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Imbolc Sabbat

Imbolc (Candlemas) Sabbat

Imbolc is one of the four principal festivals of the Irish calendar, usually celebrated by the Gaels, other Celtic cultures and modern Pagans at the beginning of February. Originally dedicated to the goddess Brigid, it was subverted by Christianity as St Brigid's Day.

Imbolc in Myth, Magic and Ritual

Introduction to Imbolc

The festival of Imbolc (also Imbolg), now often called St Bride's Day or Candlemas after the forcible Christianization of Europe, falls today at the beginning of February. But the Gaelic people did not mark February as we do. Called in Gaelic faoilleach, or faoillteach, as we read in MacBain (1911), the month extended from the middle of modern January to the middle of our February. The word derives from the Irish faoillidh or faoilleach, meaning holidays or carnival, which itself means 'wolf-month' from faol, 'wolf'. According to McBain, February in Irish is mí na Féile Bríghde, or Lá Fhéile Bríde (Lá Feabhra), pronounced law ay-leh bree-djeh (law feow-rah). We take our name for this month from the Roman purification ritual of Februa, derived from the Latin februum, 'purification', which was held on the 15th of February by the old Roman calendar.

The name Imbolc comes from the Old Irish i mbolg, 'in the belly', apparently in reference to either pregnant ewes or milking. The oldest etymology, that of the ninth century Cormac's Glossary, derives imbolc (also oimelc) from 'the time the sheep's milk comes'. Whilst often criticised as a fanciful derivation by scholars, this has come to dominate interpretations of this festival. Within Gaelic culture the festival itself is clearly a veneration of the pre-Christian goddess Bride or Brigid and most of the recorded customs centred around this deity. Consequently, most references to this festival historically used the name of Bride or Brigid.

The festival's popularity in Wicca arose from the work of Gerald Gardner. However, Gardner had no access to authentic Pagan witchcraft sources (despite his claims) and based the ritual for what he called 'February Eve' on the general schema he had developed for ordinary coven meetings. Developed sometime between 1949 and 1953 this bare outline has since been fleshed out by other Wiccan writers, often drawing on the greater availability of scholarship on the customs and traditions of the Gaelic and Celtic peoples.

  • Chadwick, Nora, The Celts, 1970:181.
  • Chormaic, Sanas, Cormac's Glossary, trans. John O'Donovan, 1868.
  • Hamp, E. P., 'imbolc, oimelc', Studia Celtica, 14/15 (1979/80) 106.
  • MacBain, Alexander, An Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, 1911.
  • O Cathain, Seamus, 'The Festival of Brigit the Holy Woman', Celtica, 23 (1999) 231-260.
  • Ruickbie, Leo, Open Source Wicca: The Gardnerian Tradition, 2007.

Excerpts on the History of Imbolc/Candlemas


The conception of the Virgin Mary is represented on the same day (the 2nd of February) as that of the miraculous conception of Juno by the ancient Romans. This, says the author of the Perennial Calendar, is a remarkable coincidence. [...] It is also a remarkable coincidence that the Romans should have had their Prosipernalia, or Feast of Candles or Candlemass in February [...] Thus we see that the Roman Catholics have been in the habit of celebrating Christian festivals upon days which were held sacred by the heathens.
W. Winwoode Read, The Veil of Isis; or, The Mysteries of the Druids, 1861, 5.I.

On the second day of February, the Romans perambulated their city with torches and candles burning in honour of Februa; and the Greeks at this same period held their feast of lights in honour of Ceres. Pope Innocent explains the origin of this feast of Candlemass. He states that "The heathens dedicated this month to the infernal gods. At its beginning Pluto stole away Proserpine, and her mother Ceres sought for her in the night with lighted torches. In the beginning of this month the idolaters walked about the city with lighted candles, and as some of the holy fathers could not extirpate such a custom, they ordained that Christians should carry about candles in honour of the Virgin Mary." This method of keeping the feast of Candlemass does not now prevail in this country; so far as the laity are concerned, the festival may be said to have died out, but according to Dr. Brewer, the festival is kept by the Roman Catholic Church as the time for consecrating the candles used in the Church service.
James Napier, Folklore: Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland, 1879, p. 175.


St Bride's Day

In the Highlands of Scotland the revival of vegetation in spring used to be graphically represented on St. Bride’s Day, the first of February. Thus in the Hebrides “the mistress and servants of each family take a sheaf of oats, and dress it up in women’s apparel, put it in a large basket and lay a wooden club by it, and this they call Briid’s bed; and then the mistress and servants cry three times, ‘Briid is come, Briid is welcome.’ This they do just before going to bed, and when they rise in the morning they look among the ashes, expecting to see the impression of Briid’s club there; which if they do, they reckon it a true presage of a good crop and prosperous year, and the contrary they take as an ill omen.” The same custom is described by another witness thus: “Upon the night before Candlemas it is usual to make a bed with corn and hay, over which some blankets are laid, in a part of the house, near the door. When it is ready, a person goes out and repeats three times, … ‘Bridget, Bridget, come in; thy bed is ready.’ One or more candles are left burning near it all night.”
Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion, 1922, Chap. X.
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The Goddess Bride

There are many legends and customs connected with Bride. Some of these seem inconsistent with one another, and with the character of the Saint of Kildare. These seeming inconsistencies arise from the fact that there were several Brides, Christian and pre-Christian, whose personalities have become confused in the course of centuries--the attributes of all being now popularly ascribed to one. Bride is said to preside over fire, over art, over all beauty, 'fo cheabhar agus fo chuan,' beneath the sky and beneath the sea. And man being the highest type of ideal beauty, Bride presides at his birth and dedicates him to the Trinity. She is the Mary and the Juno of the Gael. She is much spoken of in connection with Mary,--generally in relation to the birth of Christ. She was the aid-woman of the Mother of Nazareth in the lowly stable, and she is the aid-woman of the mothers of Uist in their humble homes.
Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1900, vol. I, p. 164.

