Thoughts on Imbolc (better known to us Northerners as Ewemeolc, Charming of the Plough, and/or Disting)

lambsEwemeolc was a holiday eagerly awaited by our spiritual ancestors because, after having subsisted mostly on root vegetables and salted meats all winter, milk was a welcome addition to the diet and the lactation of the ewes was one of the earliest harbingers of spring.  In Anglo-Saxon England, the agricultural year began on or around the beginning of February, a tradition that lingered into medieval times and became Plough Monday, the official resumption of farming work after Christmas.  The very idea of attempting to plough in February was incomprehensible to me when I lived on the east coast, where the ground is still very much frozen solid until April.  Here in the Willamette Valley the climate is considerably closer to that of England, so of course now it seems utterly obvious that early spring should begin in February; after all, the days are getting longer, the weather is warmer, and flowers are starting to emerge. (I spotted some violets—one of the plants traditionally associated with Imbolc–last weekend.)

In De Temporum Ratione, Bede wrote that February (Solmonath or “Sun Month”) is “the month of cakes, which in that month the English offered to their gods”.  This practice is reflected in the thinly Christianized AEcerbot (“Field Remedy”) Charm from the 10th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript Lacnunga.  This charm was actually an elaborate day-long ritual in which four pieces of sod were taken from an field and a paste applied to the roots consisting of yeast, honey, oil and milk mixed with “every kind of meal” (assumedly, every kind of grain available locally). In Christian times the sods were taken to mass to be blessed and then returned to the field with a small cross planted in each one. Once the sod cakes were properly prepared,  the farmer faced the east, turning three times clockwise and calling upon the “holy guardian of the heavenly kingdom” to “fill the earth”, so that the crops would grow well in the coming year. A plough was then anointed with a mixture of oil, paste, frankincense, salt and fennel, while a long chant was sung, beginning “Erce, erce, erce eorþan modor, mother of earth,” after which the field was ploughed for the first time that season.

Of course, modern Heathens who perform this ritual, or some variation of it, for the blessing of their own fields or gardens strip the Christian trappings from it and also usually abbreviate it greatly, sometimes equating “Erce, Mother of Earth” with the Vanic Great Mother Nerthus, or with Jord, the giantess-mother of Thor, earth’s protector.  Last year I performed a simplified version myself, in which I prepared a small cake and buried it in our backyard, asking for the blessings of the landwights on our herb garden.  Now that we know we will have to move, however, we won’t be doing any gardening this spring, so I plan to modify the ritual even further, taking my prepared cake to a nearby park and burying it there while praying to the landwights and the gods to help us find and secure a new home to rent that meets all our needs–and as many of our wants as possible, too.  (By the way, any of my readers who feel moved to offer prayers on our behalf as well are more than welcome to do so, with my thanks; even though we will be, sadly, re-homing a few of our cats, we’re still going to be looking for a place that will allow us several cats and a small dog, so we can certainly use all the prayers we can get!)

For non-gardeners and people who aren’t currently looking for a new home, another possible variation on this ritual would be offering a cake to the gods and wights (a libation of milk is also appropriate, for obvious reasons) while asking for blessings on all your endeavors during the “light half” of the year: writing, art work, magical studies, entrepreneurship, or whatever you’re personally involved with.  This is a time of hope and new beginnings, a time to shake off winter’s lethargy and make plans for the coming year’s “harvest,” whether that harvest is connected with prosperity, business undertakings, creativity, or what have you.  Just as a farmer would take inventory of the supplies he has at hand—the seeds available, the tools, etc.—in planning his crops for the year, so those of us who are less agriculturally-minded can take stock of what we have available (in terms of time, energy, materials, etc.) for the projects we have in mind.  We can then plan what we still need to get and assess whether this is practical, and if not, alter our plans accordingly.

In my own UPG, Ewemeolc is also the time to celebrate the marriage of Odin and Frigga.  In The Lost Gods of England, Brian Branston identifies Frigga with “Erce,” and even if this is inaccurate many Heathens do see Her as a daughter of Jord or Nerthus, making Her pairing with Odin very much a marriage of Earth and Sky.  (The festival’s connection with sheep also links it to Frigga as patroness of spinners.)  I’ve known other Heathens to honor Freyr and Gerd for this festival, seeing the Eddic story of His winning of his giantess-bride as a sort of parable about the warmth of the sun overcoming the resistance of the frozen earth to bring about the new growth of springtime.

Disting, the Swedish version of this festival, was actually held a bit later—in late February or early March—and was the first public moot of the year, accompanied by a blot (sacrifice) to the Disir, a catch-all term for protective female powers that potentially includes the goddesses, the Norns and Valkyries, and one’s own female ancestors.  For this reason, many choose to remember Frigga’s “Handmaidens” on this holiday as well.  I use this word in quotations because, while many Heathens refer to this collection of either nine or twelve Goddesses as Frigga’s Handmaidens, only Snorri Sturluson designates them as such in the primary sources.  I believe They were originally independent and probably local goddesses who became associated with Her over time–or perhaps the association was even Snorri’s invention, designed to give Frigga a greater resemblance to the classical Hera by supplying Her with a bevy of attendants. Brian Branston and other writers have argued that at least some of Them are either aspects of Frigga Herself, or personifications of the qualities for which They are named.

In Denmark, the first furrows were reportedly made in the fields at this time of year, though my guess is that it must have been a mostly ceremonial gesture.  In Iceland, Thorrablot (in honor of the Icelandic winter spirit Thorri and his wife Goa, who represented the coming mildness of spring) was celebrated with great of fanfare and a lot of truly disgusting food, including rotted shark, sheep’s head, and fermented whale blubber, washed down with liberal amounts of Icelandic schnapps.  This holiday is still observed in Iceland today.  For our ancestors and today, it was a celebration of strength; being strong-willed enough to eat all those really nasty traditional foods was a way to celebrate the endurance to survive a harsh winter.

In general, the spiritual “vibe” of the holiday is that the days are growing longer, the warmth of the sun stronger, and winter is showing its first signs of weakening.  Ewemeolc is the first festival of the “light” half of the year—the half dominated by outdoor, social activities, as opposed to the inward-turning of winter.  This turning back is just beginning at Ewemeolc and will not be complete until Ostara, but the stirrings can be felt.  This is the time of year to honor those first stirrings.