arrives at the depth of winter in most of the Northern Hemisphere, when
we live in the shadow of cold, rain and snow. Within February’s first
few days lies one of the four high holidays—or sabbats—of the pagan calendar,
called Imbolc in Celtic times. One of the four "cross-quarter days,"
its corresponding holidays are Beltane (or May Day, May 1), Lammas (also
called second planting in agricultural communities, August 1) and Samhain
(also called Halloween, October 31).
called "Midwinter," literally means “in the belly,” and at this
time we are deep in the belly of winter, held in gestation for the coming
spring at the Vernal Equinox around March 21. Imbolc is like the first
movements of the fetus preparing for birth. Its precise timing is when
the Sun crosses the middle degree of Aquarius, the symbolism of which
we will visit in a moment.
In the modern
world, we associate early February with Ground hog Day, which hardly gives
a clue to the importance this holiday held not long ago. For most people,
the day passes unnoticed, except for a photo in the local paper of a cute
little critter in Pennsylvania who has wiggled out of his hole for a breath
of fresh air, just like he does every other day. His stirring to life
in midwinter is symbolic; ground hogs don't hibernate. The media, oddly
enough, are practicing the old tradition of weather divination; all of
the cross-quarter holidays are associated with some form of augury or
communing with the spirit world.
Agriculture and Aquarius
know that Imbolc falls with the Sun at the midpoint of the sign Aquarius,
the Water Bearer, who lives today as the astrological symbol of rebellion
and eccentricity. As with Imbolc, there are always at least two versions
of the story with Aquarius. Is it an air sign or a water sign? (It's an
air sign with water themes and imagery.) Is it ruled by, or associated
with Saturn or Uranus? (Traditionally Saturn rules it, but in modern astrology
most astrologers use Uranus.) Do those wavy lines represent air or water?
(All waves are waves of energy.) Is the Water Bearer a male figure or
female? (Probably male, but usually represented female.)
Aquarius, known to be among the oldest named configurations of stars,
stands, according to Catherine Tenant, "with his foot on the head
of the great Southern fish, into whose mouth his waters pour." She
traces the god Aquarius back to Babylon, noting that he rules over a huge
area of the sky where are gathered the Southern fish, the dolphin, the
zodiac fishes (Pisces), the mighty River Eridanus (the River of Night)
and Cetus the sea monster. These ancient waters and their primal creatures
were "seen as the source of life, through which the Sun passed during
the rainy season."
In the hands
of Aquarius, says Tenant, is the Norma Nilotica, the stick used
to measure the waters of the Nile River, an important indicator of agricultural
success, and hence of survival. In these same rainy days of winter, half-a-world
away, the Celts were busy with agricultural matters of their own: doing
the earliest preparations for planting in coming spring. A feast marked
the waning of winter. Germans in Europe and Indians in the New World
were taking stock of how much remained of their winter rations. The ability
to manage their food supply was critical to their survival through the
remaining weeks of cold.
Pagan to Catholic
such a powerful holiday for the Celts that the Catholics seem to have
piled meaning after meaning on it either to fully co-opt the event, or
to obscure the truth. Imbolc coincides with the Catholic holiday Candlemas.
Though in early February the days were growing noticeably longer, this
was still a dark time, and candles were the only means of lighting the
long nights. If there were enough candles, a celebration of light was
held, with each window of a house being lit on this night. Candles also
held religious value, and this was traditionally the time that the priests
of the church took stock of their supply and cleansed their altars. The
candle association reaches over to Ireland, where at this time people
celebrated a feast in honor of the goddess Brigit (later St. Brigit),
a hearth deity whose realm included the fires of purification.
of church lore know this is also the Feast of the Purification of Mary,
held 40 days after the birth of Jesus. This was the Christian interpretation
of Mary observing the Jewish tradition of returning to sanctuary and being
purified in the Mikvah. Mikvah is the origin of the Christian practice
of baptism. The cleansing waters of baptism may also be linked to the
Water Bearer symbol of Aquarius.
and purification are the recurrent and symbolic themes of the midwinter
festivals," writes Donna Henes in her book Celestially Auspicious
Occasions. "The concept of prophesy is drawn from the foresight
and faith that spring, in all its verdant glory, is on its predictable
way, even amid the hard, white winter. Purification suggests careful preparations
for its coming."
Sun is crossing Aquarius, most of our time is still shrouded in darkness,
and we remain, for a while, in the belly of the stars of night. We might
be tempted to look to the meanings of Aquarius to help understand this
fascinating convergence of holidays and themes, but it seems rather more
appropriate to apply mystical and agricultural folklore back to Aquarius,
reminding ourselves that its waters bring purification and moisten the
land for the first growths of spring. And to keep in mind that we really
are in the belly of the stars, gestated, born and living in a mysterious
Research: Jennifer Singer, Carol Burkhart, Sean Springer and Debbe Faulhaber
at Planet Waves Digital Media.
information on Imbolc, see Waverly Fitzgerald's article "Celebrating
Candlemas" or Mike Nichols' "Wheel
of the Year: Candlemas."