Caer Australis

Feast Decoration

The Celtic Fire Feasts - Main Essay

Oimelc - the promise of springtime

"A fiery pillar rises over her head; sun rays support her wet cloak"

OIMELC is held on February Eve, and is the festival at the middle of the Celtic winter preceding the spring.

The feast of Oimelc is last of the four great Celtic fire feasts. It marks the onset of the season of Earrach, spring, and this name derives from the word eàrr, end, and thus the 'end of the year', followed of course by Beltaine the following May. Oimelc is marked as the Feast of St Brigit, on the first of February.

Quatrains on Beltaine, &c.
4. Imbolc:
"To taste of every food in order,
This is proper at Imbulc,
Washing of hand and foot and head;
It is to you thus I relate"
- 16th century - based on Kuno Meyer's translation in Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry (p.169).

Emer tells Cú Chulaind that "Oimell, the beginning of the time when the sheep come out and are milked", and the name Oimelc is used, because "Oi, in the language of poetry, is the name for sheep" (1).

The ninth century source, Cormac's Glossary, tells us a similar story (2), where it is derived from ói, a sheep, and melc or melg, milk: "ói-melg 'ewe-milk', for that is the time the sheep's milk comes". Oimelc is considered to be the folk name for the festival, and another name recorded for this fire feast is 'Imbolg' meaning "washing"(3). In the Brehon Laws, the end of February marked the end of the seven months of wintertime (2), and in pastoral law, the fines and prohibitions placed on the owners of animals that had not been penned up correctly and had caused damage were lifted.

Of the four fire feasts, Oimelc is likely to have been dedicated to the Celtic Goddess. Not only does the feminine quality of nurturing thrugh the giving of milk give the feast its name, but it is dedicated to Saint Brigit who is recorded to be a Mary: "she was one of the two mothers of Christ"(4). St Brigit's name is taken from the goddess Brigid, whose name is recorded to be synonymous with the word 'goddess': ("from whose names Brigit was with all Irishmen called a goddess" 5).

The fire feast was transformed by Christianity into Féil Brighde, the Feast of St Brigit, who was a nun at Kildare in the year 467, during the time of Patrick, and who died in 492. Upon St Brigit fell the springtime symbols: She was bathed in milk at her birth (4), and in her Life recorded in the Book of Lismore we are told, "Brigit was once with her sheep" when she met a scholar who declared, "I am going to heaven". He prays for her thus, "I will pray the Lord for thee, that it may be easy for thee (to go to heaven), and that thou mayest bring thousands with thee, into heaven!" (6).

St Brigit's springtime imagery is personified in the story of her birth (4), as follows:

"Brigit was born at sunrise neither within nor without a house, was bathed in milk, her breath revives the dead, a house in which she is staying flames up to heaven, cow-dung blazes before her, oil is poured on her head; she is fed from the milk of a white red-eared cow; a fiery pillar rises over her head; sun rays support her wet cloak; she remains a virgin; and she was one of the two mothers of Christ the Anointed".

When the meaning of Imbolg is remembered, Brigit's being 'bathed in milk' gathers the two concepts of 'washing' and 'lactating' together, showing the spring time feast is manifold in its symbols.

St Brigit herself took on the imagery and rôle of the Celtic Goddess Brigid, daughter of the Dagda, who, Cormac's Glossary tells us, "was a goddess whom poets worshipped, for very great and very noble was her superintendence, therefore call they her goddess of poets by this name, whose sisters were Brigit, woman of smith-work, and Brigit, woman of healing, namely goddesses - from whose names Brigit was with all Irishmen called a goddess". From this statement we can understand that the terms 'Brigit' and 'goddess' were once considered to be synonymous (5): the Three Brigits are the Celtic Tripartite Goddess. Cormac's Glossary derives her name from breo-shaighit, 'fiery arrow', with the meaning of poetic inspirations being like fiery arrows (7). Her father, the Dagda, was a god of the earth, and a horse god (8), whose famous harp called forth the seasons (9).

The Goddess Brigid was known throughout the Celtic lands; she was very likely (10) to be the 'Minerva' of whom Julius Caesar (VI, 17) referred in his romanised list of Celtic deities (11). Her name is recorded in Gaul on an inscription as 'Brigindoni', and in Britain as 'Brigantia' (12).

