Friday, June 22, 2018

"Imbolc: A New Interpretation" by Phillip Bernhardt-House

I am republishing my review of Bernhardt-House's article in celebration of the fact that he has uploaded the paper to, making this hard-to-find piece easy to obtain. Thank you, Phillip! (Click here to view or download.)

 “Imbolc: A New Interpretation”, Phillip A. Bernhardt-House (pp 57-76) in Cosmos 18 (2002)

This intriguing article looks at the meaning of Imbolc from a new perspective—that of a connection with wolf and warrior cults originating with the Indo-Europeans and presenting in Roman and Celtic civilizations. Bernhardt-House has a broad knowledge of the literature and he brings together disparate pieces into a tantalizing whole. Where he himself concludes that his new etymology may be proved unsound, it nevertheless serves to “refocus our attentions on certain smaller aspects” of Imbolc, particularly the wolf aspect, which is “now beyond doubt as having been important to the holiday as it would have been observed in pre-Christian times” (pg 65-66).[1]

In approaching the subject, Bernhardt-House first looks at both Neo-Pagan and scholarly etymologies of the Irish word for the festival, Imbolc. While accepting the consensus meanings of milking and purification, he suggests an additional—and surprising—one.

If im has as its basis “butter”, olc is generally derived as “evil, bad, wrong” in Irish, both Old and Modern. But Kim McCone[2] traces this word back to the Indo-European root meaning “wolf”. Joining these two, Bernhardt-House offers “Imbolc as the 'butter-wolf'”, hoping to “shed some light on further images in Irish sources, as well as connecting this to a further complex within Indo-European ritual” (pg 60).

These images in Irish sources range from calendrical evidence linking February to wolves, the association of Candlemas in France and Belgium with the wolf (where a wolf sighting predicts the ending of winter), of Brigit herself with the bear and wolf, and so on, along with an examination of the period of time between Samhain and Imbolc and its association with warring, as well as hospitality.

Perhaps most interesting is the parallel drawn between the rites of the Lupercalia in Rome and Imbolc in Ireland, and their potential links to Gaulish deities and to earlier rituals. The link with purification in both festivals is already established; the writer points to a possible further link in purification with the use of milk or, in the Irish case, butter.

The young Roman priests, the Luperci, sacrificed a dog and a goat at the cave where Romulus and Remus were said to have been nursed by a wolf. The blood of these two animals was mixed and the youngest priest's forehead anointed with the mixture; this was then cleaned away using a piece of milk-soaked wool, which ritual was followed eventually by striking the general populace with goat-skin thongs for luck and fertility.

In a medieval story St Brigit removes the signs worn by men which signify their engagement in activities of war; Bernhardt-House suggests that if “some form of Brigid was one of the presiding deities of Imbolc, Brigit who was bear-mother in origin but could easily have been a wolf-mother in Ireland, might have been the deity who removed these warrior-signs and reincorporated the youthful fian-warriors into regular society, perhaps by the means of the purifying medium of milk, or, given the etymology I have suggested with imb-, perhaps even butter” (pg 64).

The details examined by the writer are greater in number and scope than suggested by this brief review, and it is worth tracking down the article through your local or university library.[3]

This is just the sort of thing that gets the creative mind churning along nicely. A very enjoyable article.

