In early April of 2019 my grandmother passed away. She was my dad’s mom, and I last remember seeing her at my great-great Aunt Jane’s funeral at age seven or eight. I can’t remember how old I was. In the years that followed my dad became estranged from my grandmother, and I became estranged from my dad. All of which, I believe, stem from the intergenerational trauma related to alcohol addiction.
A few months prior to my grandmother’s death I launched this blog as a project to discuss my personal relationship with magic, and her death impacted that relationship in deeper ways than I could have anticipated. Throughout 2019 subtle events unfolded that taught me of a deep, quiet love that alchemizes emotional pain experienced during this finite lifetime.
Healing Ancestral Wounds
Ancestral wounds cut deep. They reach past any known point of conscious awareness we have about our current identities. They are greater than the individual egos we experience in our own lifetimes, and yet help to construct those very same egos simultaneously. They’re ancient wounds that live in our bones. But they’re also the doors in which our awareness can expand to know the wide spectrum of emotions each of us can experience as humans. A single event can create both deep suffering and profound empowerment, depending on how we choose to heal those wounds. The two are not mutually exclusive.
I think of salvation as the moment of release into emotional freedom and safety after a harrowing experience. The past happened. The pain and fear attached to the memory are valid. But now it’s time metabolize the pain – to take it apart, beak it down, and transform it into the remedy you need in this moment. I do this by taking an aspect of the pain and curiously ask questions about it, exploring it in thought processes. I imagine I walk side-by-side with the pain in the spirit of friendship, listening and tending to it in healthy and sustainable ways. And the more consistent I am, the more aware I am of my ability to choose an alchemizing emotional state. I witness and experience deeper layers of joy while walking in truth alongside the pain of my lived experience.
But healing ancestral wounds doesn’t have to be a solo task. In fact, it shouldn’t. Because these wounds are greater than us as individuals or even as family units, it’s necessary to call upon spirit allies to aide in the task. These could be ancestors, animal or plant archetypes, or beings from various cosmologies.
Days before my grandmother’s death I felt the presence of the Cailleach, the Celtic ancestor goddess, near and with me. At the time I didn’t know what to think of it, but in retrospect I believe the Cailleach heralded my Irish American grandmother’s passing. In the months that followed her death, more spirits, specifically the aos sí, also came forward petitioning a working magical relationship with me.
At first, I was very reluctant. The aos sí are notoriously playful and mischievous. Akin to fairies, they are a supernatural race of beings that occupy an ambiguous space of being part deity, part nature spirit, and part ancestor that are so old they’ve lost their humanness. But my hesitancy eased as I learned about the symbiotic relationship between the aos sí and witches in Irish folklore.[i] The witch channels the magic from the aos sí to read signs or enact change in the mundane world. It’s a relationship that allows the witch to bypass the limitations of the human perspective. When I learned that my grandmother also had identified as a witch (she was clairvoyant and read palms) and had a working relationship with the aos sí, my hesitancy disappeared altogether.
I was four when my dad left to start a new family, which began the deterioration of our relationship. Because that event happened so early in life for me, I cognitively don’t know what it’s like to not feel abandoned by a parent. I don’t know what it’s like to not associate a parent with emotional and psychological abuse. But the presence of the aos sí became an invitation to curiously play with ways in which I can find emotional healing and support. I could channel the magic of the aos sí, whose very nature is greater than myself, my dad, and my grandmother combined. This relationship could help me move beyond the pain that is so central to my identity and shift my worldview to a place of safety and empowerment.
Playful Acts of Courage
The first playful act of courage I did in 2019 was bake bread. When I was kid, long after my parents divorced, my grandmother compiled a cookbook of family recipes, some of which dated back to our Irish ancestors. She gave my mom a copy to give to me when I got older, but it wasn’t until after her death that I found the courage to look at it. I baked a loaf of soda bread following the recipe in her cookbook and offered it to my ancestors on my alter.
The second playful act I did was speak blessings. I last spoke to my dad three years ago, a decision that was my own. Our relationship became too painful for me to continue, and I decided I needed space in order to find peace. But in 2019 I discovered my own need to access a place of forgiveness. I knew I couldn’t return to the destructiveness of our relationship, nor could I change my dad as a human. I needed a way to find forgiveness, while also respecting personal sovereignty. So I chose to daily speak blessings into the relationship (the spaces that exist between us), through prayer and with the help of the aos sí.
I share these anecdotes to demonstrate how mundane the most profound magic can sometimes appear. I think we often expect spectacle when it comes to validating spiritual experiences. But the most effective experiences, in my opinion, are deceptively simple and gentle. To the outsider, I baked a loaf of bread. But internally, that loaf of bread was the manifestation of a small act of courage I took to consciously shift emotions of sorrow that I inherited. It came from a cookbook intended to nourish me ancestrally and in turn I used the bread to nourish my ancestors. It allowed me to gain a feeling of support that was severely lacking in my paternal lineage, even if only accessed in the spirit realms.
Weaving Together the Ancestor with the Inner Child
In November I taught a workshop about weaving cailleachs, plated straw bundles that were traditionally hung in Irish kitchens or barns that also served as effigies to the divine crone, Cailleach. At the time I didn’t realize how close Cailleach had stayed with me throughout the year, until I remembered her visitation to me in April. The bundles were made traditionally near Samhain (Oct 31), celebrating the end of the harvest, and were thought to bring nourishment to the household or livestock.[ii] But cailleachs can also be made at Imbolc (January 31), because securing two of them together makes a regional variation of a Saint Brigid’s Cross.[iii] Brigid, who is celebrated at Imbolc, is the Celtic goddess of springtime, fire, and sacred wells. Her saintly counterpart is venerated on February 1st and is the patron saint of children, especially those in need of care.
It feels appropriate to end this post by sharing this simple but layered spell that venerates and nourishes both the ancestor and the inner child. To make a simple cailleach, take a bundle of straw (at least 12 pieces) and tie it just below the kernels. Divide the bundle into three sections and braid the stalks by crossing over the middle. Secure the bundle by tying another string at the end and repeat the process for the second cailleach. It might help to soak the straw in water first to make it more bendable, depending on the dryness of the straw. Tie the two cailleachs in the middle to create the Saint Brigid’s Cross, and hang near an entryway in the home.
[i] Buttler, Jenny. “The Sídhe and Fairy Forts.” In Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies 500 AD to the Present, 95–107. London: Gibson Square, 2018.
[ii] O’Dowd, Anne. Straw, Hay, and Rushes in Irish Folk Tradition. Sallins, Co. Kildare, Ireland: Irish Academic, 2015.