The Meaning of Imbolg

February 1st is Imbolg or St Brigid’s Feast Day. Imbolg is an ancient and somewhat forgotten holiday that falls midway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. The etymology of Imbolg is murky. The most common derivation is from the Old Irish i mbolc (Modern Irish i mbolg), meaning “in the belly”, referring specifically to the pregnancy of ewes and generally to the Earth’s quickening with the new life of spring. Another possible derivation is the Old Irish imb-fholc, “to wash/cleanse oneself”, referring to ritual cleansing, a common preoccupation at this time of year since Roman times at least. The 10th century Cormac’s Glossary derives it from oimelc, “ewe milk”, but modern linguists see this as a folk etymology. Nevertheless, some Neopagans have adopted Oimelc as an alternate name for the festival.

So what is the true meaning of this holiday? Is it all about the sheep? Is it a more general quickening of life in a more generalized belly? Do sheep have anything to do with it? Or is it maybe all about cleaning?

Let’s start with the sheep. This time of year, winter food stores are dwindling and the growing season is still far away; and even then, planting seeds does not yield food quickly. However, livestock are an immediate food source in times of scarcity. By Imbolg, short-day breeders like sheep will be lactating. So Imbolg was, for northern pastoralists, the point in the winter when there was a fresh stream of food after many months of dwindling harvest stores. So it makes sense in a truthiness sort of way to relate the name to ewe lactation — with qualification. For one thing, most Celts didn’t drink sheep’s milk. Not only that, but sheep are not heavy milkers. If you want your lambs to survive, you have to leave most of the mother’s milk to the infant. Still — as horrible as it sounds — lambs are food. This is the time when food from livestock starts flowing again. And that food is coming from a ewe’s belly, one way or another. 

But this is also an important inflection point in the horticultural year. 

Before digging into that let me clear up a very common misconception. The grain growing season? Is not plant in spring, harvest in fall. Or it’s not exclusively that. For maize — what Americans call “corn” — that is a decent approximation because corn is very temperature sensitive. It does not germinate in soil temperatures below 50°F and will die if exposed to freezing temperatures. (It’s also cranky about hot weather, becoming reluctant to set seed over 95°F — a cause for concern going forward into climate change.) So corn is tied to what most of us call the “growing season”.

But many of the other grains we eat — barley, oats, rye — these are cool season plants. They prefer those cold soil temperatures. Rye will germinate at 34°F, just a bit above freezing. Wheat is also treated as a cool season plant once it germinates. It prefers soil temperature between 54°F and 77°F to germinate but then will grow at cold temperatures, slowly but steadily, though it won’t set much healthy seed if temperature is below about 40° when it gets to maturity. Wheat is a slow grower even in summer conditions though. It takes over 120 days from planting for most wheat varieties to set seed. (For comparison, some varieties of corn can mature in as little as 60 days, and corn averages around 90 days to maturity.)

If you do the arithmetic you’ll see that wheat planted in early May will be setting seed in early September — which seems like it should work. Except in early May in much of the northern hemisphere, soil has not warmed to over 54°F. Depending on soil color (dark soil better absorbs heat), it may not be warm enough for wheat germination until early June. And there you probably see the problem. Four months from early June is early October, which is getting perilously close to, if not past, freezing conditions. June planted wheat may grow well; but it won’t make much wheat.

However, because wheat will happily poke along after germination even in freezing conditions, most farmers will wait until fall to plant. After a summer of heat, the soil is plenty warm for germination. It takes twice as long to get to maturity when wheat plants are cold, but that slow growth means that wheat planted in September will be setting seed in nice warm May sunshine. (Another benefit of fall planting is that soil moisture, another critical germination factor, tends to be more constant in fall. But I’m not getting into that right now.)

Now, there is spring wheat; it exists. It is grown in southerly places where the soil warms up quicker and fall does not bring frost around the equinox. It can also be planted in the dark loess soils of the US Upper Midwest if the fields are open to the sun’s warmth. This isn’t the best practice for soil or water conservation, of course, but it does warm up the dirt earlier in the year. However, fall planting is generally less risky and thus more common. The flour in your bread is more likely from winter wheat.

I realize this messes with quite a few sacred cows. The thing about sacred cows is that those who know the cows best rarely have input into making them sacred. There is no planting of wheat in very early spring. Rye, barley and oats maybe, but no wheat until it’s almost summer. There is far less grain harvesting than planting in September. And the main grain harvest season is going to be around the summer solstice — hay-making time. This is not a coincidence.

So after yet another digression into E-splaining, let’s get back to why early February is important to farming peoples without livestock. (Which was not a thing in traditional cultures, but whatever.) 

Winter is not only cold, it is dark. Plants need light to make food for themselves so they can grow. No light; no growth. Some plants need a lot of light; some less. But nearly all plants go dormant with less than 10 hours of sunlight in a day. (Actually, the limiting factor is greater than 14 continuous hours of darkness, but we are diurnal beasts and think in terms of day-light not night-dark.)

