In Irish and Scottish mythology, the Cailleach (Irish plural cailleacha, Scottish Gaelic plural cailleachan) is a powerful hag often identified to a deity or the elemental powers of nature.
The word simply means 'old woman' in modern Scottish Gaelic, and has been applied to numerous mythological figures in both Scotland and Ireland. The word cailleach (in modern Scottish Gaelic, 'old wife, nun') comes from the Old Irish caillech, 'veiled one', which is probably derived from the Latin pallium, 'cloak'. The word is related to caileag which means 'girl'.
Cailleach Beare* is Irish while she is revered as Cailleach Bheur** in Scotland. In the area of the Cliffs of Moher, she is called Bronach, which means "Sorrow." At Hag's Head, she is called Mal. Her names and variations are quite numerous according to the place (Sentainne Berri, Scotia, Cailleach nan Cruachan,...).
or Beara, Bhéirre, Béarra, Béirre, Bheare, Calliagh Birra, Hag of Beare,... or Boi
She is depicted as as having an eye in the middle of a blue-black face, long red teeth, and matted hair. In several stories she appears before a hero as a repulsive hag and suddenly transforms herself into a beautiful girl. At winter’s end, some accounts say the Cailleach turned into a grey boulder at Beltane until the warm days were over. The boulder was said to be “always moist’, because it contained “life substance’. The Cailleach Beara is ever-renewing and passes through many lifetimes going from old age to youth or flesh to stone in a cyclic fashion.
- "With her hammer she alternately splinters mountains, prevents the growth of grass, or raises storms. Numerous wild animals follow her..."
- -- Encyclopedia of the Occult, 1920
In her right hand she grasped a "hammer", or "magic wand". When standing-stones were struck with the "magic wand", they were immediately transformed into giant warriors, fully armed and ready for battle. Her sacred trees were the holly and the gorse bush, under which she traditionally threw her staff before turning to stone. As a goddess of winter, she struck the grass into blades of ice with her hammer. In early spring, she could not bear the grass and sun, and would ßy into a temper, throwing down her wand beneath a holly tree, before disappearing in a whirling cloud of angry passion, “…….and that is why no grass grows under holly trees”.
When an unusually heavy storm threatened, people told each other: ‘The Cailleach is going to tramp her blankets tonight”, for at the end of summer she washed her cloak in Corrievreckan, the whirlpool off the west coast, and when she pulled it up, the hills were white with snow. In Scotland, she ushers in winter by washing her plaid in the Whirlpool of Coire Bhreacain. This process is said to take three days, during which the roar of the coming tempest is heard as far away as twenty miles inland. When she is finished, her plaid is white and snow covers the land. After throwing away this, her symbol of fertility and authority, the Cailleach herself was transformed into a standing-stone "looking over the sea". In other traditions she changes into a young maiden, Bride, suggesting the changing phases of an earth goddess.
Goddess of seasons
The Cailleach is seen as a seasonal deity or spirit, ruling the winter months between Samhain and Beltaine, while Bride rules the summer months between Beltaine and Samhain. Some interpretations have the Cailleach and Brìde as two faces of the same goddess.
She is a bringer of snows, death, and sharp storms. On Samhain the Cailleach leaves her mountains and walks the Land. The Cailleach then proceeds to "wash her plaid". Her plaid represents the sand. When the Cailleach is done the plaid is white and the Land is covered with snow. She is said to ride on the back of a wolf carrying a wand made of human skin, that she uses to strike down all signs of growth. Behind her follows cold winds, blizzards, and ice. In Scotland, where she is also known as Beira, Queen of Winter.
Goddess of creation
The Cailleach is not just a goddess of destruction. Various mountains, lakes, and burial cairns in both Ireland and Scotland were said to have been created by her when she was striding across the land and accidentally dropped rocks from her apron. In other cases she is said to have built the mountains intentionally, to serve as her stepping stones. She carries a hammer for shaping the hills and valleys.
Countless Irish myths tell how the Cailleach constructed huge mounds, megaliths, and towers in a single night. Some of them are known by names like “one-night's-work.” [Wood-Martin, 134] Scottish myths often cast the Cailleach as a shaper of the landscape. She carried earth and stones on her back to make the hills of Ross-shire. Sometimes the basket or its strap broke, spilling the contents out to form mounts like Ben Vaichaird and rock piles like Carn na Caillich. Faeries called glaistigean are credited with similar land-building feats. [MacKenzie, 164, 144]
Protector of wild animals
Another aspect of the Cailleach is as protector and steward of wild animals, particularly deer and wolves. The Cailleach was said to speak to hunters telling them where the deer were grazing, and how many they were to kill and when. The old hunters would always keep to her instructions knowing that something bad would happen if her words were ignored.
