Samhuinn Fire Festival is sometimes seen as a battle between two seasons, but there is a key third aspect of our story that leads the ritual turn from Summer to Winter. We sat down with Kate, who this year will embody the mysterious Cailleach, to learn more about her interpretation of the Crone goddess.
First a bit of background. The Cailleach traditionally manifests as an old woman, part of the triple goddess who changes as the seasons turn. At Beltane Fire Festival She emerges as the May Queen, goddess of the Summer when new plants and animals flourish. In Winter She is older, a Winter goddess associated with the formation of the landscape and fierce storms that batter the land, and She plays a pivotal role in maintaining the balance between the Summer and Winter Kings until it is time for Her to crown the new ruler of the colder months.
This year, the Cailleach’s journey contains three acts. In the first, She is represented by two giant animal sculptures that draw heavily from symbolic depictions of the goddess. Initially the Cailleach takes the form of a hare, which upon drawing the ageing Summer King’s attention, darts into the distance away from the revelries of the summertime court. There are many old stories about witches shapeshifting into hares, and it is taboo to hunt them in many old cultures in the British Isles. At Samhuinn, the hare represents the vitality of Spring and a time already gone. By pursuing his past, the Summer King enters a kind of madness.
The pursuit is halted when the Summer King comes face to face with another embodiment of the Cailleach, the barn owl, which in Gaelic is known as the cailleach-oidhche gheal or the “white old woman of the night”. Owls are often viewed as portents, or omens of things to come, carrying souls of the dead as they fly silently through the air. When the Summer King finds the owl, he is reminded of his impending fate and turns to face towards it.
In Her second act, the Cailleach makes Her presence known to the rest of us on the Hill. Kate describes the Cailleach’s experience of time – past, present, future – “like skins over the landscape, shifting and moving over each other, aligning and moving apart”. When they do, the Cailleach, who inhabits all simultaneously, is able to step through. A visible ripple is felt throughout the Summer and Winter forces, who stand opposite each other squaring off for a fight.
Kate reads the relationship between the Cailleach and the Kings as something ancient, akin to that between the land and the seasons that move over it. This link is ruled by a cycle that repeats itself year on year. There is a right time for Winter to assume his reign, and this is not it. The Cailleach’s arrival forces both seasons to withdraw and wait for the opportune moment.
The Kings reconvene at the stage, where the Cailleach emerges to witness the Summer King’s submission to Winter. The final action of Summer and the first act of the new Winter King impels Her into this time. Her journey is completed by Her unveiling, which She and the community will mark with a collective cry. Her voice fills the air like the wind, which howls over the land from the Atlantic, burrowing into crevices in seaside cliffs and soaring over hills. This Cailleach is the force that brings in storms, stepping from mountaintop to mountaintop in the midst of a blizzard. For Kate, Her final act resembles the centre of a whirlpool. She is the calm in the middle of chaos.
Featured image by ©Laurence Diver (CC-BY).