No I am not going there. So far in this examination of the iconic feminine we have looked at the similarities of two very different women and about an iconic doll that shaped the play of girls since the mid-20th Century. It is time to delve into the cultural mythic icon. Cailleach is the Celtic Crone and she can create fear or at minimally a great deal of anxiety for contemporary folks.
Culture pretends to love the grandmother but these are individuals grandmothers we love, the aggregate of grandmothers is frightening to contemporary society. We call the generic old woman a crone, a hag, or a witch. The frightening old lady who lives near of woods and marshes just beyond the civilized edge of the village is everything that the predominantly patriarchal culture fears:
- a woman who can live on her own
- in the wild
- with knowledge of herbs and women’s wisdom
- that can influence life and death
- and women’s secret processes
- and who assist young women, birthing women, and mothers
- apart from the male controlled aspects of the village
and women sometimes join in this suspicion of the old wise woman
- as knowledge one does not have can seem strange
- the winter, or the last quarter of a long life is a distant and foreign country
- women often are afraid of losing the appeal of their good looks and fertility
The fear of aging is endemic in western culture. Appearance is valued over experience. And I have to admit I do not care for the word crone. Being very much a product of my culture I do not care for anything that conjures up the word hag. Though I embrace my age, the stereotype can make me crazy.
We need a positive word for women of age, for mature women. I love the concepts of mystery and an all-knowing vantage over life of the wise woman.
Cailleach is powerful and can bring winter, the respite of from farming and harvest, some say she grows younger as approaches, aging backwards in recognition of the cycle of life, death and rebirth that the wise recognize as an immutable truth beyond mortal life.
Celtic lands still have signs of an ancient Cailleach though they vary from rural Scotland where a still tended shrine to the goddess Cailleach exists, to the far Irish Coast where Cailleach Beara is a remembered as a Winter Goddess.
Cailleach may trace back to an Ice Age migration from the Iberian Peninsula. Ancient historians Herodotus and Pliny mentioned that Callaeci or followers of the Cailleach resided in Iberia. Other early Irish religious sources mention a Spanish origin for populations in the British and Irish Isles.
The stories of Cailleach do seem to be distinct from the pantheon of other Gods and Goddesses, and are probably older as her stories cover the entirety of the British Isles while other deities correlate with specific migrations of later times.
Sorita d’Este & David Rankine
2008 Visions of the Cailleach: exploring the myths, folklore and legends of the pre-eminent Celtic hag goddess. London: BM Avalonia.