Today, I bring you an old old story from Scotland. It explains how and why winter became spring. Cailleach is another name for the Hag – the archetypal Crone. She represents winter. Brigit is the forever Maiden and stands for spring. There are many ways to spell her name, all of them correct. Ben Nevis is a mountain in Scotland and the word bairns means “babies”.
It’s always important to remember that myths come to us through retellings by countless bards and storytellers. They are layered one on top of the other like palimpsests and sometimes appear contradictory. I think of stories- particularly the ones who have existed for millennia as three-dimensional puzzles to be slowly played with and unlocked in increments. Furthermore, what we see and hear in a story means different things to us at different times and circumstances. There is always something new to be gleaned.
Ancient days were not so different from ours, just more openly fierce and dark than we admit them to be. Themes of sacrifice, incest, tension between the young and old, and the domestication of the wild are just as relevant now as when the story was new:
Brigit and the Cailleach
Far away, long ago, in the folds behind Ben Nevis,
lived a Queen who knew her land, root to highest heaven.
She tallied every pebble – quartz, agate, flint or gneiss.
She recognized each magpie, osprey, lark and raven.
The towering Stag came to her hand, calm as any sheep,
salmon leaped against her palm, bear nuzzled at her feet,
babies gurgled in her presence, lying men blushed deep,
young mothers’ milk flowed faster, richer and more sweet.
The Cailleach was her title but her people called her Hag.
She wore no crown, no jewels bold, no cloth of golden thread,
bore a staff of elder wood and wore a homespun rag,
walked moor, field, crag and bog with silent barefoot tread.
At home her cauldron simmered slow, upon a stony hearth
where no one dared to stir the pot for fear of evil eye.
Healthy bairns tumbled soft against the hard-packed earth
but only daughters lived full-span, sons were raised to die.
The land demanded sacrifice to turn its seasons round,
The Cailleach paid a heavy price in kingly sons and proud;
brewed their limbs, cooked their blood and poured it on the ground,
walked the fields, strewed the bones, but never cried aloud.
Ten thousand generations passed as Cailleach kept the rite,
wild oxen calved, the house dogs whelped, each year produced a crop.
One day she heard a baby’s mew, faint with thirst and fright,
found it naked, starved and lone, upon the mountain top.
Blonde babe as fair as she was dark; blue eyes to snapping black,
Hag raised the girl child, bore her back to join the nursing brood;
of all the cubs that sucked her paps Brigit showed most knack
for following her mother’s lead, matching mood for mood.
The Cailleach taught her secret paths and passes through the peaks,
wet places where the wild herbs grow and roe deer bend to drink.
She darked the fairy skin with stain, dressed her in wool breeks,
disguised the beauty of the girl – golden, cream and pink.
But Brigit’s brother was not kin – he spied her at her bath.
Passion broke a lifetime’s bond in just a single hour,
he pressed his suit, revealed his fate, dared the Mother’s wrath,
long before the moon arose he forced her love to flower.
Foster daughter stole the cauldron. She stirred it as they fled;
fog rolled from the broth she spilled, thick, drab, enshrouding mist.
Cailleach followed close at hand, rage turned her black eyes red.
She badgered them with spitting sleet and brilliant lightening twist.
Bride whistled up a binding curse that hardened Hag to stone,
settled with her lover, changed moor to plow-tamed county.
Without its queen wild land grew dim, abandoned and alone,
without its blood the earth grew bare, refusing men its bounty.
Nature needs its wilderness, barbaric, savage, bleak,
unbroken woman, feral man, their wanton roaming child,
un-furrowed prairie, standing grove, boisterous, roiling creek
independent, never found housebroken or beguiled.
So Brigit whistled backward to release the stone-bound Hag.
Crone hissed at maid, she howled, they cried, moving toward reason;
the substitute for man-blood — a heart of ox or stag,
maiden to rejoin crone in spring and summer season.
We still call out sweet Brigit’s name when Imbolc day draws near
to pull her from her lover’s bed out into the field,
to charge the land with tenderness, revive what’s cold and sere,
call up green shoots, redden buds, bring us fruitful yield.
©2016 Christine Irving Sitting on the Hag Seat: A Celtic Knot of Poems
Christine Irving is ordained as a Priestess of Isis in both the Fellowship of Isis and the Gnostic Church of Saint Mary Magdalene. She is a co-founder of the California Alliance of Women (CAW) which produced affordable spiritual retreats for women for many years. She was an early facilitator of Consciousness Raising and went on to do advanced study with Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea at PeerSpirit on circle dynamics. She is an experienced ritualist, facilitator of women’s circles, and workshop leader. Christine is an accomplished poet with five books of poetry as well as one collaboration. Her recent work Return to Inanna, revisits the myth of Inanna and explores its relevancy to the spiritual life of modern women. She is also the author of Magdalene A.D., an historical novel about Mary Magdalene as she undertakes a parallel physical and spiritual quest many years after the crucifixion of Christ.