The Peace After the Storm – The Cailleach of Winter
by Maria Ede-Weaving
I find myself stood alone on moorland in the depths of winter. The sky is bright with countless stars and the ground glistens with frost. The air is crisp and sharp against my skin. Above me, on a rocky crag I see the glow of a fire and I instinctively walk towards its light. When I reach the summit, sat in the golden circle of fire light is a woman, her face is lined with age, her long silver hair threaded with buzzard and owl feathers. Her dark cloak is dotted with stars as mesmerising as the night sky and around her neck hang circlets of threaded bone. To her left is a staff rooted in the ground, topped with a deer skull and to her right a hunched, leafless tree, weathered and gnarled by countless storms; amongst its branches an owl nestles, its dark eyes as fathomless and watchful as the depths of space.
I know this woman…she is as ancient as time and held within her silence is the knowledge of countless ages and generations; of countless lives and deaths – she is the keeper of ancestral memories. I know this woman…Cailleach, Grandmother of stone, of mountain, cliff and cave, and rocky, windswept crag; she is my bedrock of strength and endurance. Ancient Bone Mother, she is the frame upon which our lives take shape. Rugged and timeless, her wildness inspires journeys into the remote and lonely places of our souls, for it is here that we find her, her face bright in the moonless night, her profound winter stillness our sacred song of dark wisdom. She is the starry heavens and the depths of space, the place where life returns after death, the place where all potential dwells. Spinner and weaver, she works the threads of life into complex patterns of beauty and wonder; she sings over our bones and remakes us anew; keen as beak and talon, beautiful as the arching sky that carries her feathered spirit, she is the Ancient Crone of all knowing and in the depths of winter she calls to us.
The above is a meditation I experienced just after the Winter Solstice. I had settled and made myself quiet, not expecting to have an active visualisation but this came without prompting and played out in my mind without any effort or direction on my part. As I sat before this extraordinary Goddess, she showed me a vision of myself. I was being hauled up by a rope through a narrow vertical passage of rock, rising up from deep within the earth. I looked up and the circular opening at the surface was perfectly aligned with the sun. Its light was breathtakingly golden and lit the chamber as I rose up toward it; it was a stunningly beautiful sight, both exhilarating and comforting.
Since then, this Ancient Crone Goddess has occupied my times of contemplation and meditation; she has been opening me up to the energy of the season and the beauty of winter. January can be such a difficult month. Although the light is gradually increasing, here in the Northern Hemisphere winter shows itself in earnest – it can feel very gloomy post the Christmas frenzy and the accumulative lack of sun and light can lower our spirits and leave us lethargic. However, I have felt something very different this year. I have felt incredibly settled and peaceful.
My life over the last three and a half years has been deeply challenging for many different reasons. It had begun to feel like I had taken up permanent residence in the churning cauldron of Ceridwen’s transformative energy. I was suspended in a perpetual Samhain of loss, grief and enforced release and I seemed to be fighting it all the way. Inwardly, I knew that these experiences were asking me to make some profound changes, a relentless confrontation of my shadow self that was urging me on to a more authentic and honest relationship with myself and my life. I was being simmered in the heat, my old self falling away from the bone – it was painful, took a seeming age and brought me moments of deep depression and anger.
This winter has brought a sudden and unexpected peace. It’s not like I don’t have challenging situations still to deal with, and yet something has shifted. My perpetual Samhain has lifted and in finding my own personal wheel moving round to the Winter Solstice, I have had a powerful realisation of the gifts of this season.
In my own experience, the Crone energy of Samhain is incredibly dynamic. Although the world is dying back, there is intensity in this transformation reflected in the burning colours of autumn. The energy of transition can be a massive challenge and our resistance to it can create a tension that produces its own energy. Samhain brings us to that moment of release, to the pain of loss, to the place of acceptance and letting go but the Winter Solstice and the heart of winter shows us a very different Crone energy. After the intensity of Samhain we come to the peace and stillness. Life sits and waits deep beneath the soil; this is the moment between the exhale and inhale of the year, it is that place where we are given a chance to assimilate all the powerful transformation that the deaths of Samhain have brought us. I have known this intellectually for years but this year, I have felt it in my heart and body.
This ancient Goddess of winter offers us the chance to grasp the bigger picture of our own lives; in her stillness, we can make sense of the patterns and take in the lessons at a cellular level until they are part of us. She is an Ancestral Goddess because these lessons become layered upon the experience of all our ancestors like a rich much that will fuel the future. In the cauldron, we are stripped down to the bone, the bare essentials of who we are, and the Cailleach of Winter tenderly gathers this messy bundle of bones, laying them upon the frozen earth, piece by piece, until our core shape can be seen once more. In the still, lifeless darkness, she dreams the flesh back upon our bones; her strength becomes the fabric of our sinew and as she herself transforms into the fiery Brighid of Imbolc, she will – when the time is right – light the spark of inspiration within us that reanimates our being.
We can get impatient for Imbolc in the depths of the dark and cold days, but that is missing out on a gift. This Ancient Crone teaches us the mysteries of suspension. When I think of her, my thoughts are drawn to the Hanged Man in Tarot, an archetypal experience that, on one level, can be deeply frustrating, particularly when we have the urge to move forward. However, he is often portrayed with a halo of light and a peaceful expression because he is essentially about surrendering to stillness, going inward for the purposes of Gnosis. Winter can do this for us; we can allow it to teach us to patiently wait, and in the waiting – as the dust of the year settles upon a barren earth – we can begin to truly see in a new way, from a new perspective, all that we have learnt, each lesson that has become a part of who we are. This Goddess brings us clarity – she asks that we be honest and authentic in our review of what works in our lives and what hinders but she also dwells in our envisioning; she is the flight of the mind and imagination; the architect of our future.
The Ancient Lady of winter brings us peace after the storm; still waters after the churning. Her enduring love, deep knowing and wisdom, brings us to that place of hope of joy. That place where the dark stillness explodes into star light. For we are each a burning star born in her dark and infinite womb; we are each an expression of hope and new vision born of endings and release. We are each a Solstice sun.
This winter, don’t be too hasty for spring; revel in those frosty mornings and feel her clarity in its bite. See her take shape in the fog of your breath; turn inward and find her there; know that she has the power to birth new life from death, warmth from cold. She is your faithful guide, your sacred strength and vision. From the soil of the earth and the dust of the stars she has shaped you.