Samhain is the beginning of winter according to the Celtic calendar. On this day, people brought their livestock in from the pastures and settled by their hearths to survive the coming cold until the magical renewal of spring. Here in New England, leaves are beginning to blaze red-gold, plants to brown as nutrients fill their roots, and animals to nestle underground to hibernate. Across the northern hemisphere, we should once again begin our own retreat below the the busyness of our lives to re-energize and plan for the fruition of spring works.
I’ve usually thought of winter as a time of withdrawal from other beings and the world, but maybe Celtic tradition offers us a more nuanced way of perceiving this season. A wonderful Scottish Samhain story has made me rethink of winter as a time to also reconnect and re-vitalize each other and chart our course to spring’s promise together. I cannot say what the story means to those from whose land it emerged, but I can share the thoughts it evokes in me. Settle in, get comfy, and listen…
A very long time ago during a savage winter, two giants arrived in a village, a woman about to give birth and a man, according to Anne Ross in Druids: Teachers of Immortality (184-188). The villagers fed them and built them a cozy house. The many years the family dwelled amongst the villagers boasted cows who gave bountiful milk, ample crops, and successful hunting.
Eventually the family returned home over the mountains, promising that the glen would remain abundant as long as river-worn stones representing the family were cared for. A shepherd was chosen to build a small stone house and place the stones in remembrance of the Cailleach, for the woman was the great goddess Herself, her husband, their daughter, and their other children outside. A gleaming white quartz stone on the roof guided visitors who wished to visit the stone family.
In our own time, each Samhain a guardian replaces the turf on the roof, brings the family stones inside, and fills gaps in the house walls with stones, rushes, and grasses to keep the family snug. On Beltane, the guardian removes the roof and places the stones looking down the glen to ensure a bountiful growing season. The structure is called either Tigh nan Cailleach, House of the Cailleach, or Tigh nam Bodach, House of the Old Man.
In this story, winter’s gathering in is not a solitary pursuit, as I often think it to be for myself, but done interdependently with other human and non-human beings — family, village, and the planet as it cycles through the seasons. The divine family depends on the villagers to make their house and place them in it each year. The villagers rely on the Cailleach to ensure their harvest and livestock get them through the winter. The well being of the Earth is contingent on humans marking the seasons with the proper ritual. I am reminded how invigorating I always find connection for generating ideas, changing perspective, and being inspired. This normalization of interdependence is especially important for feminism that requires coordinated, collaborative action for success.
The ritual, handed down through generations and performed by a chosen member of the community, gives winter retreat from outside work the mantle of both community acceptance and an act done as part of the Cailleach’s sacred cycle of nature and the seasons. This belief that it is natural and good to slow down for a season was built into the annual round of work to be done by everyone day to day. While the weather made this time of moving inside a practical necessity, the ritual also provided communal respect for the human need for regeneration.
It can be difficult it to back away from constant outside activities, especially work, in a society that equates peaceful contemplation with wasting time and expects people to be out despite snow, cold, and ice. When we give ourselves and each other time and space to re-energize, we prevent burn out and maximize creativity, especially among women who often have multiple paid and unpaid jobs.
Finally, to me, the bringing in and out of the Cailleach and Her family each year by the village shepherd is a reflection of a special kind of relationship with divinity, especially a powerful Creator Goddess like the Cailleach. In this story human and divine interaction is full of exchanges of support between goddess and humans. It is a hands-on spirituality based in rhythms of the land and, it seems to me, both assumes and celebrates a spirituality that is based on recognizing the sacred in every day life as well as the mystery and power of both the Cailleach and humans. I remember how those moments when I have felt closest to female divinity, whether in the form of a particular goddess or the sacredness within myself, have led to wonderful, life-changing insights that can be the basis for next spring’s projects and activism.
I realize that each of these elements of the story can enhance my own winter practice of stepping back to consider my life and work from a longer perspective while making plans for the spring. This winter, I invite you to join me in seeking out ways to re-energize and generate ideas and imaginative works through relationships with each other, divinity, and Nature. Together we will brainstorm for how we will remake the world. We can push away the feeling that we should be “doing” when we need to be “being” and let our beloveds know they can do the same. When the snow howls outside, we will have a cup of tea with the Goddess and perhaps discuss what our next FAR blog post should be. Whether you are from the northern hemisphere going inward at this time or from the southern hemisphere emerging outward at this, remembering your deeply-rooted connectedness, accepting the necessity of this rhythm of movement, and finding Goddess in your daily life will always help you find the spirit to do what you are on this planet to accomplish.
BIO: Carolyn Lee Boyd’s essays, short stories, memoirs, reviews, and poetry have been published in a variety of print magazines, internet sites, and book anthologies. her writing explores goddess-centered spirituality in everyday life and how we can all better live in local and global community. She would love for you to visit her at her website, www.goddessinateapot.com,where you can find her writings and music and some of her free e-books to download.
Tigh na Cailleach: Richard Bisset, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Glen Lyon in Winter: Stuart Meek, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Cows in Glen Lyon: By Paul Hermans – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15791182
Sources: Brooks, Libby, “There is Power in Them: Mysterious Stone Figures to Be Moved in Gaelic Winter Ritual, The Guardian, October 30, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2020/oct/30/there-is-power-in-them-mysterious-stone-figures-gaelic-winter-ritual-cailleach; Matthews, Caitlin & John, Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom: A Celtic Shaman’s Sourcebook, Element Books, Ltd, Rockport, Massachusetts, 1994; Rees, Alwyn and Brinley, Celtic Heritage, Thames and Hudson, London, 1961; Ross, Anne, Druids: Preachers of Immortality, Tempus Publishing, Gloucestorshire, UK, 1999.