Tending to shovels
dreaming of angels.
Tending to shovels
dreaming of angels.
The celebration of Imbolc is always a bit of a puzzle. Here in the Midwest, at the beginning of February we are still in winter’s deep freeze, with plenty more snow on the way.
And yet. There has to be some hope of spring. Enter Imbolc, the cross quarter fire festival that should help motivate us. This festival is often underplayed and really shouldn’t be. We all need a pick me up from winter doldrums. And besides, it is also a help to anyone suffering from post-Christmas depression 🙂
What It Is
The word ‘Imbolc’ (pronounced ‘immolk’ – silent b) literally means ‘Ewe’s milk’. It also can mean ‘In the belly’. Thus Imbolc traditionally marks the lambing season, the laying of seed, pregnancies (both physical and metaphysical) and new beginnings.
Imbolc is like a breath of fresh air, the very first stirrings of spring that help get us through the leftover dark days. Imbolc marks the midway point between Yule and Ostara, a cross-quarter Sabbat. It is celebrated on February 1st and 2nd.
The goddess of Imbolc is Brighde (pronounced ‘Breed’. Also called Brigid or Bride.) She is a fire goddess of spring and fertility. The goddess Brighde was apparently so well loved that the Christians adopted her as Saint Bridget. Bridget of Kildare is a patron saint of Ireland. Her feast day is (you guessed it!) Feb. 1. Bridget is, interestingly, also the patron saint of milk maids, dairy farmers and midwives.
The goddess Brighde rules in unison with the winter crone Cailleach. (Pronounced ‘Kay-lek’.) Cailleach (also called The Blue Hag) rules from Samhain till Beltane. Brighde and Cailleach are thought to be opposite representations of the same entity. February 2nd is sort of a stand off – Cailleach is still in power for winter, but Brighde is making her presence known through tiny stirrings, underground bulbs, sap inside trees and pregnant ewes.
Legend has it that on February 2nd Cailleach takes a walk through the forest at sunrise.
If Cailleach wants to prolong the winter, she will make a bright sunny day – a teaser of sorts – to remind people that, while she may allow a bit of sun, she is still in control of winter darkness. Thus we are granted one day of reprieve, but watch out – cold days will follow. Alternately, Cailleach may choose to make February 2nd gray and sunless. This (confusingly!) means she will send an early spring.
Cailleach’s method serves to remind us, nothing is as it appears to be. In fact, things are often the opposite of what they seem.
Groundhogs, Candles and Farmers
This story might sound familiar. You may recall the ground hog. Punxsutawney Phil. Yeah him!
If he sees his shadow on the morning of February 2nd, indicating a sunny day, we are in for six more weeks of winter. If he does not see his shadow, spring will come early.
The Christian feast of Candlemas also is celebrated on February 2nd. Candlemas commemorates the day Jesus was brought into the temple for presentation and purification, according to Jewish tradition. Some people believe this was the church’s version of Imbolc, Jesus being the Light of the world, and candles representing that light.
Interestingly, farmers seemed to have had their own ideas about the Cailleach/ ground hog prediction:
“If Candlemas day be sunny and bright, winter will have another flight; if Candlemas day be cloudy with rain, winter is gone and won’t come again.”
— Farmer’s Proverb
Anyone who lives in the Midwestern United States knows that no matter WHAT happens on February 2nd, we are in for six more weeks of winter. Maybe more. Forget Cailleach and Punxsutawney Phil. Winter is long, snow-covered, devastating and cold. Period. Nonetheless, we can celebrate Imbolc to help us perk up.
What can we do to honor Imbolc?
Imbolc is a festival of light, and candles should be included in any altar. White candles are great, as they signify purity. Some other traditional symbols of Imbolc are: white feathers, the swan and snowdrop flowers.
Traditional colors are white, blue and lavender. For stone circles, use milky quartz, moonstone, lapis, turquoise and amethyst. Amethyst is the birth stone of February, great for maintaining inner strength and developing intuition.
Imbolc is also a great time to plant an indoor herb garden. Basil, dill and lavender can be started inside in bio-degradable planters. Later, after the last frost, the planters can be moved outside to begin your spring garden.
On February 2nd take a walk in nature. Notice the emerging greenery, even though most of it will be hidden. Pay homage to Cailleach and Brighde. Set intentions for personal goals and growth as the new year continues to unfold.
