Last year, at just this time, I initiated a new tradition for the Winter Solstice. Here’s what I wrote about it, on this blog, on December 15 2014:
There is an old Greek myth about ‘halcyon days’. The idea springs from a story about the halcyon (from the kingfisher family), about which Aristotle has this to say:
‘The halcyon breeds at the season of the winter solstice. Accordingly, when this season is marked with calm weather, the name of “halcyon days” is given to the seven days preceding, as to as many following, the solstice … The halcyon is said to take seven days for building her nest, and the other seven for laying and hatching her eggs.’
In this land I inhabit there are no halcyons to brighten our winter solstice; instead, the bird of the season is the grey heron. We live by the side of a river which harbours succulent trout; it is no surprise that we share our space with the heron. But they have been especially active recently, and early each morning when I come back from my long dawn walk with the dogs, a heron rises up from the side of the tiny bridge across the river which leads to our house and flies off over the hill behind us.
The heron, or crane, is one of the most frequently mentioned birds in Irish mythology, and it has many associations, but at this time of year for me the most relevant is its connection with the Cailleach – the old hag of winter. The two are linked in part because of the heron’s harsh, wailing cry, but also because of a number of stories which bring the two together. And so it is a bird of old age and longevity, and like many birds that are associated with water, it is a guide to the Otherworld. In Welsh mythology, three cranes protect the entrance to Annwn, the Underworld. It is said that cranes dance in circles, and so their dance is associated both with the movement of the sun around the sky, and the circle of life, death, and rebirth through which they guide us.
I love the idea of halcyon days, but halcyons form no part of the traditions that spring from my land. Herons, on the other hand, do, and their mythical associations are relevant to this season of the long dark. I do not celebrate Christmas; it has no meaning for me. But I celebrate solstice and the other cycles of the year, for the solstices and equinoxes are real astronomical events, and the quarter-day festivals between them are grounded in the seasonal realities of the land on which I live. We know relatively little about the ways in which our ancestors marked these cycles and seasons, and besides, our lives are different now. It seems to me that we might create our own traditions, equally grounded in the places we inhabit and the lives and stories of the creatures who share it with us. Such traditions can become acts of re-enchantment: creating both wonder, and a sense of connection to the land. And so the new tradition I have created for myself for this season, and which I offer to you as a gift here, is that of Grey Heron Nights. For this and the next thirteen days, seven to solstice (this year, on Sunday December 21 at 23.03 UTC/ GMT) and the seven beyond, I’ll share something short here, some reflection on the land and the season, some story, some act of connection. Like the mythical halcyon, for seven days I’ll build my nest and for another seven I’ll lay and hatch my eggs – but they will be the eggs of the grey heron, of Crane, companion of the Cailleach. And so in this act of deep reflection, this season – which has been so effectively subverted into a season of crass commercialism, consumerism, and consumption – becomes, for me, both re-enchanted and firmly rooted in the real, visceral beauty of the long dark.
When I began ‘Grey Heron Nights’ a year ago, I had no idea where it would take me. I was literally making it up as I went along. But then Old Crane Woman came into my life. Springing directly from this place we live in, rising fully formed out of our river, and confronting me with her unique form of wisdom, one dark morning in December.
Sometimes, if you happen to be walking along a track within reach of water at dusk or dawn, you might catch through the trees a glimpse of a tall, gangly figure wrapped in a mid-grey cloak. You won’t see her face – she hides that too well – but as you watch her move you’ll notice that her legs and her arms are unusually long, and seem to bend in odd directions. Hold your breath; you’ve been blessed with a sighting of Old Crane Woman. If she stays still long enough for you to get a good look at her, you’ll see that she carries a bag which looks as if it’s made out of some kind of hide. It’s actually made of crane-skin, and the skin it was made from was the skin of her sister, Aoife, who was turned into a bird by a jealous rival. Once it belonged to the sea-god, Manannan Mac Lir, and then it came into the hands of the great warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill, but when he passed into the Otherworld Old Crane Woman crept into the deep cave in the heart of the mountain where he and the Fianna lay sleeping, and stole it away. She took back the power of the warrior; she is its guardian. And the crane bag is filled now with her treasures: shed feathers, fragments of fleece plucked from barbed wire in the bog. The shattered shell of a robin’s egg, the last gorse blossom of autumn. Splinters of bog oak, a lichen-encrusted twig. Her treasure are the treasures of the land: no more, and no less.
In the figure of Old Crane Woman, the myths of the land take form in the only way that is meaningful: emerging directly from the place itself and the creatures that inhabit it. This is how the land initiates us. This is how we build relationship with it. This is how we re-enchant the earth.
Although her stories ended after 14 nights, Old Crane Woman has never left me. I walk with her every morning at dawn, and sometimes she creeps into my dreams. She even crept her way into my forthcoming book, If Women Rose Rooted, as the narrator of one of the stories. There’s no mistaking Old Crane Woman: her voice is all her own.
And now she’s back, for another season of Grey Heron Nights. Beginning tomorrow, for the next 14 nights, straddling the Winter Solstice at 04.48 UTC on Tuesday December 22. I hope you’ll listen along with me to the stories she has to tell, and the wisdom she has to offer for these times. Bring a listening ear, and an open heart. (And maybe some fish.)