Celebrating Imbolc 2017

Happy Imbolc everyone. Known as Imbolc or Candlemas, the 1st of February is one of the four great festivals of the Celtic year. It marked the end of winter and the beginning of spring. At this time the first signs of spring are appearing in nature – buds are beginning to appear on trees, animals are waking up from hibernation and early spring flowers like snowdrops and daffodils are beginning to bloom. The day is also known as Oimelc which is Gaelic for “ewe’s milk.” The ewe’s are lactating and the lambs are beginning to be born. Milking can begin again, which in ancient times, when food was hard to come by in winter, offered people a lifeline. The sun is getting stronger and the days are noticeably longer. It is time to celebrate the awakening and rebirth of the earth, as well as new beginnings in our own lives.

In the tale of Tochmarc Emire, in which Emer is wooed by the hero Cu Chulainn, Emer talks of “Imbolc, when the ewes are milked at spring’s beginning.” Historian Ronald Hutton says that “The festival must be pre-Christian in origin, but there is absolutely no direct testimony as to its early nature, or concerning any rites which might have been employed then. He does point out that is has something to do with milking as ewes began to lactate and that “it is reasonably certain that behind this alleged holy woman [St Bride]…stands a pagan goddess of the same name.” He further says that there is uncertainty whether she is one goddess or a triple one, but in legend she is “associated with learning, poetry, prophesying, healing and metal-working, and was in general the most pleasant Irish female deity.” A fire was kept burning at her Kildare shrine during medieval times, but Hutton points out that in legend, the goddess “was not especially associated with fire.” By the 1700’s it was believed that she visited households on the eve of her feast to bless people if they were virtuous and many customs of this time are recorded. For example, feasts to mark the last night of winter, bread and butter left outside on a windowsill as an offering, Crosses made of rushes hung up over the door as a sign of welcome or put in stables so the animals would be blessed, and a bed of twigs made so she could rest. There was also a custom of putting up cloth or ribbon the windowsill overnight for her to bless.

However there are other festivals associated with this time that have helped shape how we celebrate it today as modern pagans. Hutton’s book on the Stations of the Sun looks at Candlemas, a Christian feast of purification with a ceremony of kindling candles. He says this was a “celebration of returning light” and that later medieval services use images of “rebirth of light in the dark time of the year” and the “promise of better times not far away.” Meanwhile Bede said that the pagan Anglo-Saxons called February “Sol Monath” ie cake-month as it was a time to offer special cake to the gods.

Historian Peter Berresford Ellis points out that according to Rennes Dinnsenchus, St Brigit was a “ban drui” and was said to have been nourished on the magical milk of Otherworldly cows. She later became a Christian and created a religious settlement at Dumcree. He says that in a biography of her in 650AD, her “cult was mixed with the Irish goddess of fertility, Brigit, after whom she had obviously been named” and that her feast day was “grafted onto the festival of Imbolc….sacred to the goddess Brigit on January 31st and February 1st. He explains that this feast was connected with ewes coming into milk and so “was a pastoral or fertility festival.” The goddess Brigit was a daughter of The Dagda and was a “divinity of healing, poetry and arts and crafts” as well as divination.

