So far it has been an odd winter here in the foothills of the Appalachians. While we have had frosty mornings and cold crystal clear nights with a host of stars, there have been some very, very warm days in between. This weather tricks the mind, which tricks the body and has left me feeling robbed of reflective days hidden in my cave. But winter thankfully has still a while to go and I hope for her to reclaim her throne.
It is Imbolc that awakens me, for I am not fooled into acting on New Year resolutions as I am far too comfortable in the darkness. The weeks leading up to Imbolc are shrouded in darkness; while some see a light at the end of the tunnel others sink in deep to the darkness that is Imbolc. Some of us feel desperation in our bones, an echo of our ancestors perhaps. They faced the very real prospect of running out of food and we might shudder to think how we are going to pay the heating bills. It is as if that worry is still encoded in our bones. In northern latitudes the land is still shrouded in a veil of darkness at this time of year and so Imbolc to me has always meant a feeling of uncertainty, of being lost and an intangible uncertainty.
One summer, not long after I had arrived in the Appalachians I learnt how to make a doll through a curious craft using barbed needles. Little did I know that this craft would change my life. I learnt from a wonderful Irish woman I had met many years ago online, way before I could have pinpointed western North Carolina on a map. It was late summer and it was hot. It was hotter than hot. We gathered wool and worked together as the sweat poured down us: two transplants from a far away continent. As my doll slowly emerged from the wool I was more than surprised for her to tell me she was Brighid. ‘That Brighid?’ I asked. ‘Yes, THAT Brighid’ replied the dark skinned dreadlocked creature.
Slowly, over time, I realized that her emergence was yet another invitation, an invitation to follow this curious creature and see where she led me. She had originally led me from Scotland to the Appalachians and now the journey was one through time and back to a pre-Celtic time to the time of the Grandmothers.
She led me back to a time when she was venerated as bear, told me stories of her as midwife ushering souls into this world and just as importantly carrying through souls back again once we pass from this life. She told me stories of what Imbolc represents – that dark unknowing within us. She told me stories of the making of the Brideog doll and that tradition stretches back, back to ancient times. It was she who taught me how to honour her through her many rites of protection, from the circle of protection that encompasses us as we go out into the world to creating blessings for our house, our hearth and home.
One of my favourite Imbolc traditions was in the laying out of the bhrat, a piece of cloth left outside on Imbolc eve. In the stillness of the night, a time not quite night and not yet day is when Brighid returns from the otherworld. A flicker of northern lights announces her presence and the world seems to hold its breath – for she is here, she is here! Wind and breeze pick up her energy and tree whispers to tree underneath the carpet of the forest. Birds awaken, and sleeping critters feel her presence. She blesses everything in her path, the pregnant ewes, the melting snow or the howling winds, the gushing spring, houses and lochs, tall towering Bens (Scottish term for mountains), cattle and the cloth and objects laid out for her to bless – strung out in gardens, across bushes and on trees.
The bhrat, the cloth left out for her blessing, is collected before sunrise for its magic lies in the dew soaked into its fibres. To collect it after sunrise is disastrous as the sun will have dried up the dew. Midwives would cut little pieces of their bhrat to help mothers in labour, and to protect new born babies. Pieces of cloth would be tied around sick cows. The magic of the bhrat was that it was portable, something you can keep some in your pocket, or pin to your clothing. Something to touch and feel whenever you need Brighid’s help, the interwoven fibres a reminder that your life and hers is entwined. Strips of the bhrat were also tied onto trees by the house of a storm was due, invoking her help to protect the house, the souls inside, the barn and all the animals.
I use the bhrat to fashion a cloak for a doll, knowing that my Brideog has an extra layer of magic – she weaves a space that invites us to step between the worlds.
Brighid is a shape shifter, a time traveller, from creatrix to bear; from goddess to saint she morphs and changes, always offering us her fire of transformation. She midwifes our continual rebirth in all stages of life and death, and is our midwife in death, sweeping us up on soft wings to carry us to the otherworld in our passing over.
I find my Brighid in the thresholds, the places that aren’t quite one or the other or both. No image can quite capture her, no words fully describe her – to me she is transformation. To me she is the perpetual flame of inspiration, a constant co-creating, a constant conversation full of the light and dark of life. This questions me to consider the kindling for our flame – of all the ingredients I chose to make up my life. The kindling of the words and actions that go into our relationships with each other, with the land and our non human relatives, the steps we take in the dance of our lives.
So when the time comes maybe you may wish to leave out your own bhrat on Imbolc eve. Collect it in the morning before the sun rises high – create something with it, fashion it into a Brideog doll. See your own flame mirrored in hers, a flame that sustains and never burns, and may we work with Brighid in our relationships with ourself, each other and community in building towards transformation.
Lally, Jude. 2013. The Great Bear Mother: A Journey with Brighid to the Ancient Dawn of Imbolc. Contained in: Monaghan, P and McDermott, M, (Eds), Brighid: Sun of Womanhood. Goddess Ink, USA. pp. 10-16.
O Duinn, Sean. 2004. The Rites of Brigid. Goddess and Saint. The Columba Press, Ireland.