Oh yeah, and you can always watch ‘Groundhog Day.’ In this thought provoking movie, Bill Muray gets stuck in a time warp, reliving the same day over and over.
Not only is this movie hilariously funny, but it helps us realize – it’s never too late to change, to begin again, or even to start the day over. Until we get it right 🙂
Today we celebrate the life of Lewis Carroll, best known for his books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass. He was an author, mathematician, Oxford don, part time babysitter, photographer, inventor, and a bit of an all-around inscrutable person.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you already know of my big obsession with Alice in Wonderland. I have long been fascinated by its white rabbits, mirrors, painted rosebushes, flamingo croquet, and the man who brought all these tales to life.
His given name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, but I will call him Lewis, since he is best known by his pen name Lewis Carroll. He was born on January 27, 1832 in Daresbury, Cheshire, England. Yes, Cheshire! No evidence as to whether or not he had a cat 🙂
Carroll’s father was a conservative minister in the Church of England, one in a long line of Dodgson men who had respectable positions in the Anglican clergy. Lewis was home-schooled until the age of twelve and developed an early love for reading amd writing. He attended grammar school at Rugby in Warwickshire, and began study at Oxford University in 1850. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics and graduated with high honors. In 1855 he won the Mathematical Lectureship for the college of Christ Church at Oxford, which he held for the next 26 years.
In 1856, a man named Henry Liddell took a position as Dean at Christ Church. Henry arrived in town with his young family, all of whom would eventually serve to influence Lewis’ writing. Lewis became close friends with Liddell’s wife Lorina and their children, particularly the three sisters Lorina, Edith, and Alice Liddell.
It was this Alice Liddell who served as the inspiration and namesake for the fictional Alice. Lewis frequently took the children on outings. It was on one such outing, a rowing trip, that the girls begged to hear a story; the result eventually became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
It is said that Carroll never intended to publish Alice’s adventures, but his friend, fairy-tale author George MacDonald convinced him to do so after Macdonald’s own children read the stories and and loved them. Good thing they did! Can’t imagine a world without Alice.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published in 1865. The book quickly became an international hit, and was liked and promoted by Queen Victoria herself! In 1871, Carroll published the sequel Through the Looking-Glass. The Alice books are still among the most popular in the world. Reportedly they are also among the most quoted, second only to the Bible and Shakespeare. And many of those quotes are really phenomenal, full of wisdom and humor. Some of my favorites:
“I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir. Because I am not myself, you see?”
“I give up,” Alice replied. “What’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter.
“I wish the creatures wouldn’t be so easily offended,” Alice thought to herself.
“Shall I never get any older than I am now? That will be a comfort, in one way — never to be an old woman. But then — always to have lessons to learn? Oh, I shouldn’t like THAT!”
“How am I to get in?” asked Alice. “Are you to get in AT ALL?” said the Footman. “That’s the first question, you know.” It was, no doubt; only Alice did not like to be told so.
“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”
Lewis Carroll was also an amateur photographer. He ran in artistic circles with pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.
He took this photo of Alice Liddell. dated 1868. Alice would have been about six.
Years later, Julia Margaret Cameron photographed the grown up Alice.
Despite the fact that the Alice books brought him fame and fortune, Carroll never left his position as don at Oxford. Other than traveling a bit throughout Europe, he seems to have lived modestly. He wrote a few more books — The Hunting of the Snark, a fantastical “nonsense” poem, and Sylvie and Bruno, a fairy tale which satirized English society. Neither had the astounding success of the Alice stories. He also wrote several treatises on mathematics, which he published under his real name, Charles Dodgson. His writings included works of geometry, linear and matrix algebra, mathematical logic and recreational mathematics. Yes, complicated stuff!
Carroll/ Dodgson’s mathematical contributions are noteworthy. Apparently, he was exploring The Matrix long before Keanu Reeves.
At Oxford he developed a theory known as the “Dodgson Condensation”, a method of evaluating mathematical determinants and patterns within equations. His work attracted renewed interest in the late 20th century when mathematicians Martin Gardner and William Warren Bartley reevaluated his contributions to symbolic logic. This led them to the “Alternating Sign Matrix” conjecture, now a theorem. The discovery of additional ciphers that Carroll had constructed showed that he had employed sophisticated mathematical ideas in their creation. Perhaps he understood that through mathematics and chemistry, humankind may eventually reach the kind of alternate worlds he created for Alice.
