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The Cailleach: Gaelic Goddess of Winter
In most polytheist traditions, individual deities often stand as symbols or patrons for all manner of things from professions, to seasons, to acts such as love or war, or life events like death or childbirth.
However, in most circumstances a deity is a complex figure who can reign over many realms, or even share their role with other figures. Such is the Celtic figure known as the Cailleach.
The Cailleach is discussed in great detail by Eleanor Hull in her 1927 article for Folklore Journal called “Legends and Traditions of the Cailleach Bheara or Old Woman (Hag) of Beare.” Hull states that because the Cailleach is found frequently in lore and traditions of Ireland and Scotland, but is absent in Wales, that she seems to be a strictly Gaelic figure as opposed to more broadly Celtic.
But, although she is widely known among the Gaels, there are certain regional variations. Hull says that more stories of the Cailleach are found in Ireland, but more traditions relating to her are found in Scotland.
A Multifaceted Figure
Though mainly known as a crone, the Cailleach was said to have periods of youth and fostered many children.
My favorite book on European folk culture.
Wherever she is found, the Cailleach is mainly known for two things: her identity as a hag and her association with winter. However, like most deities, she is complex with multiple associations.
In her book, “European Mythology,” Jacqueline Simpson describes the Scottish version, the Cailleach Bheur, as “a tall, blue-faced crone” who is “both a personification of winter and a protectress of wild animals.”
Protectress of wild animals
The Cailleach has several variants by regional location. As such, she is known by different names.
“The Dictionary of Celtic Myth” by Peter Berresford Ellis says that the Cailleach Beara:
“…originally appeared as a triune goddess with Cailleach Bolus and Cailleach Corca Duidbne. She was said to have also been known as Cailleach Bui, wife of Lugh, the god of arts and crafts.
The Book of Lecan mentions that she had seven youthful periods, married seven husbands, and had fifty foster children who founded many tribes and nations.” (p55).
Goddess of the Grain
The Cailleach has traditionally been associated with the grain harvest. The last sheaf of the crop was sometimes identified with her and played a role in the success of next year's crop.
Although generally known as a hag who represents winter, we can see that she has other incarnations as well. In addition to her roles as a foster mother of children who would found tribes, she is also associated with the fertility of the crops that her people depended on, most importantly grain.
The last sheaf of the harvest held superstitious connotations for nearly all groups of agricultural people in Europe, and was typically associated with a corn spirit (corn meaning grain not American maize, obviously) who embodied the it. In areas where the Cailleach was known, the corn or field spirit was often thought to be the Cailleach herself.
This is discussed in “Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend.”
They explain that the belief that the last sheaf of grain is imbued with a spirit is a worldwide notion and that many cultures save the last sheaf until planting season the following spring to ensure a successful crop.
The Gaels associated the Cailleach with this spirit, which is reflected in the terms used for the sheaf in parts of Ireland and Scotland:
“In the neighborhood of Belfast, Ireland, the last sheaf is called the Granny and its personification is achieved not only by thus naming it, but by a special ceremony of cutting it.
In certain sections of Scotland it is called the carlin (old woman). In the Scottish Isle of Lewis the old hag or cailleac is dressed up in clothes, her apron turned up and filled with bread, cheese, and a sickle. (p180).
There are several figures that bear strong similarities to the Cailleach found in other European cultures, especially in Germanic and Slavic traditions such as Frau Holle and Baba Yaga.
While reading about the Cailleach, I was struck by some similarities she shares with other European goddesses.
I recently researched another Scottish folkloric figure called the Queen of Elphame for an article appearing in Mythology Magazine’s September 2015 issue. In that article I discussed that figure’s similarities to some Germanic goddesses.
The Cailleach differs in that she turns up primarily in Gaelic culture, whereas the Queen of Elphame existed primarily in the Scottish Lowlands and appears to have strong Anglo-Saxon influences.
However, in her book “European Mythology” scholar Jaqueline Simpson emphasizes that folklore’s “main features are pretty consistent throughout Europe, despite political and linguistic barriers.”
She also says that “there are many cases where a point can equally well be illustrated by examples from Norway or Switzerland, Russia or France, and readers should not assume that a country named here is the only one where a particular story or belief occurs” (p8).
In my article on the Queen of Elphame I discussed that figure as a possible Scottish version of some other goddesses that evolved over the years.
I am not asserting that the Cailleach is a variation of a goddess found in other cultural pantheons, but rather that certain themes and similarities come up often in European mythical belief, even across language boundaries.
In particular the goddesses that stood out as sharing some similarities with the Cailleach are the German Holle and the Russian Baba Yaga.
Like the Cailleach, Holle is described as sometimes a beautiful young woman and sometimes an old woman.
She is also associated with woodland animals and acts as their guardian. While she is not associated with agricultural fertility, she is associated with human fertility.
She also has a strong association with winter. Holle was a goddess associated with the Yuletide season. In Germany Holle is considered the wife of Wotan (Odin), whereas in Norse tradition Frigga is Odin’s wife.
The Wild Hunt is a mythological event that was known in many parts of Northwestern Europe, including both Celtic and Germanic cultures. It was a procession of spiritual beings that flew through the sky around the time of the Winter Solstice. In Germany Holle was often the figure leading it.
And, while Holle is not typically tied to agriculture, it was sometimes said that when she led the Wild Hunt over a crop field, the harvest would be double in the coming year. Likewise, Baba Yaga was often associated with winter and often depicted as a hag.
Celtic, Germanic, and Slavic cultures do relate to one another in that they are all Indo-European, and also very northern geographically. While each culture has their own unique flavor, many similarities are also found. And, the great deities of pre-Christian Europe lingered on in the folktales and folk practices of all three cultures.
The Cailleach is just one of many examples of a figure that has parallels in other European traditions, and who lived on in the belief systems of the peasants long after conversion to Christianity.
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My name is Carolyn Emerick and I write on the history and folklore of Northwestern Europe. Please follow me on Facebook to be alerted when new articles come out.
Ellis, Peter Berresford. The Dictionary of Celtic Myth. London: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Emerick, Carolyn. "The Queen of Elphame: Hidden Goddess of the Scottish Witch Trials." Mythology Magazine, September 2015.
Hull, Eleanor. "Legends and Traditions of the Cailleach Bheara or Old Woman (Hag) of Beare." Folklore 38, no. 3 (1927): 225-254.
Leach, Maria. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. New York: Harper Collins, 1972.
Simpson, Jacqueline. The Folklore of the Welsh Border. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd, 1976.
© 2016 Carolyn Emerick