Summer is coming, everyone is rushing around, readying for spring activity. Brid is coming. Must be busy. I find it exhausting at this time of year and in this climate to be thinking this is the start of action. I need more time. I’m definitely not in any rush. The emphasis of this festival is slightly different for us. La Féill Bríd / Brídghe is one of the festivals that sit funny with me. It’s also known as Oimelc by Cormac. Which, Meyer has interpreted it to mean legal washing and purification. Others have associated it with ewes milk as in Imbolc. Féill referred to in most places the eve of the festival so it has also been associated with Candlemas. Which, aided by the association with purification on the day, has become synonymous. It’s like a big hodge podge quarter day in my mind. The festival itself is so wrapped up with these different associations; with Bridghe, the start of spring, milk, light. It gets a little lost in mine, and perhaps in others folks minds as well.
This festival day is associated in Scotland with Brìde, (or Bridghe) primarily. A close runner-up, for us, is the association of snakes coming out of their holes for the first time. Followed by the venom of the weather, milk, lustration, protection, divination (via a frith) and the idea of brightness and light (through its links with candlemas). I find it to be a feminine festival, similar in feeling to Samhuinn. The earth has always been feminine to me. Both these festivals are related to women mysteries and the winter. There’s a feeling of gestation at La Féill Bríd, compared to stepping into it, or dying at Samhuinn or being born and stepping out at Bealtainn. There has been a lot written about Bridghe all over the internet and many many books. It’s not something that I want to rehash here. If that what you’re looking for apologies. But in case that’s what you came for. I can point you to a good resource for well researched information. The Tairis.co.uk website is great, go there and gorge. What I want to explore here are the lesser known associations. Perhaps put a case across to reposition this as a midwinter festival, rather than a Spring festival. This is a post with a difference.
In summary if the below is too long for you to read:
There are a few night-time visitors from the otherworld now. I express how i feel about this time of year. It’s a festival associated with midwinter and the hope for fecundity of soil and self. This festival represents the returning of our own light of inspiration, and the spirits of plants and soil. This is illustrated well by image of the serpents return. It’s also a festival of lustration and protection for self and home and blessing on the land. It finally concludes with a wee example from my own practice. I’m not religious in the traditional sense of the word and this example might be interesting to some. If that hasn’t put you off, please read on.
Night time visitors on La Féill Bríd
On La Féill Brìde, Brìde is said to visit folk in their houses at night. Marks left in the soot of the smoored fire, her footprints, are considered good luck. Personally, this links to the idea of someone visiting and bestowing gifts, similar idea to Father Christmas. Appropriations are left for Bríd/Bridghe. A bed made of grasses and cloth and perhaps a doll representing her. A link to the harvest of the previous year would be that the last sheaf of wheat cut in the farmer’s field would become the grass for her bed. This links to the idea of the Cailleach, as she was the last sheaf cut in the district (MacDonald, Religion and Myth, 1893). If Bríd didn’t come. No signs found. Folks would appeal to her via ritual and offerings. The killing of a cock or goose has been associated with this (reference to follow). You can find a lot more information here (Tairis.co.uk). Items for her blessing were also left on display for her. Ideal items would be medicine and cloths used for babies, candles, a journal or diary, tools, seeds you wish to plant and other such stuff. If you’re interested in celebrating in the Gaelic Polytheist style, there is a great article available here (from Tairis.co.uk). I wont rewrite for the sake of repeating already good information.
Another character who makes an appearance between Candlemas and Fasterneen is the Gyre Carling. Gyre Carline translates to Guady/ Fierce Ogre/Witch in Doric roughly. She would visit houses at night with a young child accompanying her. Here she would do spinning in the house hold at night. Cautious folk would remove the belt from their spinning wheel. Least they be woken by the whirring of the wheel. She always bathed the boy at the end of the night. It’s best to keep fresh spring water in the house for this reason. If these things weren’t left, the Gyre Carling would perform “mischief” on the family (Calder, Sketches from John o Groats, 1842). This mischief could include cutting the threads of your own destiny of course.
