In the Celtic pantheon, the cailleach (Gaelic for hag or crone) is the darker counterpart to the Beltane goddess, Brighid. As the summer fades into fall, so too the goddess ages. She can be seen in leaves changing from green to gold, seed heads bowing down, and crops being brought in for winter storage. As we know, this seasonal death is also the beginning of a new season that we welcome with harvest celebrations. Some accounts call her The Queen of Winter, some paint her face blue, some say she renews herself each spring, others say every hundred years. Some say her staff freezes the ground, and she created the mountains by dropping stones from her apron. As a woman and a lover of myth and story, I find profound medicine in the cyclical rhythm of the goddess who waxes and wanes with the seasons. The account of the cailleach is slightly different depending on the region, but the underlying thread is that there is enchanting beauty in all stages of life, whether it be in light, shadow, or somewhere in between.
I first learned of the cailleach while reading Sharon Blackie’s If Women Rose Rooted this past summer (required reading for all women wanting to reclaim their power!). More recently, I found myself immersed in cailleach lore while I was researching the origins of the corn dolly. Traditionally, small fetishes were fashioned out of the last bits of the crops to give the spirit of the cailleach somewhere to live until next spring when she’d be plowed back into the Earth while sowing new seed. I had the privilege of writing a guest blog over at Nitty Gritty Life where I wrote more about the origins of the corn dolly and how to make one (with photos!). Please enjoy this poem that came to me (while standing at a very loud concert, no less!), and forgive the artistic license that I’ve taken in weaving threads from several of the stories into one piece.
As night and day are equals made
Balanced on the edge of blade,
Corn mother waits her sure demise
With each fell swoop of cottar’s scythe.
“I know my fate,” corn mother croaks
As she dons her funeral cloak.
A willing part she always plays
In the waning of the days.
She smells of leaves grown tired and crisp
And courts the baneful will o’wisp.
She girds herself in red and gold,
This Beltane maiden, now grown old.
The sun is setting on her time,
For she’s no longer in her prime.
Her sap begins its downward draw
As crows commence their morning caw.
The Cailleach soon resumes her reign
From frosty mountain tops again.
The shocks of corn are stacked to dry
As well the wheat, barley, and rye.
But before the field is barren laid
And summer’s debt is fully paid,
Give her spirit shape and form
And keep her where it’s safe and warm.
While you partake of all the reaping,
Remember she is only sleeping.
At Imbolc she will wake and quicken
And you’ll not be so winter-stricken.
words by Ruthie Kølle Hayes, Mabon 2017
I’ve included one of these corn dollies and her story in each of my Mabon Gathering Boxes along with 4 handmade remedies full of herbs to help you honor the transition of seasons.