As the season of Imbolc comes, and Brigid walks the land, I always feel Her fiery inspiration. There is work to do.
It's starting. Can you feel it? The light has already changed so obviously here in Oregon. Something is waking up in me. I am not usually depressed around MIdwinter. I love the dark and the long nights, and don't mind being alone at this time like some people do. But I have been deeply depressed recently.
Yesterday morning was not the first day I noticed the change in the light, but it was the first morning that it broke through my gloom and touched me in some physical way. Got through my skin. As often happens around Imbolc, a new poem for Brigid came to me.
Yes, Imbolc is coming. We think of snowdrops, and increasing light, of Brigid and the Cailleach. Some consider it a time of ascendency for the Rowan tree. I have been wanting to share a little something about this poem, called "Song" by Seamus Heaney for awhile now.
I love this for many reasons. Each mention of tree and flower seems to bring the spirit of that plant to me. The red berried rowan which has associations with witchcraft and protection, the alder which so often has its feet in the water, the rushes, the immortelles - which is another name for Helichrysum, those little button-like flowers that dry so beautifully. Then there is birdsong and "mud flowers" and dialect. It's a lot in eight lines! And the music of what happens. What about that? Well, it's referencing this:
So now you know. It's a bit Zen, isn't it? I find myself so frustrated by what is happening in our world. But I can only do what is given to me to do. Sometimes I have to accept that I am caught up in events much greater than myself, events not of my making. In the story, Stephens goes on the say that Fionn loved what happened and "would not evade it by the swerve of a hair". We spend a lot of time thinking about how to evade what might happen, not stopping to think that our energy is better spent dealing with whatever is before us. That we are better off responding to life with all the strength and beauty we can muster. That was always Fionn's way.
As the season of Imbolc comes, and Brigid walks the land, I always feel Her fiery inspiration. There is work to do.
I have recently created a chapbook of some of my other poems about Brigid and the Cailleach, written over the years. This little book is a handy size to use in rituals and devotional work.
Poems for the Season of Imbolc
Tigh nam Bodach, Gleann Cailliche - Marc Calhoun
These must be among the first verses I ever read from the Carmina Gadelica. They are two of many verses which have to do with Bride's Day, or Imbolc. If I'm honest, living here in Colorado is getting me down. Rather than looking forward to spring as I would wish to, I find myself merely dreading another summer that will be too hot and dry, and so I've been struggling to muster enthusiasm for the coming holiday of Imbolc. But a couple of hours ago, something quite small and wonderful happened. I found this:
He or she was neatly folded between two flakes of hay, in a bale I opened to feed the horses. It felt like a sign. If anybody ever needed a sign, it was me, so I'll take it as so. I already had the beginnings of a poem in my head, but it had been refusing to form. My little serpent muse did the trick, however. So here is my poem.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like The Cailleach Becomes Bride and Visions in meditation - part 1
Poems for the Season on Imbolc
Thoughts about mountains and the Cailleach
This card came up as my personal daily draw recently, and I thought I would give this essay an airing on the blog - although I wrote it some time ago. It seems appropriate to the season, as many celebrate Latha na Caillich (Day of the Cailleach) on March 25th.
Imagine standing, looking at a mountain, knowing you are going to have to climb it. Okay, for some people, mountain climbing is an enjoyable sport, but if you fall into that category, chances are you have still felt daunted by the prospect at times. Perhaps you thought "I'm afraid the weather is against me today," or "It looks scarier than it did in the guidebook," or "I wish I'd brought more rope." However, the seasoned mountain climber knows that you can only climb one step at a time, so all you can do is begin, and see whether you can do it. Very often, it's those of us who stand at the bottom making up stories to frighten ourselves, or who simply feel like we can't be bothered, who suffer the most. We are afraid of failing, afraid of falling, prefer not to leave our comfort zone, and yet, somehow we know that until we make the attempt, we are going to be a little bit miserable, knowing that it's still ahead of us.
The Paps of Jura- J Samara
Mountain - Resistance and perceived difficulty. The results of bad temper or anger.
In the 1960s, Donovan wrote the song There Is a Mountain, about illusion and perceived reality. The refrain went
First there is a mountain
The thing is - this card is about perceived difficulty. It's about our fears and our excuses, and our million and one avoidance techniques. After all - what is "difficulty" but a transient experience, a brief challenge or unpleasant period. While we can spend months, years, even an entire lifetime, sitting at the bottom of the mountain eaten up by our emotions, losing respect for ourselves, dreading it. It's enough to make us very angry.
