Cailleach, Celtic Crone Goddess
Submitted by: swampy
“Bha da shleagha chaola chatha
air an taobh eile dh’an chaillich
Bha ‘h-aodann dubh-ghorm air dreach a ‘ghuail
‘S a deud cnabadach cnamh-ruadh.
Bha aon suil ghlumach ‘na ceann
Bu luaithe na rionnag gheamhraidh;
Craobh mhineach chas air a ceann
Mar choill inich de ‘n t-seana chrithinn.
(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).
(from Campbell: The Yellow Muilearteach, in Popular Tales of the West Highlands Vol 3.)
The Neolithic goddess Cailleach, known variously as the “blue hag”, the “Bear goddess” and “Boar goddess”, “owl faced”, and “ancient woman”, has survived through the ages. Coming from the continent, Her worship spread to the British Isles early after the recession of the glaciers. The proto-Celtic peoples honored Cailleach and blended Her varying aspects, creating images invoking both love and terror. The various names that Cailleach has been worshipped in lend a clue to Her wide spread worship: Boi, Bui, Cally Berry, Caillech Bherri, Cailliach, Cailliaech, Carline, Digde, Dige, Dirra, Dirri, Duineach, Hag of Beara, Mala Liath, Mag-Moullach, Scotia, and Nicnevin.
Cailleach in modern Gaelic means ‘old wife’, but interestingly, it originally meant a ‘veiled one’ (from caille, a veil). In all her various Goddess forms, Cailleach is seen as a Crone Goddess who embodies winter. She is sometimes depicted as an old hag with the teeth of a wild bear and boar’s tusks or else is depicted as a one-eyed giantess who leaps from peak to peak, wielding Her magical white rod and blasting the vegetation with frost. Cailleach’s white rod, or slachdan, made of birch, bramble, willow or broom, is a Druidic rod which gives Her power over the weather and the elements. Cailleach is also a goddess who governs dreams and inner realities. She is the goddess of the sacred hill, the Sidhe, and the place where we enter into the hidden realm of the Fey and spirit beings. Sacred stones, the bones of the earth, are Her special haunts. Cailleach is connected to the ‘bean sidhe’ or banshee (which means ‘supernatural woman’) who are the wild women of the Fey.
Cailleach is also the guardian spirit of a number of animals. She is associated with the ancient tradition of herding reindeer. This means that the reindeer (and all deer) are Her cattle; She herds and milks them and often gives them protection from hunters. Swine, wild goats, wild cattle, and wolves are also Her creatures. Cailleach is also a fishing goddess, as well as the guardian of wells and streams.
In Scotland, Cailleach is considered to be the daughter of Grainne, or the Winter Sun. She is affectionately known as ‘Grandmother of the Clanns’ and ‘the Ancestress of the Caledonii Tribe’. The legends of the Caledonii tribe speak of the “Bringer of the Ice Mountains”, the great blue Old Woman of the highlands. Called Cailleach, Cailleach Bheur, Scotia, Carline or Mag-Moullach by the people, She was the Beloved Mountain Giantess who protected the early tribe from harm and nurtured them in Her sacred mountains. Cailleach Bheur is reborn each Samhain and goes about smiting the earth to blight growth and call down the snow. On Beltane Eve , She throws Her staff under a holly tree or a gorse bush (both are Her plants) and then turns into a gray stone, thus ending winter. In other myths this happens on Imbolc Eve, but rather than turning into a stone, She is instead reborn a young woman.
In Ireland Cailleach is known in Her singular form as Cailleach Beara or “Hag of Beara, – or else worshipped as part of a trio of Goddesses with Her sisters Cailleach Bolus and Cailleach Corca Duibhne. In the Irish Triad, she is considered one of the three great ages: ‘The age of the yew tree, the age of the eagle, the age of the Hag of Beara’. Cailleach Beara inhabits the Beara peninsula on the Cork-Kerry border on the north side of Bantry Bay, Scotland. She is said to have “let loose the rivers, shaped the hills, and waved Her hammer over the growing grass.” In Ireland as in Scotland, She has power over the three months of winter, and is said to turn to stone every spring and to be reborn every October 31 (Samhain). In the legend of the coming of the Tuatha De Danann we are told that Cailleach Beara is the opposite face of the Goddess Bride (also known as Bride, Bridgit, Bridget, Brig, Brigentis, Brighid, Brigidu, Briginda, or Brigit).
In western Ireland, especially in the area of the Cliffs of Mohor, Cailleach is worshipped as a deity called Bronach or Brenach (Ugliness). In northern Ireland, Cailleach is called Cally Berry.
On November 1, a festival known as ‘Reign of the Old Woman Cailleach’ is celebrated annually in the Celtic countries (in Ireland it is known as ‘Day of the Banshees’). On the eve of Imbolc (Jan. 31 or Feb. 1), also celebrated is the fest called ‘End of Cailleach’. This fest signals the start of Imbolc and the end of winter.