For those in the eastern Pennsylvania area, I have two public classes coming up this month in Easton, PA. If you are interested in Druidry or the many-layered story of the Celtic Goddess Cerridwen, make plans to attend!
Brigid is often described as a Celtic goddess of fire, smithcraft and poetry, but she is so much more. She is a goddess of the hearth and healing, with a triple aspect. Worship of Brigid was so widespread and ingrained within Celtic culture that when Christianity tried to wipe out paganism in Ireland, they could not eliminate Brigid, so they transformed her into a “saint”. She became St. Brigid. The Goddess Brigid and Saint Brigid are one and the same. Her name is also spelled “Bride”, “Brighid” and sometimes “Brigantia” or “Bridget”. There is no definitive answer regarding the pronunciation. Most pronounce her name as “bridge-id” or “breed”. Some Celtic lore indicates that Brigid is a daughter of the Morrigan. Brigid is usually honored on February 1st or 2nd, at the festival of Imbolc, with many lit candles and rituals welcoming the return of the light. Candlemas is the Christianized version of the ancient pagan holiday.
“The many customs of Imbolc speak to how beloved Brigid is and how warmly she is welcomed. Offerings if milk, butter, bread and beer sustain her on her journeying…Brigid’s crosses are made, their sun-wheel shape symbolizing the increasing strength of the light. Another custom evokes the tradition of sacred hospitality and invites Brigid to come and take her rest within the shelter of the home. A symbolic bed is lovingly prepared for her in a basket, and a doll dressed in pure white is made and tucked in for the night”. Lunaea Weatherstone, Tending Brigid’s Flame.
Those who follow Brigid faithfully are known as Flamekeepers, keeping alive an old tradition of the Brigidine Sisters tending the holy flame at the monastery of Brigid at Kildare. Ord Brighidach International is a Brigidine Order of Flamekeepers founded in 2005. The order has 700 flamekeepers worldwide, each of whom vows to faithfully tend a flame in Brigid’s name for a daylong shift. You can join the Order at http://www.ordbrighideach.org. It is open to everyone.
On or around the 1st of February in the northern hemisphere and 1st of August in the southern, Imbolc is often seen as the first of three Spring festivals. Imbolc is correctly pro-nounced “Im-Olc”. The B is silent. It is hard sometimes to think of Spring in what feels like the depths of Winter. But if we look at the ground we can see the first shoots of green beginning to reach towards the Sun. Imbolc can be celebrated on either the 1st or 2nd February, or more naturally when the Snowdrops cover the ground. This is the seasonal change where the first signs of spring and the return of the sun are noted, the first sprouting of leaves, the sprouting of the Crocus flowers. In other words, it is the festival commemorating the successful passing of winter and the beginning of the agricultural year. It is also a day of celebrating the Celtic Goddess Brigid. Brigid is the Goddess of Poetry, Healing, Smithcraft, and Midwifery. This is a time for communing with her, and tending the lighting of her sacred flame. Imbolc celebrations are held by some pagan communities on February 1st in the northern hemisphere, to observe the astronomical midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. It is named after an Irish word originally thought to mean “in the belly” – although it can also be translated as “ewe’s milk”. The day is referenced in some of the earliest Irish literature, an indication of its significance throughout Gaelic history. It is believed that Imbolc was originally a pagan festival associated with the goddess Brigid, considered goddess of fire and the arrival of early spring in Celtic mythology. Imbolc was one of the cornerstones of the Celtic calendar. For them the success of the new farming season was of great importance. As winter stores of food were getting low, Imbolc rituals were performed to harness divine energy that would ensure a steady supply of food until the harvest six months later. The lighting of fires celebrated the increasing power of the sun over the coming months. For the Christian calendar, the holiday was reformed and renamed Candlemas – where candles are lit to remember the “purification of the Virgin Mary”. Imbolc is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature and there is evidence it has been an important date since ancient times. It is believed that it was originally a pagan festival associated with the goddess Brigid and that it was Christianized as a festival of Saint Brigid, who is thought to be a Christianized version of the goddess. There is some debate about what came first, Imbolc or Candlemas, however, the date of Imbolc is thought to have been significant in Ireland since the Neolithic period A celebration of hearth and home and the sign of longer days to come, traditional customs included hosting special feasts, visiting holy wells and practicing divination. Brigid crosses were also made and hung over doorways and hearths to invoke her protection. Another tradition of Imbolc was weather divination, and the ancient tradition of watching to see if serpents or badgers emerged from their winter dens – which is thought to be the origin of the American tradition, Groundhog Day.