Anger, of course, is the other aspect of this card. In Scotland in particular, and also in Ireland, many mountains have associations with a character known as the Cailleach.(The word means "veiled one" but in the vernacular, has come to mean old woman.) There is no simple tale that I can tell you, to explain the Cailleach. The stories are quite varied and often very local, and in areas where Gaelic was never the common language she is sometimes known as the "Carlin" (old woman or witch) or even "Queen of the Witches", she is also usually a giant. As well as her associations with many high mountains, such as Ben Nevis and the Paps of Jura, the Cailleach is associated with deer, with winter and bad weather, with holding prisoners (including the goddess Bride) and other general mayhem, including the very dangerous, and very real, Corryvreckan whirlpool. Some consider her to be a representation of the Crone aspect of the triple goddess, and this seems perhaps a likely explanation for how she made her way into folklore. However, she may have existed in some form before the coming of the Celtic tribes, as a weather goddess, perhaps, whose story was later interwoven with the Celtic pantheon at a local level. It seems, too, that she simply became the embodiment of human fears, frustrations and acts of anger in a more general way. A common theme in her stories is her anger at being old and ugly, and her desire to make others suffer, too - by keeping them in the grip of winter, by holding them prisoner, by raising storms and so on. We can leave these questions to the scholars to unravel - I don't think they ever will.
On a metaphorical level, I believe the Cailleach, with her anger and frustration exists in all of us. The prisoners we hold are often ourselves. The anger is really aimed inward, although we may make life unpleasant for others by expressing it. The more negative aspects of the Cailleach are a great example to us of how not to live our lives - in anger and, bitterness, trying to control others and cause them trouble. We do not make things easier for ourselves with this behaviour, we just trap ourselves in a discouraging and repetitive cycle. Every time we do this, we make the mountain a little higher - or at least we think we do.
Even if we have what looks like a mountain to climb, even if we feel we didn't create it, even if it was created by someone else's anger or controlling behaviour, or forces of nature, none of that really matters. The Mountain is no big deal. Things probably look better, even from 100 metres up. The big deal is our perception.
If you enjoyed this, you might also like We Need to Talk About the Cailleach.
At the recent winter solstice, I heard Damh the Bard's wonderful Colloquy of the Oak and Holly Kings for the first time. While some think of the changing of the light or of the seasons as a battle between warmth and cold or dark and light, I love how his poem acknowledges the process of gradual change. At every point in the wheel of the year which we mark as important, I see it more as a day to pause and take note of the changes that are ongoing, or a day to take heart, knowing that they will occur. Winter and spring need not always be seen as enemies. They are also partners, who each have their part in turning the wheel. This poem came to me at Imbolc two years ago. I hope you enjoy it!
But I can yet dance
Climb the trees
and raise a wind
to throw last years leaves
into a dervish circle
I can tease a gentler climate
up the valley
to moisten the loins
bring thoughts of some lustier dame
Only to tumble you
onto the ice
What were we thinking!
I cackle again from the treetops
raising a storm that sends the cattle
lowing and bucking in indignation
from sleet like knives
for the shelter of the dyke
and the ponies
lower their heads to the ground
tails plastered to their legs
I will jig and reel down the beach
entangled in seaweed
I will blast your windows
and tear your thatch
You must regard me!
I will rip your hat off
slap your face
and make you look at death squarely
We must discuss this
Poems for the Season of Imbolc
Is the Cailleach actually many local weather goddesses? Is she a goddess at all?
With the ever burgeoning number of Pagan-Goddess-Witchy-Celtic websites, blogs and Facebook pages these days, there is a lot of potential. There is potential for self expression, potential to get information out to masses of people quickly and efficiently, to connect people who need to find each other, and all sorts of other practical things. Unfortunately, there is also potential for some of the information to be incomplete, misunderstood or complete BS. As Imbolc approaches, I see people trotting out their posts about Brigid and about the Cailleach -- yes, just as I'm doing.
I'm a bit worried about the Cailleach these days. She is not a simple character in either Scots or Irish folklore -- and folklore is really where she resides, as opposed to myth in the sense that we generally use it in Celtic studies. You will not find the Cailleach in the great sagas and cycles of Irish or Welsh gods and heroes. You will find other "hag" figures, and if you like to take the view that all hags are just re-workings of one archetype, then I guess you can run with that. It does seem that certain behaviours of hags fall across many different periods and cultures. However, let's just stick to the Cailleach, for now. I said that she is not simple, but rather than being the opposite, which might be complex, I'd say that she is diverse. We don't find many variants of one Cailleach story, so much as we find a number of pretty dissimilar stories whose common thread seems to be weather. Perhaps we should introduce our stories in future, by saying "Here is a tale of a cailleach."
