambs and the blooming of snowdrops and crocuses; it is also a time to think about our relationship to the light and heat of divine inspiration. In our mundane lives, we can feel our frustration and spring-fevered restlessness. Our resolutions for the new year may still be going strong, but more likely they have petered out as our resolve has ebbed and our energy waned. That first thrust towards new life that brought us into the light of the waxing year may have by now revealed to us the shadows of difficulties and obstacles we had not expected, and of flaws and shortcomings in ourselves that we have not yet accepted. And so, it is incredibly tempting to retreat back into darkness, comfort and laziness, to try to silence our restlessness with distraction and ignore the promptings of Spirit “in the belly” insisting that we wake up and shake life back into our limbs.
But because our relationship with Brigid, and with the inspiration of awen, is not a one-way connection but a mutual engagement, we are responsible for doing our part, for doing the work necessary to prepare us for the warmth of spring and the light of Spirit. While the three other fire festivals in Druidic tradition usually center around a sacred community bonfire, Imbolc is classically associated instead with the smaller, more intimate burning of candles. Blessing and lighting candles on this day, we remember and honor the act of bringing light into the small dark places in our lives, preparing us for the day when we step into the full light of the sun.
Because so many Pagans and Druids use candles as part of regular private meditation and prayer, this simple ritual of candle-lighting also evokes the importance of daily work as part of an on-going, gradual process of growth in both spiritual and mundane aspects of our lives. Just as a healthy body means a commitment to regular exercise and balanced eating — and cannot be obtained through the frenzy of crash diets or intense, injury-inducing workouts — a healthy spiritual life is one that sustains us through the dark, cold days of winter as well as the energizing, warming days of summer. If we want to integrate our spirituality most fully into our lives, we have to do the work, engage with the small details of living in relationship with Spirit. We have to light our candles and prepare ourselves, working to become the kind of people who can live in the light unafraid. In other words, we have to allow our eyes to adjust.
I like to think of this work as “priming the pump,” a metaphor that is also appropriate for Brigid as she is associated with sacred wells and springs and the flowing of healing waters. We must engage in the process of the spiritual life with commitment and hard work, so that our energies can find healthy forms of release that will not blind or distort, but will instead restore, heal and inspire. We light candles, little man-made bits of illumination, and we settle down to prayer and meditation, inviting awen into our lives. Our work may be silly or uncertain at first, but we move forward, inch by inch, day by day, as the sun climbs higher and we grow more accustomed to living a life of spiritual integrity and self-giving, sharing our light with others and appreciating and engaging with the darkness that surrounds it.