Wishing Stones and Tea Leaves, part II

ruins of old Crom castle
ruins of old Crom Castle

Our group of nine women had been led by our cheerful cook and counselor, Violet, to a wishing stone on the grounds of Crom Castle, in Northern Ireland. Now, wishes wished and the sun setting, we followed Violet again along the shore of the lough and through the lengthening shadows, past the castle and boathouse, and into the darkening woods.

“Come along,” Violet said, urging us to keep up.  Well into her seventies, Violet walked faster than most of us, despite being more than 20 years younger.

“Do you think we’ll see the pine marten?” someone asked.

“Maybe so,” Violet said. “We’ll see.” The brown, endangered, weasel-like animal is a rare nocturnal creature that in Ireland lives mostly in trees. One had taken to visiting Violet from time to time.

“She has a way with the creatures,” our guide, Brenda confided to us.

Our pathway curved on through fields and woods, a ten-minute walk to her home, a small house we had seen from our boat ride with the Earl a few days before. It looked like a story book cottage, with a low roof, little dormers, and a patch of pink and white annual flowers planted near the front door. I felt like Gretel or Red Riding Hood, but hoped for a more pleasant cottage visit.

Inside, the faded, floral-papered rooms were stuffed with doileyed furniture and shelves of china bric-a-brac. Small hooked rugs in a floral pattern lay before the two petite armchairs. We found Cynthia, our evening cook and Violet’s daughter, in the yellow kitchen. True to her word, she had brought along the rhubarb crumble, and while we had been at the wishing stone she’d started water for tea, as well.

The first order of business was to see if we could catch sight of the pine marten. Perched on wooden stools or leaning against the 1950’s era red and white enameled table, we watched quietly for about ten minutes in the darkening kitchen, whispering and giggling, until a rattling of the garbage cans outside gave away the animal’s arrival.  Violet’s little friend soon nosed up to her window for the ginger snap cookies she usually spread over the sill. Our hostess went out to greet it, speaking to it in a sort of whimper and chatter, and it came to her hand, ate the snack, posed for a few pictures, and then disappeared into the woods.

Once we’d assembled in the kitchen, Cynthia poured our tea. It was made with loose leaves, and as we drank, their wet remains lay in the bottom of our china cups, ready for Violet to work her skills as a seer. It would surely be a cozy, friendly fortune telling, I thought, filled with lots of healthy guesses after five days of overhearing our conversations at breakfast. Happy, successful children, glorious careers and men of mystery… We each took a turn in the living room on a footstool at Violet’s knees while the others gabbed and ate crumble in the kitchen. The rhubarb was tart and sweet at the same time.

On my turn with the fortune-teller, she looked for a long time into the tea leaves on the bottom of my cup and asked me if there was anything I was upset about. I told her I had left my job, but kept starting books and not finishing them and so had gone back to work. I had started three books so far, a business advice book for women, an autobiography, and a long essay about women and religion.

“Well, perhaps they’re the same book,” she said, pausing to think that over. I made a face. “Well, at any rate, that procrastinating is all done for. You’ll start back as soon as you get home. Start the first one, and finish it. Then the next, and so on. You’ll have at least one of them finished in three years.”

“Is there anything else you’re wondering about?” she prodded, patting my hand as she alternated looking into the cup and back at my face. “I feel there’s something.”

Our eyes locked gaze.

I thought of how little I saw my daughters anymore and wondered if there was any way for us to become closer now that they had already left home. I wondered if I had made the right choice to leave my job at the bank and take this philosophical journey. I wondered how much longer I would live, and if I would use the time well. All my good intentions back in high school and business school about making the world a better place, but what had I done?

My friends were chattering in the kitchen. I looked up at the old woman and said, “No, nothing else.”

Violet paused, then tilted the tea cup for another look. Perhaps knowing I had two unmarried adult daughters, she added that there was an engagement and a new baby in the near future, and patted my hand.

“I hope they come in that order,” I laughed.

I did finish one book after I came back home, though it took five years, not three. And I am now nearing completion of my next, with two more sketched out and waiting their turn.  And though I was a bit skeptical about the fortune telling that evening–let’s face it, this was mostly a harmless evenings pastime–in the years since I have come to appreciate the role women like Violet have played in men’s and women’s lives over the centuries. The tradition of the wise forest woman who speaks to the animals is part of the Irish and British heritage. Celtic traditions contained many myths about a divine Old Woman. Part Leprechaun, part seer, our Violet enjoyed multiple connections to the spirit world.

