Imbolc – Poesis

I was called away from home suddenly a few days before Imbolc, and things have only settled down now. I am continuing to republish a series of essays originally written in 2012. I currently plan on moving in the middle of March, so things will probably continue to be intermittently disrupted for me until at least Ostara.

So far in this series, I haven’t written much about magic, or about specific deities, but for Imbolc, I’d like to delve into both areas, and in particular the way that my matron goddess, Brigid, helps me understand magic.

There are lots of Celtic influences in Wicca, and one of the most obvious is the Sabbat of Imbolc, which is traditionally the feast of the goddess Brigid. [1] No other Sabbat is so closely tied to a particular deity; even the rebirth of the Sun at Yule can be interpreted within a multitude of cultural contexts, historical and modern. And while Imbolc can be celebrated as the recovery from that rebirth and presage of spring, many people come together to honor Brigid at this time of year. She is an enormously popular matron and a figure that nearly anyone can turn to, which is perhaps why she was adopted as a Catholic saint and her worship continues in multiple forms down to the present day. I think her continuing popularity and accessibility are due in part to the way she embodies some of the fundamental ideas of magic as a way of interacting with the world.

Traditionally, Brigid has three specialties: she is the matron of healing, especially midwifery; of smith craft; and of poetry. Her history as a healer would be enough to explain her popularity, since nearly everyone needs healing at some point. But the other two areas seem like a strange combination: blacksmithing is not usually associated with either healing or poetry, and it is even more unexpected for a goddess to take an interest in what is traditionally a male-dominated craft. But the piece that seems not to fit is in fact the key to understanding the relationship between all three areas, as well as her continuing presence in Wicca. Smith craft is just that, a craft, and healing and poetry can be approached as crafts as well. It is this idea of crafting in many different forms that makes Brigid such a good representative of witchcraft as well.

Another way to understand this is to start with the idea of poetry. This English word comes from a Greek root, poiesis, which has to do with the whole concept of crafting and creating, almost in the sense of shaping. [2] To me, the way a skilled poet can go to the heart of a matter with just a single word exemplifies poesis. By the very faculty of naming and describing, poesis can influence the nature of a thing. This is not creation ex nihilo; it’s about emergence and shaping the way something develops in the world.

All three of Brigid’s areas are forms of poesis: healing is a process of transforming a situation, and a midwife in particular has the unique opportunity to help both mother and baby. Blacksmithing is also literally a process of shaping and forging something; it turns lumps of rock into useful tools. As these examples show, poesis is not just about words, but to me, the use of language in shaping reality is one of the most amazing examples. When a skilled writer crafts sounds and squiggles to produce meaning . . . well, that’s why we call it poetry. To me, all of these are magical processes, making Brigid fundamentally a goddess of magic itself.

Now, when I say that smithing is a magical process, I don’t mean that it is purely magic in the “Harry Potter” sense: the smith doesn’t wave a wand and instantaneously transfigure iron ore into horseshoes. The very idea of sorcerous shortcuts eliminating the hard work and necessary effort of the craft is antithetical to my understanding of magic. It doesn’t break the laws of nature, it works within them, just like everything else in the world. [3] This is why I don’t tend to ask whether something is “magic” or not. Instead I ask how magical it is. Think of something as simple as a seed sprouting: I can understand the biology, the chemistry, and the physics of it, but the simple fact that an apparently inert object can, under the right circumstances, transform itself into a living being thriving on simply dirt, water, and light is magical. It fills me with awe and joy. It is the numinous in the mundane which is characteristic of what I call magic.

Looked at this way, healing is also terrifically magical, whether it comes about because of meditation and mind-body work, or because of pharmaceuticals and surgery, or (better yet) some of each. Terry Pratchett observed that stopping someone from choking “doesn’t even sound magical until you understand that a way of turning nearly dead people into fully alive people is worth a dozen spells that just go twing!” [4] If you’ve ever seen someone suffering from low blood sugar have a dose of glucose administered, you’d think it was downright miraculous: in a matter of minutes, a person can go from passed out cold to walking and talking as if nothing ever happened. Understanding how that works so that healers can use it to help people, to make a difference in the world, makes it even more magical to me.

When I practice magic, it is closest to a form of poetry. I may use many different tools – stones, herbs, candles, cords – but what I’m doing, deep down, is describing things, crafting an understanding of the world that transforms from one thing to another, the way that the twist of a good poem suddenly transforms your understanding from one thing to another: snowflakes aren’t just snowflakes, they’re bits of lace. That juxtaposition of different understandings that changes the whole situation is the closest I can come to expressing what practicing magic is like.

These acts then become part of the narrative that I am making of my life, and taking that narrative into my own hands is most magical of all. It empowers me and it challenges me: if I really have these choices, what do I do with them? It helps me be more the storyteller and poet of my own life. I don’t have complete control, of course; this isn’t a work of fiction. But here in reality, it makes a difference, even about the things it can’t change. Magic and poesis do not “magically” fix all of the hard situations in my life. They help me face hard things gracefully, with understanding.

[1] There are myriad ways to spell the name of this goddess, including Brighid, Breed, Brigit, and more.

[2] See poesis. It actually comes by way of Latin, because while the Romans excelled in rhetoric and oratory, they admired Greek civilization for its much older and broader tradition of literature in all forms, and many of the great Roman writers considered themselves students of this Greek heritage. Another form of this root survives in medical terms like hematopoiesis, the process by which blood is created.

[3] This is why I both agree and disagree with Clarke’s Third Law: yes, technology can be magical, but to me, obfuscation is not a necessary part of magic. Understanding how something works increases my appreciation for the wonder of it and is part of why I find things magical.

[4] Pratchett, Terry. A Hat Full of Sky. HarperCollins e-books, 2004. Kindle location 4198 of 4579.

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About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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