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Brighidine Flametending and Imbolc

6 min read

Brighidine Flametending wasn’t something that had occurred to me as a topic for Wyrd Wednesdays until last week. I was writing the Witchy Apps list and mentioned it in passing. I wanted to link to a post explaining the basics of it, but couldn’t find one in time.

So, I figured I’d write my own.

It’s actually quite perfect, as this month marks my 10 year anniversary of tending flame for Brighid and my ongoing relationship with her. While there was a short time period when I was without a Cill or a shift, I did continue to work with and worship the goddess.

In order to understand Brighidine flametending, we need to know a bit more about Brighid.

Who is Brighid?

Brighid (alternatively Bride, Brigid, Brigit, etc) is an Irish goddess whose stories overlap with those of the saint. You may have heard of St. Brigid. She’s Ireland’s patroness, associated with healing, wells, harps, and, of course, flame.

Legend says she was an Abbess in Ireland, and that she was midwife to Mary when she was pregnant with the Christ child. St. Brighid is Jesus’ foster-mother. One of her many names is Mary of the Gael.

Part of the legend says when she petitioned the king for land to build an abbey, he followed tradition and said she could have whatever her cloak covered. Her cloak (or mantle) grew and grew and grew, until it stretched over the land she needed.

Alternate versions of this myth say she covered all of Ireland with her mantle, and thus the island is under her protection. A common prayer to her is to be covered by her mantle, thus invoking her protective and healing powers.

At Imbolc, her holiday and the feast day for the saint, pieces of cloth or brat Bhride are left outside for Brighid to bless as she walks the land. Alternatively, the cloth can be left at the hearth. (This is useful if you have local animals who will pee on it, as happened to my first brat.)

Imbolc

Imbolc is February 1st (this weekend!). It’s an ancient Celtic holiday as well as St. Brighid’s feast day. In Irish Celtic tradition, a day goes from sundown to sundown, so the start of Imbolc is sunset on January 31st. Personally, I celebrate from February 1st-2nd, because I like the idea of Groundhog Day being Brighidine.

(In the S. Hemisphere, the Neopagan Imbolc is on August 1st.)

Imbolc marks the beginning of spring, and it’s the time that Brighid comes back and brings fire to the land. There are multiple myths about this; one says that she is imprisoned during the winter months by the Cailleach, a Scottish winter hag goddess. Brighid frees herself and comes back at Imbolc.

Traditional celebrations of Imbolc involve cleaning the hearth and setting a little bed for Brighid, into which a doll representing her is placed. Brats are left by the hearth or outside to be blessed by her as she passes by. Use the same cloth year after year to strengthen the blessing.

Imbolc is a fire and purification festival. Bonfires, candles, and cleaning are traditional; in fact, the holiday may be the source for our modern “spring cleaning.” Feasts were held and offerings were made. Brighid’s connection to holy wells meant people would visit the wells and pray there for healing. Water from the wells would be used for healing or to clean the home.

Modern pagans find ways to bring these traditions into our very different lives. Instead of visiting a holy well (there are none near me), I put water on my shrine for Brighid to bless. Instead of a bonfire, I have a candle, and my spring cleaning is done in her name but with modern cleaning products.

Brighidine Flametending

Why do I specify Brighidine Flametending?

Flametending can be done for any god, or even any purpose, so I like to specify that what I’m talking about is for Brighid. As well, there is a pagan philosophy called FlameKeeping that has nothing to do with Brighidine Flametending, so it’s good to be specific.

Brighidine Flametending happens in the context of a Cill. Traditionally a Cill was a collection of 19 women who kept the flame over 20 days — the 20th day is left for Brighid. These days, Cills are often open to all genders and have more than 19 people apiece. To deal with larger numbers than 19, shifts are doubled up or the Cill forms sub-groups of 19.

The name Cill comes from Cill Dara, or Church of the Oak, the Gaelic name for Kildare.

The tradition of flametending comes from Kildare. According to legend, priestesses in pre-Christian Ireland kept a flame there, and St. Brigid continued the tradition with her nuns when she built her monastery and church there.

Kildare’s flame burned for centuries before being extinguished with the suppression of the monasteries. It was re-lit in 1993. Modern flametenders can go on pilgrimage to Kildare to get their candles lit at the eternal flame, thus taking the flame home with them.

How do you flametend?

In addition to tending a flame (whether real or digital), Brighidine flametending shifts are about connecting to Brighid. The best way to do that is to find activities that have a Brighidine focus, and avoid those she dislikes.

(I’m not allowed to play World of Warcraft on my shifts except in very rare circumstances.)

Modern practitioners have found that range can be very broad. As a goddess, Brighid has a finger in every pie. She is a goddess of healing, creative inspiration, smithing, purification, prophecy, community, and more.

We also find that often, Brighid will “suggest” an activity for our shifts. Examples from my own life include the following:

  • Pastoral care. Multiple times, someone in my community has needed my help on my flametending shift. Often, that form is “healing” of some sort — either they need an ear to listen, or a bear hug to calm them down.
  • Fire in the Head” or Imbas Forosnai. Brighid kindles fires of inspiration in her followers’ heads. In my case, it’s pretty literal — I get an intense, almost burning sensation in my head, and, if I don’t sit down to write, it turns into a migraine.
  • Healing myself. Sometimes, Brighid decides I’ve been running myself ragged and she hits me with a spiritual sleeping pill. I start yawning early in my shift and then boom, it’s lights out for the best sleep ever.

Why do you flametend?

Not everyone who follows Brighid feels called to join a Cill and tend the flame, but for those of us who do it’s a nice regular way to feel connection to the goddess. It’s also a nice way to find fellowship with other followers of her. Fellowship can be difficult for pagans because of our widely varied beliefs and our lack of infrastructure.

For myself, flametending is something that is always there even when I’m doing nothing else religiously. Life intervenes so much with what I want to get accomplished. Knowing that, if all else fails, I still have my Cill shift every 20 days helps keep me grounded in my faith and traditions.

As a writer, flametending shifts are valuable to me because they give me a time that’s blocked off for creative inspiration. As a person who struggles with illness and disability, the shifts are valuable because they don’t require much. A flame and my attention — and the flame doesn’t even have to be real.

Celebrating This Imbolc

If you’d like to celebrate Imbolc this year, I have a few ideas of things you could do!

  • Make a Brighid’s cross and hang it in the home.
  • Spring cleaning! If you can manage only one room, make it your kitchen — as the modern hearth, it’s Brighid’s main spot in the house.
  • Pay attention to Groundhog Day. Imbolc was traditionally a time of weather divination, and that is where we get Groundhog Day from.
  • Leave a piece of cloth you want Brighid to bless at your hearth or outside.
  • Start planting your garden. This is usually done inside at this time of year, but it depends on where you live.
  • Offer Brighid bread with butter and honey, and have some yourself.

Do you have any other ideas for celebrating Imbolc?


Katje van Loon writes epic fantasy with pagan themes, portal fantasy about pagan gods, and poetry inspired by witchcraft and ancient traditions. Zie’s not sure if she’s an expert yet, but boy howdy does zie know a lot about mythology and paganism.

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