When we lose our traditions and are trying to recover them, there’s only one place to find them: in the land. In the land which birthed them in the first place. In the physical features of the landscape, in the nonhuman others which inhabit it, and in the myths, archetypes and stories which inhabit it. Good traditions need to be grounded, you see.
In the mythology of most indigenous peoples, there’s an Old Woman, and she’s usually about as grounded as it gets. Generally, she’s the one who made the world, or the one who keeps the world going. The precise nature of that Old Woman, of course, is different from place to place, from tradition to tradition. You can’t translate an Old Woman of the northern mountains to the heat of a southern desert. But you don’t need to: every land carries that archetype within it – and remember that an archetype, in Jung’s definition, is a potential. It’s only when that potential is translated into a specific image or character that it becomes ‘real’ to us. The Old Woman is an archetype, a potential, and that potential is realised in a different way in native traditions around the world, as an act of co-creation between the land and the people who inhabit it.
In the traditions of the Gaelic lands where my ancestors are from and where I live, the Cailleach is the ‘translated’ Old Woman archetype. In Scotland, the best known of her names is the Cailleach Bheur, and in this guise she also happens to be the personification of winter; in Ireland, the the best-known of her names is the Cailleach Bhéarra. Celtic mythology has no myth which explains the creation of the cosmos, but the Cailleach is the creator and shaper of the land.
Everything, then, begins with the Old Woman. And so that’s where my Grey Heron Nights reflections and practices will begin, too.
What the Cailleach Knows
Why do I think it’s important to remember this character above all the others which might exist in our native mythology? – Well, for a couple of reasons.
First, because as creator and shaper of the land, the Cailleach is also its protector, and the protector of the wild things which inhabit it. 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); in one such story, 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.
The Cailleach’s close identification with the land is shown in another story, in which 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. She is a woman who takes her responsibilities to the world and its creatures seriously, and who holds the predations of men at bay. We need an Old Woman like that in our traditions. Now, more than ever.
Second, because the Cailleach is the wild and solitary spirit of the wilderness; she is at home in high and rocky land. 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. In Scotland, she is known to dance alone across the hills and mountains, leaping as she goes; she’s followed by herds of deer and families of wild pigs, and sometimes she rides a wolf. 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.
And finally for now – because in many of the old stories about the Cailleach, she has the ability to renew herself: every hundred years, renewing her youth by bathing in a particular loch. And so, in the depths of winter, she reminds us of the renewed life which will come in spring.
Things to consider
If you live in one of the Gaelic nations – Ireland or Scotland, or the Isle of Man, where she is known as the Caillagh ny Groamagh – then you have plenty of places to begin to find out about the Cailleach, and somewhere close to you, there’ll be a story about her, or a place named after her. Dig deep into those stories; there is always wisdom to be found. What do they say to you? What do the places which she is known to haunt say to you? What does she say to you, at this stage of your life?
Like most of the divine women of Gaelic tradition, the Cailleach is a creature of these specific lands which our old stories say she created and shaped. She’s immanent in them, inseparable from them, and makes no sense without them, and so she’s not a mythical figure who travels. But if you don’t live in the Gaelic nations, chances are there’ll be an Old Woman to be found somewhere among your native stories.
If there isn’t an Old Woman among your native stories, or if you don’t feel that you have any native stories, look for signs of the Old Woman archetype at large in your land. Here’s a short extract from my new book, The Enchanted Life, explaining how that once worked for me, when I moved from the Isle of Lewis (and a part of Scotland which was steeped in Cailleach mythology) to Donegal:
Although much of Ireland is also steeped in the mythology of the Cailleach, in the part of Donegal where we lived I could find no local stories about her, and no specific landmarks named after her. I felt curiously lonely and utterly cast adrift. Where was the Cailleach in this place? Where might I find her? How could I possibly belong to a place where there was no Cailleach, whose stories had claimed me so powerfully and dominated my imagination for the better part of four years?
On the hill behind our cottage there was a wood, and in the wood there was a heronry. Every day, we’d see herons flying along the small river which tumbled across stepping stones at the bottom of our garden; it wasn’t that far to the sea. And sometimes in the early morning, as I walked with the dogs along the lane which led up to the high bog, I’d see a heron standing on a stone in the middle of the fast-flowing river, the still point in the turbulent birth of every new day. When you live in close proximity to such beautiful, iconic creatures – and especially if, like me, you are immersed in myth and story – they not only capture your daytime imagination, but begin to infiltrate your dreams.
In the Irish language, the word for the grey heron is corr; it also happens to be the word for crane. This is because, just around the time that the Eurasian crane became extinct in Ireland, the similar-looking grey heron arrived to fill its ecological niche. Heron and crane, then, are interchangeable in Irish mythology, and in those old stories, crane is a powerful and a liminal bird. She haunts the thresholds where water, land and air intermingle; she guards the treasures of the Otherworld and is a guide to those who wish to travel there. Perhaps because she stands upright, tall and thin, she is associated with shape-shifting in the feminine form – and indeed, most likely for this reason, eating a heron’s flesh was once forbidden. …
Now, surrounded as I seemed to be by herons, I read as much about them and their crane counterparts as I could find. They are associated, I discovered, with longevity; in some of the old stories they are connected, too, to hags and old women. Thinking about this as I walked along the lane, one winter morning at dawn, I stood and watched as a heron flew up from the riverbank, shrieking. There was something oddly hag-like about her call, and all of a sudden, a character popped into my head: Old Crane Woman came to me, part woman, part bird. By the time I arrived home, she had taken possession of me. Springing directly from this place I lived in, rising fully formed out of my river, I had found the Cailleach in another form.
During these midwinter days, find the Old Woman in the place where you live now – the actual place where your feet are planted – and spend some time listening to what she has to tell you.
* 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.