Just one more week to Imbolc, the Celtic festival marking the beginning of spring. Yahoo! It can’t come soon enough for those of us in the frozen north. It has been cold, cold, cold, with overnight temperatures in East Montpelier consistently between -10 and -20. Until today’s heat wave (high temps this afternoon are supposed to get into the 20s), daytime temperatures have generally been between 0 to 10 above.
Of course, the “frozen north” is a slippery term. During the past week Alaska has been warmer, on average, than the lower 48. Over in the British Isles, however, where Imbolc originated, the weather has been less exceptional, with the temperatures departing from normal, both higher and lower, by only 1 to 3 degrees. Warmed by the Gulf Stream, over there the turning of winter towards spring is said to happen on February 1, roughly the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. This date celebrates the time when pregnant ewes began lactating, a sign not only of impending lambs, but also of the coming of spring. February 1 is also the date for the Christian feast of St. Bridget.
Bridget is a fascinating figure with a powerful history that links her not only with Christian spirituality, but also with Celtic mysticism. As a Celtic goddess, she is said to have been born in the instant between night and day. That she was born on a threshold is a very important aspect of the legend. The ancient Celts were fascinated by in-between places such as shorelines, the instant of sunrise, the instant of seasonal change, doorways, and other places that lay instantaneously between two places, while being in neither.
The goddess Bridget is symbolized by fire, flames, and the hearth; also by water, grain, and cattle. She watches over sheep and cows, blacksmiths and doctors, poets and farmers. It’s an impressive resume!
With the coming of Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century, the powerful energy of the pagan goddess Brighid was transformed into the much-loved Saint Bridget, a patron saint of Ireland second only to Patrick himself. St. Bridget is said to have lived from approximately 450 to 525 AD, but the earliest written records, from about the year 650, contain almost no verifiable biographical information. What is known is that an abbey was established during this time at Kildare, near the site of an old pagan shrine, at which a Bridget presided as abbess. Like the goddess Brighid, Saint Bridget was associated with cattle and agriculture as well as with fire and holy wells. To this day countless wells in Ireland are dedicated to Bridget, while her connection with fire is manifested in the sacred fire at Kildare Abbey.
Legend has it that Bridget’s fire, a flame lit during St. Bridget’s lifetime, burned for 12 centuries, tended on a 20-day cycle by the nuns of Kildare Abbey: 19 nuns took responsibility for safeguarding the flame for one day apiece, while on the 20th day the spirit of St. Bridget kept watch. Although the flame was extinguished in the 17th century by church officials, who attacked it as a pagan practice, a small community of Brigidine nuns returned to Kildare in the early 1990s, and relit the flame, where it continues to burn.
A woman on the cusp of change at “birth,” Bridget has undergone some remarkable changes over the course of her existence. She has gone from being a goddess, to a Christian saint, to her current status as a kind of deity emeritus. (The Catholic Church decanonized her – took away her official sainthood – in the 1960s, because neither her miracles nor even her temporal existence could be verified.) And yet, through it all, she is loved. To this day, many Irish homes have a St. Bridget’s cross for protection, still made from rushes as they have been for centuries. Through all her transmogrifications (a word I am proud to say I learned from the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes), her true essence has not changed, her sacred fire continues to burn, and she is loved. She was, and is, as real and as divine as she needs to be to those who need her.