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Lewis Carroll died of pneumonia on 14 January 1898 at the age of 65.
Some Fun Facts:
Happy Birthday Lewis!
“They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight,
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honey’d middle of the night,
If ceremonies due they did aright.” — John Keats
Single ladies, you might want to pay special attention to your dreams tonight. Legend has it that after midnight on the Eve of Saint Agnes Day (January 21st) young women are likely to dream of their future husband.
Of course, you will have to perform a few rituals in order to make this happen.
First, take one sprig of rosemary and one sprig of thyme.
Sprinkle them with water. Put the rosemary in your left shoe and the thyme in your right. Place each shoe on opposite sides of your bed.
Next, make sure you go to bed without any supper. (Apparently hunger is a good state to induce psychic dreaming.) Then, take off all your clothes, get in bed and lie supine with your hands underneath your pillow. Look up to the heavens and do not look behind you. Before falling asleep say,
“Saint Agnes, that’s to lovers kind
Come ease the trouble of my mind.”
Your future husband will then appear in your dream, kiss you and join you for the dinner you so devoutly skipped hours before.
This is an interesting tradition and it got me wondering: Just who was Saint Agnes and what qualifies her for this type of husband dreaming?
According to tradition, Agnes was a member of the Roman nobility. She was born in 291 AD and raised in one of the few early Catholic families, long before Constantine decided to convert the entire Roman empire to Christianity.
Agnes was a beautiful girl from a wealthy family and therefore considered a great catch for any man, since she had both good looks and money. By the time she was twelve years old, Agnes was considered to be of marrying age. ( I know! Horrendous by our standards, but quite normal for the 3rd century.) Many young men of noble status came calling but Agnes chose not to wed and was determined to keep her virginity. The guys, insulted by Agnes’ devotion to sexual purity, submitted her name to the authorities as a follower of Christianity. This of course led to her arrest.
The Prefect Sempronius (head honcho) condemned Agnes to be dragged naked through the streets to a brothel. Legend has it that as she prayed, her hair grew long enough to cover her entire body. (She at least had it easier than Cersei Lannister!)
It was also said that men attempted to rape her in the street, but all of them were immediately struck blind.
One of these men happened to be the son of Prefect Sempronius. He was struck not only blind but dead. However, he was revived after Agnes prayed for him. Even so, Agnes was still put on trial and sentenced to be burned at the stake. She was bound, gagged and tied down, but miraculously, the bundle of wood beneath her would not burn! The officer in charge then drew his sword and without blinking an eyelash, promptly beheaded her.
Agnes died on January 21, 304 AD, at the tender age of thirteen.
Perhaps you noticed a bit of irony here… Why would a virgin martyr, famous for purity and chastity, be qualified to predict the future husbands of young girls? Some ideas about this were clarified by author Robert Ellsberg in his book Blessed Among All Women: Saints Prophets and Witnesses For Our Time.
Ellsberg states: “In the story of Agnes the opposition is not between sex and virginity. The conflict is between a young woman’s power in Christ to define her own identity versus a patriarchal culture’s claim to identify her in terms of her sexuality.”
According to the view shared by Roman culture at the time, if Agnes would not agree to be one man’s wife, she might as well be every man’s whore. (Hence the trip to the brothel.)
Ellsberg further claims: “Agnes did not choose death. She chose not to worship the gods of her culture. …Espoused to Christ, she was beyond the power of any man to ‘have his way with her’. ‘Virgin’ in this case is another way of saying Free Woman.” It may be that because Agnes made a strong but painful choice, she was given the power to reveal a choice to others.
Saint Agnes’ story has inspired many artists including William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais.
In the winter of 1819, poet John Keats wrote one of his most famous poems “The Eve of Saint Agnes”. The poem tells a medieval tale of a forbidden tryst between lovers Madeline and Porphyro, who, like Romeo and Juliet are both victims of their families ancient rivalry. The original text was reportedly so erotic that Keats’ editors made him tone it down before the poem could be published. Read the full text HERE.
If you decide to do an Agnes ritual and find a future husband on your horizon, please let me know! Here are some further folkloric interpretations of Saint Agnes Dreams:
Happy dreaming and happy Saint Agnes Day.
Ireland’s banshee, now singing with angels.
