One of the things I absolutely love about pagan holidays is that once you start really diving into their history and traditions you find that the themes they are based on are so universal that many, many cultures across the world had a similar celebrations. The human experience is, by inference, amazingly universal itself, too. We often think of people from the past as these quaint examples of what “once was”, but the more deeply you dig into the history of humanity, the more you find that we have been the same irreverent, obscene, and social creatures we have always been. Winter celebrations such as Imbolc or Candlemas are no different. In fact, the history of this often ignored holiday has always fascinated me so today let’s talk about the history of these festivals of light!
In my estimation, modern Neopagan Imbolc often draws on multiple historical and traditional holidays and cultural events and “Imbolc” is no difference. It is often an amalgam of Thorrablot, Imbolc (Celtic), and Lupercalia. (Plus, we can throw Candlemas into the mix which is really just the anglicized Catholic version of Imbolc as far as I can tell.) So let’s look a little bit at each one and maybe you’ll find inspiration for your own Imbolc festivities this year!
This is an cultural Icelandic holiday celebrated around the time in mid-winter (typically in mid-to-late January) when the Orkneyinga saga (a saga originating actually from Scotland and Norway rather than Iceland) suggests that ancient Icelandic people would make an annual offering to Thorri (meaning “Frost”) who is rumored to have once been an ancient Finnish king.
The historical context seems to stop there. Modern heathen and Asatru practitioners often use this blot to make offerings to Thor — who is often conflated or associated with Thorri — to entreat him to protect them from the Frost Giants.
Here is the part where I start to insert my informed opinion with the caveat that it is just that and has little to no factual basis; simply inferences based on what I understand of anthropology and ancient civilizations. These historical references are so sparse and few between, they don’t offer much detail. However, we have to wonder to ourselves, WHY was it considered necessary to make offerings to Thorri? I believe that the modern Norse pagan take gives clues here:
In ancient life, modern conveniences such as insulated home and gas heat simply didn’t exist. Winter was a harrowing time of life or death especially if they had not prepared ahead of time to ensure proper food supply, firewood, etc. Late January/early February is approximately the half-way point of winter when it was becoming quite clear how they might need to ration their supplies to make it through to warmer weather once again. A severe cold snap could mean sickness or death. A blizzard could mean being trapped in ones home indefinitely unable to acquire what few supplies they might need outside the home. It only seems logical that at this crucial point in the winter they would look towards spiritual ways of ensuring their survival until Spring.
Offerings were made to the gods, to the spirit of Frost to entreat them to protect them from the severe cold, icy conditions that could mean they may not make it to see another summer. And while as modern people we don’t typically have this concern, we can’t deny the inconveniences that come with winter. Imbolc can be a great opportunity to make offerings (“sacrifices”) to the gods and spirits of winter to protect and be gentle with you for the remaining season.
While this is the name given to the modern Neopagan holiday celebrated on February 2nd, the word comes from Gaelic and, like this holiday and the majority of its traditions, is Celtic in origin. For the Celts it is said to mark the beginning of Spring. The etymological origin of the word suggests that it comes from another word: Oilmelc, meaning “Ewe’s Milk” as this is the time of year when the lambs began to lactate and baby sheep were running around being generally adorable and reminding people that new life was afoot; the first of many animals — and plants! — to begin their annual reproduction cycle.
This holiday has long been associated with the goddess Brigid. Brigid goddess, much like the Grecian Hecate, who is exceedingly complex in her power and purview; ruling over things such as healing, childbirth, blacksmithing, poetry, and more. Traditionally on Imbolc, effigies of Brigid (typically dolls or corn dollies) were laid in beds near the hearth to invite the goddess into the home for her to bless them home and family within it for the year ahead. Often time pilgrimages to holy wells were in order (she is greatly associated with the element of water), and of course feasts were had. (What holiday is without its special foods??)
Brigid was such a popular goddess that when the Catholic church began its takeover and conversion of the Old Ways, they could not extract her from the culture so they instead canonized her as “St. Brigid” at which point February 1st became St. Brigid’s Feast Day which is still celebrated especially in Ireland today.
St. Brigid’s Day is followed immediately (on Feb. 2nd) by Candlemas, a day in the Catholic calendar in which all the candles to be used in the church for the year are blessed. Feasts are had and supplicants are expected to light every candle in the house along the way. This was considered to be the last holiday/feast day of the Christmas season and many believe their Christmas decorations (specifically any nativity scenes) should be left up until this day. Purification is a main theme of the holiday(s) which may be related to the fact that it was closely associated to this next holiday by some early clergymen.
Lupercalia was actually a Roman festival celebrated in the middle of February and is often more closely associated as being the potential historical origin of Valentine’s Day more than modern Imbolc. However, I absolutely want to give Lupercalia its due!
Lupercalia was first and foremost a purification festival much like Candlemas. However, the mode of purification was as diametrically opposed as could possibly be! The intention behind this purification was to, after the cleansing part of the rituals, to invite in fertility and abundance in the year ahead.
Lupercalia had its own order of priests to ensure its proper celebration called “Luperci”. During the celebration, a goat and dog was slaughtered and sacrificed in a ceremonial cave (believed to be the birthplace of mythological figures, Romulus and Remus). After which, the sacrificial knife would be wiped across the forehead of the priests to anoint them and wiped clean using wool soaked in milk. (I have theories here that the blood symbolizes death and the milk new life, although I haven’t seen this specifically written anywhere. Alternatively, the blood could represent the Sacred Feminine [menstrual blood] and the milk the Sacred Masculine [semen]; a blessing of both? Let me know which you think it is the comments below!)
After the anointing of the priests with the blood and milk, the thongs (string/rope) that was used to tie up the sacrificial animals was cut from them and the priests ran up and down the countryside whipping people (especially women) with them. This sounds incredibly violent, but was considered to be quite the blessing. Women were known to purposefully place themselves in the paths of the Luperci hoping to be whipped as it was believed to make them more fertile. And, of course, the point of fertility was childbearing, so Lupercalia was a festival of blood, violence, and gratuitous sex. All in good fun, though!
Even though Lupercalia and Imbolc are hardly synonymous I often like to honor this historical holiday in my altar by including some Valentine’s Day themed items; red flowers, berries, hearts, etc. Things that feel appropriately “pagan” to me! This could stem from a desire to decorate and needing to find ways to incorporate easily acquirable items to use. It could stem from wanting to still feel a part of secular culture while still being my wild, pagan self. Either way, I like it. And isn’t that all that matters?
Do you like a little bit of Lupercalia in YOUR Imbolc/Candlemas festivities? Tell me about it in the comments below!