Groundhog Day, traditionally celebrated on February 2nd, may have its roots in earlier traditions including Imbolg. Let’s explore!
Each festival in the Wheel of the Year has some sort of divination practice associated with it, perhaps because the veils between the realms were always considered to be thinnest at the fire festivals, making it easier to communicate with the realms of ancestors, the living and that of the deities and fairies, aka The Good Folk.
In many ways, the fire festivals were also very much aligned with farming activity (or vice-versa!) and husbandry of animals. For peoples without formal calendars, they instead marked the passing of the year and the seasons through what was happening in nature around them. For instance, we know that Imbolg timing was related to the birthing of the lambs (and other practices), Bealtaine with moving the herd or livestock to higher paddocks or pastures for the summer and then bringing them back at Samhain for slaughtering or for feeding with newly harvested hay.
Imbolg is no exception, and is particularly known for weather divination, to help guide our agrarian ancestors in their early spring practices such as when to till the soil, sow seeds, etc.
The Carmina Gadelica — a compilation of Scottish lore from the 19th century compiled by Alexander Carmichael and published in 1900 — gives us a wealth of Imbolg lore associated with Brighid the goddess and with Saint Brigid, including tales of weather divination and more.
One such story is wrapped up in both pagan and Christian lore, as Saint Brigid is often associated with The Virgin Mary, and considered “Mary of the Gaels”, as in this extract from the Carmina Gadelica:
“It is said in Ireland that Bride walked before Mary with a lighted candle in each hand when she went up to the Temple for purification. The winds were strong on the Temple heights, and the tapers were unprotected, yet they did not flicker nor fail. From this incident Bride is called ‘Bride boillsge,‘ Bride of brightness. This day is occasionally called ‘La Fheill Bride nan Coinnle,’ the Feast Day of Bride of the Candles, but more generally ‘La Fheill Moire nan Coinnle,’ the Feast Day of Mary of the Candles–Candlemas Day.”
In other tales, they speak of the serpents arising on Imbolg / Saint Brighid’s Day.
|Scottish Gaelic||English translation|
|Thig an nathair as an toll|
Là donn Brìde,
Ged robh trì troighean dhen t-sneachd
Air leac an làir.
|The serpent will come from the hole|
On the brown Day of Bríde,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.
And in yet another bit of lore, they speak of the relationship with the serpent as it arises from the earth:
|Scottish Gaelic||English translation|
|Moch maduinn Bhride,|
Thig an nimhir as an toll,
Cha bhoin mise ris an nimhir,
Cha bhoin an nimhir rium.’
|Early on Bride’s morn|
The serpent shall come from the hole,
I will not molest the serpent,
Nor will the serpent molest me.
Perhaps these words or practices seem familiar to you. Across Europe (and perhaps elsewhere across the globe), many cultures had similar beliefs about animals returning from their winter torpor or hibernation on or around this day, including serpents, badgers and groundhogs.
An Cailleach at Imbolg
But is the story of Brighid and weather divination the oldest tale? We already know that there are ties between Brighid and An Cailleach (and that her tales are older than those of Brighid), and prognostication on February 1st may be another commonality or, indeed, the long ago origins.
In another source (Cailleach – Mythopedia), lore is shared from several Celtic Fringe regions bringing in An Cailleach, known to some as the Hag of Winter:
“On Imbolc, or February 1st, of each year, the Cailleach runs out of firewood for the winter. In the Manx tradition, she transforms into a great bird and collects firewood in her beak. In Ireland and Scotland, meanwhile, she collects firewood as an old woman. If she wishes for winter to last longer, she makes the day sunny and bright for her search. If she accidentally oversleeps, the day is stormy and gray. Thus, tradition holds that if February 1st is gray and wintery, winter will be shorter that year; if the day is bright, winter will return due to her preparation.”