[1]     For a complete review of the wolf and werewolf in Celtic literature and an examination of that material, see Bernhardt-House, Phillip A., Werewolves, magical hounds, and dog-headed men in Celtic literature: a typological study of shape-shifting, Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2010.
[2]     See my review above of his Brigit section, “Fire and the Arts” (etc) in Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, Kim McCone (1990)
[3]     For a posting in the NeoPagan blogosphere see For a discussion  in a Celtic Reconstructionist forum of both the blog post and this peer-reviewed article, see In particular see the comment from  wire_mother: “I've read the original article from which PSVL derives this thesis (Bernhardt-House, Phillip A., "Imbolc: A New Interpretation", Cosmos 18 (2002), 57-76), and I buy the argument on the basis that OIr. olc very plausibly derives from PIE *wlkwo- "wolf" (which gives us English "wolf"!, and which through simple metathesis gives us *lukwo-, from which we derive e.g. English "lupine" from Latin) and also very plausibly shows semantic drift into its current meaning of "bad, evil" given the Christian experience of the youthful warrior/lycanthropic bands in Ireland; that it shows a definite relationship to Lupercalia, which seems to be a Latin reflex of the same ritual impulse; and the relationship of St. Brighid to the outlaw bands (all of which elements are discussed in that article by PSVL). For disclosure, I know both Prof. Bernhardt-House, the author of that article, and PSVL in person, and have discussed the issue with them many times, but even so, the three points I list here are more solid than even the assumption that we can derive pagan practices from e.g. folklore. That is, we have solid linguistic grounds (any linguist can easily derive that using tested rules of language change - one would have to dismiss nearly the entire field of linguistics to dismiss that point), solid comparative grounds (in the same region, even, and from a tradition which is linguistically closely related - one would have to dismiss the concept that religious ideas refer to the past in any way to dismiss that point, which would require one to dismiss the concept of any continuity of pagan religion at all), and solid hostile testimonial grounds (and the evidence for those youthful warrior-bands being also self-consciously, as well as community-consciously, considered to be "lycanthropic" is extensively documented across Europe, in the Celtic countries, and specifically in Ireland).”

Friday, May 25, 2018

Gail Arthur - Celebrancy and Storytelling

Gail Arthur has tended Brigit’s fire with the Daughters of the Flame for the past seventeen years. Her intelligence, compassion, and deep sensitivity make her a caring and supportive co-religionist. These, added to her brilliant creativity, make her a thoughtful and inspiring dramatist, poet, writer of fiction, storyteller, and dancer.

But there is another side to Gail. She is also a celebrant.

I have recently been contemplating the end of my own life, which I hope is not right around the corner, but which will come at some point, and that is not the moment at which I want to start thinking of what to do.

One of the first thoughts that came to me was that, if it was at all possible, I would like to have Gail involved in the guiding of my presence from this life. I know that she would handle it with ability and love. It then occurred to me that other followers of Brigit might want to have access to someone like Gail at key moments in their life, so I invited her to write a brief self-introduction that I could present to you.

Thanks and blessings on your work, Gail.

Mael Brigde

Celebrancy and Storytelling

I am both storyteller and celebrant. As a storyteller, I weave the elements of a tale, taking audiences on a journey that leads inwards to themselves. As a celebrant, I do much the same thing, taking people into the stories of their lives.

Our lives are a continuing story, and there are important turning points along the way – places where we are propelled – or choose – to move in a new direction, and enter a new stage.

These occasions are momentous, life-altering, and irrevocable: the birth of a child, the transition from childhood to adult, a marriage, the transition to elder, death, the loss of an animal companion or a friend, a divorce, or a decision to leave behind a toxic birth family or other situation. Each of these steps brings its own trials, emotions, joys, fears, sadness and new opportunities. To move in one direction is to leap into the unknown, it is to leave behind the familiar.

My job as a life-cycle celebrant, is to take the strands of an individual life, knitting together a ceremony that addresses the emotions and the reality of a new situation. This could mean acknowledging and helping the grieving process, and well as the celebration of a life lived; acknowledging the responsibility and joy that comes with the birth of a child, the change of situation for a new adult, the changes that come with a new partnership, and with the transition to elderhood.

Often, the transition to elderhood can be difficult in our western society. Taking a look at what this means, and going into this stage of life mindfully can take away the fears and denials involved, giving that stage in life a purpose. This is the strength of ceremony, helping us to look deeply and to reflect, moving consciously through life, and celebrating it as we go.

Bio: Gail Arthur leads ceremonies and tells stories in many places, but especially in Ohio, Ontario and the Vancouver area. She is a Druid with the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids, a Fellowship of Isis Priestess, and a writer. She is a keeper of Brighid's flame through the Daughters of the Flame.

