The Celtic Magic of Spring
Happy Spring! This past Monday, March 20, 2023, was the spring equinox (or the autumnal equinox for my friends in the southern hemisphere). Every year, there are two equinoxes, one in spring and one in autumn. On these two days, the hours of sunlight and nighttime are about equal. To the ancient—and not so ancient—Celts, the equinoxes were significant, strong in symbolism, and a time of powerful magic.
On the western calendar, the spring equinox marks the start of spring but, on the Celtic calendar, spring started a while back, on February 1st to be exact. Now, for many people, February generally doesn’t feel very spring-like, especially if there’s a foot or two of snow outside. But February 1st, to the Celts, is the fire festival of Imbolc. (It’s also Brigid’s Day. More about that in a moment). Imbolc, which means “in the belly,” (i.e. pregnant) was the start of lambing season and, on the Celtic calendar, it marked the beginning of the season of spring, a time of new life and new beginnings.
February 1st also is Brigid’s Day. It is the feast day of St. Brigid of Kildare, the co-patron saint of Ireland (along with Patrick). But before there was the saint, there was the goddess. Brigid is the Celtic goddess of fire and spring / summer (and a long list of other things). Brigid, the goddess, was hugely popular not just in Ireland, but across the Celtic world. Some of her attributes fit perfectly with the symbolism of spring. Both she and the season are about youth, passion, inspiration, fertility, growth, and potential. After the apparent death of winter, the world is once again alive and crackling with joy, possibilities, and hope.
Plant Symbolism and Magic
As the season of cold and dreariness comes to an end, the world bursts out in color as green leaves fill the trees and flowers begin to blossom. Each color of spring has symbolism attached to it. The green of the leaves and of the many herbs, such as mint and stinging nettle, represents hope and renewal. Yellow, seen on gorse blossoms and daffodils, stands for joy. The red of roses and red clover symbolizes love, passion, and the heart.
Spring is a time for planting seeds and the resulting plants bring contribute more than color and, in many cases, nutrition for the gardener. According to Celtic folklore, these herbs provide medicine and magic. Below is a list of herbs that can be planted in the spring and the medicinal and magical qualities folklore attributes to them.
Basil: While modern medicine says this delicious herb has not been clinically shown to have any curative properties, it was a staple of the folk doctor’s medicine chest. Folklore claimed basil was practically a panacea. It was used to treat conditions ranging from insect bites to migraines to kidney disorders. In magic, it is said to be highly protective and can help one to fly.
Chamomile: If you want to de-stress, just curl up with a cup of chamomile tea. But, according to scientific studies, this amazing plant offers many other benefits. It is an anti-inflammatory. In addition to its pain-relieving qualities, chamomile is an anti-spasmodic, so folk medicine recommends it for relieving menstrual cramps. Chamomile also contains antioxidants. Some studies suggest that it can help improve blood pressure and lower cholesterol.
It’s no slouch in the magical arena either. Besides reducing stress, providing a good night’s rest, and offering magical healing, chamomile is said to provide prosperity, good fortune, and good luck with gambling. Folklore claims that sprinkling an infusion of the herb around the house will remove hexes and curses. It also protects the house from lightning strikes. Finally, bathing in chamomile is said to attract love and has even been claimed to produce marriage proposals!
Mint (3 varieties): Peppermint, in medicine, has been shown to ease digestive issues. It also increases mental alertness. According to Celtic folklore, this variety of mint has several magical uses. It helps with healing and love (as does spearmint). It is used in purification rituals. Folklore also claims it increases one’s psychic abilities. Ironically, even though science claims peppermint makes one more alert, folklore says it will help one get a good night’s rest. Spearmint also helps with sleep. According to the lore, this mint actually protects you while you sleep. Anyone who’s eaten wintergreen knows it’s refreshing, but the folklore adds that it can be used to allay fears and reduce anxiety.
Red Clover: In herbal medicine, red clover is used to cleanse the body of toxicity. In Celtic folklore, the flower was associated (because of its color) with the heart. It was believed to stimulate the heart, resulting (the belief was) in cleaning the blood. The herb also was said to invigorate and to arouse passion.
Rosemary: Scientifically, rosemary has been shown to improve memory and cognitive awareness in young adults. It is more effective in achieving this when it’s used in aromatherapy. According to folklore, it is excellent for attracting love and often was used in wedding bouquets. In addition, rosemary is credited with healing, protecting, and purifying.
Rose: Rose hips are an ingredient in many herbal teas. Herbal medicine says they aid the immune system and have a diuretic action which can help in detoxing. In Celtic folklore, roses attract love and romance. They also are said to call good spirits around you, providing protection and luck.
Sage: Scientific studies say that taking sage increases alertness and improves memory in healthy adults. It also seems to improve learning, memory, and information processing in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease. It is thought to help with the chemical imbalances that cause the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
In folk medicine, sage is a healing herb. Fairy Doctors (in the Irish tradition) and Cunning Folk (in Scotland) considered it a cure-all. It also was used to reverse spells and curses and burned for purification rituals. (Click here to read about Fairy Doctors and Cunning Folk.)
Stinging Nettle: Loaded with nutrients and especially rich in iron, is a healthy green that makes a delicious soup. As an herbal, it’s often consumed as a tea. Primarily, it is used as an anti-inflammatory for arthritis and as an aid in curing anemia. Although it can produce a painful rash if touched with bare hands, in Celtic folklore, it is associated with protection and healing. It is said to dispel darkness and negativity. It strengthens the will and can (according to the lore) give one the ability to deal with crises. A protection against evil and danger, it is said to help reveal hidden dangers.
Thyme: Science says that, at present, there is insufficient evidence to indicate any medical benefits of taking thyme. Of course, that just means it hasn’t been studied enough yet by medical researchers. Celtic folklore considers thyme quite valuable.
It was worn to provide courage and strength and was said to help deal with unbearable grief. A member of the mint family, thyme helps with sleep and protects against nightmares. Like peppermint, it increases psychic powers. But wait! There’s more. Thyme is credited with improving health and healing. It attracts loyalty, affection, and love. It brings good luck and causes others to have a good opinion of you. Wow! After all that, Science, can’t you find something nice to say about thyme?
The Importance of Being Yellow
Among the flowers which bloom in the spring in the Celtic lands are daffodils and primroses. They, like gorse which blooms throughout the year, hold a special place in Celtic folklore. Why? Because they’re yellow and yellow flowers protect against faerie magic. At Beltane (May 1st), (which marks the end of spring and the beginning of summer on the Celtic calendar) traditionally, yellow flowers are strewn across lawns and doorsteps to protect the household from evil and the magic of the Good People.
The good news is you don’t have to wait until Beltane. Any time of year, simply putting a yellow flower in your pocket is said to protect you from evil and faerie mischief. Well…the faerie mischief part is not guaranteed but, if a faerie curses you, at least the yellow flower might cheer you up. Temporarily.
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Slan go foil!