“Midwinter” and snakes
Where I live we have had our first really cold weather near the end of January. Theres usually a lot more of it to come ahead. It’s argued summer ran from Beltainn to Samhuinn. Winter from Samhuinn to Beltainn (making Lughnassdah the mid summer festival) for the celtic and later Gaelic people. They only had four major festivals. Yule (or Jul) and midsummer coming from our norse and saxon ancestors. I think with the juxtaposition of the summer and mid winter solstice at the beginning or middle of winter and summer, we get all a little discombobulated about things. Personally, I view these solstices and equinoxes as representing different ideas. These cycles are separate from what you might find in the 8 fold Calender popular these days. This form doesn’t fit, so we concentrate on four festivals currently, which are earth based and spirit focussed.
Perhaps the solar festival approach is something inherited from our Norse and Anglo-Saxon ancestors? Folks view the solstices as midwinter and midsummer, this doesn’t sit so well for me. It might be when the sun is at its station, but the earth still has a lot of winter or summer ahead. Candlemas on this date, for example, was at one time held by many to mark the end of Yule festivities, (Macritchie, Scotland review, 1906). It’s exactly half way between Samhuinn and Bealtainn, suggesting a midwinter function. To view La Féill Brìde as the midwinter festival, spring becoming part of the winter season sits well. I feel it represents hope in the winter months, but this might not be a traditional view for some. Bridghe and the serpent then becomes a symbol of this. The feminine presence of earth’s regeneration. Like Mothers night and other Scandinavian ideas, just a little later. Just as we look for hope on Yule, the sun returning, this day represents that same hope but for the land.
For me then, this time of year is about the earth waking up. This is the focus of my practice for this festival. Not so much to do with the sun, or solar festivals associations. I feel this day is about the start of new growth, and spirits returning to the land. A day to be glad for, in the bleakest of winter months, wolf ravage month. The symbol of the soil waking up I think is represented by snakes said to come from their holes underground. Serpent, the spirit of the earth, stirring awake underground, underworld coming forth once more. A slow uncoil. The serpent becomes a symbol for the rising of fertility and growth. Bridghe, becomes a representative of the fire or energy of this process. Just as our own personal fires rekindled. Especially if you use the three element system of earth, sky and sea. The cunning fire coming from within, rather than without. This is how I work and again makes a lot of sense to me. Others may find this less than useful.
The snake is an interesting metaphor to appear at this quarter festival. It has been used apropaically for reasons or healing, such as shed snake-skin. In charms also, such as snake stones. Looking to Banks (1939) and Alexander Carmichael we find a strange tradition about filling a stocking with peat to make it look like a snake. This snake stocking is then has its metaphorical head bashed in whilst repeating a Rann (charm/rune) on La Féill Brìde:
This is the day of Bride
The queen will come from the mound
I will not touch the queen
Nor will the queen touch me.
This is only recounted in the Carmina Gadelica #1. I can’t find an example elsewhere that doesn’t draw on this singular one. In Scottish folk-lore the Serpent is referred to as “ivar’s daughter” a euphemism given to the snake or serpent. Who Ivar is I don’t know but its might be the similar to how the Scots don’t refer to things by their name. Some folks call snakes wind-ees for instance, in case they insult them or anger the spirit of them. This anger, from insult, in turn draws them near. This is also found in the phrase “la Fhéill-Bridghe thig an righinn as a toll – on saint brides day the nymph (princess) will come out of her hole”. In this case the Nymph or princess might be a snake or refer to Bridghe herself. Today was also known as plow break day. Where no matter the weather some steadfast farmers would plow at least a furrow on old Candlemas day (13th of February). Some might even be unwilling to remove weeds until this day has passed. (Fife and Herald Journal, June 21st, 1905). Again this links to the idea of this festival representing the fecundity of the land.
