When I was first studying Paganism in the 90’s we were told that “not much” was known about Imbolc.
I’m not surprised; we were told that “not much” was known about the other festivals that have come to be known in Paganism as the Wheel of the Year. We didn’t know much about these festivals because Patriarchy or something, suppression of Goddess worship something, and the Burning Times something else.
The amazing thing is that these days we do know quite a bit about some of these festivals. There are a lot of things we know aren’t true either. We know that Mabon wasn’t historically celebrated and there was no festival named after Mabon. We know that Midsummer was more broadly practiced in Scandanavian countries. We know that a lot of these holidays were picked up from various forms of northwestern European folk religion and practice; chosen because they helped create a nice, tidy, somewhat symmetrical series of festivals that reinforced the idea of Wicca being the survival of ancient, unbroken agrarian folk religion.
And that doesn’t mean that there isn’t validity or power in Wicca or related traditions; I just feel strongly that those that participate in them should have a deep awareness of those histories and not be satisfied with the writings of pop Pagan authors from the 80s like so many of my early teachers and associates were. I think they would benefit from it. At very least we would stop having “Imbolc Chakra Journeys” and other relatively meaningless chains of unrelated words and concepts as our regular offerings in Pagan events.
We also know better these days.
We know better about a lot of things. We know that not a few Jewish people have expressed discomfort at Pagans incorporating Kaballah slap-dash into their religion with no context or understanding. It amazes to me that non-Jewish people think they know better than Jewish people about this. (And I know not every Jewish person feels this way, I encourage you to do your own research, but from a place of seeking understanding, not a place of seeking justification).
We know that many practitioners of African Diasporic faiths have expressed rightful dismay at people who do not belong to their traditions willy-nilly calling to Orisha and other beings into the middle of Pagan rituals, and yet avoiding rites at conventions that don’t casually do things like this is like dancing on a minefield.
We know that when these things are challenged, the overwhelming response of most white Pagans is pearl-clutching entitlement and endless sophistry about why they shouldn’t have to listen to members of real, living cultures who have been discriminated against for the very practices that they are lifting, with no context, acknowledgement, or care, and tossing down into their own rites.
I’m going to repeat what everyone has said before: this is about context, it’s about oppression, and it’s about devaluing sacred traditions of living cultures.
There is nothing wrong with going humbly to members of these traditions and asking to learn. (There is also nothing wrong with them turning you away; too many white people just do this to have something to sell.) There is nothing wrong with learning about these things in a way that centers the living cultures that involve them and the individuals who practice them. In fact, doing so allows you a deeper understanding of these beings, these rites, these bits of sacred technology. It’s also the right thing to do.
Do you really think you’re going to understand something better than someone whose traditions have spent hundreds or thousands of years negotiating, working with, partnering with, cocreating with, these beings? Cause there are words for that: arrogance and hubris. You won’t find a spiritual tradition worth its salt where arrogance or hubris are considered virtuous.
I’m a person of mostly European ancestry and it shows; I’m white. I get how complicated it can be to be a person living in the USA or Canada, whose European roots are concealed by elimination and homogenization, to the point where we don’t know who we are and we certainly don’t know what Gods we should worship or what folk ways are right for us. I second guess my polytheist practice all the time. Are the Gods and spirits I speak to the ones that spoke to my Hellenic, Thracian, Phrygian, Scandanavian, etc ancestors of lineage in their worship? Is it rightful for someone whose culture is a lack of culture, whose ancestry are colonizers and settlers, to have any relationship with any divinity at all? Is there anything sacred left after the campaigns that my ancestors carried out to destroy the sacred traditions of their own ancestors (along with those of everyone else)?
I was born and have spent a good portion of my life in the so-called USA, too. I’m not Irish. I’m not Scandanavian. I’m not Romanian or Bulgarian. I may have a bunch of ancestors who were, but I wasn’t raised in those lands with that cultural background.
I negotiate the answers as well as I can. I don’t take down my shrines, I try to move forward with my Gods and spirits and make something better rather than despairing and giving up on spiritual connections due to social guilt of the systems that I’m complicit in. That’s one of my answers.
My other answer: go to the people who know. Regardless of the faith tradition, you will find people who are part of these living cultures (or the descendants of those cultures) who are willing to share, and willing to teach, as long as you come with open hands and mind and come as a student, instead of coming as a conqueror to claim things from them, demanding that they give them to you, or worse, stealing these things and using them like you think you know what they are and what their purpose is.
I promise you, I promise you, I promise you: if you understand these things, and where they came from, and what they were, and what they still are, better, your experiences with them will be deeper, more powerful, more holy and more wholesome.
Be willing to listen. Be willing to learn. Be open to criticism. Be open to change.
I’m lighting a candle for Brighid this Imbolc because we know it’s a day associated with Her, and She has a relationship with another Goddess who is very dear to me (She’s the Dagda’s daughter and thus the Morrigan‘s step-daughter), and I could use the kindly eye of a Goddess who provides inspiration, magic, and healing. I don’t have the energy to go harvest reeds to make a cross, or the resources to do any of the many other things associated with Her feast day, but as I understand it from Irish Pagans I’ve spoken to, lighting a candle for Her does no wrong and might please Her.
Try to listen. Try to learn. Don’t decide something should be used by you just because you want to use it; that’s a child’s logic. Don’t decide that you know better than people who have held on to these traditions for hundreds or thousands of years; that’s a colonizer’s logic.
And have a blessed Imbolc.
(For more information on authentic Irish Pagan spirituality taught by actually Irish people, check out The Irish Pagan School. I also recommend Morgan Daimler‘s blog, and the conferences put on by the people at Land, Sea, Sky Travel.)