In Scotland, tales of weather hags which include the Cailleach Bheur, various carlines and witches and a figure known perversely as "Gentle Annie" abound, but most of these tales are very localised. Generally, the local Cailleach lives up the nearest large or barren mountain peak, or somewhere similar. She seems particularly associated with the rough weather that is common in late winter and early spring. Many regions experience a sort of false spring around the beginning of February, when lambs are born and a little fishing might be possible, only to find that the weather regresses into wildness around the time of the equinoxial gales. Scottish and Irish weather is unsettled at the best of times, but this unpredictability is particularly frustrating, challenging and dangerous at this time of year, when people were traditionally running out of foodstuffs as well as patience.
The Cailleach tales are many, but there are several general themes. In one, we find the hag holding spring/summer prisoner - usually in the form of a maiden, who may be called Bride, or Brigid. Through cunning, or with the assistance of a helper (in one case Angus Óg) Bride is able to defeat the Cailleach or escape, and spring is able to progress. However, it seems that most of these tales are modern variants of just one story collected by one folklorist, which got spread about in the folklore revival of the 20th century. This in no way devalues this story, but it is an oversimplification to say that "This is the Cailleach story." The theme of the Cailleach holding a prisoner also comes up in some local tales where a hunter or fisherman is imprisoned by an amorous Cailleach. In these tales, it may be that if the fellow is willing to kiss or make love to her, she will be young again. Meanwhile, other variants on the Cailleach/Bride theme have them as one and the same entity, where the Cailleach cyclically grows old and is renewed annually by a well of youth or some similar device.
There is also a famous poem from around the 9th century, known as The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare. This is the complaint of an old woman who has lost her beauty and wealth. Almost a kind of female Job. She says things like, "When my arms are seen, all bony and thin, they are not, I declare, worth raising around comely youths." and "My hair is scant and grey; to have a mean veil over it causes no regret." This atmosphere of bitterness and anger is one of the things which runs through the different tales of the Cailleach. Inevitably, she is portrayed as ugly and misshapen, often a giantess. Her skin is blue, she has only one eye, red teeth and other horrors - and she is not happy about it.
The Scots have a talent for irony, and the name "Gentle Annie" is a great example of this. Gentle Annie is the Cailleach figure known to fishermen of northeast Scotland, where "Gentle Annie weather" refers to the rough seas and gales of spring, which begin around the equinox and may continue until the end of April.
I'm deeply indebted to "Seren" for her article on this topic on the Tairis website. Its well researched and well presented information helped to remind me of what I already knew, as well as giving me one or two new snippets of information. This helped me get my thoughts in order and made writing this piece much less of a chore. I highly recommend that if you find this post interesting, you follow up and read her excellent Bride and the Cailleach. I also looked at the Cailleach from the angle of my oracle work in First there is a mountain... some months ago.
With Imbolc coming, my thoughts naturally turn to Brigid, both the goddess and the Irish Saint Brigid of Kildare -- and beer!
St. Brigid is so mixed up with the goddess Brigid that trying to separate them is a bit like trying to separate conjoined twins. I'm not going to attempt surgery here. Brigid, we are taught, is associated with home and hearth, domestic agriculture - especially cattle and lambs, fire, smithing (and by association with all creativity), springtime and the turning of the seasons, and much more.
I've always loved the "lake of beer" prayer attributed to St. Brigid. It speaks of natural enjoyment of life's bounty, of the joy of good company and great hospitality. It seems to bring the gods and saints to earth in a gentle and wondrous way. So when I thought I'd look it up, once again, I was surprised to find several quite different versions floating around in cyberspace. Not really concerned with "authenticity" and lacking much in the way of citations, I'm not going to comment on which one is the "real" one. They are all real now! What fascinated me was how as I compared them, some lines could easily be different translations of the same original, but then other lines would appear in only one version. For me, they seem to have more depth and impact taken as a group. One seeming to balance what another lacks. So here they are, and if I have stepped on anyone's copyright toes, please let me know, and we'll fix that.
This first version is from Lady Gregory the Irish writer and folklorist. I don't know her source, or how much she may have embellished it. I will give the others after it, without comment, because I think it's nicer to read them without that interruption from me. Enjoy!
I would wish a great lake of ale for the King of Kings;
artist: Br. Mickey McGrath, OSFS
I would like the angels of Heaven to be among us.
Poems for the Season of Imbolc
In meditation, like many other people, I have constructed through imagination a place. In my case, I take a ritual walk to a beach where often I enter at a door, to be greeted by a mysterious and kindly nun-like figure. She guides me through a beautiful spiral building to where I have something like an apartment of rooms, where I may meditate or meet guides and Gods. I may also go outdoors into a magical world. At other times, having reached the beach, I may choose to remain out of doors where I have also had many literally wonder-full experiences.
