Sisterhood of the Antlers

Stories of the Ancestral Mothers of Scotland from folk magic and the wise women who honored them. Rooted in the Bean Feasa (Wise Woman) tradition.

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Beltane: The Cailleach’s Story (and Cailleach Film)

Some days when I look out my window from the Appalachians, I magically see the landscape of home, Scotland. The great mountain of Ben Lomond­ drawing in clouds of rain off the Atlantic. I can even hear the call of seagulls. No matter where I am in the world, I always feel that deep connection of a place called home.

That land, of which I am an integral part, is still connected to me, and still feeds me stories even though we are an ocean apart. One familiar character is the Cailleach, so old that even she doesn’t realize her own age. If you were to ask her how old age she was, she would reply:

'When the ocean was a forest, I was just a young girl'

The dance of the maiden

We think of her as a crone, yet she wasn’t always old - she skipped along the shores of the Loch just as often as she shuffled along, bent over with long grey hair. “How is that possible?” I hear you ask. Well it was due to a curious ritual by which every 100 years she would renew herself by fully immersing herself in water. The waters would renew her completely, and she would step back onto the shore as a young girl. In her great span of life, it probably appeared to her that her transformation it was just every few years, not every hundred years. While one hundred years is a long time for a human being, it is but a mere blink of the eye for the Cailleach.

And so came the time when yet again she stooped and slowed and her old joints ached. At first light before any bird song or insect hum she began her walk down to the lakeshore to submerge herself in the Loch transforming herself once more into a young girl.

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The barking of the dog

In his collection of oral stories about the Cailleach, Gearoid O’Crualaoich examines the tale of the local shepherd who was aware it was her time of renewal, and so he began to keep his dog inside the house at night. But as he slept the dog managed to escape. In the morning the dog did what many a dog would do at that early hour seeing the figure of a person pass by – he barked. As the bark bounced off the surrounding cliffs, it echoed with such an intensity that the Cailleach, standing on the loch shore, took a couple of little faltering steps forward and then keeled over, falling down in a heap of bones.

The shepherd hearing the bark ran out of the farmhouse and down to the shore where he aw the Cailleach lying. He knew she was dying. As he sat cradling her in his arms with a tear in his eye, he knew the old one was slipping out of reach. He leaned in closer to hear what she was saying as she uttered, “It was early the dog spoke, the dog spoke. It was early the dog spoke across Loch Ba!”

The cruel hag of winter

Today if you were to do a little research of the Cailleach from popular culture, you would find her variously described as an old woman of winter; one who kills life in winter; Scottish or/and Irish hag etc. So where has this young maiden aspect we have heard of disappeared to?

Each age creates its own meaning on top of the previous era’s myths, like threads that accumulate and slowly get interwoven to create a tightly woven cloth. Yet sometimes the addition of a new motif can give us clues and insights to the changes occurring in the outer world. The Victorians with their love of all things Celtic, heaped on a great layer to the Cailleach myth and imprisoned forever into winter.

Let me remind you that none of this is straightforward, it is myth after all. Myth is made from the stories of the people with much magic woven in, and there have been many ages of people and many layers of stories. It is impossible to tease out a thread from the myth and state exactly when it was woven in, especially when another generation may have sewn on additional layers or tried to cut out pieces they didn’t like.

In the Victorian bloom of celebrating all things Celtic, Mackenzie wrote a great tale of Beira, the winter Queen, who kept Bride prisoner (although it might well have existed in oral tradition of the time). Beira was a cruel old Queen who wanted to keep the land in winter and so extend her reign over the land. She would stop at nothing to strike down life – dead! She might even appear for a moment like a sweet old lady, only to turn into a death-shrieking hag!

The Cailleach is the crone of winter, but she was also at one time the young girl of spring. It is said that Beltane (or 25th march) was the time that she renewed herself in the waters to become a young maiden again, and on the eve of Samhain, she returned fully to her Crone self. There is of course the question of when did the maiden aspect of the Cailleach come to be known as Brighid – but that is a whole other story.

Ancient ritual of renewal

If there is one main magical, otherworldly quality about the Cailleach, then it is renewal. This great divine creature could renew herself from old woman into young girl, and as she did so, the world around her bloomed into spring. As it cycled around to Samhain and she took the form of the crone, the vegetation died back to its roots. Ebb and flow, ebb and flow.