Goddess of sovereignty
The Cailleach is featured in the sovereignty myths, such as the one found in the telling of the Nine Hostages.
- Niall and his brothers encounter an old woman which they must kiss, and only Niall and Fergus resist the urge to kill her became she is so ugly. Fergus kisses the hag on the cheek and is rewarded :with sovereignty over all of Ireland, and then the hag turns into a beautiful young woman.
In Kerry and Cork, she is considered a goddess of sovereignty giving the kings the right to rule their lands. She usually appears as an old woman who asks a hero to sleep with her, if the hero agrees to sleep with the old hag she then transforms into a beautiful woman. This is similar to the Mórrigan who appeared to the hero Diarmuid O Duibne as a hag who asked him to carry her over the river, he complies and is rewarded by her. A poem from the tenth century describes the Cailleach as a frail old woman who had gone into a nunnery and looks back on her life as being the beloved of kings. It is believed that this was a Christian rewriting of the sovereignty stories. Also to note, the English had a habit of translating the word cailleach to mean nun.
It is also the theme of the Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain and the Lady Ragnell, where the handsome Gawain promises to marry a “loathly lady” in order to save King Arthur’s life. The court is filled with horror at what Gawain must do, so evil and hideous is his future bride, but when he kisses her on their wedding night she turns into a lovely young maiden of unsurpassed beauty. Initiation through the Dark Goddess occurs in many Celtic tales where an individual is transformed through contact with her.
Theory about origin
- According to one folktale, she "existed from the long eternity of the world", and was the mother of the giants (Formorians) who had monstrous forms, and against whom gods and mortals waged war.
- She was also revered as the ancestress of the various tribes of mankind. In Ireland she appears to have been the earlier Danu, the mother of the Danann gods and people, and Anu, the mountain-hag associated with "the Paps of Anu". She may be related to other similar figures found throughout Britain, (see Black Annis) possibly worshiped by the ancient Britons. Other parallels can be drawn with Rhea, Demeter, Artemis, and other deities.
- Some scholars believe the Old Irish poem, 'The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare' is about the Cailleach
- According to the Yellow Book of Lecan (c.1400 a.d.), a 14th century manuscript, the Cailleach Bheara was also known as Bui or Boi, meaning "yellow." She was from a people known as the Corcu Duibne. It is said that the Corcu Duibne "shall never be without some wonderful cailleach among them." The Cailleach Bheara had fifty foster children in Beara, which is a peninsula located in West Munster in Co. Cork. The descendants of her children became many peoples and races. She had seven periods of youth, and her mates died of old age. Of these, one of her primary mates was acclaimed to have been Lugh. Even the land of the Corcu Duibne held a lot of history. It was there that Cessair landed on Dun na mBarc, and Banba met the sons of Mil on Sliabh Mis. This area is the home of Sen Erainn, which means the "Old Ireland," and refers to an ancient aboriginal people whose lineage can be traced back to Lugaid, son of Ith. Among the area of the Corcu Duibne was the Gleann na nGealt, which was a valley filled with wild men. Some legends, however, refer to the Cailleach as Evlin and describe her as being descended from the Tuatha de Danann.
In the folklore of Ireland and Scotland, the term cailleach was used to denote the last sheaf of the harvest season. A variety of things were done with the last sheaf depending on the locale. Some of the more popular traditions included feeding the sheaf to livestock, tilling it or shaking it over the fields, and keeping it throughout the winter months. Young girls were often fearful of tying the last sheaf for fear that they would never be married. In Scotland, one folklore tradition involves tying the cailleach with a ribbon and hanging it up on a nail until Spring. On the Isle of Lewis, they would take the cailleach and fill her apron with cheese, bread, and a sickle.
- One superstition regarding Calliach is that the farmer who is last to harvest his grain would be the person to "look after" Caileach for the rest of the year, until the next harvest. The first farmer who finishes harvesting would make a corn-dolly from the grain he has harvested. He would, then, pass it on to the next farmer who finishes. It would keep going until the corn-dolly ends up with the last farmer. That last farmer would be obligated to watch the "old woman".
