The Wisdom of the Cailleach
'If we go back to the beginning we know that all things come from the fertile potentiality of darkness. This is the wisdom of the Cailleach.'
As we approach Samhain the veil between the worlds thins and the year draws to a close. Samhain is the last spoke on the wheel of the year, it is time for the seasonal death. From here we head into the dark half of the year guided by the wisdom of darkness powerfully personified in the Cailleach.
An old crone as ancient as the earth, she is a guardian of life force through death and rebirth. She is depicted with one large eye that sees between worlds, deathly pale skin and a bow-legged leaping gait. The Cailleach is the veiled one, tending to the liminal spaces and transformations.
The Cailleach is the ancient crone, the divine hag, the wise woman of the Celtic and pre-Celtic lands. She is the winter aspect of the goddess, associated with freezing temperatures, wind and ice storms. She is both feared and respected in Celtic tradition and is said to be the matriarch of every Celtic family, all are her descendants.
If you don’t know the Cailleach, she could look a bit like the witch in the Disney movie Snow White. You know the witch who brings the poison apple to Snow White that puts her into a deep sleep until love’s first kiss grazes her lips? When I realized I associated this story with the Cailleach, I noticed how this could be interpreted as the crone or winter aspect of the goddess laying the maiden aspect to rest until the first kiss of spring.
Some stories say the Cailleach kidnaps Brigid at Samhain and takes her underground as her prisoner until Imbolc (Brigid’s Feast Day). Others say the Cailleach ages throughout the winter until finally in early spring she must drink from the well of youth and then becomes the youthful maiden of spring and early summer again. Either way, the Cailleach is responsible for both the seasonal death at Samhain and the begining of the rebirth at Imbolc.
There is a story called Niall of the Nine Hostages that speaks to the Cailleach's power to transform and her connection to the fertility and soverienty of the land. In it Niall and his four brothers are lost in the woods and are very thirsty. They come across a well that is guarded by an old hag, the Cailleach. Niall asks for access to the water but the Cailleach replies that anyone who would drink from the well must give her a kiss. The other brothers refuse but Niall gives her a passionate kiss, holding her as if she is his true love. As he kisses her, she transforms herself into a beautiful young woman, and tells him she is the sovereignty of the land and gives Niall the now holy water to drink and also kingship of the land.
This is a traditional kingmaking story, in that as Niall is chosen and chooses the representation of the Goddess for union he is gifted sovereignty of the land. This is a gift that a king must receive in order to rule. A king must love and care for the land even when it is barren and infertile. His love and care aids in Her fertility.
I interpret this story also as a metaphor for our reluctance to enter into death willingly- whether it is seasonal death, ego death or physical death. The collective aversion to the Hag illuminates an inversion of the meaning of death. If we believe darkness and descent is a one way trip down and we will never return to the light, it is terrifying. When we recognize that with an open heart and willingness we emerge from our descent with capacity to carry more light than before, it is a gift.
Death and descent work is sometimes terrifying, it takes us to our edges. It can be excruciating and miserable if we fight it. But when we embrace death, when we go willingly on the descent, then we can reap the rewards of renewal and rebirth in a conscious way, without suffering. There is ugliness, decay and decline, but this leads to rebirth, fresh and new and miraculous. When we embrace and reframe death as a rebirth this brings so many gifts.
We fear the Hag, the Cailleach, because she is the gatekeeper of true feminine initiation and forgiveness. The Cailleach teaches us that we have to go on the descent in order to embody the true lesson. We have to take responsibility for our creations. This isn’t a quick fix, it’s not an immediate cleansing like the golden light of the masculine would have it. There is no renewal without death in the divine feminine.
If we go back to the beginning we know that all things come from the fertile potentiality of the darkness. This is the wisdom of the Cailleach.
By Song of Sophia Pilgrim Carrie Poe
Visions of the Cailleach: Exploring the Myths, Folklore and Legends of the pre-eminent Celtic Hag Goddess Paperback – March 25, 2009. by Sorita d'Este and David Rankin