Folklore of Imbolc

A hope-filled holiday welcoming the returning
light and the promise of spring.

     Copyright © 2009 Ashleen O'Gaea
Although Their sacred marriage (the heiros gamos that is celebrated in every Wiccan rite when an athame is used to consecrate Wine in a cup or chalice) is celebrated later in the Year, many Wiccan Traditions anticipate fertility at Imbolc.

Some of Imbolc’s customs that have come down through the generations have to do with the “corn dolly or biddy.” The first thing to realize here is that, in the British Isles, “corn” is what we’d call “wheat” or “grain,” not the new-world crop of corn that developed from maize. So while, for Native Americans, a corn dolly might be a corn husk doll, in Britain and in Wicca, a corn dolly is a vaguely humanoid figure woven of wheat stalks.

A corn dolly.

A corn dolly (corn diddy)

You may have a corn dolly leftover from Lammas or Mabon. It’s customary then to use a few stalks of wheat or other grain from the harvest—most properly, the last stalks to be cut—to weave a dolly. The seeds in the heads of these stalks are for planting in the Spring. Using the harvest dolly at Imbolc foreshadows the success of the coming crop even more strongly. Making an offering of the Lammas or Mabon dolly at Imbolc, along with the last of Winter’s greenery, reinforces the relationship between harvest and planting seasons. At Imbolc, the New Year we’ve been celebrating since Samhain is clear enough to be visible in many ways, and making a new dolly for Spring recognizes this. (Traditionally, last year’s dolly is burned, rather than buried or simply thrown out.)

Coming so early in the season, when it’s too cold to plant in many places, and in most, too cold to cavort in the woods, Imbolc is a time when we can focus on courtship. One way we represent the courtship of the maiden-again Goddess and the precociously growing God is by putting representations of the Them in a specially-made “bed,” which is then left before the fire or in some other significant place.

Now, in the old days, you left the biddy and the wand in the bed—in the ashes of the hearth fire!—and if, in the morning, you found the ashes disturbed, you could take it as a good sign for the coming year. But not everyone has a fireplace with ashes the Sacred Couple can leave in disarray, and not all of us leave ashes when we build fires at South. When we left the biddy and the wand alone overnight, we hoped to see them undisturbed the next day—if the small creatures that prowl our yards in the night (ranging from stray cats to ground squirrels, rabbits, and rats) respect their privacy, then, we believe, the Year’s crops and harvest will be good.

Thus, we all bring the old customs forward in new ways, and with new meanings. Through the generations, our lives change, and so do the ways we celebrate. It honors the Goddess and God when we remember what the Sabbats meant to our ancestors, or what the old customs meant to the first generation of Wiccans; it honors the God and Goddess and our ancestors when we adapt the old customs to our modern lives and understandings of the worlds. We can’t always use what we inherit the same way those who left it did. We still honor them, though, when we cherish what we inherit enough to find new ways of making it relevant in our lives.

Imbolc fire.

Imbolc fire.

One way we can carry on older customs is to save our leftover Yule greenery to burn at Imbolc. In addition, we can save a few leftover Yule wrappings for the Imbolc fire. It’s not a good idea to burn ribbons inside (or outside, in heavily polluted areas), but papers are usually safe. Some of them color the flames, too.

The idea behind burning leftover greenery is both symbolic and practical. Symbolically, it means that there’s enough new growth now to convince us that the Wheel has turned, so we can comfortably let last year’s growth go. In practical terms, by Imbolc, when we can enjoy the occasional breath of fresh air, the greenery’s served its purpose of pleasantly scenting the indoors, where perhaps the air has, while we’ve been cooped up inside, gotten a little stale. Until just a few generations ago, people believed that the strongly scented fir, pine, balsam, rosemary, and so on, not only sweetened the air, but purified it of germs. We know now this isn’t true, but, symbolically, we burn the Winter’s frustrations, annoyances, and fears with the greens.

With the warmer and longer days, the snow begins to melt and we can come outside again. Alright, in most places we’ve been able to get outside when we need to—few of us are literally housebound all Winter. But most of us get at least a touch of cabin fever, and since the Fall we’ve been focused on “inside” work—coming back from vacations, getting back to school, planning for the holidays, and so forth.

We can stretch; we can run and gambol (as the newborn lambs do). Spring cleaning begins now: we can leave our doors and windows open for at least a little while without freezing the house; air the bedding and wash our clothes properly with some hope they’ll dry! As we unfold ourselves from our hearths, adjust to the growing levels of light, and get back into outdoor work, we feel almost like new people. From what’s going on in the natural world and in our own lives, we derive the main themes of Imbolc: the return of light, Spring cleaning (inside and out: our hearts and minds as well as our houses and yards), and rebirth—in lambing and calving and sprouting, and in our own initiations (of people and projects).

Despite our modern, technologically assisted lifestyles, we share with our ancestors a great joy when we notice Spring’s return. Among our Asatru cousins, the Festival of Vali is a blot (pronounced to rhyme with boat) celebrating the restoration of order. (Vali sacrificed himself to avenge the slaying of Baldur, another and much-beloved god.) Disting-Tid, also known as the Charming of the Plow, is a closer equivalent to Imbolc, though.


A ox-drawn plow.

Before you can plow the fields, you have to make sure your plough is in working order—its fastenings tight, its blade unrusted and sharp. Blessing the plough ensured a good harvest, and honored the magical beings—smiths (and in Norse mythology these were dwarves)—who made the ploughs. Metalcraft was, for all of Wicca’s ancestral cultures, a great gift from the Gods; iron ploughs worked more land more effectively than wooden ones. Plowing the ground brought the earth back to life again, and a charmed plough brings it back to even more abundant life.

Imbolc’s not the only appropriate time to consecrate tools or to initiate people or projects, but it’s a good time, just as the new Moon is a good time to work growing magic. The plough’s entry into the earth and the plants’ emergence from the earth both represent a special magic. It’s in the earth that animals hibernate for the Winter, in the earth that seeds germinate—and in the earth that we bury (or used to) our loved ones to prepare them for reincarnation. At Imbolc, we witness the rebirth we profess.

When the plough opens the earth, it makes a womb of the tomb. When plants sprout, life emerges from the grave. In Wiccan Initiations, we die to our old lives and are reborn to new ones; our blindfolds are symbolic of our journey through the underworld, paralleling the God’s journey through death to rebirth. The plough opens the earth to light. The seedling bursts from darkness into light. As Initiates, we come from symbolic darkness to see our lives in a new light. And so, we celebrate Imbolc with light.  

This and more can be found here:

Celebrating the Seasons of Life: Samhain to Ostara.

Unique among books about the Wiccan Sabbats, Celebrating the Seasons of Life: Samhain to Ostara takes a different approach to explaining the holidays by taking an in-depth look at half of the Wheel of the Year. Rather than dissecting each holiday, Ashleen's goal is to take a broader look at them, explaining how and why we celebrate each, along with how the celebration of one leads to the next.

The first of two new titles from Ashleen offers a vision of the holidays we celebrate from October to March. This book covers each holiday by first giving us its history and original customs, then explaining its place in modern life. Stories are shared for each Sabbat to reconnect us with our lore and bring new meaning to current practice. Ashleen includes ideas for rituals that are ideal for practicing solitaries, covens, or Wiccan families, with special sections on what children of various ages are ready to learn about these holidays.

Celebrating the Seasons of Life. Lore, Rituals, Activities and Symbols - Samhain to Ostara by Ashleen O'Gaea.

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