I wrote the following for the Imbolc 2010 issue of Eolas, the magazine of the druidic Order of the White Oak. Imbolc (or Candlemas) is the first Celtic cross-quarter festival of the year and is celebrated on Feb. 2. Now we’re at the eve of this year’s festival, and as Imbolc invokes a deep mystery within history, so posting this essay today as a vantage for looking back in depth seems appropriate.
The setup has me writing on a very cold, very early morning in late January 2010, lit -– no, harrowed — by the brilliance of a full moon.
It’s fitting, perhaps, that the full moon of the following writing is at this moment the faintest crescent hovering on the horizon: the lunar calendar is at odds with our current solo one: and so is the past when used as a Ouija for the future …
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On December 31, 2009, the Gregorian year passed, as did the first decade of the twentieth century in our latter-day calendar. It’s a widely secular enough event, in for secular American culture, old Father Time with his long white beard and sickle passing the responsibility of events to the a Reubeneque pink and orotund infant, greeted by the endless cheers of celebrants lifting their champagne glasses and tooting toy horns in across the vast necropolis of suburbia. Celebrations that night bore only the faintest phosphor of the old New Year’s celebrations, whether that be the Celtic Day of the Dead on Samhain or the end of the Roman Saturnalia: and yet, in past and present alike is the identification of the New Year with a mewling babe nascent with all the hopes and dreams of a new year which hopefully will better than the last year (and decade) (and century). Some things never change, not, at least, in the human heart.
My wife and I were awakened round midnight: not by the usual staccato bursts of firecrackers and hoots and shouts from drunken revelers up and down our block (which we usually sleep through), but the voice of some guy erupted out the front door of the rental down the street, obviously more blotto than the rest, who began hollering at top volume about how desperately he needed to do the nasty with someone’s sister; then proclaimed, to his girlfriend or the neighborhood or the night or God or the Goddess, that he’d take on anybody, anybody at all, who was man enough to fight.
The arc of this poor jerk’s night was evident: jocose, amorose, bellicose, probably soon lachymorose and eventually comatose. Certainly the guy was earnest, even if he was in a blackout. I can’t help but wonder if a soul crying out in darkness is one who is desperately in need of the old connections, settling, as we moderns must, for approximations and distillations. Any old bottle, babe, opponent and will do these days when drunkenness is just one of many trace elements of the old magnitude and awe and augment which we worshipped at the altar of gods.
Fortunately for my wife and I and our cats–all of whose sleep has been broken by that drunk’s pungent annunciations– it soon began raining, sending the revelers of 2009 inside to 2010 and ushering in a cold front which has, for the past week, walloped Florida with the worst boreal havoc in modern memory. It might even snow tonight.
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Yet it’s important to remember that December 31 was also candled by a full moon, and a “blue moon” at that, the second full moon to fall within the month of December. Blue moons are rare events, occurring once every two to three years; since the solar year has about eleven more days a year than the old lunar calendar, there comes a time when the moon waxes twice in a month.
These moons are “blue” because they’re slippery, they defy the order, come out of the blue, so to speak (when it fell close to Lent, early Christians called the occurrence a belewe or “betrayer” moon). Blue moons are an annoying fix for a system which wasn’t as pure a gold as its fashioners proclaimed when they devoutly replaced the old matriarchal lunar calendar, ruled by a triple goddesss with powers of night and water and the unconscious.
And in the old reckoning, there would be no blue moon, since its calendar was calibrated to the cycles of the moon.
But what of this term for us, this “blue” moon and its random, disruptive presence in one calendar and absence in the former one? I watched this moon build toward full on nights in late December, when the night has a hardness to it, a depth of darkness tied to its proximity to the winter solstice: How brightly that moon waxed; how weirdly, too, like a powerful ghost of the old dispensation, lowering the zipper between the worlds with its lucence, widening an entrance to the Otherworld, at least this meditation, soaking it in the deep well-waters of a Sidhe where the Goddess still burns and thrives and bestows.
St. Brighid with her earlier pagan self Bride or Brigit, framed by a St. Brighid’s cross, which was made of rushes and is believed to protect a house from fire and evil. The form hearkens back to the pagan sunwheel.
“Blue” full moons fool with our reckoning, as full moons mess with our sensible minds, causing, at their high tide, the old church graveyard to split, right there next to the ancient yew, and delve up Bride or Brigit, ur-mother of St. Brighid, the goddess who refused to fade in the solar certainties of Christianity, become the midwife of Mary and the foster-mother of Christ.
