Meet the Cailleach

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It is that pre-dawn time and I lay in bed, half-waking, half-dreaming. In my half-dream, I am in a wide field. Around me stands a ring of stones and I stand in front of one, much larger, and polished like a dark mirror. Beside it is an old woman. Her silver-grey hair spreads out in wild waves, spilling over her plaid-covered shoulders, and the dim light of twilight gives her skin a bluish cast. She has a wolf by her side and a feral grin as she beckons me to her…

Perhaps this would have been a natural first post in this space, but the temptation of launching the blog on Samhain was just too great. And the whole of the dark half the year is the time of the Cailleach, while Samhain is just one day. But who is the Cailleach?

The Cailleach is an ancient deity of the British Isles. The word “cailleach” simply means “old woman” or “veiled woman,” and there are stories that refer to several specific figures as an cailleach in Celtic folklore. At her core, the Cailleach represents the crone phase of the triple goddess cycle, but is also associated with midwifery and birth. She is seen as frightening and fierce, but not necessarily an evil or bad figure. Similar to the Baba Yaga of Russian folklore, the Cailleach is a figure who appears both as a force of natural balance and as an antagonist.

In a similar story to the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades, one story of the Cailleach says that she captured the young and beautiful goddess Brigid, and that Brigid must escape to bring the Spring. But in other tellings of that tale, Brigid and the Cailleach are two aspects of the same person, with the Cailleach either shedding her crone appearance to become the maiden of spring, or else turning into a stone for the summer while Brigid reigns during the light half of the year.

My personal connection to the Cailleach started years ago when I was learning about chthonic goddesses like Hecate of the Greek tradition. The Cailleach struck me as a peculiar blend of an earth goddess, as she was said to predate even the Celtic inhabitants of the British Isles, and a death goddess. She was not necessarily associated with war, like the Morrigan, or the earth itself, like Danu, but was instead the personification of the cycle of living and dying. I’ve written before about her association with predicting the coming of spring and modern traditions around Imbolc, but never really gone into what she means to me personally.

The Cailleach is a goddess who exists at liminal places in the world, like older women often find themselves. They are neither given importance or power, nor are they entirely ignored, and are often feared because of the unknown they represent. The Cailleach is both a goddess of birth, because of her associations with midwifery and Brigid, but also very much a goddess of death. As such, she has been a comfort to me during my own periods of grief in my life. I plan to write more about this in my upcoming book, The Grief Cleanse, in which I’ll chronicle my dealings with grief around a very specific period in my life, but suffice to say that the concept of a woman who is not defined either by youth or fertility intrigues me as a woman. Particularly a woman who is creeping closer and closer to cronehood myself.

The Cailleach is also a wise woman. She knows the cycle of the world. She is said to have control over the weather, or at least over the winter. In my piece on Groundhog Day, I wrote about the tradition of judging the length of the remaining winter by the weather on the day when the Cailleach is supposed to gather firewood for the rest of the winter. And another legend says that at the beginning of winter, she takes her plaid (or shawl) to the river to wash and when she is done, it stretches out pure white and covers the land in the first snowfall.

As the hag of winter, she is depicted with grey or white hair, blue skin, and hooded, often with only one eye. I find that intriguing, as she is almost a sort of Odinic character, with her associations with divination, magic, death, and hidden secrets. And Norse folklore tells of many of those deities not sticking strictly to one gender.

So I have chosen to depict the Cailleach in my own tribute as a woman with one eye veiled with a plaid that has not yet been washed clean. While I am not quite a crone yet, I feel the influence of the Cailleach in my life and heed her call as the wheel of the year turns to her time.

Herbs for the Otherworld with Asia Suler of One Willow Apothecaries

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Samhain is traditionally the time when the boundary between our world and the Otherworld is at its thinnest, and, like many of us, I have felt the tug of the Otherworld leading into Samhain and since. So to encourage, support, and connect with those impulses, I thought I would add to my herbal education with a course from Asia Suler at One Willow Apothecaries called “Herbs for the Otherworld.”

While this is not a recap or review of the course, I will say that right from the start, I appreciated Asia’s teaching style. She started with a meditation to ground and focus us so that we would be more receptive to the exercises she prompted us to go through as we moved through her presentation. The class is an audio file that I could listen to when I had some time, which I appreciated, since uninterrupted time is a luxury in my life right now. But throughout the presentation about the nature of the Otherworld and the associated spiritual ideas, she sprinkled in times to reflect silently and write out intentions and experiences.

It was through one of these exercises that I realized that, in my exploration of my ancestral wisdoms, I was neglecting my father’s ancestral line. In particular, one of her exercises led me to realize that one of the feelings this Samhain season has dredged up has been a feeling of disconnect with my father’s father’s ancestral line. My paternal grandfather was the first one to instill in me a love of the outdoors, ancestral plant wisdom, and traditional crafts. And in neglecting to explore that side of my lineage, I was approaching my ancestral truth from a very lopsided perspective.

