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Beyond the darkness of winter, there is an oasis of light and warmth on the journey from solstice to spring. Known as Candlemas, Imbolg, Brigantia, or Lupercus, it is a hope-filled celebration held in early February to welcome the returning light and the promise of spring. Candlemas sheds light on the origins, lore, and customs of this ancient holy day with:
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Amber K is a third degree priestess of the Wiccan faith. She was initiated at the Temple of the Pagan Way in Chicago and served on the Council of Elders there. Her books on magick and the Craft have been widely circulated in the United States and Europe, and for nearly 25 years she has traveled across the U.S. teaching the Craft. She has worked with Circle and the Re-Formed Congregation of the Goddess, and served as National First Officer of the Covenant of the Goddess for three terms. She is a founder of Our Lady of the Woods and the Ladywood Tradition of Wicca, and currently is Executive Director of Ardantane, a Wiccan/Pagan seminary is northern New Mexico.
Azrael Arynn K is a third-degree Wiccan Priestess and High Priest of the Coven of Our Lady of the Woods, and has also held offices in the Covenant of the Goddess. She resides in New Mexico, where she is both Facilities Director and Dean of the School of Sacred Living at Ardantane Pagan Learning Center. She co-authors books on the Craft with Amber K, and travels and teaches widely throughout the United States.
In the northern hemisphere, this festival comes while winter’s grip is still upon the land. Today we call it Candlemas, Imbolg, or by other names. Once this part of the year was called the Wolf-month, or Dead-month. For many of our ancestors, snow covered the sleeping earth, the nights were still long, and the gaiety of the solstice holidays had long since faded. Food supplies were beginning to look scanty and moldy, and the promise of spring seemed far away. And yet―they celebrated. In the cold darkness, they found reason for hope: a gust of wind less chill, a few minutes more of gray daylight, a solitary crocus pushing through the snow. They created a holy day, a festival, a feast; and under many different names it is with us today.
The festival has been called Imbolg and Oimelc, the Feast Day of Saint Brigid, Candlemas, Lá Fhéile Bríd, and by names spoken in the mists of prehistory, but lost today. There is an overlapping complex of holy days in Europe, clustered around the first to the third of February; and several other related festivals later in the month. We will explore several of these special events, beginning with the days when humanity’s hold on survival seemed tenuous at best.
The Ice Ages and
the End of Winter
If winter is an inconvenience for some people now, it was a serious challenge to our medieval ancestors. And to our still more distant ancestors, it was a gamble with death every single year.
Imagine the Paleolithic era―the Old Stone Age. Imagine not from our perspective, as a dim prequel to civilization with its abundant food, central heating, and vast transportation networks. Imagine being there, and there is . . . all there is.
Winter, on the vast steppes of Asia. For a thousand miles in any direction there is nothing to break the force of the frigid wind. Gray skies, glaciers far to the north, grass brown and sere where the endless breeze has stripped away the snow. There are seventeen in your clan, since your grandmother left the group. She was forty-one, an ancient crone, and could no longer keep up with the migration. Now the clan follows the tracks of a herd of musk oxen, hoping for food.
That night you camp in the lee of a low mound, and the people chew on the last dried strips of mammoth meat from a kill made weeks ago. The hunters ranging ahead have not caught sight of the musk oxen, and their tracks may be erased by morning. The wind howls like the spirits of the lonely dead, and there is a current of fear and hopelessness among the living. More than one clansman expects to join his ancestors soon.
The shaman stands. She is a little young for her position, but was the closest thing to an apprentice old Nev had, before he died last fall of the coughing sickness. She speaks: “The Moon has passed through Her cycle once and more, since we marked the Longest Night. You all know this. But the nights still seem long, and food is scarce. You wonder if the winter will ever end, if warmth will ever return to the land. Now I say this: I have measured the length of the nights, as Nev taught me, and they are shorter. The daylight grows. This is the message of the Great Mother, Her promise that spring will come! She sends another message; I have dreamed it. Within two days we shall find the herd, and as much meat as we can carry. So pass around what is left of the mammoth meat; eat what you wish, for more is coming. Trust the Mother!”
She speaks with authority for one of fourteen summers. The people believe, and soon the last of the food is shared out among the clan, and they dance around the hot, leaping flames of the bone-fire they have built.
The Bear Goddess of
One of the oldest forms of the Goddess is that of the bear, and one of the earliest recorded holy days of February honors Her in that form, perhaps because the awakening of hibernating animals is one sure sign of spring’s approach. According to Marija Gimbutas, a scholar of Old European deities, “The concept of the goddess in bear shape was deeply ingrained in mythical thought through the millennia and survives in contemporary Crete as “Virgin Mary of the Bear.” In the cave of Acrotiri near ancient Kydonia, a festival in honour of Panagia (Mary) Arkoudiotissa (‘she of the bear’) is celebrated on the second day of February.”1
The bear was apparently a central figure in the Paleolithic religions of Old Europe and Asia. The hundreds of bear-headed clay figurines found at archaeological sites in Eastern Europe seem to represent the primal mother-goddess; some are seated on thrones and decorated with lunar crescents. Female bears are known for their fierce devotion to their young, and so the bear was a symbol of motherhood.2 As the bear protects her cubs, so the bear-goddess protects the tribes by bringing spring with her emergence from winter’s sleep.
