Butser Ancient Farm, on the Hampshire/Sussex border, is in a beautiful green valley filled with historic buildings. These have been constructed by archaeologists who experiment with how such buildings would have been built and maintained using only ancient methods, tools and technologies. It hosts a wide range of events throughout the year, one of which is a celebration of Imbolc, the pagan festival to celebrate the start of Spring.
Butser Ancient Farm
Butser is in a truly idyllic location: off the beaten track in a bucolic valley, where few signs of modern life intrude - even the nearby A3 seems not to impinge on the peace. For over 50 years it has been a place for experimental archaeologists to test out theories about the ancient world and the site is currently home to reconstructed buildings from the Stone Age through to the Anglo Saxons.
Primarily a centre for education and research (they are currently running an insulae hypocaust non-stop for 10 days in their Roman villa to see how well it works and heats), it is also open to the public for assorted open days, workshops and special events. The biggest event in their annual calendar is Beltain, the Celtic festival to celebrate the start of summer, when a giant Wickerman is burnt as the grand finale, but the farm also honours the other focal points of the ancient calendar - Samhain, Lammas and Imbolc.
Imbolc is considered to be the start of Spring and traditionally takes place on the 1st - 2nd February. Its origins are somewhat murky, but it is interconnected with St Brigid's Day and even with the American Groundhog Day. For the Celts, the day marked the beginning of Spring, being halfway between the Winter solstice and Spring Equinox. It was a time when food supplies were running low in those agricultural communities, with winter stores nearly exhausted, and they looked ahead to the arrival of the warmer weather, longer days and the promise of new crops and livestock.
St. Brigid's Day
The time became one of performing rituals to ensure a steady supply of food for the year ahead, and was considered important enough by the early Christian church to adopt it as one of their own religious days, (just as Yule became Christmas and Samhain became Halloween), and they attached it to St Brigid, or St Bride, the mother saint of Ireland. Imbolc became Candlemas, a celebration on 2nd February to commemorate the purification of Mary after she had given birth. The church also borrowed from ancient Rome, who honoured the goddess Juno Februata (the Roman goddess of fertility and purification) by carrying burning candles in February, so the day became all about celebrating the feminine, birth and new beginnings.
Imbolc and Groundhog Day
The forecast for the weather ahead was of vital importance to farming communities, whose lives would depend on it. The Romans used hedgehogs to foretell what would lie ahead - it was said that if a hedgehog looked out of his den during hibernation on 2nd February and saw his shadow, it would mean that there was a clear moon and therefore six more weeks of winter. This tradition passed to the US via the Pennsylvania Dutch who emigrated there and finding no hedgehogs, used the ground hog instead.
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come winter, have another flight.
If Candlemas bring clouds and rain,
Go winter, and come not again.
So although there is no direct link between Imbolc and Groundhog Day, they are interwoven with their relationship of Candlemas and its origins in the Romans and Celtic traditions, and these days people do seem to claim a direct connection between the two.
St Brigid's Day Traditions
Rites and rituals for St Brigid's Day varied across the British Isles: a sheaf of corn from the last harvest would be dressed and carried from house to house by young girls, women would make a bed called the Cradle of Bride, others would make a Brigid's Cross and hang them around the house for good fortune or leave a cloth outside the house to be blessed by Brigid as she passed by overnight, which would then keep the wearer safe. There seem to be as many traditions connected to her as there are origin stories for the day.
Imbolc at Butser Ancient Farm
Although Butser is closed to the general public during the winter months, they open for a few events during this time, one of which is Imbolc. With only a limited amount of tickets, spaces sell out fast for an afternoon of storytelling around an open fire in their Iron Age roundhouse.
It was a bitterly cold day with a heavy grey sky when I arrived at Butser. I joined a small crowd and we looked around some of the roundhouses before making our way to the largest of them all, with skulls at the entrance and grey smoke billowing out of the thatched roof. The audience was mostly adults, all dressed for the cold in thick coats and stout boots, but I still saw the odd pixie hood and cape in amongst the padded jackets - for some this is a part of their belief system rather than a novel trip into the past.
Welcomed in from the cold by cheerful staff, there was a small bar area selling tomato soup with crusty bread along with an assortment of meads, wines and soft drinks. Hay bales were arranged in semi-circles and covered in animal skins to make them warm and comfortable. In the centre was a blazing open fire, its grey smoke filling the conical ceiling. Lanterns which hung from the wooden beams provided a soft glow of orange light, and discreet lights hidden behind the upright beams highlighted the thatch roof, but it still took a while for eyes to adjust to the smoky darkness.