One of the reasons I find that Celtic spirituality resonates with me is because of the vague idea that I have Scottish heritage, although I have little to go on besides the religion with which I was raised and some vague ideas my mother has about “family over in Scotland.” But when I took this prompt, realized that I was being called to pay more attention to my paternal grandfather’s line, I went into my genealogy and almost immediately found that one of my ancestors along that line had an ancient Dal Riatan surname that indicated migration from Ireland to Scotland, likely in the Middle Ages.

From there, I took the lessons of shamanic connection and spiritual journeying and started exploring on my own. I found a local mushroom farm that sells a reishi mushroom elixir. And I also decided to include my own intuitive herbal ally, my mugwort, to create a reishi and mugwort tea for Samhain Eve. Practicing with some of the Otherworld connection techniques from the course, I was able to deepen my Samhain practice and reach out to that ancestral line that had requested attention.

I was also intrigued by her discussion of “ghosts” are more than just departed people, but any departed energy that was still “haunting” us. It was interesting because most of what resonated with me in the course, was this idea of needing to connect, with ancestors and with this Otherworld. But I recognized that when listening to the section about banishing ghosts that there are still energetic aspects of my past that still linger and are not serving me. Since I don’t have Angelica accessible to me right now, I chose to use my Reishi tincture along with my carnelian stone and sat with this idea of connecting to and banishing my ghosts. And what more fitting day than Hallowe’en to work with ghosts?

The course offered not only a lot of information about the plants and techniques and context of the Otherworld, but helped walk me through these offerings to help me build my own relationship with the Otherworld. In connecting with these practices, I not only deepened my practice, but added to it. And that was a profound thing.

Plants and Ancestors with Regina Pritchett of In Her It Blooms

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I mentioned in passing that I had participated in a class called “Plants and Ancestors” with Regina Pritchett of In Her It Blooms, but I felt compelled to write a post specifically discussing my experiences of the class and how it has deepened my practice over the last week or so. The class was in response to the many Instagram posts and Stories Regina shared over the last several months about cultural appropriation in the herbal community, a topic that interests me greatly, and about which I plan to write in more depth in the near future.

But the essence of this class was learning what ancestral herbalism is and how to connect with your own ancestry, regardless of your knowledge of your specific genealogy or biological heritage. Personally, I have both started working on a genealogy, given that I have the privilege of a white descendent of Europeans, and have had my biological heritage mapped by 23andme (although, I’m planning on testing with another company sometime to explore how the results compare). The results are not surprising. I am completely European, within the limits of accuracy of those tests. The largest percentage is of the British Isles, particularly greater London and some parts of Ireland. Matching up to my genealogy, my Gaelic ancestors likely emigrated from Ireland to Scotland in the Middle Ages, and then later to England, based on surnames.

And yet, even knowing this, Regina’s class was illuminating. It is one thing to know who your ancestors are on paper, but quite another to engage with them through an ancestor-veneration practice. In Celtic paganism and Druidry, ancestor veneration is an integral part of the practice, and one that had eluded me as someone with a complicated family dynamic. Of course, there are others with much less access to information about their heritage. So the class focused more on how to intuitively connect with one’s ancestors.

At the end of the discussion, Regina led us in a guided meditation to meet an ancestor who was particularly in need of attention. Interestingly enough, the ancestor who came to me in this vision was a relative of my only living grandparent, my first-generation American grandmother, born to Magyar immigrants who came from Hungary and Romania in the early 20th century. This also happens to be the side of my ancestry that I ever truly had experience with, as my grandmother tried to maintain this tie to her heritage, and I was the one who chose to learn at least some of it from her, mostly in the form of cooking.

And so, beyond considering how to add regular ancestor veneration to my practice, including blending my very disparate Germanic, Norman, Celtic, and Magyar heritages together, I have been reminded that ancestor veneration is about keeping tradition alive. Sometimes that means setting an altar, lighting a candle, and giving the offering (my grandfathers both love whiskey), and sometimes that means regarding the baking of many rolls of walnut beigli and enjoying it with some Romanian fruit tea as a form of veneration.

Beyond that, it has led me to even further investigate the herbal practices of my ancestors. I know my great-grandmother ran a homestead where they lived in Ohio, and that she came from a small, poor, rural village in Hungary, where it was likely in addition to making all of their food, she likely would have used herbal remedies on her family. My mother has some vague memories of home remedies. But now I can research and find things like nettle and elder on the Magyar side, and linden and blaeberry on the Celtic side.

And so I keep reminders of my particular ancestral heritage close to me. It has become less of an academic exercise, tracing the lines and links, and more personal.

Herbal Rituals: Mugwort

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Recently, I was introduced to Judith Berger’s beautiful book of herbal tradition, Herbal Rituals, in which she connects each month of the year to a plant or two. Her book starts in November, just after Samhain, at the pagan new year. And she starts with Mugwort.

One of the concepts of green witch herbalism that I adore is the idea of finding your “green ally.” This is a plant that isn’t necessarily the only remedy you might need, but is a specific plant that has been speaking to you. And the tenacious patch of mugwort outside my front door has called to me lately. She has survived many weedings (the perils of living in rented housing) and provided me with copious bundles of mugwort for a myriad of recipes and storage.