- In the story called The Adventures of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedn, five brothers go out hunting in the woods to prove their manhood. They lose their way, and set up camp among the trees to light a fire to cook the game they have killed. One of the brothers is sent in search of drinking-water, but finds a monstrous black hag guarding a well. She will only give him water in exchange for a kiss. He turns away, repelled, as do each of the brothers who follow him in turn, except for Niall who gives her a whole-hearted embrace. When he looks at her again, she has turned into the most beautiful woman in the world, with lips “as the crimson lichen of Leinster’s crags…her locks…like Bregon’s buttercups.” “What art thou?” said the boy. “King of Tara, I am Sovereignty,” she replies, “and your seed shall be over every clan.”
- On the Isle of Colonsay, Argyllshire, the Cailleach Uragaig is also considered to be associated with the winter months. It is said that she keeps a young girl imprisoned and avoids the attacks of the girl's lover by shape-shifting into the moist gray headland which is above the sea.
- There is another story that is told about the Cailleach in the area of Slyne Head. It was said that she was on the sea with her children and that they were freezing in the cold darkness. The cold chilled them all the way to the marrow of their bones. The Cailleach then explained to the children that they could warm themselves by baling the sea in and out of their boat. By doing this, the children were able to warm themselves until morning.
- The Cailleach Bheara is thought to have originally been a Spanish princess named Beara. It was prophesied that she would go to the River Eibhear on a certain night and discover a salmon dressed in colorful garments. On that night, she would meet her future husband. As prophesied, that night came to pass and she eloped with Eoghan Mo'r of Magh Nuadat. They set sail together for Ireland and upon their arrival landed on the North side of Bantry Bay. Eoghan named the peninsula after his wife, Beara.
- The great Cailleach of Clibhrich used witchcraft to keep the hunters away from her deer. Early one morning a man named William watched her milking her does at the door of her hut. One of them ate some blue yarn she had hanging on a nail in her house, so she took off her protection, predicting that it would be shot. And so it happened. [MacK, 152-3]
- Mala Liatha (“Grey Eyebrows”) was the protector of wild animals, including the wild boar hunted by Diarmaid. She taunted the warrior and interfered with his hunting. He grabbed her by the foot and threw her over a cliff. Then he succeeded in killing the boar, but had not triumphed after all. A venomous bristle on its slaughtered body pierced his foot and was the death of him. [MacK, 148-9]
- A strange old woman called the Doonie once saved a boy who fell off a cliff and was hanging onto a hazel-bush. She appeared below him, telling him to jump into her apron. He fell through it into the river, but she grabbed his neck and pulled him out. She warned him never again to hunt the rock-doves, “Or maybe the Doonie'll no be here tae kep ye.” [Briggs, 106]
- Many legends tell of the Cailleach's fierce struggles with hunters. She tries to get the hunter to bind his dogs with one of her hairs, then grows large and attacks him. “Long have you been the devoted enemy of my persecuted sisterhood.” [MacKenzie, 132]
- When a pack of dogs attacked the Gyre Carline, she turned into a pig and ran away. This crone goddess of lowland Scotland carried an iron club. One old poem says the Gyre Carline lived on men's flesh, upholding the demonied witch-stereotype. But Sir Walter Scott called her the “mother witch of the Scottish peasantry.” [MacKenzie c 150]
- One night, weary from driving her goats across the mountains, she fell asleep by the side of the well. Unhindered the water gushed forth, breaking through at the Pass of Brander creating Loch Awe, and drowning local people and cattle in its wake. She was so horrified by her mistake that she turned to stone. The overflowing well is a common folklore motif used to explain many lakes and lochs.
- Within Manx folklore, there was the Cailleach Groarnagh, an "old woman of spells," who was is considered to be associated with the weather. It is said that if Imbolc is a good day, she will come out to warm herself, but if the day is wet and gloomy she will stay inside. Her bad mood is attributed to her having fallen on a crevice on a mountain located on the Isle of Man called Barrule, or sometimes because it is said that she was thrown out to sea and drifted back to shore.
There are several stories that attaches Cailleach to a specific place
- A local story from the island of Beare is told about two old women that were separated by a row across the water. One was on the mainland, and other lived on the island. The two hags threw hurling sticks at each other, and consequently these became the standing stones on in the middle of Beare island and others the stones near Castletownbere.
