Monday, February 10, 2014

The Meaning of the Word: Imbolc

Cross-Stitch by Donna Amaral

Don't be misled by bold and simple assertions of what Imbolc means. We really are not sure. Scholars give various tentative definitions of the word:

“The exact meaning of ‘Imbolc’ or ‘Oimelc’ presents considerable difficulty, and Pamela Berger suggests gently that cleansing of the fields after the winter and preparing them for sowing the grain in spring may be fundamental in the idea underlying the term. She refers to the theory which separates the term ‘Imbolc/Imbolg’ into two words: im and bolg, im meaning ‘around’ and bolg ‘belly’—the belly of that goddess—that is the land, the farm...”

         The Rites of Brigid, Goddess and Saint, Séan Ó Duinn, pg 19-20.

Ó Catháin reads things differently.

Imbolc/óimelc the ancient name for the festival of Brigit is defined thus in the ninth-century Cormac’s Glossary:...‘that is the time when the sheep’s milk comes’...Though condemned as ‘a fanciful etymological explanation’ this statement has, nevertheless, inspired oft-repeated assertions that the pagan name of our feast, as imbolc/óimelc is said to be, has something to do with the period of the coming into lactation of sheep. Eric Hamp...has shown that the word simply means ‘milking’...”

          The Festival of Brigit, Séamas Ó Catháin, pg 7.

Ó Catháin goes on at length to examine the philological evidence and theorize about what the name—if it even IS the true name of the feast—means and what it may tell us about the festival. 

For an unorthodox and intriguing interpretation of the word Imbolc, see my upcoming review of  Phillip A. Bernhardt-House’s paper “Imbolc: A New Interpretation”. (Or better yet, hunt down the paper itself. You'll find it in Cosmos: The Yearbook of the Traditional Cosmology Society 18 (2002): 57-76.

 A hint here: If im has as its basis “butter”, olc is generally derived as “evil, bad, wrong” in Irish, both Old and Modern. But Kim McCone 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” (60).

All of which simply shows that the details, roundabout though they may be, are infinitely more textured and fascinating than the boiled down versions we often receive, and that there are many more possiblities out there than the simplified story we often receive begins to hint at. 


Hilaire said...

Thanks for this survey - good to have the suggested meanings set out like that. I'll look forward to reading your review of the Bernhardt-House interpretation. Sounds fascinating...

Hilaire x

Mael Brigde said...

Will get a wiggle on once a few more tasks are cleared out of the way! Don't hold your breath too long.