And then, while participating in Regina Prichett’s “Plants and Ancestors” class, I realized that something deeper was calling me to this patch of mugwort. After sharing this, she pointed out that mugwort in indigenous to most of Europe and the British Isles and any one of my pan-European ancestors (seriously, no one nation or area of Europe can claim a full half of my ancestry, apparently). So as whether I am connecting with my Scots-Irish ancestors or the Magyar, mugwort is an ally to my work.

The best thing I’ve found to do with her is to use the process I learned from Alexis Nicole on TikTok (and Instagram), which she got from Shell (@wild_food_around_the_world) to treat harvested mugwort leaves like green tea. The process of steaming, rolling, drying, and roasting yields an amazingly fragrant and smooth cup of mugwort tea, even though I harvested my leaves much later in the season that was ideal. And the tactile connection to the leaves brings so much experience to the process.

In her book, Berger talks about November as a time for rest, but also vision and memory. Samhain, the opening of both the pagan year and November as a month, is a time at which the veil between the world of the living and the Otherworld is at its thinnest, making it a time for ancestor connection and divination. The idea of the new year being a time to get in touch with your intuition and vision strikes me a gentler way to think about New Year’s resolutions. Rather than choosing to what box you want to conform, you consult your essence to see how you can better accommodate its expansiveness.

Mugwort as a remedy is associated with divination, trance, and dream work. Drinking it as a tea or working with it before going to sleep is supposed to induce vivid dreams. As someone who has recently found myself less able to fall asleep and sleep restfully, I chose to make a mugwort dream pillow from the book this year. I had a remnant of beautiful dusty lavender colored linen that a seamstress friend sent me when it was leftover after she made a dress I bought from her. It has been sitting in my fabric stash for over a year and this seemed the perfect way to honor it. I sewed it with intention and meditative calm, and then filled it with rice for weight, mugwort for vision and dreams, lavender and hops for relaxation, and a pinch of mint to enhance clarity. It’s a large pillow and covers about half my face, the weight of it making it a soothing way to release the tension in my face, and the scent lulling me into rest.

A cup of mugwort green tea and a lie-down with my dream pillow puts me into the perfect state to receive the rest and dreams that November will bring to me. I wish you a restful and meditative winter.

Samhain: Happy New Year

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It is no accident that I chose to launch this space on Samhain. In the pagan world, Samhain represents the end of the old and the beginning of the new. It is the beginning of the cycle of a year that represents death, and the time from Samhain until the Winter Solstice is a liminal time, a time of change and preparation for rebirth.

It is also the time of the Cailleach.

I will pen a proper introduction to the Cailleach later this month, as the first in a series of dives into deity figures, but at Samhain, the Cailleach takes over the influence of the season and brings us into the dark half of the year. Despite the fact that the days have been shortening since the Autumnal Equinox, or Mabon, around the end of October is when I really start to notice the shift. And it is the end of the harvest season, which is why daylight savings time ends around this time, plunging us into every-earlier evening darkness.

And in this time of darkness, we not only look to bring the light to soothe our minds, but we reconnect with the aspects of death. The traditional Jack o’the Lantern was a wandering soul, with an ember in a carved out turnip to light his way, a flickering eerie light, if my experiments with carving turnips are any proof. It is the time when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld is the thinnest, and a time for divination, ancestor work, and shadow work. A time to sit and contemplate.

One way that I’ve chosen to mark this holiday is by doing a lot of work to connect with that Otherworld and my ancestors. I’ve taken some courses, about which I will write later this month, that have helped me reconnect both with my personal genealogy journey, as well as my own intuitive understanding of how my ancestry informs my practice. And the Cailleach is the divine representation of that deep, crone ancestor who came with the land. So as I sit in the times of darkness, before sunrise or after sunset, I am sitting with the departed and the deep ancestors.

But it also a celebration. As I said, it is the final harvest festival. We often think of the end of autumn and into winter as the lean and sparse times, the hungry times of the year, but there was an interesting section on a podcast I listen to on the history of Britannia, where the creator talks about harvest practices in the ancient world. Our ancestors were not foolish, and they knew they did not have our robust food supply chain. They knew they had to preserve their food. So the late autumn and winter were the times of plenty. Right after the harvest was brought in, it was prepared for storage and the stores would be full. A wise society with a robust production would have plenty of food to last through the winter and into the spring until the new plantings yielded plenty again.

So while Samhain may have marked the time when our ancestors might have found themselves without the fieldwork that occupied them during much of the rest of the year, they were not starving. In fact, it’s possible that this was the time that they had to create dishes from their stored food. Think about the traditions of baking around Yule and you’ll see that it doesn’t make sense for this to be the entry into the lean times. So Samhain, for me, is an entry into a time of homey cooking, baking, and other around-the-house crafts that keep us cozy as the weather brings in a chill. The world outside might begin to look dead and skeletal, but it is merely resting, in hibernation, conserving its energy to burst forth in the spring.

Blessed Samhain!