The festival that follows Samhain in the Celtic calendar is Oimelc (pronounced Im-melg), to be celebrated from the evening of Feb 1st in the Northern Hemisphere (August 1st in the Southern Hemisphere). Though this time has since become associated with black magic, the gathering of witches and the Sabbat, Oimelc was traditionally a lambing festival to welcome the coming of spring and new life.
Oimelc, the Quickening
At Oimelc, Brigid, the ancient Irish goddess of the hearth, fire, craft and poetry was invited to visit and bless each house for the coming season of spring and summer. Her blessings would quicken the life force, bringing creative power to the land and the hearth and to the minds, hearts and spirits of the people. Later, Oimelc became known as Brigantia, the festival of Brigid. Traditionally, women would gather at Brigantia and ascend into the skies on magical horses, brooms made of Rowan, Ash and Birch. They would fly to the mountain tops and join in circle to honour the Lady, Anu, Queen of the Heights whose ecstatic whirling dance brought the lightning and storms to cleanse the face of the earth and quicken the soil for the life to come in spring and summer.
The Celtic pantheon, as confusing and mysterious as it is, still bears the marks of the ancient Goddess culture from which it is descended. There are no male gods of fire in Celtic mythology, except for figures like Lugh of the Long Hand or Goibhniu and these are smiths who use the fire for their craft, not gods of the flame itself. Who gives the flame to the smith? Brigantia is a fire festival to invoke a time of plenty and good fortune for Brigid is a fire goddess who rules the use of fire for warmth, for cooking and for the practice of skilled craft. She rules the fire of life that sustains the human spirit. Brigid is one of many aspects of the Great Goddess who was the fire of the Sun for the early Celtic peoples.
The Village Fire
At Brigantia, hearth fires were set burning and each person would bring fire from their own hearth to build a great fire in the place of celebration, thus there is a great emphasis on ending the isolation of winter and coming together as a community once more. Cloths were also brought from each house and tied to trees or poles in the sacred space to invoke warmth and abundance for the coming year. Images of the Goddess were made to invite her presence and young girls dressed as 'the Brigid' and went visiting from house to house, giving corn dollies or Brigid dolls they had made as gifts. The wells and cauldrons were blessed so that the two primary sources of nurture, water and food, as given by the goddess to humanity were acknowledged and respected. Oat dishes were eaten to honour the festival of Brigid.
Brigantia was celebrated with the magic of the Rowan Tree, the tree that quickens the flow of life and grants protection against harmful influences, a tree that enables us to wield magical power in flight through the air and over the flow of water. Thunder and lightning that charge the air, wind and rain that stir the Earth into life, these are the magics made at Brigantia and the gatherings in the heights. As July turns to August each year, perhaps we could give some thought to how we honour the Mother for all we have received that sustains us through winter and for the release that will come with the rising of spring and summer.
The Bealtaine Fires
Bealtaine (pronounced Bel-tuhn-uh) is the signpost pointing back to the Spring Equinox where life begins anew, and also forward to the Summer Solstice, the culmination of the heat and light of summer. The eve of April 30th in the Northern Hemisphere (October 31st in the Southern Hemisphere) marks the time for us to begin the Bealtaine rites. The word Bealtaine or Beltaine means 'bright fire' but it has no relationship to the name of the Gaulish god, Belenos.
Belenos was a Sun god from the later Gaulish pantheon but he has no equivalent in the Irish myths that gave rise to this festival. Bealtaine celebrates the start of summer and the fulfillment of the light half of the year. Until this point, the winter king has ruled the world on behalf of the Goddess, but with Bealtaine, like all sacred moments in the Celtic calendar, the passing of an older power as a new one comes to ascendancy is to be acknowledged with ceremony and celebration. These rites are not simply those of fertility but rather ecstatic enjoyment of the fruitfulness of the earth and of our own bodies. Where Brigantia celebrates our relationship with the Earth as our Mother, at Bealtaine we celebrate our relationship with her as a lover.
The Earth as Our Lover
At Bealtaine, bonfires were lit and there would be dancing and merriment around them, including acrobatic leaps across the burning logs to show our daring and prowess as we woo our lover, the Earth. Garlands of flowers and ribbon would then be set or worn and carried. Animals would be dressed in flowers and paraded in the celebration. Boughs with green leaf and red berry would be hung at doorways and entrances to symbolize the divine protection that is the gift of the rising light. Green and red are the sacred colours of the faerie realm. The May Pole, the axis of the world, would be erected and garlanded as a symbol of fertility and sensual enjoyment. Bread would be given in sacrifice and then shared as would drink from a bowl or cauldron. Adults and children would dance around the Maypole in anticipation of the revels to come. Unrestrained sexual activity would often play a part in the ancient ceremonies. People would wear masks of animals, birds and the elemental spirits of the forest. There would be gatherings among the trees and in the groves and powerful rites of passage that affirmed the passing of the older generation and the coming of the new.
Summer brings the young and the new to the peak of their power and radiance. Bealtaine was given in honour of the coming of the Sun King, child of the Sun Goddess, son of the Sun. At his coming, the king of night and darkness and winter would give up the throne to him and often give up his own life in ritual form. All of this would celebrate the sexual and fertile power of women and the land through the Goddess as the wild lover and Mother to be. Beltaine is honoured with the blessing of the Willow Tree. The Willow carries twin magics, that of the older woman who is healer and midwife and also that of the younger woman whose appetites and womb are ripe for love, sex, conception and birth.
In part four, Neil Giles examines the meaning of Lughnassadh, the magical feast of the Sun's Victory.
Read More About The Celtic Fire Festivals