Exploring Liminality; An Intro

Recently I read The Well of D’yerree-in-Dowan, in which three brothers are sent out to find a sacred well at the end of the world which would heal their father, and whichever brother brought back the water from this well would follow as king. After reaching the first crossroad, only one brother ventured forth, while the other two remained at an inn. The brother, Cart, travels throughout the day, and as night is falling, comes upon a house in the woods and is boarded by an old woman. She sends him on his way to find her older sister. After two more visits to the older sisters, Cart then encounters a brother, who leads him to island the well is on. Cart collects some water, kisses some ladies, and returns to his father. And in the end, after some problems with his brothers, he is recognized as the heir. While there are many relevant points we can take away from this tale, the one I want to focus on is the Otherworldly, liminal aspect. Cart is tasked with undertaking a journey to the end of the world, which we can understand to be in an Otherworld. The help he encounters along the way is found at liminal places (crossroads) and times (dusk). These themes are not exclusive to this story; rather, they are very common in many Irish tales, especially echtrai and immrama. So what is it about liminality that we can incorporate into our modern practices?

In the course of our daily, secular lives, we encounter many liminal places. Every time we take a drive, whether to work or school or the grocery store, we come across a crossroad. These intersections were once a place where many travelers from different places, going different places encountered one another, something that may have never happened had they not been journeying. Even today, where inns at the crossroads have been replaced by restaurants and shopping malls and coffee shops, we can still encounter people who are outside our spheres of influence. And in acknowledging that openness of the crossroad, we can also be open to interacting with spiritual creatures.

With liminal times, such as dawn and dusk or any transition of season, our perception of the world in which we live is altered, to the point where it is almost as if we are in another world. It is during these times of transition that the world in which we live and the Otherworlds are closest. Not only are these optimum times for which to undertake spiritual journeys, but also for communicating with spirits, Ancestors, and other various Gods and Ungods, and, of course, for spiritual workings.

The Height of Winter and the Cailleach

“Summer of youth in which we have been
I spent with its autumn;
winter of age which overwhelms everyone,
its first months have come to me.” –The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare

It’s finally winter in my area of Ohio; we had some snowfall around Thanksgiving, but most of December was spent in the 40’s and up (it was 60* Jan. 3). Two nights ago, the temperatures plummeted down to the teens, and we had our first real snowstorm move through. While we don’t get as many inches as places up near the Great Lakes, we do usually have a power outage or three every winter that affects not only the rural-er areas, but many of us townies (I hate being a townie). Last year, both my husband and I slid off the icy roads; blessedly, neither of us were injured, though I was eight months pregnant at the time and driving about 60mph, and he almost went down the hillside and tore off the back bumper. But when I talk to people that don’t live or have never lived in Ohio, we aren’t one of the states that comes to mind when the term “extreme weather” is thrown out. Yeah, we don’t really get 18+ inches of accumulation in one night, and we don’t have to deal with hurricane force winds and flooding, but the idea that what experience isn’t “extreme” is completely subjective.

Before modern communication, we had very little means of knowing what was going on in other areas of the country, let alone the world. So when regions discussed contingency plans for what to do when something extreme happened, it was always in relation to the immediate area. Extreme weather, or any sort of extreme circumstances, are situations that largely interrupt the normal course of life and pose serious threat to life and health. And our season of extreme weather just began.

And with the onslaught of winter comes the need to discuss the Cailleach. Seen as a title, a name, or a group of land deities/spirits, most forms of this being point to her sovereignty during the winter months, the season of potentially deadly weather. And unlike many other deities, there doesn’t seem to be a way to get on her good side.

The Cailleach reminds me a little of one of my grandmothers, and my husband’s grandmother. While there is a 20 year difference in their ages, they are both old women (I think of old as more a frame of mind than an age). They are fond of complaining about their ill-health (most of which is self-inflicted), the lack of care they receive from family (neither of them are isolated or abandoned), and their inability to do the things they once did (because they are the only ones who have ever grown old). There is no reasoning with them, and what compassion and empathy you could once muster has been exhausted by the deaf ears and ungrateful hearts it fell upon. But you keep going back, you keep trying, and you keep helping, because they are family, because you love them, and because someday you too will be faced with growing old. And you will have to decide how to take that.

Interacting with the Cailleach is like interacting with these grandmothers; it is a very one-sided relationship (hint: the one side is not in your favor). Unlike most relationships outlined in old Irish culture, there is no reciprocity and no way to get out of this one when the other side doesn’t contribute. You enter in with no expectation of personal reward, you prepare to just give, and you hope to weather the storm. Sometimes, you receive some recognition or personal fulfillment, but it’s always fleeting. You just have to keep giving.

So when making offerings to the Cailleach, you don’t really try to form a relationship or get anything back. You just try to ease through the season, knowing soon enough it will be over.