The Lactating Ewes of Imbolc

I don’t know much about cows.

Or sheep.

Lollie-Pop from Cape Town, South Africa
By "Lollie-Pop" on Wikimedia


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 Thunderdomey, 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.



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21 responses to “The Lactating Ewes of Imbolc”

  1. Jenni Hunt Avatar

    One of the primary reasons Roman civilization resonates with me so much more than Western European cultures is because Mediterranean cultures tend to be based less on agricultural seasons and based more on urban and societal values instead. In ancient Rome, February (prior to 450 BCE) was the last month of the Roman calendar, a time of cleansing, purification, and connecting with one’s Ancestors. The etymology of “February” (februa) has to do with expatiation and purification, and I celebrate it as such. It’s a great time of year for someone who is more solitary like me to reflect, meditate, and make plans for resolving unfinished social business or severing ties that are unproductive… or making good on promises and relationships I may have been neglecting. When I lived in Ohio closer to where my Ancestors were buried, I tried to make pilgrimages to their burial sites around this time of year in imitation of some of the traditions of ancient Romans who picnicked at the sites of their deceased loved ones’ graves. It’s not — for me — a dark time of year, especially in Arizona; it’s a time of catharsis and rebirth, of letting go and seeking wholeness. May you find peace, light, and blessings this Holy Day, Teo. 🙂

  2. […] A Space For Dialogue Beneath The Sacred Oaks Skip to contentHomeAboutContact TeoPost Archives← The Lactating Ewes of ImbolcCurses, Shame, and a High Functioning Mexican →I Keep Vigil to the Fire: Imbolc Poetry for a […]

  3. Kilmrnock Avatar

    Altho i’m now on the upper part we, my family, are from lower Delmarva Peninsula , sometimes called by locals the eastern shore. My parents came from a small seafood based town , below Salisbury MD. From my upbring and also spending alot of time there w/ my grandparents i call my self a semi coutry boy. where i live now is a sorta suburb of Wilmington DE, outside of New Castle in the Suburbs . When i was young here this was mostly farmland , but now has developed to a sprawling suburban/semi industrial area. But getting back to the origonal point , altho not always easy in such locals we can reconnect with nature if only in a small ways as your own cicumstances allow . I have a small garden , we compost , and recycle . You can purchase a small drum type composter such as the one i have . Dosen’t take up much space or have an odor , so no neighbor complaints . Besides i share my veggies when they come in . There is nothing quite as good as a vine ripened tomatoe or cucumber , fresh from the garden and the fresh herbs are nice too. but more importantly doing such things help us reconnect to our mother earth and her cycles .Develop a personal connection to the land /place where you live .      Kilm 

  4. […] post: The Lactating Ewes of Imbolc | Bishop In The Grove ← A Garden Plan | How Much, How Big, What Is in … – Country […]

  5. Kilmrnock Avatar

    Teo , on another point , altho i don’t can , i do grow a veggy garden at my modest home . i live in a town house .My back yard , the only yard i have btw , is only about 20 feet by 50 ft. But i do have a 6ft by 16 ft garden . i grow mostly tomatoes and cucumbers . my wife also grows fresh herbs in window boxes on the back deck. so i guess in do have a connection to mothe r earth by way of my veggie garden . Kilm

  6. Kilmrnock Avatar

    altho , i’m a semi country boy , my grandparents had a basically vegitable farm, didn’t have any livestock .Tthe whole ewe thing made no sense to me either , my grandfather on the side that had the farm was a waterman .The part of Imbolc that i latched on to , even early on in my journey on the pagan path was Bidghid herself and the fire aspects thereof . Even b/f i got into my celtic heritage and it’s associated beliefs i was drawn to her , the godess, Bridghid .Now that i have  gotten deeper into the Celtic path i have come to know her as my patron Godess. As we Druids say ………….i belong to her .She has even come to me in times of crisis. I have a personal relatationship with her . I honor her every day w/ my devotionals . But especialy on her high day w/ my grove,which will be saturday .   Then i will personaly thank her for helping thru the last year , which has been quite rough.This past mid spring , the end of april i had a heart attack, was rather traumatic and life changing , to say the least.When i was in the throws of it in surgery , Bridghid came to me , when i called to her for strenth and support.She helped me through it , to survive it . That in itself means i owe her alot , my unquestioned loyalty and devotion . As i said earlier ………..i belong to her . Kilm

  7. […] true about the world, about myself, and about the Great Mystery to which we all belong.” – Teo Bishop“Brigid is a time to honor how the potentialities hidden in the year to come, potentialities […]

  8. Nettle Avatar

    Ewes don’t actually start lactating in temperate climates for another month or so. The “lactating ewe” thing is everywhere amongst Pagans but it’s funny (and telling) that nobody asks the sheep.

    1. Henry Avatar

      yes it is dependent on the sheep, and there is no fixed date as the timing is purely biological. It depends on when conception occurs. The breeding cycle begins usually in august and continues through december in most breeds. There is roughly a 5 month gestation, so lactation can begin from january to may. The british isles are at around 50 degrees north latitude, as a reference that puts it roughly the same latitiude as wisconsin and  northern new england.
      A second factor is it is best to breed early and thus lamb and  lactate early to extend the milk yield as cooler weather tends toward longer  yield.
      Also the cross quarter day were most probably not date specific but tied to biological triggers and within a certain climate reference frame. The quarter days are astronomical, or ‘heavenly’, the cross days biological and ‘earthy’.

