I’m enchanted by the old lore of the world – especially the Celtic goddesses.
The Cailleach is one of the most fascinating, powerful and terrifying of the Celtic goddesses. It is said that she is ancient.
Let’s look at the differing lore that can be found about her.
Blue Hag, a weather spirit of the Scottish Highlands. The Blue Hag is the personification of winter. She is the daughter of Grainan, the winter sun. in the old Celtic calendar there were two suns. The “big sun” shines from Beltane to Samhain. The “little sun” shines from Samhain to Beltane. The Cailleach Bheur is reborn each Samhain, when she smites the earth with her staff to fight off spring. When Beltane comes, she throws her staff under a holly tree or gorse bush and turns to stone.
She is the guardian spirit of deer, which she herds, milks, and protects from hunters. She is a friend to wild cattle, swine, and wolves, and sometimes assumes the shape of a wild boar. She is also a guardian of wells and streams. – The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies by Lucy Cooper
The Dark Goddess
Cailleach is one of the more ancient Celtic goddesses whose lore and worship still survive in many European countries today. She is the very ancient Hag-aspect of the Triple Goddess, who was known by many names throughout the Celtic countries (e.g., Ireland and Scotland), such as Cailleach Beara, Cailleach Bheur, and the Crone of Beare. In some parts of Ancient Britain, this deity was the Goddess of Winter, who was reborn every Samhain. Her time begins on Samhain, when she leaves the mountains and begins her walk across the lands bringing the winter storms, snow, and death. Thus Cailleach has the power over the weather and storms of winter. She is also called “the daughter of Grianan,” the winter sun. On the old Celtic calendar, there were two suns, ‘the big sun,” which shines from Beltane to Samhain, and ‘the little sun,” which shines from Samhain to Beltane Eve.
According to legend, the Cailleach can transform herself from a terrifying hag in the winter half of the year and into to a beautiful young maiden in the summer half. As “daughter of the little sun,” the Cailleach is an elemental power of winter, the cold, wind, and tempests. She comes into power as the days shorten and the sun courses low in the skies. She carries a slachdan (wand of power) with which she shapes the land and controls the weather. (The Cailleach’s slachdan relates to staffs used by Celtic shamans.) While the Cailleach’s slachdan resembles the Fé and magic wands of the Celts and Norse, it also holds cosmological significance as the power of cold, darkness and winter. It symbolizes the active force of the Old Goddess in Celtic culture. When she hurls it she creates rocks in Ireland and rearranges the coast of Scotland. When the light half of the year begins, she hurls her slachdan to the base of the (evergreen) holly or gorse, storing her power of the cold and dark there until the advent of winter.
Much more about the Cailleach can be read here.
The Cailleach Béara or the Hag of Béara
The Cailleach Béara is also known as the Hag of Béara, ‘Cailleach’ being the Gaelic word for a hag or old crone.
One of the oldest and most powerful of mythical beings associated with Ireland, the Cailleach forms part of the Great Goddess trinity, alongside younger incarnations as the maiden and the mother.
Some also believe she is the second side or winter half of Bridgit, another extremely powerful Irish goddess.
The Myth of the Cailleach
The Cailleach myth is most closely associated with counties of Kerry and Cork, with the Book of Lecan (c.1400AD) claiming that the Cailleach Béara was the chief goddess of the Corcu Duibne people of Kerry.
The Hag of Béara is said to be one of the most ancient of mythological beings.
Appearing as an old crone who brings winter with her when she appears and who wields incredible power over life and death.
Her ability to control the weather and the seasons meant many communities looked on the Cailleach with a mixture of reverence and fear.
They were concerned that her mood might affect the productivity of their winter crops.
You can read more about her influence on Scotland and Ireland here.
An Cailleach or the veiled woman is among the most ancient deities venerated in Ireland, she whose realm lies in the ice and cold of winter. Once it was said that she ruled all the world, when the green things slept for untold aeons beneath her thick icy cloak, until she was given cause for great sorrow and wept floods of tears across the land, her heart melting to a thaw and letting loose the rivers.
As she wept she dropped many large rocks from her apron which became mountains and hills, and her hammer shaped the valleys below. Some even go so far as to say that from her sprang all the spirits and Sidhe of the old world!
She grows old in autumn and becomes younger as the winter passes, until in spring she relinquishes her hold and lets the summer flowers blossom.
Countless lone standing stones throughout Ireland and Europe are said to be sacred to her, as when she was done bringing the winter she’d cast her staff beneath a holly tree or gorse bush and turn into a stone until the spring.
She lays claim to the creatures of the wild and cold places, the red deer and the wolf, the leaping salmon and the springing goat, warding them and watching over them. She it was who decided which would live and which would perish in the storms of winter, and for this she is also known as the Hag of Storms.
You can read more about her and the superstitions surrounding her here.
