The Cailleach

This appeared in the North Clare Local in February. 

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Slieve Gullion Park, Co Armagh (Rob Hurson via Flickr)

Some aspects of folklore are so ancient that it is hard for us to truly illustrate of what they consisted. The world contains many forgotten gods and while their worship might have been confined to our remotest ancestors, the concepts attached to them linger as faint echoes.

These ancient gods can be frustratingly intangible. A sense that they wielded far greater elemental power than even the Christian god is tempered by the lost lore surrounding these figures, rendering their mythos vague. One such figure is the Cailleach, a hag goddess prominent in Celtic mythology.

The Cailleach is an elemental figure, able to control the weather, landscape, and seasons. She was especially prominent in Scotland and Ireland.

While newer gods have a fixed shape and role, the older, primal gods are mostly shapeshifters with loose roles. This can be confusing. All interpretations of the Cailleach state that she was an old woman; except when she wasn’t. She could transform into a beautiful maiden for her own purposes. Like Persephone of Greek myth she represented the changing of the seasons. One interpretation is that she job-shared with the goddess Brigid (later Christianised as St Brigid). On February 1st, the Cailleach became petrified while Brigid took over until Samhain (Hallowe’en). The Cailleach would then usher in winter.

A common Irish belief was that the Cailleach went looking for firewood on St Brigid’s Day. Being able to control the weather, a bright sunny day enable her to gather lots of firewood so she could comfortable extend the winter. But sometimes the Cailleach felt lazy and decided to stay in bed. In that case the day would be miserable and she’d quickly roll over and let Brigid usher in the spring.

On the Isle of Man, the Cailleach could be seen as a giant bird carrying firewood in her beak.

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The Corryvreckan Whirlpool (Walter Baxter via Wikimedia Commons)

The Cailleach was not a goddess of any one realm, nor was she one to be trifled with. Instead she could be fierce and kind, benevolent yet uncaring, a goddess of war and chaos as well as one of love and protection. She was a protector of the creatures of the forest, in particular, animals like deer, wolves and boar.

What did the Cailleach look like? Well, almost anything. Often depicted as a stereotypical old hag (think of our modern idea of witches), her skin was sometimes blue or black. She could have been veiled or the owner of three faces, or fangs. She was a one-eyed blue giantess or she had boar tusks.

The Cailleach predates even the Tuatha de Danann, the ancient race that became the fairies, in Irish mythology. One legend states that she was killed in battle with them and buried under a Kerry dolmen. In Clare, she lends her name to Hag’s Head at the Cliffs of Moher. Here the Cailleach was called Mal. Madly in unrequited love with Cú Chulainn, she chased him around Ireland. He leapfrogged the sea stacks at the Cliffs and she tried to do the same. Unfortunately her footing wasn’t as sure and she was dashed against the Hag’s Head.

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Beira (via Ancient Origins)

In Scotland, the Cailleach has been renamed Beira, a winter goddess, by the folklorist Donald Alexander Mackenzie. She’s a personification of winter and the mother of all Scottish gods and goddesses. Her staff was said to freeze the ground and the longest night of the year was the highpoint of her witchiness. From then on she visited a Well of Youth, the water of which allowed her to grow steadily younger until spring.

The Scottish Cailleach was responsible for many features of the Scottish landscape, including Loch Ness, which was said to have been created when she transformed her disobedient maid Ness into a river. Likewise, the Cailleach was supposed wash her face in some river springs, replacing a capstone every night. One day though, she became careless and forgot to replace the cap. The springs flooded, creating Loch Awe.

Also in Scotland the Cailleach is believed to wash her great plaid blanket in Corryvreckan Whirlpool (Core Bhreachain, cauldron of the plaid). When it’s bright white and clean, she spreads it across the land.

While many of the beliefs about the Cailleach are attached to the sea and wild places, the Cailleach is also attached to farming. People were, naturally, a little bit afraid of her. In Scotland and Ireland, the first farmer to finish his grain harvest made a little corn dolly of the Cailleach (sometimes called a Carlin). This got passed to the next farmer who finished, until the last farmer in the district to finish his harvest had the unenviable task of sheltering the Cailleach in his house over winter.

While often forgotten the Cailleach lingers on in Celtic place names, and in our imaginations as the witches and hags of story.

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