Cronnie Wisdom

Crone is "a phase in which you can be more authentic, more capable of making a difference in your family and in the greater world. Life gives you experience, and when you draw from it, that's true wisdom. By the time a woman is in her crone years, she is in an amazing position to be an influence. To change things for the better, to bring what she knows into a situation, to be able to say, 'Enough is enough.' You don't have to just go along with things, which is often a part of the middle years. You're often something of a loose cannon."
Jean Shinoda Bolen

Saturday, December 31, 2022

The Cailleach - Celtic Goddess of Winter


 "Hag cookie" imprinted with image by Meinrad Craighead

I have memories of past winters. Looking out over a lake just as the sun had set.  Bare branch trees and loneliness embrace that liminal time when the veil is thin. The earth cries out for sleep and rest, but the world pays no attention.  Life continues without change. The holidays are stirring things up rather than slowing them down. Few have time to look out the window at all. But our agrarian ancestors had a more balanced life.  They worked hard from spring until autumn harvest, then life slowed in winter. In the Celtic world, the new year begins at Samhain (which is October 31st).  Winter hasn’t yet begun but the world is slowing down.  Animals and plant prepare for hibernation.  For humans, this provided time for dreams and rest.  Families were together eating by candlelight food preserved at an earlier time.  Long nights people huddled by firelight. Elders told stories and plans were made. In that time and place, folks had plenty of time for review.  What is no longer needed?  Who no longer serves you?  What needs to be done in the coming year?

In the storm’s fury, with gale winds howling, the winter goddess of Ireland and Scotland reigns supreme. She is the Cailleach, the crone, the hag, an old woman with a blue-gray face.  Her name means “old wife” or veiled one.” Her work is veiled and mysterious.  She has keen eyesight and inordinate strength. It is she who formed the coastline and mountains with the rocks that she hurled from her apron. Yet there is no evidence that she harms humans, only that she determines their worth.

The Cailleach is an essential part of the cycle of life. She comes in the barrenness of winter when what remains from the harvest decays in the ground. She protects the seedlings with the warmth of her snow. Without the Cailleach, the life that hibernates would not be nurtured or protected through the long winter night.

The Cailleach calls to us. She leads us indoors to reflect on what was and on what will be.  She clears away all that is finished for nothing unworthy escapes her challenge. Her cave is a refuge from the harshest reality so that only the brave will enter.  Its darkness is the catalyst for change. A challenge to follow the rhythm of the seasons.  Those who enter will be rewarded with nourishment and wisdom.  It’s a time for healing, integration, and surrender; rather than for action and resistance.

Enter her cave and sit by her fire. Let the madness and busyness of the world go by for a while.  Discover what has import in this moment of life and what has meaning. Stop filling time with what is meaningless, busyness, the shoulds and oughts.  Finding balance occurs only when we take the time to nourish ourselves and seek restoration.  She reassures us that the death of winter will be followed by the rebirth of spring.

Gearóid Ó Crualaoich in “The Book of The Cailleach” identifies her two images as found in folklore and myth.  The first is the figure of a female sovereignty goddess. She is the one who is personified with land and grants sovereignty upon the chosen king by kissing, marrying, or having sex with him.  Once done, she is unveiled as a beautiful young woman, and he becomes the rightful king. (One of these stories, “The Adventures of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedon,” is the focus of this month’s podcast.) The second image found in these stories is of an old woman with magical or otherworldly connections. Those stories will be saved for a later date.

Older Celtic stories depict the Cailleach growing younger as the winter progresses. By the time of Imbolc (February 2nd) she transforms into the youthful goddess Bride (who later became St. Bridget in the Christian world). Marie Ede-Weaving writes, “On the eve of Bride, the Cailleach journeys to the Magical Isle in whose woods lies the miraculous well of youth.  At the first glimmer of dawn. She drinks the water that bubbles in a crevice of a rock and is transformed into Bride, the fair maid whose white wand turns the bare earth again.”  It’s a story of birth, death and rebirth.  The Cailleach is a crone whose strength takes her to death and back unafraid. She creates the world, travels though storms and does it again and again.

In honor of my 70th birthday this year, I had a “croning” ceremony.  It was held on Samhain, the time of the Cailleach. The word crone derives from the Latin word for crown.  She who is crowned or croned is the wise old woman.  Croning, however, is not a mark of achievement.  It is instead an aspiration and an acknowledgment.  It is not bestowed upon a woman.  The title is instead claimed by a woman.  It is granted when she seeks it. Crowning the crone is a rite of passage in which a woman sets her intention to live her life fully as her authentic self. She moves from the invisibility of the old woman to a guiding, protecting, and serving presence for future generations.

The Crone is wise and generative in nature.  In folktales and mythology, she is the one who determines the worth of the young.  This is depicted in the Cailleach story of the sovereignty goddess.  Only the young man who can see beyond her hideous outer appearance is worthy to be king.  She helps those who can see who she truly is, and who are kind and pure of heart.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that the Cailleach is only one expression of the Wise Crone archetype.  The Crone is not invisible.  She is not passive.  Sometimes ferocious and sometimes frightening, she punishes those who seek to lie, trick, or take advantage of others.  In Ireland and Scotland, she is the Cailleach, the hag goddess who comes in the darkness of winter.  It was she who was invoked during my croning ceremony, and it was she who I honor in this poem.


Dear Cailleach, the Crone, the Hag of Winter,

The veiled one,

The goddess of the Highlands,

Queen of Air and Darkness.

At this time of Samhain, this time of winter,

You stand on the threshold between death and rebirth,

Darkness and light,

The known and the unknown.

You, who created the world from dirt and stones,

Builder of mountains and sacred chairs.