Blackthorn Druid Witches honor Brigid at Imbolc by making their own Brigid Crosses, invoking her protection with a special incantation, and giving an offering of ale and milk.
Mistletoe, from the Old English misteltãn, is a parasitic plant that grows on various trees, particularly the apple tree, it is held in great veneration when found on oak trees.
Mistletoe and The Druids
The ancient druids believed mistletoe to be an indicator of great sacredness. The Winter Solstice, called ‘Alban Arthan‘ by the druids, was according to Bardic Tradition, the time when the Chief Druid would cut the sacred mistletoe from the oak tree. The mistletoe is cut using a golden sickle on the sixth night of the new moon after the winter solstice. A cloth held below the tree by other members of the order to catch the spigs of mistletoe as they fell, as it was believed that it would have profaned the mistletoe to fall upon the ground. He would then divide the branches into many sprigs and distributed them to the people, who hung them over doorways as protection against thunder, lightning and other evils. The druids are thought to have believed that the berries of the mistletoe represented the sperm of the gods. When pressed, a semen like substance issues from the white berries. Mistletoe was considered a magical aphrodisiac. The plant in old folklore is called All Heal, used in folk medicine to cure many ills. Druids considered the mistletoe to be a sacred plant and believed it had miraculous properties which could cure illnesses, serve as an antidote against poisons, ensure fertility and protect against the ill effects of witchcraft.
Mistletoe was a plant of peace in antiquity. If enemies met by chance beneath it in a forest, they laid down their arms and maintained a truce until the next day. This is thought to be the origin of the ancient custom of hanging a ball of mistletoe from the ceiling and exchanging kisses under it as a sign of friendship and goodwill. According to the Anglo-Saxons, kissing under the mistletoe was connected to the legend of Freya, goddess of love, beauty and fertility. According to legend, a man had to kiss any young girl who, without realizing it, found herself accidentally under a sprig of mistletoe hanging from the ceiling. If a couple in love exchanges a kiss under the mistletoe, it is interpreted as a promise to marry, as well as a prediction of happiness and long life. In France, the custom linked to mistletoe was reserved for New Year’s Day: “Au gui l’An neuf” (Mistletoe for the New Year). It is often associated with thunder, and regarded as a protection against fire and lighting. Shakespeare, in Titus Andronicus II calls it ‘the baleful mistletoe’. It is interesting to note that mistletoe was excluded from church decorations, probably due to its connection with the druids, and it’s pagan/magical associations.
During the month of December, Blackthorn Druid Witches carry a pouch filled with mistletoe for three days and meditate with the plant.
Of the many Celtic legends, those of the Cailleach are some of the most mysterious. She is called by many names, but she is largely known as the “Crone of Winter”. In Scotland, where she is also known as Beira, Queen of Winter, she is credited with making numerous mountains and large hills, which are said to have been formed when she was striding across the land and accidentally dropped rocks from her apron or wicker basket. In other cases she is said to have built the mountains intentionally, to serve as her stepping stones. She carries a hammer for shaping the hills and valleys, and is said to be the mother of all the goddesses and gods.