Most of the experiences, or visions, have felt quite personal. I may have shared them with a few friends. However, very recently I had three visions which I feel compelled to share. I don't claim that they necessarily contain any great message for humanity. I don't claim anything. They are what I saw when I meditated. Are they just the product of my imagination, or something more? I leave that to the reader to decide. Maybe it's not important to answer this. However, I feel that they did not come simply from my imagination. I feel that there is more to this - but I make no claim beyond "I feel". When the great Christian mystics had their visions, they were often in the awkward position of being accused of heresy or insanity. As a Pagan, I have no pope or bishop to approach for permission to publish, no panel of inquisitors. In this day, I am more likely to be accused of the heresy of belief. Ah, well!
I was on land again with the Lady, and she showed me the beautiful woods and pastures not far inland, where black horses ran and frolicked - and she said that this was for me.
Next she showed me that my body/spirit is a shrine, and this was represented by a kind of gothic chapel. She gave me a bright candle and showed me how this one bright light is all I need to illuminate this space.
I puzzled a little about Bride, Manannán, Epona - which goddess is earth, which is sky? I don't really think that the question can be answered but I understand that Bride is pure light.
Continue to part 2...
Generally, I'd be instantly sceptical at the use of the words Celtic and shaman in the same sentence. So I forgive you if you are having the same reaction! However, here is my little story about how these prayer cards came into being.
In the spring of this year, I was feeling particularly frustrated by some aspects of my life. These aspects didn't feel easy to resolve, and at the same time I was having difficulty "accepting the things I cannot change". A perfect recipe for depression, anger, anxiety and sleepless nights. I had all of those things, and on a few occasions, the sleepless nights became real waking nightmares of anxious circular thinking where I even considered that the only way out might be to end it all. No, don't worry, I was a long way from the verge of doing so, but let's just say I can now better understand the hopelessness that can make that decision seem like the best one. That said, I was getting on with my life as best I could the rest of the time - as one does.
On a day, my friend Linda and I decided to visit our local new age fair. My intention was simply to walk around and see who/what I was drawn to. I was aware that I could use some help, and hoped I might get some. Almost immediately I did feel very drawn to a fellow offering Peruvian Shamanic work. He didn't look Peruvian, that's for sure, but there was what I can only describe as a really good vibe coming from him. I eventually headed over and had a session with him. He did some things with my chakras which made absolutely no sense to me, and also suggested that I needed to have some cords cut. Well, I had heard of chakras, and this cord cutting idea before, and he did what he did - which still didn't make a great deal of sense to me, and I didn't really "feel" anything, but I did feel a bit better, perhaps.
After we were done, he gave me a piece of paper with some prayers on it. One was a prayer for cutting cords, another a bedtime prayer. I kept the paper, but somehow, just didn't feel comfortable saying some of the words that were on it. It just wasn't me. However, I was feeling better. Afraid that I was going to slip back into my personal misery again, I decided that I would do what felt right for me, and after a couple of days, I re-wrote the prayers in a way that did feel right for me. It was an interesting process, remembering to do small things (like say these prayers) on a regular basis. I wrote a couple of pieces about this at the time, called Salmon in the Weir and Accepting the Salmon's Gift.
As it turned out, this process was the beginning of my creation of the meditation and prayer cards that I sell in the shop. Having re-written my prayers, I printed them off on the computer and glued them to some pictures I liked. Pictures which embodied the kind of natural beauty that feeds my soul and that symbolises what I am moving toward. I put these on the walls of my bedroom. The cord cutting prayer is by the mirror which I pass every time I go through the bedroom door. The bedtime prayer is above my bedside table, where I will be sure to see it as I'm getting ready for bed. My life has improved a lot, I believe, because I took the time to put those pictures on my wall. I felt inspired enough by them to put in the time (just a few minutes a day) and it has made a difference.
Ever the entrepreneur, it occurred to me that other people might like something like that. It is such a simple thing, but something beautiful, with some beautiful words to say, or (as in the meditation cards) a short, easy, thing to do, makes it so much easier to take action! I have wanted to make cards for those two original prayers for a long time. However, it didn't feel right to do that until I had talked to my shaman friend. I needed to know that he was okay with it. Well, I finally had that opportunity last month, and he was very okay with it. Yesterday, I felt inspired to get the graphic work done, and the results are what you see above. I haven't written the material for the backs, yet, or given much thought to whether I am creating another set of four cards here.
Hmmmmm... that might depend on your feedback. What would you like to see?