27th January 1987
Dear Tessa and Glyn,
Somehow I find it hard to start these letters. Shall I just plunge straight in, describe Imbolg? First, I must say that I am really glad that you both want to go ahead, that you feel you have found your right path. It is wrong for witches to attempt to convert anybody. That is a rule of our religion. So if you had shown no more interest, you would have heard no more about it.
I know that you want to know about Imbolg first, Glyn. There is so much else I should say, if this festival is to be clear to you, in its full meaning. But I must start somewhere. I will start here, then. And add in other things as they occur.
Each of the eight Sabbats in the year celebrates a phase in the relationship between the Goddess and the Horned God, Mother/Father Nature, according to season. Imbolg is about beginnings. I call it Brideday. Bride is one of the Goddess’s many names. Though it was Christianized as the feast of St Brigid, the older Pagan festival referred to Bride, the Triple Goddess, in her maiden aspect. It is early spring. She is a young girl; she is at the beginning. Like her, we all (whether men or women) dream and make plans, and are inspired towards our future achievements. The Goddess’s three aspects of Maid, Mother and Crone stand for enchantment, ripeness and wisdom, in keeping with the three phases of a woman’s life. So at Imbolg, the Goddess will sing to us and through us of new enchantment by poetry and love. In spring, the mind and the body both find new inspiration. Thus, Bride is Goddess of poetry, as well as of fertility (and of healing and smithcraft, traditionally).
There are other themes being played out at Imbolg. It is a time of cleansing and purification. Spring-cleaning now prepares our minds and bodies for a resurgence. Bride the Maiden sweeps away the debris of winter and last year’s growth with her new broom. Like all young people, she is keen on new ways and new ideas. Like her, we must prepare and clear the ground for something new. It is the time of youthfulness and inspiration.
The young God, the Youth, approaches Bride with desire. He is courting her. As lovers (notice the nearby St Valentine’s Day, preserving the old beliefs), they inspire each other in mind and body. Their love finds expression in their sexual union. Through this, there will be future growth and fruitfulness, and new life will come into being. Like the young God, we all bring the spark of energy to our plans now: the upsurge of determination, action, which gives life.
In nature, we see the approach of Bride as Mother Earth puts forward the first spring flowers. We see the God in the young growing light of the sun.
I wrote this rather Elizabethan-sounding poem for the last Bride festival. It gives some idea of the themes of this turning-point.
From lovers true,
sweet poems flow.
As light enchants
shall the seed dance.
Now resurge both life and love,
earth young again,
young sun above.
Leafbud and snowdrop, see!
Bird sings from bare, bleak tree.
First signs of what shall be.
Light candles to Bride.
Spring shoot, waken seed.
Inspire, word and deed.
first stirrings of the light.
The most simple kind of Imbolg celebration can be tranquil, meditative. As a lone witch, you might place fresh spring flowers in your room on 2nd February. In the evening, you might light a candle to the worship of the Maiden and the Young God, and then give thanks for the inspiration of the spring light. Then you might dream and ponder, meditating deep within yourself about old ways and old ideas you now mean to leave behind, with winter. Then turn to the new ideas and plans you hope to see come into being in your future life. Imagine, also, the banishing of world hunger, or industrial pollution, or else threats of nuclear war. See these left behind in a winter phase of the world’s life. Then imagine a fresh world of balanced ecology. Humankind and the whole Earth in harmony, a world of peace, happiness and plenty.
Light a candle for three dreams or wishes and place these around the room. Light each from the main candle, the first one you lit. This is the Festival of the First Stirrings of the Light, in keeping with the spring. You have just performed a simple spell.
Tradition states that it is not worth trying to cast more than three spells on any one occasion. Magical concentration cannot be stretched any further than that. It is also traditional that spells for other people should come before any magic you do for yourself. So if you were lighting three candles, then the first might be for the world, the second for a friend, the third for some new project of your own. These rules are there for guidance rather than for strict adherence, but they are worth bearing in mind.
I imagine you are now both thinking, How can magic be so simple? How can something as easy as lighting a candle change anything? The answer? It doesn’t. What makes the difference is your thought. Magic is the power of thought. Lighting the candle is a device for focusing your thought. It is also a small offering to the powers of Nature, to whom you attune yourself, in thought. If by thought and imagining (of which more later) you have correctly altered your own state of consciousness you become at one with the beings, the energies, or the life tides and currents you have invoked at the moment of casting your spell. It is these which then bring the spell to fruition, make it work. If you have inadvertently, or even purposely, spelled for a manipulative, selfish or destructive end, it is unlikely to come to fruition if the deities to whom you are attuned are averse to this sort of behaviour — if they are, in fact, the true Goddess of the Circle of Rebirth and the Horned God. You would be aligning yourself with creativity, in order to work a destructive spell. Something would have to give. So you see it is of the utmost importance in whose names you work your magic. And a simple act like lighting three candles from a fourth one can be charged with magical effectiveness, for good or ill, or else be completely flat. It is you, the witch, who make the difference.
