“Today is the day of Bride;
the Serpent shall come from its hole,
I will not molest the Serpent,
nor will the Serpent molest me.”
This Scottish folk charm is from Alexander Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica. The Serpent referred to is the power of life and growth which, at this time, returns to us from its long winter sleep in the Underworld. To ensure peace with the Serpent, offerings of incense, milk or mead are often made.
Bride (pronounced ‘Breed’) is Saint Bride or Brigid, an early 6th century Irish nun, often known as 'the Mary of the Gael,' and sometimes as 'Christ's foster-mother.' In Wales, she is known as Ffraid. The widespread veneration of the popular Christian saint, however, is often carried out in forms like the prayer above that hark back to an earlier Brigid, a pagan goddess whose name derives from the Proto-Celtic Brigantī, meaning 'High, or Exalted One.' Her Irish incarnation is a daughter of the great Irish father-god, the Dagda, sometimes known as 'the god of Druidry.' The pagan Irish Brigid is associated with childbirth, poetry, smithcraft, sacred wells, the brewing of ale and mead and fire. A shrine containing a perpetual fire dedicated to her and tended by women devoted to her is believed to have become a convent of nuns devoted to her Christian namesake in Kildare ('Church of the Oak') in Ireland. Folk lore and folk traditions associated with the goddess seem also to have passed over seamlessly from paganism to Christianity. The following video explores Irish customs associated with this remarkable goddess turned saint:
Moving sunwise around the sacred circle, this festival has its home in the North-East, where the elements of Earth and Air combine. It marks the first of the English cross-quarter days, Candlemas, falling on February 2nd. February 1st is celebrated in Wales as Gwyl Forwyn, 'the Feast of the Virgin,' and in Ireland as Imbolc, possibly meaning 'in bud.' It marks the time when trees are beginning to bud, the first wild flowers are appearing, and ewes begin to lactate, all of which herald the coming of Spring and the return of life to the land. It is traditionally a celebration of lights, candles being lit to illuminate homes and places of worship. As at the other quarter days, offerings of food and drink, particularly milk, are put out for the Faery Folk or poured over standing stones.
In Scottish folklore, Candlemas is the time when a White Snake, the Serpent of Bride, emerges from underground where it spends the Winter months, a potent image of life returning to the land. The huge popularity of the canonized goddess in Scotland and Ireland ensured that her festival has been celebrated in those countries for the longest time and with the greatest gusto. In Scotland, the period of Winter from Hallowe’en to Candlemas is said to be under the control of the Cailleach, a mountain-dwelling crone who blasts the land with cold winds and frosts. According to one legend, on Candlemas eve, the Cailleach returns to the Land of the Ever-Young, the Otherworld of the Faery Folk, the ancestors and the gods. There she makes her way to the Well of Youth that lies in a wood at the heart of that magical land. Before the Sun rises on Candlemas morn, she drinks from the Well, returning to our world as the beautiful goddess Bride whose touch causes the grass to green and the white and yellow flowers of early Spring to bloom. Alexander Carmichael, who collected folklore in the Scottish Highlands and Islands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, describes one Candlemas custom as follows:
“On Bride’s Eve (January 31st) the girls of the townland fashion a sheaf of corn into the likeness of a woman. They dress and deck the figure with shining shells, sparkling crystals, primroses, snowdrops, and any greenery they may obtain. A specially bright shell or crystal is placed over the heart of the figure. This is called the guiding star of Bride. The girls call the figure Bride, and carry it in procession, singing the song, Beauteous Bride, Virgin of a Thousand Charms. The Bride maiden-band are clad in white, and have their hair down, signifying purity and youth. They visit every house, and every person is expected to give a gift to Bride and make obeisance to her. The gift may be a shell, a spar, a crystal, a flower, or a bit of greenery to decorate the person of Bride. Mothers, however, give a Bride bannock, a Bride cheese, or a Bride roll of butter. Having made the round of the place, the girls go to a house to make the Bride feast. They bar the doors and secure the windows of the house, and set Bride where she may see and be seen by all. Presently the young men of the community come humbly asking permission to honour Bride. After some parleying they are admitted and make obeisance to her.
“Much dancing and singing, fun and frolic are indulged in during the night. As the grey dawn of the Day of Bride breaks, they form a circle and sing the hymn, Beautiful Bride. Then they distribute the fragments of the feast among the poor women of the place.”
The arrangements for such folk celebration of Candlemas often seem to have been planned and carried out by women and girls, with men and boys being invited in if they ask nicely, behave themselves and show appropriate reverence for the goddess.
At home, you might celebrate Candlemas by lighting candles and decorating your dining table with Snowdrops, Dandelions or Primroses if they are available, and with shells, crystals and other things that will sparkle and shine in the candlelight.
An archetypal emblem of Brigid in Ireland is the Brigid's Cross, woven from Willow withies, straw, reeds, grasses, etc. This symbol seems to be another pagan continuation, the cross representing the four directions and a simplified form of the Solar wheel of the year. The following video gives a step-by-step guide to making one.
In the strange, dark times we have been experiencing for the last year, the idea of light and life returning to the world in any form seems a wonderful one to embrace. When we consider that the White Serpent has ancient roots in British and Irish traditions as a bringer not only of light and life but also of health and healing, it becomes even more enticing. In our tradition, the White Serpent is the regenerative power that combats and ultimately defeats the dark Serpent that embodies disease as readily as it defeats the dark and cold of winter. The conflict between the light and dark Serpents features in the most famous of the poems attributed to the legendary 6th century bard, Taliesin. In Cad Goddeu, 'the Battle of the Trees,' illness is characterised as "A Serpent, speckled, crested, a hundred souls for their sins are tormented in his flesh," while the bard himself says, "I was a speckled Snake on a hill, I was a Viper in a lake." Taking on the form of the White Serpent of healing, the Serpent of the goddess that brings new life to the earth each Spring, Taliesin defeats the dark Serpent of disease. Hence we should invoke the White Serpent with renewed fervour this year, that the healing, life-restoring power of the goddess of springtime flows once more through the land, bringing her gifts of light, life and healing to all. So may it be!
Blessings of Gwyl Forwyn, of healing, strength and renewal, to one and all,