The Myth of Cailleach
Place names from Scotland to Wales, Ireland, and the Isle of Man recall the pre-Celtic goddess, Cailleach, whose name means “veiled one.” Neither invasions to these lands by other cultures nor conversion to Christianity of people can erase our awareness of her presence here. After all, it was she that dropped huge boulders from her apron as she passed through the countryside, so forming the local cairns and mountains.
Cailleach has been known as the Old Woman, Daughter of the Moon, Daughter of the Winter Sun, the Hag of Beare, and even the Queen of the Faeries in Limerick. There is a story that she may have originally been a Spanish princess named Beara. Cailleach was a goddess of weather and winter. She raised and calmed the winds. In many tales, it was she that threw the thunderbolts. Her magic branch, also seen as a wand, staff, or hammer, brought snow and frost whenever it touched the land. This wand was so powerful that countless humans attempted to gain it through trickery or steal it outright. None were successful. Normally described as a crone or hag goddess, Cailleach is often pictured as a fearsome old woman with blue or blue-black skin, one eye, and sometimes red fangs. In Scotland, she was seen as a hag with bear’s teeth and boar’s tusks. Always dressed in gray, she was known to wear a plaid shawl over her matted hair. However, in time she has come to embody the Celtic triple goddess in stories that tell of her transformation into the bride at Imbolc.
Scottish folklore tells us that she hid her staff under a holly tree each Beltane and turned into a gray stone. It is said that if Imbolc is fair, she emerges to gather sticks for the fire that will warm her through a cold winter. If it is cold and wet, she stays in until Samhain and allows the summer to be warm. Some legends hold that instead of turning into stone, she becomes a beautiful maid at winter’s end.
Cailleach was the original spirit of Samhain. As an immortal being, she renewed her youth each Samhain. When all has been harvested, the remainder of the fields belongs to Cailleach. The last sheaf of harvested corn is crafted into a dolly, called the cailleach. This doll was shown publicly in some areas. In others, it was placed in an honored spot in a farmer’s home for the protection of the community and ensure a fruitful harvest in the year to come. Alternate traditions fill the apron of the cailleach with bread, cheese, and a sickle, or feed her to livestock.
In Irish folklore, there were three great “ages”: that of the yew, of the eagle, and of the Hag of Beare. She was older than the oldest of animals, and she loved countless human men who would die of old age even as she became revitalized in an endless cycle, like Earth itself.
It is interesting to note that this ugly hag goddess is strongly associated with sexuality. In one story, she arrives at a home, begging to warm herself before the fire and is refused. A man named Diarmid took up her cause and persuaded them to allow her in. Later, she climbed into his bed, and he allowed her to do so merely folding the blanket between their bodies. To his shock, she transformed into the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
The hag is known to hold, and grant, power of rulership as well. In the story of the nine hostages, Fergus kisses the hag and is rewarded with sovereignty over Ireland just before she again turns into a beautiful young woman. In a story of the sons of Eochaid Mugmedn, five brothers set out on a manhood quest. They get lost and one is sent to find drinking water. What he finds is a frightening black hag guarding a well. She promises to give him water if he will kiss her. He refuses, as do all his brothers except Niall. Niall gives her a big hug and kiss. When he looks again, she has turned into an astoundingly beautiful woman that calls him King of Tara and vows that his descendants will rule after him.
As Mother of All, Cailleach was guardian to a host of wild creatures, including wolves, pigs, goats, wild cattle, snakes, and birds of prey. She tended her special flock of deer along the rough and rocky coasts. With this herd, she showed great tenderness and nurturing bringing them fish and seaweed with her own hands when food was scarce. She guarded them against predators, both animal and human. In turn, they provided milk for her.
As the Mistress of the Wild Beasts, she is a shapeshifting goddess. In Scotland, she manifested as a crane carrying sticks in its mouth to forecast storms. She is commonly known to take the shape of an eagle, a cormorant, a gray mare, and a great gray stone. She is so deeply associated with the Earth that she may inhabit any boulder or mountain. She is similarly associated with water and wells. In a story from Argyll, she watched over a well at the summit of Ben Cruachan. Each night, she stanched its flow and prevented it from overflowing by placing a boulder over it. One night, she fell asleep and neglected to place the boulder. The well overflowed, flooding the valley, and killing everyone and everything in its path. The valley became Loch Awe and Cailleach felt her guilt so strongly that she turned into a stone.
Cailleach may be seen as the bean sidhe, the fairy woman that is the Washer at the Ford, though this image is also connected with Morrigan. Cailleach was reputed to wash her cloak in a whirlpool at the end of summer. In this aspect, she is associated with the cycles of death, rebirth, and transformation as she washes the clothes of one that is about to die. One of her Gaelic names is the cailleach-oidhche, meaning “crone of the night.”
Whatever the legends of Cailleach may have been based on, it is clear that her power and memory are as immortal as she is reputed to be. The land holds her name and spirit for us, just as the inevitable cycles of life do. Through her, we can come to terms with death and rebirth, remembering that we do not end with the death of this body. She reminds us that we each hold strength and magic, no matter our age. She is a key to the beauty and power of Elderhood, something that has been largely lost to us in modern society.
by Kristin Madden
via 13 Witches
The Dance at Alder Cove
Customs of the Ancestor