The Cailleach displays several traits befitting the personification of winter: she herds deer, she fights spring, and her blackthorn staff freezes the ground. In partnership with the goddess Brigid, the Cailleach is seen as a seasonal deity or spirit, ruling the winter months between Samhain and Beltane, while Brìgid rules the summer months between Beltane and Samhain. Some interpretations have the Cailleach and Brìgid as two faces of the same goddess, while others describe the Cailleach as turning to stone on Beltane and reverting to human form on Samhain in time to rule over the winter months. Depending on local climate, the transfer of power between the winter goddess and the summer goddess is celebrated any time between Imbolc at the earliest, the Spring Equinox, or Beltane at the latest, and the local festivals marking the arrival of the first signs of Spring may be named after either the Cailleach or Brìgid. The Festival of Brigid is also the day the Cailleach gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she intends to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on February 1st is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood to keep herself warm in the coming months. As a result, people are generally relieved if the Festival of Brigid is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep, will soon run out of firewood, and therefore winter is almost over.
On the Isle of Man, where She is known as Caillagh ny Groamagh, the Cailleach is said to have been seen on St. Bride’s Day in the form of a gigantic bird, carrying sticks in her beak. In Scotland, the Cailleachan (‘old women’) are also known as the Storm Hags, and seen as personifications of the elemental powers of nature, especially in a destructive aspect. They are said to be particularly active in raising the windstorms of spring, during the period known as A’ Chailleach. There are indications from early writings that there once existed a priest/esshood of the Cailleach, with followers who were solely dedicated to her. On the west coast of Scotland, the Cailleach ushers in winter by washing her great plaid (Gaelic: féileadh mòr) in the Gulf of Corryvreken (Gaelic: Coire Bhreacain – ‘cauldron of the plaid’). This process is said to take three days, during which the roar of the coming tempest is heard as far away as twenty miles inland. When she is finished, her plaid is pure white and snow covers the land.
In Scotland and Ireland, the first farmer to finish the grain harvest made a corn dolly, representing the Cailleach (also called “the Carlin or Carline”), from the last sheaf of the crop. The figure would then be tossed into the field of a neighbor who had not yet finished bringing in their grain. The last farmer to finish had the responsibility to take in and care for the corn dolly for the next year, with the implication they’d have to feed and house the hag all winter. Competition was fierce to avoid having to take in the Old Woman.
In the tales of the Cailleach, there are some common themes:
- Shaping the land deliberately or accidentally, including the creation of lakes, hills, islands and megalithic constructions
- Association with water, through wells, lakes and rivers
- Association with the season of Winter and Winter storms
- Gigantic size, also manifesting her presence in winter storms and blizzards
- Her vast age, being one of the first beings
- Her guardianship of particular animals, especially deer
- Her ability to shape-shift to a variety of forms, including maiden, heron and rock
- Her ability to control the elements
- Her ability to charm animals with her songs
The Cailleach is known from her many guises as:
- Crone of Winter
- Lady of the Beasts
- Bestower of Sovereignty
- Seer and Foreteller of Doom
Blackthorn Druid Witches are encouraged to honor the Cailleach by lighting a black candle on the night of the Winter Solstice.
Candle Magic is part of the training in Blackthorn Druid Witchcraft, and up until last year I had been making my own candles with parrafin wax, while guiding students to do the same. However, this year I have to decided to switch to beeswax exclusively. Beeswax candles are an old-world tradition and have many more benefits than parrafin. Many witches prefer to use parrafin, as it is cheaper and more accessible than beeswax. Parrafin holds scent and color well and is easy to work with. But is it really the best choice for magical purposes? The truth is that parrafin is an oil-based and highly refined petroleum by-product. Parrafin candles can contain up to twenty toxic substances, which are found in paint, lacquer, varnish removers and diesel fuel. Many contain artificial dyes, lead wicks and synthetic fragrances. While the National Candle Association does regulate warning labels that caution consumers to always burn a candle within sight, to keep candles away from things that can catch fire, and to keep candles out of the reach of children, they are not required to list toxic or carcinogenic ingredients in their products.