Show us the way through our fears, our grief, our sadness.

May we pass the test to face our shadow,

To look into your face and kiss your visage.

Teach us the ways of darkness, of silence, isolation,

and letting go.

Show us how to die to the Self that no longer serves us,

and is no longer useful,

Accept and surrender to what is.

Open the mysteries, dear One, of the Otherworld.

Show us how to walk with the wolf and fly with the owl.

Help us to revel in the moonlight.

Cover us with your cloak, keep us safe,

Grant us wisdom and strength as we age

Free us for our day of rebirth as the Wise Crone

and the sure return of the goddess of Spring.

                                      K. Shimpock 2022










Monday, October 24, 2022

"Finn Mac Cumhail Faces Two Old Women" - a Tale from Irish Mythology



You’ve got to love a story with both a crone and a hag!  Plus, this is the story of the Irish hero, Finn Mac Cumhail.  It’s a story in which Finn’s skills are found to be no match to two old women. For the story itself, see the September 2022 post, “The Birth of Finn Mac Cumhail.”

Finn’s life was part of a prophecy.  It was said that the birth of a son to the King’s daughter would cause him to lose his kingdom.  Hence, once Finn was born, his life was in danger. Finn's very grandfather, the King, sought to kill him. Fortunately, his paternal grandmother was tasked to hide and protect him.  First, she rescues him from the lake and then she creates the ultimate hiding place…a tree! (Seems a bit like Merlin if you ask me.)  She tasks a woodman to hollow out a large tree. Inside there was a room big enough for her, Finn, and their dog. When the woodman finished, she chopped off his head to keep their secret.

“You’ll never tell any man about this place now,” she says.

For five years they lived in the tree.  When they finally came outside, she had to teach the boy to walk. Her incentive was to use a switch of stinging nettle. (For those of you who have never experienced stinging nettle, just know one touch feels like you have been pricked by many needles.  It continues to cause numbness for some time thereafter.) Granny told Finn to run down the hill and if she could catch him, she’d strike him with the switch.  Coming up the hill, she’d run first.  If he could catch her, he could strike her too.  It wasn’t long before he was striking her every step.  Personally, I think she let him catch her.  You’ll see why, later in the story.

At age fifteen, Finn goes to a hurly match and takes sides against his grandfather King.  With his help the neighboring king wins.  His grandfather is outraged and wants to know who that fair skinned, pale haired youth was.

 “Who is that white cap (or Finn Cumhail),” he said, wishing to seize and kill him.  And at that, Finn was named by a grandfather who thought he had died long ago.

Finn needs another escape, and his grandmother comes to the rescue.  They run away together. When Finn grows tired, she carries him on her back putting his feet in her apron pockets.  They run and run until a black horse approaches. The old woman knows this horse will catch them, so she jumps into the bog. She tells Finn to run away and sacrifices her life for his.  Finn escapes and his grandmother’s head is cut off. It’s taken to the king and told it was Finn.

Later in the story another old woman appears.  This one is an old hag who lives with her three sons.  Every evening she sends her sons to burn the king’s dun, a type of hillfort.  We don’t know why she’s doing this, but it has been going on for some time and no one has been able to stop it. The king offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who can stop the burning.  If they fail, well, “off with their head.” (There is way too much head chopping in this story!)  Finn agrees to give it a try.  The hag sends first one son and then another to burn the dun. Finn fights with each of them in turn.  When the eldest, “Cat-head,” arrives Finn chops off his head. But his head just won’t die!  It attacks Finn’s breast and can only be removed by some magic potion of the hag.

Finally, the hag arrives and immediately we can tell she has way more power, skills, and strength then her sons. (I might say the same about Finn’s grandmother.)  The two were locked in a terrible battle. It was described as “greater than the world had ever known before that night or seen since.”  Ultimately Finn won, he’s an Irish hero after all.   He uses her blood to save his own life.

But let’s be clear here.  How or why, he won just doesn’t make sense.  It wasn’t long before, that his grandmother was carrying him on her back.  This part of the story is similar to the Welsh tale, “The Very Black Witch” from “How Culhwch Won Olwen.” (A full discussion of this story can be seen in the blog posting of November 28, 2019.)  In this story, King Arthur goes on a quest for the Witch Orddu. Instead of an easy battle she defeats and injures many of his men.  Arthur does ultimately kill her, but not by engaging her.  He throws his knife from the entrance, cleaves her head in two, and gathers her blood. It is an unlikely win as was Finn’s. Hags are not to be crossed and certainly not to be messed with.

This is the tale of two old women.  Not two old decrepit, shaking voices, cane carrying grannies, but two powerful, magical old women.  Both are surrounded by family. The hag comes to chastise her sons for their delay in setting the fire.  When she sees what has occurred, she doesn’t appear to grieve their loss.  Her despair is that her will was thwarted.  She was using her children for her own end.  As the hag, she is ugly both inside and out. She was ultimately defeated but not without a perilous fight.

Finn’s grandmother was the wise crone.  She was protective, wise, magical, and strong.  She was a seer with skill to know the future. Everything she did was to protect her grandson.  She’s not the helpless grandmother we see in many folktales. She is a force to be reckoned with.  When the time came, she knew that by sacrificing her own head, Finn would be safe.  He would be free to ask for the release of the men in the king’s dungeon.  He would be able then to start his own band of warriors, the Fenian.  Together they would go on many adventures

So, you might well say, the moral of the story is “don’t underestimate the wise crone.” But, I’d say, it’s more than that.  Don’t dismiss someone because you think they are an unlikely opponent. Don’t refuse the help of your elders, and never, ever underestimate the power of love.