There are many customs recorded throughout history in Gaelic countries which honour her and may date back to the time of the ancient Celts. In Scotland, a cold day on Imbolc meant warmer weather was soon to come. Offerings of milk were made to the earth and porridge to the sea to ensure a good yield of fish and seaweed in the coming year. A St Brigit doll was made of corn and dressed elaborately e.g. with snowdrops and primroses. A bed was made for her and she was invited into the house, while a white birch want was placed alongside the bed to represent the wand she used to make vegetation start growing again. Ashes in the hearth were smoothed and left overnight. In the morning, these were checked for evidence she had visited and if not incense was burned to her. In Ireland, celebrations were similar. Imbolc represented not only the beginning of spring but also the fishing season as the storms of the sea were supposed to have been over by then. While some farmers would turn over a sod of earth in a symbolic act to hurry up warmth, the feast was known as a “holiday from turning” and so any type of turning such as weaving, ploughing and spinning was forbidden out of respect for Brigit who it was said had taught women how to spin wool. The house was cleaned thoroughly beforehand and sained or warded, while water was brought from a sacred well to sprinkle around the house. A feast on the evening included sowans, apple cake, dumplings, colcannon and most importantly, butter. Later mashed potato with butter and onions was added. A place was laid at the table for St Brigit and a portion of food left out for her. Items such as ribbons or cloth were left on trees and bushes outside for her to bless and the fire was kept burning with the door open so she could come in and warm herself. St Brigit’s crosses were made of rushes or straw and hung up for protection. It was also a time of charity and hospitality.

Meanwhile Bede said that the pagan Anglo-Saxons called February “Sol Monath” ie cake-month or mud-month, as it was a time to offer special cakes or loaves to the gods. This is the time when Heathens will celebrate the Charming of the Plough or Disting. Taking inspiration from the Anglo Saxon Aecerbot Charm, many will bake special cakes and then plough the soil for the first time that year, putting the cakes into the soil as offerings to the earth mother for fertility of the land in the coming season. The plough itself is also blessed for the coming season. The four stages of the day long ceremony in the Acerbot charm is 1) Hallow, bless and anoint the plough, 2) plough the land for the first time, 3) pray to the earth and 4) offer special cakes by putting them into the freshly ploughed earth. Some Heathens also honour Weyland the Smith God and the dwarves. The dwarves in particular are seen as dwelling under the earth (which seems apt at this time), but also as the crafters of many important objects for the gods with the metal they find there. As with the Celtic Pagans who honour Brighid, a goddess of crafts and the forge at this time, and see it as a time to bless the tools of their trades, so Anglo Saxon heathens will honour the first breaking of the Earth with a metal plough by honouring Weyland and the dwarves. Consequently, this is a great time of the year for prayers and offerings about our jobs and careers, as well as blessing our altar and work tools. For Norse Pagans, this is also Disting – when the female ancestors known as the disir are honoured and a Thing is held to decide important matters.

This time can be seen as a feast of the hearth, a time to celebrate the rekindling of the world’s hearth fire and the return of light, a time to purify the home, a time to prepare for spring planting by blessing tools and fields, and a time to give offerings to the Earth Mother. Alaric Albertsson in Travels through Middle Earth suggests that this is a good time to honour Earthe/ Nerthus, the Anglo-Saxon earth goddess.. Meanwhile, Neo-pagans celebrate by doing a spring clean, eating spicy or dairy foods or making bannocks (oat cakes) and colcannon (kale and leek), honouring Brigit and placing candles in all the windows of the home to represent the growing strength of the sun. I like to go for a walk on this day to search for the first signs of spring – especially snowdrops. Imbolc is also a time to create poetry and songs or to make candles for the coming year. It is traditionally the time to begin buying seed potatoes and chitting them ready for planting, as well as to bake cakes to put in the soil as offerings to the gods. And it is the time to bless the tools of your trade, and honour those who help us with them – Brighid, or Weyland and Nerthus.

Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Ellis, Peter Berresford. A Brief History of the Druids. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2002.

Albertsson, Alaric. Travels through Middle Earth: The Path of a Saxon Pagan. USA: Llewellyn Publications, 2009.

Tairis – http://www.tairis.co.uk

Gaol Naofa – http://www.gaolnaofa.com/festivals/

Gaelic Folkway – http://gaelicfolkway.webs.com/feiseannaomh.htm

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Yule & Ritual 2014

On Sunday it is the great feast of Yule, the rebirth of the Sun. This year I am again using a ritual from ADF Solitary Druid Fellowship. A Naturalistic Pantheist ritual can be found on my ritual page here. I will be using the following in the “explanation” part of the ADF ritual but this can also be used for the Naturalistic Pantheist one too.