Bears are also connected with water; bear-shaped vases of early European cultures are covered with zigzags, chevrons, and striated diamonds, all patterns symbolic of flowing water. The themes of water and fire appear again and again in connection with end-of winter celebrations; fire for warmth against the cold, water thawing from ice and snow as spring returns.
The Eleusinian Mysteries
Let us move ahead thousands of years to another spring festival, in which the goddess has divided into a more human Mother and Her returning Daughter. In ancient Greece, the lesser Eleusinian Mysteries were celebrated at the end of January and beginning of February. This festival commemorated the return of Persephone from the Underworld to Her mother Demeter. Demeter, as you may recall, was a Mother Goddess Who brought life to the world, and made the crops grow and the bees give honey. When Her daughter Persephone was stolen away (or eloped, in some versions of the story) to the Land of the Dead with the god Hades, Demeter mourned, life slipped from the land, and the first winter came.
A compromise arranged by the gods allowed Persephone to reign as Queen of the Underworld for half of each year, and return to the world of the living for half. When She returns, bringing the spring, the goddess Hekate and the spirits of the dead chosen for rebirth accompany Her.
The Greeks held a great celebration to mark the occasion. First there was a torchlight procession, in which the participants combed the land and even waded into the sea, recreating the search for Demeter’s lost daughter. When word came that Persephone was found, the assemblage cheered and held a great feast to celebrate.
The Romans regarded February as a time of cleansing and purification―Februarius mensis, “the month of ritual purification.” However, fertility and love were also popular themes. Several festivals were celebrated, but their biggest event was the Lupercalia on February 15. This holiday was named for the Lupercal, the grotto where the infants Romulus and Remus came ashore after floating down the Tiber River in a basket. There they were suckled and raised by a wolf, and later grew up to found the city and nation of Rome. Why was the sacred bear of ancient Europe largely replaced by the wolf in classical Rome? Edain McCoy believes that “Lupercalia celebrated the beginning of the wolves’ mating season. . . . Wolves mate for life and their union was seen not only as a sign of spring, but of the eternal union of the Goddess and her Sun God.”3
In part, the festival of Lupercalia honored Faunus (also called Lupercus), a goat-footed god of Nature, flocks, crops and gardens, music, animals, and much more. Goats were sacrificed to him, and then his priests took to the streets wearing goatskin loincloths. They were known as the Luperci (the priests, not their loincloths.) Each carried goatskin thongs and their role was to hit everyone they saw; presumably this token scourging was a symbolic ritual purification.
Married women received a bonus effect, however; the thongs supposedly encouraged fertility. Technically, the Luperci were supposed to strike them gently across the palms, but apparently some women were so serious about the fertility issue that they stripped naked to encourage the Luperci to go further.
The younger people celebrated by putting the names of willing girls into a jar; the boys would draw names and discover who were to be their partners for the festivities. This custom spread and was still popular in England and Scotland hundreds of years later.
Pope Gelasius I, who reigned over the Roman Church from 492–6 c.e., “banned this cheerfully scandalous festival and met with such an outcry that he had to apologize.”4 In 496 the feast of Lupercalia was changed to the feast of Saint Valentine, and instead of girls’ names, the names of various saints were put into a box for people to draw out. Prayers would be offered to the saint you drew.5 We can only guess how wildly popular this change was with young people. Oddly enough, the custom seems to have evaporated over the years.
The Roman Church was finally able to officially abolish Lupercalia, although its replacement was never quite as respectable as the Church fathers might have hoped.
The Lupercalia was definitely the social event of the season; however, the Greeks and Romans were not stingy with their festivals. A citizen who didn’t have to work for a living could spend the entire month preparing for holy days, celebrating them, or recovering from them. Here is a sampling of the Roman and Greek holidays for the month:
January 31 to February 2: Februalia dedicated to Vesta, “The Shining One,” goddess of fire and the hearth.
February 2: The day honoring Juno Februata as the virgin mother of Mars.
February 6: Festival of Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love, beauty, creation, vegetation and flowers; known to the Romans as Venus.
February 7 to 9: Feast of the Old Greek, Roman and Slavic goddess Artemis/Diana/Diwitsa, as creatrix, midwife of birthing creatures of all kinds, protector of the young, and punisher of child abusers.
February 12: Festival of Diana as protectress of wildlife; she was also a Triple Goddess of the Moon, Virgin, Mother, and Huntress.
