The wheel of the year turns, and everything changes. As November comes, the golden days of autumn give way to winter; the hours of daylight dwindle, night comes early and dawn comes late. The fields, once lush and golden with corn, are brown and devoid of life, rough furrowed under the plough. In the hedgerows, all that was fair and blossoming lies rotting on the sodden ground, swathed in tendrils of mist and clinging dew. We are surrounded by a rank and decaying earth. The powers of growth are winding down, and the powers of darkness and cold gain ascendancy.
As the sunlight fails during this month, the fox will take to its earth, hedgehogs, dormice, badgers, squirrels, bats, snakes, newts and lizards, will seek their nests and burrows to sleep until spring. Snails huddle together for the winter under piles of dead plants or woodpiles – they hate the cold and glue themselves together and withdraw into their shells. Butterflies will hibernate in hollow tree trunks, and the corners of sheds and houses till spring. Wood mice may be driven into sheds and out buildings. Many small animals and birds will die over the winter of starvation and cold.
It feels like a melancholy month when the colours have faded out of the world, and all becomes grey – grey skies and grey heavy mist, heavy moisture in the air clinging to hair and clothes. Tired leaves fall to earth and carpet the ground, their green summer youth forgotten, the bare trees left to their leafless dreaming. This month sees the last of the berries and the first of the snows and killing frosts.
We enter the death time of the year, when Mother Nature seems to sleep and the world falls silent.
This is the season of the Crone, the Hag of Winter. Beware, this is no gentle old lady – she is wild, fierce and elemental, just like winter itself. She is the storm rider, the shapeshifter, the ground freezer, the plant witherer, the bringer of death and the collector of souls. She has had many names in many places – Ceridwen, Hecate, Frau Gauden, Perchta, Nicneven, Reisarova, Frau Holda, Befana, the Hag of Beare, Babushka, Beira, Gyre-Carline, Mag Moullach, Gentle Annie, Lussi, Saelde, and Black Annis amongst many others.
In Scotland she is the Cailleach Bheur (‘The Blue Hag’), whose face is blue with cold, hair as white as frost. With her holly staff in her hand and a carrion crow perched on her shoulder, she strides across the land, beating down the vegetation, and hardening the earth with ice.  In her great cauldron, the whirlpool of Corryvreckan, she washes ‘the plaid of old Scotland’ until it is white with snow.  In Edinburgh, it was said that snow was the result of ‘the Old Woman over in Fife’ plucking her geese.  In Germany it was held that when it snowed Frau Holda (or Frau Holle) was shaking out her feather pillows. Fog was smoke from her fire and thunder was Holda reeling flax.
Winter is a time of death, the death of plants, the death of animals, and the death of those humans for whom the season is too harsh, particularly children, so it is not surprising that the Hag of Winter is a death goddess and a collector of souls, particularly the souls of children, In this role she often leads the Wild Hunt, flying through the midnight skies accompanied by wild women and ghosts, gathering the recently dead. In Norse myth these were the túnridur, the ‘hag riders’, or the gandreid ‘witch ride’. In Norway, the goddess Reisarova led the aaskereida (‘lightning and thunder’), a spectral host who rode black horses with eyes like embers., while in Germany the Furious Host rode was led by Frau Holle, Percht or Berchta (‘Shining’). Slovenians called the goddess leading the souls of the dead Zlata Baba or ‘Golden Crone’.
The Tyroleans said that whoever got in Wild Berchta’s way as she tore through the night with the Wild Hunt would sink into trance and upon awakening, be able to predict how the next harvest would be, and this leads us to something important about the Hag of Winter – there is a deep connection between fertility and winter death. Perchta fructified the land by ploughing it underground, while her heimchen (the souls of the dead babies she collected) watered the fields. While the Maidens and Mothers might bring it forth, the fertility of the next year’s harvest is fundamentally the Crone’s gift
The fierce and powerful vision of the Crone Goddess found in myth is fundamentally at odds with the sanitised and patronising view of her I often come across on Pagan websites and in Pagan books – the Crone as the kindly wise old woman, waiting for death, who exists solely to patiently pass on her years of accumulated wisdom – a concept reflecting our own society, with its heritage of patriarchal monotheism, where old women are seen as useless, past sex, past childbearing, past working. That characterisation doesn’t fit any of the old ladies I know – most of whom are pretty formidable – and it certainly doesn’t fit the stories of the Hag who might be considered the most elementally powerful goddess of all.
At this dark time of year, we might be drawn to consider our own personal November, our own cronehood, however far away it might be. At some point in our lives we are forced to acknowledge that beauty must fade, physical strength decline, and that one day we too will die. And yet…and yet…in this dismal season, when the earth is bare and the trees skeletal, when everything showy is stripped away, we feel the underlying bones of creation and we see more clearly into its deepest secrets, we approach its elemental power, and this is the true knowledge of the Crone, the coron or crowned one, the Cailleach the veiled one, the hag, ‘the sacred one’.
And this is the secret that only the wise may know.
Illustration from The Pagan Ways Tarot, by Anna Franklin, Schiffer
 F. Marian McNeill, The Silver Bough, Vol. 3, Stuart Titles Ltd., 1961
 Donald Alexander Mackenzie, Wonder Tales From Scottish Myth & Legend, Franklin Classics, 2018
 F. Marian McNeill, The Silver Bough, Canongate Publishing, Edinburgh, 1989