In the northern hemisphere we now deepen into winter, and the deity of this transformation is a very old, magical woman.
In Irish myth she the Calleach Bheare, the witch of winter who rules from Samhain to Candlemas. She is probably the survival of the mother-goddess of great antiquity, and her attributes lend her the gravitas of time measured in eons, not lives. Her residence is Beara, the peninsula of the south-west Irish coast where Gaelic humans were believed to have first stepped ashore and bid the resident mythic tribe of the Tuatha de Danaan to retreat from the surface into the Otherworld where they now reside. Likened to the winter solstice, it’s where all things end and come into being.
As the female matrix of sovereignty and fertile power, the Winter Witch is wild as the landscape and has three personas as maiden (the bean ghlúine or midwife), matron (bean feasa or wise woman) and crone (bean chaointe or keening-woman). She was present at the creation of the world and is associated horned beasts (especially cattle) and with winter storms. Some legends have her turning to stone on Beltane (May Day) and taking human form again at Samhain. Her reign reaches its fullness on the Winter solstice, at which time she is said to visit the Well of Youth and grows younger every day until she assumes the form of the young Bridget at Candlemas.
The eight-century Irish poem “The Lament of the Hag off Bheara” places her as a lonely soul in Christendom, her glories all in the past, become a withered emptiness:
How about a winter’s tale? The Winter Witch is renowned in folklore throughout the British isles; a Scottish version is recorded in Donald Alexander McKenzie’s Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend (1917):
Beira, Queen of Winter
Dark Beira was the mother of all the gods and goddesses in Scotland. She was of great height and very old, and everyone feared her. When roused to anger she was as fierce as the biting north wind and harsh as the tempest-stricken sea. Each winter she reigned as Queen of the Four Red Divisions of the world, and none disputed her sway. But when the sweet spring season drew nigh, her subjects began to rebel against her and to long for the coming of the Summer King, Angus of the White Steed, and Bride, his beautiful queen, who were loved by all, for they were the bringers of plenty and of bright and happy days. It enraged Beira greatly to find her power passing away, and she tried her utmost to prolong the winter season by raising spring storms and sending blighting frost to kill early flowers and keep the grass from growing.
Beira lived for hundreds and hundreds of years. The reason she did not die of old age was because, at the beginning of every spring, she drank the magic waters of the Well of Youth which bubbles up in the Green Island of the West. This was a floating island where summer was the only season, and the trees were always bright with blossom and laden with fruit. It drifted about on the silver tides of the blue Atlantic, and sometimes appeared off the western coasts of Ireland and sometimes close to the Hebrides. Many bold mariners have steered their galleys up and down the ocean, searching for Green Island in vain. On a calm morning they might sail past its shores and yet never know it was near at hand, for oft-times it lay hidden in a twinkling mist. Men have caught glimpses of it from the shore, but while they gazed on its beauties with eyes of wonder, it vanished suddenly from sight by sinking beneath the waves like the setting sun. Beira, however, always knew where to find Green Island when the time came for her to visit it.
The waters of the Well of Youth are most potent when the days begin to grow longer, and most potent of all on the first of the lengthening days of spring. Beira always visited the island on the night before the first lengthening day–that is, on the last night of her reign as Queen of Winter. All alone in the darkness she sat beside the Well of Youth, waiting for the dawn. When the first faint beam of light appeared in the eastern sky, she drank the water as it bubbled fresh from a crevice in the rock. It was necessary that she should drink of this magic water before any bird visited the well and before any dog barked. If a bird drank first, or a dog barked ere she began to drink, dark old Beira would crumble into dust.
As soon as Beira tasted the magic water, in silence and alone, she began to grow young again. She left the island and, returning to Scotland, fell into a magic sleep. When, at length, she awoke, in bright sunshine, she rose up as a beautiful girl with long hair yellow as buds of broom, cheeks red as rowan berries, and blue eyes that sparkled like the summer sea in sunshine. Then she went to and fro through Scotland, clad in a robe of green and crowned with a chaplet of bright flowers of many hues. No fairer goddess was to be found in all the land, save Bride, the peerless Queen of Summer.
