“Long ago, four men went digging one night for gold that lay hidden at Labbacallee. Soon after they began to dig, a strange cat, with fire erupting from its tail, appeared to the men. Dazzled by the light, they ran in terror through the darkness till they fell into the nearby River Funshion. Although one man died in the dark river, three of the would-be gold-diggers survived to tell their cautionary tale and neither the gold nor the cat were ever seen again.”Story on the Labacallee Sign
Being a Druid I naturally took an interest in philosophy, and was drawn to the Stoic philosophers for a while. Stoic philosophy states that to live a good life, one must understand the rules of the natural order, as everything is rooted in nature. One of the better-known Stoic philosophers, a guy called Seneca the Younger said “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” That phrase has been going around in my head as we approach Samhain. The last two months have been the most challenging of my life – my beloved mother passed, and my beautiful daughter was snatched from the jaws of death. Without wringing out detail, suffice to say, I find myself on the fulcrum of generations, reverberating from the Richter scale shocks that all of that entailed.
It’s my time to honour the Goddess of Winter. Autumn has left by stealth and the nights are creeping in, the veil between worlds thins. We invented Halloween and there be times when the liminality of it scares me, how we must bow to the might of nature, hunker down for the winter, and hope the Cailleach allows us to survive to spring. She holds authority over all that is decaying and dying, the cycle of life – death and rebirth.
I’m not easily intimidated but I’ve had just cause, I can’t help but feel that something was coming for me. Some scythe of sorts has sliced through my life. The ancient people in my culture, divided the year into two portions one associated with the dark and the other the light.
The Hag being the daughter of the sun, grows younger, more powerful, and more beautiful in the hibernal season. This is the time that her powers are at their most potent. Recent events have challenged me beyond measure, but these are the times that I find myself in and it is to her that I must go for strength.
The Hag is said to have lived seven lifetimes before being turned to stone and many Irish megaliths were formed from the stones she dropped to earth from her apron as she flew by. Her staff (a slachdán-wand of power) causes the ground to freeze and when she washes her cloak storms rise. She turns from stone back into human form on November 1st, she is not one to be messed with and I may tread carefully.
The Cailleach is held both in reverence and in fear and rightly so, and I can attest to that, recent events aside. I was too raw for ritual, but I had to pay her homage in some way. So, I gathered in some apples from my orchard and a dropeen of the good stuff and took myself off to Labbacalle, a 4,500-year-old wedge tomb near Glanworth in Co. Cork, Ireland. Translated as the Hag’s Bed, this tomb is one of many associated with her. She is the daughter of the sun, gaining her life force from the darkest time of year.
Clouds hung low in a foreboding sky and rain spat in torrents as I journeyed. The clouds parted, and the sun splayed shadows on glistening grass when I arrived, and I took all of that as a good sign. Her bed is an impressive monument. I sat with her awhile, on a dry warm stone, feeling welcome and strangely calm. It was like a refuge, a haven from the madness of recent times. This woman of mystery is honoured so much she wears a veil; and I too wore a cawl out of respect. It is said that she takes on many guises, and often those of the birds and the beasts of her native land.
So, what did I think of when I communed with the Winter Goddess? “Where do you go to my lovely when you are alone in your head?” I hear you ask. My first thought was how close to the road this monument is, surely some of it was tampered with when the road was built. I researched the OSI map viewer to see if the 1836 maps could offer me any insights and they just added to the enigma. I’m not an archaeologist but I do know a fair bit about megalithic structures. Wedge tombs are something of an anomaly of tomb design because they tend to be monuments specific to one significant person. I’ve seen enough wedge tombs in my time to know this one is a whopper. Knowing it’s a woman’s tomb when history mostly records male monuments excited me.
When I visit such monuments, I go with an open mind and let them speak to me innately rather than researching them beforehand. The wedge tomb is an exclusively Irish phenomenon and this tomb reminded me of one I’d seen in Locmariaquer in Brittany, France. Both tombs have wan outlier type standing stone, but that is where the comparison ends, though there must be links between French gallery tombs and Irish wedge tombs. Then I was struck by the vein of quartz through the standing stone, and I reflected on how quartz must be a feature of Irish megaliths.