That goddess was not one, but three, with triune aspects much as the moon is triple in its monthly evolution, at once maiden, matron and crone. According to Cormac’s ninth-century Glossary, Brigit, daughter of the Dagda, is described as ‘”a poetess … a goddess whom poets worshipped,’ and having two sisters, also divine and having the same name as herself, women of healing and of smith-work respectively.
Brigit is fundamentally a goddess of elevated states – her name means “exalted one” and, according to Cormac’s Glossary, is associated with high dimensions, such as high-rising flames, highlands, hill-forts and upland areas. Her brightness is also associated with states conceived as psychologically lofty and elevated, such as wisdom, excellence, perfection, high intelligence, poetic eloquence, craftsmanship (especially blacksmithing), healing ability, druidic knowledge and skill in warfare. And her brightness shines in the domestic home and hearth, a goddess of fertility, purification and birth.
Her candescence something to behold, radiating from something full-mooned within her, reflecting in full measure a light which would immolate us were we to try looking at it with our naked, mortal eyes. Her light is the divine spark of inspiration in the poet’s imagination; the candle burning through the winter’s night; the glow of life in the stirring womb. All through the winter – even or especially on nights like this—she comforts and succors with her pale, soft light, basting the darkness with blue-white milk. What is the Gaelic word for it? – dubluachair meaning “midwinter” and “blackbrightness” with luachair meaning the rushes which are integral to La Fheile Bride, the festival of St. Brigit. (In the prayer or charm called the Buarach Tahil, rushes from a riverbank between towns are wrapped around the legs of a cow which can’t give milk and the mercy of St. Brighid is invoked, causing the milk to flow. The word imbolc has ties to milking of the calves – “in the belly” meaning pregnancy and lactation.)
Brigit was one of the great deities to readily survive into the Christian era (as would Manannan as St. Michael and Lugh, possibly, as St. Brendan), becoming St. Brighid, her feast day of Feb. 2 founded on the old Celtic cross-quarter lunar festival of Imbolc. The essences of the ancient goddess readily translated into Christian ritual, the old groves become the saint’s sanctuary. (Around 470 St. Brigid founded Kildare Abbey, a double monastery, for nuns and monks, on the plains of Cill-Dara, “the church of the oak”, her cell being made under a large oak tree.). At her shrine a sacred flame was tended for centuries until Henry VIII ordered it doused, him being of the disposition for sousing in and then dousing a number of mortal women’s flames.
St. Brighid’s Abbey, County Kildare.
What is it about the blue moon which has that same “blackbrightness” of Brigit? One of my favorite tales of Brigit comes from County Galway, cited in “The Festival of St. Brigit the Holy Woman,” (Celtica 23, 1999):
The Blessed Virgin was about to be “churched” and as she was going to the church, she met St. Brighid. Our Blessed Lady was very shy about going to the altar rails before the whole congregation and she told Brighid how she felt. ‘Nevermind,’ says Brighid. ‘I’ll manage that part all right.’ She got a harrow and put it on her head, turning the points upwards. They went into the church and no sooner had St. Brighid entered than every point of the harrow turned into a lighted candle. The whole congregation turned their eyes on St. Brighid and her crown of lighted candles and the Blessed Virgin proceeded to the altar rails and not an eye was turned on her until the ceremony was over. The Blessed Virgin was so delighted with St. Brighid that she gave her her day before her own, and that is the reason that St. Brighid’s Day is before the feast of Purification.
Seamus O’Cathain comments, “By the spectacular assumption of a harrow candelabrum on her head, Brigit is, in effect, cast as a ‘light mother’ to Mary, a position which confers upon her the honored status of midwife par excellence, making her the perfect role model for any ordinary country midwife or ‘handy woman.’
A candle harrow.
Light woman, midwife, harrower of a darkened sanctuary, most recently a church but before then an hallow ringed by oaks: fructification and birth is the flame Brigit tenders, and her festival of Imbolc marks the transformation of winter into spring. Out of death, life: from cold wastes, the greening field; from barren spaces, the mewling of lambs. The spark of life, her candle, endures.
So when I observe that big brilliance in the sky, I am comforted in ways I can hardly name, united with an regenerated by an ancient legacy through the wyrd radiance of an earth-bound, heavenly orb which has brought augment and mystery and wildness and beauty into my life over the year. Last December’s blue moon which bridged into the New Year– the one that doesn’t fit in anyone’s reckoning—bespeaks of a knowledge between the worlds, coming from a height which somehow seems to reside deep within, inspiring the mind to dowse down an old, old well, in search of the full magnitude of Brigit’s presence inside this day.