Hip shaker, hit maker, America’s king.
His birth came about by trickery and subterfuge, although the boy knew it not.
A birth by accident, a birth of inconsequence. Or so all the world would think. It was an arrangement of my Uncle Merlin and the plan was thus: That I, the Duchess Igraine of Tintagel should lie in the adulterous bed of King Uther Pendragon, so that I be the vessel to bear a son. His name would be Arthur.
O now, you must understand. The part about adultery scarcely vexed me; my marriage to the Duke of Tintagel was an arranged and loveless one. The bed of Uther Pendragon was not my first straying and would not be my last. I was fully compliant in my dalliance. Yet for the sake of my honor, Merlin thought it best that the bards which would tell this story say I had been bewitched. The official version? Uther Pendragon appeared to me in the form of my husband the Duke. Therefore when I laid with him I was judged innocent in all wrongdoing.
O that was rich! One cannot bewitch a witch! My Uncle Merlin knew this better than anyone.
Heretofore my husband, the Duke of Tintagel had been of stout health. Now suddenly he took ill and died promptly. As a widow with child I had no choice but to wed Uther Pedragon. I then became Queen Igraine of castle Camelot.
The birth was easy. But what I could not abide, what I could not forgive, was that the baby was wrenched from my arms the very moment he uttered breath! I barely had the chance to hold him before Merlin spirited him away, insisting I was not fit to raise him, and that his future tasks were not to be influenced by the likes of me.
Without conversation nor consultation, it was decided Arthur be raised by a local lord, one Sir Ector.
“Now Igraine,” Merlin bid me, once the deed was done. “You need not worry for your son. His every want shall be provided for, as my Lord Ector leads a life of prosperity and gain. Arthur shall have an older brother named Kai and a mother of great gentleness, the Lady Ector. He shall be fed, clothed and schooled properly. It is essential he live among common men.”
Foolish wizard! Could Merlin not see that a woman’s greatest loss was that of her own child? His was a silly scheme, for I knew my son Arthur was like no other boy! He needed no guidance from the common man, for his true nature would allow him to encompass all. His bloodline was mine; that of Avalon. His schooling should thus involve the magick of Avalon.
I vowed revenge upon my Uncle Merlin. He’d pay for his injustice! My visits to Avalon would ensure this. I studied under tutelage of the Lady of the Lake, imploring the water and rocks to bring me power.
Fourteen years passed, and they were fourteen years of war and devastation. The Saxon armies invaded our territory time and time again. My husband Uther, weary of the constant battle, finally took ill and passed away, leaving his kingdom up for grabs among rogue warlords and enemies.
As king’s consort I managed best as I could. The men bickered among themselves, calling privy council after privy council to determine who should be the next king. Arthur should have been immediately declared so. But because of Merlin’s harebrained scheme, he had been raised as a ward, away from his true home. If he were to return to Camelot now and claim the throne, none would believe him.
The people of Britain at that time were a superstitious lot. They believed in marvels and miracles, great quests of honor and the divine right of princes. It was for this reason that I devised a scheme which would place my son upon the throne without doubt or question.
The Bishop of Canterbury, influenced by my Uncle Merlin, deemed a joust should be held to determine the new king. It would take place on New Year’s Day, 443, the year of Our Lord.
This, in and of itself, was a most outrageous and foolish notion! Jousting was a putrid and violent sport; it brought no good to anyone. Within it, perfectly capable and healthy men were maimed and wounded, leaving them disabled and unfit for battles against our true enemies! Jousts were held so that jeering and bloodthirsty crowds could name what they thought ‘a hero’. He that could withstand a horse’s back and the jab of a lance.
“But Arthur will surely win the joust,” Merlin insisted. “It is a most excellent plan!”
“Arthur is a boy of fifteen!” I spat. “I’ll not see him crippled in a joust. It is a most preposterous plan!”
I objected vehemently. Yet as a woman, my word held no weight. Instead I used my own sorcery to produce a most ingenious scheme, one that no one would question.
The people of Camelot were obsessed with weaponry and feats of strength. I reasoned that there must be some deed which could measure one’s power, yet bear no damage to another. A deed which would test a man’s ability over nature, over fear, over all elements. A test which would show, beyond any doubt, that the man able to perform it would indeed be the new king.
I retreated to my crystal cave for a period of deep meditation.