Contact her through at or

Images: Gail Arthur.
Brigid at St Brigid's Centre for the Arts by Denisa Prochazka.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Journey with Brigit, Goddess of Poetry: An Online Course with Mael Brigde

It's open!
After a change of hosts, registration for my course, Journey with Brigit, Goddess of Poetry, is open at last! This is an intensive course that both nourishes the writing (and reading) of poetry and connects the participant to the poet in Ireland, and poetry in our lives.
The classes come out one a day, and you are welcome to move as quickly or slowly as you like through each lesson.
I look forward to connecting with some of you in this forum.
Blessings on your pen!
Mael Brigde

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Review: Picture Book - "The Story of Saint Brigid" by Clarke and Croatto

The Story of Saint Brigid by Caitriona Clarke, illustrated by Barbara Croatto, Veritas (2015), 23 pp..

This small, slender, and well produced picture book in one way resembles adult books about Saint Brigit more than most picture books: rather than telling a single, unfolding tale, it picks a number of items of information about the saint and briefly recounts them, opposite illustrations that highlight one of the items mentioned on each page. My limited experience with reading books to children suggests that this sort of thing is often of less interest than a gripping story line. Nevertheless there are times when this kind of thing is just the ticket, or is at least a pleasant way to learn a lesson—in this case, who is Saint Brigit? In this particular instance the book is aimed at Irish school children who will have heard often about her, perhaps even go to a school named for her, and so will be more inclined to be curious about the answer to that question than a child who hasn’t grown up knowing her name. Published by Veritas Publications, it comes from an unapologetically Catholic perspective.

I like the easy, conversational tone of the book, beginning with the first page, where Clarke addresses the child reading the book (or more likely having it read to them). “Have you ever heard of Saint Brigid? ... Maybe you have made a St Brigid’s Cross out of reeds? Maybe even your school is named after her!” This engages the child him- or herself, letting them know that this story is about their lives, too.

I was startled on the next page of text to learn of Saint Brigit’s mother that, “it is thought she was captured by pirates in Portugal and brought here as a slave—just like St Patrick …” I have never heard this before. I am more familiar with the suggestion that Broicseach was the daughter of Dalbrónach of the Dál Conchobair in County Meath. I am delighted to learn of another folk geneaology and would love to know where the idea started and how common the belief is in Ireland. In the fifteen hundred years since Saint Brigit’s birth there has been ample time for shifts in and additions to her stories, departures from the texts that I largely rely on for things like this.

I was also surprised to read that Brigit’s father, Dubhthach, had chosen to name his daughter after “the goddess of fire, who was thought to be gifted in poetry, healing, and craftsmanship.” Of course, there is no basis for this in any of the texts, but it is a neat way of connecting the two in the mind of the reader without supposing that they are the same person. This of course would get some backs up, but as I am of the opinion myself that they are not the same person, though they have grown together in our modern understanding, it doesn’t bother me at all, and I appreciate the nod to the goddess.

From this point on there are no surprises. We are told the familiar outline of Saint Brigit’s life, pared down drastically for the brevity of a picture book, and learn of the emphasis in her tales of generosity, compassion, and holiness. Her founding of a double monastery which was in time to produce great works like the (now lost) Book of Kildare is an addition which I favour, taking her out of the sweet holy girl category and placing her into the powerful efficient woman category—a good model for young people to be aware of.

We are told of the use of Saint Brigit’s Crosses in Irish homes for protection of people and animals against illness and their homes from fire, and of her holy wells in healing. There are some humorous elements, such as the expression of gobsmacked horror on the king’s face when Brigit’s cloak is spreading out over his land. The book concludes, “In her, Ireland can proudly lay claim to a wise and charitable woman who devoted her long life to the service of others.”

I have mixed feelings about the artwork that accompanies the text. Mostly, I like it. It is has a light touch which works well with the sparse, friendly writing. There are clean lines against colourful washes and a good sense of design, and there is, as mentioned above, a touch of humour in some of the images that appeals. What I don’t like, and this is purely a matter of taste, is how Croatta draws many of the human faces, which feel a bit awkward to me.

On balance, I like this book.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Songs of the Oystercatcher by Heather Upfield

I have added a new page (the first "page") to my Brigit poetry blog, Stone on the Belly: a series of poems written by Heather Upfield, honouring Brihde through the seasons.
To see and download Songs of the Oystercatcher, please click here.