Day length varies throughout the year in parallel with temperature (again, not a coincidence, but you knew that). Days are short in winter. How short depends on latitude — and strictly on latitude. The number of short days in a year is also dependent on latitude. If you live far from the equator, there are months of days with very little light. If you live on the equator, daylight is always twelve hours long every day of the year. So the critical thing you need to know is when daylight is less than 10 continuous hours where you live. This is the time period when plants are not going to grow. You want to know the fall date when daylight becomes less than 10 hours, and you want to know the winter (or spring) date when daylight becomes more than 10 hours.

And guess what today is! Yep. For those who live at around 42°N latitude, as I do, 1 February is the first 10-hour day of the year. Now, today is not the first 10-hour day for everybody, not for much of Eurasia, certainly not for Ireland from whence comes Imbolg. But it’s close. And because change in day length is quicker nearer the equinoxes, it is not long before those northern latitudes will also see 10 hours of sunlight. (I looked up Dublin; their first 10-hour day is 17 February… which is rather close to the original solar date, the pre-Gregorian reform date, for Imbolg… another not-a-coincidence.)

So back to wheat. If wheat is planted in September, it will grow a few weeks while day length is more than 10 hours. Then it will go to sleep. It won’t die, but it won’t grow. It will poke along doing its wheat-being thing until daylight increases enough for it to make food over and above what it needs to merely exist, what it needs to make more of itself, what it needs to grow. Here in New England, winter wheat will wake up and start growing again today, Imbolg. Still not very quickly because it’s cold, but it will grow.

Our farming ancestors knew that this time of year was when winter grains would break dormancy and start growing. Pasture grasses, too, would grow. This is the return of the light in its most primal sense. This is the point in the solar year when there is enough light for plants — the bottom of the food pyramid — to grow. So it does make sense to say that there is a generalized quickening of life — of food, which is life — at this time of year. The “in the belly” meaning could be talking about the earth; it could even be talking about food in the bellies of ruminants. I think this more general “in the belly” makes more sense than talking about sheep’s milk, but then sheep are much cuter than grassy grain plants. Makes for more charismatic imagery.

But is that truthy enough? What about cleansing?

First, let’s look at the more common name for this festival — St Brigid’s Day. I’ve already gone over this ground. To not repeat too much, it is enough to say that Brigid is a symbol of transformation, a provider of well-being, a deity of water and fire. All those things scream “cleaning” to me. If the name Imbolg is tied to Brigid it is more probable that it relates to ritualized cleansing in preparation for the renewal of spring than relating to sheep. Brigid is not memorably associated with sheep, even though she seems to have adventures paired up with all sorts of other animals — from cows to snakes to hedgehogs.

There is more. In two weeks we’ll be looking at another holiday — Lupercalia. It is the ancient Roman celebration of fertility which was, notably, a time of ritual cleansing. The time to sweep all the dirt and damage of the old year away and make way for the fresh beginning of spring. To renew yourself as the earth is being rejuvenated. (Somehow, to the Romans, this involved goats and wolves and naked people running through the streets.) This urge to cleanse before spring seems to be universal. It is undoubtedly old. It could definitely be what the Celts were talking about when they made up the word Imbolg.

And finally Imbolg, St Brigid’s Day, is the day before one of the oldest ritual dates in the Christian calendar, and this too is associated with purification in a circuitous way. February 2nd is 40 days after December 25th, the established date of the birth of Jesus since the mid-4th century. Based on that date for Jesus’ birth, February 2nd is the date that Mary presented Jesus to the temple, a much more important event in his life because this is when his deity is revealed to the world (rather than a few foreign magicians and a handful of bewildered shepherds). This festival is the Presentation of Jesus, and that was how it was known and celebrated for centuries. 

Now, there is something critical about that 40 days. In Jewish law, a woman is considered unclean for a set period after giving birth — 80 days for a girl baby, 40 for a boy. Mary, the literal Mother of God, was soiled in delivering this god-baby into the world, and she required 40 days of cleansing. On 2 February she was considered pure again and thus able to present Jesus in the temple. This is the Purification of the Virgin.

As the Medieval period progressed, the focus of the rite changed from the Presentation to the Purification. This probably reflected the growing prominence of Mary to peoples who lost their dear feminine deities; all things Marian grew in importance as more pagans were brought into the new religion. But it’s likely that the purification element gained in significance simply because this was the time of year that purification happened. I would wager that most peasants could not have told you a single thing about Jewish law. They might actually have found the whole idea of Mary’s impurity through giving birth to their savior deity rather offensive. (I sure do). But Mary — the Mother Goddess — purifying herself in preparation for spring? That they understood and fervently believed in!

And now we can ask again, what is the meaning of this festival? Imbolg could reference the food that was about to flow from the earth — maybe from the livestock, maybe from the grasses, maybe both since livestock need to eat the grass to be live-stock. But Imbolg as a day of ritual cleansing seems to have a stronger pedigree and far stronger ties to this particular calendrical date. 

So, you be the judge. 

© Elizabeth Anker 2021