Brigid, Imbolc & Astrological Fire Festivals
Updated: Feb 3
The Goddess Brigid & Imbolc
It is thought that Saint Brigid's day was a Christianisation from the feast day of the pagan goddess Brigid which happened on Imbolc on the 1st of February which was associated with spring and the lambing season. Yet what was the connection between Brigid and astrological Imbolc? We will look at this in more detail. Saint Brigid and the pagan goddess Brigid shared the same attributes and embodied the same archetype it could be argued. Brigid was associated with fire (the hearth,) poetry (creative fire,) healing, fertility, crafts, smith-work and domestic animals. Smith-work required using a fire to hammer hot metal so there was a clear and strong connection with the ability to kindle and use a fire for many purposes. The goddess Brigid was a member of the ancient gods (faery folk) of Ireland known as the Tuatha Dé Danann and was honoured during Imbolc and for fertility blessings in pre-Christian Ireland. We will experience 'astrological Imbolc' on Saturday the 4th February when the sun enters 15° in Aquarius and marks the onset of coming spring.
John Duncan's 'Riders of the Sidhe,' portraying the Tuatha Dé Danann, 1911
The name Brigid derived from the Gaelic word brígh meaning power, strength, vigor or virtue - an alternative meaning for her name was 'exalted one.' Interestingly, there was also a British Celtic goddess called Brigantia whose name was derived from the similar Proto-Celtic word brigantī meaning 'The High One' and connected with the Sanskrit word Bṛhatī (बृहती) meaning "high." It was said that Brigid was born at sunrise and that rays of fire shone from her head - she has therefore been associated by some as a dawn goddess. Symbolically, it could be argued, she represents that first glimmer of light of the sun peaking over the horizon - the hope of the coming spring.
Triple Deity - Triple Fire
She had two sisters also called Brigid although it is thought that they represented different aspects of the one goddess as a triple deity - one sister was a poet, one was a smith and one was a healer. It could be said that Brigid's fire can be found as the nurturing and healing hearth with its purifying force, or in the creative spark and inspiration of poetry, or in the fires of craft and smith-work.
Out of all the goddesses or gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Brigid was the one chosen who was honoured at Imbolc, suggesting that there was a deep connection between the two which we will look at in more detail - it could even be argued that Brigid was the personification of Imbolc. Imbolc is astrological and marks one of the four cross-quarter days or 'fire festivals' which occur midway between the two solstices and two equinoxes. This annual cycle of the chief solar events is known as the Wheel of the Year. Brigid was the daughter of The Dagda - a divine masculine fatherly figure who looked over the weather, time and the seasons and was associated with agriculture, fertility, manliness, strength and druidry.
Animals and Fertility
It is not quite clear where the word Imbolc derived from. The old Irish word i mbolc (in modern Gaelic, i mbolg) means 'in the belly' suggesting connections with fertility and pregnancy (this is a time when many ewes are expecting lambs to give birth to in the spring.) The 10th century book Cormac's Glossary had an entry for the beginning of spring as Oímelc which is derived from oí-melg ('ewe milk') so there is also a connection with lambing.
A painting of St Brigid in St Patrick's Chapel, Glastonbury abbey. She is holding a bowl of fire and a spindle and is stood with a red bull (perhaps also connecting her with the fire festival of Beltane when the sun is in Taurus. The goddess Brigid also had two oxen known as Fea and Femen.)
Over the centuries, it is thought that this goddess was incorporated into Christianity as Saint Brigid and there were accounts written about the life of a woman called Brigid who became a nun and had powerful healing abilities and lived between c. 451 – 525 AD. It is clear that if this woman was a true historical figure, she shared an archetypal resonance with the pagan goddess Brigid. Gerald of Wales wrote in the 12th century that nineteen nuns kept a perpetual fire burning in honour of Saint Brigid at Kildare, where it is thought that Brigid set up an abbey in the 5th century.
It was written by William of Malmesbury that Saint Brigid travelled to the UK and visited Glastonbury in 488 AD. There is a sacred site in Glastonbury known as Bride's Mound and more information about its legends can be found here. For more information about the folklore associated with both the goddess and saint please also visit the Druidry website.
St Brigid's day was eventually implemented by the church to replace Imbolc, yet many of the old symbols and traditions carried over. The link with Imbolc is still very clear and shown within the symbols.
The Wheel of the Year
The Wheel of the Year marks the chief solar events of the year - the above diagram shows the cardinal cross which represents the four cardinal signs of astrology - when the sun enters Aries (Ostara or Spring Equinox,) when the sun enters Cancer (Litha or Summer Solstice,) when the sun enters Libra (Mabon or Autumn Equinox) and when the sun enters Capricorn (Yule or Winter Solstice.) The second cross shows the 'cross-quarter days' or four fixed 'fire festivals' which are the mid-way points and these are popularly celebrated on the 1st of the month although their true astrological potential is slightly later. These days happen in the four fixed signs - when the sun enters 15° Aquarius or 1st February (Imbolc,) when the sun enters 15° Taurus or 1st May (Beltane,) when the sun enters 15° Leo or 1st August (Lughnasadh or Lammas) and when the sun enters 15° Scorpio or 1st November (Samhain.) The true astrological date for Imbolc this year is the 4th February when the sun enters 15° Aquarius.
