This week saw the Festival of Imbolc, which is a Pagan and Wiccan Festival.
Imbolc is one of the four major Pagan and Wiccan Sabbats or Festivals – it celebrates the transition from Winter to Spring and occurs on or around the 2nd February which is half way between the Winter Solstice and the Spring equinox.
Its origins go way back into prehistory and has similarly been recorded in the Ancient Near East as being associated with the goddess Nut.
Imbolc, has also developed into a significant event within the Celtic Christian tradition – St Brigid’s Day (Lá Fhéile Bríde in Irish or Là Fhèill Brìghde in Scottish Gaelic) marks the first day of Celtic Spring. St Brigid appears to be the product of a Christianisation of an ancient Irish fire goddess of the same name, although others suggest she was a druidess who took on the goddess’s characteristics. What is certain is that early Celtic Christianity adopted Imbolc, and that – especially in recent years – the Pagan and Christian observations of Imbolc have managed to become converged whilst retaining their individuality.
Already we can see the link between Paganism and Early Christianity in the celebration of the goddess Bridghe and Saint Brigid, certainly in the Irish context. However, there is a tantalising probability that Imbolc’s roots can be traced further back, into Ancient Egyptian history.
According to the Egyptian Book of the Dead the Ancient Egyptians celebrated the Feast of Nut, whose birthday was 2nd February and who was the archetypal mother figure of Ra, the sun god. At sunrise Ra was named Khepera and was then represented by a scarab beetle whose daily task was to push the sun up into the sky, across the horizon until it was time for sunset when he sank below the horizon, going into the underworld to reappear next morning at sunrise.
Similarly, the Romans celebrated at the half way mark between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox – for them it was a time of purification ritual (not associated with a religion or a god) when a goat was sacrificed and its skin was made into scourges or whips. Young men ran through the city being whipped with these goat skins (it was supposed to be lucky if they were hit) – it was a celebration of the foundation of Rome by the twins Romulus and Remus who, legend has it, were suckled by a she-wolf.
Moving on into Judaism – it was customary and required by Jewish law that a woman went to the Temple to be cleansed after the birth of a male child. This generally took place forty days after the child’s birth (about six weeks) – the mother was “purified” as part of the ritual cleansing. Candles were blessed and lit to signify this purification rite and thus we have the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple and the Purification of (the Virgin) Mary which took place on 2nd February in the Gregorian calendar. Enter the Christian Feast or Festival – a festival of light, symbolised by the candle lighting, leading into the lighter days of Spring. Thus we have Candlemas in the Christian Church.
I recall that, in the 1940s, 50s 60s and 70s (maybe even later), Roman Catholic women who had given birth to sons went to the church (usually at the time of the child’s Baptism) to be “Churched” or “purified”. This was/is a remnant of the Jewish tradition of purification after the birth of a son.
In Catholic churches in Ireland (mainly) the focus of this Festival was on Saint Brigid. It was particularly difficult when it came to the conversion of the Irish Gaelic Pagans for them to relinquish their well-established traditions so the Catholic Church used their devotion to the goddess Bridghid and instituted the Feast of Saint Brigid.
This then melded the two traditions of Paganism and Christianity.
This is just one specific example of the way in which the Christian Church absorbed local traditions into Christian customs and rituals.
This has been done to a large extent in the African Churches, especially where there were entrenched local African customs which the people were reluctant to relinquish.
The Goddess Brigid was, and still is, a major figure in Pagan and Wiccan tradition. Different characteristics were attributed to her in different places, such as Ireland, Scotland, Yorkshire and different customs arose from this. Brigid was variously regarded as a healer, the patron of the home, the Goddess of the Hearth and in Yorkshire her name was Brigantia, a warlike figure. The remains of Brigantium may still be seen as one drives South through the Yorkshire countryside! In some areas of Scotland the Festival of Bridghid represents her transformation from the Old Crone (of Winter) into the Young Maiden (of Springtime).
In modern Pagan and Wiccan tradition (sometimes referred to as Neo-Paganism) there is, in many places, an emphasis placed on the equality of women and men within their number. In other places one may find single sex groups – i.e. groups of women and groups of men – who meet together.
Not all Pagans follow the same customs and traditions everywhere – there are wide variations. LGBTQI people are welcomed particularly and, in fact, some Pagan communities or groups are solely made up of LGBTQI members!
While Pagans have traditionally honoured the binary notion of the masculine and feminine, respecting male and female energy, they’re generally very accepting of homosexuality. As Pagan Wiccan states, “that’s due in no small part to the fact that a lot of Pagans and Wiccans figure it’s none of their business who someone else loves. There also tends to be support of the idea that acts of love, pleasure and beauty are sacred — no matter which adults happen to be participating… at any Pagan gathering you’ll probably find a higher proportion of gays and lesbians than you would in the general population… Many Pagan clergy people are willing to perform same-sex hand-fasting and commitment ceremonies.”
This is naturally very welcome and encouraging to many in the LGBTI community, and it is clear that modern Pagans have added to the progressive voices calling for greater LGBTI equality. I was honoured to be present at the Scottish Youth Parliament Forum on Same-Sex Marriage in 2012, at which there was a representative from the Scottish Pagan Federation on the panel of speakers.
In this brief overview, I trust it has been possible to show how religious traditions and faiths are often interconnected, and sometimes merge into each other. This is all part of the very rich tapestry of different religions with which we live today.
“Imbolc” by Michael Michail