Imbolc 2021- Brighid, Holy Wells and the Medicine of Herbal Baths
The land is blanketed and still. Ice covers at least parts of the rivers and streams and winter's grasp feels sure and strong. Imbolc, the midway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox often arrives amid a deep freeze here in the northeast. And yet despite the frigid temperatures, we seem to remark every year right around this time that the light is suddenly and significantly changed from midwinter. The angle is different, the warmth stronger, the quality more direct and inspiring and yes, the days are noticeably longer again. Here we rest in the frozen underbelly of winter, and begin to suckle at the first subtle nourishments of spring. The woodpeckers insistent drumming heralds the morning sun warming the treetops after the frozen nights, Seed catalogs have arrived and the long cold dreaming begins to feel more inspired. What have we been nurturing along through the doubt and darkness, and what is yearning to be cultivated in the coming spring?
Brighid (also Bridgit, Brigit, Brigid or Bride) pagan Goddess and later Christianized Patron saint of Ireland is celebrated on Imbolc. Brighid's crosses are woven by school children and elders alike, and some still leave a strip of cloth known as the Brat Bride out on the eve of Imbolc, to be imbued with special healing qualities as Brighid passes by. Brighid is a fire Goddess and her priestesses kept alive a sacred flame in her temple in Kildare Ireland for many generations. The flame has been relit after hundreds of years by the Brigidine nuns at Solas Bhride, in Kildare. Along with the forge and the flame, Brighid is also strongly associated with healing water and holy wells. It is estimated that there are over 3,000 holy wells in Ireland alone. Some of the most famous and frequently visited holy wells are still dedicated to Brighid, and many of the smaller sacred places off the beaten path are adorned with statues of the Virgin Mary; Christianized relics of the older pagan Goddesses who were honored at these sites.
During early Christianity sites that were sacred and central to the old faith were destroyed outright, however the tactic of simply colonizing the sites and claiming them for the Christian God and his Saints became commonplace. Many holy wells associated with individual Saints are still visited by people in search of specific healing including everything from toothaches, headaches, and sore eyes to diabetes and infertility. One does not need to look very far beneath the Christian associations of these sites to feel and see the much older sacred history, and to know that people have been taking pilgrimages to these sites to seek healing for as far back as anyone knows.
I had the great privilege to spend a month in Ireland a few years ago with one of my dear friends. We had very little agenda and many of our decisions about where to visit were influenced by magic and serendipity. We visited St. Brigit's well in Liscannor, as well as two different holy wells associated with Brighid in Kildare. We also spent a great deal of time "hillwalking" as it is referred to there. We were visiting in winter so it was quite cold and rainy for most of our trip and rare that we ever ran into other people on our long walks. One cold, wet, and magical day we were walking out in an area of the Burren, a distinct landscape of exposed stone in Western Ireland, when out of the laden fog a man appeared and began chatting with us. Out of the blue he asked if we had been the Brighid's holy well nearby and we told him that yes, we had visited the holy well in Liscannor twice already! It turns out this was not the holy well he was referring to and he provided us with vague directions to a gate and a trail, and a smaller wooden gate with some walking sticks. He told us that this holy well was much less trafficked, but still very important to locals who knew it was a Brighid's well, and one that cured diabetes. Then just as mysteriously as he had appeared, the man disappeared back into the fog and we never saw him again, despite the fact that we were on a trail that made a big loop.
We drove around on roads so narrow they seemed to always be on the verge of being consumed by stonewalls and overgrown hedgerows creeping in from both sides. We turned around several times, doubting our memory of the exact directions we had been given, until we finally came to a gate with a small sign that said "holy well" and an arrow. We left our car and followed the road on foot until we came across a smaller wooden gate, and sure enough, there was a whole pile of beautiful walking sticks leaning against the side. Stepping through that gate felt like stepping through a sacred threshold. The small footpath led through a tight hazel wood so that we were ensconced in a tunnel of green and wood and soon lost all sense of direction or any bigger landscape features. We were walking into another realm, tended by more than just the human landowners.
The spring bubbled up generously from a large stone covered in moss and Ivy. Hanging on a sapling next to the little clear pool was a small cup for drinking. The water fed a trickle that joined a larger stream nearby and flowed around the roots of a beautiful old tree absolutely bedecked in rags, hair ties, brightly colored ribbons and other small tokens that hold meaning only to the ones who traveled and left them there. Each small offering tied to the tree represents someone's prayer for healing, or offering of gratitude. The collective energy of so many prayers fluttering gently above the singing water pouring from this green oasis, brought me to tears. It was a place of deep healing and peace, beyond time, and when we finally took one last draught of the sweet cold medicine, picked up our walking sticks and turned back to the narrow winding path, it was late in the day. I still often think of the holy wells I visited during that trip, and the deep healing presence that could be felt in those places. I wonder at the energy that is created by so many people traveling to the same spot to seek healing, often for the same ailments, and to leave small offerings and whispered prayers of gratitude. Those waters hold a deep healing magic in their own right. And surely the collective intention and reverence that is brought to each place by locals and pilgrims alike, for so many centuries, adds to the energetic container and healing qualities, and feeds the spirits who caretake those sacred sites.
It is easy to forget the deeply important role of water in our modern lives when all we have to do is turn on the tap. But in many ways water is the oldest medicine, the lifeblood of the planet, and a force of vitality and healing that we literally cannot live without. Water holds memory, it cleanses and nourishes, and runs through our bodies, in our blood, nourishes our babies through our milk.
