Jill Smith’s Zodiac Journey: Capricorn
At ‘OLD GRANDMOTHER TURTLE’ rocks, Callanish
Isle of Lewis
Photo: Mhairi Law
My mother was a Capricorn. Sadly, she died in 1944 when I was two and I have no memory of her, but the time of Capricorn draws me closer to her and I always associate this sign with mothering and nurture.
Traditionally, Capricorn is seen as a goat. For a few years in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s I kept goats when living on a small-holding in Norfolk. I was very close to my first nanny goat, Sarny Sou (she was a British Saanen), having a kind of triple relationship with her whereby she was like a mother, giving me her milk as I buried my face in her warm flank on cold, dark mornings; like myself, with my memories of breast-feeding and dread of my milk drying up; and like my child, as she was dependent on me for her food and safety.
I chose this site because it is a place where I have sat on most occasions I have visited the main Callanish stone circle since I first came to it in 1982. In the early years of my visits I snuggled into the tiny cave-like space within the rocky formation and felt nurtured and protected. I looked north, thinking people had sat there long before the Callanish stones were erected. What did they watch? The dance of the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)? The movements of stars and constellations? Or the home of the ancestors at the back of the North Wind?
After a few years I was looking at her and realised she had the form of a giant turtle, the ‘cave’ being beneath her face and between her flippers. I named her ‘Old Grandmother Turtle’ and understood why I felt so enclosed and cared for, and indeed mothered, when I sat in her little cave. One night I wrote a creation myth – ‘The Story of Old Grandmother Turtle’, feeling she had dictated it to me, and never changing a word from that first draft. In the ‘90s there was an archaeological excavation of the space in front of her which showed evidence that this had been a Neolithic ceremonial site.
From when I first realised I must celebrate the Capricorn of this Zodiac Journey with Old Grandmother Turtle I had visualised it taking place in an environment of snow or frost, and when the day came for this action we were blessed with a time of extraordinary beauty. Everything was totally still, so rare in the Hebrides, with a completely clear sky, a brilliant low winter sun colouring the hills pink and pale orange, and everything covered in the deep, sparkling, brilliant whiteness of an unusually thick frost.
I laid my dyed circular Capricorn cloth in front of Old Grandmother Turtle, with the wooden Capricorn sign beside it. There was no particular symbolism to the cloth, but when it was tied for dyeing it had looked like a horn. I weighted the cloth down with the four coloured stones I had used in previous Zodiac actions. On the cloth I placed photos of my mother and my eldest grandson, who is also a Capricorn. To the side I placed a photo of Sarny Sou and the first daughter she had with us, Gina. A copy of this photo had been part of an exhibit I constructed with my late ex-husband Bruce Lacey at the Serpentine Gallery in London in the early ‘80s. Our exhibit was called ‘Cycles of the Serpent’ and celebrated our first year of living in the country. It was part of a larger exhibition called ‘Continuous Creation’. Next to the photo I laid a copy of my ‘Story of Old Grandmother Turtle’.
I also placed on the cloth some twigs from a small grove on Mousehold Heath in Norwich where I had recently attended a traditional Old English ceremony held just before Midwinter by my son Taliesin. The twigs had clung to my clothes as I left the site and asked to be part of this action, as Capricorn begins at the Winter Solstice – the time of change from the dying year to the birth of the new. I also placed the shiny fabric flames from the Sagittarius arrow, now landed in this new year of 2024.
In the centre I placed an Earthenware jug of goats milk, the jug having been given to me decades before by my friend Sandra Bell at a birthday party I held at Waylands Smithy long barrow on the Ridgeway path; an Earthenware bowl made and given to me in the early ‘80s by a friend, Nina, who later moved to Italy; and also a tiny bowl given to me some years ago by a visitor.
On the stone where I was to sit I put a beautiful dark red and black blanket which was once owned by Annie Macleod of Callanish, by whose fire my then-young son and I spent hours on our many visits to her home in the late ‘80s. We were so nurtured (and fed) by her. I put a lovely thick brown folded scarf, given to me by Taliesin and his partner Jasmine, on the frozen ground to protect my bare feet from the cold.
I wore the same Earth outfit I had worn under the skirt and top for Virgo. I don’t wash these outfits between wearings and they carry and build on the energy of the previous sign of their element.
I wore my mother’s wedding ring on a ribbon round my neck, and a small brooch made and given to me by Taliesin. It depicts two heads and for me, in this Capricorn situation, represents something like the double-headed Roman god Janus who looks back to the old year and forward to the new, and from whom we get the name of the month of January.
After giving Gran Turtle a little hug and kiss I sat down by the cloth, spending time with the photos of my mother, grandson and the goats, then poured some of the milk from the jug into the bowl and drank it. It was the nurturing gift of the Capricorn goat. In the tiny bowl I had a slice of goat’s cheese cut by a knife which had once been my mother’s. The bite turned the cheese into a crescent moon.
Finally, I wrapped around me a mauve bedspread which had been my mother’s. I have been told that mauve was her favourite colour.
I felt intensely close to this mother I do not remember, she who nurtured me for two years; to my dear grandson; and to all those friends, neighbours, sometime strangers, and the many, many places on this blessed Earth who have helped and protected me throughout my life. And this within the cave of my beloved Old Grandmother Turtle.
I packed everything up, now needing socks and shoes in the deep, frosty cold, and poured the remaining milk in an arc in front of the Turtle.
It feels the year has indeed turned. The afternoons are growing longer. This bright, white, golden day was such a rare gift, and promises the fullness of Spring and Summer to come.
Blessings of the New Year to everyone, and may the world soon find some sort of Peace.
Jill Smith, Isle of Lewis, January 2024
See also www.jill-smith.co.uk
Main images: Mhairi Law