- An account from 1894 tells how in Co. Meath, there is a set of chambered cairns on a hill which is known as Sliabh na Caillighe, meaning "the Hag's mountain," or "the witches' hills." It is located near Oldcastle and Lough Crew. The hag, whose name was unknown by the shepherd who told the story, had brought the stones in three apronfuls to the three primary cairns. She placed a stone to serve as her seat, or chair, on a hill point called Belrath. Now, the stone is called Chair Cairn. This stone is ten feet long , six feet high, and two feet thick and is hollowed out in the center. There are notable zig-zag designs and concentric circles engraved in the stone. Around the base and in front of the stone there is a fairly large quantity of quartz which has been broken into small lumps and strewn around. It is said that Cailleach placed the chair here did this so that she could look out upon the countryside whenever she wanted to. The hag loved to ride a pony and would leap from hilltop to hilltop. One day, the hag rode the pony so hard that it fell down, and both the horse and the rider were killed. The Cailleach in this story also gives her name to Bearhaven in Co. Cork.
- Another story is regarding the Chair Cairn explains how the Cailleach came from the North to perform a magical feat to obtain great power if she was able to succeed. She took a large apron of stones and dropped some on Carnbane and created a cairn there. Then, she jumped to the top of Slieve-na-cally, otherwise known as Hag's Hill, and dropped another cairn. Again, she jumped and deposited yet another cairn on another hill. If she could make the last leap and drop the last cairn, she would be granted the power she sought. She tried to jump, but instead slipped and fell, and consequently broke her neck killing her. The Cailleach was then buried in the nearby area.
- The Cailleach created the Hag's Furrow while ploughing. She turned up huge piles of stones while ploughing on mount Schiehallion, the Caledonian faery hill. (Its Gaelic name, Sídh Chaillean, means “Crone's Mound.” Many other places are named Beinne na Cailleach (her mount) and Sgríob na Cailleach (her writing). Folklore says that the Crone turned into a boulder atop Beinn na Callich, where a prehistoric cairn also stands. [MacKenzie, 144]
- In Altagore, county Antrim, stood a stone called the Shanven, “old woman.” People considered it sacred, leaving oatcakes and butter offerings there. One story says that a mason ignorant of the stone's power moved it for use as a gate-post. The next morning it had returned to its old place. [Wood-Martin, 224-5] The Shanven story resembles French tales of Black Virgins' removal and miraculous return to their mountain sanctuaries. Irish folk memory also refers to the medieval practice of taking shiela-na-gigs away from wells and fields to incorporate them into doorways and walls of churches, monasteries, and castles.
- In Armagh the Cailleach Bhéarra was said to live in a deep chamber under a hilltop megalith near Slieve Gullion. People visited this spot on Blaeberry Sunday, a survival of Lughnasadh. [Anne Ross, “The Divine Hag of the Pagan Celts,” 156] [insert on megalithic trads of Loughcrew, Slieve-na-cailleach] Slieve gullion in Armagh is called Calliagh Birra's House, and the megalithic site Carrownamaddoo 2 is also called Calliagh A Vera's House. In many places standing stones are said to be people and animals she transformed. [O Hogain, 68]
- Near Antrim is a búllan (rock basin) known as the Witch's Stone. When the Cailleach finished building the Round Tower, she leaped off the top and landed on this stone, leaving marks from her elbow and her knee. This stone used to lie near a stream. Much later, a wall was built, cutting the stone off from the water. [Wood-Martin, 247]
- She was charge of a well on the summit of Ben Crauchan in Argyll. Every sunset she had to cap the flowing water with a large flat stone and then release it at sunrise.
- Another Irish story says that the Cailleach was so tall that she was able to wade in all Ireland's lakes and rivers, but that she drowned while crossing the deepest loch in Sligo, the Lake of Two Geese. This lake is rumored to have an underground outlet and a monster that guarded treasure in its depths. Folk legends speak of how an attempt to dig out the treasure was foiled by the “good people.” Nearby, in the mountains above Kilross, stands a stone formation the peasants call the house of the Cailleach. [Wood-Martin, 214-6, 131]
- The Dingle Peninsula is considered to be Cailleach Country. There are more than 2,000 archaeological sites in this area, many of which are thought to pose religious significance. The mountain range of this area is rules by Mish, a personification of the Cailleach.
- The Beare peninsula in west Cork belonged to this Old Woman, and the island Inis Boí at its end was named after her. A sea rock was pointed out as the Tarbh Conraidh, the cailleach's great bull. His bellow impregnated the cows who heard it. But once he went swimming after a cow, and the Cailleach struck him with her slachdan, turning him to stone.