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A statue of St. Brighid by St. Brighid’s Well at Kildare, a holy well believed to have curative properties stemming back to the pagan age. Votive offerings ranging from pins and combs are often left there.
The imbas of my assay – call it poetic license, or critical thought somewhat intoxicated by its theme – keeps me dowsing through the sources, driven on by the trope of a blue moon on New Year’s Eve. I shouldn’t apologize, because the distinction between the poetic and scholarly mind is a latter-day ascription, with the poetic relegated to off-duty ruminations and private matins, not meant for general consumption. Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees write in Celtic Heritage:
In Welsh, the very word for ‘meaning’ (ystr) comes from the Latin historia which has given the English language both “story” and “history.” “History” has now been emptied of most of the extra-historical context of historia, which derives from a root meaning “knowing,” “learning,” “wise man,” “judge.” The old Welsh word for “story,” cyfarwyddyd, means “guidance,” “direction,” “instruction,” “knowledge,” “skill,” or “prescription.” Its stem, arwydd, means “sign,” “symbol,” “manifestation,” “omen,” or “miracle,” and derives from a root meaning “to see.” The storyteller (cyfarwdd) was originally a seer and a teacher who guided the souls of his hearers through the world of “mystery.” (212)
Bathed in the gentle lactile phosphor of that irreverent, irrelevant moon, I am graced with an imbas which leads me to the place where history and mystery are one. Imbas forasnai — poetic vision which sees events to come — isn’t quite the trope I imagine here, but rather an illumination of knowledge which allows sight to clear all the topographies of history and see all the way back to sources. What would be such a backward glance? Imbas rearwardsnai? I pun, but divination these days seems pointed the other way, a dowsing for the greatest hidden reservoirs below.
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Thomas Jones, “The Bard” (1774)
I can’t help but wonder of we moderns have to dowse to the old truths through a stratum of solar history we’re stuck with, like the crowded teeth and myopic eyes our so-far-evolved homo sapiens jaws. We have become over-conscious, too attenuated to the light, our city lights burning so brightly at night as to occlude the starry night, making of moon-magic a childish thing, myth become folktale become, at its most desecrate, urban myth, the provenance of the killer psychos of contemporary horror films where the twists are out of the torture of psyche, the moonlight is “bald and wild,’ as Sylvia Plath presented it in her poem “The Moon And The Yew Tree.” Naked death bereft of meaning is the nihilistic and sadistic “entertainment” found in many current horror films, even their sexual themes diminished to the pleasures of a snuff film.
Locating tonight’s blue moon across the calendar divide which separates lunar from solar consciousness — back to old dispensation — is, I think, symbolic of the work of transforming modernity into a fertile neo-paganism. Eric Neumann writes in The Origins and History of Consciousness,
Every culture-hero has achieved a synthesis between consciousness and the creative unconscious. He has found within himself the fruitful center, the point of renewal and rebirth which, in the New Year fertility festival, is identified with the creative divinity, and upon which the continued existence of the world depends. This is what the rite — and through it, mankind – “means”: about this knowledge of the creative point, of the buried treasure which is the water of life, immortality, fertility and the afterlife all rolled into one, the aspirations of mankind unwearyingly revolve. A constellation of this point is not a “reproduction” of nature, but a genuine creation, and the symbolic recitation of the story of creation at the new year has its rightful place at this point. The inner object of ritual is not the natural process, but the control of nature through the correspondingly creative element in man. (212)
Ritual turns of the Great Year – as Imbolc ends the hard cycle of darkest winter and begins the process which brings life back to earth—are thus immensely fertile for soul and psyche, enabling us access to sacred knowledge which raises us to the fullness of life. So much for beer and bowl games: our recent blue moon ensured a towering belfry to ring Brigit’s note across the land.
(Apologies for the conventional masculine case there. Our Theme is anything but a man’s mystery. Brigit’s flame was tended by nine vestals and may have been forbidden for any man to witness. Even my writing of Her here may be acrid with the tang of sacrilege, though my namesake is related to an ancient consort of hers, and my discourse is in Her style, so I continue to tug away at these wise milch-teats, happy that the milk yet flows …)
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Cernunnos (left), Celtic woodland god and Lord of the Animals; and the pagan goddess Brigit (right) in her triune aspects of midwife, poetess and smith—harrowing and hallowing the doors of creation.
