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Purification by Fire: Midwinter Rites of Renewal

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February 2 marks the exact halfway point of winter. Along with the two equinoxes, the two solstices and the three other seasonal midpoints, it is one of the eight energy-filled sacred days in the pagan calendar.

Purification is the recurrent mythic and symbolic theme of midwinter festivals in many places. Purification suggests the cleansing of our spirits as part of the careful preparations for the coming of the springtime light. Clearing the way with the fiery brilliance of insight comes from visiting the deep, dark internal winter of our souls and seeing therein our own part in the constant and continually changing cycles of life.

It is in midwinter when the land is gripped in death that Ceres, the old Goddess of Good Grain and All Fertility (who later became Demeter in Greek mythology), descends to the underworld in pursuit of Her dear lost daughter, Persephone. Disconsolate, Ceres explores the far reaches of the territories of Hades and Her own private hel, Her journey is lit by a single candle. The impassioned determination of Her search and Her ultimate discovery sheds the first glimmer of light in the indelible dark of winter. It is the creative spark of full consciousness. With the light from Her candle, we can begin to see the spiritual direction of the new cycle.

In Greece, there is an underground sanctuary dedicated to Hades, God of the Underworld, and Persephone, His stolen bride. For millennia, pilgrims have made their way to the Nekyomanteion of Ephra, a labyrinthine arrangement of spiral-shaped rooms and passageways carved into the belly of Mother Earth. Manteion means "a place in which one hears prophesy," and nekyo (or necro) refers to the dead.

Petitioners descend deep into the divine womb by way of a serpentine tunnel leading to a cavernous dark chamber, which sits above a crypt. There, encouraged by Ceres' resolve, in the unsteady light of just one torch, they consult the oracles of the dead for inspiration, for direction. Their motto: "It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness."

Midwinter was celebrated as Imbolc by the ancient Celts, and also as an early Gaelic fire festival. Both were held in honor of Bridget, a.k.a. Brigid, Bride, Brigetis -- the Northern White Goddess, guardian of the home fire and hearth. Fire was the symbol of Her white-hot mystic magic. The intense heat of the flame represents Her fervent faith in the return of the light to the world. Today, the day belongs to Her spiritual daughter, Saint Brigid, adored patron saint of Ireland.

The hagiographic accounts of St. Brigid are few, flimsy and quite transparent. She was allegedly Ireland's first convert to Christianity and the founder of that country's first convent in the fifth century. She continued to be honored just as the Goddess was before her, and the worship practice of Her devotees has not changed over the centuries.

A holy fire, reminiscent of those kept constantly burning by the worshippers of her earlier goddess incarnation, was maintained at Her shrine in Kildare until it was finally ordered doused by the Church in the thirteenth century. Until not so long ago, domestic fires were routinely extinguished on Her day, February 1, and then rekindled and blessed in a preparatory act of purification -- purification by fire.

In Rome, the midwinter day belonged to Juno Februata, virgin mother of Mars. Februare, in Latin, means "to expiate, to purify." Here, too, fires were lit, and candles were blessed and burned in Her honor. Women also continued to carry candles in street processions at this same time of year in memory of Ceres' candle-lit search below ground.

Determined to stem this irritating and irrepressible goddess-worship, Pope Sergius claimed this pagan holiday for the Church. Renamed "Candlemas," February 2 was to be celebrated as the feast of the purification of the Virgin Mary forty days after She had given birth. The observance, however, remained the same -- the blessing and burning of candles for Our Lady of Light.

Two indigenous New World celebrations echo this practice. In Aztec Mexico, all fires were extinguished at the winter midpoint. There followed five dark days during which there was a period of inactivity and sorrowing. Then the Aztec New Year was ushered in with the ritual relighting of the fires, feasting and festing.

The Iroquois celebrate a six-day midwinter New Year ceremony during which members of the False Face Society visit every home in the community. They put out the fire in each stove, stir up the ashes and then blow them onto the inhabitants as a curative cleansing rite.

All of these purification ceremonies of renewed fire suggest a clearing of humanity's earthly orientation in order to be open to the growing divine light of the coming spring -- the reassuring light at the end of the long, dark winter tunnel.

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