  9. Wes Isley Avatar
    Wes Isley

    So glad to hear someone else be honest about the whole lactating-ewe thing! I agree, and yet I can appreciate the fact that the juxtaposition of this quaint image with my 21st-century lifestyle causes me to pause and think. However, I’m no doomsdayer. In fact, I’m weary of this whole one-day-very-soon-we’ll-all-be-living-in-caves scenario. Has that ever happened? Sure, civilizations disappear for various reasons, get conquered and all that. But from a long view of history, human civilization as a whole progresses. Whether that’s good or bad is for others to debate–and all that to say, I have no intention of raising bees or canning (but kudos to those who do).

    Because of my embrace of our modern world, how do I live in it as a modern druid/shaman/pagan? Surprisingly, Imbolc is one of my favorite seasons! It’s quiet, it’s introspective, and it’s cold (usually). While the “ewe” factor continues to challenge me, I get the Brighid aspect, and I like the fire aspect, too. It still makes sense to me that we’re emerging from winter, perhaps still asleept but slowly approaching a new day and new growth. It’s the promise buried deep beneath the cold earth that excites me, the new life waiting to be born or take it’s first steps ( the ewe, perhaps?). I think we can see that, as least in some parts of the West, in the first bulbs putting up tentative green shoots, the slowly lengthening days. Even Christian traditions like Candlemas speak to me; the blessing of the candles as a symbol of Christ’s light–the return of light to the world–resonates. So I’ll light my candles and weave my St. Brighid’s cross while watching for the crocus to emerge–just don’t ask me to take up shepherding!

  10. Ameth Jera Avatar
    Ameth Jera

    It was a shock to move to the city a few years ago. I was used to having a large garden in the backyard and growing a lot of my own produce. I missed putting my hands into the soil and cursing the weeds and walking through the tomato vines and corn stalks.

    My solution was a dish garden. My last apartment had very deep window sills, so I could sit several dishes, pots and baskets on the sill to get the direct morning sunlight. I enjoyed growing herbs…quite a step down from a vegetable garden, but I could still touch the soil.

    I didn’t know how spiritually connected I was to the soil. It’s very much a part of my Irish soul, and it connects not only to my own past, but that of my ancestors.

  11. Chris Godwin Avatar

    The festival of Imbolc occurred during a time of darkness in the middle of winter, likely after the bulk of the food reserves were gone. This means that when Feb 1st rolled around, people were rationing their food. The milk of the Ewe would have been the first sign that things were changing, a ray of hope in the midst of misery. More more importantly, the milk would have been a very welcomed nutritional supplement, a nice treat to help ward off starvation.It is hard for us to connect to the level of spirituality our ancestors did. When you’re hungary & cold for a month, basic things like canning food or preping your garden for the sowing season become spiritual.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thanks for the comment, Chris. I’m curious — do you have a practice of canning or gardening? Is that a part of how you connect with the ancestors?

      1. Chris Godwin Avatar

        Anyone urban or rural can connect with the growing land. It’s much harder for us city folk. I personally recommend urban bee keeping for those wishing to blend their spiritual practice into a pastoral/agricultural practice. Anyone can do it anywhere. You can even make it a part of your daily spiritual practice.

        Neopaganism’s focus on Nature & the earth is not verily supported by actual physical reverence for the earth. Its like the christian dogma, “faith without works is dead.” Faith is pointless unless it has a relationship with reality. In other words, faith trapped inside your mind isn’t a growing flourishing faith.

        Because of these ideas, I feel my faith best forms a relationship with reality by  erecting a composter, a victory garden, a beehive & possibly rain water collection system. I don’t own my own land, but I’ve sought out semi-rural living with a supportive land lord who will allow me to do all of these projects.

        Urban bee keeping info:

        1. Teo Bishop Avatar

          These words resonate with me, Chris. As resistant as we (Pagans) are to dogma, this one you refer to is rather useful, I think. What it is to be an “Earth based” religious person if you don’t connect with the earth?

          I know that both ADF and OBOD emphasize the development of a connection to the land as a necessary component to a complete practice of Druidry, and I’m sure other traditions do the same. I need to get on this a bit more. I’m not sure if bees are the first step for me, but they may be. Thank you for sharing that link with us, and thank you for sharing your own personal experience of connecting to the land!

          1. Chris Godwin Avatar

            As resistant to dogma as we are, no one takes a person seriously if they talk a big talk but do not walk fo shit.

          2. Teo Bishop Avatar


            True. That’s very true. In part, that’s why I ask these kinds of questions on my blog. I’m searching for the places where my walk needs to better line up with my talk, or the other way around.

            I think we all need to do that kind of examination from time to time, no?

  12. Sisterlisa Avatar

    oh that is beautiful. Thank you, Teo. Your words speak deeply to the organic part of my being. Such wisdom and so graciously offered. 

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      That’s sweet of you to say, Lisa. I’m glad the words spoke to you. I think there’s some earthy in most of us, and trying to reconnect to that earthiness is part of what brings us together.

      Blessings to you.

  13. MrsBs Confessions Avatar

    I grow veggies and herbs and do quite a bit of canning.  It’s not as spiritual as it is preparation for the zombie apocalypse.  O_O

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      I’ve never considered what exactly would be a spiritual form of preparation for the zombie apocalypse.

      I’ll meditate on that. 🙂