As each month went past, however, Beira aged quickly. She reached full womanhood in midsummer, and when autumn came on her brows wrinkled and her beauty began to fade. When the season of winter returned once again, she became an old and withered hag, and began to reign as the fierce Queen Beira.
Often on stormy nights in early winter she wandered about, singing this sorrowful song:–
O life that ebbs like the seal
I am weary and old, I am weary and old–
Oh! how can I happy be
All alone in the dark and the cold.
I’m the old Beira again,
My mantle no longer is green,
I think of my beauty with pain
And the days when another was queen.
My arms are withered and thin,
My hair once golden is grey;
’Tis winter–my reign doth begin–
Youth’s summer has faded away.
Youth’s summer and autumn have fled–
I am weary and old, I am weary and old.
Every flower must fade and fall dead
When the winds blow cold, when the winds blow cold.
The aged Beira was fearsome to look upon. She had only one eye, but the sight of it was keen and sharp as ice and as swift as the mackerel of the ocean. Her complexion was a dull, dark blue, and this is how she sang about it:–
Why is my face so dark, so dark?
So dark, oho! so dark, ohee!
Out in all weathers I wander alone
In the mire, in the cold, ah me!
Her teeth were red as rust, and her locks, which lay heavily on her shoulders, were white as an aspen covered with hoar frost. On her head she wore a spotted mutch. All her clothing was grey, and she was never seen without her great dun-coloured shawl, which was drawn closely round her shoulders.
It is told that in the days when the world was young Beira saw land where there is now water and water where there is now land.
Once a wizard spoke to her and said: “Tell me your age, O sharp old woman.”
Beira answered: “I have long ceased to count the years. But I shall tell you what I have seen. Yonder is the seal-haunted rock of Skerryvore in the midst of the sea. I remember when it was a mountain surrounded by fields. I saw the fields ploughed, and the barley that grew upon them was sharp and juicy. Yonder is a loch. I remember when it was a small round well. In these days I was a fair young girl, and now I am very old and frail and dark and miserable.”
It is told also that Beira let loose many rivers and formed many lochs, sometimes willingly and sometimes against her will, and that she also shaped many bens and glens. All the hills in Ross-shire are said to have been made by Beira.
There was once a well on Ben Cruachan, in Argyll, from which Beira drew water daily. Each morning at sunrise she lifted off the slab that covered it, and each evening at sunset she laid it above the well again. It happened that one evening she forgot to cover the well. Then the proper order of things was disturbed. As soon as the sun went down the water rose in great volume and streamed down the mountain side, roaring like a tempest-swollen sea. When day dawned, Beira found that the valley beneath was filled with water. It was in this way that Loch Awe came to be.
Beira had another well in Inverness-shire which had to be kept covered in like manner from sunset till sunrise. One of her maids, whose name was Nessa, had charge of the well. It happened that one evening the maid was late in going to the well to cover it. When she drew near she beheld the water flowing so fast from it that she turned away and. ran for her life. Beira watched her from the top of Ben Nevis, which was her mountain throne, and cried: “You have neglected your duty. Now you will run for ever and never leave water.”
The maiden was at once changed into a river, and the loch and the river which runs from it towards the sea were named after her. That is why the loch is called Loch Ness and the river the river Ness.
Once a year, when the night on which she was transformed comes round, Ness (Nessa) arises out of the river in her girl form, and sings a sad sweet song in the pale moonlight. It is said that her voice is clearer and more beautiful than that of any bird, and her music more melodious than the golden harps and silvern pipes of fairyland.
In the days when rivers broke loose and lochs were made, Beira set herself to build the mountains of Scotland. When at work she carried on her back a great creel filled with rocks and earth. Sometimes as she leapt from hill to hill her creel tilted sideways, and rocks and earth fell from it into lochs and formed islands. Many islands are spoken of as “spillings from the creel of the big old woman.”
