Not your Valentine: Februa, Imbolc and purification

Snow coats the land, white as a swan’s wing, Brighid’s pale mantle that brings the spring.

February wasn’t traditionally a time of love for the ancients; in Rome, it was a time of purification. Februa, the ritual of purification that gave the month its name, may be related to the Latin word for fever, febris. Februa  later became Lupercalia on the Ides of February — and, ultimately, Valentine’s Day, when the populace continued to celebrate the festival despite the church’s condemnation.

The link between purification and today’s festival of romantic love may seem tenuous, but it’s there. In addition to purification, Lupercalia also functioned as a fertility festival, as purification (of illness, evil spirits, etc.) removed the obstacles to new life. It involved many ritual practices, but most famously the spectacle of naked men running through the city, whacking women on the palms with thongs of goat hide.

The Celts obviously didn’t celebrate Februa, unless they were in Roman-influenced lands. However, Imbolc — in Keltria, described as the Feast of Stirring — can be seen as a holiday of purification. Certainly, some of the traditional practices — stepping through the hoop of the crios Bride and making her reed cross — were intended to ward off harm, illness and ill spirits. Cloth left outside, which She blessed by touching on Imbolc night, were also held to ward off disease and harm.

Brighid is the Goddess of many things, but ultimately the hearth-fire. In Indo-European cultures, the deity of the hearth-fire is considered the purest of Gods, the heart of the holy. She’s most often a Goddess: the Greek Hestia, the Roman Vesta, the Scythian Tabiti (considered the most important deity in that pantheon), the Lithuanian Gabija, the Slavic Matka Gabia. In India, he is male: Agni, the holy fire at the center of all sacred rites.

In Mediterranean climates, February is a time of cool temperatures and rain; in more northerly climes, such as mine, it’s a time of snow and biting wind. People are driven indoors to the Hearth Goddess’ life-giving embrace, venturing outside to aid their birthing sheep.

In Keltria, we also honor Aonghus Og — the Young Son, the god of love, inspiration and rising sap — on Imbolc and Mean Erraigh, the spring solstice. Usually, at least. I give a nod to the swan-winged God on Imbolc, but I truly celebrate him on the solstice, when the river ice begins to crack (at least around here) and spring truly is in the air. While he, like all Gods, in manifest in various ways year-round, I can feel him most strongly in nature from March through the end of May. As hearth goddess, his sister Brighid holds sway most strongly from December through the end of February.

In short, I’ve never felt Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday to fit with the seasonal and sacred pattern. While Imbolc is my favorite holiday, it’s certainly not a romantic one, although Brighid herself has been married a few times. (The Celts, unlike their Roman relations, didn’t care so much about virginity; the state of their Goddesses reflects that. Another plus for the Celts!)

So, don’t worry about chocolate, flowers and sexy time; that’s for Beltaine. The Ides of February are a far better time to clean house!

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About whitecatgrove

The musings of a Druid priestess, singer, poet and musician in Upstate New York.
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