Hag Wood

Today is Imbolg (or Imbolc), the Celtic celebration of the arrival of spring, and the way we celebrate is to build a fire outside and tell stories around it.

In some parts of Scotland they burn a Cailleach log, representing the hag of the winter, and the ritual is a piece of sympathetic magic intended to banish the ills of winter, and usher in the coming spring.

This is right up my street, and I’ve done similar rituals for Setsubun (also celebrated at the beginning of February) and with a Yule log. So I used this as an excuse to pick up my whittling knife and try carving a little Cailleach figure, who will be sacrificed to the flames to usher in the spring.

My last two whittling projects were the mediocre Captain Redbeard, and a really terrible two-faced spoon, and this figure is sadly equally disappointing.

It had been a chilly autumn afternoon, in the quiet days following the harvest celebrations, when Brigid had gone into the woods to pick mushrooms. The villagers were worried about her, so she had taken her Bear, her dearest companion, who was loving and loyal to her, but fierce and frightening to anyone who might threaten her.

But as she had explored the woods, tiny white flakes of snow had started drifting down through the canopy of trees, mixing with the falling golden leaves. Brigid had been delighted at first, dancing among the snow, but to her horror Bear yawned, stretched, crawled into a cave, and fell asleep. The first snow of the year was the signal to Bear that it was time to hibernate.

Brigid started to head back to the village, but by this time the whole land was covered in a gleaming blanket of snow, and she could no longer recognise where she was. Whichever way she chose, she seemed to get more and more lost, further and further away from Bear, and from home. Eventually she sat on a tree stump and wept.

Out of the woods appeared an old, old lady, hooded and caped in black. She had twinkling eyes, and wrinkles as deep as ploughlines. She approached Brigid and cooed at her, stroked her hair, and lifted her chin. ‘Whatever is the matter, little one?’ she said. Brigid fought back the tears and explained that she was lost.

The old woman cried, ‘This will never do, the snow is falling fast, and you will freeze to death out here. You will come home with me, and I will ensure you are kept warm and well fed’. And so the two of them went back to the old woman’s home. It was a long, long journey through the freezing winds, walking among the trees and beyond, to a land of rocks and ice, across a frozen lake, and up a treacherous mountain. By the time they reached the cave at the top of the mountain, Brigid was half frozen to death, and her feet were soaked with blood from all the walking.

‘Welcome to my home. In return for the kindness I have shown you, you will work for me. You will cook, clean, fetch water, rub my feet at night, and ensure we are all looked after’.

‘All?’ Brigid asked. The old woman smiled cruelly and then called out into the darkness of the cave. Brigid saw their glowing red eyes before she saw the creatures themselves – a pack of huge, ugly scabies-riddled wolves, rough tongues licking their lips over rows of sharp teeth.

‘These are my pets. And if you even think of betraying my kindness, they will eat you up, every single little bone in your body’

And so Brigid was put to work for the old woman and her wolves, and she suffered greatly over the weeks, with no friend to help her. The wolves always eyed her hungrily, waiting patiently for her to make a mistake, so that they might gobble her up. But she worked as hard as she could, and she was always awake before anyone else, ready to fetch the water and make tea. Her meals were always delicious, her foot rubs always welcome (but not for Brigid who had to negotiate the bunions and sores all over the old woman’s feet).

The wolves had never been so well looked after, so well fed, and they grew from being sinewy and scrawny, to big, fat and hefty, but they never showed any gratitude, and the kinder Brigid was to them, the more hungrily they seemed to regard her.

Just when Brigid had given up hope of ever escaping from this life of misery, the old woman called out to her and said ‘Child, there are mushrooms that grow along the edge of the frozen lake. Go and gather up a basket-full, as they are my favourite food. Be back before sunset or I shall set loose the wolves upon you’.

So off Brigid went, basket in hand, down the treacherous mountain, to the edge of the lake. She started gathering the mushrooms, which were sparse, so it took her many hours to collect a full basket. The sun was lowering in the windswept sky, and she thought she had better head back or she would risk being torn apart

That’s when she saw, poking through the snow, a tiny green shoot – the first flower of spring. It brought into her heart a joy that she never imagined she would feel again, and it gave her courage and strength. Fearfully she looked up to the mountain top, and could see the old witch’s fire flickering in the distant cave. She knew that this was her only chance to get away, and she threw down the basket, and ran as fast as she could across the lake, which was now bathed in the red glow of the sunset.

She heard a shriek from the cave, and knew that the old woman had realised what was happening. Then, the howling of the wolves, and the thumping of their great paws upon the mountainside, as they thundered down to get her. Brigid was small, and her legs couldn’t run quickly She was also tired from months of being treated cruelly, and as she crossed the lake she knew that there was no way she could outrun the wolves. She wept as she ran, but she knew now it was better to face this fate than to live a life of captivity.

She stopped and turned, stood in the centre of the frozen lake, and she saw the pack of wolves pounding onto the lake, racing at her with their jaws slathering. She took a deep breath and gritted her teeth, heart beating, but she lifted her chin and prepared herself. Then, over the sound of the blood rushing in her head, over the sound of the howling and growling of the wolves, she heard a distant thumping, and a deep rumbling cracking noise.

The lake shivered beneath her feet, and Brigid saw suddenly around the frothing, charging wolves, the surface of the lake burst apart, the ice cracking under the weight of the fattened beasts. They twisted and leapt, trying to escape the breaking ground beneath their paws, but to no avail. They were too heavy, and the lake ice was thin from the waning winter. One by one, as shards of ice thrust up from the cracking surface of the lake, the wolves plunged lurchingly down into its black waters, their yelps echoing quietly as eventually the ice settled, and silence once more drifted over the lake. Brigid looked for shapes moving under her feet, but nothing stirred, The wolves were gone.

Brigid was trembling, but full of relief. She was nervous about walking to the lake edge, but she was small and light, and the ice barely made a noise as she walked on it. She did become aware of some distant noises rumbling through the quiet of the twilight. The distant pounding that she thought she had heard before, which she had thought was the wolves, had grown louder, closer. But over the top of this was a horrible piercing shriek – it was the hateful cry of the old woman.

Brigid looked over her shoulder. Sure enough, the old woman was flying down from her cave, riding the spine of a dead hangman, as was her wont. One hand lay on the spine, steadying her flight, the other was raised above her head, wielding a large meat cleaver. She was crying out in fury and had hate in her eyes. Once again Brigid felt the sad weight of despair settle on her. She had reached the lake’s edge, but there was no way to cross the land of rocks and escape.

The old witch flew furiously down, getting closer and closer, ready to strike of Brigid’s head, and as her arm arced back ready to make the killing blow, Brigid closed her eyes. She heard the thumping noise grow louder and louder – she thought it must be her heart beating hard. Then she felt a great gust blow her as if a huge presence had flown by. She heard a strangled cry and an almighty crash, and when she dared to open one eye, she saw that the witch was being shaken apart by a huge fierce hairy beast. When it had done its horrible work, it turned to face Brigid.

She ran to it and threw her arms around it and wept into Bear’s fur. ‘You woke up!’ she cried, ‘you woke up and saved me’, He looked at her with kindly eyes. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You woke hope in your heart, and that made the first shoot of spring grow at the edge of the lake. And the first smell of spring is what woke me up and called me to you. You defied the witch of winter, and have brought life and hope back into the world.’

And together they returned to the Village, where they were received with much joy and a lot of feasting.

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