Imbolc: The Pagan Quickening of Winter

Thoughts on Imbolc and the Perseverance of Hope

Images shows a small group of bright purple crocus flowers with deep golden stamen and thin green leaves, clustered together, defiantly blooming up out of crisp, white snow. This is a classic symbol of the Pagan holiday Imbolc, from the Wheel of the Year.
Purple crocuses blooming in the snow.

The last six-ish weeks of Winter is known as Imbolc or Candlemas. There is a feeling, an impulse rustling at the edge of crocus buds jutting, verdant, out of the frosty ground. You catch it in the sudden song of returning robins, something offbeat, upbeat, swift. Like that dark moment before the movie starts. We sit, hushed, hearts thumping, wondering, “What will we see? What will we feel? What will we say about it?”

As a result, there is a rush (in my opinion) in some Northern Hemisphere traditions to hurry through these last moments of Winter.

To sweep Winter out the door with the Yule greens, giving a furtive nod to The Queen in White. However, The Crone not only deserves Her time of year, She’ll take it, whether you offer it up willingly or not.

Cailleach, is the Celtic Crone Hag Goddess of Winter and Storms and Time. In some sources, She is described as the twin of the Goddess Brigid. “Caill” means veil or mantle, hence Her name as The Veiled One. She was unknowable. She was called “The Daughter of the Little Sun,” hearkening to Her dominion over Winter. Cailleach kidnaps Brigid in some stories, suppressing her life force until another God, like Aengus, comes to save her.

Oddly many of the “saving” techniques involve giving the Hag Goddess a kiss or even making love to Her. And so She is magickally transformed back into a maiden, or Brigid Herself. Further, She is connected to another Water/Hag Goddess who is quite lusty, Sheela-Na-Gig, known for Her spread-legged stance where She is depicted holding Her vagina wide open. Similar also, to Baba Yaga, the Russian Witch Goddess. All these Hags are fierce, bringing storms and rage with them as they strip the land of vitality. And many of them are waiting for the Kiss, to bring them back to life. Sex and Death, intertwined as far back as we can see.

But The Crone not only deserves Her time of year, She’ll take it, whether you offer it up willingly or not.

An adult red-breasted robin eats bright red berries from black branches covered in crisp, white snow.
Red-breasted robin eating berries in snow. The North American Robin is an early sign of Winter’s end.
Photo by Joshua Covill, Montana, 1.1.2017.

I think this impatience to be done with Winter stems out of a few things. We in developed countries are used to our electric light,running water and public transport available 24 hours a day. Most of us can do whatever we want whenever we want, more or less. However, during Winter, we produce less serotonin, a compound our brain uses to regulate mood and productivity. For many, this can result in being lethargic, apathetic, and sometimes depressed.

During Winter, we come face to face with the primordial spirit of Death in all its myriad forms.

A delicate balance of random numbers sustains life on Earth. Degrees of tilt of the planet, minutes of sunlight per day and magnetic poles behaving predictably. Systems that, at this time, even with our great strides in science and technology, we have no real control over, and barely understand. This may change in the future, and that is also something to consider at Imbolc. What is our relationship to – our respect for – the fact that natural resources and systems are finite, delicate, and irreplaceable?

At Imbolc, we float in a sea of possibility, we are All Things and No Thing Yet.

The title of this piece comes from a sentence in the Nobel Lecture “Art, Truth, and Politics.” by playwright Harold Pinter. At this point in the lecture, he is discussing the ephemeral environment that art exists in, where all things are simultaneously true and not true, impossible and possible all at once. This is a quintessential element of Imbolc. In these last six weeks of Winter, we float in a place where everything and nothing exists. We can purify and strip down to the fundamental notion of ourselves, and then purposefully slip on layers of meaning. What we will build our “self” with and what we will destroy is up for conscious deliberation. And what we will let grow once we have cleared the space.

I have been thinking about Yule and Imbolc being seasons of clearing and purification.

In Capricorn, we clear the body and the home, we purify the body and by the end of it the physical space. As we move into Imbolc and Aquarius, we clear our minds, we clear our ethics, and our philosophies get aired out. In Pisces, we wash out our emotions, we wash out our souls. In all regards, we are preparing the Self for the incoming ____________ that will arrive in Spring.

For me, the Imbolc season seems to start when the sun moves into Aquarius. This sign speaks to the conversation of Self in comparison to the Universe, infinity, and humanitarian efforts. We are encouraged to rebel against or at least question the status quo, especially anything limiting our horizons or keeping us from connecting compassionately.

Several hands hold up candles with glowing flames in the dark.

If there was ever a year to consider how your destiny might align with humanity’s, this would be that year.

The first portion of Imbolc is a great time to go on any type of solo retreat, disconnect from the internet, and turn inward to the Self. Consider the tree that looks dead, stripped of its greenery. A broken, hollowed limb has become a home for some finches. Moss grows on the north side. But we know there’s some life, deep inside. Perhaps we need to prune back some dead branches that didn’t make it through Winter. That’s ok. Some portion of us made it through, distilled down through the melting snow.

In the second half of Imbolc, as we move into Pisces, we begin to purify and wash out parts of ourselves no longer serving the greatest good. We also wake up and rectify the Self and the systems in our environment in preparation for the shift in the energy cycle coming up. Do some cleanup work around your neighborhood, and/or a waterway or water source near you. And leave your damned phone in your pocket.

