February: On the Threshold of Death and Birth

Purification by Daria Pietryka

In recent years I have been inspired toward purging and purification in the month of February; on a physical level as the energy in my body rises, I am called to clean up my act, get physically lighter and cleanse or detox even through February is still in winter… especially in Scotland where we’ve only just emerged from a blanket of thick snow.

But even while spiring is not quite here the first stirrings are felt from deep in the Earth and the long haul of winter is definitely coming to an end. There is a sense of hope and renewal and the first sighting of snowdrops is always a joy.

Emotionally and mentally too I sense the desire to let go of old things that I don’t wish to carry across the threshold. Intuitively I feel Imbolc and the month of February generally is a time to cut cords, adopt new habits and routines, and become more conscious about our beliefs, thoughts, and views. It is an excellent time for emotional clearing… letting go of the past, tying up loose ends, righting wrongs, reaching out to people with whom we have unfinished business, asking for/giving forgiveness, saying sorry, preparing the soil for new seeds, and if we are so inclined, renewing vows with ourselves.

In the Celtic calendar the cross-quarter festival of Imbolc is a time for spiritual purification and dedication, indeed, a possible origin of the word Imbolc is the Old Irish imb-fholc, to wash/cleanse oneself.

The Christian holiday of Candlemas celebrated on February 2nd which can be traced back to 4th century Greece is also a purification holiday and a celebration of the returning light.

The most common etymology of Imbolc comes from the Old Irish i mbolc which means ‘in the belly’ and refers to the pregnancy of ewes. A 10th century glossary derives Imbolc from oimelc, ‘ewe milk’.

Imbolc is also associated with death. Brigid is credited with the very first keening, a traditional wailing for the dead practiced at funerals by Irish and Scottish women.

In researching the Vestal Virgins- also Keepers of the Flame like Brigid- I was interested to learn that in ancient Rome the whole month of February was dedicated to purification and purging and has strong parallels with the Celtic Imbolc.

Beginning on 1st February and ending on 23rd February -which in the old calendar was the last day of that month- the city participated in various religious rites from honouring the dead to breast-feeding cults. Fertility rites, ancestor worship and propitiation of the dead occurred side-by-side on the threshold of new beginnings and endings. Mensis Februarius, the month of Februa, was the last month in the old calendar. No marriages took place during Februa and no official business was conducted, the temples were closed, and worship of the gods was not permitted.

According to Ovid februare is an Etruscan word for purging while the februum is any ritual object used for purification or consecration. Febris means to burn or purify, while the god Februus is the god of purification.

Lupercalia from 13th– 15th February was a festival dedicated to cleansing the city of evil spirits thus ensuring purification to facilitate health and fertility. Young men between the age of 20 and 40 known as Luperci “Brothers of the Wolf” dressed in goats’ skins of freshly sacrificed animals and ran through the streets striking women who wished to conceive with goat skin thongs.

Lupercales by Andreas Camassei

The Lupercalia rites took place in the Lupercal cave at the foot of Palatine Hill next to the sanctuary of Rumina, the breast-feeding goddess. Ensuring health of lactating livestock and women was a prime motivation for the Lupercalia, a festival closely associated with the genesis of Rome and the myth of Romulus and Remus who were suckled in a cave by a She Wolf.

In the Celtic tradition Imbolc was a time when the animals birthed their young causing their milk to flow… milk was considered sacred and Mother’s milk particularly so as life sustaining nourishment. Milk was sacred to the goddess Brigid who in one verse is referred to as the milkmaid of Jesus-

‘Thig a Bhride mhor na loin, Thig, a bhanachaig Iosda Criosda (‘Come, great Bride, the beauteous, Come thou milkmaid of Jesus Christ.’

‘White Brigid’s Day’ is another name for her feast day… milk was left out for her overnight or poured out on the ground as a libation to her.

In ancient Rome, The Parentalia was a 9-day public mourning festival to honour the ancestors culminating in offerings placed on family tombs followed by The Caristia on 22nd February to celebrate the bond between family and ancestors. A Vestal Virgin performed a rite on behalf of the city’s ancestors (the Manes) at the tomb of Tarpeia.

Caristia- Honouring the ancestors in the house of Iulius Polybius (IX 13,3) in Pompeii.Polybius (IX 13,3) in Pompeii.

On 23rd of February, Terminalia ended the sacred rites in worship to the god Termina, god of boundaries, clearly marking the end of one year and the beginning of another.

To honour this threshold time light a candle, make it a perpetual one if you feel particularly devotional; honour your ancestors; consider what it is you would like to birth this coming year and ensure you are physically and mentally prepared to do that; let go of old attachments and things of the past that are not meant to cross the threshold with you; make new vows and commitments to yourself, and as the month of February draws to a close create strong boundaries before stepping into the spring.

While few of us make physical sacrifices to the gods these days our sacrifices are more symbolic and metaphorical… what are we willing to give up to receive the new?

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