I felt compelled to visit Scotland without truly understanding why. I said I was called by my studies of Celtic mythology and by images I had seen of the land. I told people in Scotland I was on an artist’s journey. But now I see that Mother Earth wanted my attention – and in Scotland, particularly in the Highlands, Earth energy is strongly present. From the start, a major part of that calling was the ancient Callanais Stones – pronounced like the English translation “Callanish” – located on the remote Isle of Lewis.
Getting around the Hebrides and the Highlands was difficult without a car as bus access is very limited. Though a little restricting, it kept me connected to Earth as I walked and I walked. With every step I felt the call of Earth – from even before the human family began.
It was a glorious sunny afternoon when I arrived by ferry on the Isle of Lewis/Harris. Next was a bus ride north to Stornoway, my base for exploring Callanais. Here I first learned of the Stones connection to the Cailleich, an ancient goddess whose origins are unknown. Her name literally means “the Veiled One” but has come to mean “Old Woman or Wife.” Yet she was all powerful and ageless.
An elder man spoke about Callanias and the Stones’ connection to the nearby mountain – “Cailleach na Mointeach” – Gaelic for “The Old Woman of the Moors” or affectionately called “Sleeping Beauty” as the mountain looks like a woman lying on her back with bent knees. He said you could see this mountain through the stones. His storytelling got me searching for more info on the Cailleach’s connection to the Stones.
First, I learned of the extreme age of the islands and of the stones that make up the land. The Callanais Stones date back to 3500 BC but the rocks that created Scotland come from an inconceivable 3 billion years ago as the landmasses of Earth were created from out of the waters.
Around 450 million years ago, at the beginning of the Caledonian Orogeny, Scotland, Scandinavia and North America were one continent with the now, non-existent Iapetu Ocean separating them from England, which was joined with the rest of northern Europe. This was a long geological period of continental collision and mountain building, that turned Iapetu Ocean into land and fused Scotland and England together.
Quieter conditions occurred for several millennia, covering Scotland with layers of sediment forming various sedimentary rocks until 60 million years ago when Earth moved again and the continent split apart forming the North Atlantic Ocean with volcanoes erupting all along Scotland’s new western edge.
These are the creation stories the science of geology tells us. But our ancient ancestors told a different story of the creation of Scotland and the other Celtic lands. Long, long before the Celts arrived in Ireland and Scotland, the indigenous people worshipped The Cailleach, as both the goddess of creation and the goddess of destruction. She became Calleach Bheur to the Scots. “Bheur” means sharp and she was credited with creating the sharp and biting winter weather, which helped to shape Scotland.
The Cailleach, a Dark Goddess of nature, is one with the land. Sometimes depicted with one eye, she sees beyond duality peering into the Oneness of all Being. She is the embodiment of winter, clothing the land with snow. Sacred Stones are her special places.
She leapt from mountaintop to mountaintop, dropping rocks to create hills, mountains and islands. She carried a slachdam – the Druidic rod, or a hammer with which she wielded power over the seasons and weather.
She is the guardian of the life force, finding and nourishing the seeds, commanding the power of life and death. The Cailleach personifies death and the transformative power of darkness, leading us through death to rebirth.
Our ancestors believed that the rocks on the Isle of Lewis used to create the Callanais Stone Circle were gifts from the Cailleach – from her acts of Earth building. These metamorphic gneiss rocks are among the oldest in Europe and are embedded with various types of crystal such as quartz, feldspar and hornblende. Perhaps these crystals in the ancient rocks create the energy field I felt so strongly on my visit – all coming from the hand of the Cailleach, a personification of the power of Mother Earth.
Archeologists theorize that the 5,000 year old Callanais Stones were a sacred site created for ritual and prayer, in particular from which to mark the 18.6 year lunar cycle – similar and yet more complicated than the yearly Sun cycle of Summer and Winter Solstices.
Every 18.6 years, this moon cycle reaches Major Lunar Standstill with the full moon nearest the Summer Solstice. It is viewed through the Callanais Stones rising out of Cailleach na Mointeach – our Earth Mother. Being so far north it only skims the horizon then appears to set among the stones.
It is hard for our modern minds to understand the awe these ancient people must have felt at the beauty and terror of nature during the Megalithic Era – when the human family was first beginning to settle in one place though had not yet discovered agriculture.
Perhaps the ceremonies held at Callanais helped hold the terror at bay. Closing my eyes I can imagine being there on this short night, near mid-summer, for the ritual marking of the passing of winter – I and my tribe had survived the season of long, dark nights. This was the special time that our tribal shaman knew how to mark. We all understood the precariousness of life and that marking the circuits of Earth and Sky provided invaluable knowledge for our survival. I can imagine feeling immense gratitude witnessing the cycles of life unfold as Earth and Sky and human minds interacted and the full moon rose out of our Earth Mother – Cailleach na Mointeach – and then set within the Sacred Stone Circle.
Further illustrating Callanais’ connection to Goddess, its original construction was comprised of 13 stones arranged in a circle – both number and shape are symbols of Moon and Goddess. At some point an even-armed cross was added around the perimeter – symbolic of the sun and of the meeting place of the divine and the mundane.
It seems unlikely that such a magnificent structure was created for use only once every 18.6 years. Of course these people left no written account of their actions, but local legend and lore suggests the Callanais Stones were seen as a fertility power spot. Given the Stones connection to Moon and Goddess that is not surprising. An old legend claims that Callanais is a promising spot to consummate a marriage or become engaged. In fact I overheard a couple of visitors while I was there claiming to have become engaged at Callanais.
But what does a site like the Callanais Stones hold for us today? Can Mother Earth still speak to us there?
After a bit of a wander through and around the Stones, I sat and sketched. Slowly through that act of eye to hand to pencil to paper I began to feel the deep connection that always comes in when I attempt to translate 3D reality onto a 2D piece of paper.
Time passed and soon the only return bus would arrive so I stopped and just sat quietly, listening to the wind and feeling the energy. I felt strongly a sacred presence in this spot where long, long ago ceremonies for Goddess had been held. I heard the Cailleach’s calling – to an acceptance of our modern world and the difficult days of transformation the 21st century offers up. The winds carried her message – a glimmer of hope that we can find our way back to living in balance with her natural rhythms of creation, destruction and creation. I felt her reassurance that though the geography of Earth changes and the epochs of humankind and the flesh and bones of all creatures pass away, the magnificence of life continues. The Cailleach touched my heart there at her Sacred Stone circle, reminding me that, though pain and suffering has been and will always be with us, life is a gift to be cherished.
Here are a few more photos of the Callanais Stones
Post Script – If you are interested in learning more about the 18.6 year moon cycle be sure to read “Moon Teachings for the Masses” by Dr. Judith S. Young.
Judith Shaw, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, has been interested in myth, culture and mystical studies all her life. Not long after graduating from SFAI, while living in Greece, Judith began exploring the Goddess in her art. She continues to be inspired by the Goddess in all of Her manifestations. She is now working on her next deck of oracle cards – Animal Wisdom. Originally from New Orleans, Judith makes her home in New Mexico where she paints as much as time allows and sells real estate part-time. Give yourself the gift of one of Judith’s prints or paintings.
Judith’s deck of Celtic Goddess Oracle Cards is available now. You can order your deck from Judith’s website – click here. Experience the wisdom of the Celtic Goddesses!