First Light: Brigid and the Bear
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.
There is another story about Brigid that I also love. She was once refused land that was sacred to the trees (the oak) by a king in druid lore. She asked if she could just have the amount of land that her green mantle would cover. The king agreed. Four maidens stretched Brigid’s mantle to the east, south, west, and north until it covered many acres of land with the oak at its center and a well nearby. A sanctuary was built under the oak.
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 ritual of all – not just for healing individuals but to help restore harmony and balance between the people and nature.
From a naturalists 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 devoted mother for 18 months; brown bears and polar bears stay 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 (and the goddess Brigid) who ushers in the year’s rebirth in such an embodied way.