In Joseph Campbell’ s classic work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the first encounter of the hero on his journey is with a protective figure who provides him with amulets or magic devices against the dangers he will face. The crone is one of the most common of these protective figures, from the fairy godmother in fairy tales to the Oracle at Delphi.

I find it ironic that we all accept the wisdom of these women in magical old stories, while in real life, older women often become invisible. I’ve come to believe this marginalization is due to our Judeo Christian heritage, which places the woman in a subordinate and undesirable position, starting with Eve being blamed for the Fall. She is assumed to have no knowledge beyond childrearing. (Even a woman’s knowledge of herbal remedies may be turned against her and earn her condemnation as a witch.) The real story is always some battle men are waging with each other.  Woman’s role is reduced to that of temptress or baby incubator. Once past reproduction, we are unnecessary.  And the lessons of Genesis, Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Timothy give men – both the young and mature – license to ignore the Violets of the world.

But the old fairy tales and myths that are the foundation for the Wise Forest Woman are the stories handed down from our pre-Christian heritage. They speak the truths that come from our human collective unconscious. We know in our hearts that old women have seen much and can teach us much.

On this visit to Crom, I found myself traveling with women who were attuned to their inner spirituality.  Our companionship helped give mutual validity to our yearning for a continued place in this world. And I have found that when we throw off the insulting and demoralizing messages of the Abrahamic religions, we become open to the affirmation that there are wise women with wisdom to share.  I find comfort in their company.

—-

The above is an excerpt from my book in progress.

See also http://www.shotintheheadbook.com

Wishing Stones and Tea Leaves, Part I

Ireland_2006_050

I’d spent six days at Crom Castle, just outside of Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, with a group of women artists. We’d enjoyed our week and we lingered over our dinner our last night in the slanting evening light, not wanting the evening to end. Violet, our 70-something year-old breakfast cook, joined us as we were finishing the main course. It was almost eight o’clock, but the sun still illuminated our conservatory-dining room like late afternoon. The fountain tinkled and splashed.
“You’ll be wanting to join me for tea at my house?” Violet asked. Her eyes seemed to sparkle as she spoke.  We hesitated, eying the rhubarb crumble. “Cynthia will fetch along the crumble,” she assured us. “Come, while the summer evening lasts. I’ve something you must do before you leave.”
As the nine of us stepped out onto the crushed stone patio, someone lit a cigarette; the smoke wafted around us in thin tendrils. Stones crunched underfoot. I stood and drank in the evening air before following Violet’s lead toward the ruins of the earlier, medieval castle, closer to the lake.
Brenda, our guide, whispered, “We are lucky; violet doesn’tdo this for everyone.”     The sky began to take on an orange tinge. I felt a cool breeze and buttoned my sweater.
“My mother, and her mother before her knew about this spot, and the grand ladies as well,” Violet said as we walked. “Come along,” she urged us. “We must catch the light.”
We followed her in a line, gawky goslings following a mother goose in floral housedress and crocheted shawl. Lough Erne was a silver pool stretching off to our right.
About halfway to the ruins, we stopped at a small thorn tree, like the ones I had seen on the tor in Glastonbury the previous summer. Remnants of this morning’s rain glistened on tall stalks of grass, brown and burnt from the previous days of sun. Violet waded through the waist-high fronds, then parted them so we could see, at the foot of the old thorn tree, a grayish rock outcropping, roughly two feet across.
“This is the wishing stone,” she said, tromping down the errant grass stalks as we all caught up with her and formed a rough circle. “Come, take a look. Every lady who comes to this place must come here and make a wish, and it will come true.”
We approached the stone one at a time, the remains of the day’s shower brushing off onto our shoes and slacks. I looked down – my shoes and long skirt were all wet. “Come,” Violet entreated us. “Each of you must place all of you on the stone.” Someone was nominated to go first. “Sit on it. Pull your feet up to place them on it, as well,” she coached her.
The sky, still light, was fading to pale purple. Shadows grew. Mid-lake, the water’s mirror broke—a fish coming to the surface. The grass at the water’s edge rustled with some small animal’s movement. A woman ducked and shrieked as the evening’s first bats squeaked and flapped by through the tree branches above us.
And then it was my turn. “Touch your hands to it. Feel it,” she advised. “Don’t be shy. The grand ladies don’t mind mussing their skirts.”

