Today is Imbolc.
I write this while sitting before a fire, remembering every other Imbolc at which I sat before fire. This year, as the last two years, it’s a wood fire. Each of the three years before that, the fire came from candles.
Imbolc is the name given to one of the oldest remembered Celtic holidays still celebrated in European and other lands. It’s not clear where the name came from, though most think it’s a reference to the beginning of the birthing of lambs. It might also refer to milk; both are possible and related.
Before industrial civilization enchained cattle and humans into factories, people in northern climates went through periods of food scarcity late in the winter. Harvests that had been stored in autumn dwindled, as did the meat from animals slaughtered just before the deep cold set in. Even all the ales and meads (ready by mid-winter Carnifals) would be mostly gone by now. Nothing would grow, either, and all that was left was to wait for Imbolc.
Because by Imbolc, the lambs and other livestock began to produce milk for their new offspring as they are born. The beginning of a new cycle of abundance, the promise of growth and sunlight and warmth—all of that was this day, Imbolc.
It’s also known as Brigid’s day, or St. Brigid’s.
Perhaps no other ancient goddess was so blatantly preserved in Catholic practice. Sure, it’s obvious after just a little digging to figure out where other saints came from (France’s patron St. Denis is named after the Gaulish shorthand for Dionysus, for instance). But even the practices around St. Brigid’s days make it impossible to argue the saint was anything more than a concession to Celtic Pagans.
Another catholic holy-day that maps to Imbolc is Candlemas, which itself carries on many traditions of the Roman Pagan festival of Lupercalia (15 February). During Candlemas, all the old candle stubs and left-over wax from the year before are melted down to be made into new candles. It’s a day of purification and transformation, fitting well with one of the aspects of Brigid, that of patroness of forging.
Besides forging, Brigid is known for many other things. Christopher Scott Thompson’s book, Pagan Anarchism, details three aspects of her particularly relevant to anti-capitalists. My favorite aspect is that of Brig Ambue, “Brigid of the Cowless.” The lore speaks of a Brigid who defended the rights of the dispossessed, the poor, and the outcasts (including criminals). Other aspects include that of justice (particularly on behalf of women) and hospitality.
I know her as the lady of the forge, the lady of the springs, and the lady of the hearth. Five years ago today I had a vision of a woman sitting in front of a fire, throwing fuel into it and laughing. I’d had the vision before, so many times I thought I was going crazy. I’d close my eyes and see it, blink and see it, always certain I could hear that laughter to the point I almost asked others if they heard her too.
Everything about myself changed that day. Or started to, because ‘reforging’ isn’t a short process. I look back at my life of almost 41 years (my birthday’s a day before lupercalia, on the day of a beheaded saint, in case you’re curious), and see that day five years ago as some sort of rebirth.
I don’t really like the word rebirth, though—that’s what the christians use, the ‘born-again’ drivel that makes them hate abortion and gays. “Reforged” makes more sense, anyway. I didn’t die and change: things broke apart and melted down but are all still there, just in different, better places.
But like the way christians who’ve been ‘born again’ seem to all share the same experience, there seems to be lots of others who’ve had similar experiences with Brigid. Several of them write for this site, others are people I’ve met randomly. But again, unlike christians, we don’t go around telling people how great it is and how she’ll save your soul. If anything, we usually advise caution, because it’s not necessarily a nice and comfortable thing to have your entire life re-arranged around you. Gods help you like forest fires help the forest and lightning fertilizes the earth; powerful, but not pleasant.
Besides, Paganism and witchcraft aren’t colonizer religions anyway. We don’t need or want missionaries, or crusades, or tent revivals. The gods I know seem generally indifferent to whether or not people believe in them; but it’s precisely because they aren’t conqueror gods, or civilization gods. They’re not the gods of kings and popes and CEO’s, but usually of poor people and trees and small streams. Gods of things that actually matter.
Brigid’s one of those gods, and I speak of her not to tell you to believe in her. There’s no point believing in things anyway; belief is for obedient people who do what they’re told and don’t question. I think that’s why gods don’t really seem to care if you believe them or not—who wants to talk to slavish fools who question nothing?
I speak of Brigid mostly to tell you about me, why certain things are important to me, why other things don’t matter at all. Because I know a goddess who cares about criminals and poor people and likes to throw things into a fire and laugh about it. I think she laughs because she knows nothing is ever really completely burnt. Ashes remain, and those ashes feed forests.
So it’s Imbolc, Brigid’s day, a day that was a lot more important to people before capitalism than it is to people living under capitalism. I think it will be an important day again. It has been for me these last five years, and also to an increasing number of people I love and care about and want to fight alongside of, whether they know of Brigid or not.
Rhyd Wildermuth is a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s a poet, writer, theorist, and nomad currently living in occupied Bretagne. Find his primary blog here, his Facebook here, or support him on Patreon here.