For Linda Nenno, Beth Phillips, Ed Wood
Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash
A friend sent an email asking what did I know about Crones. She wanted the information to celebrate an upcoming birthday. I sent her a conglomerate of major Crone figures from around the world. She was tying Crone to being an older woman, which is accurate. However, generalizations need to be poked a little. Seventies, even eighties, for our modern era may be a bit young. Not all women become Crones. Some very young women carry Crone energy.
Choosing All Hallows for this topic seemed obvious to me because witches can be Crones, but not all Crones are witches. Some Crones are Hags, some Elders, some Saints. Some are Grandmothers.
Reflecting on my friend’s request helped me realize I’ve experienced a series of encounters with the Cailleach. This wonderful word in Scottish and Irish Gaelic means “old woman” or “hag.” An older meaning was “veiled one.” One result of my encounters is that I now recognize and honor this archetypal energy. I hope the stories here will help you to do so also.
Hill of the Cailleach — Ireland
During one visit to Ireland with a dozen person tour group I visited the Hill of the Cailleach. We were given classic instructions:
“Along that road is a house with a blue door. Turn left there, and three houses to the right is the house of the person who keeps the key for the locked gate.” We drove by a house with a blue door and turned left. Immediately there was another house with a blue door, and a left turn. We decided to ignore it and counted three houses on the right. No one was home.
We found a neighbor who said the key was hanging near the door, unless someone had already come for it and was on the hill. We went back to the house. There was a hook but no key.
We drove to the site, and sure enough there was a group on the hill. Our guides were given the key by their guide, with our promise to hang it back on the door.
At the top of the hill the key was needed to open an iron gate to the interior of a dolmen like structure, smaller than the one in the picture. It is the entrance to a descent. We each would slide down into a small pocket in the ground and have time there alone. Everyone else would wander the hillside—covered with white stones both scattered and some in unclear formations. We each had a flashlight but were instructed to use it sparingly. We’d been told to bring very small but important gifts and I had some things for that purpose in my pockets.
Sliding down, my feet landed on a floor of solid stone, slightly uneven. There was the smell of damp earth and stone, but no mold. It felt old, as old as the stone. I turned on my flashlight briefly to see there were three shallow alcoves—left, right, and straight ahead. They were natural, not carved out of the stone. I clicked off the light, waited, and in the darkness I chose left, and stepped into that alcove, my left hand resting on cold stone.
The energy was ancient, fierce, observant and contained. It had a razor edge clarity. Waiting. I felt the wall ahead of me with my hands, and discovered an edge of rock split away from the wall, with a pocket behind it. I took two small jewelry piece from my pockets, one that belonged to my grandmother and the other to my husband’s mother, both of whom had passed on. I gave thanks for their lives, for the gifts they instilled in us, and wished them blessings as I dropped the objects behind the split rock. They clinked on metal so others had made the same choice. A low voice I heard in my heart said “You are no Crone yet, my dearie.” It was kindly stated, firm but not judgmental. And then her promise: “But you will be.”
Photo by Emilia Willberg on Unsplash
That Cailleach energy was familiar to me. I’d felt something akin to it at various other times in my life, and since the trip to Ireland. The Crone energy is an archetype, present in all of us unconsciously. Once activated by some encounter of connection, we become aware of the archetype (hopefully), and learn to work with that energy in us. Here are some of my encounters.
When we visited a temple dedicated to Kali, a Hindu goddess of India and Southeast Asia, I was expecting a fierce archetype because of her role as destroyer, a dark mother often represented wearing a necklace of skulls. We might think of her as an autumn Arctic wind, coming to frost the trees and kill any remaining tender plants. The energy was fierce, yet the temple full of shafts of light. People walked with a lightness of step, often smiling as they gave their reverence. No one was scared of being there. Why not? Because what this Cailleach destroys is Evil. She is a protector energy, and her gift is freedom.
I learned a Kali chant that I use when I knead our bread, three times for each baking. Its rhythm is perfect for the task. I’m destroying the individual elements (flour, yeast, water, etc.) and forming a new entity that will rise, and then be devoured. I learned this upbeat chant orally and have never seen it written, so forgive my phonetic spelling, helped out a little by the internet. I was taught this primitive translation at the same time. If anyone can give us better words and translation, please put it in the comments.
|Om, Mata, Sri Mata
Om Sri Mata, Dur-ga-ma -ha
Jiah Duragay, Jiah Duragay,
Duragay, Duragay, Shiva, Shiva
Om Sri Mata, Sri Mata
Om Sri Mata, Dur-ga-ma-ha (repeat)
|Om, Mother, Holy Mother
Om, Holy Mother, (her other name) Durga
(Shiva comes in as consort)
Om Holy Mother, Holy Mother
Om Holy Mother, Durga
This Cailleach is the great Russian witch, responsible for transformation if you can survive her tests. If not, you get eaten and your skull gets hung on the porch of her chicken-leg house which turns with the sun. I’ve worked a lot with stories about her, and one result is my play, Waiting for Baba Yaga. This Cinderella-type story has a heroine tested by the witch, which she manages to pass by doing and learning. Baba Yaga then gives gifts to take back to transform the unsatisfactory situation she left.