When it reaches the “Explanation” section, I do the following…

Say: “As I stand here on this celebration of Yule, the sacred wheel of the year has turned once again and it is now midwinter. As my ancestors did in times before and my descendants may do in times to come, I honour the old ways. It is the Solstice, the longest night and shortest day. Today I celebrate the rebirth of the Sun. Though the night is dark, and the Earth sleeps in winter, I await with patience the return of light and life to the world. Since the summer, it has gradually become colder and darker, but from this time forwards, the days shall get longer and lighter and warmer again. The Solar year has run its course and completed its cycle and a new year begins, bringing light, life and hope to the earth.”

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Celebrating Beltane 2014

Happy Beltane everyone. Beltane, meaning “bright fire” is one of the four great fire festivals of the ancient Celtic cultures. In ancient Irish culture it was the time when both the Tuatha De Danaan and the Milesians came to Ireland and was originally celebrated when the Hawthorns began to blossom. Half way between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice, it marks the start of the light half of the year and heralds the beginning of summer. According to historian Ronald Hutton, “the ritual of Beltane was found in all Celtic areas of the British Isles, but also in pastoral regions of Germanic and Scandinavian Europe.” The historical evidence for the celebration of this festival is much better than for others. The earliest references to it are from 900AD which state “lucky fire i.e two fires Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle against the diseaseas of the year to those fires” and “they used to drive cattle between them.” Another reference says “a fire was kindled in his [Bel] name at the beginning of summer always, and cattle were driven between two fires.” Like the other three Celtic festivals, Beltane is mentioned in the Irish tale of Tochmarc Emire and the ritual of lighting bonfires at this time survived right up until the 19th century. Like Samhain, it was seen as a liminal time “when fairies and witches were especially active, and magical devices [were] required to guard against them.” To the welsh, it was one of the “spirit nights.” Hutton says that “rituals were conducted to protect…against the powers of evil, natural and supernatural, not merely in the season to come but because those malign powers were supposed to be active at this turning point of the year.”

Other celebrations in English areas at this time include “bringing in the May” and dancing around a Maypole. Bringing in the May dates back to at least the 13th century and refers to gathering flowers and foliage to bring home and celebrate the beginning of summer. Hutton says that there is no evidence for when the Maypole came to Britain but it was first recorded in a welsh poem in the mid 14th century and is also recorded in Scandinavia so probably originated from the continent. The May Pole was not a phallic or world tree symbol but was most likely simply a “focal point for celebrations” or something to hang garlands on.

Beltane marks the beginning of the pastoral season, the time when farmers traditionally moved their herds to summer pastures (driving them between two fires for blessing and protection first) and people could go outside because of the milder weather. The crops were in the ground by now and it was traditionally the beginning of calving season. There was lots of milking to do and making dairy products like butter. It was the busiest time to visit water sources to collect water for healing and good luck. It was also a time for the renewal of rents.

Learning from historical practices, Gaelic reconstructionists celebrate this time by extinguishing a flame (ideally a bonfire) and relighting it. If there is no bonfire or hearth fire, it is a good time to buy a new hearth candle for your altar and ritually extinguish the old one while lighting the new one. They eat a feast, usually including bannocks and oatmeal porridge or soup with soft cheese and shoots of new herbs and salad greens such as wood sorrel. They also decorate their houses with greenery and yellow flowers like buttercups and collect dew or water in the morning (considered potent for healing and maintaining a youthful appearance). They also make offerings to the gods, carry out protection rites to sain their house and land while warding the boundaries, and make charms of rowan. Some groups also see this as a time to renew their bond with the land goddess (the nearest river) by giving her offerings at her river bank.

For norse reconstructionists and groups like Asatru, this festival is called Walpurgisnacht. It is a night when witches gather and magic happens. It is a time to honour Freya, the goddess of magic and love. Like the Gaelic reconstructionists, it is seen as a time of supernatural danger, and is celebrated with feasting, bonfires and protective rites.

