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Cailleach's Cold Cackle: Ancient Clues to Beating the Winter Blues

Updated on April 13, 2014

Using the Magic of Story to Alleviate the Suffering of Now

When cold winds blow and an endless piling of snow or pouring of rain threatens to dampen our spirits, that's just the time to turn to the ancients for a reminder of seasonal survival. While it may seem quaint and irrelevant to our modern ears, great stories of old once served the purpose of reminding people from where they came, and provided clues for how to get along in the world. For many of our most distant relatives, the telling of tales provided psychological tools of survival. So take today's tale of the Cailleach Crone along with your staple vitamin C, tissues and hot tea, and keep good company as we ride out the last long days of winter together.

Cailleach Bheara: the frightening aspect of winter
Cailleach Bheara: the frightening aspect of winter | Source

Winter's Firm Grip: The Cailleach's Tale

Before the Earth was as we know it now, when the sea covered places where there is land, and land was where there now is sea, and long before even the mountains were born, Cailleach and her eight sisters roamed free. And as time went on as it must, the sisters died, from flesh to dust; and Cailleach herself found her youth was lost, and on she wailed, and the Earth turned seasonally to frost. Young women would wander, but not without warning: the Cailleach is strong, with thoughts only of harming! So it was, a wise druid appeared to Bride the young, "of the old sow, steer clear." He gave her a bone whistle, but alas Cailleach was quick; she took off with fair Bride, before she could think. Days on cold end, Bride milked the Crone's deer, and made cheese from the liquid, and lived always in fear. Soon though the Druid in the form of a bird did appear: these three things must you do, to bring Springtime to bear. Listen well, and learn the Cailleach's secret name; watch ever closely, to find the well where her powers, she lays claim. Finally you must dance, and without wondering why, you too dear Bride must be willing to die." Bride so sweet, she did as she was told; and sweetly still, she inquired of Cailleach, "How old?" The hag, she cackled, and said "The Daughter of the Skies lived before the Earth was staid!" And so Bride followed secret Nic Neven to the place where a sacred well flowed, and she put a wheel of reed-rushes there, sealing it in haste. Finally to the Crone, Bride taught a deadly dance; the Crone blissfully obliged, and Bride put her to a stone's trance. With the Cailleach's demise, the reed-star flew into the sky, thus becoming the sun; and as the well-water rose, the winter passed by.

Three Sure Steps to Beat the Winter Blues

In the story above-- adapted from Caitlin Matthew's The Cailleach of the Snows-- the fury of winter is finally ended when the young heroine, Bride, agrees to complete three tasks. First, she must discover the secret name of the old Winter Hag. Second, she must find the source where the Winter Hag finds her renewal, and seal that place from further use. Finally, she must teach the old Hag a new dance-- and so doing, she herself must be willing to die.

When we find ourselves in the icy grip of unshakable, cabin-fevered Winter Blues, we can learn from Bride's journey and hasten the return of our own personal Spring. How so? Just as Bride, first we must first listen for the "secret name" of our Blues. In other words, what is really happening? Often when we are in the middle of a bad situation, it is our perception of it that makes it even worse. Once we give that perception a name, we tend to repeat it over and over, and in so doing we become the very thing we are trying to avoid: "I am so depressed." Instead of accepting this common name, can you listen carefully for the "secret name" of your actual situation? Often a "depressed" person is just a very tired person who needs more rest, and a change of scenery. What is your situation trying to tell you?

Bride's journey also admonishes us to watch: for often the most impossible situations will provide clues that point to what feeds them, what brings them to being, and more importantly what can send them into remission. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real mood disorder that affects many people, especially those living in places that become very cold and dark in the winter time. Light therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy are usually recommended in the most severe cases. In less severe instances, finding a daily blast of sunlight might do the trick. But where-ever your Blues rest on the SAD continuum, chances are your own mood --your inner Cailleach-- will tell you what sustains your blues, and what helps alleviate them. For example, watch yourself closely, and mind how your moods change over the course of a day. For example, if you're in the line at the grocery store, and you catch yourself smiling unexpectedly, examine that situation: was it a stranger's kindness who gave you that grin? Then find yourself a volunteer situation for the winter, where you can meet new people and help others in need. Was it the colors in the magazine rack that made you smile? Find ways to surround yourself in vibrancy, every day. Such moments as these will offer clues to seal your own well of unhappiness, and the capture of your own winter grief.

Finally, just like Bride, you must be willing to act: you must be willing to do the rediculous, even if it feels totally out of character. It may be that some part of you must "turn to stone" in order to free yourself from your situation. Physical activity is a great antidote to the Winter Blues. Learn a new dance, as Bride did; or learn how to ski, and really celebrate the season. Speaking of celebration, do some research: many cultures the world over offer thousands of ways to explore and enjoy the season at hand. Read tales of ancient winters of our mythological past. Peruse nature-worshiping sites that share ritual and ceremonial ideas for winter. Or just break out an old blues album, and dance around your own living room. Whatever you do, use the moment as an excuse to break out of your comfort zones. Be willing to let an old part of yourself "die" to your mood, as Bride trusted the Cailleach in their birch-wand dance. Seek new meaning in your predicament, and discover the wisdom that has lived within you all along.


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    • PilarTeishin profile image

      PilarTeishin 5 years ago from Western Massachusetts

      Thank you so much for the compliment! I'm glad you enjoyed the perspective.

    • Silver Fish profile image

      Silver Fish 5 years ago from Edinburgh Scotland

      Amazing hub, now as scotland is being embraced here in cold winds I will see winter with new eyes. Voted up and shared.