Coming back to the title, in Pitner’s lecture, he is ultimately discussing the malleability of truth, something we have seen taken advantage of in the last four years.

At Imbolc, we float in a sea of possibility, we are All Things and No Thing Yet. This is a state we must entertain to actually “reset” ourselves before the growth of Spring. But what of that growth? When the time comes, out here in the “real” world, we are forced to decide, to become. In the physical world, a thing cannot be two things, or real and not real simultaneously. It must be, or not be. And we are not only the creation being born, but we are the determiners of what will be or not be. It is us who build this future, today, now, with these hands, these eyes, these prejudices, these experiences, hence why clearing out all your old beliefs and personal baggage becomes such a Holy Act.

Imbolc is where your spiritual concepts must hit the reality of life.

You can, in theory, believe whatever you want – but that inner world bleeds out into the shared physical reality. Out here, we are not allowed the luxury of merely floating in eternal potential, eternal concept. We must concretize reality, birth it, name it, and raise it. If we haven’t gotten right with our inner turmoil, if we haven’t routed out the poisoned wells of information that we unconsciously drink from, we just pass it along to the next generation. This is not hyperbole. We have assumed that evolution took thousands of years to make tiny changes to the species. Recent discoveries in genetic evolution now reveal that significant events that affect parents can change the DNA structure in their children and grandchildren. We may literally pass these problems to future generations if we do not deal with them in ourselves.

The Star Card Thalia Took Aquarius Imbolc
The Star Card by Thalia Took

The Star card from Tarot is connected to Aquarius, the Western astrology sign that covers most of Imbolc season.

A beacon in the dark. In fact, much of our experience at this time of year is akin to St. John’s Dark Night of the Soul, wherein the author, 16th-century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross, describes the journey the soul undergoes to meet God, who is ultimately unknowable, or dark. Later scholars and Saints described their own dark nights as a spiritual crisis which gave way to an ecstatic epiphany about the nature of God and reality. These are places where existential freakouts occur. What is the nature of reality? How do I define the Self? What is Good or Evil? Who am I? Why am I?

We can fall into an insular funk during February. Rarely leaving our caves or labs to deal with the outside world. But the Magician knows they need to head into the dark, to let their inner eye adjust, to be able to see their own Light, hiding within. The Witch knows that these are necessary conversations and trials if we are to be balanced and complete beings. The deep richness of potential, whether it is wet, black, thawing earth, awaiting the seed, or the infinite black universe awaiting our evolution, this time is our womb right now, and we are gestating our future selves, not to be rushed, but to arrive with a new concept of self, right on time.

A gray stone with soft green moss on the north side sits nestled in brambles with a spiral that curves inward carved on its face. Imbolc Spiral Stone, Colette O'Neill, 2012
Imbolc Spiral Stone, Colette O’Neill, 2012

We see lots of “light without heat” symbolism in holidays found throughout Imbolc season, especially for Witches.

A young person with long red hair and pale skin wearing a white robe. They wear a crown made out of holly with deep green spiky leaves and bright red berries. Also on the crown are 7 tall, white candles with golden flames. This is a classic symbol worn by Priestesses during Imbolc rituals, Catholic practitioners celebrating Candlemas, and followers of St. Lucia, who also has a Holy Day at this time.
A young person wearing the Imbolc or Candlemas crown, bedecked in holly. This is a classic symbol worn by Priestesses during Imbolc rituals and Catholic practitioners celebrating Candlemas.

The beautiful crown of candles worn by the High Priestess is a combination of Pagan and Catholic tradition, bringing in Candlemas imagery from the Church. Who serves as High Priestess for Imbolc rituals differs by tradition. In some practices the youngest girl will wear the fiery crown as a symbol of the youth of Spring bringing in the light. This can invoke the energy of Dawn or other very early Spring Goddesses. However, in other traditions, the femme head-of-household, Mother, or a powerful, independent “middle-aged” woman will wear the crown. They will invoke the sovereign energy of Goddess Brigid, who is a parthenogenetic (self-impregnating) Goddess responsible for teaching the Celts all their skills and handcrafts, like midwifery and blacksmithing.

And through all this, the Shaman, the Witch, the Wisdom Keepers, the Mothers are counting days in raindrops. They are watching stars rise on the back of crisp black nights against standing stones.

Keeping Time, assuring the village that the Sun and Light and heat are returning, someday. Our Wisdom Keepers, Crafts People, Teachers, Midwives, Healers, and Ancestors, as well as the self-care-skills we have acquired ourselves, see us through this time of year, and it is appropriate to honor them. Because, while we are doing this vital work of building the Self, the Outer World still needs to be attended to.

Think of the child in the womb. Their Mother still lives her life with all it’s ups and downs, even as the fetus develops inside her. While doing this work, honor those people – past, present and future – who are holding space while you heal. Those who are attending to reality while you slip out of it for a while, and who possibly are the sources of the stuff you are using to build yourself and your worldview.

Those Holy Ancestors were just ordinary folks trying to make their way in the world.

Conversely, we are those Holy Ancestors, for future peoples. And we may be able to course correct as a species, perhaps in only a few generation’s time. At Imbolc, we must ask ourselves, what elements of the past must I leave behind?

What kind of future are you dreaming of?

1. “Harold Pinter: Nobel Lecture: Art, Truth & Politics.” Nobel Media AB 2014.

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