Benefits of Beeswax
Beeswax is a bit more expensive than parrafin and is not as easy to find. It is estimated that bees must fly 150,000 miles to collect enough nectar to produce six pounds of honey, just to secrete one pound of wax. Beeswax is 100% natural and chemical-free. When purchasing beeswax, make sure it is labeled as 100% beeswax. Sometimes it is mixed with parrafin and contains only 5% beeswax. Stay clear of the “beeswax blends”. Beeswax is environmentally friendly and hypo-allergenic. It is safe and non-toxic, has a longer burn time than parrafin and drips very little. Older beeswax candles develop a white film (particularly in colder climates), which gives them an “antique” appearance. When burning a beeswax candle, negative ions are released which cleanse and purify the air, removing dust and pollen.
Using beeswax for your magical candles
As I tell all students, the most powerful candles are those you make yourself. Since beeswax is 100% natural, it is the perfect choice for magical workings. The natural honey scent of beeswax blends very well with pure essential oils, and dried herbs can be added to the wax before pouring. Beeswax candles can be charged with magical intention, and as always, are to be crafted during appropriate moon phases and astrological timings. It is not necessary to add color to your beeswax candles, as doing so would introduce an unnatural, synthetic ingredient to the wax.
The modern Celtic Tree Calendar was devised by Robert Graves in his book, “The White Goddess”, and is based on his re-interpretation of the Ogham alphabet. It has been widely criticized as a fabrication by many Celtic scholars, as it does not coincide with earlier Celtic calendars. While there is no evidence of ancient Celts or Druids using a calendar that even resembled this one, it’s origins are irrelevant, as it has become a valuable spiritual, liturgical and magical tool for some modern NeoPagans who identify with the ancient Celts. Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans reject it utterly as a complete fabrication with no historic basis. Others embrace it as a tool to enhance their magic, their spirituality and their connection with nature, and to help give structure to their rituals.
A Celtic tree calendar was first presented in the 19th century by Edward Davies, based on research of the Ogygia and the Book of Ballymote, further developed by Robert Graves in his book The White Goddess, and further developed by OBOD founder Ross Nichols. The calendar has 13 months of 28 days and an extra day chosen as the “year and a day” day. It begins with the Winter Solstice, in contrast to the tradition of Samhain as the Celtic New Year. Despite it’s origins, it still provides a beautiful framework for the study of tree lore and the Ogham. It has been embraced by many druids and Celtic pagans worldwide who consider it an inspired work.
There is a fine line between fabrication and inspiration. Fabrication implies an intent to deceive while inspiration is a creative idea imparted by divine influence. Unfamiliar concepts are often unfairly regarded as fabricated or invalid simply because they are new. Inspired works do not always come with footnotes and references to back them up. If we really, truly believe that Witchcraft is a living mystical tradition, then it stands to reason that it’s followers will receive divine inspiration to help them along the path and draw them deeper into it’s ways. This information will not always be of the “previously published” variety. Those who ask “where are you getting this information” and demand to know the book, chapter and page might be disappointed. Here we delve into the murky waters of personal gnosis. Interpreting information received through personal gnosis can be a slippery slope. Because something is true for you does not necessarily make it true for everyone, but there are times when this information is shared with others. The trick is in balancing the new information with what you already feel and believe. Sometimes there are no references to compare the new information with. For example, two of my favorite teachers have published books that contain information they received from communications with plants and spirit guides. Because these are teachers I highly admire and respect, I am inclined to take their experiences as valid ones. It is important to consider the source, and look within to see if it agrees with what you feel in your own heart. If it doesn’t, don’t use it, but at the same time do not immediately disregard it because you’ve “never heard that before”.
While both are believed to be inspired by earlier works, the Celtic Tree Calendar is nearly two decades older than the Wiccan Rede, another inspired work considered sacred to followers of Wicca. In the House of Blackthorn, students may choose the wood for their wands according to the tree that corresponds to their birthday. Some find that they feel a connection to a different tree altogether, and this is acceptable as well.
Below is an image that displays the dates and trees of the Celtic Tree Calendar. Note that Samhain and the Winter Solstice have specific trees associated with them. Which tree is your birthday associated with?