Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.
Rainer Maria Rilke
Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29
Trans. Joanna Macy & Anita Barrows
At Winter Solstice, I always feel at my most grounded. Something about the profound darkness at this time of year has always comforted me, though I am also very much aware of its potential terrors too. Because we live out in the hills, we are able to experience this darkness fully, in all its wild fecundity. And because we don’t celebrate Christmas, we are taken up with none of the frantic lunacy that seems to characterise this season of the year, and so I am able to let myself be fully in the long dark, to properly soak up its lessons. My own practice at this time of year is simply to honour the Solstice. Yes, there is a celebration there, but it involves no great expenditure of anything other than the time to pause, and share a special meal; to take nourishment from the long dark and reflect on what is incubating there.
And so, as we approach that Solstice, I’d like to share with you this extract from If Women Rose Rooted, about a visit to the heart of the dark.
The Cave of Cats
Battling through an unexpectedly fierce February snowstorm, I tracked down the portal to the Otherworld. At the base of a small mound in a farmer’s field in Roscommon in the west of Ireland, partially obscured by a hedge of overhanging, snow-clad trees, was a sunken black maw. It would have been intimidating enough even without the stark contrast it presented to the white world around it. It was unmarked and inconspicuous, with only the presence of a stone lintel to alert the passer-by to the fact that this isn’t just any old hole in the ground. It is the entrance to Oweynagat, Cave of Cats. The cave referred to in the early ninth-century tale ‘Cath Maige Mucrama’ (‘The Battle of Mag Mucrama’) as Ireland’s ‘gate to Hell’.
The hell-mouth of Ireland. Would you pass through its jaws?
Given that the opening is less than three feet high, you might approach your journey to the Otherworld with a little trepidation. You’d want to have a head-torch, for you’ll need both hands and feet to scrabble down into the cave. It’s muddy; a pair of waterproof trousers wouldn’t go amiss. Get on your hands and knees, bend your head low, and ease yourself down into the dark. You are passing through a hole in what once was the roof of a partially collapsed man-made souterrain: a particular type of underground passageway associated with the European Atlantic Iron Age. You’ll want to go slowly; it’s wet and slippery. Crawl down for two or three metres, and you’ll find yourself in a small opening, a kind of entrance porch to the cave. Look behind you; shine your torch up at the back of the old stone lintel, and on its bottom edge you’ll see an inscription in ogham, the ancient Irish alphabet. When translated, it reads ‘Fraoch, son of Medb’. Once, a passageway would have led out of this ‘porch’ to the right of the entrance, but now it is blocked with collapsed debris, damage likely to be due to the construction of a small lane which comes to a stop directly overhead. The last capstone which is visible amidst the rubble also bears Ogham letters, but it is incomplete, and no translation has been made.
Turn left, then, into a small opening through which nothing but black can be seen. The faint beam of your torch will be inadequate to penetrate this shadow; trust that there is a place to go. Wiggle on your backside down a low, narrow, slippery passageway which descends steeply for about ten metres over crumbling, uneven stone. As the passageway opens up above you, stand now and look up at the rock. Your torch will pick out a myriad tiny crystals shining on the wet, muddy yellow-brown walls. Taste them: they’re salty. Taste the food of the Otherworld. Taste the sweat of the deep Earth. Or are they the Earth’s tears?
Look behind you (never look back); the path slopes upwards and only the very faintest hint of light can be made out, and only because you know it is there. Look up; the roof above you is ribbed. You are in a tunnel, a birth canal, and you are slipping down it into the silent dark womb of the Earth. Take a deep breath; walk on. All you can hear is the occasional drip of water falling from the walls into pitch-black puddles on the floor. The topography changes again: duck, and slither on downwards as the floor level drops sharply one final time.
You’re there. Oweynagat, Cave of Cats. A long, narrow natural limestone fissure, just 2.85 metres at its widest point and about 37 metres long. Watch your step: at the centre of the cavern is a hollow filled with mud; it has been known to swallow boots. It looks like a pool of clotted, black blood. In the feeble light from your head-torch (you wonder vaguely about battery life), edge your way around the walls to the end of the fissure, where the cave ascends, narrows again, and terminates in a crack. Is this the door to the Otherworld?
You’re in a womb. Yes, really a womb: you’re in the birthplace of Medb. Medb, Maeve: spell it as you will. The goddess-queen of Connaught was born in this cave. Medb: ‘she who intoxicates’. Is it the dark which intoxicates you now, and if not, why are you laughing? Whisper the story of Medb; Oweynagat remembers. How Étain, reborn as a mortal, was fleeing from her human husband with her Otherworldly lover Midir. How they stopped to rest at Oweynagat with all of Étain’s companions, including her maidservant Crochan Crogderg, whose name means ‘blood-red cup’. At the end of their stay, Crochan so loved the cave that she begged to stay. Étain and Midir agreed, and so it was here that Crochan’s daughter Medb was born.