Several years ago at the Great Mother and New Father Conference over eight days Martin Shaw told his version of the early 13th century medieval chivalric romance by the poet and knight Wolfram von Eschenbach titled Parzival. It is a vast story about the Grail, and second chances.
Shaw asked the small groups and some individuals to dramatize moments in the story. He asked two of us older women to prepare Cundrie, one of the amazing figures in this complex Hero’s Journey. We used the description of her and built a mask that one of us would wear at one of the two times Cundrie entered the story and we portrayed her.
Cundrie appears first in Book VI of the poem, in a section titled Cundrie La Surziere. She is a Messenger of the Grail. The description is lengthy; here are the high points:
- A maid, praised for her truth-telling
- Appeared part-crazed and brought painful news
- Rides a fine-gaited dun-coloured mule
- She appeared no lady
- A woman of talent: all languages she spoke: Latin, French, Arabic
- Well-versed in dialectic and geometry, astronomy…
- Blue Ghent woven fabric cloak (cut in the French fashion)
- Good brocade next to her body
- Hat from London lined with cloth of gold, has a peacock feather
- Long, black, coarse hair fell from the hat to the mule, as soft as boar’s bristles
- A pair of long tusks rose from her jaw
- Nose like a dog, ears like a bear
- Her face not such as fuels affairs
Cundrie rides through the hall and the whole court including Parzival straight up to King Arthur, Queen Guinevere. She berates the King and Parzival, telling his story of betraying the Grail King. Parzival is shamed and leaves the court. He will wander into his second chance to save the Grail King, whose sister was his mother. When he does, Cundrie returns to court and names Parzival and his wife as Keepers of the Grail, and their names are placed on the vessel.
Making the mask took a week of afternoons. Her eyebrows were pieces of bark, the curved tusks shaped out of the paper maché mask material. We attached a real peacock feather rising above the mask. It fell to me to do both performances, and the mask traveled home to my house and hung on the wall by other masks. I burned it ceremonially when we left that house.
The mask is not hanging on my wall, but the Cailleach energy of the truth-teller is now a member of the awakened archetypes in my psyche. (Remember that we hold all the archetypes, but they have to be activated: take heed what you watch.) It takes work to integrate her fierceness and not speak harshly when power is abused or lies are told. I remind myself always that her goal as Messenger is to serve the Grail King.
La Llorona – A Visitation in the Night by Edward W. Wood, Jr.
Our last Cailleach Ed Wood tells you about in the August 1, 2023 Parabola. (Thank you to his widow for permission.) Here is the link to the story in the magazine: https://parabola.org/2023/08/01/la-llorona/. In this short but fascinating read he tells how he encountered this energy in 1988 and how the experience transformed his life.
Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash
What are Attributes I Associate with the Cailleach Archetype?
These are my choices based on the experiences I’ve described (and Ed Wood’s). I recognize the Cailleach energy in me when one shows up in me in a given situation.
From her experienced perspective of time and circumstance, and the fact that she’s “seen all this before”, she finds multiple opportunities to be amused by the follies and foibles of human beings. For me, I would like to have a twinkle in my eye like I see in saints like Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.
Attribute: Clarity (Intent, Focus, Action)
Because of her experienced perspective, she knows what is happening, what the intent needs to be, the focus of energy, the actions that need to be taken in the situation. When she shows up in stories with advice and is ignored the elder brother/sister gets turned into stone or stuck in the pigsty. For me when I have this clarity and am not heard or my ideas are not respected I get sharper and less friendly.
Having done so much for so long she can do what needs to be done extremely well. Competence is created by awareness and practice.
She understands that the leaves fall, composting the earth. The old understanding, way of being, old habits and attitudes, must die to make room for what is being born. For me, as a gardener, I understand composting. Personally, I try not to resist entering the cocoon and trust the new self will emerge from the goo of my old self.
Attribute: Difficult to Locate
She has a lot to do, or she only does what truly interests her. She finds the seeker, not the other way around. Whether she will engage depends on the quality of the person seeking her; persistence is a human attribute she will honor. The older I get, the more I find retreat a necessity. I limit my time with emails/phone calls; and instead set up times to meet. I don’t trust the energy of the News Feed so skim headlines and try not to click on bait.
There is zero tolerance for certain behaviors. For me, continued whining calls in the fierce energy, and I’ll snap “So what are you going to do about it?” Your experiences may be different, and you would name different attributes. It would be a delight to hear about them in the comments. Thanks to those of you who do comment—it benefits us all.
Ideas for All Hallows to Celebrate the Cailleach
- On All Hallow’s Eve wear scary clothes, maybe a necklace of skulls, for your costume
- Gather a group and read/act out my Baba Yaga play
- Serve traditional Halloween food: apples, pumpkins, corn, sweets
- Tell Ed Wood’s story of his encounter with La Llorona
On these Holy Days:
- On All Hallows’ Eve this year celebrate the Cailleach archetype
- On All Soul’s Day name those who have died this year, and what was that will be no more
- On All Saint’s Day reflect on the lives of those who gave much to create the future, and give thanks for those whose presence helped the world to be healthier and us to be wiser and braver
This turning of the Celtic year marks the beginning of my third year of writing for this blog. Here are my three previous posts on All Hallows.
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