Beltane is a time for fertility, fun and flowers. By this time most of the tree buds have burst and they’re becoming green again, insects and bees are flying around and countless species of flowers are in bloom, including the beautiful bluebells. It is much warmer now and the land is fertile again. Summer has arrived. For me, its a great time to get outside and enjoy nature coming alive again. One can build a maypole to dance around, or decorate our homes with lots of flowers. It is a good time to eat seasonable foods and make lemonade. This is the perfect time to get out and collect some wild foods to make a wild food salad as part of your Beltane feast. Nettles, Goosegrass, Wild Garlic, Dandelions, Jack by the Hedge, young Hawthorn Leaves and others are available now. Unforced Rhubarb is also coming into season. My Beltane feast of seasonal foods will be roasted new potatoes with asparagus, broad beans and peas, a rhubarb and strawberry pie, and homemade lemonade. This time is also a very good time to focus on the romantic side of life.

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

http://www.gaolnaofa.com/festivals/
http://www.tairis.co.uk/
http://gaelicfolkway.webs.com/feiseannaomh.htm

Beltane and Ritual 2014

Tomorrow evening is Beltane, the feast of flowering. I will be doing an ADF style ritual using the Solitary Druid Fellowship‘s liturgy format. For the Explanation part I use the following…

Say: “As I stand here on this celebration of Beltane, the sacred wheel of the year continues to turn. As my forebears did, I do now, and so may my descendants do in time to come. The dark half of the year is over and Summer has begun. The earth is alive and the land is fertile. Leaves are once more upon the trees, flowers are blooming all around and insects are searching for pollen. Warmth has returned and it is the season of love and passion, the time of fire. I give thanks for the blessings of the earth mother.”

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Celebrating Samhain

Happy Samhain everyone. Also known as Halloween or All Hallows Eve, this is the festival on which the ancient Celts celebrated the end of the harvest season and the beginning of Winter. It also marks the Celtic new year. For the ancient Irish, days always began at sunset and Samhain (pronounced Sow-en) celebrations would therefore start on the eve of 31st October.

Alfablot at boulder without flash

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At this time the earth appears to die, laying dormant through the dark cold times ahead. The leaves are changing colour and falling from the trees. The harvest has been collected from the fields and they lie empty. The livestock have been brought down from the pastures, the weak ones have been culled for food and people return to their homes for feasting. Summer is over (Samhain means “Summers end”) and winter begins. The days are getting much shorter and colder, the frosts have begun and animals are busy making final preparations for winter. Traditionally it was believed to be bad luck to harvest anything after this date and therefore any remaining harvest is left as an offering to deities or nature spirits.

For the ancient Celts who split the year into two halves, Samhain marks the transition from the summer half of the year to the winter half, from life to death. They believed that any time or place of transition was sacred. At this time, the veil between this world and the Otherworld was at its thinnest and therefore the spirit world and the human world could interact. Many of the modern practices of Halloween have roots in this belief – whether putting lights in carved pumpkins (originally turnips) to scare off evil spirits or giving out treats to those dressed as devils and ghosts to bribe them not to cause trouble to the family. It was also a time for divination and for honouring the dead, who were thought to return to their homes on this night. Traditionally, it is also a time for protective rites like lighting bonfires, walking the boundaries of your property with fire or making charms of Rowan.

With the revival of Paganism, the practice of ancestor veneration, a practice of the ancient Celts once dead in the western world, has begun to grow in popularity again. As Naturalistic Pantheists, this practice should also be a part of our lives. Samhain is a time of remembrance. It is a time to honour those who have died, whether friends, family or ancestors. It is a time to remember them and to be thankful for the role they have played in influencing our lives. They are not gone, they live on within us through our memories and genes, and within the earth as their atoms are reincarnated into a thousand different creations. Samhain reminds us that one day, we too must die. It is a time take stock of our lives and to meditate on the cycle of life and death, confronting a topic we too often do our best to avoid.

