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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Imbolc – Divination practices

Hawthorn berries under snow, Imbolc 2016

Divination practices are found during all of the significant Irish celebrations and Imbolc is no exception. The timing for taking the omens varied but could occur anytime from the night before Imbolc to the morning of the festival. Particularly the period immediately after the feasting portion of the celebration was often used for divination (Estyn Evans, 1957). In some specific cases relating to the casting of lots for fisherman or the reading of the marks in the ashes the divination occurred on the morning of the festival (Danaher, 1972).

Several Imbolc omens relied on seeing certain animals, and sometimes on noting what the animal was doing. Seeing a hedgehog on Imbolc was believed to be an omen of good weather to come, as it was believed that if the hedgehog sensed bad weather coming in the early spring season he would return to his burrow (Danaher, 1972). This seems to be reflected in the American practice of looking to groundhogs for weather predictions at the same time of year. If you hear a lark singing on Imbolc it is an omen of a good spring (Danaher, 1972). The lark is a bird often associated with Brighid and of good weather.

Weather omens more generally were also very commonly noted. Rain on Imbolc was believed to foreshadow pleasant weather in the coming summer (Danaher, 1972). A windy Imbolc means snow in March, according to this traditional saying:
“As far as the wind shall enter the door
On the Feast Day of Bride,
The snow shall enter the door
On the Feast Day of Patrick.” (Carmichael, 1900, p 173).
By looking then at how the weather is on Imbolc we can foretell what the spring is most likely to look like. I have found it helpful in my own area to keep notes about each feast day's weather and an significant or memorable signs and then what follows or is notable in the next season to form my own ideas about omens, but I have found that a hard Imbolc tends to mean a hard spring and a light Imbolc an easy or early spring.

A ritual for divination involved the use of the slat Brighid, or Brighid’s wand, a peeled stick made of a white wood that was left with an effigy of Brighid near the hearth overnight. The ashes of the fire would be carefully smoothed when the family went to bed and in the morning the marks of the wand appearing in the ashes were a good omen (Carmichael, 1900). An even better omen was the mark of a footprint, seen as a sign that Brighid herself had visited and blessed the home (Carmichael, 1900). Very unlucky though was the home with no mark left in the ashes at all. To turn this ill omen incense is burned through the next night on the fireplace and a chicken is buried alive as an offering at the joining of three streams (Carmichael, 1900).

Danaher, K., (1972). The Year in Ireland. Mercier Press.
Estyn Evans, E., (1957). Irish Folk Ways. Routledge & Keegan Paul, ltd.
Carmichael, A., (1900). Carmina Gadelica volume 1, retrieved from