Indeed, Brigid's name has been identified with the Sanskrit 'Brihatî, meaning 'the high' (12), giving rise to the concept of a proto-Indo-European goddess whose name meant 'Exhalted'. Her name became the Celtic reference to the Goddess in her virginal form, becoming Modron 'the mother' at the birth of the solar-god Mabon 'Divine Son' at the conclusion of the season of springtime, namely Beltaine. Eugene O'Curry claimed to have seen a poem that said the year began at the feast of Oimelc (2) but it was not recorded by him. No doubt the poem was a pre-Christian version of the account of the birth of St. Brigit shown above, in celebration of the waning of winter and the promise of the summer to come.

southern cross and nearby south polar constellations the stars of the southern cross The Southern Hemisphere

Australia and the Southern Lands experience the seasons off-set half a year to the Celtic homelands. Celebrating the Fire feasts with the progress of the southern seasons presents a dilemma, for at Beltaine on May eve, the southern seasons are turning to the winter; at Samhain on November eve, the southern seasons are at the time of rebirth at the start of summer.
Southern hemisphere


The coldest days of an Irish winter were finally coming to an end. The brat Brighide, the blessed strip of cloth that was St. Brigit's mantle, had hung on the bush outside for several days. Through the cold, dark season, it had protected, as ever, against illness and misfortune.

But tonight it would be happily brought back in, for tonight it was February eve, the eve of Imbolc, St. Brigit's Eve, heralding in the springtime and the return to warmer days, and it was time to invite Her in.

Tonight, the door of the house facing north, representing the cold, and the winter, would stay closed, and through the south door, of warmth, and the promise of summer, She would enter.

Around the house, the cry went out:

Go on your knees, open your eyes, and let Brigit in!
Go on your knees, open your eyes, and let Brigit in!
Go on your knees, open your eyes, and let Brigit in!

and from within the house the reply:

She is welcome!
She is welcome!
She is welcome!

and in through the south door, Brighid came in. And winter was gone, and all was well:
"Mush! Se beatha agus a slainte!" Wonder! She is welcome, we see, so a toast!
And thus the symbolic coming of spring was begun.

The kitchen was adorned with Her cross, a sunwheel woven from rushes, special cakes were ready to be eaten, and vases of dandelions, full of milky white juice, were on display. Imbolc, the season of lambing and the lactation of ewes was here; renewal abounded at the dawn of the year! Ancient Brighid, exalted One, healer of the sick, had brought the year back to life: For Her, a gift of milk was made in thanks. Eternal Brighid, sublime One, protector of the young, was here to nurture the fledgling year: For Her, a gift of song was made in praise. Saint Brigid, Mary of the Gael, midwife at the birth of Jesus, and guide to the eternal Kingdom was here: for Her, a gift of prayer was made in grace.

As a Celtic Goddess, Brighid had ever been with these people. From a time immemorial, her triple aspect had helped all new beginnings, from the coming of springtime to the foundation of a house; she was the Flame of Inspiration for poets. She was the Well of purification. In Brighid, the purest forms of love and protection were to be found, her person keeping at bay the Goddess' other aspects of jealosy and rage. She was daughter to the Dagda, who harped the seasons and embodied the Earth, and she wore a cris, a belt, which was the starry Milky Way above. Milk in all its forms was sacred to her, from mothers to their babes, ewes to their lambs, or from the stem of her flower, the dandelion. Her fire, as sunbeam, joined earth to the sky; as the hearth, heated the cauldron from the Otherworld of the sidhe below, and as the flame from the hanging-bowl, lighted the night-time inside.

As Saint, Brigit continued to be with her people. In a new legendary beginning, a column of fire sprang from her infant head. She was 'as beautiful as the dawn', 'her hair as gold as a field of corn, her eyes as blue as the cornflower'. She was the embodiment of purity, 'there are none as pure as she', as pure as the Virgin Mary: and so her name "Mary of the Gael". She was even said to have been present at the birth of Jesus, as midwife to Mary. She continued to inspire poets. When the Saint set up her cell, she did so in a grove of oak trees, as would a druidess, that was called Kil-Dara, that is, Cell of the Oak, a magical place for bards, 'neither in the house, nor without'.

Her transition from Goddess to Christian Saint was through Brigit of Kildare, born about 450 and who died in 523, whose life was the inspiration to the foundation of a community of dedicated women at Kildare, the Cell of the Oak, and who is regarded as the first abbess of the Irish. Her Life records her miracles, bringing life to the dead, truth to the liar, sacredness to water, and though her birth is said to have been some twenty years after the death of Patrick, the Saint features prominently, as does Columcille, who prayed to her in his hour of need. Of all the Celtic deities, Brighid most successfully survived her transition into Christianity.