Beira had eight hags who were her servants. They also carried creels, and one after the other they emptied out their creels until a mountain was piled up nigh to the clouds.
One of the reasons why Beira made the mountains was to use them as stepping stones; another was to provide houses for her giant sons. Many of her sons were very quarrelsome; they fought continually one against another. To punish those of them who disobeyed her, Beira shut the offenders up in mountain houses, and from these they could not escape without her permission. But this did not keep them from fighting. Every morning they climbed to the tops of their mountain houses and threw great boulders at one another. That is why so many big grey boulders now lie on steep slopes and are scattered through the valleys. Other giant sons of Beira dwelt in deep caves. Some were horned like deer, and others had many heads. So strong were they that they could pick up cattle and, throwing them over their shoulders, carry them away to roast them for their meals. Each giant son of Beira was called a Fooar.
It was Beira who built Ben Wyvis. She found it a hard task, for she had to do all the work alone, her hag servants being busy elsewhere. One day, when she had grown very weary, she stumbled and upset her creel. All the rocks and earth it contained fell out in a heap, and formed the mountain which is called Little Wyvis.
The only tool that Beira used was a magic hammer. When she struck it lightly on the ground the soil became as hard as iron; when she struck it heavily on the ground a valley was formed. After she had built up a mountain, she gave it its special form by splintering the rocks with her hammer. If she had made all the hills of the same shape, she would not have been able to recognize one from another.
After the mountains were all formed, Beira took great delight in wandering between them and over them. She was always followed by wild animals. The foxes barked with delight when they beheld her, wolves howled to greet her, and eagles shrieked with joy in mid-air. Beira had great herds and flocks to which she gave her protection-nimble-footed deer, high-horned cattle, shaggy grey goats, black swine, and sheep that had snow-white fleeces. She charmed her deer against the huntsmen, and when she visited a deer forest she helped them to escape from the hunters. During early winter she milked the hinds on the tops of mountains, but when the winds rose so high that the froth was blown from the milking pails, she drove the hinds down to the valleys. The froth was frozen on the crests of high hills, and lay there snow-white and beautiful. When the winter torrents began to pour down the mountain sides, leaping from ledge to ledge, the people said: “Beira is milking her shaggy goats, and streams of milk are pouring down over high rocks.”
Beira washed her great shawl in the sea, for there was no lake big enough for the purpose. The part she chose for her washing is the strait between the western islands of Jura and Scarba. Beira’s “washing-pot” is the whirlpool, there called Corry-vreckan. It was so named because the son of a Scottish king, named Breckan, was drowned in it, his boat having been upset by the waves raised by Beira.
Three days before the Queen of Winter began her work her hag servants made ready the water for her, and the Corry could then be heard snorting and fuming for twenty miles around. On the fourth day Beira threw her shawl into the whirlpool, and tramped it with her feet until the edge of the Corry overflowed with foam. When she had finished her washing she laid her shawl on the mountains to dry, and as soon as she lifted it up, all the mountains of Scotland were white with snow to signify that the great Queen had begun her reign.
Now, the meaning of this story is that Beira is the spirit of winter. She grows older and fiercer as the weeks go past, until at length her strength is spent. Then she renews her youth, so that she may live through the summer and autumn and begin to reign once again. The ancient people of Scotland saw that during early winter torrents poured down from the hills, and in this Beira fable they expressed their belief that the torrents were let loose by the Winter Queen, and that the lochs were, at the beginning, formed by the torrents that sprang from magic wells. They saw great boulders lying on hillsides and in valleys, and accounted for their presence in these places by telling how they were flung from mountain tops by the giant sons of Beira.
