Witchology, the history of Wicca & Witchcraft
by Dr Leo Ruickbie
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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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
windy Christmas and a calm Candlemas are signs of a