‘From the sacrificial fires of patriarchy, we must shift toward the burning fires within. From the burning fires of the Inquisitions, we must now turn towards authentic sources of empowerment by committing ourselves once again to becoming, daughters of Brigit’
Mary Condren, Brigit SoulSmith for the New Millenium.
In this Celtic Soul School feature:
The Psychology of Imbolc
Brighid’s Wheel – Ancient Symbol
Making a Paper Wheel
Using the Wheel in Ritual
Goddess of the Threshold
Brighid’s Wheels, also called Brighid’s Crosses, are symbols of protection. They are traditionally placed above thresholds of the house, such as doorways and windows, to offer protection to those living in the house as well as offering protection to the physical structure of the house. Among her many attributes, Brighid is a goddess of thresholds, with tales of her mother giving birth at the threshold of the house.
Wheels are traditionally made on Imbolc eve using rushes or straw. At each Imbolc a new wheel was often hung in the rafters of the kitchen offering protection throughout the year. The old Wheel was either left in its place or taken outside and buried or burnt. Sean O Duinn explains it wasn’t unusual to come across houses with around 50 wheels in the rafters.
Imbolc, 1st February is Brighid’s festival and has numerous traditions of inviting Brighid into our homes and lives. Many rites took place over the threshold of the house where those outside would knock and ask if she was welcome, the reply being ‘she is welcome, she is welcome, she is welcome’. Each year my Imbolc ritual involves inviting Brighid in with her representing the light and life itself. Imbolc is a time in which many women take their vows, their dedication to the wheel and of saying ‘yes’ to another year another cycle around the wheel. While we welcome Brighid in embodied by light yet if you live in the northern hemisphere at northern latitudes Imbolc can often feel as your plunged into a deeper darkness. This is the time of year that many old people who have survived the winter choose to die and let go.
The psychology of Imbolc can be one of worry and unease. I feel we have the hundreds of generations of ancestors feelings of Imbolc knitted into our bones – old worries if the sparse food resources would last much longer. Imbolc is the promise of new light but it is not yet spring as in my opinion the two snows we can be pretty much be guaranteed are in early November and early march. We too can be haunted with worries over ill friends, worries about paying the heating bill and maybe of lining up regular work. In our current political, environmental climate it seems we are in a permanent state of Imbolc, the worry and the unease being constant.
An Ancient Symbol
Mary Condren, an Irish theologian, explains that it is likely that Brighid’s Wheel does not actually originate from Ireland but rather has an international ancestry. One main reason for her conclusion is that there are no instances of her symbol being etched on early pottery or stone.
In the middle of the Wheel (above), the central pattern forms a lozenge or diamond. Sean O Duinn notes that his shape is very similar to the symbol found on hundreds of early goddess
Lozenge and seed motif on Neolithic ceramic female figurine Cucuteni-Trypillian culture, ca. 5500-2750 BCE, Piatra Neamt Museum, Romania.
Types of Wheels
There are many types of Brighid’s Wheel, Sean O Duinn describes that different regions had their own style of Brighid’s Wheel, while some developed as ornate designs that were brought as decorations to church. Styles vary from the four or three armed or ‘swastika’ type to the diamond or lozenge type to a whole host of sheaf crosses.
The Wheel is similar to the swastika with four protruding arms which suggests the symbol is in motion. The Sanskrit meaning behind the swastika is symbol good fortune or well being. Variations on this sacred symbol can be found in many cultures, possibly originating in the Neolithic and found within Mayan, Native American, Hindu, Buddhist, Jainism, and Norse belief.
A triple Goddess Brighid doll (Brighid and her two sisters) with wheel made from corn husk
Making and Using Brighid’s Wheels
We can still make Brighid’s wheels and place them above the thresholds of the house for evoking Brighid’s protection over the coming year. They don’t have to be made from traditional rush or straw although I often use corn husks. Wheels can be made from paper, yarn, corn husks (as shown on the triple Brighid doll above), pipe-cleaners or wool.
I like to use the paper ones for recording my own personal psychology at this time of the year. Using the paper ones to record what feeling of worries or general unease arise. Writing them down helps to acknowledge them and a better basis for beginning to work with them.
I also like to make them from black card and then instead of writing you can use symbols and colors. There is no ‘right’ way to use wheels but as an artist and ritualist I like to explore ways of bringing these practices into my life. Wheels weren’t just for Imbolc as they were often given throughout the year in celebration given to a friend or to help them in hard times. You can explore using wheels from colors and shapes to varying materials. rom feelings of unease they can also be used to record what you wish to give life to in this coming year.
How to Make a Paper Wheel
Step 1. Cut a rectangle shaped piece of paper into four equal lengths and then fold each strip in half
Step 2. Lay our your first folded strip with the fold facing rightStep 3. Add the second strip feeding it through the first – fold facing downwards. When making a wheel you create it clockwise in the direction of the sun. Step 4. Add the third strip feeding it through the second – fold facing left
Step 5. Add the forth strip feeding it through the third so it loops over the first
Step 6. Pull each of the ends in turn to tighten up your wheel
Where ever we are on the wheel I can often only make sense of things through ritual. Ritual doesn’t need to be some big grand organized affair, which can put many folks off, as it can be as simple as a silent gesture or some words around an action or intention. Ritual is my language, my way of making sense of things, they way to weave myself into the world and out onto the great invisible web that connects all things. From my breath and the stone I hold in my hand out to the furthest nebula exploding in the most beautiful colors ritual is my way of weaving it all together and making space for mystery.
Quartz crystal, quartz stone and snake bones
In personal ritual I like to work with stones and natural objects and seeing it is Imbolc Brighid’s wheel can be a focus for lying all those things out into a representation of a gratitude, a prayer or request.
Saint Brighid’s Cathedral is found in Kildare, Ireland where there are records of several orders of priestesses – we can’t say for sure that these priestesses (or nuns) at Kildare performed the same role at the Roman priestesses but as so much of the symbolism overlaps it does provide light on the role of some of the possible rituals and features that may have been practised at Kildare. A perpetual lame used to burn there which was extinguished in the middle ages with the dissolution of the monasteries, but the flame was relit by the Brigidine Sisters in 1993.
The snake has always been associated with Brighid and there are theories that Kildare also may have been a cult centre for the serpent which it was thought were imported into Ireland as while popular myth says St Patick banished all the snakes (which was actually a metaphor for Pagans) snakes hadn’t existed in Ireland since the last ice age.
My Brighid’s wheel pictured above is adorned with snake bones.
Click above to check out my online Brighid course exploring several traditions which involve invoking Brighid’s protection
Next week’s Imbolc post will explore the tradition of the ‘Bhrat Bhrighde’ which is laying out cloth on Imbolc eve for Brighid to bless as well as the tradition of the Brideog doll with instructions on how to make your own Brideog doll.
For those in the Asheville, NC area check out out Imbolc weekend retreat – click on the image above
Click on the logo above to join the school for free and keep up to date with workshops, courses and retreats as well as regular features as we travel the wheel of the year.
Condren, Mary. 1989. The Serpent and the Goddess. Women, Religion and Power in Celtic Ireland. Harper Row, San Francisco, USA.
Condron, Mary. Mary Condren. Brigit SoulSmith for the New Millenium. Available via Academia.edu (you will have to register for a free account).
Gimbutus, Marija. 1982. The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe. University of California Press, USA.
Gimbutus, Marija. 1989. The Language of the Goddess. Thames and Hudson, USA.
O Duinn, Sean. 2004. The Rites of Brighid. Goddess and Saint. The Columba Press, Blackrock, Dublin, Ireland.