“Sense does not come before age.” ~ Irish proverb
Na Déithe libh mo chairde,
As we approach the holytide of Samhain, many of us turn to thoughts of elders and others who have passed beyond The Veil. I am mourning the recent death of a beloved musical idol of mine, Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains. And one of my own family elders passed away a couple weeks ago; my maternal grandfather who was also my last living grandparent. He was the family patriarch, to be sure, but my Grammy was the quiet strength behind the throne, as it were. I like to think there is something quite Celtic in that; the chieftain and Sovereignty goddess mythology mirrored at the family level. I was honored to know them all my life, and learned to greatly appreciate the wisdom of their long life experience.
In Gaelic lore, there are many mythic precedents for the respect of age, the honor shown to elders, and the reverence for their wisdom. Some of these are the variety of Cailleach stories, The Settling of the Manor of Tara, Fintan Mac Bocra, Tuan Mac Carroll, Ferchetne and Nede, and the oldest animal tales. In these stories we see the value of age, for with great age comes great wisdom and memory, through bearing witness to great deeds and epochs of time.
The Cailleach, primordial hag-goddess, is an icon of immense power, a figure of resilience and strength. The Cailleach is a fierce defender of wildness and the balance of nature. She is a creatrix, shaper, and destroyer (similar to the Vedic goddess Kali; not evil but a necessary part of the life cycle). She is thus a force of creativity, fertility, healing knowledge, and regeneration of the landscape and cycles or eras of humankind.
Rather than a feeble old lady, it is the bean-feasa, the elder wise woman who is a source of cultural wisdom, healing skill, and power. Elders in Gaelic culture were deeply respected, honored, and valued members of their community. Most often in lore it is elder women who are bean feasa, bean cainte, bean laighe - woman of knowledge, woman of mourning, woman of knowledge. They not only were midwives to new souls but they were midwives to those who crossed the threshold of death’s door. They functioned in roles of initiation and transformation in states of being.
And so it is the old folks, the shanachies and wise women, who were the custodians of knowledge, the bearers of tradition and cultural memory, for it is their purview to transmit the collective wisdom of the previous generations to the next. They were revered and cared for as the repositories of the accumulated knowledge and lore of their people, like a threshold figure who is a mediator between the world of the ancestors and the world of the living folk, passing on ancestral wisdom in an ongoing process of generational, cyclical creation.
Regarding being creators and shapers, this can also be perceived literally, because what the elders say goes! The wise old woman, the wise old man (bodach), the grandmothers and grandfathers were the ultimate authority of family and clan in the sense of it is they who held the most sacred knowledge by virtue of their longevity. By transmitting the myths and traditions they literally recreate the cultural cosmos and shape the ground of being for the next generation. Much as the Cailleach functions to shape and recreate sacred landscape. Winter is the season most associated with elderhood; during this time there are many mythological and folkloric associations with the Ancestors, especially female ancestors.
Elderly woman had a mythic counterpart or archetype in the lore of the Cailleach, which also sometimes has the connotation of “witch”. The Cailleach, and old women in general, were associated with the crane, bringing to mind the Crane Bag of Manannan, which holds mysteries in connection with the ocean tides, thus also bringing the Moon into association. There are pre-Celtic equinox alignments at megaliths associated with the Cailleach, such as Sliabh na Cailli (Cairn T) at Loughcrew. The Cailleach is an ancient figure whose veneration was incorporated by the Gaels.
“It is said by the wise women and fairy doctors that the roots of the old tree, and the roots of an apple tree that bears red apples, if boiled together in drunk fasting, will expel any living thing or evil spirit that may have taken up its abode in the body.” Wilde
Interestingly, in Gaelic lore it is customarily the Daoine Maithe, the Good People, aka the “Fairies”, who bestow sacred knowledge and healing power to elderly women. The bean fasa was the wise woman herbalist tradition in this connection between the power of the Sidhe, the power of herbs, and older women. They were occupiers of liminal space and intermediaries between the human and non-human worlds; boundary keepers, truth seekers and speakers. In Gaelic and Brythonnic mythology, it is old women or druidesses who are the instructors and initiators of male heroes.
Elders were also freed from many of the normal constraints of society by which younger folk were expected to abide. The elders had seen it all and were not afraid to speak! For how could they lose their position in society when they had already fulfilled the duties of the social contract? In Gaelic Irish communities, to the left of the hearth was the customary seat for the grandmother of the family. This spot was called “the cailleach”, and it was a place of honor, as the grandmother was the most venerated and respected member of the family.
What elders do you have in your life? Did you know your grandparents, or even great grandparents? Do you know their life stories? In what ways do you relate to age and the accumulated wisdom that comes with life experience?
“The strongest blessing you’ll ever get is from the oldest woman of your clan.” ~ Gaelic proverb
~ Reverend Erika Rivertree
Michael Dames, Mythic Ireland
Kevin Danaher, The Year In Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs
Gearóid Ó Crualaoich, The Book of the Cailleach: Stories of the Wise Woman Healer
Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, The Peat-Fire Flame: Folk-Tales and Traditions from the Highlands and Islands
Seán Ó Súilleabháín, Irish Folk Custom and Belief
Lady Wilde, Legends, Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland