I don’t know much about cows.
I know that cows tip (not from personal experience, though). I know that sheep are cute, and I love their hair. I was just working with some last night.
I also, on occasion, like to eat a bit of both.
I’m a city boy, born and bred. I don’t really pattern my day-to-day life around the ways of farm animals. A few of my more hipster friends are keeping bees and chickens. They have a different relationship to animals than I do, because they care for them. But me? I have 3 dogs and a teenager (who is a bit of a farm animal), but they all fall into the same patterns of city life as do my husband and I.
And yet somehow I find myself — an urbanite, a man with no direct connection to the ways of the farm — pondering the significance of a lactating ewe.
Thank you, Paganism.
Imbolc is upon us. Some have already celebrated the holiday, and many Pagans across the land are making preparations for their grove gatherings, their circle circlings, and their solitary rituals. For some, Imbolc is celebrated with the same fervor and devotion that many reserve for Yule. All eight are equal, right? But for others, Imbolc is somewhat of an obscure spoke on the Wheel of the Year, and I think that may have something to do with the whole livestock thing.
It is said that for the ancient Celts, Imbolc (Óimelc in Middle Irish or Ouimelko in Old Irish) was celebrated when the ewes began to produce milk…or something to that effect. Their lactation was a sign of new life returning to the world. Google “imbolc, cows, sheep” and you can preview a number of sites which will tell you some variation of that story, and I’ve got a half a dozen books on my shelf that say as much.
While I feel a kind of Pagan obligation to accept the lactation of ewes in ancient Celtic culture as deeply relevant, I’m having a little difficulty doing so. I live in a culture that has put a concrete chasm between the pasture and the dinner table, and I participate in that culture. I’m very much a part of it. I’m not growing my own food, or keeping sheep, or doing anything remotely agricultural.
Should I be, though? I mean, as a Pagan, should I be taking steps in that direction?
Sometimes I think the greatest gift that Neopagan traditions offer modern city dwellers, like myself, is a blueprint for what life was like before the Industrial Age so that we (or our descendants) might be better prepared for what life will be like after our industries, grids and interwebs have all come apart. It’s a little Thunderdome–y, I know, but it may not be that far off from the truth.
Our way of life — MY way of life — is not sustainable. Not for generations, at least, and arguably not even for the duration of my lifetime. I consume more than my fair share, globally speaking. Most Americans do. Even Pagans.
It is conceivable that in two or three generations time, all of the conveniences that we enjoy now — the readily available food, power, and imported resources — will be little more than a page from the history books… presuming we still have books.
My beekeeping friends, along with their pickle canning counterparts in Brooklyn, the rooftop gardeners in Chicago, and the urban homesteaders in warehouses across the country may have a leg up on the rest of us. They’re preparing themselves for a time when there will be no Safeways, Krogers, King Soopers, or Wal-Marts. They’re reconnecting with the rhythms of life in a way that Pagans, like myself, sometimes only talk about.
(I feel like I’m having some sort of reckoning here.)
Imbolc is as a fire celebration, and fire is much easier for me to wrap my mind around. Fire represents inspiration to me, and passion. I honor Brighid every time I approach my altar, and this is Her holiday; Her fire.
Perhaps, though, there can be a connection between the fire of inspiration — the fire of new ideas, new patterns, new creation — and this inquiry into my food, my lifestyle, and how those things intersect with being a Pagan in the modern world. Perhaps on this Imbolc, Brighid will ignite some fire in me that will illuminate ways in which I can better align myself with the rhythms of the earth. Perhaps I will see in the mind of my heart some memory of a simpler time; an ancient world that my spirit belonged to, and still belongs to. Perhaps when that happens I will think of the ewe, and the newborn sheep, and I will see in them something true about the world, about myself, and about the Great Mystery to which we all belong.
That would be something.
Until then, I’m going to go knit my wool shawl and think about what to make for lunch.