The four remaining signs are known as the 'mutable signs' and represent transitions and change - Pisces moves us into spring, Gemini moves us into summer, Virgo moves us into autumn and Sagittarius moves us into winter. The cycles happen as a 'polar opposite' in the Southern Hemisphere.
There are therefore two crosses in the astrological year - the cardinal cross and the cross of the cross-quarter days. Together they form the eight-spoked Wheel of the Year. The cross represents the journey of the sun and its death and rebirth every year, as Christ consciousness with Christ as the light-giving son (sun.)
The Wheel of the Year is often presented with Winter Solstice (Capricorn) at the top and Spring Equinox (Aries) on the right. However, I have included another wheel here with cardinal Aries beginning the wheel with a new year on the left, with the sun rising to its zenith (in cardinal Cancer) of the ecliptic (Tropic of Cancer) at the top for Summer Solstice. It then changes direction downwards towards the Autumn Equinox in cardinal Libra and the beginning of the darker months at the bottom towards the Winter Solstice in cardinal Capricorn when the sun reaches the zenith of the Tropic of Capricorn on the sine wave at around 23.5° south of the equator. Here it experiences its death and rebirth and changes direction once again (trope was the Latin word for 'turn'.) The word cardinal comes from the Latin cardo, cardin- meaning ‘hinge’ - these four signs open the hinge of the door of the four seasons. The horizontal line is the celestial equator of the earth with the sun entering Aries at 0° for the Equinox. For those in the southern hemisphere, the seasons will be as the polar opposite.
The Cross and Brigid's Cross
There is not a huge amount of written material that has survived detailing druid or Celtic practises, yet it's clear that many old stone sites were lunar or solar calendars. The Mound of the Hostages on the Hill of Tara and Cairn L at Slieve na Calliagh have passage tombs where the sunrise aligns at Imbolc and Samhain.
Cormac Mac Cárthaigh, in the 10th century wrote about "four great fires...lighted up on the four great festivals of the Druids...in February, May, August, and November."
It is thought that these crosses of rushes or Celtic diamonds were made during the pagan Imbolc festivals and were later adopted by Christian missionaries who adopted a Christian meaning for them. According to one folklore, Brigid collected some rushes and wove them into a cross while a pagan chieftain heard the story of the crucifixion of Jesus and converted. In another folktale, Brigid wove a cross to neutralise a poisoned drink that had been given to her. Yet the symbol of the cross has a deep meaning regarding the cycles of the sun as it moves along the ecliptic, experiencing its death and 'rebirth' at each Solstice when it reaches its zenith and changes direction. This 'cardinal cross' represents the start of the four seasons as the sun moves along the ecliptic and the cross of the cross-quarter days represents the midway points. The astrological symbol of the earth is even a cross (🜨.)
Fire - The Four Fire Festivals
The four cross-quarter days of the fixed signs are known as the fire festivals. Therefore Brigid as a fire goddess was the perfect energy to hold the space of Imbolc and could be argued was a personification of Imbolc. These festivals are often represented as four images - a man for Imbolc (Aquarius,) a bull for Beltane (Taurus,) a lion for Lammas (Leo) and an eagle for Samhain (Scorpio.) Together they form a tetramorph which is a symbolic arrangement of four differing elements - the word comes from the Greek words tetra (four) and morph (shape.)
Astrology in the Bible
The four cross-quarter days were also hidden in Biblical literature as the Four Evangelists with the most common associations being with Matthew the man, Mark the lion, Luke the ox and John the eagle.
A 16th century fresco of the Four Evangelists as a tetramorph.
Images of unions of different elements were also used in Ancient Egypt and Babylon, for example sphinxes which were half man and half lion and sometimes had the wings of an eagle.
"As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle." Ezekiel, 1.10
"And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle." Book of Revelations, 4:7
One old poem found in the Hibernica Minora spoke about the four seasonal festivals and suggested that Imbolc was a time of purification - it was translated by Kuno Meyer:
"this is what is proper at Imbolc: washing the hands, the feet, the head."
It was thought that on St Brigid's eve, Brigid would enter certain households and offer healing and blessings and clothing or strips of cloth were offered out for Brigid to bless - she would be symbolically invited into the house. Spring cleaning also traditionally happened in Ireland on this day and people would visit holy wells to bless them and walk 'sunwise' around the well. To turn sunwise was considered the correct course (moving east to west, as the sun) in a clockwise direction - there are more clues here of the astrology behind the festival.
Other purification festivals have historically taken place during this time. These include Candlemas (2nd February) which was also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ or the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Februalia which was a Roman festival of purification and atonement which took place in February. Aquarius is often associated with truth, vibration, uniqueness, society and freedom and therefore this theme of purification works well for this last month of winter as we prepare for the beginning of spring and astrological new year in March. It is a chance to really let go of what no longer serves us and offer it to the fire. February is still a very cold month in the northern hemisphere and fire at this time is very important for mental and physical well-being - whether that's with a log fire or just candles - keeping a flame going in the last 'cold month' can keep our spirits up.
John Duncan's 'The Coming of Bride,' 1917
"As above, so below; as below, so above."—The Kybalion.
Imbolc, personified as Brigid, could therefore be a good time to purify, connect with the hearth or fire, share poetry or stories, make some crafts, receive healing or communicate with the animals.