Folklore and History, Writing

Imbolc in Literature – the Stirring of New Life, but Pregnant with Meaning

Blessed Imbolc!

The ancient Gaelic celebration of Imbolc, or its Christian equivalent Candlemas, is observed today (the date moves around, but it’s usually on the 1st or 2nd February), halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.  Imbolc heralds the start of Spring, and for (Irish) Christians it marks the feast day of St Brigid. Imbolc was probably a pagan fertility festival co-opted by early Christians; indeed St Brigid herself is in all likelihood a Christianisation of a pagan goddess.

Although Imbolc seems to have been more visible in the media in recent years, Candlemas, its Christian counterpart is now mostly one of those Christian festivals that have been largely forgotten in secular Britain, along with Lammas, Whitsun, Lady Day and Michaelmas. Peter Hitchens might blame Dickens for this, inflating Christmas as he did until it filled our minds as the definitive Christian feast day, but Imbolc, probably due to its Irish association with St Brigid and wider observance in Ireland and Scotland, lives on in its Pagan-Christian half-life still.

Candlemas is the Christian Holy day that also falls on the 2nd February, 40 days after Christmas; the day commemorates the ritual purification of Mary after the birth of Jesus. The name derives from the candles that the congregation brings to be blessed before Mass; there is often also a procession with lighted candles. Candlemas has largely been forgotten by the non-churchgoing public in the UK, and has been largely replaced in the US by the very secular Groundhog Day  which predicts the advent of spring not by a calculation between equinoxes or saints day, but by the actions of a no-doubt grumpy groundhog either seeing or not seeing a shadow on the ground. There is a faint echo here of the Christian lore that clear weather on Candlemas predicts a shorter winter.

So what of Imbolc/Candlemas in literature? When I realised that these were essentially the same tradition, I cast my mind back, as there seemed to be a negative connotation with Candlemas in my mind. Granted I was only able to recall a few instances from my reading, but all share a certain tension or risk, and all seem to hark back to a more primitive age and its fears and sorrows.

In Thomas Hardy’s Tess of The D’Urbervilles, the beautiful (and doomed) Tess ends up, after her seduction and short-lived marriage-come-desertion, at the dreary and wintry Flintcombe Ash farm. She has contracted to work there for the surly and mean-spirited Farmer Groby until Lady Day, but she presents herself at a hiring fair, held at Candlemas, in readiness for the next Lady Day.

Lady Day was one of the four quarter days in the calendar, each with its own Christian holiday, when farm rents, employment contracts for servants and agricultural workers, and other such formal matters were often settled upon in a time when clocks and calendars were scarce.

Tess’s time at Flintcombe Ash is a hard and unhappy time for her, marked by surly use by Farmer Groby, and her renewed pursuit by Alec D’urberville. It contrasts sharply with her earlier employment the previous summer at Talbothays, a lush cattle farm where she also met and was wooed by Angel Clare.  Although still a very young woman, the luxuriant springtime and summer of Tess’s sexuality seem shriveled to nothing but a bitter memory by the time she is at Flintcombe Ash, and the season matches this change in her life. The devilish Alec returns to stalk her at Candlemas and again in early spring, while Tess is working the heavy threshing machine. No more dreamy days milking cows in lush verdant meadows dripping with teaming life for Tess. The changes in her circumstances dating from that Candlemas and Lady Day lead directly to her end, although this is true throughout her tale. Tess’s symbolic capture on a pagan altar indicates that we should pay attention to the key dates in Tess’s calendar, and what they mean to her. The pregnant potential of Imbolc/Candlemas is no blessing to poor Tess.

Candlemas also features prominently as a date in the birth, life, and death of a less sympathetic character in literature – that half-man, half-outer being, Wilbur Whateley, the monstrous villain of HP Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. The story opens with a quote from Charles Lamb’s “Witches and Other Night-Fears”, which is appropriate, as Wilbur’s tale is one of wizardry and terrors in the night.