In the next chapter the story will be told of the coming of Angus and Bride, the King and Queen of Summer and Plenty, and of the stormy conflictswa ged during the closing weeks of winter and the early weeks of spring between Beira and Angus-the-Ever-Young, who comes from the fabled Green Isle of the West-the land of eternal summer and perpetual youth.
There is much we can make of this boreal queen as the year deepens down to its nadir. (To our friends in the Southern Hemisphere, you may need to lend your imaginative eye to a fullness six months from now or past; as I do here in Florida, where unseasonable heat even for the subtropics lingers on.) Our spiritual landscapes (figurative and real) were shaped by her. The wild is her element, bull and doe are her kin. Bitter, cold and windy nights invoked by her are holy maces of awe. On the darkest night of our souls, she is with us, pointing us toward regeneration. Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty writes in Other People’s Myths: The Cave of Echoes,
The private mythic moment is crowded by ghosts whom we cannot identify consciously, but whose multiplicity we are aware of. We know that what is happening to us has happened to them, because we have heard stories about them, and so they are present with us when those things happen again to us. If there is some piece of sad news that our children have to hear in real life, news of a death or a loss, we try to let them heart it from someone we know and trust — an aunt who was with us when we first learned about death ourselves, or a teacher or a wise friend. This is what great myths are — the stories that people all over the world have come to trust with their darkest and most troubling insights.
Much of the Cailleach — like her primal Mother — has been lost or appropriated to grant sovereignty to fool kings. We build machines defiant of her power, mechanical warm wombs for staying out of reach of her education. Gearóid Ō Crualaoich writes in The Book of the Calleach: Stories of the Wise-Woman Healer,
On the learned level of medieval Irish literary tradition the figure of the mother-goddess is both buried underground and transformed into that of a territorial sovereignty queen whose autonomy and independent authority is diminished and exploited in the politico-literary propaganda of patrilineal dynasties competing for political hegemony. At the popular “folk” level, however, the figure of the divine female agency, the mother-goddess of landscape, retains her autonomy and majestic authority in the local lore of place and thereby constitutes a traditional cultural resource contributing richly to the creativity of the popular imagination. All over the Gaelic world in Ireland and Scotland, down to the present age, traditions of the calleach, the supernatural female elder, are found attached to natural features of the physical landscape — mountains, lakes, rivers, tumuli, caves whose shape she has moulded and whose location she has fixed — and feature also in the abundant stories of supernatural encounter between humans and the native otherworld within that sacred feminine landscape. (28-9)
For this week’s challenge, write of the Witch of Winter. She has many hames and bears a font of poetry. She could be the voice of geologic time; the impression of antiquity in the landscape; or the presence and prescience of winter weather. What turns in these darkest days of the year, how or where does She walk in these end of year moments? How or where do you experience the otherworld in your landscape? And what boon can She still offer to a hot and hotter world?
Walk us into the primal heart of bitter cold — join us in this winter carol!
THE COLD EARTH SLEPT BELOW
Percy Bysshe Shelley
The cold earth slept below;
Above the cold sky shone;
And all around,
With a chilling sound,
From caves of ice and fields of snow
The breath of night like death did flow
Beneath the sinking moon.
The wintry hedge was black;
The green grass was not seen;
The birds did rest
On the bare thorn’s breast,
Whose roots, beside the pathway track,
Had bound their folds o’er many a crack
Which the frost had made between.
Thine eyes glow’d in the glare
Of the moon’s dying light;
As a fen-fire’s beam
On a sluggish stream
Gleams dimly—so the moon shone there,
And it yellow’d the strings of thy tangled hair,
That shook in the wind of night.
The moon made thy lips pale, beloved;
The wind made thy bosom chill;
The night did shed
On thy dear head
Its frozen dew, and thou didst lie
Where the bitter breath of the naked sky
Might visit thee at will.