The other thing that stood out for me was how the monument seems to emulate the landscape of the hills beyond as it tapers from entrance to end and again this is a feature that I often see. All of this is utterly fascinating as it shows me that the ancients had a logic and a philosophy to their tomb building, and I find this is all very intriguing.
I thought about how the weather had cleared and how welcome the site felt and how the sun lighted and warmed me on this late October day. I thought about how the eastern end of the tomb has a most unusual design feature and about the people who mulled over the architecture. There are two chambers that I could make out and all the stones in the structure are massive and imposing. This monument was designed to stand apart, to make a statement, whoever was interred here was important.
Then I got to thinking about “Calle” and who she was and how on excavation they must have disturbed her remains. I wondered where those are now, in some vault in a museum no doubt and is this not an act of desecration and sacrilege? And I wondered if I should protest, but knew somehow that the Cailleach transcended all of that. I thought too of mothers and daughters and of the place that was mine in the middle of the continuum, at once daughter and mother. I had moved up a notch and was now simply mother and was thus confronted with my own place as future ancestor. There is a responsibility in that, a duty to my legacy, to future generations or at least the Mitochondrial Eve DNA. In a time when so much is churning and changing, I was glad of the opportunity to be reflective.
In my reflections I thought of the wonder of friends and of the people who carried me through the trials and the tribulations. I thought of all the ones who lit candles and did vigils and water ceremonies. I thought of the people who held me in circles and willed me well. I thought of the many cards and flowers and food left at my door and the texts and emails of hope and encouragement. I thought of the hugs and the squeezes in a time of Covid and of those who dared to, bless each and every one. I thought of the strength I had to find in me and of how I must curl in on myself now for a while until renewal comes. And I felt so grateful to be so loved.
I wondered about fear and dread and what you do with it and where do you put sadness when it is set to consume you. I thought about trust and how you must suspend yourself from the undefinable and hope that it bears the weight of you, and that if it doesn’t and you come crashing down again, that there will be a soft place to land. All I can do is find a place to gather myself, plant my feet firmly on the ground and assume it holds me up, and of how I must put one foot in front of the other and begin again.
Hope is something I can do in abundance, as I said to one doctor, ‘I will do the hope, you do the doctoring.’ As I drove away, I observed a stately heron rise from the river nearby, flying with an eel in its beak and I was stunned by that, reminded again of the power of this ancient woman. I left in peace, as in peace I had begun. I hope I brought her good dreams before she finally woke from her summer hibernation and left her an apple and whiskey for breakfast.
‘As the golden green fern
Curls in on itself
So too must I…
And stand as a sentry would,
With stalk supported fronds,
In my sacred space.’
1. Hull, Eleanor. “Legends and Traditions of the Cailleach Bheara or Old Woman (Hag) of Beare”. Folklore, Volume 38, No. 3, September 30, 1927. pp. 225-254
2. Mackenzie, Donald Alexander (1917). “Beira, Queen of Winter” in Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend”.
3. MacKillop, James (1998) Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-280120-1 p. 45.
4. Monaghan, Patricia (2004) The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog: The Landscape of Celtic Myth and Spirit. New World Library. ISBN 1-57731-458-1
5. Ó Crualaoich, Gearóid (2006). The Book of the Cailleach: Stories of the Wise-Woman Healer. Cork University Press. ISBN 1-85918-372-7.
6. Ross, Anne (1973, reprint 2004) “The divine hag of the pagan Celts” in The Witch Figure: Folklore Essays by a Group of Scholars in England Honoring the 75th Birthday of Katharine M. Briggs. ed. by Venetia Newall. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul. ISBN 0-415-33074-2.
7. Zucchelli, Christine. Sacred Stones of Ireland. Cork: Collins Press, 2016. ISBN 978-1-8488-9276-7