Monday, 20 April 2015

An Intimate Journey with Heron

'Her Wild Wings', 2012

It all began with Sheela-na-Gig, as many of the best things do. Before her I hadn't thought much about herons. I remember my friend Jack telling me once that he had been walking along the riverside at Richmond and had come across a crowd of people all looking up into a tree. He asked one what they were doing and they replied, “Shhhhh, there are pterodactyls nesting there!”. And that is herons; even from our perspective where birds are so completely 'other', herons are even more 'other' than that. And yet they have become trusted companions and allies on my journey through life and have moved beneath many of my most powerful experiences.

And so it is with Sheela-na-Gig who was my way into the mysterious world of the heron spirit. I remember that during my first year of priestess training I didn't think about her much. I loved her image, challenging as she does so many taboos. For those who are unfamiliar with her, Sheela-na-Gig, in Gaelic Irish Síle-na-Géige, is usually found depicted in stone carvings in churches and other buildings, particularly in Ireland and Great Britain. She has the drooping breasts of an old woman and holds open her exaggerated vulva, challenging our preconceptions about the risk of being revealed and around sexuality and age. She is often carved over doors and windows and was said to ward off evil spirits, although some have suggested that she represents female lust as 'sinful and corrupting'. Others believe that carvings of her are the remnants of a pre-Christian fertility or Goddess religion but really no one knows. Truly she is a being of the hedge, challenging our boundaries and our edges. And, for all those things, I loved her but she was always fixed, made of stone like the carvings that depict her. Just writing this I have realised that herons are a bit like that; so still that they appear like statues, and then shocking us when they suddenly move. When I felt Sheela-na-Gig move she was like a tsunami; a great wave of feeling, teaching me to breathe into and out of any pain that I was in, teaching me not to turn to stone. And heron is her bird.

The heron is a hunter of the edge places; fresh or salt, clear or muddy, edges that are neither water nor land. Like Sheela, she is a liminal-dweller, a watcher in the between places, and she guards the gateways between life and death. In Irish Gaelic her name is Síle na bPortach; portach meaning 'bog', and port a place of refuge or a haven. She is our protective wing and our place of safety in those misty in-between places that unsettle and frighten us so deeply. She is sure-footed and wild eyed, showing us the way, and she has a beak that can cut through our self-deception like a rapier. I once wrote a fragment of a poem about depression that called on heron for her ability to walk surely through the seemingly unsure places of the mind and the heart...

I know the safe way through the fen
Because I have so often fallen
Into the maddening mire of mind
that calls me on false paths home
Now, I am heron-footed;
stepping surely on the boundary
between madness and creativity
She is my haven, my portach, my rest

('On the Sweet Track', a fragment, 2011)
After my 'tsunami moment' with Sheela-na-Gig I saw herons a lot. My mum and dad were elderly and unwell and I was spending much time travelling to their house by train. Often I would see herons by the trackside and each time they reminded me of Sheela and prompted me to breathe and to remember that no moment, no matter how distressing, is frozen in time. I learned to let emotion move through me, rather than attaching to it and becoming subsumed; heron knows how to pick her way through those watery places of feeling and I was grateful to her.

Kathryn Price NicDhàna, in her wonderful article on 'Sheela-na-Gig and Sacred Space', notes that in Celtic mythology the heron, the crane, and the stork, are interchangeable and that the word corr is often used to describe all three. Most usually translated as crane, corr is said to be a female guardian of the Underworld and a companion of beings who bridge the space between life and death, most often old women. I was powerfully shown the truth of this when I was visiting Carmarthen in 2002 with a group of priestess sisters. I was reflecting deeply on reclaiming the dark aspect of the goddess Rhiannon at the time and had found three dead baby birds who had sadly been knocked out of their nest in the local village when the gutters were cleaned. They had been left on the pavement and, as small birds are companions of Rhiannon, I saw this finding as a message about her connection to death, rather than just being the Love Goddess that she is often portrayed as. I decided to gather up the dead babies and take them to the river where I released them into the quickly running water as a blessing on their journey. The next day we visited Rhiannon's waterfall and I found a stone with markings that looked like a heron's foot, reminding me that I was working with the goddess's death aspect. That day, the children found a dead mouse and, having been inspired by my story of the baby birds, made a 'shroud' for it from a large green leaf tied up with grass and launched it from the top of the waterfall as a sort of 'burial at sea'! I'm not sure why we so often think that children have a problem with death...

In 2004, my dad suffered a stroke and began a slow journey of recovery during which it seemed to me that he inhabited a shadow world between living and dying. He had always been a sensitive man and often heard voices in the hospital telling him jokes, which seemed to keep his spirits up. Eventually, he was moved to a rehabilitation unit and one day I was sitting on the side of his bed when he said, “Oh, you've turned into a heron!” By then I had been working as a priestess in the liminal spaces for some years and found his vision deeply affirming. From that time I began to more consciously walk the heron path.

But heron comes to show the way
through misty marshes of the mind
The edge of love, the edge of fear
The connection we were born to find

And when Crone Mother finally calls you
to rest and change in dreaming womb
I will rejoice that you are with Her
But always feel you left too soon

             I call to you my joy, my father
             as priestess, to the Blessed Isle
            As daughter call you ever homeward
             to stay with me for just a while

(From 'Northern Star: for my father', 2004)

In the winter of 2010 I was renting a small house in Glastonbury, Somerset. It was a time when my creativity felt as dry as dead leaves but I enjoyed the little house just on the edge of the Somerset marshes and loved hearing owls calling at night. One day, feeling particularly stuck, I went for a long walk and was amazed to see a huge bird flying towards me. At first I couldn't work out what it was but then saw that it was a heron. Seeing its wide powerful wings something unlocked inside me and, having never really drawn before, I began to draw and paint herons; something that I love to do and, in reality, the only thing that I have ever been able to draw! Somehow herons are just in my blood.