It is traditional to celebrate this festival by eating a large feast of late harvest foods e.g. pumpkins, apples, nuts, root vegetables and barmbrack bread. It is also the traditional time for remembering our ancestors and those we have loved and lost e.g. by visiting their graves and putting fresh flowers there. Personally, I build an altar and put photos and mementos of those I have lost recently on it. This year I have managed to get a few more mementos to add to the altar. I also put up my family tree. On Samhain eve I perform a ritual of remembrance, lighting a candle for each person I am remembering and holding a minutes silence in respect. I am also having a party with friends, decorating the house and eating traditional foods like mashed potato, gingerbread and cabbage.

Celebrating Lughnasadh

Happy Lughnasadh everyone!

English: Loaves of bread at Stroud, Gloucester...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Being an agricultural community, on Lughnasadh, the Celtic farmers would cut the first grains of the season and families would make loaves of bread. In Irish mythology, the festival was said to have been started by Lugh, the many-skilled god of light, storms, harvest and crafts, as a funeral feast and sporting competition in commemoration of his foster mother, the goddess Tailtiu, who died of exhaustion after clearing the plains of Ireland for agriculture. Lughnasadh means “wedding feast of Lugh” and represents the time when the god of light is married to the goddess of the land. The festival evolved into a great tribal assembly where legal agreements were made, political problems were discussed and huge Olympic-style sporting contests were held. It was a time of peace and was also one of two festivals where hand-fastings were traditionally held.

Lughnasadh is a time to be grateful for the food on our table and to remember that the hot days of summer are coming to an end as we approach the cold part of the year. It is the time to briefly rest before the hard work of reaping what has been sown begins. It’s traditional to celebrate this time by making corn dollies, baking bread, holding sports competitions, selling your crafts at summer fairs and having bonfires on hilltops. Offerings are given to Lugh in the hopes of a good harvest. I will be celebrating this festival by doing an ADF ritual honouring Lugh, making some bread, drinking elderflower cordial, spending time in nature and picking berries.

Celebrating Litha – The Summer Solstice

The sun behind the Heel Stone at Stonehenge, s...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Happy Litha everyone. Today is the Summer Solstice or Midsummers Day in the Northern Hemisphere. The word Solstice comes from the latin “sol” meaning sun and “sistere” meaning to stand still. It is the longest day of the year with 15 hours of sunshine. The sun is at its most powerful today. Celebrated by almost all cultures historically, it is an important time of the year for Pantheists as one of the four major solar festivals. In Druidry is it called Alban Heruin, meaning Light of the Shore, and its a time to celebrate by having a BBQ and bonfire on the beach and to honour the Celtic sea deity Manannan.

Crops have all been planted and are growing strongly, the earth is alive with blooming flowers, green trees and insects busy collecting pollen and making honey. It is a time to rest, to have fun and to celebrate before the hard work of the harvest begins. From now on the days begin to shorten again as we move back towards the winter.

It is traditional to celebrate this festival by having BBQ’s and Bonfires with friends, watching the sunrise and eating summer foods e.g. salads. It is a good time to be outside, to collect herbs, to go hiking or camping, to have a water fight and to make mead. It is a time to be thankful for the sun and to enjoy its light and warmth.

I will be doing a ritual from the ADF Solitary Fellowship at the time of the Solstice (5.04am GMT) and hopefully watching the sunrise at 4.40am. I will be spending some time outside in nature and will be decorating my altar with solar symbols like oranges, some oak leaves and some sunflower seeds. I will be having a big party with friends (hopefully at the beach if the weather is good) and will also do a beach clean to honour the earth today.

Below are three videos, the first is about the summer solstice, the second a music video to get you in a summery mood and the final one is a sun salutation to do in honour of the sun today….