Weather Prognostication

A windy Christmas and a calm Candlemas are signs of a good year.
William Stuart, Popular Superstitions of the Highlanders of Scotland, 1823, p. 242. N.B., Stuart says that 'Candlemas' was the name given to the New Year.


From the Confession of Isobel Gowdie

'We would go to several houses in the night time. We were at Candlemas last in Grangehill, where we got meat and drink enough. The Devil sat at the head of the table, and all the Coven about. That night he desired Alexander Elder in Earlseat to say the grace before meat, which he did; and is this: "We eat this meat in the Devil's name " [etc.]. And then we began to eat. And when we had ended eating, we looked steadfastly to the Devil, and bowing ourselves to him, we said to the Devil, We thank thee, our Lord, for this.--We killed an ox, in Burgie, about the dawing of the day, and we brought the ox with us home to Aulderne, and did eat all amongst us in an house in Aulderne, and feasted on it.'
Quoted in Margaret Alice Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, 1921, V.5.


At first sight it would seem that the candles were naturally used only to illuminate the midnight festivities, but the evidence points to the burning lights being part of the ritual. This is also suggested by the importance, in the cult, of the early-spring festival of Candlemas; a festival which has long been recognized as of pre-Christian origin.
The light is particularly mentioned in many instances as being carried by the Devil, usually on his head; the witches often lit their torches and candles at this flame, though sometimes it seems that the Devil lit the torch and then presented it to the witch. To call the chief of the cult Lucifer was therefore peculiarly appropriate, especially at the Candlemas Sabbath.
Margaret Alice Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, 1921, V.6.

The Sabbaths

The Sabbaths were held quarterly, on the second of February (Candlemas day), the Eve of May, the first of August (Lammas), and the Eve of November (All Hallow E'en). This shows a division of the year at May and November with two cross-quarter days. Such a division belongs to a very early calendar before the introduction of agriculture. It has no connection with sowing or reaping, it ignores the solstices and equinoxes, but it marks the opening of the two breeding seasons for animals, both wild and domesticated. It therefore belongs to the hunting and pastoral periods, and is in itself an indication of the extreme primitiveness of the cult and points to a very early origin, reaching back possibly to the Palaeolithic era. Cormac, archbishop of Cashel in the tenth century, refers to these meetings when he says that "in his time four great fires were lighted up on the four great festivals of the Druids, viz.: in February, May, August, and November". Seven centuries later, in 1661, Isobel Smyth of Forfar acknowledged that "by these meetings she met with him (i.e., the Devil) every quarter at Candlemas, Rood day, Lammas, and Hallowmass". This shows the continuity of the Old Religion underlying the official religion of Christianity.
Margaret Alice Murray, The God of the Witches, III.



In Wicca, Candlemas, or more frequently Imbolc, is often described as a festival marking the Goddess' cyclical change from Crone to Maiden. Much attention is given to the supposed appearance of the first signs of spring, certainly it may in Western Europe coincide with the blossoming of early flowering plant species.
For example, see 'Glossary of Terms Commonly Used in Wicca', Internet Book of Shadows, 1992.

The February Eve Ritual

After usual opening, all are doubly purified [that is, with eighty strokes].
Dance round outside circle, High Priestess with sword girded on and drawn, Phallic wand in left hand.
Enter circle.
Magus assumes God position.
High Priestess gives Fivefold Kiss, invokes: "Dread Lord of death and Resurrection, life and the giver of life, Lord within ourselves, whose name is Mystery of Mysteries, encourage our hearts. Let the light crystalize in our blood, fulfilling us of resurrection, for there is no part of us that is not of the gods. Descend, we pray thee, upon this thy servant and Priest (name)."
All should be purified in sacrifice before him. He then purifies the High Priestess with his own hands, and others if he will.
Cakes and wine.
Great Rite if possible, in token or real.
Games and dance as the people will.
Dismiss [the guardians, and close down the magic circle; the people then stay to] feast and dance.
Dr Leo Ruickbie (ed.), Open Source Wicca: The Gardnerian Tradition.
[Read online][Get the book]


Candlemas: The Light Returns by Mike Nichols

It seems quite impossible that the holiday of Candlemas should be considered the beginning of Spring. Here in the Heartland, February 2nd may see a blanket of snow mantling the Mother. Or, if the snows have gone, you may be sure the days are filled with drizzle, slush, and steel-grey skies -- the dreariest weather of the year. In short, the perfect time for a Pagan Festival of Lights. And as for Spring, although this may seem a tenuous beginning, all the little buds, flowers and leaves will have arrived on schedule before Spring runs its course to Beltane.
[Read more]

History of Imbolc: Free Download

Imbolc: Festival of the Goddess Brigid

ImbolcIs it St Bride's Day or Candlemas? No, it's Imbolc, the time when Pagan Celts honour the goddess Brigid.
[Download (format: pdf, 612kb)]

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