'Heron's Winter Dreaming', 2010

'Heron Guards the Gateway', 2011

'Heron Sleeps with Standing Stones', 2011

In 2011, I met Will and began living part time on his boat in which we travelled the Kennet and Avon Canal and River Thames. My story with Will is one for another day but it was a time when I was able to more deeply connect with herons in their natural environment. We would see them every day; sometimes hunting in the shallows, sometimes flying on their wide ungainly wings; always hauntingly, perfectly 'other'. Although I loved Will and the boat, it was a period of bone-crushing despair; journeying both with the challenges of life on the water, which was hard but beautiful, and with his debilitating mental illness, which was a trap for us both. Clinging to every glimpse of her storm-winged beauty, heron taught me the power of patience and of knowing just the right moment to strike for quicksilver morsels of happiness amidst the grinding heartache of trying to get Will some care in a world that seemed to have lost its compassion. Each time I went to the boat I would put on a heron pendant as a symbol that I was stepping into my 'water gypsy' self and, often, I would find heron feathers on the riverbank. When I finally found the courage to fly myself free I threw my pendant into the deepest water I could find, needing to sever my attachment to the river and its heron dreaming, and offered a heron feather and some woad-dyed wool to our fire until they were ashes. Heron knows about letting go.

'Heron Offering', 2013

'Woad-dyed Wool for the Ancestors', 2013

I asked heron to show me how to hunt my freedom and she answered but she is never easy and it remained a path that needed careful negotiation and sure-footedness through many mires. There were many tears; hers is the path of deep emotion. In 2014 Will died suddenly and I was privileged to help midwife his beautiful soul into the Otherworld; another story for another day, but a reminder that heron, guardian of the Underworld, continued to work her strange magic in my life. Somehow, she was part of the enchantment that drew us together and she was part of the enchantment that set us both free; like the Crone whose energy she carries, she asks a lot of us. Will once told me that he had never really noticed the herons before I was there; that I made the river beautiful for him.

He left just as the snowdrops came
He could not hope to hope again;
Could not bear to let 
the fragile spears break through
his frozen faith, for life to rise,
a spark to catch,
and then to let him fall
and fall again,
as winter turned to spring
He felt unseen,
yet heron saw him fly away,
kingfisher caught his soul
and made it fire, set him free
and silver salmon mother swam him home...

(For Will, 2014)

There are times when heron has appeared when I was least expecting her. Once when I had an opportunity to do some smithcraft and she appeared from the fires in the bracelet that I was making; perhaps the heron feather that I had offered to the fire on the riverbank was emerging from the flames...

'Heron Forge', 2013

...and once in 2012 when I made my own drum. As part of the making we used our hands to cover the drum hoop with red ochre, so often a symbol of life in death and a substance which I had used to mark both my mum's and dad's bodies before their burials. Having painted the hoops, we stretched the deer skins we had chosen across the frame and, somehow, my drum skin became marked with red ochre. The marks looked to me like an old, old woman, both in profile and looking straight at me and, for some reason, I thought of heron. 

'Heron Grandmother Drum', 2012

That night, lying in the yurt, I had a dream that an ancient ancestor, a grandmother of the Heron Tribe, beautiful with deeply wrinkled skin, storm-grey eyes, and hair falling in long grey plaits, came and looked me straight in the face. It felt like love and a challenge and even now when I close my eyes I can see her. She is my teacher and yet, like heron, she often disappears into the river mist. And she is always silent. When Will died and we walked in procession after his coffin I knew that the Heron Tribe were with me; they are the death-walkers and they know about Life.

'Storm-wing Heron', 2012

And finally for now, in December 2014, my drum-making sisters and I all had sacred tattoos carved on our skin. Some had chosen their designs before we met for a weekend of deep journeying together but I decided to wait for inspiration. The symbol that came was an antlered heron foot, which has deep meaning for me and continues my journey both with the heron spirit and with She~Who~Is. These are just fragments of a story that moves through my life, through every breath, and deep beneath my skin. For now, I will say that I remain sure-footed in walking the heron path. I will trust her to show me where to put my feet. I am grateful.

'With Grandmother Heron Drum', 2012

'Antlered Heron tattoo', 2014


  1. "An Intimate Journey with Heron" is my favorite of your "AtoZChallenge" writings thus far...You totally ground your readers through out this entire piece...through warm/cold and far/close corners of your life...your connection to Nature is a wonder...a well told powerful journey with the Heron...

    1. Thank you so much Russ. Your encouragement means a lot to me. It is hard to tell how such a personal piece might come across, whether it will make sense outside my own head, and this is a wonderful affirmation for me. Thank you x

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you, Annick. I love you too and have deep respect for you. To be called brave by one such as yourself is praise indeed! x

  3. This is quite an education about herons!

  4. Hello :) This is Holly.

    "Heron-footed" - I love that, and I'm always on the boundary between "madness and creativity".

    What a thoughtful read, thank you for sharing it.

    I see herons a lot along the local canal. I have a wonderful video of one fishing. It was so intent on the fish it didn't see me, and I watched it watching the water. Then it grabbed the fish, stepped onto the bank, swallowed it whole then walked back into the water to have a drink. All the time, completely oblivious of me nearby!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I genuinely do appreciate and value what you have to say. For some reason I am currently struggling to reply but I am reading everything you say and I am grateful. I will work on the replying!