Imbolg is approaching. I often ponder where the words and customs we Pagans are so fond of originate. I feel within my body that a great wheel is turning, and surely my Ancient Ancestors felt it, too. Yet, why this word – Imbolg? I won’t go into an exhaustive discussion of this festival but thinking of the name is meaningful to me this year.
I’ve read a few enjoyable scholarly discussions over the years regarding the etymology of the word. It has been tied to the word for milk (Hamp,106) in a fairly conclusive way. Sanas Cormaic (ca. 900) indicates oímelc (sheep’s milk) as an etymological base, but Eric Hamp has argued – successfully I think – that the rather complicated etymology should be *uts-molgo- < *ommolg, so that oimelc is a mixed-up spelling for *ommolg. (*Molgo- from the Proto-Indo-European root *Hmelǵ- which meant “to cleanse” – and which is very close to *melg – the root for “milk”.) Hamp concludes that Imbolc arises from a root meaning both “milk” and “purification” (111). Hamp offers several examples within Irish literature where milk is used in these ways: as a cure for poison darts(2) ,where it is poured into the battlefield furrows of Eremon(3), and the curious detail from the story of Suibhne, where he drinks milk from a hole made in manure—the original implication being that milk would purify even dung!
Even though this winter is mild, the days are dark and short. I hibernate to the point of cabin fever and my eyes grow weary of the grey green. Something inside me stirs. I begin to long for spring!
Yes, in the nick of time…as the longing within me is coiling and building and pushing to burst forth, Imbolg approaches. The snowdrops are lifting their heads, little lambs will soon frolic and leap in the fields. It is time to purify my body, my mind, and my home in preparation for the busy months of spring and summer; when the sun and weather return (and every Irish person rushes out to enjoy the swift rays while they can). The Milk of the Stars, the Milk of the Earth… the Milk of our Bodies. Time for washing myself, my home, the sacred Stone in my garden.
Down my lane, where the raspberries grow, is a stretch of reeds. Their fresh green shoots emerging in time for a harvest; for in a few short weeks I will gather some and weave health, protection, and prosperity into the Solar Cross of Bríde, to be hung in the house as ward and blessing. I have no harvest from last year so a Brideog won’t be crafted, but I will invite Her into our home none-the-less; to feast on sumptuous colcannon, boxty and oatcakes.
Lest we forget Her in our mad rush toward warmth, it is also the day of the Cailleach. The long dark holds many treasures and the Hag will be honoured for Her lessons!
If you are looking for a concise collection and thoughtful examination of Irish customs concerning both the Goddess and Saint, may I recommend Sean O’Duinn’s The Rites of Brigid: Goddess & Saint.
I am older than Brigit of the Mantle,
I put songs and music on the wind
Before ever the bells of the chapels
Were rung in the West
Or heard in the East.
I am Brighid-nam-Bratta:
Brigit of the Mantle,
I am also Brighid-Muirghin-na-tuinne:
Brigit, Conception of the Waves,
Brigit of the Faery Host,
Brigit of the Slim Faery Folk,
Brigit the Melodious Mouthed
Of the Tribe of the Green Mantles.
And I am older than Aone (Friday)
And as old as Luan (Monday)
And in Tir-na-h’oige my name is
Suibhal: Mountain Traveler,
And in Tir-fo-thuinn, Country of the Waves,
It is Cu-gorm: Gray Hound,
And in Tir-na-h’oise,
Country of Ancient Years,
It is Sireadh-thall: Seek Beyond.
And I have been a breath in your heart,
And the day has its feet to it
That will see me coming
Into the hearts of men and women
Like a flame upon dry grass,
Like a flame of wind in a great wood.
Fiona MacLeod / William Sharp
And many early Irish magical charms use butter as a curative agent; cf. Carney, “A Collection of Irish Charms”.
Eremon is the mythical first Milesian—i.e. human—king of Ireland; his name is thought to derive from the sameorigin as Aryaman/Airyaman, the Indo-Iranian embodiment of “Aryan-ness”, i.e. nobility and the ruling class.
*Hamp, Eric. “Imbolc, Óimelc”. Studia Celtica. 14/15 (1979-80), 106-113