Why else be there gods, other than to harrow and hallow the soul of the human with depth and magnitude? To show us how far the winding stair descends down St. Brigit’s well (many still survive around Ireland), St. Brigit’s purifying crown of candelabra begins to morph into an older head-piece, shaped like the bull-horns of Cernunnos, Lord of the Forest and green-sward consort of the goddess in her Matron aspect. (Lammas and Imbolc are equidistant lovers, with Lugh another of Brigit’s lovers.) St. Brigit’s midwifery has an earlier source, too, not at birth but conception, the spark of life which leaps from cream to butter in the act of churning, well-goddess and stag-god united through the fomenting offices of churn (cuinneg) and churn-dash (loine), sparked by the holy flame of Brigit, brought term through the darkness of winter, delved mewling and thirsty to the breast which bastes all with the milky light of them moon.
Which is exactly what my sad drunken friend was surely looking for, out there at the crack of midnight on the secular New Year’s Eve, blue moon hidden above a scud of threatening clouds, the poor fuck (“to churn” related to German ficken and its English equivalent of “to fuck”) hollering at a moon he can’t see, in an age which has blinded itself with its own light, far inside and away from the perilous influence of full moonlight.
And who’s to say our looped neighbor wasn’t unconsciously repeating one of the rituals of the Festival of St. Brighid, itself an repetition of the old Celtic festival, rites which repeatedly churned a mythologem into sustaining truth? O’Caithin tells of a “chain of symbolic actions” during the festival which
begins with a male partner – the man of the house – seeking admission to his house in the name of Brigit. He orders those within to go on their knees, open their eyes and admit Brigit – in other words, to be prepared to submit themselves to the process of insemination and possible impregnation through the good offices of the goddess who rules over such matters. The commencement is gladly welcomed by those within. (257)
That blotto’d initiate (“asshole” was what my wife called him, turning back to her sleep, certainly self-shat to the wrong end of that night) was still singing the old song, as clueless as his small-town audience was as to whence it came from. Surely far beyond the bottom of whatever bottle he tried to fully empty that night: the well goes far, far deeper than that. I have to give him a single brownie point for trying, no matter how unconsciously. We may have forgotten where the cables descend to in our psyches, but that’s not to say the wiring –and desire–isn’t still operative.
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“Blue Moon” sheet music; Shirley Ross.
Who remembers the Rogers and Hart ballad “Blue Moon”? It was the title song written for Manhattan Melodrama in 1934 and sung, for odd reasons, by Shirley Ross in blackface, perhaps underscoring the oddity of its sentiment, that of finding a love so luckily and strangely that it could only be sung to a blue moon. The song was not a hit at the time, but since, crooners and torch-singers ranging from Louis Armstrong to Belle Baker to Frank Sinatra to Sam Cooke to The Cowboy Junkies have had a crack at it. (Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd sang it as a duet in an episode of “Moonlighting”)
Now, my drunken comrade didn’t take a crack at singing “Blue Moon,” but surely the song was mid-deep in his words, a modern’s take on an old prayer, composed in our terribly broken, heartily confused and overly certain manner, yet still offered to the goddess who purifies and fertilizes our hearts, marrying churn and churn-dash with a fructifying, hearth-sustaining kiss.
Blue Moon, you saw me standing alone,
Without a dream in my heart,
Without a love of my own,
Blue moon, you knew just what I was there for,
You heard me saying a prayer for,
Someone I could care for,
And then there suddenly appeared before me,
Someone my arms could really hold,
I heard you whisper “Darling please adore me,”
And when I looked to the moon it had turned to gold.
And what does my imbas add to tale of one profane night before the Gregogian New Year? Just this note of blue silver dripping from an odd moon, a taste of something incredibly old and wild and fructive—-out of nowhere, freakish as blue moon, as if up from the ground or a well or out of an oak or sprung from the ruins of a monestery or walked up from the tide of the everyday. It’s enough for me, today, though its so cold outside, and hope for this world and its future is small. And so I join in on the refrain:
Blue moon, now I’m no longer alone,
Without a dream in my heart,
Without a love of my own.
Blue moon … odd orb, out of place and time, fading surely now into the darkness which will eventually will yield the full moon of Imbolc which waxes on January 30. As the old year’s blue moon fades, dusting silver of an ever-more distant candescence on the roofs and pathways of this small freezing town in Central Florida, lunar lyrics of one century flow back and back to charms of a far distant age, unalloyed and permanent in the hopes and dreams of every human heart as winter cusps and is midwifed into the milk-tide of the new:
Brigid, weave your circle bright
Spin a web of glowing light
Earth and air and fire and water
Bind us to you
- Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees. Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales. London: Thames and Hudson, 1961.
- Seamas O Cathain. “The Festival of Brigit the Holy Woman.” Celtica 23, School of Celtic Studies DIAS, 1999
- Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness. Translated by R.F.C. Hull. Princeton, New Jersey: University of Princeton paperback edition, 1995.