People arrived, settled on the hay bales, many had brought their own cushions and blankets, and soon the roundhouse filled with the sound of chatting and an air of expectation. The storyteller, a man with a friendly, open face and dressed in a dark woollen cape, rang a small bell and then very quietly, began to beat a wooden hand drum. It took the audience a while to notice but eventually the chattering ceased and soon the only noise to be heard was the hissing of the fire and the slow, steady beat of the drum.
He walked around with his drum chanting, "Take me to the old ones, take me to the hidden ones," and told us that he was a bard of the woodlands, words were his coracle, and everything he was about to tell us was absolutely true...
He started to talk, about the hedgehog who came out of his home to see the sun, how Imbolc is a part of the ancient agricultural calendar, when it marked the tentative first rays of the sun, the first ewes would start to lactate, the first of the lambs would start to arrive, the hesitant first steps of spring and new beginnings, explaining that magic was interwoven into the farming community. He explained how Imbolc is the Festival of Brid, a slave girl from the 5th century who became the Abbess of Kildare.
He said that when we tell a story we become a part of it, but before he would tell his stories we had to open the circle and bring in the four stages and the four elements. He asked for four volunteers, one to stand at each compass point holding an object, and we all had to stand facing each direction in turn as he spoke about what each point represented, moving from birth to old age, ending each of his incantations with the words,' Blessed Be'.
He then asked us if we were ready to enter the well of memory and story, and he began.
He told the story of the Tuath De, a supernatural race in Irish mythology from when time was measured by the nights of the moon not the days of the sun, a time before the first fire had ever been lit and when it was, Brid swallowed it.
He talked of seven ancestral queens who guarded the way, of howling wolves, women of power in a time of giants, spirits and creatures. He talked about thresholds and twilight, the flow of life, wild woods, druids, how the Milky Way was formed from the thigh of the goddess Boinn and was called the Way of the White Cow and of the mantle of Brid which spread over the land of Ireland.
He said how today it is the meaning of words which hold the power but back then it was the sounds of the words, and the Celtic words tripped lightly off his tongue. He spoke rhythmically and melodically, sometimes in verse, sometimes to the back drop of his drum but always holding everyone's complete attention. Not a sound could be heard as the fire, the drum, his mellifluous voice lulled us all into a soporific haze as we were transported to the ancient world of Irish mythology.
Towards the end he talked again about Imbolc and how time is irrelevant to tales of mythology; even in this Age of Science, traditions stay so long as there is someone to honour them - this year in Ireland is the first ever bank holiday for Brid, which shows they are just as relevant today. The stories are still important and when we connect with the ancestors, we also connect with our descendants, and wrap the mantle of Brid around a new generation.
There was an extended period of silence when he walked amongst us softly beating his hand drum and all that could be heard was the crackling of the fire and the beat of the drum. We were all hidden in the dark, with layers of wood smoke hanging above us. Many people had their eyes closed and it felt primal, elemental, almost religious, which I think for some there it was. When he rang the small bell at the end, it was like breaking a spell. He then repeated the earlier ceremony where we all stood to face the four points of the compass, to close the circle that had been opened at the beginning.
He ended by talking about the overlap between pagan and Christian, how all beliefs from across the globe are encompassed by these ancient tales, how there is no need to label beliefs but to find the commonality amongst them. Butser is about exploring and knowing how the ancients lived and it is the same with story telling: we enter into their mythological landscape.
For nearly two hours he had kept us all captivated by his tales and taken us to another world where the mythological had temporarily become reality, where we had hung on the rhythms and cadence of his voice, just watching the glowing fire and its embers occasionally rising up to join the grey smoke swirling above our heads.
When we emerged back into the bleak grey day it was with a feeling of hope for the coming of Spring. I had half expected to see snowdrops fighting their way through the soil and trees unfurling their leaves as I left the roundhouse, but sadly it was not to be.
As we left, many of us wandered through the gift shop and I just couldn't help but pick up some mead to take home to celebrate the event. I left the farm covered in the earthy scent of wood smoke and with a head filled with mythical tales.
Imbolc at Butser
Check their website for the date or sign up to their email newsletter to be notified when tickets go on sale.
The excellent, magical storyteller was Jonathon Huet from Walk with Trees - he does most of the Celtic festival/ turning of the year events at Butser
Wear boots or wellies as you will get muddy
Take a blanket if you feel the cold