There, among the rocks and water, I called upon my ancestors to guide me. I consulted the goddess Cerridwen, the Morrigan, Viviane and the tribe of eternal Wise Women. Finally, the idea came to me. I told no one of my plan.
Outside the field where the great joust was to be held, I created a boulder. Upon that boulder I placed an anvil of pure iron. (All this time I relied upon my own witchery, for no mortal woman could have lifted such a boulder, nor the anvil.) I then fashioned a great silver sword, its blade sharp enough to slice the head of a boar, its handle heavy as the anvil itself. Within the anvil I inscribed the following directions:
“Whosoever can pull this sword from its stone shall be the undoubted, indisputable, indubitable King of Britain, deemed to rule for his lifetime and never questioned of his authority.”
New Years Day dawned, the morning of the joust. Spectators gathered. They stared with gaping mouths at the sword in the stone.
“Can it be?” they muttered among themselves. “The new king will be decided by pulling a sword from a stone? Such a simple task?”
“Simple task indeed!” I retorted hotly. “Go on then! Try your hand at it and see. Whoso among you dares to attempt this feat?”
One by one the men tried. There were knights and lords, men of great status as well as serfs and peasants who stood in line and attempted to lift the sword. Each effort was for naught.
Finally, Sir Ector rode up with his son Kai and Arthur in tow.
“Will you attempt the task, my Lord?” I said coyly to Ector, for – goddess help me – I could not resist a good prank.
Eagerly the man placed his grip upon the sword’s handle. Twist and tug as he might, the sword would not budge. Sweat burst from his brow until finally he gave up. “It will not move!” he yelped exasperatedly. “The thing is stuck like an oak to the soil.”
“Mayhap your son Kai shall attempt it,” I said, barely hiding my smirk.
Kai groped and toiled. The stubborn blade would not budge. He too broke a sweat before declaring, “It is an impossible task! One hundred men could not lift it!”
“And what of young Arthur?” I asked.
“If I and Kai could not lift it, all the more impossible it will be for Arthur,” said Sir Ector. “For I am a knighted lord; I have seen battle. My ward Arthur, abandoned at birth, has lead only the life of a farm hand. He knows nothing of weaponry.”
“Oh doesn’t he?” I chided. I could hold my anger no longer.
“For your information,” quothe I, “he was NOT abandoned at birth! Ever did you think he was taken from his mother’s arms, through no will nor decision of her own? Ever did you think he was intended for greater purposes, such that you, Sir Ector, could not possibly know?”
Ector looked at me dumbfounded, for it was unseemly for a widowed queen to speak so boldly. I cared not what they thought! I then took Arthur by the hand and helped him down from his horse. “You will try it,” I commanded.
Arthur’s eyes narrowed, then popped in recognition as he faced me. “Is it you?” he asked softly. “You are my… Mother?”
None had known of my secret visits to Ector’s farm. None had known, save Arthur and myself, that in the still of the night I had come to him. Together we’d board a small boat and I’d take him to Avalon, so that he could learn of his true bloodline and power.
Perhaps before that moment, Arthur had thought those visits were mere dreams and imagination. Now he was to learn: imagination can lead to the making of a king.
“Of course it is me,” I said calmly. “Your Uncle Merlin had other plans for you, but it was I who knew your noble calling and prepared you for it. Now! Do not hesitate to do your duty!”
Within seconds Arthur had lifted the sword from the stone.
For the doubters among them, Arthur replaced the sword several times. Each time the anvil sealed around it like an iron prison. Many others made attempts at lifting it, each to no avail. Yet Arthur lifted it several times with ease. Finally the crowd conceded; it was Arthur who was meant to rule as King of Britain.
Merlin cowered in a corner, hidden by the crowd. I went to him.
“Do not worry, Uncle,” I said. “While I do not forgive you, I will not torture you. I ask now that you return to Avalon for schooling. You see, your magic has always been imperfect. You have silly ideas. If Arthur is ever to rule as a worthy king, he must not be influenced by your dualistic nature. Therefore I banish you from Camelot.”
He had no choice but to leave.
From that day forward, per my request, all jousting was banned in the kingdom.
As for my son, he became the once and future king, ushering in an era of great peace and prosperity. He ruled with wisdom, kindness and grace, wedding his Queen Guinevere, and appointing twelve worthy knights to his round table.