The High Days: Imbolc

Imbolc takes place in early February, when in northern Europe the first lambs are beginning to drop and the ewes first begin to lactate. As such, popular associations have been made between lambing, pregnancy, fertility, and Imbolc, and some assert that the word derives from a Gaelic term either for ‘ewe’s milk’ (oi-melc, a probable folk etymology found in the 10th century Cormac’s Glossary) or more commonly ‘in the belly’ (Modern Irish i mbolg). However, a competing theory asserts that ancient Irish rituals at Imbolc, when winter is first beginning to ebb, played as closing counterpart to the warrior initiation custom of the faelad, or ‘wolfing’, when young men may have undergone initiation ceremonies that led them to take on ‘wolfish’ identities and rove as wandering packs or fianna, on the outskirts of civilized society (Ravenna, 380). According to this theory, a better etymology would be either imb-fholc ‘washing oneself’ or simply imb-olc ‘milk-wolf’ or ‘butter-wolf’; and the ritual, associated in folklore with wolves, warriors, purification, dairy products, and the Goddess Brigid, involved the latter washing away with milk the ‘diabolical sign’ that was put on the young warrior-raiders as a sign of their outcast status (390-91). The cleansing of these young men would then reintegrate them into society, so that they can take their place as productive members of a stable social order. Associations of early February with wolves, wildness, fertility, and purification may also be found in the Roman festival of Lupercalia.

Ravenna, Morpheus. The Book of the Great Queen: The Many Faces of the Morrígan, from Ancient Legends to Modern Devotions. Richmond, CA: Concrescent Press, 2015. Print.

Ritual Attendance:
12 February 2016, Raven’s Hollow Protogrove, ADF

Raven’s Hollow’s Imbolc ritual was designed to accomplish two things: First, function as a very simple paring down of the elaborate rituals we had been holding for the past several months, in response to the directive we had received from our Yule omen to get back to basics and allow our Grove to grow organically (as opposed to setting it up with complex structures inherited from its members’ former Groves). (Additionally, I was in the process of moving away from the land on which we had become accustomed to hold ritual, and ‘elaborate’ was rather impossible.) Second, the two previous rituals had been intense and turbulent affairs, the lives of our members had through the winter been comparably chaotic, and we wished to wash away that turmoil. Raven’s Hollow, with the Morrígan as its patron, has a particular association with wolves; we refer to our members as ‘Wolves of Raven’s Hollow’ and at our Samhain rite to the Morrígan, participants were marked with ashes of past offerings to her in reference to the signa diabolica of the faelad: This rite began with a purification of buttermilk to wash away the energetic memory of that mark. As ritual progressed, we passed around a jar of heavy cream, which each of us shook, putting into it our energy and prayers, churning it into butter. We sacrificed it to Brigid on home-baked bread as our primary offering, and concluded ritual with the swearing of our first full membership oaths before the folk and the Kindred (I myself took an additional oath to serve as Grove Organizer for the next year; my oath was accepted by the visiting Rev. Amy Castner of Cedarsong Grove). The omen we received, in response to the question “How can we live more simply in order to foster peace in our community?” was interpreted as “Flexibility and adaptability are needed to grow with strength through hardship and periods of change,” from the runes Berkano, Thurisaz, and Hagalaz. Imbolc 2016 OmenThis had connotations of seeking out avenues that would ordinarily seem less appealing, of working with and communicating with people that we would ordinarily be at odds with: of building bridges in order to unite, rather than demonizing or alienating those with whom we disagree.