While we may not have access to a holy well just down the lane from our house, there are still ways to incorporate water into our healing and self care rituals, and to offer our gratitude in exchange.
The sacred bath is an ancient and gentle, yet powerful ritual. Soaking in hot water helps relax the muscles, and also opens the pores of the skin to promote detoxification and to allow the healing properties of herbs in. Herbal baths are a wonderful remedy for folks of all ages, including babies and children. I found that bathing my son in a warm bath with chamomile flowers helped significantly in calming him down and promoting better sleep when he was upset and fussy from teething.
Ritual and herbal baths can be used in all sorts of ways: in preparation for important rites of passage such as first menses, marriage, gender affirming surgery, birth, and other important life passages. Herbal baths can be deeply healing during times of physical illness and emotional pain and grief. Ritual baths can be a simple and personal act, or shared in a collective space where the recipient may have their hands, feet or whole body washed with herbal water.
You do not need to have access to a bathtub to soak your whole body in, in order to experience the magic of water medicine. A cloth soaked in warm tea and placed on a specific area of the body can be incredibly soothing, especially when covered with a hot water bottle. Never underestimate the power of a good foot bath! Foot baths are a great therapy for encouraging circulation and helping move stuck energy. Switching back and forth from a tub of hot and cold water increases circulation to the pelvic area and can help relieve stagnation. I have found great relief when suffering from migraines by placing a cold wet cloth on my neck and forehead, and my feet in a tub of very hot water.
Wrapping up in blankets and taking a hot foot bath with aromatic herbs can be a wonderful thing when you are congested and feeling under the weather. (the same can be said for making a tent with a blanket or towel over a pot of very hot aromatic tea and inhaling the steam). Setting up an herbal foot bath for a loved one is an easy yet profound way to offer care and love. You can also use smaller herbal baths called sitzbaths for healing the perineal tissue after birth, to ease the itching of yeast infections, and to soothe hemorrhoids. (for these you will want more specific herbs and it's best to consult a clinical herbalist or find a trusted recipe).
There are different methods for creating an herbal bath: you can simply strew some dried herbs into your bath, you can fill a small muslin bag or tie up a handkerchief to place in the water so the herbs are contained, or you can brew a tea ahead of time that you strain and add to the bath water. You can also add drops of essential oils, epsom salt and flower essences. Get creative and use your intuition for what will be the most nourishing or healing for you or a loved one and remember the power of gratitude, intention and prayer in creating the ritual bath. The following are some basic ideas for external blends of herbs for baths, to draw from:
Relaxing and restorative blend:
2 parts chamomile
2 parts rose
2 parts linden
1 part lavender
Uplifting and energizing:
2 parts peppermint
2 parts sage
2 parts calendula
For Heartbreak and Grief
2 parts rosemary
2 parts hawthorn leaf and flower
2 parts rose
1 part calendula
1-5 drops rescue remedy
First blood or pre-labor
3 parts rose
2 parts lady's mantle
1 part calendula
3 parts chamomile
1 part catnip
Foot bath for headaches
3 parts peppermint
1 part ginger
1 part rosemary
Tea for menstrual cramps
3 parts ginger
2 parts rose
1 part peppermint
(this could be made for a bath or into a strong tea that a cloth is dipped in, wrung out and repeatedly placed on lower abdomen or lower back)
This Imbolc writing was inspired partly by my own deep love and connection to Brighid in her power as healer and midwife, and the magical experiences I have had at some of her holy wells. Also because I recently had the most profound and healing "sacred bath" experience of my life. In early December I went into labor with my second child. I experienced a lot of fear and doubt because I was so afraid it would be the same as my first labor and I would end up transferring to the hospital. After 18 hours or so of labor I was about 6 cm dilated. My midwife still thought I had quite a lot of work ahead of me, which was terrifying to me at that point and very discouraging, but my birth team helped me into the birth tub so that I could try to relax through this most intense stage of labor. The instant relief of the warm water was deep and incredible, and it was only a few contractions later that my own water powerfully and forcefully broke. My body almost immediately began pushing, and what felt like only moments later I was holding my daughters head underwater. She was delivered into the water, and my midwife helped usher her into my hands where I slowly caught her silver little body and brought her up to take her first breath. I have new appreciation for just how powerful water can be and I offer my deep gratitude for all the ways that water provides healing and restoration.
While we may not live in a culture where water is revered and we don't have specific rituals or places to visit to offer our appreciation for the medicine and lifeblood that water provides, we can be creative. One way to do this is to continue to fight to protect water. Resist the privatization and commodification of water by corporations, commit to never buy bottled water, and consume less plastic in general. Get involved in the resistance against new development of fossil fuel infrastructure locally, which always threatens water. Put pressure on the Biden administration to cancel the Dakota Access pipeline and all other fossil fuel projects on a larger scale. And support the Water Protectors and all those who may still be facing legal repercussions for their actions to protect water.
Maybe there is a spring, river or other waterbody near your house that you frequently pass, where you can pause to offer a prayer or small token of love or appreciation. Or maybe it's as simple as putting a poem or small reminder by your kitchen sink to bring your gratitude and awareness to the healing gift of the water that pours out your tap.
In this season of quickening may you find ways to access simple healing rituals and offer your gratitude for the water that nourishes, releases, relaxes, and keeps us alive.