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The Cailleach

The Cailleach

PostAuthor: Tylluan » Mon Oct 17, 2011 9:24 am

Alternate names: Cailleach Bheur, Cailleach Uragaig, Cailleach Beinne Bric ("Old Woman of the Speckled Mountain"), Cailleach Mor ("Great Old Woman") (Scotland); Cailleach Bheirre, Cailleach Bolus, Cailleach Corca Duibhe (Ireland); Caillagh ny Groamagh, Caillagh ny Gueshag (Isle of Man). On the east of Scotland where the Scots language developed parallel to Gaelic she is known as the Carlin, who is sometimes known as the Queen of the Witches.

“I am the Cailleach, Goddess of Winter, Mother of Mountains, Ageless Lady of Dark Places, Ancient Crone of Wisdom. The Winter brings the Spring, and in death, I am endlessly renewed.”

The early Celts did not fear the dark side of life. They were fearless in the face of death, which their belief in reincarnation taught them was “… but the centre of a long life.” It was not uncommon for a man to lend money and agree on repayment in a future lifetime. Their day began at dusk; the new year at Samhain. Darkness was associated with new beginnings, the potential of the seed below the ground. In Celtic mythology and folk-lore, the wisdom of darkness is often expressed by powerful Goddess figures. Their role is to catalyse change through the transformative power of darkness, to lead through death into new life. A Dark Goddess of nature, particularly in Scotland, is the Cailleach, a name that came to mean “Old Wife”, but which is literally, “Veiled One,” an epithet often applied to those who belong to hidden worlds and after Christianity arrived became the accepted term for a nun. This has led to an interesting situation where confusion arises between a figure who was part of ancient Mother Goddess belief and Christian nuns. To this name is often added Bheur: ‘sharp’ or ‘shrill’, for she personifies the cutting winds and harshness of the northern winter. She was also known as the daughter of Grianan, the “little sun” which in the old Scottish calendar shines from Hallowmas to Candlemas, followed by the “big sun” of the summer months.

At a cultural level, the Dark Goddess appears in a number of guises, and her role is to facilitate at important transition times of Celtic society, such as war and the choosing of kings. In Ireland, Morrigan, whose name means Phantom Queen, is a battle-fury. Along with Badb (Crow) and Macha, she forms a triplicity who unleash their powers of enchantment to bring mists, clouds of darkness, and showers of fire and blood over their enemies. Their howls of menace freeze the blood and cause soldiers to flee the battlefield. Any aspect of this triple Goddess might appear among opposing armies as crows or ravens, sinister black carrion birds of death.

Or warriors might see a lean, nimble hag, hovering above the fray, hopping about on the spears and shields of the army who were to be victorious. Another of her aspects is the Washer at the Ford, an old woman seen washing the linen of a soldier about to die in battle. Beholding her at this liminal place, a warrior knew that he would soon be crossing the river that separates life and death.

Yet to the Celts, blood and carnage on the battlefield fertilised and replenished the earth. War and death gave way to life and a flourishing land, and Morrigan, who represents this mystery, was also a Goddess of fertility and sexuality, sometimes appearing as a beautiful young woman. She was strongly identified with the land itself, in her guise as Sovereignty, the goddess with whom a king-to-be had to mate in a ritual marriage to the country of Ireland.

Sovereignty, too, appears as an ugly crone. 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.”

By appearing in her most repulsive aspect, Sovereignty is able to test for a true king, one who is not fooled by appearances, who knows the value of the treasure that is concealed in dark places. He is willing to put aside self-gratification and submit to unappealing demands out of compassion. Above all, by kissing or mating (as it is more explicitly expressed in other accounts) with the Dark One, he understands the mysteries of life and death as two sides of the same coin and so will be able to draw upon the wisdom of the Otherworld during his reign.

Embracing the Dark Goddess as an act of sacrifice for the greater good 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.

The Cailleach is the Goddess who oversees this transformation. She is the one who watches over the culling of old growth. She is the Death Goddess, who lets die what is no longer needed. But in the debris of the passing year, she also finds the gems, the seeds for the next season. She is the guardian of the seed, the keeper of the essential life force. She holds the very essence of power.

In partnership with the Goddess Brìghde, the Cailleach is also seen as a seasonal deity, ruling the winter months between Samhain (Wintermas or first day of winter) and Beltane (Summermas or first day of summer), while Brìghde rules the summer months between Beltane and Samhain. Some interpretations have the Cailleach and Brìghde as two faces of the same Goddess, while others describe the Cailleach as turning to stone on Beltane and reverting back to humanoid form on Samhain in time to rule over the winter months. Depending on local climate, the transfer of power between the winter Goddess and the summer Goddess is celebrated any time between Là Fhèill Brìghde (February 1) at the earliest, Latha na Cailliche (March 25), or Beltane (May 1) at the latest, and the local festivals marking the arrival of the first signs of spring may be named after either the Cailleach or Brìghde.

