Imbolc is about defiance
This essay first appeared on my (now defunct) Medium blog in 2019
The domestication of fire is the turning point of human history.
Humans have always been something of an odd duck in the natural world — we are not particularly fast or fierce. We are decidedly squishy and soft, and lack sharp claws or teeth. It is only because of our opposable thumbs and ability to create things that we’ve managed to make it to the top of the ecological hill, so to speak, much to the chagrin of the rest of the planet. And the ability to bend fire to our will is no small part of that.
None of the elements are to be trifled with. But fire draws a special kind of awe. Mesmerizing and wild, it consumes life in a dazzling display of light and heat. Being near fire is lovely, but touching fire is to invite pain. Prolonged contact works unimaginable injury, and to die in a fire is to die a horrific death. Fire is at once everything we love and everything we fear. That it should be an essential element in the magical world is inevitable.
During Yule pagans celebrate the promise of light in the midst of darkness. But at Imbolc, we light the hearth fire. For many pagans, Imbolc, celebrated at the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, belongs to the Celtic goddess Brighid, who is all about the domestication of fire. Brighid is the goddess of creativity — singing songs around a fire belongs to her. She is often depicted at a forge, shaping metal with fire. She is also the goddess of healing, including the healing of a warm fire.
What is important to note about Imbolc is that despite all the celebration, the sun hasn’t quite returned yet. The days are getting longer, but they certainly aren’t warm. Not yet, anyway. There is usually snow on the ground. Spring isn’t coming for a while yet, no matter what that groundhog says. So what exactly are we celebrating? What is so important about lighting a fire?
Lighting a fire is an act of defiance against the darkness. It is humankind proclaiming, in that arrogant way that only humans can do when faced with their gods, that we are not to be trifled with. We are not content to stay at the mercy of the dark. Rather than wait for the sun’s warmth to return, we will build a blaze that warms us and keeps the dark at bay.
Pagans are always looking at the natural world and their relationship to it. We frequently express our affinity to paganism as arising from a desire to be in harmony with nature, to know it, and live within its rhythms. And that’s true in the main. But Imbolc, of all the Sabbats, represents the moment when we as humans most exhibit a willingness to stand in insubordination against the natural world. We are not willing to remain in darkness — in the absence of the sun, we will make our own light and heat, and bring one of nature’s most destructive forces to heel in order to do it.
This scenario, of mankind, puny mankind, with their soft slow bodies and tiny ineffectual teeth and claws, thinking itself able to stand against the darkness, and using something so wild and destructive as fire as the agent of its rebellion, is, if you think about it, patently absurd. Who do we think we are to do that? But that is the magic that is being human, and nature of magic itself — our ability, through sheer force of will, to bend elements that are dangerous and use them to make a stand against the cold and the dark and all the things that threaten us.
The French absurdist philosopher Albert Camus recognized this as he revisited his childhood home in Algiers for the last time, in his famous essay, “Return to Tipasa.” “In the midst of winter, I finally discovered there was within me an invincible summer,” he wrote. And that is the magic we recognize at Imbolc, The invincible summer within us that in the middle of winter, sets the fire ablaze and dares to tell the darkness to bend to our whim for a change.
I mentioned before that darkness is an engine for change, and the wheel always turns. But Imbolc is that moment when we as humans assert our right to drive that change, instead of being ridden by it. We take the audacious step of saying that we do not have to accept it. We can assert our will. We boldly, with defiance, light the fire, push back against the darkness and claim our right to make change in the Universe as we wish it.
As Imbolc comes, what fire will you light in your life?