Pagan lore has it that in the wintertime a bitter old goddess keeps the young goddess of spring imprisoned in her mountain castle. Only when the young goddess has been freed by her true love can springtime return to the land. Mara Freeman is a druid from the British Isles and a Celtic storyteller and harpist. In Living on Earth’s holiday storytelling special “Season of Light,” she shares a story of light and love called “The Return of Bride”.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The trouble with December, I seem to remember, is the sun gets so lazy and the short days make us crazy. But just as it seems the darkness will win, the time of more light finally begins, so we celebrate the New Year with our gifts and good cheer, but the best part of all, for the grown up and small, are the stories we tell, as we wish our friends well.
So today, once again, for this season of changing light we take a break from the news. Maybe you want to throw another log on the fire, or brew up a cup of tea or hot chocolate, but whatever you do, please join us while we swap some stories.
For this Living on Earth storytelling special we’ll head to the Fjords of northern Norway for a scary tale from the darkest night of the year. And we’ll spend some time on a sunny Grecian island where the sun can be as much an ogre as a bright blessing. But we’ll begin our travels in the British Isles, where for thousands of years, druids have been celebrating light around the time of the Northern winter solstice, that shortest of days.
But not to worry, ol’ Sol is coming back. And that is cause for great festivities in the pagan and druid faiths that date long before Christmas and Chanukah came onto the calendar. Mara Freeman is a druid, and also a Celtic storyteller, and she joins me now.
Ms. Freeman, welcome to Living on Earth.
FREEMAN: Thank you it’s great to be here.
CURWOOD: Now, what’s a Druid exactly?
FREEMAN: A druid is someone who follows an earth-based tradition that honors the earth as an ensouled animate being that is shot through with the divine. And this is something that we’ve lost over the last centuries, with industrialization, increasing technology that has kept us, perhaps, away from that close connection with the earth as a living being that our ancestors used to have.
FREEMAN: Well, the zither it’s the name that’s given to many different kinds of flat wooden instruments, strung with multiple strings. This is a zither that’s actually tuned pentatonicly to the scale that’s used in most Celtic music. So, it has a very nice Celtic feel to it.
CURWOOD: Can I hear it for a moment?
CURWOOD: Oh, it sounds like I should be heading off to dreamland or something.
CURWOOD: You have a story for us that comes from the Pagan tradition. I wonder if you could tell that for us.
FREEMAN: Right, shall I tell you a little bit about the story first, Steve?
FREEMAN: This story is actually from Scotland and um, I should probably tell you that for the ancient Celts there were really two parts of the year; the dark part, the winter part, and the summer part. And they were personified or regarded by the people in those times as two faces of a great goddess. And she had different names according to weather this was her winter aspect or her summer aspect. In the winter she was called the Cailleach, which is a word meaning the veiled one. And she was seen as this rather fearsome old woman of winter. And her bright side, which returned when spring came along was Bridget, who in Scotland is also known as bride. And Bride is the young maiden who ushers back the warm light-filled days of the early spring. So this story is actually called the Return of Bride.
FREEMAN: The Cailleach Bheur was the old woman of winter in Scotland. She was very tall and very old, and everyone was afraid of her. Her face was blue and she only had one eye. Her teeth were red as rust, and her long hair as white as an aspen covered with snow. When she was angry she was as fierce as the biting north wind, and she roared like the sea in storm. Every autumn she struck the ground with her magic hammer and turned the grass into blades of ice.
All winter long, the Cailleach kept captive a beautiful young princess named Bride. She was jealous of her beauty, and gave her ragged clothes to wear and made her work in the kitchen of her castle in the mountains.
Now the reason the Cailleach Bheur kept Bride a prisoner was because her favorite son, whose name was Angus-the-Ever-Young, had fallen in love with her. Angus lived on the Green Isle of the West, which is also called the Land of Youth, and he never grew any older. The Cailleach knew that if he ever married Bride, he would be able to take his place as the Summer King and Bride would be his queen. Then the Cailleach’s reign would be over.
Angus gazed into the Well of Youth that lies at the heart of the Green Isle. He saw storms and he saw winds – and he saw Bride all alone weeping in her castle prison. Straight away, he went to the King of the Green Isle and said, “I must go to her at once and set her free!”
But the King of the Green Isle said, “You cannot go now, Angus, for February, the month of the wolf, has come, and uncertain is the temper of the wolf. Wait a while until the grass begins to grow and flowers start to bloom, and then you shall set Bride free.”
But Angus said, “I shall cast a spell on the sea and a spell on the land, and borrow for February three days from August.”
And so he borrowed three days from August, and the sun came out and shone like pale gold over mountain and glen, while the sea lay smooth as buttermilk. Angus mounted his white horse and rode eastward to Scotland over the isles and over the Minch by day and by night, and he reached the Grampian Mountains just as the dawn was breaking. As he rode his royal robe of crimson streamed from his shoulders and his cloak of shining gold spread out all around him, setting the mountains ablaze with light.
For three days Angus rode up and down the land, but he could not find Bride anywhere. Then one day, as he rode through a thick and tangled forest, he heard a soft sad voice singing among distant trees. It was Bride in the woods near the castle, where the Cailleach had sent her to gather logs for the fire. Angus gazed upon the living girl whom he had only seen before in a vision, and called her name.
Said Angus, “I have come to rescue you from the Cailleach who has held you prisoner all winter long.”
Bride replied, “For me this is a day of great joy.”
Said Angus, “From this time forth it will be a day of great joy to all of Scotland, as well.”
