Brigid, Bear and the Woods and Trees of Imbolc
Imbolc the fire festival and Brigid of the fire, flowing waters, poetry and more. A triple aspect goddess of maiden, mother and crone. Before she became a goddess of agriculture tending cattle and crops she was the ancient goddess of the flowing milk of animals in their dens giving birth. Following on from the Step By Step Tree Teaching and Nature Connection for Imbolc.
About these wild wisdom soul stories. You take this as you wish, as a mythic exploration, spiritual gift, positive psychological programming whatever … but I offer it to you in the hope that it will serve you some good purpose. The tree teachings, forest bathing meditations and wild wisdom soul stories are not pre-planned, I don’t have the year ahead mapped out with neat little diagrams and to do lists and pre-prepared old last years’ materials. No ... these are the fresh green shoots of inspirations sent forth from the trees. I don’t care what your belief system is … in times of mass extinction, and climate change, my conviction is that if we connect personally with trees and nature this can only serve both us and the #earth well … I hope you agree. These stories are ancient but they are as relevant now as they ever were. They come alive when we interact with them. They are the history and archaeology of nature, culture, of our souls and so much more. But they are not dead relics they are living right now. We are a world communiTree. When we connect with wisdom from across the world we create new opportunities for learning. Each being and story featured each week is of course a brief glimpse. If you feel drawn to a particular one you could study it in greater depth and pay homage to the culture within which it arose.
The Old Grandmother
For Brigid is a strand of rush woven in time stretching back to the wandering hunter gatherers who walked light upon the earth. She is midwife to birthing animals and the returning light. To a large extent this ancient goddess is overlaid with Christian imagery and the mythology of farmers but if we dig a little deeper what shall we find? For this we must look to the life cycle of an animal with whom we have shared kinship for millennia. Take a step back, leave your mother and grandmother behind. Travel back to the time of the first grandmothers. Who is it that stands there?
In the northern climes Bear first emerges after the long darkness in late January or early February. A living breathing life climbing out of the ground. It is in late winter that the first shoots emerge such as wild garlic also known as Bear Garlic. It’s pungent shoots acting as a digestive aid to the bears digestion halted since the onset of winter.
To think of bear is to think of the trees, for bear loves the woods. The trees are a source of shelter and food. If they cannot find a cave to den in, bears will dig a hollow in the ground covering it with branches to make a safe dry place to sleep. They eat the fruits, berries and nuts the trees provide. Bears still roam far and wide north, south, east and west thought sadly they became extinct in Britain (about the tenth century) and Ireland (it is thought a bit earlier).
Some think bears hibernate but this is not accurate. They actually go into a deep sleep but will wake up if disturbed. During a mild winter the males sometimes wake and leave their dens for brief periods. A bear that leaves its den in late autumn and winter will often walk in its own tracks to return to it. Even in deep winter Bear is dangerous capable of waking instantaneously and giving chase to intruders. Hush! Say the hunters. Do not speak of Bear lest they hear you and become angry.
The female bears give birth in mid to late January emerging from their dens in early spring when the warming sun melts frozen ground. Bear mothers are alert and attentive to the birth of and caring for their cubs. Black bear cubs remain with their devoted mother for 18 months while brown bears and polar bears stay for two and half years.
Her breasts will be swollen with milk for the tiny bear cubs the lie waiting in the den for her return. If the hunters should come across a female bear that had cubs these would be adopted and raised in the village should the mother have been killed. Emerging from a den dug in the earth, bearing new life in the form of cubs, she appeared from the land itself. She breathed life into the dead of winter, which lost its grip as the stirrings of spring whispered. All of these qualities fed our ancestors’ spiritual beliefs, creating myths, ritual, and practices to live by, which also marked the great cycle of the seasons.
The power of bears and bear shamanism is documented in all the circumpolar cultures – Siberian, Alaskan, Scandinavian, Nordic, Celtic, Germanic cultures as well as the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, and also Asia down to Japan. Among other books, The Festival of Brigid: Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman, Ó Catháin explores the folklore associated with her revealing a continuous link stretching back to shamanic practice 4,000 years ago to early bear cults.
Brigid The Transformer
Brigid is goddess of fire, the returning light. It is round the fire that ancient stories and poems were spoken. Later she becomes goddess of the alchemy of metal melted in the forge. She is the one who makes her mark in the dead fire. In past times the hearth ashes were spread out the night before Imbolc and would be inspected next morning to see of the goddess had left some kind of a message. This act was called ‘smooring the hearth’.
In the ashes of your life what tracks are left behind and where do they lead to? Where in the darkness is new life? You might not be able to see it but it will come. Perhaps with a roar like a mighty beast or softly on small velvet baby paws.
Fire is transforming. Many ancient peoples cremated their dead on funeral pyres stacked with trees. In death came the light of the Fire, and this, ashes, soot, are marks of transformation and ritual. This is where ancient stories like Cinderella come from. When we think of fire we should also think of the trees because without wood there is no fire. It was also tradition at this time to burn birch in the hearth.
In the Celtic calendar (a modern invention) it should come as no surprise that birch is followed by Rowan at this time of year. The ghostly white bark glows out in the dark and if you see a rowan you can’t help but notice that its’ bark has a warm sheen to it in the sun. Cold followed by warmth, night by day, dark by light, silver followed by gold. Rowan in folklore is known as the tree of protection. Many are the tales that feature its deep magic.
Milk Flow and Ashes
So, open your windows to the world, don’t abandon the ashes of the old. Spread them out and see what tracks appear, what messages are waiting for you. Then gather them up and make a clean sweep. Though it is cold and the days yet still short, the first tiny flowers have appeared on the winter scoured land. Look for the beauty in small things. In February the sap is just starting to rise in the trees mirroring the sun rising higher and higher in the sky. This is the time when the milk starts to flow, and, the milk of human kindness perhaps. We can hope.
The final article to accompany this Imbolc series is Blessings for Brigid and the trees and prayers for us, coming up next.
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I live with a disability and I'm passionate about enabling people to 'Live With Art And Soul.'
I'm the founder of Ancient and Sacred Trees, an MA Archaeology student, artist, teacher, healer and land guide. I love trees, history and the healing power of Mother Nature and sacred connection.