Every early and late, every dark, every light.
I am shielded.
Brigid my comrade-woman, my maker of song,
Brigid my helping-woman, Brigid my guide.
In late January, with the sun showing up now and again and the weather warming(ish), I’ve been pacing the garden scanning for color. Not yet, not yet…but spring truly has begun her cautious flirtation with winter. Snowdrops will be the first shy coquettes to appear, followed by miniature Siberian irises, such a dark, disappearing purple that searching for them is like a mushroom hunt.
In February we teeter at the seasonal gate. And standing there is Brigid, Triple Muse. Celtic threefold mother of poetry, healing and smithcraft (her name means “bear”). February 1 is her feast day, known as Imbolc, celebrating The Lactation of the Ewes, an ancient festival of purification and rejoicing, while the giddy month fluctuates between winter and spring. Today Brigid returns from the underworld.
A Scottish charm still recited to Brigid into the 20th century was meant to heal a burn, yet its leaping invocation from fire to frost also characterizes this mercurial time.
Three ladies came from the East,
One with fire and two with frost.
Out with thee fire!
In with thee frost!
Christians adopted Imbolc, moved it forward a day and called it Candlemas in celebration of St. Brigid. Goddess and saint share the same attributes. Blessing newborns and fire and water, Brigid brings life to the dead of winter and mediates the month’s travails as it labors toward the vernal equinox. In her Christian aspect as Saint Bride of Ireland, Scotland and England, she is known as the “Midwife of Christ.” When a Highland woman was in labor, the midwife stood at the doorstep (called the fad-buinn or sole-sod), clutching the jambs with her hands, beseeching the help of the goddess-saint.
Meanwhile, Imbolc celebrates the birth of lambs and calves. A certain trail through farmland where my friend Shireen and I walk is dotted with calves in early February.
In Ireland, a protective charm in the form of a straw rope with crosses on it, a Brigid’s Girdle, was worn on Imbolc — the word means “surrounding the belly,” and the belt encouraged fertility. Brigid surrounds and midwives the garden, nurses it as the plants labor and crown.
Pre-Christian Brigid and her latter-day saint persona each preside over art, poetry and beauty. It is said that Brigid invented whistling and when her son died, she invented keening and the extemporaneous poetry that ascends from wailing women women. Some of the most famous Irish verses have come from from women in mourning.
In India, Saraswati corresponds to Brigid as goddess of speech, learning and the arts. She, too, is celebrated as the cold winter is ending, at the festival of Vasant Panchami. Like Brigid, Saraswati is a threefold goddess: her sisters are Parvati, goddess of righteousness and Lakshmi, goddess of beauty, fortune and prosperity, who rose from the Ocean of Milk (and is honored in autumn at the Diwali festival). As straw dolls are made for Brigid, so clay figurines of the goddess Saraswati are processed and immersed in rivers or water tanks. Like Brigid, Saraswai attends all waters. She is the spirit of the river Saraswati.
Saraswati is called Mother of the Vedas. As poetic muse, Brigid inspires the Song of Amergin and the “I am” form in which the singer subsumes all being.
I am the womb of every holt;
I am the blaze of every hill;
I am the queen of all hives;
I am the shield for every head;
I am the vault of every hope.
–Song of Amergin
The god Krishna manifests similarly in the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita.
…I am the whirlwind and the moon among the planets,
I am the thunderbolt and sacred fig tree,
I am a lion among beasts, an eagle among birds,
I am victory, I am effort, I am passion
I am the cow of plenty.
“I am what is around me,” wrote the poet Wallace Stevens. The “I am” poetic impulse identifies us with Nature and seals us to the land. We are where we live. There is reciprocity between person and place: I am. We (almost) become those aspects of Nature with which we interact. We are defined by how we interact with Nature: I am my ecology.
Biodiversity = a distinct I am. Excitation = I am. Awe = I am. Veneration for Earth = I am. Gardening = I am.
Last night, a thick snowfall. We woke to a white world on Imbolc. Tonight we’ll eat warm milky foods by candlelight, write “I am” poems together and tomorrow we’ll check the news about the groundhog’s shadow.