Candlemas is the birthday of both Wilbur Whately and his unseen twin brother, although Lovecraft tells us that the locals of Dunwich “curiously observe (Candlemas) under another name.” Wilbur is a figure of potentially cosmic terror, and Lovecraft notes the significance of his Candlemas birth – “Born on Candlemas—nine months after May-Eve of 1912″.  May Eve is known is some parts of Europe, particularly Germany, as Walpurgisnacht, or Walpurgis Night, a feast day which in Germanic folklore is believed to be the night that witches and the dead are abroad, and all evil things revel.

In Bram Stoker’s story Dracula’s Guest,  the unnamed English protagonist (probably Dracula’s Jonathan Harker) is travelling to Transylvania on Walpurgisnacht and undergoes several supernatural ordeals during his journey.

Thus, a child conceived on Walpurgis Night, such as Wilbur Whately and his blasphemous twin, would be born on or about Imbolc/Candlemas. Hardly an auspicious start to life in shadow whispered Dunwich!

One last reference to Imbolc/Candlemas I can think of from pop culture is that of the 1993 film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. Murray plays an arrogant TV weatherman who, during an assignment covering the annual Groundhog Day, finds himself hexed, caught in a time loop, and doomed to repeat the same day over and over until, after being driven to commit suicide several times, he re-examines his life and is able to break the spell via his love of a good woman. The theme of the (disordered) passage of time in the film ties in with the theme of spiritual and actual rebirth that marks Imbolc, although it is tinged with a warning that if we do not embrace the opportunities for new growth, we will be denied a rebirth of any kind.

I was initially surprised how dark the references are in literature to Imbolc/Candlemas, but upon reflection, there’s no disconnect. Birth and rebirth are perilous journeys, fraught with danger, and not everyone makes it out alive, or unscathed. We may be changed irrevocably when we are reborn, possibly not for the better.

Perhaps the Irish tradition of weaving a Brigid’s cross from rushes and hanging it on the kitchen wall to protect against evil and fire, a custom which continues in some Irish households to this day, harks back to a time when the heralding of new life and the coming spring were not just the idyllic respite from the darkness of winter that we envision today.

495px-Saint_Brigid's_cross
St Brigid’s Cross made from rushes. Author: Culnacreann               (Own work), Creative Commons Attribution (Wikipedia)
Writing

Flash Fiction October 2016 – “Between”

frombeyond
“From Beyond” artwork by Mike Dubisch at http://www.hyaenagallery.com/dubisch/frombeyond.jpg

I admit it, I’m currently on a real kick for Horror fiction in general and HP Lovecraft in particular. Maybe it’s the time of year; the evenings draw in, there’s a catch in your breath from the cold air, it’s Halloween season, and your thoughts turn to cosmic horror and undying gods beyond the stars and under the sea…

I love that there’s such a rich HPL vein to mine these days; I remember having to order a copy of HPL’s collected works from another library, upon first discovering him as a teenager; I’m happy that his genius is more widely recognised now, and there’s a plethora of books, websites, artwork, (see the top picture for a great example from Mike Dubisch) graphic novels and podcasts, as well as a few interesting films based on his stories in the pipeline.

I recently discovered a great podcast that discusses Lovecraft’s literary output, it’s really worth a listen: The HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast; Chris Lackey and Chad Fifer have some great readers and special guests and I can really recommend it; most of the HPL podcasts are on iTunes for free.

I also tracked down (in the US) a yellowed and battered paperback copy of a collection of short stories called “The Shuttered Room”, supposedly completed from unfinished HPL notes and ideas, but in reality probably wholly written by Lovecraft’s literary champion, August Derleth. I’m enjoying the stories so far, adding as they do to the Lovecraftian mythos. There’s even a 1967 creepy British film based on the title story featuring the late great Oliver Reed!

All this cosmic otherworldliness got me thinking,and my submission to the 101fiction’s Halloween edition had to be an HPL tribute – I plumped on an homage to “From Beyond“, an unsettling tale of a mad scientist’s (mad in both senses of the word, the guy has a grudge!) quest to see and interact with the unseeable things that inhabit the air, unbeknownst to mankind.

I’m really pleased to announce that this 100-word story, “Between“, is featured in the special Halloween edition 13 of 101fiction; please do have a read of it and the other great short fiction published by John Xero.

I hope you like the story! You don’t need to have read Lovecraft to (hopefully) enjoy it, but if you have, I hope it adds a small extra frisson to your reading experience…