Imbolc: Of Ewe's Milk, Brigit and Swans

Half-way between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, the astrological point of Imbolc heralds the first stirrings of spring. Delicate bell-shaped snowdrops push up through Earth as hard as iron at this the coldest point of winter, and candles are lit for the returning Sun. The festival was celebrated with ewe’s milk, the first fresh food of the year and produced as lambs appear from the ‘tupping’ at Samhain. Indeed, the feast probably gets its name from the old Irish word imbolg, meaning in ‘the belly’, referring to the pregnancy of the ewes.

This Celtic festival belongs to the mother goddess Brigit, daughter of the Dagda and in her triple aspect patron of healers, smiths and poetry, seen as guardian of the oral tradition by which all sacred knowledge was mediated. Brigit was sometimes depicted as a milk maid, milking the sacred cow, the bringer of nourishment and plenty but taking what is needed, never too much. In this role as ecological protectress, or Sovereignty goddess, she is the maiden aspect of the Cailleach, the hag who ruled over winter but was transformed into a beautiful maiden at spring, bringing rains and fertility as the Bride.

One of her most significant roles was as guardian of the wells, seen by the Celts as the sacred gateways to the Otherworld from which the source of spiritual as well as physical nourishment arises. Imbolc was therefore traditionally a time to dress wells and honour the sacred gift which they bestowed. Many wells in Britain still bear her name, most famously St Brides of Fleet Street in London, though there are also many local well goddesses around the British Isles, for example Sulis at Bath and Coventina in the North. Churches were often built over these ancient healing sites and this way, Brigit was subsumed into Celtic Christianity and became Saint Brigid, taking  1st February as her feast day and establishing a sanctuary on the ancient site at Kildare. Here  nineteen nines tended the Sacred Flame all year, with Brigit herself said to come on the 20th night. This sacred fire was kept alive from at least the four century through the early medieval period, until abolished by Henry VIII in Tudor times.

As goddess of spring and new growth, Brigit was often associated with childbirth and in a curious mingling of pagan and Christian traditions, she became known as the foster-mother of Jesus. According to one legend, when Christ was lost in the Temple she helped Mary to find him by making an augury as follows:

‘The augury of Brigit made for her foster-son. She made a pipe within her palms;

‘I see the Foster-son by the well’s side, teaching the people assuredly.’ [1]

Candlemas, the Christian equivalent of Imbolc, was associated with the purification of the Virgin Mary forty days after giving birth to the infant Jesus, later known as Churching, the time when women were allowed to resume normal life after birth. This custom could have evolved from Judaism with its emphasis on ritual cleansing, and indeed it has also been suggested that another origin of the name Imbolc was derived from imb-fholc meaning to wash or clean oneself. Today we often feel need to spring clean our houses at this time, to sort through what is needed and what can be released in preparation for receiving the new life experiences of the coming year. It is highly likely that origins of both customs are even more ancient and could be linked to a proto-Indo-European word meaning both ‘milk’ and ‘cleansing’, potential evidence for a deep-rooted association.[2]

This could also explain why Brigit the Milk Maid was also linked to the celestial stream of milk that flowed with abundance across the night sky, the Milky Way. As ever, there is an ecological aspect to this myth, for February was the time of year when the swans started to depart for the Arctic after their winter sojourn further south, flying overhead as the constellation Cygnus does along the Milky Way. This would have been an awesome site, flocks of large winged birds flying north in huge formations, off to the mysterious north, unexplored lands of ice and fire.

As guardians and keepers of these mysteries, swans were known as one of the sacred birds of Britain and many customs today enshrine their importance to the land – for example, the Swan Upping ceremonies conducted each year on the Thames. As a result of their mysterious flight patterns, they were also considered to be threshold creatures, guardians of the mysteries of the celestial world, as psychopomps, said to accompany souls on the journey to the afterlife. The swan song, the mythical melody of the dying swan, has long been symbolic of the final act of the soul before its departure. Their association with the constellation Cygnus, gateway to the Dark Rift of the Milky Way and guardian of the mysteries of the North has very ancient origins, and flutes in the shape of swans have been found in Ma’lta Siberia that date back 25,000 years. It is also possible that ancient temples such as Gobekli Tepe in SW Turkey were aligned to Deneb, one of the stars of Cygnus, which was circumpolar during the last Ice Age and seen as a portal to the sky world, potentially as a source of cosmic creation.[3] We are only just now beginning to understand the intricate and ancient mythology of Cygnus the Swan.


[1] Caitlin Matthews, 1989, ‘The Celtic Tradition’

[2] Sharon Blackie, 2020, ‘This Mythic Life’

[3] Andrew Collins, 2018, ‘The Cygnus Key’

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