The birthplace of Medb; the womb of the Earth. Oweynagat remembers. Turn off your torch. Turn it off; you know your way out. Turn it off, and succumb to the deepest dark you’re ever likely to know. Unaccountably, incongruously, words will spill into your mind: words which purport to describe the dark. Tenebrous, stygian … stay still, calm your breath, try them all on for size. But there is no word for this dark, a darkness so complete, so thick, that it is tangible. You’ll realise then, if you have not learned it before, that darkness is not simply a lack of light. Darkness is alive, and its life is obscured by light. Darkness puts out its tentacles and touches your face; darkness licks at your eyes and grants you a different kind of sight. Darkness is the voice of the shadow, a voice which words can only fail. Listen. Is it the drumming of your own heart that you hear, or the long, slow heartbeat of the Earth? Reach out, and there is nothing there. There is only you, whatever you might be, face-to-face with the long dark.
Do you fear this? You should not. You should not, even when you remember that this was also the dwelling place of the Morrigan, the Great Queen, the crow-goddess of death, war and rebirth. From here she emerged each Samhain, and from here she once came in her chariot, crimson-cloaked, leading a heifer to mate with the famous brown Bull of Cuailnge. Can you feel it now, the soft brush of a black crow’s wing?
Stay with the dark, even though you are thinking now of the other stories that are told about Oweynagat. A band of magical wild pigs which emerged from the cave and wreaked havoc and destruction on the surrounding land before they were banished by Medb. The Ellen Trechen, a triple-headed monster which rampaged across the country before it was killed by Amergin. A flock of small red birds who withered every plant they breathed on, before they were hunted down by the brave Red Branch warriors of Ulster.
Chaos comes from this cave, and you fear chaos. Do not fear it. Stay with the dark.
Oweynagat: Cave of Cats. Three magical wildcats came out of this cave and attacked three great warriors of Ulster, before being tamed by Cú Chulainn.
Chaos. Chaos comes out of the Otherworld, and you have always feared it. Stay in the cave. Stay, and remember that the Otherworld was also a place of protection and refuge. Think of Fraoch, son of Medb, whose name is inscribed in Ogham on the lintel of this cave. Remember that old Irish tale, the ‘Táin Bó Fraich’? Whisper the story; Oweynagat remembers. Fraoch seduced Findabair, the daughter of Medb. When he refused to pay an exorbitant bride-price for her, Medb sent him on an errand near to the dwelling-place of a water monster. He slew the monster with the help of Findabair, but was severely wounded. A hundred and fifty maidens of the sidhe, all dressed in green, carried him off into Oweynagat and bore him out again the following morning, fully healed. Think of Fraoch, son of Medb, and stay with the healing dark.
The Otherworld grants visions; remember that, too. Remember Nera, the servant of Medb, who saved Cruachan from an attack by Otherworldly forces with the assistance of a fairy woman whom he met in this cave and married. She warned him that Medb’s beautiful palace would be burned to the ground the following Samhain, and that warning enabled Medb to eliminate the danger. But as for Nera … he was left there ‘together with his people, and has not come out yet, and he will not come out until the end of the world.’ Will you come out of Oweynagat? Will you find your way back out of the dark?
Remember the gifts of the dark; Oweynagat remembers. The great cauldron of abundance which once was kept at Tara, but later came through this cave to the Otherworld. Remember the gifts of the dark. Turn around, grope for the wall and lay your forehead on its wet, muddy surface. Smell the fluids of the Earth; inhale their spicy brown richness. Can you hear the Earth breathing, or is the rasping breath your own? It is warm in here, warmer than the distant snowbound world outside. It feels safe, and it feels terrifying. More than anything, it feels alive, and you are alive in it. You are alive of it. Remember that; Oweynagat remembers. Remember the gifts of the dark.
That is enough for this visit; you have introduced yourself to the cave. You know you’ll be back; the Otherworld doesn’t give up its secrets easily, and certainly not all at once. Turn on your torch, and make the slippery climb back up to the surface. When you emerge from the birth canal which leads from the womb of the Earth, you’ll be smiling. You’ll be smiling for most of the day. But you’d better wipe that mud off your face before you make your way back to town, to find a bowl of soup and a comforting pot of tea.