Winter light pauses so briefly. Now Chickadees are chirping and wild doves are pairing up. Birds are starting to sing love songs to the earth as she turns towards the light. By early February light is streaming into the house with more warmth and for longer hours. It is no longer dark at 5 PM.
Each morning I stand at the window to glimpse a golden orb rising through the cracks of bare tree branches. Some days the sky is infused with deep rose, bittersweet orange or scarlet. When the sun star appears I watch what the light will do – will it reflect on the still open water of the brook, or turn night frozen branches into star-like crystals? Some days the sun has to climb out of the hooded clouds to rise into blue. Amazingly, this star at the center of our solar system literally transforms parts of its body into light every second, an astonishing thought that speaks more to sun as process than to an actual entity… First Light is upon us.
After a warm sunny afternoon young maple branches outside my window turn a rosy red providing a dramatic contrast to the snow. Sap is rising, if only temporarily. Mid winter also brings us raindrops that shine like the finest crystals when freezing, and blankets of snow that keep the Earth in stillness and deep slumber until the next storm erupts…
Many cultures throughout the world still celebrate this mid –winter turning including myself. Brigid ‘calls’ me as does the Great Bear.
The Celtic Brigid’s Festival occurs around February 2nd. Brigid is a goddess of poetry and creative inspiration. As a goddess of the forge she is associated with both Fire and Light and the return of the sun/son.
Another aspect of Brigid is that of water. Her sacred springs were/are associated with healing. These clear mountain springs have a spiritual and bodily capacity to purify whatever/whoever they touch. They bubble up from the depths of the molten earth.
One legend has it that a crystal drop from Brigid’s mantle touched the earth and became a deep clear lake. I love this image. I think of Brigid’s blue lake as a kind of mysterious bowl that holds different ways of experiencing time. If I throw in a hook I might catch time in the round as I experience it as seasonal cycles. Ah, I have caught a January feeling through a chickadee. A childhood loss – memory of an inexplicable death might pull me under without notice after I throw in the next hook. Or I might reel in a dream of a future event that might release me from a haunting. In Brigid’s Lake time does not flow like a river even when I experience it that way – Time is simply there as unexplored potential waiting to be lived.
Brigid is a Lover of Women, Mistress of the Dreamtime, and a Daughter of Prophecy. She reigns over the fires of our imagination. In Celtic and Nordic mythology she wears a crown made of evergreens that is lit with candles.
I prepare for this turning by bringing indoors a second wreath of fragrant balsam greens that I made when I wove the first wreath for the house at winter solstice. In its place I lay the fresh fragrant wreath on the same chest and surround the circle with tiny white lights – Brigid is crowned and the Circle of Life is renewed. The light is returning. A hand carved bear sits in the center of my wreath to honor the Goddess/God as the Great Bear. The old wreath is surrendered to the fire.
Brigid reminds me that the goddess is always with us manifesting as Love and the Power of Woman to create changes that can help us to retrace our steps to embrace an egalitarian matriarchal perspective, way of being in the world that focuses on equality and the good of whole community. After picking up this thread it becomes possible to move into a future that allows us to bridge differences so that we may live in harmony with humans so different from ourselves – we must create unity and begin to repair the bridge to the rest of nature, the latter is a lesson we must learn if humans are to survive.
Equally important to me is that Brigid has a bear aspect because I also associate the bear with the Sacred Body of the Earth, and with Earth’s ability to heal herself as well as her people. This healing aspect of the bear is another reason the bear holds the place of honor in the center of the wreath. Even as we continue to destroy her, nature will live on. It is humans that are in dire need of help.
Both Brigid and Bear are associated with brightness and the return of the sun. Both speak to the powers of healing, the coming of spring, and most important rebirth. Fire and Water are the elements invoked.
The goddess Brigid may have been the Great Bear Mother that was venerated in the earliest recorded bear cults. All reference the bear who entered the underworld, died, was reborn in the spring. The power of bears and bear shamanism is documented in all the circumpolar cultures – Siberian, Alaskan, Scandinavian, Nordic, Celtic, Germanic cultures as well as the Indigenous peoples of the Americas.
Up until recently, Europeans celebrated Bear’s Day on February 2nd. Country folk walked from town to town with a live chained brown bear (the Shrovetide Bear) who they forced to walk on hot coals. It was believed that the bear who walked through the fire would help the crops to grow. When I think about this story I imagine the bear as the body of the earth that is forced to endure intolerable fire to appease human stupidity…
No one seems to know how Bear’s Day became the secular Groundhog Day in the United States. On February 2nd the bear/ hedgehog/groundhog emerges from his den. If he sees his shadow he returns to sleep for another six weeks. Regardless of his behavior the appearance of the bear is a harbinger of the coming season. Because male bears do emerge from their dens during the winter months it makes sense that this bear is male (hedgehogs and groundhogs do not usually surface during winter months). I find it interesting that both male and female aspects of the bear have become mythologized by humans.
In the far north the Inuit hunt polar bears for food/clothing etc. Some Indigenous peoples of the United States do the same; others hold the bear as too sacred to hunt. For Indigenous peoples bears are relatives, embodying healing and protection. Because of the power and strength of this relationship male bears are treated with great reverence and often called Grandfather. If there is a spring hunt in the United States (females are never hunted – they are too sacred), only one male is taken for food and fat and each part of the animal is used. The bear’s skull is returned to the forest and is placed on the branch of an evergreen. The People (all Native peoples call themselves the People) believe that if respected, the Spirit of the Bear will return to allow himself to be sacrificed the following year. Contrast this approach to the bear hunt with that of modern-day cultures.