THE CAILLEACH TO THE OLD WIDOW
The Universe said to me,
Old woman I have learned
a few good things,
that when one part dies
in me another comes
tearing through the darkness
like a star, sudden
and tender and painful
as hell. Each time
I have sat at the centre
of the world to see it,
each time I have crawled
the dark of my own belly
to not see, the shape
of the great light coming
and the dying one,
washed in such kindness
rising steadily towards it
— from Cailleach: The Hag of Bheara (2009)
WINTER LANDSCAPE, WITH ROOKS
Water in the millrace, through a sluice of stone,
plunges headlong into that black pond
where, absurd and out-of-season, a single swan
floats chaste as snow, taunting the clouded mind
which hungers to haul the white reflection down.
The austere sun descends above the fen,
an orange cyclops-eye, scorning to look
longer on this landscape of chagrin;
feathered dark in thought, I stalk like a rook,
brooding as the winter night comes on.
Last summer’s reeds are all engraved in ice
as is your image in my eye; dry frost
glazes the window of my hurt; what solace
can be struck from rock to make heart’s waste
grow green again? Who’d walk in this bleak place?
TO JUAN AT THE WINTER SOLSTICE
There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.
Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
Or strange beasts that beset you,
Of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
Below the Boreal Crown,
Prison to all true kings that ever reigned?
Water to water, ark again to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall.
Or is it of the Virgin’s silver beauty,
All fish below the thighs?
She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
When, with her right hand she crooks a finger, smiling,
How many the King hold back?
Royally then he barters life for love.
Or of the undying snake from chaos hatched,
Whose coils contain the ocean,
Into whose chops with naked sword he springs,
Then in black water, tangled by the reeds,
Battles three days and nights,
To be spewed up beside her scalloped shore?
Much snow is falling, winds roar hollowly,
The owl hoots from the elder,
Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses:
There is one story and one story only.
Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
Do not forget what flowers
The great boar trampled down in ivy time.
Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
Her sea-blue eyes were wild
But nothing promised that is not performed.
—from Collected Poems (1955)
These are outsiders, always. These stars—
these iron inklings of an Irish January,
whose light happened
thousands of years before
our pain did; they are, they have always been
They keep their distance. Under them remains
a place where you found
you were human, and
a landscape in which you know you are mortal.
And a time to choose between them.
I have chosen:
out of myth in history I move to be
part of that ordeal
who darkness is
only now reaching me from those fields,
those rivers, those roads clotted as
firmaments with the dead.
How slowly they die
as we kneel beside them, whisper in their ear.
And we are too late. We are always too late.
I went out at night alone;
The young blood flowing beyond the sea
Seemed to have drenched my spirit’s wings—
I bore my sorrow heavily.
But when I lifted up my head
From shadows shaken on the snow,
I saw Orion in the east
Burn steadily as long ago.
From windows in my father’s house,
Dreaming my dreams on winter nights,
I watched Orion as a girl
Above another city’s lights.
Years go, dreams go, and youth goes too,
The world’s heart breaks beneath its wars,
All things are changed, save in the east
The faithful beauty of the stars.
— from Flame and Shadow (1920)
BURNING THE OLD YEAR
Naomi Shihab Nye
Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.
So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.
Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.
Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.
— from Words Under Words: Selected Poems (1995)
THE CAILLEACH IN HER WINTER CAVE
Deep in her winter cave
the Cailleach sits and croons.
She keeps with her a dog
whose coat is black at pitch.
She keeps the dog to have
company. But she has
with her a silver wolf
to keep strangers at bay.
Deep in her winter cave
the crone has her own light.
It is not a lantern.
Her right palm is alight.
She tosses that fire
like she would her dog’s ball.
She plays with it and it’s
not for warmth or cooking pot.
She has other needs. Look!
She watches it play out
bouncing on the walls like
a metronome for tunes.
She croons to the shadows.
She croons to winter cold.
She croons to her wolf pal.
She croons to her black dog.
She holds a tinderbox
in her other palm. It will
never scorch or cinder burn.
She keeps the need fire.
Deep in her winter cave
the Cailleach plays the light
and no matter how small
it shines on winter nights.