Not only in Ireland did this Saint rise to brilliance. In Christian Celtic Britain, Saint Brigit likewise emerged from her former self, the Goddess Brigantia, and she is known in Cymru as Ffraid Santes, Saint Bride. And her name, from ancient times, comes from brig, for 'power, strength, vigour, essence, meaning'.

And in the house on the night before Imbolc, the family sang, and danced until dawn, when through the south door came the shining first sun-beam of spring. And together the family ran, to neighbour to neighbour, carrying their Crois Bride, ancient Brighid's belt, so that all could come into the great power of Brighid's renewal...


(1) The Courting of Emer. In: Lady Gregory (1902) 'Cuchulain of Muirthemne. The Story of the Men of the Red Branch of Ulster arranged and put into English'. Colin Smythe Gerrards Cross (1970), p. 42. An extended version of the conversation between Emer and Cú Chulainn (from the Harleian MS: Harl 5280) is published online at: Paragraph 55, p. 245)

(2) Eugene O'Curry (1855) 'Lectures on the MS Materials of Ancient Irish History' James Duffy, Dublin (1861), p. 17. P.W.Joyce (1903) 'A Social History of Ancient Ireland' Longmans, Green, and Co., London, p. 388. Brehon Law, p. 390.

(3) 'Ewe-milk' is generally considered to be a false folk etymology by scholars today, who believe that Imbolc was the standard form of the name, derived from imb + folc "wash all around" - making Imbolc a festival of purification, such as we see in many other cultures in the spring: See for instance: Eric Hamp, 'Imbolc, Oimelc', Studia Celtica, 14/15 (1979/1980), Jan de Vries, 'Keltische Religion' (Stuttgart, 1961) and Séamas Ó Catháin, 'The festival of Brigit the Holy Woman', Celtica 23 (1999), and from the original Tochmarc Emire la Coinculaind in the Harleian MS (Harl. 5280): [55]........"Co h-óimolcc .i. taiti and erraig i. imme-folc .i. folc ind erraig & folc in gemrid".

(4-7) Douglas Hyde (1899) 'A Literary History of Ireland' Ernest Benn Limited, London (1967), p. 161, quoting from Whitley Stokes 'Lives of the Saints from the Book of Lismore'. (5) p. 53 (6) p. 161 (7) p. 54

(8) Charles Squire (1905) 'Celtic Myth and Legend Poetry and Romance' re-published as Celtic Myth and Legend' in 1975 by Newcastle Publishing, p. 116.

(9) John Rhys (1886) 'The Hibbert Lectures 1886. Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom' Williams and Norgate, London (1892), p. 75.

(10) Jeffrey Gantz (1981) 'Early Irish Myths and Sagas' Penguin, London. pp. 39-40.

(11) S.A. Handford (1951) 'Caesar: The Conquest of Gaul' Penguin, London, p.142.

(12) ref (9), p.75 and references therein.

(13) Originally published by Caer Australis in 1997 for Oimelc, it is now replicated on other websites.
Reference Materials
Attwater, D. (1965) Dictionary of Saints. Penguin, London.
Corfe, T.H. (1979) St. Patrick and Irish Christianity. Lerner Publications, Minneapolis.
Dames, M. (1992) Mythic Ireland. Thames and Hudson, London.
Ellis, P.B. (1994) The Druids. Constable, London.
Farjeon, E. (1953) Ten Saints. Oxford University Press, London.
Gimbutas, M. (1989) The Language of the Goddess. HarperCollins, New York.
MacDonald, I. (1992) Saint Bride. Floris Books, Edinburgh.
Zaczek, I. (1996) Chronicles of the Celts. Hodder and Stoughton, Sydney.

© Caer Australis 2011: From Coogee in Sydney's eastern beaches NSW Australia

The Celtic Fire Feasts

Fire Feast Introduction AD433: Patrick's fire Beltaine Lughnasa Samhain Imbolc Southern hemisphere
A Brigit 'sa tír atchiu
is cach a immudrá
rogab do chlú for a chlú
ind ríg, is tu fordatá

O Brigit whose land I behold,
on which each one has in turn has moved about,
thy fame has outshone the fame of the king -
thou art over them all.
Hail Brigit; on the Hill of Alenn
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