Crawling out of the Cave: Of Marmots, Seeds, and Sacred Fire
It is very early spring here in the Pacific Northwest of Canada…the snowdrops have just unfurled, daffodils are tentatively showing their leaves, and other bulbs are pushing the soil above them into little hummocks. Yet, the cold and drear still hold. As one young woman said questioningly this week, “I am not sure I am ready to move out of hibernation?!” After two tumultuous years of pandemic including rage, hatred, distrust, suspicion, and cynicism as well as extreme floods, fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and war, it is easy to be cautious about emergence. Like the critically imperiled Vancouver Island marmots in the high alpine meadows, we slowly crawl out of the burrow, tentatively sniffing the air and checking out conditions.
In many ways, it feels like a significant historical time of new beginnings, perhaps the early stirrings of a new era. Yet, torpor still holds, like the little marmots and other groundhogs who will rest several more weeks before rousing, or the little seeds and plants who stall growth during another round of wintry weather. This waking up process is a delicate one, a precarious one.
Without many fat stores left, the marmot’s heart must slowly start speeding up, warming critical organs, then all of the body. This relighting of the inner fire entails a risky balancing. If this heating requires more energy than the fat stores available, the marmot never wakes up. This can include up to 50% of the young ones depending on the conditions of the previous year. As the body heats, consciousness slowly takes hold, sluggish from very deep sleep. Once conscious then mobile, they move toward the opening of their burrow to emerge above ground, into a world of increasing sunlight. While ravenous, they do not eat much for the first week, as the lining of their intestines rebuilds, another precarious week of possible death. This is a liminal time, a time of “betweenness.”
Early February is the Celtic season of Imbolc, halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox. While winter is still present, the sun is now working over an hour longer each day and its height and warmth are steadily increasing. Imbolc in Old Irish means ‘in the belly’ as in ewe pregnancy, lambing, then ewe’s milk coming in, nourishing both lambs and herders. This season includes ritual cleansing/washing of self, spring cleaning of living spaces, cleaning of the hearth and relighting the hearth fire, and blessing the seeds in preparation for spring sowing.
February 1 is the Irish feast day of Brigit, the most powerful Celtic female deity that long predates Christianity, later sainted in Catholicism as Saint Brigid of Kildare. She is the solar aspect of the Divine Feminine, as ‘sun’ in both Celtic and Germanic languages is feminine. While Brigid has three faces (virgin goddess/fertility goddess/mother goddess or Maiden/ Mother/Crone), says Jean Markale (historian and author of The Great Goddess), one face is as the Goddess of Beginnings, particularly of the wild world. In this historical moment, it is important to look back to such origins, including images of the Divine Feminine, the fullness from which women have been alienated for thousands of years. In earliest humanity, the Divine was considered feminine, concerned with the beginnings and perpetuation of Life amidst the precarity of existence.
While the Great Goddess historically has been known as the One with 10,000 Names, the Old Irish brig means “power” conveying her as the most important feminine divinity. One vital face of Brigit is as the virgin who dedicates her life to spiritually tending the sacred fires of the world, keeping life flowing through warmth, light, and inspiration. She is not necessarily a physical virgin but one who has a purity of purpose and clarity of focus as her state of consciousness. She clears away clutter and noise to tend sacred fire and offer sacred hospitality while weaving community connectedness and regeneration.
Brigid is a fire goddess, whose firekeepers tend these perennial fires of Life. The Roman Vesta, the Greek Hestia, the Germanic Freya, and Gaelic Grainne meaning ‘sun,’ are all fire goddesses whose hearth nurtures spirit as well as body. The Roman Vestal Virgins, dressed in white, attended daily the sacred fire in the Temple of Vesta. Only the best of offerings were ever given to Vesta by the people. The sacred fire was the very embodiment of Vesta whose flames symbolized the heart or living flame of home and community. Just as Mother Earth has fire as her centre, so each of us individually, and collectively as all of humanity, have an inner fire that requires constant nourishing and tending, part of the sacred fires of Life.
Unattached and therefore not dependent on a man or tending children, Hestia/Brigit is strong and free to focus on the primal matrix of life and constant regeneration through the sacred elements. She is the hearth keeper not for her own family, but for the much larger human and nonhuman family of life. She is guardian and protector; the power that brings beings through the darkness and liminality of winter, safely into spring. She watches over these first stirrings, the stoking of the inner fire, and protects the vulnerability of life during this risky passage. She guides all the activities of conservation, restoration, and regeneration.
Such a formalized role for women has slowly faded, but is once again vital in this historical moment. As Jungian psychologist Jean Shinoda Bolen suggests, Hestian women are not distracted by the daily goings-on, but perceive into the heart of matters, the essence of people, and intuitively sense what is required in the moment to restore harmony, sensing kairos time. She has a “one-in-herselfness” or inner centredness and wholeness. Her daily rituals, prayers, and meditations in solitude travel the deep channels to stoke the flames of Life where needed. She is the one in tune with the wheel of the year, marking the cycles of life. Increasingly, I know women who are taking up these quiet but intentional tasks of keeping the home fire burning, stirring the temple fire to keep the flames of Life dancing, instead of mothering (or perhaps before/after mothering). Hestian women understand the creation of sanctuary space as healing space, tapping the power of the seen and the unseen. She feeds the nonhuman world as well as the human world, watching over sleeping, birthing, and early growth with compassion and joy.
As a fire goddess, Hestia/Brigit gifts humans with inspiration, wisdom, and knowledge often serving as the muse for the crafts of poetry, wordcrafting, and the forge. Words hold power: they carry our offerings and intentions; preserve vital history, story, and wisdom; express the many dimensions of existence and healing; teach the secrets of life; as well as inspire and move others to action.
Metalsmithing, jewelsmithing, and blacksmithing involves an alchemy that has its own magic by changing forms and shapes through fire and the other three elements to imbue power, energy, and spiritual meaning. Sacred jewellry holds the light of one’s inner flame. Each metal has its own energy and power: such as gold as purity, nobility, and strength when combined with other metals; silver as the sacred feminine and intuitiveness; and copper as connectivity and amplification of intentions and energy. Similarly with jewels and other stones who carry the many powers of the Earth and Earth's history within.
Symbolically, wisdomkeeper Lunaea Weatherstone says, Brigit “hammers the soul’s metal into shape with unflinching strength and a sense of time passing, drawing you ever closer to the raging fires of transformation and rebirth.” Soul shaping is also a sign of these times, where we dig deep for the resources needed to survive these increasingly difficult times. Sacred service as firekeepers will take humanity through the literal fires of transformation, for the powers of destruction that we as humans have unleashed must be and will be matched by the powers of creation!
Deep inside, I feel whisperings and longings, while still