The Cailleach, also known as the Cailleach Bheirre or Bhéara, and the Cailleach Bheur, or Bhuerra. On the Isle of Man she is called the Caillagh, or Caillagh ny Groamagh. She appears in various Irish poems as Digdi/Digde, Biróg, Buí or Bua/ch. Her name means Veiled or Cloaked One.
She is a hag, or what might sometimes be known as a crone goddess. She is a goddess of Winter, stones and mountains, the wilderness, and is the protectress of wild beasts – specifically red deer who are referred to as her cattle. She is associated with the stone carvings of Sheela na gig, the grinning gargoyle woman stretching wide her enormous vagina who adorns various stone buildings throughout the British Isles.
She is related to pre-Celtic Irish goddess Mor Mormain. Scholars have also equated her with the Jötunn goddesses of Germanic tradition, notably Jörð the earth giantess and mother of Thor, and Skaði the mountain etin-bride of Winter. In her various stories, she is at odds with the forces of Summer.
She is depicted as crotchety and at times sinister, but not truly villainous. The Cailleach is described as having lived seven lives, and in each of these lifetimes she had many husbands, giving birth to many tribes and clans. She laments her lost loves, having outlived them all. In the stories, she mourns her youth and laments being particularly wise (ignorance is apparently bliss).
In the Scottish lore, she is also called Beira, Queen of Winter and is the mother of the gods; or alternatively as Duan na Muileartaich, the Water Hag. Her name is related to Gaelic words for owl, nun and witch. She is described as as giantess by the Scots, and as having dark blue skin, white hair, teeth as red as rust, and only one working eye.
In Scottish folklore she also wields a hammer, and travels the land carrying a basket of rocks, which cause thunder as they tumble down from inside. Her banging about the land created many land formations throughout Scotland and Ireland.
There are many place names throughout the Scottish highlands and the Hebrides named for her. Many standing stones are also named for her, usually a result of her turning to stone, turning her family to stone, or dropping a stone from her basket of rocks. She is particularly associated with Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain peak. Tiring of her lazy maid Nessa, the Cailleach has her transformed into Loch Ness, creating another famous landmark.
She is associated with many place names in Ireland, such as the Beare Peninsula in County Cork. The megalithic tombs at Loughcrew in Country Meath are also hers, where the rising sun’s rays illuminate an inner chamber filled with megalithic stone carvings.
The commencement of Winter is signaled when the Cailleach washes her plaid dress in “her cauldron” the Corryreckan whirlpool (which is the third largest in the world). Her swirling and swooshing it around stirs the atmosphere. She washes for three days, after which her blue and green plaid is washed out, and now white, as snow gently covers the land.
The Cailleach can take on a plural form of eight sisters called the Cailleachan, or Storm Hags. The worst weather of the season, sleet in particular, are attributed to them. If one Cailleach is cranky – imagine what eight are like!
In the Scottish legends, the Cailleach alternates power with Brigid the goddess of fire, and the two sometimes battle for control of the seasons. Cailleach rules the land between Samhain and Beltaine, Brigid from Beltaine to Samhain. Some versions depict Cailleach as turning to stone during Brigid’s rule, and Cailleach kidnapping and imprisoning Brigid during her season, beneath Ben Nevis. Aengus, a son of the Cailleach, must rescue Brigid from his mother, and the often turbulent weather during the month of March is said to represent this struggle between the three.
In yet another version, the Cailleach is Brigid, and changes form with the turning of the seasons. She comes into full crone-dom and power on the Winter Solstice, where she generates all of the foul weather. Her power wanes after this apex and she drinks from the Well of Youth. As she does, she becomes young and beautiful again and with her transformation comes the spring. In time, the power of the Well begins to wear off and she begins to age once more.
Thoughts on The Cailleach
There are so many modern day traditions and stories associated with the Cailleach, it’s not hard to recognize how important a figure she was for our ancestors. She is often not shown in a favorable light – and yet great lengths are taken to appease and honor her. The times she is revealed as a benefactor are often the times when she decides to reward mortals for their work or their deeds.
In the Scottish tradition Caillech is a deer-herder, and the deer who get away and escape from hunters are said to have been led from harm by the goddess.
Although compassionate to the deer, these acts are associated with curmudgeonly Cailleach keeping food from the people during the lean Winter months. Her walking stick causes the ground to freeze, so not only is she responsible for hiding the deer, she causes the cold in the first place!
In both Scotland and Ireland, the Cailleach was venerated in the making of Carline, a corn dolly (“corn” in Europe referred to wheat prior to Christopher Columbus) from the last sheaves of the season. Carline would be made in the likeness of a maiden for a good harvest … and a hag for a poor one, which would be tossed into which ever field in the community had not finished bringing in that year’s crop. The farmer was then required to care for the corn dolly, keeping her in a little bed and “feeding” her throughout the Winter, presumably making little food offerings. It was fierce competition to not be stuck with little Carline all Winter! The properly cared for Carline would be buried with the first seedlings of Spring or fed to the horses who would do the first ploughing.
In Irish tradition she is the sister of Áine, the Summer goddess. On Imbolg in Ireland, or Là Fhèill Brìghde in Scotland, the Cailleach goes out to gather firewood to last the rest of Winter. If she’s feeling extra crabby and decides to make Winter last longer, she will ensure that on Imbolg the weather is bright and sunny, so that she can gather more than enough wood to last her through the longer season. If the weather is poor on Imbolg, it’s a good sign indicating that Cailleach will spend the day napping, won’t procure enough firewood, and so will concede when it is time to hand over the season. Birds seen carrying sticks in their mouths on Imbolg are thought to be helping the Cailleach, or sometimes are the hag goddess in bird form.
She appears in later Arthurian legend as the Loathly Lady, in which a hideous hag is sought to help break a curse that has befallen the land, causing King Arthur to weaken to the point of death. She agrees to Sir Gawain’s request to break the curse, provided he take her as his wife.
Heavy-hearted young Gawain agrees and on their wedding night she transforms, revealing herself to be the beautiful dame Ragnell. She tells Gawain she can appear as a hag by day and beauty by night, or in reverse, and that he must choose. Gawain tells her that he would like for to choose for herself. For his respectful answer, she rewards him by choosing to take her fair form at all times that she is with him.
At Beltane in Scotland, a figure from the community would dress up as the Cailleach, and would have eggs thrown at her, being mocked and ridiculed by the community before she would take a ritual bath of purification, becoming the maiden goddess once more. On the Isle of Man, mock battles would be held between the May Queen and an actress depicting the Cailleach and the May Queen.
The folk tales and observances are nearly endless – a testament to the greatness of the goddess, her influence on mortal affairs, and her position amongst the other gods.
Signs and Symbols
Hags, witches, and Sheela na gig. Winter, winter storms, and bad weather. Whirlpools, mountains, the highlands, stones and rocks. Deer, hammers, walking sticks, and dark blue. March weather, Imbolc/Groundhog Day.
Cailleach Bheirre, Cailleach Bhéara, Cailleach Bheur, Cailleach Bhuerra, Chailleach Bheurrach, Caillagh, Caillagh ny Groamagh, Beira, Queen of Winter, The Hag of Winter, Digdi, Digde, Biróg, Buí or Bua/ch, Duan na Muileartaich, Muileartaich, The Hag of Beare, the Loathly Lady, Ragnell, Sheela na gig.