"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