The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan
Cailleach, the ruler of winter
The goddess known as Cailleach in Scotland and parts of Ireland is the embodiment of the dark mother, the harvest goddess, the hag or crone entity. She appears in the late fall, as the earth is dying, and is known as a bringer of storms. She is typically portrayed as a one-eyed old woman with bad teeth and matted hair. Mythologist Joseph Campbell says that in Scotland, she is known as Cailleach Bheur, while along the Irish coast she appears as Cailleach Beare. Her name is varied, depending on the county and region in which she appears.
According to The Etymological Dictionary Of Scottish-Gaelic the word cailleach itself means “veiled one” or “old woman.” In some stories, she appears to a hero as a hideous old woman, and when he is kind to her, she turns into a lovely young woman who rewards him for his good deeds. In other stories, she turns into a giant gray boulder at the end of winter, and remains this way until Beltane, when she springs back to life.
There’s so much more to the Cailleach. Read it here.
Myth and meaning of the Cailleach.
The cailleach is a sort of mystery; a Goddess who survived eons after her worship died out. She is vastly ancient, so ancient that we virtually nothing of her original myth and ritual. She can be found in Ireland and Scotland and England, traced through folklore, through the names of ancient monuments and natural wonders, and through enigmatic verses and stories.
It is not possible to obtain an idea how long she was worshiped, or by whom. The Celts came to the lands of the Cailleach some 2000 years ago, bringing their own pantheon of Gods and Goddesses. The new arrivals recognized the Cailleach as already ancient, for as a famous Irish poems says: ‘There are three great ages; the age of the yew tree, the age of the eagle, the age of the Cailleach.’ It is impossible to know what this Goddess meant to her original worshipers.
Cailleach must have been very important, for she did not disappear as countless other divinities have, If nothing is truly known about her, paradoxically she is still alive, still a power in the lands once dedicated to her. from these vestiges, we can reconstruct something of the powerful original figure of ancient times.
Read more about this ancient deity here.
In Gaelic mythology (Irish, Scottish and Manx) the Cailleach (Irish pronunciation: [ki’lʲax /ˈkalʲəx], Scottish Gaelic pronunciation: [ˈkaʎəx]) is a divine hag, a creator deity and weather deity, and an ancestor deity. She is also commonly known as the Cailleach Bhéara(ch) or Bheur(ach). In Scotland she is also known as Beira, Queen of Winter. The word literally means “old woman, hag”, and is found with this meaning in modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic, and has been applied to numerous mythological figures in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.
Besides being a great resource for pronunciation, there’s loads to read about the Cailleach in the Wikipedia article.
The Cailleach Beara
The Cailleach Beara is one of the oldest living mythological beings associated with Ireland. She has a conversation with Fintan the Wise and the Hawk of Achill and both agree that she has outlived them, saying ‘Are you the one, the grandmother who ate the apples in the beginning?’ (*apples are associated with immortality and are considered the food of the gods)
The Book of Lecan (c.1400 a.d.) claims that the Cailleach Beara was the goddess of the Corcu Duibne people from the Kerry region. In Scotland the Cailleach Bheur serves a similar purpose as the personification of Winter she has a blue face, and is born old at Samhain (Nov 1st) but grows ever younger over time until she is a beautiful maiden at Bealtaine (May 1st).
More about the Cailleach and stories surrounding her can be read here.
Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology by Theresa Bane
The legend of the veiled one
Who was the Cailleach Bheara? She appears as a mysterious and shadowy figure hovering around the edges of Irish folklore and myth, yet very little is known about her.
The word cailleach has come to mean ‘hag’, or ‘crone’, yet in Old Gaelic it actually means ‘veiled one’. This conjures up images of early Medieval Christian nuns, yet it is possible that the word has more ancient origins and could refer to the wise-women or female Druids of pre-Christian and maybe even pre-Celtic times.
The legend of the cailleach can be found not only in Ireland, but in Scotland and the Isle of Man, too. She is associated with Winter, and the creation of the landscape.
You can read more about the legends surrounding the Cailleach here.
I took all of this and created my own version of the Cailleach for my Faerie world.
AKA Cailleach Bheur AKA Beira, Queen of Winter
Sacred tree: holly and Gorse bush.
Storm Hags accompany her.
All turn to stone (standing stones) from Beltane to Samhain.
The Cailleach has a staff that freezes the earth with each tap. She is also guardian of the animals during winter.
According to myth at least.
The Cailleach is aligned with the Unseelie since the Rift for protection and power. Though the Storm Hags accompany her wherever she goes, it is more for their entertainment than her protection.
She holds the power of winter. She can appear as an old woman (thus her name) or at any stage of life; whatever suits her purpose.
They are an ugly veined blue. They are truly hags.
They cause storms wherever they go. Their cackling can be heard in the wind.
They follow the Cailleach around because they are drawn to her strength and cold. They obey her every command – as long as it is in line with the wishes of the Unseelie King.
Not everything that I really want the Cailleach to be, but it’s a start.
Here’s a sketch I did of her.
I also used her in my short story collection “Once…”. I think this shows a side to her that the fae rarely get to see.
What do you think of the Cailleach? I can’t wait to write more stories featuring her. Here’s my Pinterest board dedicated to the Cailleach.