The stone was hard and rough; my rear end took a few seconds to adjust to it. I pulled my knees up to my chin, wrapping my long skirt around my legs, so both feet could be fully on the stone. My calves felt cool against my thighs. “Touch your hands to it, as well,” Violet reminded me. It was rough and damp.
And there I was, bunched up onto the stone, like who knows how many other women over the centuries. Eyes closed. Hands touching the stone.
“Go on. Wish!” she urged me. The other women stood back, giving me space, like people standing back from a confessional. A bat squeaked.
“I wish that my daughters find contentment in their lives,” I whispered.
To whom, I don’t know.

Violet, our morning cook that week, is one of a long line of wise old crones, a tradition cherished in Ireland and Britain. The women artists in the group with me were from California and Kentucky, New York and Illinois. We were college educated and sophisticated people, and we found ourselves drawn to Violet and her ancient lore. Though ostensibly Christian, Jewish or agnostic, we felt a connection to this feminine seer. She was a link to a time when older women were revered, not thought of as batty and useless.  Her little traditions, part counseling, part meditation and some other part spirit, were something we had need of. An agnostic myself, at first I participated just to be polite, but as I sat on that rock I was drawn in.

This story is part of a book in progress.

See also my memoir, http://tinyurl.com/oxynw5c

The Caillech Bh’arra

Ireland 2006060

The Caillech Bh’arra
It had rained the morning I visited Cladragh Cemetery, near Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. But the sun had come out, and now the earth let off waves of steam into the warm sunshine. Visible through the mist, the ground was a mossy, undulating sea of ancient burial sites, gravestones all tilting at odd angles. Off to one side, two moss-covered stone statues stood guard from under an incongruous little green and white striped awning.
At about four feet, the larger of the pair was a two-sided figure, the two sides thought to be male and female. Its blank, ancient faces stared out enigmatically over the faint outline of stiff arms crossed downward over their chests. Below the waist were the suggestions of genitals. Mottled in color, the figure’s sandy beige stone was almost covered by white and green moss, and its badly eroded features were barely discernable.
Standing perhaps a foot shorter, the smaller figure was equally moss covered and even more eroded. Believed carved at the latest in the eighth century, with her protruding tongue and only one eye, the figure is thought to be a carving of the Divine Hag, known variously as the “Caillech Bh’arra” or “Badhbha,” a powerful goddess in the Irish tradition.
The early people of this place believed in both male and female deities; each deity had his or her dominion, and people dedicated their requests for assistance to whichever might seem more likely or able to help. These ancient Irish perceived a need for help at all the comings and goings to and from this world and prayed to their gods and goddesses for safe deliveries and peaceful ends. The Caillech Bh’arra, said to usher the comings and goings of this world, was humans’ companion especially at birth.
On this day, at the Caillech Bh’arra’s wide stone base, a hollowed out depression was filled with perhaps twenty or thirty coins, many of which had lain there long enough to pick up a mossy patina. A few coins sparkled silver and copper in the sunlight. Visitors had no doubt come to ask the Divine Hag to help them conceive or bring a child to term. The coins were their offerings, and the metallic sparkles betrayed relatively recent origins for some of them.
The Caillech Bh’arra is related to the Sheela-Ma Gigs, statues of goddesses with engorged female genitals once common in pre-Christian Ireland, but in the past few centuries seen as an embarrassment. Remnants of an ancient people who were proud of the female’s life-giving nature, most of the Sheela-Ma Gigs were either cleaned up and named a saint or destroyed long ago; their carving considered lewd and associated with sinful activity. Whatever Caillech Bh’arra’s past, though, she managed to escape destruction and was never Christianized. So she sits under her tent with her two-sided cousin, looking out over the shifting stones, waiting for supplicants as she has for centuries.
Shut out of any meaningful connection to their Christian churches, some local women seem to have found comfort in the old ways. I wondered if the women who had brought her those coins had been blessed with healthy children. I thanked her for them, just in case.

(except from memoir in progress)

the Janus figure