For the day on which Angus found Bride was the first visit of spring, which ever after was called, “Bride’s Day.” The hard earth began to thaw, and blades of new grass pierced the softening soil. Pale yellow primroses glowed in the woods, and young leaves unfurled on branches, green and tender.
Yet the Cailleach’s reign was not yet over. When she found out what had happened, she and her eight hag-servants mounted their shaggy black goats and rode out of the mountain to wage war upon Angus and Bride. First she raised the wind called The Whistler, which blew high and shrill, and brought down showers of cold hailstones. It lasted for three days, and killed the sheep and their new-born lambs upon the moors. Then she raised the Sharp-billed Wind that lasted for nine days and pierced the land to its core, pecking and biting like a sharp-billed bird. Finally, she raised the eddy wind that is called The Sweeper, whose whirling gusts tore branches from the budding trees and bright flowers from their stalks. Angus was moved with pity for the people, whose horses and cattle died for want of food. He drove the hags back to the far north, where they fretted and fumed in a fury.
But that night, the Cailleach Bheur borrowed three days from winter which had not been used, because Angus had borrowed three days from August. The three days of winter were spirits of the storm, and the Cailleach let them loose upon the land, riding on the backs of black hogs. They summoned the snow to the newly ploughed fields, and breathed the winds of death into cottage window and stable door. The rivers rose in flood, and many were drowned. The days on which this happened were ever after called the Three Hog Days.
Then one bright morning at the beginning of March, the Cailleach saw Angus riding boldly over the hills on his white horse, scattering her hag-servants before him. She felt the unmistakable tide of life rising through the veins of the land, and knew it was too strong for her. She flung down her magic hammer and turned into a large grey standing stone on the slopes of the mountain, where she was forced to stay until the next wintertime returned.
Angus and Bride were married and wherever they stepped dandelions sprang up beneath their feet, and people called them the ‘little notched ones of Bride.’ As they rode throughout the land, the linnet sang of Bride’s beauty, and so she was known ever after as the “Bird of Bride.” When they came to the seashore, the first bird that chirped with joy was the oystercatcher, and so he is known as the ‘Page of Bride.’
Spring had come at last.
CURWOOD: Thank you so much. I have to say, I’m ready for spring now.
CURWWOD: I love all the images from this, particularly when she goes riding out on goats.
FREEMAN: (Laughs) Goats were often seen as somewhat in league with the devil, you know with that pointed face and that strange staring yellow gaze, the horns and so forth. So I think they’ve always been considered animals to be avoided, ones that were perhaps associated with a spirit known as the Pooka. The Pooka was a mischievous fairy that could often take the shape of a goat. So, it’s kind of natural that the goats became the steeds of the Cailleach and her eight hag servants.
CURWOOD: Mara Freeman’s story is called “Return of Bride.” We’ll be back in just a moment to hear more from Ms. Freeman, and then we’ll head to the dark Fjords of Norway for a winters tale that will chill you to the bone. Keep listening to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Mara Freeman “Seasonal Celtic Zither Harp Music” performed live in ‘KAZU-FM (Monterey, CA)’ studio (December – 2006)]
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood and I’m still with Mara Freeman, the storyteller who just told us the story of “Return of Bride.” And I’d like to ask you to tell us more about this story. In particular, tell us about Angus? Who is he and how does he factor into Celtic lore?
FREEMAN: Well, as I think you can tell from the story Angus very much personifies the sun. You know he rides up and down the land and his royal robe of crimson streams behind him bringing back the light to land, particularly coming back in splendid fashion at the winter solstice. And there is an actual place in Ireland that celebrates the birth of Angus. And this is played out in an extraordinary fashion in the landscape. And that place in fact, a number of listeners probably will have heard of this place, is called Newgrange. And what it is is a huge great egg-shaped burial mound or earth-shaped chamber in the middle of the green meadows of the Boyne River in Ireland. Not far, it’s about 40 miles Northwest of Dublin. And Newgrange was built, oh more than 5,000 years ago, it’s extraordinary. And the marvelous or one of the marvelous things about Newgrange is that there’s a great spiral stone at its entrance way. You go beyond that spiral stone and you have to pretty much bend double to crawl along this long passage way that leads you into the heart of the chamber itself. It’s as if you’ve been going down this birth canal that opens up into the womb of the mother earth. And the womb is filled with these beautiful petroglyphs, rock art full of spirals and shapes that look like suns bursting into life. So, probably, thousands of years ago the druids and maybe the ancestors of the druids themselves would have been sitting in that chamber in the dark, perhaps fasting, perhaps praying um holding their ceremonies, awaiting the return of the light because on the morning of the winter solstice the light did in fact return. The first rays of that morning sun on that special day of the year would come shooting down that narrow passage through the vagina of the earth herself and light up the womb inside where the people would have been waiting for this tremendous rebirth of the light at this time of the year.
CURWOOD: Mara Freeman, you love telling this story of the return of Bride, why?
FREEMAN: Oh, it just has all the characters. You know, it’s a beautiful story. It’s a fairy tale itself but it’s also a story of the land. But for me the most important, the most vital, and vibrant stories of the Celtic, and really of all indigenous peoples, have to do with the earth herself. And I love the pieces about the linnet and the oystercatcher and the all the little details about nature because this is a true myth. You know myth is a reflection of what really goes on in our world, told as a story that all ages can understand. And so it’s a true story made alive and made dramatic for all to enjoy.
CURWOOD: Mara Freeman thank you so much.
FREEMAN: Thank you, Steve.
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