The Navajo have a ceremony that marks mid -winter called the Mountainway, also celebrated in early February. The Bear Ceremony is the most powerful of all of the healing chants and curiously in this tradition the “Woman Who Becomes a Bear” leads the ceremony. This shape -shifting bear walks through the darkness, works with fire, and converses with the Yei, the sky gods. This Bear Ceremony is the most powerful healing ceremony of all – not just for healing individuals but to help restore harmony and balance between the people and nature.
From a naturalist perspective, we learn that female wild bears give birth in mid to late January emerging from their dens in early spring when the warming sun melts frozen ground. Bear mothers are alert and attentive to the birth of and caring for their cubs. Black bear cubs remain with the mother for 18 months; brown bears and polar bears stay with mother for two and half years. During a mild winter, males may awaken and leave their dens for brief periods. A bear that leaves its den during the late fall and winter will often walk in its own tracks to return to it.
Mid – winter approaches under a waxing moon this year. Northern Indigenous peoples call this moon the “Little Bear Moon” in honor of all the female bears most of whom give birth this month. As I celebrate this turning my heart opens to the wee cubs nestled under their mother’s thick fur even as I thank each bear who ushers in the year’s rebirth in such an embodied way.
Sara is a naturalist, ethologist ( a person who studies animals in their natural habitats) (former) Jungian Pattern Analyst, and a writer. She publishes her work regularly in a number of different venues and is presently living in Maine.
16 thoughts on “First Light: Brigid and the Bear by Sara Wright”
This is beautiful! A lovely and poignant evocation of Brigid for Imbolc! You always write so lovingly of bears – I can feel the flow of affection in your posts and it is so hopeful and heart-warming.
I love bears and have studied them for more than 20 years so it’s not surprising that you can feel the affection! I’m glad that you find it heartwarming – when I look into a bear’s face like that of Coal’s,( the bear in the picture) I feel the power of that gaze – the fear and the compassion are real.
Imbolc into Candlemas, Bear into Groundhog, you can’t completely hide the original themes and knowledge. I love your depiction of time and the contemplation of different ways of seeing it.
Do you know in the Hawaiian language there is no verb form of past tense or future tense. They see time very differently than we do in our Western world. Language holds the key!
Thanks for this.
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Yes! The fluidity between all these expressions of the goddess and her animal aspects is simply there – all we have to do is look… Yes, I did know that in the Hawaiian language past present future are one. Is it language that holds the key or is it our bodies that do? Maybe language is the means we use to describe what we know?
Very interesting. But as I see the calendar, yesterday or today is the first day of spring. As I see the calendar, the cross-quarter days (Feb. 1, May 1, Aug. 1, Nov. 1) are the first days of the seasons, and the solstices and equinoxes are the centers–highest points–of the seasons. Today is when the light of spring begins to shine brighter. The light opened its eyes and peeked around, so to speak, on Dec. 22 (or thereabouts), but now the light is more awake. I wrote about this in the Llewellyn 2021 Witches’ Companion.
Sooooo, bright springtime blessings to us all. Yes, it’s still snowing and a noreaster is roaring up the east coast, but let’s hold on to the idea of springtime.
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I’ll say mid -winter – a nor’easter is here – shoveling about 20 inches of snow – I’m too old for this but have to get paths made for my dogs… help comes tomorrow when storm ends… spring? maybe elsewhere!
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In my studies I have noticed that different cultures celebrate these turnings around the same time, but not necessarily on the same day – there is a fluidity that I like here – an inclusiveness of all peoples, goddesses, animal familiars. I take liberties with these days for that very reason and also because its important to me to celebrate when the time feels right – this year that day occurred on Jan 31… But you are correct, of course February 1 is the Celtic Brigid’s Feast Day.
I love Brigid as Bear Woman. Your image of Brigid’s Lake as a place that “holds different ways of experiencing time” is profound. It helps me understand and enter more deeply into the way I have found myself relating to time in the last few years. Thank you so much.
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I, too, deeply appreciated how your imagery frees us from the tyranny of linear time. And your gorgeous descriptions of nature and mythological figures remind me of the power of simply being present to the earth and the rest of the mysterious universe every day.
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Oh wow, thank you so much.
This is just lovely, Sara. This bit “Brigid reminds me that the goddess is always with us manifesting as Love and the Power of Woman to create changes that can help us to retrace our steps to embrace an egalitarian matriarchal perspective, way of being in the world that focuses on equality and the good of whole community. After picking up this thread it becomes possible to move into a future that allows us to bridge differences so that we may live in harmony with humans so different from ourselves – we must create unity and begin to repair the bridge to the rest of nature, the latter is a lesson we must learn if humans are to survive.” really touched my heart. <3 <3 <3
Wow, this is so fascinating. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us.
Beautiful post! You know I too love both Brigid and Bear – strong, enduring symbols of healing, transformation and rebirth. I love your first line so much -“Winter light pauses so briefly.” – as it expresses what I feel this year. For the first time in my life I was sad on Feb 2 to see the dark, quiet of winter go. But all things must pass and the passing into Spring is certainly wonderful!
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Oops – forgot to say Thanks for sharing the story about Brigid’s mantle and the lake. I had never heard that one. I’ve been thinking about time in a similar fashion over the past few days.
I just learned that story about Brdgid’s mantle and loved it so thanks!
Interesting about time – I think we are all part of an earth mind as well as a body – so dipping into that lake is dipping into Earth mind maybe?
Isn’t it strange to feel so sad that winter is passing so fast? I wonder if this has something to do with age – and the fact that we can move at a slower pace during the winter months? I used to love this time of year – now – much less so.