The Old Hag of Winter danced with the Wild Spring Maiden in the great turning of the year on Saturday as a group of 22 women gathered to honour the first signs of life emerging from the earth. We began with an evocation of the festival of Brigid and Candlemas, then a moment of silence followed by our first rich Wisdom Pot of the day – the cauldron was bubbling with poetry, passion, questions, fury, gratitude, musings and memories…..
The altar was crowned with a wishing well and surrounded by a grove of snowdrops and we remembered from Circle Group’s last cycle of plant wisdom, the snowdrop, which emerges from the frozen earth not because it it searching for the light, but because it has spent enough time in the dark and it’s growth is triggered. The theme of spending enough time in the dark was a potent one for many women.
Another fascinating fact about snowdrops is that, being the earliest of flowers and lacking insects and birds to spread their seeds, they produce a sticky sweet substance around the seeds, called ant bread in Dutch, which the ants love to feed to their larvae. Having dragged the seeds to their homes and eaten the ant bread, they dispose of the seeds in their compost heaps which make rich soil in which the new snowdrop can grow. This spirit of co-operation and entanglement within nature between different species is important to balance out the story of competitiveness and greed which is often painted.
There were several women at the Gathering for the first time, who were warmly welcomed into the circle and many familiar faces, too. We got to know each other a bit more over tea break and then settled down for the story of Bride and the Cailleach, told by Sam and Sue as a trance telling with marvellous music from Laura Salmon woven in, and stirring drum rhythms from Beth Thomas. Presiding over the myth were the giant puppets of Brigid and the Cailleach, made for the last two Wood Sisters Winter Festivals at Imbolc.
The story takes its inspiration from Caitlin Matthew’s reweaving of snippets of ancient oral wisdom into “The Cailleach of the Snows” and is a story of the great cycles of time: the seasons, the epochs and individual lives. It is a tale of how Winter gives way to Spring in the great dance of the Mill Dust; it takes us back to creation, to the beginning of all things and and the layers upon layers of history below our feet and it is also a folk memory, an oral history, perhaps, of how we came through the last ice age. Setting out on the bird paths, following the call of the north, we took a spirit journey to the land of glens and lochs on the wings of our wild souls.
Out of the story, we each took quiet time as we wanted it: in nature, stretched out on sheepskins, journalling, drawing or simply sitting with a cup of tea and then we came together to share what had come out of this ancient myth for each of us. Many women were touched by the image of the Cailleach, as the old Hag of Winter, knowing that her time in the cycle is coming to end and lying her old bones down to rest whilst Brigid’s time on the wheel of the seasons arrives.
At lunch, we feasted on all the colourful, delicious bring and share offerings and moved into our crafts: making Bridie Dolls and weaving marsh reeds into Bride’s crosses – the starry wheel – symbolic of the returning sun, that Bride herself wove to place over the well of life.
After a reviving cuppa, we headed out into the sun and wind, in a procession led by Bride and the Cailleach, musicians playing as we burned the dry greenery of winter – old Christmas trees and bay used for our own Solstice spiral – in a wild, sparkly bonfire that flamed and danced with us. We each threw away with the dead branches all that we wanted to let go of from the winter and the past, and made wishes with handfuls of flour that exploded in the flames.
Coming back in from this elemental fire ceremony, we sat quietly in meditation, called by Abigail’s lyrical harp music, grounding ourselves on the earth, contacting our breath and allowing the waters of life to renew us and fill our hearts. Finally, each woman had the chance to drop three jewels into the well, with a hope, intention or wish – one for ourselves, one for someone else and one for the world. Some spoke these aloud, others made silent ceremony. More poems and songs were shared and we closed with a simple chant.
At the end of the day, there was a sense of being renewed, connected, supported, and met as we each walk our path around the turning circle of the year. These gathering days are a moment to honour change and to rest quietly at the still centre of everything.
And here is Isabel’s poem for Imbolc:
The Dance of the Mill Dust: Imbolc
When the bright white light of the returning sun shines through my window panes,
When the storms of winter are smears illuminated on my window panes,
And the dust motes dance in the sunlight,
I walk outside to meet returning Bride.
Wise and beautiful Bride, apprenticed to the whiskery old Cailleach for many a year
Up in the cavernous mountains, in the dark cold cave with winter outside.
Cooking and cleaning, washing and fetching
And all the time learning the secrets of names:
The true nature of her mistress and the source of her ancient power.
Was it her mother’s blessing that protected her?
The wisdom of wild things that released her?
Does each stay of time in dark places, our initiatory places,
The times of waiting and working,
End with a release into death or life? You choose.
When I wove rushes into a wheel and capped off the stream of life force hidden in the cleft in the rock,
When I danced the Mill Dust with old Granny Winter while a wild bird outside piped the tune
I still kept faith.
My spell in cold stone living death is done.
The tables are turned on the snow ghosts and mist spirits.
I fling the wheel of rushes up to the Pleiades so they can shine in the night sky.
Now, now, now it is time to live because that is what I choose:
In the green valleys, by the flowing rivers, on the warm earth.
8 February 2015