The Crone is a figure of wisdom. She who has lived long and remembers all things that man has forgotten. She is an elder, a wise woman and knows as much about the ways of living in harmony with this world as she does about living in harmony with the other world. Popular culture would tell us the Cailleach is a useless old woman, mean and angry and that’s why she strikes down life. Yet the striking down is the natural way of the world; it is her ancient ritual of renewal. Things must die in order to be reborn, fall and winter must happen in order for spring and summer to come. We cannot change the order of the seasons.

Killing the snake

There is an old Scottish custom incorporated into the burning of the Yule log (Yule meaning the entire Christmas period. Christmas was banned in Scotland for many years – but that’s a whole other story). This log was burned hoping it would take away any bad luck that had happened in the previous year and protecting the house and family in the coming year. Yet there is another story that involves a community ritual of dragging the log through the village. This log called the Cailleach log, was also known as the snake log. The log was beat upon by participants, and as they pounded on it they were symbolically killing the snake, but also symbolically killing all vegetation. All must die in order to be reborn again in the spring.

The roots of this ritualized killing and the snake hint, as Maria Gimbutus suggests, to older belief system and values of Old Europe where the great mother of all was honored. She was the one responsible for the entire cycle: birth, life, death, rebirth – the ancient way of things. She brought us into this world, we gave thanks in ritual and ceremony throughout our lives, and in death we returned to her again.

Constant renewal has always been the Cailleach’s story, but somehow along the way, as the values of societies, changed and she became the prisoner of winter, the vilified crone. Those added layers of myth were created from societies’ shifting values, which lead us to today, a place where we no longer honor the mother, distancing ourselves from her dark side, afraid of death. The wise woman, the crone, became the useless ugly old hag. She became the witch -- dark and evil. Women became second-class citizens in their own society, and the Cailleach became trapped in winter, where our beliefs hold her prisoner.

We are the dogs barking

We have become the barking dogs as the Cailleach makes her way down to the shore path to fall dead in a heap of bones, rejecting the old ways in favor of the lure of shiny new things. We were once the shepherds, living peacefully side by side with her, but now we have switched our values.

As we look around us at the social and ecological upheavals erupting around us the Cailleach stands on the rocky shore as an ancient beacon, beckoning us into the waters, offering us the transformative otherworldly cosmological waters, offering us rebirth.

An Cailleach Bhearra – A Cailleach film. Click on the image to view on YouYube

Resources:

  • Gimbutus, M. 1989. The Language of the Goddess. Thames & Hudson, USA.
  • Mackenzie, D. 1917. Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend. Blackie & Son, UK. View online at: https://archive.org/details/wondertalesfroms00mack
  • O Crualaoich, Gearoid. 2007. The Book of the Cailleach. Stories of the Wise-Woman Healer. Cork University Press, Ireland.
  • Cailleach film, accessed on You Tube. RTE & The Arts Council in association with Metropolitan Films LTD. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQI3RCUFuYE
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I am descended from a long line of wise women – for I too am a shapeshifter, a mythmaker, a woman who has always had one ear to the ground and a foot in the other world. I am a listener to old bones and a collector of stories that I gather from the shorelines, deep in forests or atop mountains. Sometimes my shadow shows my other selves sometimes crow sometimes bear, I am She Who Wears Antlers.

I am a radical doll maker, taking this tradition back to its roots and the hands of my foremothers. They remind us of our sacred connection to this world, the otherworld and our ancestors. I am a collector of stories, carrying old ones and those one who need retelling.

I am of the Bean Feasa tradition , a wise woman tradition that stretches back past pre-Celtic generations. People sought the wisdom of the wise woman in times of personal crisis and today this tradition can help us face this deepening global crisis.

I am a cultural activist working from the Bean Fesa tradition rooted in pre-patriarchy which honors imagination and creativity and provides us with tools which can help us overcome the psychological effects of patriarchy.

Visit my website for details of online courses, in person workshops and our annual pilgrimage to the lands of the Ancestral Mothers of Scotland.

www.sisterhoodoftheantlers.com

Comments

  • Lizann Bassham
    Lizann Bassham Wednesday, 03 June 2015

    Thanks you - lovely to read and wise and wonderful words for my soul.

  • Jude Lally
    Jude Lally Thursday, 23 July 2015

    Many thanks Lizann x

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