However, most witches will want to work a more complex ritual than that described above. They will want the full magic circle, ’sacred space between the worlds’. I will leave it to the next letter to describe how this is done, that is, how the circle is cast, but the rite will begin with an invocation to the Lady and the Lord. That means that the Goddess will be welcomed first with poetry, song or spoken declaration, in which her presence is requested (not that she is ever absent) and her blessing asked. The God is then invoked in the same way. Thus, consciousness is heightened, and connections made in the inner world.
The invocation can be simple or elaborate. A simple version would be like this:
I call upon the Triple Goddess of the Circle of Rebirth, she who brings all life into being. She who shines in the night sky with beauty, and enriches all the Earth with mystery. She who is the wisdom of the stars, the pulse of blood and the slow growth of trees. May her presence guide me and her blessing be upon me, for I am of her creation.
To request the presence of the Horned God, you might say:
Horned one, All Father, by the bone, the antler and claw, by the dark forest, by wildness, fierce joy and passion, by all that is untamed, free, be here as the leap of life, undeniable, that I may serve life, being at one with it.
Magic may be done in the Lady’s name only, if it is a spell for something specially connected with her. Likewise, spells may be cast, though less often, in his name alone. Usually, witches will work in both their names, remembering that deity is male and female, and that the interaction between the two great creative forces is what makes the worlds. In this, witchcraft resembles Taoism, recognizing life as the result of interplay between the male and female forces.
Traditionally, the Goddess is said to be ’first among equals’. This is partly because witchcraft has roots in the earliest forms of Paganism, which were matriarchal. Also, scientists have now discovered that femaleness seems, in evolutionary terms, to have come first. Maleness was born from it, apparently as a means of strengthening the species through the diversity of chromosome combinations possible in sexual reproduction. The sex which gives birth came first, while that which impregnates appeared later on. This may be another reason for the Goddess’s paradoxical elevation above, yet equality with, the God.
To continue with your Sabbat celebration, you might next stand facing the altar, and read or say aloud:
This is the Festival of Bride. I welcome the Triple Goddess, I celebrate and I acknowledge her as Maid. For this is the First Stirrings of the Light, the dawn of spring. The Goddess is again young. She banishes all that is outworn. She sweeps clean on Earth. And with the Young God of the Growing Light, new Lord of Day, she now prepares us for ecstasy, for love, for inspiration. In her name, I clear the ground, I clean and sweep and I prepare a place.
The lone witch will then ritually sweep the floor within the magical circle with a besom, traditional witch’s broom made from birch, sweeping away all the outworn, symbolically. (To spring-clean the house in the period just before Imbolg is also a ritual act. Old, unwanted books, clothes or ornaments may be thrown out, along with their associations, or sold or given away. This makes a space for the new.)
The circle should be swept anticlockwise, widdershins, for this is the banishing direction. Think about what you are magically sweeping away, from the world and also from your own life. What needs to go for new creative possibilities to be realized? Despair? Lack of insight? Fear? Limitations imposed by hierarchy? Refusal to change? Guilt? Alienation? Loneliness? Deprivation? Choose that which you feel most strongly about, and visualize it being swept up. Throw straws or paper scraps in front of your broom to represent the several aspects of this thing, naming them as you do so. When the scraps are all in one heap, place them in a box or tin at the south point of your circle. Later, when you have finished the ritual, burn them.
Put down the broom and dance clockwise, Sunwise, in a newly freshened circle of the world, and of your life, to welcome spring — its inspiration, its resurgence.
Sing, Spring fire! first stirrings of the light as a magical chant while you dance round and round the circle. Picture the effect on earth, on nature, of the lengthening of days. See snowdrops, the first leafbuds. See the lightening in the air, the first signs of spring. (When snow is on the ground, this is more a matter of faith! And yet there is something perceptible, for this is a turning-point. Allow yourself to feel it.)
When you finish dancing, place your hands around the base of an unlit candle, in consecration. This small candle will now be sacred to the light of inspiration. Light it, saying, Burn brightly, for you are of the sun. I dedicate you to inspiration, by the Maiden Goddess and the new Lord of Day.
