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The Cailleach, Goddess of Winter

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Midwinter, winter solstice. This time last year I wrote to you about the history of Yule and the pagan roots of what we now call Christmas. But winter is not just Yule. It is also the time of the Cailleach, the Celtic goddess of winter.

The Cailleach is the old woman, the hag, the witch. Her appearance is terrifying. She is the ancient goddess. She is old, wrinkled, pale blue and always wears a veil. Her teeth are red and black. Sometimes she only has one eye and her clothes are decorated with skulls. One of her attributes is a hammer with which she can make and break mountains and cause thunderstorms. She is the goddess of winter, in that role she is called Cailleach Bhéarra. But she is also the goddess of the weather, she is the leader of the packs of hungry wolves in winter. She can walk over mountain peaks and she controls streams and rivers. She is a creating deity, she makes and changes the landscape. Especially in Ireland and Scotland many places are devoted to her and there are countless stories about how she created certain places. Her power makes her able to create and destruct, just like the earth. She is the ancient goddess of the Land. She made Scotland when she walked across the land while dropping rocks and peat from her bask et. She is called the mother of all gods and goddesses.

Etymologically it is difficult to tell for certain where the name comes from. There are a number of explanations. The most common is that Cailleach comes from the old Gaelic word caille, veil, and caillech, the veiled. Today Cailleach has the meaning of old woman or witch. In Scottish Gaelic a girls is called caileag and derivatives of the word Cailleach are used in different ways in Scottish and Irish Gaelic. She has different names in various old Irish stories. Her name is also called Digde, Milucra, Biróg, Beira or Buach. Sometimes she is also associated with Sheela-na-Gig. Where in Scotland she is part of the year old and takes a rejuvenating sleep or rest the other half of the year, in the Irish stories she had 7 youthful periods in which she had different partners, but she is now forever old. In European mythology she is associated with Baba Yaga, Holle, Hell and Perchta. There are also stories of the Wild Hunt around the Cailleach. In some stories she also shows similarity with Nicnevin or Gyre Carling, the goddess who was worshipped around Samhain in the lowlands of Scotland.

Ben Nevis

She lives on the summit of Ben Nevis, that’s her seat. But throughout Scotland there are countless places that bear her name or are associated with her. Stone circles and standing stones are places where you can find her. Between the islands of Mull and Jura is a giant whirlpool, the Corryvreckan Pool. This name is derived from the Gaelic Coire Bhreacain, Cauldron of the plaid. This is where the Cailleach washes het plaid for the winter. If she is washing you can hear the terrible noise the water makes far inland. She created the whirlpool herself whne she wanted to drown a Scottish prince. The rule of the Cailleach begins every year with Samhain. Three days before Samhain, her servants prepare the whirlpool. On Samhain, the Cailleach and her 8 goddesses/helpers ride from her residence on Ben Nevis to the sea to wash her plaid in Corryvreckan Pool. Her giant body was so tall that the sea reached no further than her knees while she was washing. When she finished her washing, her plaid was bright white and ready for winter. Now she could ride all over the country, wearing her white plaid as a veil, to tap the frost into the ground with her staff and cover the land with a white veil of snow with her plaid. In reality, the whirlpool of Corryvreckan is created by the current and a high underwater peak that causes the incoming water from the Atlantic to change into a whirling mass. This rocky underwater spike has been appropriately named An Cailleach.

