Mother's milk in myth and memory

January 31, 2003|By Patricia Montley

BODY BAGS. Every mother's nightmare.

The headlines may be rife with "mass destruction," "nuclear power," "terrorist threat." But it's body bags - those sickening caricatures of placentas - that haunt the dreams of mothers.

John Wayne doesn't work here anymore. We've seen Jon Voight come home in howling pieces and Private Ryan saved at horrifying price. We've seen the faces of Afghan mothers whose children were collateral damage.

And we know, despite the raging rhetoric, that the flow of oil is not as vital as the flow of mother's milk - that white, warm stream of comfort that's always there, deep in our collective unconscious, imbedded in myth and memory.

Until a mere 12 or 15 centuries ago, there was a feast to honor mother's milk. Imbolc (or Oimelc), observed by the Celts every Feb. 1 - the first day of Celtic spring - marked the lactation of ewes. As Mary Condren suggests in The Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion, and Power in Celtic Ireland, "It is possible that the pilgrimages that took place on Imbolc were remnants of a Druidic ritual celebrating the fluids of the womb, amniotic fluids, waters sacred to the old religion."

It was the feast of a pastoral people whose calendar was divided into the cycles of animals' lives: mating, birthing, weaning, sheering, slaughtering - a people for whom fertility was life and death. Not surprisingly, the pantheon of such pastoral peoples always included a much-honored fertility goddess.

Brigid of Ireland, like her Greek counterpart Artemis, was, paradoxically, a virgin goddess called upon by women in childbirth. But Brigid's fertility extended beyond the sexual realm, as she was also patron of poetry and crafts.

On Imbolc, Brigid was said to "breathe life into the mouth of the dead winter." It was a time of purification, a washing of the Earth's face. In a favorite myth, this renewal is dramatized when the old woman of winter, the Cailleach, drinks from the sacred well and is transformed into the young Brigid.

According to some accounts, so strong was the purifying power of this fertility goddess that the Christian church dared not expect its Irish converts to repudiate her entirely. Instead, the goddess herself was "converted" - to Saint Brigid, and Feb. 1 assigned as her feast day.

Patriarchs - both Hebrew and Christian - seem to have taken a dim view of women's reproductive processes. Fortunately, artists have always been more appreciative. As are those of us who remember in our bones and blood that warm, white, first comfort food.

How shall we celebrate Imbolc?

Coddle a nursing mother. Clean her house. Cater a dinner.

Or call Mom and just say thanks.

Then call the White House and just say no.

Patricia Montley is a free-lance writer living in Lutherville.

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