Imbolc and the Sacred Horns

by Laura Perry, author of The Minoan Tarot.

This week marks the Gaelic festival of Imbolc, the halfway point between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. This is the time of new beginnings and fresh starts. In the British Isles and parts of North America, it’s the point when we start looking for signs of Spring, signals that life is returning to the land. So what could Imbolc possibly have to do with the Minoans of ancient Crete or my Minoan Tarot deck?

As a person who lives in the northern temperate zone but who is also madly in love with the Minoans and their Bronze Age Mediterranean culture, I often find myself trying to reconcile the seasonal cycles and sacred festivals of the two different regions. Believe it or not, it can be done. And to me, that connection makes the Earth’s seasons and cycles that much more poignant and powerful.

Right now on Crete, it’s the growing season. Fields are full of grain and vegetables that will continue developing through the mild winter until they’re harvested later in the Spring. In the Mediterranean climate, the summer is the “dead time” when nothing grows because it’s too hot and dry. The winter is mild and rainy, which is great for growing all kinds of crops. That’s a far cry from the cold, leafless, grey Winter I’m experiencing now or the moderate summers during which I grow my vegetable garden every year.

But there is something pretty amazing that’s happening right now in both northern Europe and the Mediterranean, and it’s associated with Imbolc: lambing season. In the British Isles, where Imbolc was first celebrated, lambs and goat kids are being born, discovering the world for the first time and cavorting around as happy baby animals tend to do.

The same thing is happening in Crete right now, too.

From the time of the first settlements on Crete during the Neolithic era, sheep and goats have been a major part of life there. Their presence on the island appears not only in realistic depictions of the animals in Minoan art but also in the form of a powerful symbol: the sacred horns. The Minoans built large replicas of the horns along the rooftops of their temples and peak sanctuaries, painted them on ceramic vessels, and carved them on seal stones. The sacred horns are such an important symbol that I used them as the icon for an entire Minor Arcana suit in The Minoan Tarot. The suit of Horns is the Earth suit, symbolizing the practicalities and pleasures of material life in a physical body. That’s about as Earthy as you can get!

Though many people think of the sacred horns as related to bulls – the Minoans were, after all, renowned for bull leaping – they actually connect with all the major livestock in ancient Crete, even the sheep. You see, the breed of sheep that the Minoans raised had horns! Those same horned sheep still roam the fields and pastures of the island today under the careful watch of modern Cretan shepherds. The island also has its fair share of goats, both tame and feral, to keep the goatherds busy.

And right now those sheep and goats that the people of Crete so proudly herd are having lots of babies, just like the sheep and goats are doing in the British Isles. ‘Tis the season: a time of renewal and fulfillment, whether you’re experiencing the Mediterranean growing season that looks toward harvest or the northern winter that yearns for Spring.

In honor of this time of year and the blessing of new life among the horned four-leggeds, I’ve created a Sacred Horns Tarot Spread. The horns and the Earth suit they appear on in The Minoan Tarot represent manifestation in the material world. And birth, such as the lambing that takes place at Imbolc, is the ultimate version of physical manifestation.

We can view the concepts of birth and physical manifestation figuratively as well as literally. Our lives have so many facets, it’s helpful to remind ourselves that we can begin again at any point – start something new or refresh something that’s been there a while but that needs a change. The only thing that’s more important than where we’ve come from is where we’re going. So lay the cards out in the shape of this potent symbol and see where you can go from here.

Here are the meanings of the card positions:

1. What is being born right now in my life?

2. What dormant gifts do I have that are ready to be awakened and birthed out into the world?

3. How can I nurture growth of all kinds in my life?

4. What will keep me warm and comfortable as I grow?

5. Where can I find inspiration to help me move forward?

6. What do I need to let go of in order to grow?

7. What obstacles do I need to leap over or skip around?

8. What issues do I need to take by the horns?

When I finished creating this Tarot layout, I got out my own cards and gave it a try. How would you interpret the results I got?

The sacred horns and the creatures they’re connected with remind us that we’re an integral part of the physical world. We’re not separate from it, not at all. We rock and swing to the cycles of the seasons, even from inside our carefully heated and cooled homes and offices. We are physical beings every bit as much as we are spiritual beings.

As the seasons turn and we move along with them, the arrival of new life in the fields at Imbolc is a reminder that we can always start over whenever we need to. I’ll leave you with a short poem, a devotional to the Horned Ones whose babies are drawing their first breaths even as we speak.

Mighty Wild Ones,

Horned Ones of ancient Crete,

Help me to rebirth myself

As your own babies are born

In this season.

Remind me how to dance

And leap and skip

Around the obstacles in life.

Billy-goat and nanny-goat,

Ram and ewe,

Remind me always

That I am like you:

Animal, yes,

But also much, much more.

About the Author:

Laura Perry is an author and artist whose primary focus is ancient religions. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a particular passion of hers since a fateful art history class introduced her to the frescoes of Knossos. Her first book was published in 2001; her most recent work is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. Laura learned to read Tarot cards nearly three decades ago and the Tarot still surprises her with insights on a regular basis.