Imbolc is a pagan festival that signifies that nature is awakening from its hibernation and that spring is approaching. Despite its Celtic origin, it is celebrated by many people in different countries today. It is often associated with concepts such as purity, renewal, hope, and fertility.
What is Imbolc?
Imbolc is an ancient Celtic festival that heralds the approaching spring. It is considered one of the eight festivals (Sabbat) of the Wheel of the Year, according to the Wicca religion.
It is unclear what Imbolc, also known as Imbolg, means. However, Nora Kershaw Chadwick, a philologist specializing in Celtic studies, wrote that the word Imbolc derives from the Old Irish phrase “i mbolc” meaning “in the belly”. This is considered a reference to the pregnancy of ewes that are about to enter the lambing season.1
Some linguists have argued that the word Imbolc may have been derived from Old Irish or Proto-Celtic words meaning cleansing, budding, or milk.
When is Imbolc Celebrated?
Traditionally, Imbolc is celebrated on February 1/2 every year in the Northern Hemisphere. This date falls on August 1/2 in the Southern Hemisphere.
Some who make use of astronomical and astrological calculations may base it on any day between February 1 and 7. These dates also coincide with the middle of the period between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
The History of Imbolc
It is thought that the roots of Imbolc celebrations go back to ancient times.
The chamber at The Mound of the Hostages, an ancient passage grave built in Ireland between 3350 BC and 2800 BC, is only illuminated twice a year. These are the dates of Samhain and Imbolc, corresponding to the beginning of November and the beginning of February. Based on this, some researchers argue that the dates of Samhain and Imbolc are significant for the inhabitants of Ireland, since the Neolithic period.2
According to a story called Tochmarc Emire, which dates back to the 10th century AD at the latest, Imbolc is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals. (The others are Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain.) Symbolizing the beginning of spring, according to the story, Imbolc is also the time when sheep are milked.3
Imbolc and the Celtic Goddess Brigid
Brigid is a goddess in Celtic mythology associated with wisdom, art, poetry, healing, fertility, fire and protection. In the Sanas Cormaic, a dictionary estimated to have been written in the 9th or early 10th century AD, it is written that poets worshiped Brigid.
Professor Pamela Berger, who specializes in medieval art, has written that Saint Brigid is the Christianized version of the goddess Brigid.4 Therefore, some researchers suggest that Imbolc, also known as Saint Brigid’s Day, may have been a festival held in honor of the goddess Brigid in the past.
How to Celebrate Imbolc?
Although Imbolc continues to be celebrated in many countries today, different customs and traditions can be seen among neo-pagan communities.
Imbolc is a time to look forward to warmer days. Therefore, many things associated with the sun and spring are also associated with Imbolc.
The most common traditions are lighting a fire or candles, burning incense, making Brigid straw dolls, decorating the house with sheep figures and flowers associated with early spring, using crystals that evoke the sun, and consuming milk products.
Imbolc in Wicca
In Wicca, Imbolc is considered one of the Sabbats of the Wheel of the Year and is associated with Brigid.
In some Wiccan traditions, Imbolc celebrations may focus more on themes of femininity and fertility. While emphasizing the feminine principle symbolized by Brigid, some groups may choose not to include men in these celebrations. However, such practices and celebrations can vary depending on the preferences of each Wiccan community. Some may also include men in the festivities.