Now, small candles are lit from the big, main candle, each one for some new seed idea or dream, an invocation to make it grow with spring light and be brought to fruition. Arrange the candles in a ring around the main candle. Not everyone has enough small candles to do this, but birthday-cake candles will do, in a circle of Plasticine. I suppose this would shock practitioners of High Magic, for there is nothing ceremonial here! But I am of the opinion that the Goddess especially inclines to Kitchen Magic, for things like birthday-cake candles and holders are available to anyone. They are unpretentious. The visual effect is good and, magically, I can vouch for the fact that they do work. Actually, I believe this kind of thing is the essence of hedge witchcraft, if not of all witchcraft. You need to make the ’Crown of Lights’ for Bride, so you look around the house and find your kid’s Plasticine and left-over candles from his or her last birthday, plus some unused holders. This is magic in the midst of life. And though it would be lovely to buy, if you could afford it, brand new beeswax candles and three pottery holders, it would be no more effective magically.
Light each candle with some words of invocation. I light this candle to—[here name your chosen plan or wish]. A lone witch will have a maximum of three small candles around the large one (for maximum concentration, just the three spells or wishes). A couple will have three candles each.
Your invocations must be for the good of those around you, and for life in general, whether they are invocations for your own needs to be fulfilled, or for someone else’s. That is, they must be harmonious. They must also be in your own best interests. Witches have only one commandment, called the Witches’ Rede, but it is unequivocal: ’Harm none.’ I do not believe that either of you would intentionally use magic to attempt to control or manipulate another person’s life. But mistakes can be made, inadvertently, for we mortals cannot always know the best solution to any situation. And there is another belief: ’What you send returns to you, threefold, whether for good or ill.’
Invocations for peace of mind or peace on earth or healing, or for the right (unnamed) lover to come to you, or for yourself or another to be rid of addiction to tobacco (or whatever) are obviously not harmful. But no spell should ever be cast without deep consideration of all the implications of its successful outcome. It is never right to interfere with another person’s autonomy, and some would go so far as to say that even a healing spell should not be cast without the permission of the person for whom it is being done. It is not, actually, a bad idea to be that cautious, for magic is rarely ineffectual, but sometimes, like anything else, it does backfire.
Above all, remember the life of Mother Earth, for you are a priest or priestess of nature magic. Human needs can and should be met, but not at the expense of the environment, not by ignoring Earth’s needs. This would be a betrayal of your true role.
After the candle-lighting, it is good to bring an offering and place it on your altar, to Bride. This should be something you have already felt inspired to do: a piece of pottery, some sewing, a song or poem, a picture, an idea for something connected with your job, some small piece of metalwork, or woodwork, whatever you have. Lay it on the altar, with thanks. It is symbolic of dedicating all future work to the Goddess.
Conclude your ritual with a communion, a joining with the Goddess and the God, by eating bread or cakes and drinking wine which you have lightly covered with your hands and asked them to bless and to make sacred. (If, for any reason, you do not want to drink wine, or if you haven’t got any, fruit juice will do. Come to that, water will do, but is best with a dash of wine or some apple concentrate as this is supposed to be a joyful communion, not a prisoner’s pittance!)
Any festival of Full Moon rite should end with a communion. This is not a parody of a Christian communion, since it is something far older. It is acknowledgement and celebration of the love between the Goddess and the God who made the world, the bread and wine, and you. It is a way of joining with them, with all life.
I have said much about the Goddess and the God in whose names we work. But who are they? This is a subject for the next letter, since there is much to be said. And it should, perhaps, have been said first. But I knew you would like to know what witches do, at a present-day Sabbat. I have tried to give you some idea, in simple terms, of what a hedge witch does.
Meanwhile, think about the Goddess and the God as archetypal first parents of all life: not making the world in one moment and then standing back, outside creation; but continually involved, involving, manifest, as well as reachable through poetry and myth and inner exploration.
I hope this makes some things clear.
I do not mean either of you to do the full ritual, the one I have just described. That is for next Bride Day. Since I have not yet described the casting of a circle, the instructions are not complete. However, I would like you to do the simple version, if you wish. Light candles, meditate and see how you personally experience this time of year, and what you feel inspired to do.
I will tell how to cast a circle fairly soon, so that you can try a full ritual, if you want to, before initiation. You may wonder why in that case, you need bother with initiation, if you can work magic, worship, do everything in fact, without it. Well, one answer to that is that this is one initiation, now. You will, to a degree, be initiated the minute you first celebrate the turning tides and seasons in any way at all. Full formal self-initiation, in the sense in which we have been discussing it, is the first step on a path of complete commitment. Before that, you can still turn back. By the time that you get close to it, you will know whether you want to.