February 14: Feast of Juno, Queen of the Heavens, consort of Jupiter, Great Mother, goddess of Earth and the moon, protectress of women.
February 15: She’s back! Festival of Love for Aphrodite.
February 16: Celebration of Victoria, goddess of victory.
February 26: Day of Hygeia, goddess of health and healing.
February 27: Day of Selene, the Mother aspect of the moon goddess, patroness of magick, intuition, fecundity, and the tides of the ocean.
Each of these deities had other major festivals as well; these are simply their holy days that happened to be in February.
The Celts and Imbolg
Further north, the Celtic peoples marked the season in their own way. Imagine yourself in an ancient Irish village: the solstice is past, the days are dreary, the memory of warmth seems like a fading dream, and the promise of spring is scarcely to be seen. It is then, “Late in January, as the Wolf Moon wanes or the Chaste Moon waxes to full, we begin to prepare for the Imbolc Sabbat.”6
Many of the Celtic peoples were pastoral herders, making their living from their flocks of sheep. Naturally enough, their seasonal festivals reflected their livelihood. One of the major Celtic festivals was Imbolg (or Imbolc), pronounced “em-bowl/g” or “immol’g,” (with a tiny hesitation or unstressed vowel after the “l”). Imbolg means “in the belly” and refers specifically to the pregnancy of the sheep, and more broadly to Mother Earth quickening with new life.
A second name for this holiday is Oimelc (“oy-melk”), meaning “ewe’s milk,” since the ewes were lactating for their new lambs. A folk verse from the Isle of Man makes oblique reference to the abundant milk, calling the holiday “White Brigid’s Day.” Milk was not simply for the lambs, or a nice beverage for people to drink with their cookies, but an important part of the family’s nourishment. Because it was precious, it was worthy of the gods; so an offering of milk might be left out overnight, or poured out on the threshold or the ground, as a libation to thank the goddess and encourage still more bounty.
Imbolg is also considered one of the four great Celtic fire festivals, “but here the emphasis is on light rather than heat, the strengthening spark of light beginning to pierce the gloom of Winter.”7 The days technically begin to lengthen at Yule, the Winter Solstice, but by Imbolg we can clearly see the change. Truly the sun’s light is with us longer each day. This is the first harbinger of spring, our assurance that the Wheel is turning and the long, warm days of summer will return. The Scots celebrate the growing light not only with Imbolg but also with Up-Kelly-Aa, a fire festival on January 28 that honors the sun goddess.
It is a busy time of year, and the air is filled with anticipation. Housewives check the family pantry and root cellar, hoping that enough food remains to feed the family through the spring; in the barn, the farmer casts a practiced eye over his hay and grain―it’s a long way yet to the harvest! But with luck and the goddess’ blessing, the fields will be ready for ploughing soon. In the coastal villages the fisherfolk carefully check their boats for winter damage and begin to repair their nets.
Imbolg is about the first signs of spring, the promise of returning life, about sunlight and ripening and the growing conviction that the community will survive another year. Marion Green, who lives in England, brings the feeling to life as she says, “Mother Nature is seen as being renewed at this time; she becomes the Maiden of Spring, when the lambs’ tails of hazel catkins tremble on the bare branches, and the hardiest of bulbs begin their new lease of life, thrusting green spears through the thawing mould. . . . The gamboling lambs seemed to herald the warmer days to come, and overhead, the harbingers of spring, the overwintering birds, were beginning to verbally stake their claims on their territory and sing a song of mating as the weeks of February passed by.”8
After a long, hard winter, who could look forward to all this and not want to celebrate?
The Norse Festivals of February
In this season of abundant celebrations, the Norse were by no means lacking in the festival spirit. Prudence Priest, an Asatru priestess, explains that “Among Norse/Teutonic heathens ‘Valentine’s Day’ has long been celebrated as the Feast of Vali, the Honor of Vara, and even occasionally as the climax of Barri. These heathens are known for their rowdy celebrations. . . .”9
The Feast of Vali is a solar festival marking the strengthening power of the sun, the beginning of the end of winter, and the survival of the community. It also celebrates loyalty and kinship, and is named after Vali, a son of Woden whose role in mythology was to avenge the death of the beloved god Baldur.
The Honor of Vara is a lunar festival in which the community witnesses and celebrates the vows of lovers. Vara is the goddess who hears us when we swear oaths or make promises, and stands for truth and responsibility. She has been called “the Norse Athena,” and is also analogous to Ma’at, the Egyptian goddess of truth. Vara is a companion of Freya, “The Lady” who is essentially the Norse Queen of the Gods.
Barri is a fertility festival that technically takes place at the lunar New Year, though most Norse religionists simply celebrate it beginning February 1 or 2 and until the full moon in Leo. It commemorates the courtship of the giantess, Gerda, symbolizing Mother Earth, by Freyr, god of ferti...
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Book Description Llewellyn Publications, 2001. Paperback. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P110738700797
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