Worlding Into the Earth
On Brigid, ancient rites, and stories unfolding
Today’s Imbolc in the Irish calendar, a day associated with Brigid.
Imbolc likely takes its name from the milk filling the udders of sheep at the end of winter, just as the turn of winter into spring. We don’t know the name the Gaulish Celts and the Franks used, but we know, through the countless and varied Christianized rites still surviving, that they marked this day, too.
Back when we remembered that land is how we live, and back before food became processed meats wrapped in plastic bought under garish light in warehouses, days like this meant something.
Today marked the end of winter, the beginning of spring. Tomorrow, children will knock at my door and the doors of others in this village, begging for candy, food, and money. There’s a song they sing, one rather macabre to modern ears, about how the old should die so that the young can live.
Such a thing sounds brutal, sure, except that’s always how life has worked. Old things and old people die, not just because they are old but because all things die. In that dying, new life is born, and such a cycle was once clearly observable to anyone who looked. For most of us now, we instead must merely imagine.
The agricultural cycle which defined everyday life for our ancestors was never just metaphor before capitalism ripped us from the land and its seasons. By now in each village and each household, winter stores gathered in from the heavy work and abundance of autumn would have dwindled to almost nothing. By now, the home-cured hams — which for centuries until just a few decades ago in the Ardennes were still a matter of matronly pride — were mostly gone. So, too, were most of the grains and pulses and nuts.
By now in each village and each household, it was known who had survived the winter, and who didn’t. Both the very old and the very young are most susceptible in the winter to that fate which awaits us all.
Those who remained and grieved their losses, cooped up along with their cattle, chickens, and pigs in small houses through out the shortest days and the longest nights, now looked away from the inevitability of death and towards the promise of life. This day, children left their homes and walked to other homes, knocking, calling out for food. Share what’s left, they sang and cajoled. Let the young live.
This day was tied to another ancient ritual of the end of winter, Carnival. Known as a raucous celebration of drink and food, its name literally meant “meat, farewell!” Long predating the birth of Jesus, it was later Christianized into the ritual cycle of Lent and Easter, a time of fasting in anticipation of the death and resurrection.
What was left of the meat preserved throughout the winter was to be eaten in celebration. What remained of the grains could be baked or brewed. Soon, the swelling ewes would give birth, and there was milk now to be had. Soon, the earth itself would swell and give birth, food bursting from the ground itself.
Here, the children carry candles as they sing and beg for food. Before, it’s believed everyone carried flames over fields as they sang, not just to each other but to the land itself. Massive bonfires are still lit here, the halfheartedly Christianized Buergbrennen, to purify the earth, burn away the winter, and to send off the dead.
Life begins again, as it always does, and it was this I first truly learned from Brigid.
It’s a strange feature of ancient paganism that conversion and proselytizing are as foreign as the concepts of sin and redemption. Perhaps not really strange, since such was the default way of going about the world before the coming of monotheism. This utter indifference to the spreading of belief can seem startling in light of all the religious wars which have defined history.
More odd, still, was the additive nature of ancient practices. One person gave offerings at a shrine or fountain using one name; another used another name, and not long after, each of them might then utter both. Not far from where I live is an ancient stone formation, called now the “Freyley” (Freya’s rocks). The Franks called it that when they arrived, but it was already sacred to her whom the Romans called Diana Arduenna, and to her whom the Celts called Arduinna.
There were thus three goddesses venerated at the same spot, at different times and by different peoples. Of course, our modern minds want to conclude they were all three the same, and then wonder which of them was the “real” goddess. British and American neopagans — following the Christians’ formula — tend also to lump them all together, concluding each was a mere facet of the singular Goddess.
Such reductionist thinking is inevitable now, and one can hardly hold such people to fault. In an age forged by people reducing gods to one and then none, it’s hardly surprising we also reduce truth to something singular and then to nothing at all. We do also the same with nature, turning forests into wood and then wood into profit, the ultimate empty signifier. We do the same with people, too, reducing them to what we believe they are, and then to expendable bodies to use up in war or work.
I think on all this whenever I think of my gods, and when I talk to them, when I light their candle and when I offer my hands, my mind, and my work to them. Last night at their shrine, I laughed as I prayed, which I often do. I laughed about where I am, and how I got here, and all that came about from an unlooked-for encounter on this day more than a decade ago.
Everything of who I am, and everything of where I’ve come, and no doubt all else of what I’ll eventually do, started with Brigid. I remember meeting her, and the feeling of almost shocking calm that swept over me after the experience, even as my world turned utterly upside down.
I’ve told bits of this story before, and in many places. As with all true stories, how I tell it and what it means expands with each recounting. It’s a story still unfolding, all all stories do, and I smile each time I learn something else about it.
That story started when I heard her laughing, and I didn’t know why.
That story started on this day, and often repeats on this day. It started with a fevered vision, tears, and a strange unshakeable hope I couldn’t possibly justify. Not long after, everything around me changed, and everything about me began to change. I’d close my eyes and hear distant shores, see myself in places I’d not yet been, and found myself swept up on an unseen current carrying me there.
Then again, four years ago, on this day, on a hill overlooking forested valleys that felt more home than any place I’d ever been, I smiled at the man I walked with. “Today’s the first day of Spring,” I told him, “called Imbolc by some.”
“It feels like spring,” he said, and then kissed me. And four years later, we still kiss, and tell each other that today feels like spring.
This started with Brigid, and then others followed. Hers is the first name I utter in my prayers, followed by many, many more. Just as crows and ravens quickly let each other know which of the humans around are kind and unkind, word seems to get around to gods, too.1
Not long then, and you become what my dear departed druid friend Judith O’Grady called ‘the gods-bothered.’ You bothered, so they bothered, and then it’s all bothering from then on out, though of course it’s never really a bother, at all. It’s actually quite a joy, a relentless one, which, at least for me, worlds me constantly into myself, into the earth, into its patterns and cycles and patterns.
It’s especially on this day, every year since that first encounter, that I remember all of this. I feel it in the air, in the earth under my feet, and especially in the body composed of those things and other things, too. A self passes off what remains to the next, as the old share out the last of the stores to the young. Flames are lit and passed over the fields of all I’ve been, coaxing birth from death.
I laugh, looking about me, remembering where I’ve been and how I came to be here. A house in a village in a living land where rituals of the long-dead continue, renewing the ancient agreements with different words but the same meaning.
I laugh, and I laugh, and I laugh again, as she did when she first came to me. This story started when I heard her laughing. I didn’t know why she laughed then, but I’m starting, finally, to understand what was so damn funny.
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Of course you can say, “no,” which I’ve done plenty of times to the Christian’s god.