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It's February and according to pagans, spring is upon us

Have we turned the corner of a cold winter?

A fire-cage swinging, Imbolc 2007, Marsden, England. Image source: Steven Earnshaw on Flickr
  • The ancient holiday of Imbolc celebrates the imminent return of the sun in spring.
  • The holiday also commemorates either goddess Bhrigid or St. Brigid, who may or may not be the same person.
  • Good weather on Imbolc means more winter to come.

Happy Imbolc! As it tends to be with pagan holidays, Celtic and Irish Imbolc is different things to different people and at different times. "Imbolc" is from the Celtic i mbolg, which means"in the belly," probably a reference to pregnant livestock at this time of year, mostly ewes, carrying their offspring to term in the spring. It was also called Oimelc, which means "milk of ewes."

Imbolc represents a hopeful moment as the seasons begin to turn from darkest winter to the promise of spring: new life — fertility — renewal, and the return of the warming sun. In 2019, appropriately enough, February 1 was the day that one of the most extreme periods of cold ever experienced in the U.S. finally broke.

As website Claddagh Designs puts it wryly: "The hardest part of the year was over; adverse weather, cold temperatures, food rationing, and of course, no warfare (an integral part of Celtic society) would soon be a thing of the past. Farmers were getting ready to go back to work, preparing animals for breeding, warriors were picking up their weapons again, and the political and social aspects of life that had been put on hold for winter were also beginning again."

Given the importance of agriculture and sunlight to ancient cultures, it's not a surprise that Imbolc dates back to Neolithic times, as evidenced by the way in which some monuments of that era — such as Mound of the Hostages at Tara in Ireland — contain passageways that align with sunrise on Imbolc and its autumnal cousin Samhain. The arrival of Christianity brought with it the association with St. Brigid, believed by some to have replaced the goddess Bhrigid. More on her/them later.

What happens on Imbolc

Photo credit: Tobias Vemmenby on Flickr

As with any good festival, Imbolc involves feasting, particularly of home-and-hearth edibles stored over the winter, such as breads, grains, onions, and potatoes.

In keeping with the (eventual) return of the sun, fire is a big part of Imbolc. Beyond spectacular public displays of fire, candles are lit all around celebrants' houses. In earlier times, hearths would burn through the Imbolc night, and if a house was made of non-flammable stone, multiple fires were lit.

People visit wells on Imbolc, particularly holy wells, circling them in the same direction of the sun and praying for a good year ahead. Afterward, coins and pieces of cloth called "clooties" may be left as offerings.

Leading up to the holiday, people make Brigid's crosses that can be hung up around their houses in celebration of Imbolc. Another popular item is the green brat Bhride, or Bhrigid's mantle. Its origin is an offer of property made to the young Bhrigid/Brigid for an abbey she wished to build. The king told her she could have as much property as she could cover with her cloak. Using magic, she increased the size of the cloak until it was so massive it covered all the land she needed.

Today, women fashion their own Bhrigid's mantles of green cloth for wrapping around their shoulders, and it's believed that leaving such a mantle on the hearth allows Bhrigid to visit and bless it on Imbolc each year, making the mantle more and more imbued with her magic with each passing Imbolc.

Creepier than a groundhog

A Cailleach bhéara. Image source: Rob Hurson on Flickr

As with modern Groundhog Day on February 1, the weather on Imbolc foretells the future: An Imbolc with nasty weather signifies a great summer on the way. This may seem backwards at first glance, but here's how it works.

It all has to do with the heating needs of the forest hag Cailleach, the goddess of winter. If winter is to go on for a while, Cailleach needs more firewood. She thus spends Imbolc searching the forests for it, and since she prefers to be out in the woods on a sunny and dry day, that's what the day provides. Bad weather, on the other hand, is good news: It means that Cailleach has no need for wood, what with spring just around the corner, and has decided to stay in and snooze a bit more.

Goddess Brighid and St. Brigid

A Brigid's cross. Image source: Bart Everson on Flickr

The true history of how Imbolc came to its connection to St. Brigit is a little unclear.

The commonly told version is that she was preceded by the daughter of the Dagda in Irish mythology. He was an early invader and one of the Tuatha de Danaan. His daughter's name, "Bhrigid," is from the Celtic brig, for "exalted one." She was actually one of a trio, all of whom were named Bhrigid, and who were understood to represent three aspects of a single goddess. Hence, Bhrigid was considered a triple goddess. Bhrigid was known for looking after healers, magicians, poets, and bards, and she was gifted at divination and prophecy. She also protected pregnant women and their infants; hence contemporary Bhrigid mantles are said to protect them as well.

A flame was secretly kept burning in Bhrigid's honor at the abbey she founded in Kildare, Ireland, and this flame — and the abbey — may have helped connect her to the later Christian St. Brigit. Lisa Lawrence suggests as much when she writes, in her Pagan Imagery in the Early Lives of Brigit, that,"When two religious systems interact, a shared symbol can provide a bridge from one religious idea to another. During a period of conversion, an archetypical symbol such as fire may acquire a new referent, while not being entirely emptied of a previous one. For example, the fire that clearly signifies the presence of the Holy Spirit in Saint Brigit may continue to signify pagan conceptions of religious power."

St. Brigid, on the other hand, was born in Faughart, County Louth in Ireland, and died sometime around 525. She was a devoted servant of the Church, and founder of religious communities in Ireland — likely the reason she was made a saint. she's also credited with founding the same Kildare abbey allegedly built by Bhrigid, one example of how the histories of these two women have become so interwoven that they're impossible to separate. Their identities have progressively merged since goddess Bhrigid's day became St. Brigid's day after the latter's death.

Adding more confusion to the story is the apparent case that the first written reference to the goddess Bhrigid appeared in the 10th century, long after St. Brigid had become the focus of Imbolc. suggests, "So it could be argued that 5th century Saint Brigid predates the goddess Brigid." Or perhaps it's just a whisper of Outlander-style standing-stone time travel we can add to an already a magical story.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
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  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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