Là Fhèill Brìghde is also the day the Cailleach gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she intends to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on February 1 is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood to keep herself warm in the coming months. As a result, people are generally relieved if February 1 is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep, will soon run out of firewood, and therefore winter is almost over. On the Isle of Man, where She is known as Caillagh ny Groamagh, the Cailleach is said to have been seen on St. Bride's day in the form of a gigantic bird, carrying sticks in her beak.

In Scotland and Ireland, the first farmer to finish the grain harvest made a corn dolly, representing the Cailleach, from the last sheaf of the crop. The figure would then be tossed into the field of a neighbor who had not yet finished bringing in their grain. The last farmer to finish had the responsibility to take in and care for the corn dolly for the next year, with the implication they'd have to feed and house the hag all winter. Competition was fierce to avoid having to take in the Old Woman.

“She is terrible to behold:
There were two slender spears of battle upon the other side of the carlin,
her face was blue-black, of the lustre of coal,
And her bone tufted tooth was like rusted bone.
In her head was one deep pool-like eye
Swifter than a star in winter
Upon her head gnarled brushwood
like the clawed old wood of the aspen root. “

This is the hag of winter, often described as an ugly giantess leaping from mountaintop to mountaintop. The rocks she drops from her apron become hills. She has a blue-black face with only one eye in the centre of her forehead. Her one eye shows that she sees beyond dualities to the ultimate unity of all things on the Web of Life. Her teeth are red and her hair is matted brushwood covered with frost. Dressed all in grey, a dun-coloured plaid wrapped tightly about her shoulders, the Cailleach Bheur leapt from mountain to mountain across the arms of the sea. 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 Corryvreckan, the whirlpool off the west coast, and when she pulled it up, the hills were white with snow.

In her right hand she wielded a magic rod or hammer with which she struck the grass into blades of ice. In early spring, she could not bear the grass and sun, and would fly 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”.

At winter’s end, some accounts say the Cailleach turned into a grey boulder until the warm days were over. The boulder was said to be “always moist’, because it contained “life substance’. But many tales say that she turns into a beautiful young woman at this time, for the other face of the Cailleach is Bride.

On the eve of Bride, the Cailleach journeys to the magical isle in whose woods lies the miraculous Well of Youth. At the first glimmer of dawn, she drinks the water that bubbles in a crevice of a rock, and is transformed into Bride, the fair maid whose white wand turns the bare earth green again.

The Corryvreckan, the remarkable whirlpool on the west coast of Scotland between the islands of Scarba and Jura, is said to be where the Cailleach washed her plaid (traditional garment of the Highlands, generally tartan) in late autumn and then spread it out over the mountains to dry.

As she was the oldest creature her plaid was pure white: so the story explains both the period of heaviest activity of the whirlpool and the first serious snow fall of the year. The Cailleach is also said to have created Scotland by dropping a creel full of peat and rocks. F. Marian McNeill tells us in The SilverBough: 'The Cailleach is the genius of winter and the enemy of growth. Her chief seat is Ben Nevis. She ushers in winter by washing her great plaid in the whirlpool of Corryvreckan [Coire Bhreacain = the Cauldron of the Plaid]. Before the washing, it is said, the roar of a coming tempest is heard by people on the coast for a distance of twenty miles, for a period of three days until the cauldron boils. When the washing is over, the plaid of old Scotland is virgin white.' [2 p.20]

With regards to animals, there are a number of animals who are classed as ‘Hers’. The deer have that first claim to her. They are her cattle, She herds and milks them and often gives them protection against hunters. Swine, wild goats, wild cattle, black cats and wolves were also Her creatures. In another aspect, she is a fishing Goddess, as well as the guardian of wells and streams.

There is a story of two young hunters that did NOT follow Her hunting advice. The Cailleach pointed them in the right direction to hunt and they were able to make a kill of a large Stag. The two then proceeded to drag the heavy Stag on the long journey home. After toiling all the way home they found that the Stag was gone. They told their father of what had happened. "Did you bless the meat as the Cailleach told you?" he asked. When they replied that they had not he said, "Well, if you don't bless the meat, then it's the fairies who get their share!"

Pantheon: Celtic
Element: Earth
Sphere of Influence: Death and Rebirth
Preferred colours: Black
Associated symbol: Magical Staff
Strongest around: Samhain
Suitable offerings: Corn Dolly

The Cailleach
cailleach.jpg (44.84 KiB) Viewed 2326 times
May your summers and winters be short, springs be mild and autumn reaping plentiful.

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