She is also the keeper of the deer. Deer and reindeer are important throughout Scottish folklore and there are several gods and goddesses associated with this. The Cailleach is one of them. She protects the deer against hunters who take more than they need. If they do, she can let them get lost in snow and storm and ensure that they never come home. If they only take what they need and hunt according tot he rules of the Land, the Cailleach will let them do their work. Her role as weather goddess means she can summon snow and storm whenever she wants. She is the ruler of winter and she determines how long winter lasts. Bride or Brigid, goddess of the warm half of the year, appears at the end of winter. Where Brigid awakens the earth to bring it back to life and let plants grow again, the Cailleach does her best to play some last winter tricks until she is actually overwon by Brigid, who is allowed to rule the land until Samhain. According to legend, on February 1, Imbolc, traditionally the day Brigid awakens, the Cailleach goes out to fetch wood to get her through the rest of winter. If the weather is nice and sunny on that day, she can gather a lot of wood so she can let winter last for a long time. If the weather is bad on February 1, she will not stay out too long to search for her wood. This means she will run out of wood fast so winter will be over soon. Hence all kinds of rhymes and weather forecasts on February 1 that predict how long this winter will last. In spring the Cailleach is more likely to cause some last storms which she evokes together with the eight other hags who are with her. These women are called storm hags or Cailleachan.
Depending on the region, the Cailleach hands over the rule over the land to Brigid at the spring equinox or with Beltaine. The Cailleach then returns to Ben Nevis for a rejuvenating sleep so that she is ready for the next winter.
As a Land and growth goddess, she is also the goddess of grain. When the grain is harvested at the end of the summer, her spirit, her strength, is in the last piece of grain, the last sheaf. This must therefore be harvested with care. I describe the various harvest rituals associated with her in Scotland in the blog about the autumn equinox.
In a part of the Gaelic-speaking area, she is the goddess of the new-born. Children born into this world must receive her blessing.

Red Cuillin range with Beinn na Callaich

Apart from the places I mentioned, Corryvreckan and Ben Nevis, there are many more places that are linked to her in Scotland (in Ireland too, but I am now restricting myself to Scotland).
In Glen Lyon there is a small valley, Glen Cailleach. Here is a shrine dedicated to the Cailleach. It is a small stone building that represents the hut of the Cailleach, Tigh nam Bodach. Every year at the beginning of summer, with Beltaine, a number of oddly shaped, human-like sandstones that reside in this hut, are carried outside. At the end of summer, with Samhain, they are brought back inside. These stones represent the Cailleach, her husband Bodach and their children. Nobody knows exactly how old this custom is, but experts believe that it could be pretty ancient. According to legend, the local people of Glen Cailleach once provided her shelter when she needed it. As a thank you, she left the stones with the promise that if the people took good care of the stones, she would ensure that the valley was always fertile and provided them with good harvests.
Ben Cruachan is a mountain with which she is strongly connected. One of her names is Cailleach nan Cruachan, the witch of Cruachan. One day, when she fell asleep on the mountain, the spring she had to tend overflowed. This resulted in a lake at the bottom of the mountain, Loch Awe.
A ‘Chailleach is a mountain in Wester Ross, near Kinlochewe, named after the Cailleach.
The Cuillin mountain range lies on the Isle of Skye. One of the mountains of the Red Cuillin bears her name, Beinn na Caillich, the mountain of the old woman.
In Argyll and Bute, on the road between Kilberry and Tarbert, lies Cailleach’s Seat. Travellers on their way to the ferry to Mull had to throw a rock on the seat. If they succeeded, the journey would be safe. If the stone fell next to the seat, the journey would be hazardous.
On the island of Gigha, a tiny Hebridean island off the Argyll coast, lies a hill with two strangely shaped stones, these are the Cailleach and het husband, the Bodach.
She has been seen on the slopes of Schiehallion, near Loch Eil you can find a place called Cnoc nan Caileach and near Loch Tay we find Creag na Caillich.
Not only in Scotland, but also in Northern England are a few places where the Cailleach has her place in folklore. In Yorkshire, near Rudston’s church, there is a free-standing megalith. This would be the petrified form of the Cailleach. When her time runs out in spring, she would hide her staff under a holly bush and turn into this stone it until winter comes again.

Cuillin Mountain Range, Isle of Skye

Midwinter is the time when the Cailleach reigns and it is up to her how wintery and cold Yule and the start of our modern new year will be.

Blessed Yule!


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