Since childhood, informed by the content of my own intuitive realm of experience, I have conceptualized Nature, the Absolute, as a specifically feminine mystery. Over the years, as I have studied the folkloric traditions of my ancestors, it has become apparent to me that the most resonant mythic conceptualization of that ineffable Reality (which is so beautifully and strangely manifest in the natural world within and all around us) is, for me, the old Irish and Scottish creatrix, the Cailleach. The name ‘Cailleach’ in contemporary Gaelic is most often translated as “old woman,” though it is thought to have initially arisen from Indo-European roots meaning “veiled one.”
The Cailleach is portrayed in Gaelic speaking cultures as a hag goddess, an old woman who has brought the landscape itself into being, and who, like Nature (with which I contend she is ultimately synonymous), is not always benevolent. It thus follows quite logically that the Cailleach is also a patroness of witches or cunning folk—practitioners of folk magic. (Here I speak not merely in historical terms, but also in terms of what has arisen from my own experiences in the world of the unseen.)
As Proinsias McCana has observed, she was in all likelihood initially a form of the archaic, primal earth goddess, who was conceived as creator, guardian and life-blood of the Land. It may well have been the Cailleach—or some variation thereof—who in ancient times the kings of the five provinces of Eire were ceremonially wed to in order to insure continued peace, justice and fertility during their rule. The symbolic implications of this are that in order to maintain a healthful, orderly and bountiful society, human beings and their systems of governance must be responsible to the Land, must be in harmony with the rhythms of Nature. It may go without saying that contemporary humanity could learn a great deal from this concept.
In my personal view, those of us in the West who wish to be connected with the ways of Nature through something of an authentic Western European cultural and folkloric lens would do well to explore the possibility of knowing and forging a relationship with the old hag goddess, the ‘Old Woman in the Land’.
But whatever our particular mythic conceptions of the Mother may be—and there are certainly many possibilities, from a vast variety of cultural origins, none less valid than any other—I believe it is absolutely imperative that we in the Western world get in touch once more with that source, that mysterious and profoundly beautiful origin. We have been divorced from it for far too long. If we are to live sustainably and in harmony with our environment and one another, then we must without question reclaim our ancestral understanding of and deep respect for the Land. It may follow, then, that we would greatly benefit from knowing and honoring the folkloric embodiments of that Land, with which our ancestors were so intimately related. Indeed, it may be that the two cannot ultimately be separated.