I have pondered long and hard over these two, seemingly contradictory things. On one hand we have the serpent as winter venom. On another hand we have the serpent as, perhaps, representing the emerging spring or warming of the earth. In the case above who is the queen that comes for her mound? Is it the snake or is it Bridghe? It’s reminiscent of the idea of the Aos Sidhe/Sith/Si coming from the sidhe mounds. Is the bashing of the snake a christian influence? (You only need to look at St Patrick to see how much christian religions hate snakes.) Is the snake a representation of the winter weather? The winter venom? The Cailleach of this season, killed metaphorically? Is the snake a representation of something much older? That has now been conflated with something else in the minds of the folk from this time? Something since labelled as an evil thing that needs to be bashed in? There are a lot of questions and to be honest few answers that currently point in a clear direction. There does seem to be too many different customs that relate to the health and fertility of the land for this just to be a coincidence.
Cold and Lustral water at Imbolc
February was known as Faoilteach. The season of the wolf ravage. Wolves used to come close to settlements now. Food was scarce in the wild. It’s also known as two halves. Winter Faoilteach, the second half the spring Faoilteach, happening in the last two weeks of February. Folks believe that February should come in with the head of a serpent and out with a serpent’s tail. I.e. fierce weather to start with and milder weather as it leaves. Interesting that we have the serpent motif again. This time associated with the venom of winter. This can be illustrated further in the following folk saying, “if February gives much snow a fine summer it doth foreshadow”. A Candlemas associated saying is: “If Candlemas be fair and bright, winter will have another flight. If Candlemas bring cloud and rain, winter is gone and will not come again”. Another saying associated with the change in weather from winter to summer directly related to Brìde is below:
Brìde put her finger in the river
On the feast day of Bride
And away went the hatching mother of the cold,
And she washed her palms in the river
On the feast day of Patrick
And away went the conception mother of the cold.
In the above we have connections with lustration, water and the change in temperature. Another link to lustration follows. On La Féill Brìde, or the day after, folks would go about on their hands and knees in a church in Orkney. Having done this would make their way down to the water, cover their heads and bodies with it, and then head off to the pub (Banks, 1939). It’s interesting we also have the Looney Dook in South Queensferry at New year. Perhaps this points to this practice? The link to Bridghe “Blessing” or “heating” the water and lustration, is pretty clear in my mind. A form of water blessing on this day, or saining, could be an appropriate action.
Light in the darkness on La Féill Bríd
This day is special to a lot of folks. As a metaphor for Spring, or hope in the mid winter snow, it represents the rekindling of our desire to go out and about. The lessening of winter. The return of the warmth to the soil. The fire of germination, the spark of inspiration, health and heat returning once more to the ground. Its care takers slowly returning. Even though it has a battle ahead of it against the cold winter. There is a wee story written about this battle between Bridghe, Angus Mac Og and the Cailleach around this time. The Cailleach battling to keep winter raging, against Angus and Bridghe. Of course Angus and Bridghe win and summer returns till next year. (The whole story is here). I haven’t seen this story mentioned anywhere else other than in the wonder tales. I personally think it’s an elaboration and not paticulary linked to anything more than imagination but it’s a lovely tale. We have La Féill Cailleach on the 25th of March. Others view the Cailleach turning to stone or returning as a young woman, on Beltainn, signalling the start of summer. It’s interesting to note the Cailleach is present at all the festivals in some form or representation. Perhaps in this way the Cailleach represents the land itself. Some might view the milk from her heads as running down the mountains turning them white. A link to Oimelc.
