Part Three by Dolores Whelan
A story from the Celtic tradition that illustrates the importance of the cailleach and her energy is the story of Niall of the Nine Hostages.
Niall and his four brothers come to a well to get a drink of water. The well is being guarded by an old woman who represents the cailleach or hag. When the first brother goes to the well, she tells him that if he wants to drink the water, he must give her a kiss. He is horrified and refuses; she sends him away. The other three brothers go in turn on the same errand, and each refuses to kiss the hag. As the story goes:
Then it was Niall’s turn. Faced with the same challenge, he kissed the old hag and embraced her. When he looked again, she had changed into the most beautiful woman in the world. “What art thou?” said the boy. “King of Tara, I am Sovereignty . . . your seed shall be over every clan.”
This story suggests that in order to have access to the life-enhancing energy represented by the water in the well, it is necessary for the young masculine to embrace this particular and perhaps unattractive aspect of the feminine energy. Why is this so? The cailleach represents the wisdom gathered by living in right relationship with the earth, something that requires reflection, stillness, and attentiveness. It knows more clearly what is needed and what is possible in each situation, and it is aware of the consequences of particular actions. It knows how to proceed slowly; it understands the value of times of waiting and times of allowing. It knows how to be and how to act.
So how can we, you and I, begin the journey back towards wholeness and balance?
Brigid in her cailleach form can help us to embrace these difficult and fearful aspects of our lives. The cauldron, a central image in both the Celtic and other traditions, is a vessel for transformation and transmutation. In many stories, the cauldron is first filled with unpalatable raw things, which then are used to create a nourishing soup using the transforming energy of the universe through the action of fire and water. The transformation of the contents of the cauldron is supervised by the cailleach energy, which works inwardly, quietly, and slowly to bring about an unforced and timely rebirth.
The transformation of the cauldron’s contents concentrates their essence and offers them back in a new and more suitable form. From this process, we learn that the possibility of transformation and re-birth always exists, no matter how devitalised something appears to be. A new rebirth can be achieved when we submit ourselves and our concerns to the inward and slow transformational energy of the cauldron and the cailleach.
Philosopher Richard Kearney in his poem Bridget’s Well speaks of the importance of this inward and downward journey and suggests that it is the only way to access the life- giving and inspiring fire of Brigid that lies underneath the water.
I will rest now at the bottom of Bridget’s well
I will follow the crow’s way
Footprint by footprint
In the mud down here
I won’t come up
Until I am calmed down
And the earth dries beneath me
And I have paced the caked ground
Until smooth all over
It can echo a deeper voice
Mirror a longer shadow (2)
This poem suggests the importance of that deep journey to the well where the source of new life and the fire of passion is found. At Imbolc (Feb 1st) the tiny spark of new light discovered in the deep womb darkness of the winter solstice has grown sufficiently to safely emerge from that inner world and begin to transform winter into spring !At this time Brigid appears as the fresh maiden of springtime emerging from the womb of the cailleach, queen of winter. Here Brigid embodies the energy that breathes life into the mouth of dead winter. The energy of Brigid at Imbolc is the energy of Yes, and it can only emerge from the place of stillness!
Brigid is also closely associated with the life giving aspect of fire, a fire that doesn’t burn but which can never be fully quenched. When this fire comes from a clear and deep space, as happens following the inward journey, it will be significant and filled with truth and potency. This life-giving fire will act within in individuals, within the land, in the relationships between the people and their land, fanning the fires of creative endeavour so that all of life forms can partake in the symphony of new life emerging each springtime! The fire discovered through this deep journey is an inner light which guides each of us to find our next step!
Richard Kearney in his poem “Brigit’s Well” also speaks of the re-emergence of a new fire born of a deeper place within
Then the fire may come again
Beneath me, this time
Rising beyond me
No narcissus- flinted spark
Behind closed eyes
But a burning bush
A fire that always burns away
But never is burnt out (3)
I believe that the archetypal energy of Brigid, the embodiment of the divine feminine, present within the essence of the Celtic tradition has the capacity to lead and support us in transforming the present wasteland into a new life sustaining society. For this to happen, it is necessary for us to understand that the archetypal energy that Brigid represents is a real aspect of the human psyche, one that has been largely dormant over the past few hundred years, but is now re-emerging. Each of us can become keeper of the Brigid flame by developing and living those qualities and values that distinguished her.
As we align ourselves with her archetypal energies, she supports us courageously and safely to face the demons of this time. She teaches us how to stand still in a wobbling world, to act as a unifying force, to hold the space of possibility and so become agents of transformation. So we ask for
The mantle of Brigid about us
The memory of Brigid within us
The protection of Brigid keeping us from harm from ignorance,
from heartlessness this day from dawn till dark (4)
When we embrace her energy Brigid will hold us and guide us through this transition. I believe she is the one who has the power to awaken in each of us An eye to see what is, the heart that feels what is, and the courage that dares to follow. (5)
1 Amergin Jan de Fouw Amergin Wolfhound Press Dublin 2000 ( afterword ) no page number
2 Richard Kearney quoted in Stephen J. Collins The Irish Soul in Dialogue the Liffey Press Dublin 2001 p 147
3 Richard Kearney quoted in Stephen J. Collins The Irish Soul in Dialogue the Liffey Press Dublin 2001 p 147
4 Poem source unknown
5 Celtic triad found extensively in the literature