For the past couple of years I’ve written a column, ‘MythLines’, for EarthLines Magazine. Since EarthLines has now closed its doors and soon will no longer be for sale, over the next few weeks I plan to post those articles here. The first is an article from Issue 13 in November 2015.
Featured image: An Chailleach Bhéarra: the ‘hag stone’ near Eyeries, on the Beara peninsula, south-west Ireland. One local legend tells that the Cailleach was turned to stone by a (male) Christian saint, St Caitighearn.
By my intimacy with nature I find myself withdrawn from man. My interest in the sun and the moon, in the morning and the evening, compels me to solitude.
— Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 26 July 1851
I am at a festival filled with women: close to four hundred of them, gathered together on a large beautiful farm in the middle of Dartmoor. I’m here to tell stories, and to speak about our native Celtic traditions which portray women as the guardians and protectors of the land. It’s deeply nourishing to be surrounded by so many people, so diverse, and yet all of whom are celebrating the Earth and our deep connection to her. Sometimes I mingle for a while, exchanging brief stories, finding myself pleasurably face to face with someone I’ve only ‘met’ online; sometimes I slip away to the edges, happy to be quiet, watching. But at regular intervals, I have to simply flee. For every hour I spend in the company of others, I need to head off for two more, walking alone up on the moors. Standing still by a fast-flowing stream; sitting under an ancient, berry-dotted hawthorn tree. This isn’t a whim or a luxury, it’s an absolute necessity; without it I would be frantic. I need this time to recover myself, to ground myself, to remember who I am. Too much time in a crowd and I feel myself slipping away, and the world becoming unreal. I can only ever properly belong to the world, and therefore to myself, when I’m alone in it.
It’s always been like this for me, and it’s far from easy to be a natural solitary in a world which seems to value gregariousness and social enterprise above all else. And yet healthy, functional teamwork gives me great pleasure, and I believe strongly in the value of community – as long as I have time to run away and hide, to become invisible and collect myself in between times of exposure to others. This is a need which the extroverts among us (and who constitute the majority of most Western populations) neither recognise nor understand; as a consequence most introverts try to muddle along, all too often pretending to be what they’re not in order to try to fit in. Our society views people like me as dysfunctional at worst, slightly weird at best. And yet I simply cannot connect to the Earth in any of the deep ways I need to in the presence of other people. I am far too aware of them. They crowd everything else out. This is one of the reasons why I prefer to live in remote places. The ability to range out into the hills and bogs without encountering others, the silence – just me and the land – is my stability, my grounding, my life-line.
Contemporary society may not quite know what to do with us, but our native myths and stories recognise the value of natural solitaries. The archetypal Wise Woman in our fairytales lives always on the fringes of the village, and this is true also in traditions from many other parts of the world. I’m reminded of one of my favourite poems, ‘Curandera’, by New Mexican poet Pat Mora:
They think she lives alone
on the edge of town in a two-room house …
Her days are slow, days of grinding
dried snake into power, of crushing
wild bees to mix with white wine.
And the townspeople come, hoping
to be touched by her ointments,
her hands, her prayers, her eyes.
I first came across this poem while learning to fly in the New Mexican desert a couple of decades ago, and I felt an immediate jolt of recognition. My native traditions are from Scotland and Ireland, and I grew up on stories peopled with henwives, not curanderas – but nevertheless this image of a woman, deeply rooted in the land, communing with the desert plants and animals, was something that translated perfectly. And so did her haunting of the edges, her need for solitude: necessary fuels for her service to the community.
The Wise Woman – the bean feasa, the ‘woman of knowledge’; the bean leighis, the ‘woman of healing’ – is a major figure in Gaelic folk traditions. In Ireland in particular, there has always been a thriving local tradition of powerful, often solitary female healers whose remit certainly included the practice of herbalism which they shared sometimes with men – but then transcended it in important ways. These women possessed considerable power and authority, which derived from their close association with the native Otherworld; that association conferred upon them their unique knowledge, wisdom and skills. The bean feasa mediated people’s relationships with the Otherworld, and so they incorporated into their practice elements both of spiritual guide and modern therapeutic psychologist. (1) The bean feasa was also implicated in the wider health of the community: she was consulted to repair ‘breaches of communitarian or cosmological harmony’. (2)
In Ireland in particular, according to folklorist Gearóid Ó Crualaoich, the Wise Woman tradition is derived from ancient myths and stories of the Cailleach (3): the divine creator-hag, the Old Woman of the World. Gaelic mythology has no story which specifically explains the creation of the universe, but our old stories of the Cailleach explain the formation of the land, and tell of the ways in which she shaped the Earth throughout all its long ages. Her favoured landscapes are craggy, prominent mountains and outcroppings – from the Cailleach stone on the Beara peninsula in Cork, to the Hag’s Head (Ceann Caillí) at the southernmost tip of the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. On top of Slieve na Calliagh (Sliabh na Caillí, ‘the hag’s mountain’) at Loughcrew in County Meath are megalithic tombs which include a kerbstone known as ‘the Hag’s chair’.
