Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Winter Crone Legends

by Elaine Moxon

"She who hardens the ground with the frost and ice, which quickens the dormant seeds in the earth's womb."
'VISIONS OF THE CAILLEACH' - Sonia d'Este & David Rankine

'The Cailleach' by Michael Hickey

Winter is almost upon us, the solstice looming as the nights lengthen and daylight becomes a rare and precious thing. To our ancient ancestors we are in 'Geimredh', the dark half of the year. The sun takes his leave of us for more and more hours, our lives increasingly illuminated by the moon. Writing Dark Ages historical fiction, it is important that I know what this time means to my characters, both Britonic and Saxon. Both cultures contain legends of the Crone or Winter Hag, a goddess of good or evil who shapes the land and controls the very forces of nature. She has many guises and names, including:-
  • Death Goddess
  • Wise Woman
  • Frau Holle/Hel
  • Valkyrie
  • Cailleach
  • Lady of the Beasts
  • Hag of the Mist
  • Harsh Spirit of Winter
  • Hag of the Mill-Dust
Geimredh begins at 'Samhuinn' (1st November), which for the Celts marked the beginning of a new year, a beginning shrouded in darkness, where they believed the veil between the living and dead was at its thinnest, thus allowing ease of communion between the worlds. Incidentally, burial chambers and stone circles are often oriented to the midwinter solstice, aligning those buried and the winter rituals performed within them to the Otherworld. It is also the time of the last harvest where the pagan Lord dies with the cutting of the last sheaf and begins his journey through the underworld, laid to rest in the womb of the Great Mother. It is therefore fitting that his matrimonial partner, the Lady or Goddess, takes the helm to guide her people until he is re-born in the spring. Then she will be the virgin maiden, awaiting her lover. If the harvest was good, this final sheaf was fashioned into a 'kern maiden', referencing the fruitful spring goddess. However, if the harvest was poor, it was fashioned into the guise of the Crone and no, one farmer would wish to keep it long in his house for it brought bad luck. Such was the fear of the Crone's power.

Even before man cultivated grains and modelled kern maidens, the Crone was still venerated and was a symbol of death. The elder tree is sacred to the autumn equinoxe for pagans to this day, but as far back as the Megalithic period it was present. Known as the 'tree of death', representations of elder leaves have been found carved onto funerary flints at Megalithic burial sites. There is also evidence of Welsh and Manx Celts planting elders on new graves. Winter continues to be a harsh time for many in our modern world. Death is never far away. The old or infirm, people or animals, can perish. For our ancestors, living so close to the land, tied by their dependency upon it, this was moreso. As in death, the world around them was bereft of light. Devoid of life, it must have seemed as though the Otherworld had taken over; the world of the Crone. In winter, fodder is scarce and our ancestors slaughtered weaker animals to save feed for the stronger beasts, and to feed themselves through the winter.

In such a barren landscape, any fruits borne during this time were considered sacred. Apples, a symbol of the sun and immortality, would be stored as long as possible. These remain in our modern psyche when we bob for apples at Hallowe'en, chew toffee apples or wassail our apple trees. When cut crossways an apple forms a 5-pointed star or 'pentacle' and this referred to the 5 sacred roles of the Lady or Goddess: birth, initiation, consummation, repose and death. Blackberries, with their growing cycle of green-red-black as the fruits turn, signifies the 3 stages of the goddess as maid-mother-crone and was sacred to the Celts. They also revered the hazelnut tree, as in autumn it produces flowers for beauty and fruit (nuts) for wisdom. Eating the nuts was said to impart knowledge and wisdom to those who ate them. Its association with water (the entrance to the Otherworld) made it a popular offering and has been found in lakes, wells and springs - once again the domain of female deities. This is further confirmed by 'Coll', the bardic number nine - hazel trees fruit after 9 years of growth. Nine is sacred to the aspect of the triple goddess (3 x 3 = 9). Finally, elder berries, indeed any berries remaining through winter, were deemed by the Druids to be a gift from the 'Earth Mother' or Crone and would be gathered to make ceremonial wines. In other rituals, married Celtic women would paint their naked bodies in woad to honour 'the veiled one'. Again, this is a reverence of the Winter Crone, She who controls the veil to the Otherworld, She who folds the elderly and 'tired children into her cloak of death to await another dawn'.

'White Wolf' courtesy of wallpapercave.com

The Crone can be found throughout many cultures in both a benevolent and malevolent form. You may recognise some of them!

"It is written that before the Norman invasion of England, Gyrth had a dream that a great witch stood on the island, opposing the King's fleet with a fork and trough. Tord dreamed that before the army of the people of the country was riding a huge witch-wife upon a wolf, and she tossed the invading soldiers into its mouth."

Here we see resemblance to the Norse Valkyrie, Frau Holle or Hel - goddesses associated with death.

She rides through the sky on the back of a wolf, striking down signs of growth with her wand, spreading winter across the land. If she sees you, she will keep her mantle of snow over the land, so you must remain still.

"The man held the Druid wand first over his head and then over hers, at which she dropped down as if dead. He then mourned for her, dancing about her body to the changing music. Then he raised her left hand, touched it with the wand, and the hand came alive, and began to move up and down. The man became overjoyed and danced about. Next he would bring her other arm and her legs to life. Then he knelt over her, breathed into her mouth and touched her heart with the wand. She leapt up fully alive, and both danced joyously."

Here we see 'the death of the fertile Mother of Life in the barren months that were to come and the promise of her resurrection in springtime'.

Other familiar representations of the Winter Crone are the Hag witches in Disney's 'Snow White' and 'Sleeping Beauty', where the aforementioned princesses are the spring-like maidens and the evil Crones their nemeses. We can also find similarities between the 'Snow Queen' in C. S. Lewis' 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe', who is reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Snow Queen'. Meanwhile, Queen Elsa of Disney's 'Frozen' provides us with a more benevolent Winter Witch. She holds swathe over the land that is plunged into an eternal winter, building a palace of ice and a giant, boulder-like creature. As Beowulf hunts Grendel's mother in her watery cave (another Crone legend), so Elsa is hunted. It takes her sister Anna, another representation of the spring goddess, to persuade Arundel's population their Snow Queen has a good heart and can, if she wants to, remove winter from the land.

'The Snow Queen' by Elena Ringo

In conclusion, we are never far from these legends. Despite the many years separating us from our Megalithic or Dark Age ancestors, the legends persist and continue to permeate our so-called 'modern' lives. In reality, we are closer to our forebears than we imagine!

'Pagan Feasts' - Anna Franklin & Sue Phillips
'Visions of the Cailleach' - Sonita d'Este & David Rankine
'Alban Elued' - Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids


Elaine has always loved writing and history. When she decided to combine the two, she wrote her Dark Ages debut 'WULFSUNA', which was published in January 2015 through SilverWood Books. She enjoys baking, knitting and gardening and lives in the Midlands with her family and their mad Labrador. She is currently writing the second book in her ‘Wolf Spear Saga’ series.


  1. this was fascinating. I love learning about Celtic history. And the parallels in fairy tales were interesting. I often wonder about the roots of fairytales. I suppose they would come out of old legends.

  2. Thank you for this great piece! Really nicely researched and put together.


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