The nights grow longer, the wheel of the year turns toward the West. The time of the Bone Mother is here.
Bone Mother. Cailleach Béara. Nicnevin.
In Gaelige traditions, she is the dark bride the land becomes at Samhain.
Here, the North wind is her breath. The mountain range that shelters the lake where my house is mirrored is her spine, running South to Georgia and North and East to Ireland and Scotland.
If Brighid is the flowing water and the bright dancing flame, the Cailleach Béara is the cold solidity of the Earth which holds our ancestors’ bones, the darkness of the womb and the grave.
On both sides of the North Atlantic, Samhain, the time of her coronation, is the season of the Deer hunt and the culling of the Cattle herd. Throughout the winter my ancestors nourished themselves with the meat harvested at Samhain --- and they broke open the bones and cooked them in great cauldrons over fires of driftwood and peat.
In the season when the Cailleach Béara rules, we spend long nights in the shadow, confronting what we did not face in the bright light of day. Sometimes in the darkness we are stripped as bare as the Oak and the Birch in the winter. In such times, I remember the wise words shared in a ceremony, not unlike those of my ancestors, where we prayed all night for the rising of the sun: If you use your muscles to hold yourself up through the night, you will grow tired and sore. Instead, rest into your bones and let them support you.
In Chinese medicine, the kidney is the reservoir of our ancestral inheritance, and the mother of the bone. That ancestral essence, the jing, is as watery thing that calcifies into solid form as we come together in the womb and as we grow in the world.
We are learning that bone as a complex endocrine organ that evolved to help us escape from danger. When we sense danger, our bones release osteocalcin, a hormone that initiates our stress response. It is worth noting that it does this not by directly signaling the adrenals to release cortisol and adrenaline, but by shutting down the parasympathetic function of the autonomic nervous system, letting our bodies know that it is time to stop rebuilding and repairing themselves and switch into survival mode.
Chinese medicine teaches that stress, worry, and struggle deplete the kidney yin, the primal material source of bone. Broths made from roots and animal bones are one of the oldest medicines for replenishing that essence – foods harvested in Autumn that sustain us through Winter.
Recent archaeological discoveries suggest that storing Deer bones to sustain the tribe through lean times is one of the oldest human practices. A practice as old as simmering those bones in water over fire, and gathering to tell the stories and sing the songs that remind us who we are. Songs and stories are prayers chanted over the soup that will tell the molecules of the dissolving bones what form to take as they transmute from animal bone to human flesh.
In this dark season, this time of endings and beginnings, may you be nourished, blessed, and whole.
Want to learn more about the magic and medicine of this season?
Seán has recorded an hour-long talk exploring Samhain lore, bone medicine and bone memory, and medicines for navigating the dark time of the year. It ends with a meditation focused on sending gratitude to our ancestors.
Seán is also available to provide personal guidance and counsel for your healing journey.