winter hag

Archetypes and the Ecological Imagination

This week’s guest blog post comes to us from Dr. Sharon Blackie, whose article “Celtic Mythology: An Ecofeminist Approach” appears in our debut issue of Immanence Journal launching this month!

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, imagination is ‘the ability to imagine things that are not real; the ability to form a picture in your mind of something that you have not seen or experienced; the ability to think of new things.’ In this age of social and environmental crises, we need more than ever to be able to ‘think of new things,’ to imagine new ways of being in the world. Only if we can imagine the world differently will we be able to behave differently. Archetypal images carry energy; they are keys which unlock the potentials and possibilities of the psyche, and so I believe that now we should be actively seeking out ecological archetypes – archetypes which can help us to imagine ways of living in balance and harmony with the rest of the natural world, allowing us to peel away the layers of disenchantment and alienation which we’ve acquired as a result of several centuries of dualistic and mechanistic Western philosophy. Which can help us develop an ecological imagination.

Perhaps the best-known such archetype is Gaia, the primordial goddess who personified the Earth in Greek mythology. James Lovelock and Lynne Margulis brought her back to popular awareness in their ‘Gaia Hypothesis,’ which proposed that the planet (and all biological life on it) functioned as a single living organism. According to this model, damage to one part of the organism can affect the whole.

Celtic mythology is founded on ecological archetypes, and Irish mythology in particular is filled with stories of powerful women who were incarnations or representations of the Sovereignty goddess, who was the guardian and protector of the land. Sovereignty in many senses represented the spirit of the Earth itself, the anima mundi, a deeply ecological force. During the reign of a king favoured by the goddess, the land was fertile and prosperous, and the tribe was victorious in war. But she expected in return that the king, and through his example, the people, would cherish the land. And if that contract between the people and the land should be broken, the fertile land would become the Wasteland.

Throughout Gaelic (both Irish and Scottish) mythology we also find the ancient figure of the Cailleach, the old woman: the hag who made and shaped the land. The Cailleach, often seen driving her herd of wild deer across the mountain tops, is very much a guardian of the wild. Sometimes in Scottish folklore she appears as a Glastaig (a ‘Green Maiden’), and one story which clearly shows her in this role of protector of the wild things tells of a Glastaig who prevented Donald Cameron, a hunter in Lochaber, Scotland, from killing a herd of hinds which she was driving. Seeing him raise his gun, she called to him: ‘You are too hard on my hinds, Donald! You must not be so hard on them!’ Donald, quick-witted, answered her with this swift reply: ‘I have never killed a hind where I could find a stag.’ He allowed the hinds to pass, concentrated ever afterwards on taking the occasional stag, and the Glastaig never bothered him again.

In another story, a man was returning from hunting on a mountain in the Scottish Highlands called Beinn Bhric, when he heard a sound like the cracking of two rocks against each other. At the base of a large stone by the road he found a woman with a green shawl around her shoulders. The woman, clearly a Glastaig, held a deer shank in each hand, and constantly struck them together. He asked her what she was doing, but she cried only, over and over again, ‘Since the forest was burnt! Since the forest was burnt!’ And she kept repeating this refrain for as long as he could hear her.  Here, the Cailleach mourns the cutting of the forest; here, she mourns the loss of her deer. Here perhaps she mourns the coming of the road, the coming of man, and of progress.

The Cailleach Bheur - Jill Smith

      The Cailleach Bheur, artist: Jill Smith (contributed by author)


We also find ecological archetypes in native British traditions, and it is particularly interesting in these times to see the growing resurgence of the ‘Green Man’ archetype. The term ‘Green Man’ dates back to 1939, when Lady Raglan coined it in an article (‘The Green Man in Church Architecture’) which was published in the journal Folklore. They had previously been known simply as ‘foliate heads,’ and hadn’t been the focus of much study. The Green Man most often occurs as carved stone ornamentation on European churches and other important buildings, dating from the eleventh century but undoubtedly having its origin in pre-Christian times. (He also frequently appears on brightly painted pub signs, as many old British hostelries are named after him.) These images show a male face surrounded by leaves, with branches or vines sprouting from the nose, mouth, nostrils or cheeks, and which sometimes bear flowers or fruit.

The most common interpretation of the Green Man is that he represents a pagan god or nature spirit, personifying the fertile life-force of nature, and the annual cycles of growth. He is also seen as a symbol of human union with nature, and in contemporary imagery he is sometimes seen as representing a ‘green intelligence,’ or ‘green consciousness.’ From these qualities of the Green Man, to the Cailleach and her fierce and implacable defence of the land and the non-human world, it is clear that the resurgence of contemporary interest in these archetypes is triggered by a growing recognition of the plight we find ourselves in, and a growing need to reconnect with nature and the wild.

Dr. Sharon Blackie’s work sits at the interface of psychology, mythology and ecology. Her highly acclaimed books, articles, online courses and residential retreats are focused on the development of the mythic imagination, and on the relevance of our native myths, fairy tales and folk traditions to the personal, social and environmental problems we face today. For more information, see

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