A porch, yard, and trees, all covered in snow

Greeting the Cailleach

And suddenly, winter. I’d seen the forecast (lows in the 20s, 3-5 inches of snow), but I was still not quite prepared to open the curtains Monday morning and see a field of white glowing dimly in the dawn light. I’m excited to greet the coming winter season, but I didn’t think I’d be doing it just yet.

But the Cailleach doesn’t consult with us on her plans. The Cailleach Bheur is a shadowy figure in the folklore of Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. She is, variously, a weather goddess, a creatrix, an ancestor goddess, a divine hag. Her stories depict her creating the rugged terrain of the Scottish Highlands, controlling the sovereignty of the land, and (most pertinently here) ruling the winter season. She is greatly feared, and greatly respected.

A wicker bench covered in snow

The Cailleach frightens me. She is sharp and biting, destructive and implacable. The citizens of Buffalo, New York, many of whom received 6 feet of snow from this system (and who have another 2-3 possible on the way) know this, whether they would attribute the snowfall to Her or not. Even with the comparatively meager snowfall we’ve had here, traffic slowed to a crawl and powerlines sagged; while I was outside on Monday morning, a massive limb fell out of a tree in my neighbor’s yard, brushing against the power lines that supply my house as it fell.

A bridge over a ravine; the roadway and the trees are covered in snow

And yet, I can’t seem to turn away from Her. My first pagan experiences came in the depths of winter, and I spent long sessions sitting in the cold on a small cleared hill near my house, waiting and listening. And in that listening, I came to suspect that the Cailleach, for all that she is brutal and unyielding, is also wise. And for those who care to brave her wildness, I believe there may be reward to knowing her.

So first thing Monday morning I slipped on shoes, wrapped my robe around me tight, and went out into the still-falling snow. I had taken a small bowl to collect the drifted powder, and I placed a bright coin in the bottom. The snow I took from our holly tree, whose leaves stay bright and green through the winter. Then I took it inside and set up a makeshift shrine, lighting a candle and pouring an offering of whisky over the white crystals. I prayed that the Cailleach might grant me wisdom from this winter, and that in gaining that wisdom I might pass through it safely.

A closeup shot of bright red berries in a twig, nestled under a pile of snow

I continued my morning routine and left the snow to melt and evaporate; it’s sitting on my dining room bookshelf still. I didn’t understand why, except perhaps that it would have felt disrespectful to discard it back into the lawn. But that evening, I read this in Daisy Hernández’s A Cup of Water Under My Bed:

My mother would not say it this way, but this is what she knows: cups of water talk. They ferry messages between us and the santos and the dead. They carry our prayers, our deseos, our fears.

Our house is full of vasitos de agua. There is the cup on my parents’ bedroom dresser. It sits next to a picture of la abuelita and her long white braid, because my mother would like to dream of her own mother more often. There is the cup of water for Santa Clara, because the saint offers the clarity needed for new jobs, new caminos. There are three cups with paper notes floating in the water, because, in her best cursive penmanship, Tía Chuchi has written the names of my cousin who has cancer, a friend’s mother who’s in the hospital, and my cat who is half blind. Their names are paper islands in the water, and my auntie places those three cups at the feet of the San Lázaro statue, hoping the santo with his holy crutches will restore the ones we love to health. (61)

A large rosebush bent under the weight of snow

I’m no santero, though I’m fascinated by the way santeros approach their holy ones. This book was just something I’d picked up after hearing an excerpt on NPR. And yet Hernández’s growing interest in her father’s santería (a welcome surprise, since it wasn’t at all a part of the NPR excerpt) so much matched my own feelings toward paganism and druidry that it felt like the nod one gives a stranger with whom one identifies a kinship. And so my impulse to keep the snowmelt and whiskey snapped into focus, just as my unexamined impulse to drop in a coin became clearer when I realized that I had, in effect, hallowed a Well, a connection point between my own realm and the World Below where deep waters pool and the dead dwell. May this small dish of the Cailleach’s water serve as a conduit, passing my intentions to the Queen of Winter and deepening my connection to the Earth on which we live, and to which we will return.

Shrine for the Cailleach: a candle burns on a wooden plate with a small dish of snow on it, in front of a minimalist painting of three blackbirds against a white, blue, and black field.

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