The Cailleach Bheur, by Jill Smith
In Scotland, the Cailleach is seen as fearsome character with white hair, a dark blue face, rust-coloured teeth, and a single eye in the middle of her forehead. The mountains are her specific creations; in some stories they are said to have formed when, striding in giant steps across the land, she accidentally dropped rocks from her creel; in other stories she is said to have built them intentionally, pouring them from her apron to serve as her stepping stones as she walked. In her role as a wilderness spirit who protects wild animals, she is said to leap from hilltop to hilltop followed by herds of deer and families of wild pigs; sometimes she rides a wolf (4).
The Cailleach is also known in some parts of Scotland as Beira, Queen of Winter; here she is best known as a seasonal deity, bringing with her the elemental power of storms. But the Cailleach in Ireland lacks this sometimes negative and limiting connection with winter; rather, she is strongly linked with fertility. Like the cyclical, seasonal natural world over which she presides, the stories tell that she renews herself constantly: each year in spring, or every hundred years (depending on the story) by bathing in a certain body of water. Above all, she personifies the ‘proactive, female creativity and power … seen, in Irish ancestral culture, to be the major source from which emerges both the general form of the physical universe and the security and wellbeing of the social order in times of stress.’
In my native mythologies, the solitary Cailleach who haunts the wild places is the voice of the Earth, guardian of its balance, and fierce protector of its wild creatures. In the Scottish Highlands the Cailleach Beinne Bric was particularly protective of wild deer, otherwise known as ‘fairy cattle’. Hunters had a great respect for her and, if they did not take advantage and followed her instructions on which deer they might cull and when, she ensured that they were always provided with enough food and pelts. But if her instructions were not followed, there were serious consequences.
In some of these old cautionary tales the Cailleach might appear in the form of a Glastaig (a maighdean uaine, or Green Maiden) (5); in one such story, for example, a Glastaig prevented Donald Cameron, a hunter in Lochaber, from killing a herd of hinds which she was driving through the glen. Seeing him raise his gun, she called to him: ‘You are too hard on my hinds, Donald! You must not be so hard on them!’ Donald, quick-witted, answered her swiftly: ‘I have never killed a hind where I could find a stag.’ He allowed the hinds to pass, concentrated ever afterwards on just taking an occasional stag, and the Glastaig never bothered him again.
In another story, a man who was returning from his hunt on Beinn Bhric one day heard a sound like the cracking of two rocks against each other. At the base of a large stone by the road he found a woman with a green shawl around her shoulders. The woman, clearly a Glaistig, held a deer shank in each hand, and struck them together constantly. He asked her what she was doing, and why; but she was distraught, and cried only, over and over again, ‘Since the forest was burnt! Since the forest was burnt!’ And she kept repeating this refrain for as long as he could hear her. Here, the Cailleach is mourning the cutting of the great Caledonian forest; here, she mourns the associated loss of her deer. Here perhaps she also mourns the coming of the road, the coming of man, and of progress. (6)
To those of us who love the quiet solitude of remote places, the Cailleach is not a figure to be feared, though she is for sure a figure to be respected. The Cailleach is the solitary spirit of the wilderness, dancing alone across the hills and mountains. She is the woman who takes her responsibilities to the world and their creatures seriously, and who holds the predations of men at bay. And above all, for those of us who plan not to sink feebly into a powerless old age, she is the wildness in us which does not pass with the years, but deepens.
1 Gearóid Ó Crualaoich The Book of the Cailleach: Stories of the Wise-Woman Healer. Cork University Press, 2003.
3 The word cailleach in modern Irish & Scottish Gaelic is used to mean ‘old woman’, but derives originally from the Old Irish word caillech: ‘veiled one’ (from caille, veil). In Ireland she is usually referred to as the Cailleach Bhéarra, but in Scotland she is more often known as the Cailleach Bheur. It’s been suggested that these names are unrelated to the Cailleach’s strong associations with the Beara peninsula, but rather derive from the old Irish word biorach, meaning ‘sharp, shrill, inimical’, so referring to her association with winter and wilderness.
4 MacKenzie, Donald, Scottish Folk Lore and Folk Life, Blackie, 1935
5 A Glaistig can be either malign or benign; she most often appears as a protector spirit of cattle and cattle herders. Here, she is more closely associated with the Cailleach in her role as protector of wild creatures, and specifically of deer.
6 Both of these stories are from the translation by Michael Newton, printed in Warriors of the Word (Birlinn, 2009), of the original Gaelic in James Macdougall’s 1910 book, Folk Tales and Fairy Lore in Gaelic and English.