Candlemas is a festival of Lights and occurs the day after. It included what was known as the Candlemas Bleeze. Folks and their children used to walk in procession to the town or Mercat cross, bearing their candles and torches in their hands. Once they had finished they would then light the bleeze or bonfire. Sometimes there was no bonfire and they would just burn any clump of broom or whins in the vicinity. Donations were also once given of candles to the church on this date. This was overtaken by the donation of money, that may shine brighter to some clergy than that of any candle. (Macctaggert, Encyclopaedia, 1824). A king and queen might also be elected and dancing was held in the evening. One old folk custom that continued past Candlemas, was folk carrying around candle stubs from candlemas. Sometimes they sewed them into convenient corners on the inside of their coats or what have you. Hampson (1841) believed that this was due to the blessed nature of the candles and had the power to repel evil. A useful charm either way.
The idea of the light, and its relationship to La Fhéil Bríd, I think, is too much of a coincidence to be ignored. Bríd or Bridghe was considered the bringer of illumination in the form of wisdom, inspiration or insight. Perhaps its no coincidence we have Burns Night very close to this festival date? I like to personally view it, as mentioned above, as the return of our own “light” or heat. Some may view it as the light betwixt the horns as mentioned by folks such as Robert Cochrane et al. Some of your perhaps not.
However you want to view it the land and ourselves are waking up once more. Moving back into the life current but not quite. Its the moment pre birth. The expectant pause. From my own practice approach this is where I stand. I hope that this information might help you to view this festival as something more than just a focus on everyone’s favourite, Bríd. She is a part of it, no doubt. I like to view my approach as perhaps more operationally and spirit/ancestor focused, but with respect to tradition. You might not want to make her the sole focus, if you feel similar. Especially if your practice encompasses more than deity worship or focus on the mystery traditions.
So how might folks practice this night?
There are lots of examples on the Tairis website if you would like to stick to a Gaelic Polytheist structure. We do things slightly differently and I would like to offer up another approach.
I like to light a candle in the evening and sit with it a while. With offerings for my ancestors, as elaborate as you wish but including milk and honey and bread at least. The candle might have a snake or serpent like patterns carved into it. I prefer to use a beeswax candle but really any will do. If I have any to hand, I like to have snake parts surrounding it, such as vertebrae etc., when I have come by them. (These are great to turn into a charm or necklace later by threading through the vertebra holes for use in the year to come). I sit contemplating this time of year and the return of the busy time coming up. No other light but the candle. I think about being in the coldest time of the year. Soon we need to emerge from our cave and this is the time this starts to happen. We still have a while until the action starts but now’s the time to get ready. Once I have finished contemplating things, I light more candles in the house and speak to my ancestors about anything that might have come up. Once done, I take the beeswax candle outside with offerings for the land spirits. Perhaps to the woods or just in the garden (this year by the orchard perhaps). Of course depending on the upcoming weather it can be difficult to achieve our aims. I ask for helpful weather and sit outside with this as long as possible, talking of my plans in the herb garden etc. I then return home. It’s all pretty simple.
At this point we might make a cross Bride and leave this with any seeds and anything else I might need for inspiration this coming year such as wood working tools, pens, journals etc. out over night on our ancestor altar. This is for any blessings that may or may not be about this night from either bridghe or the Gyre Carlin. I’m sure to leave out my drop spindle and a bowl of fresh water for her.
Next day. In the morning. I will go to my front door and perform a Frith, or divination. I then sain the house with the lustrated water. Asking for prosperity, health and protection. I do this whilst reciting the genealogy of Bríd. (The version below I have changed, but I like it better this way. You may also want to change it. Please bear in mind I’m not religious in the traditional sense. See the ancestors post for more information on my thoughts on this). After this I sprinkle it about outside keeping a little for when the plants are ready to plant for a seed blessing. Again simple, feel free to adopt and change this how you see fit.
Rann of the Genealogy (of Brid).
Brid, daughter of Dugall the dark.
Son of Aodh, Son of Art, Son of Conn
Each day and Each Night
I will call to mind the Genealogy of Brid.
I shall not be killed,
I shall not be Wounded,
I shall not be bewitched,
Nor will my ancestors fail to protect me
Nor will elf shot harm me,
And neither river, nor ocean drown me.
If I am under the protection of my dear Brid.