Cailleach: The Gaelic Hag
In most sources, there are few references to a goddess named Cailleach. On a closer, look, however, this Gaelic deity was one of the most dominant figures in folklore.
In Scotland, Ireland, and on the Isle of Man, goddesses who can be identified as Cailleach are credited with the world’s creation and the birth of entire generations of gods. Cailleach, however, was no nurturing mother goddess.
Despite being a creator, Cailleach was a harsh and brutal figure. She was a goddess of storms, high winds, and bitter cold.
So why did the Gaelic people seem to consistently see such a menacing figure as the creator of their world? The unique emphasis on the creative powers of winter likely lies in the environment in which Cailleach was worshipped.
Cailleach is a figure who appears in different forms throughout the Gaelic world.
She is found in the folklore and mythology of Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man. Even within one of these cultures, she can appear in a variety of forms and under different names.
In Ireland, Cailleach is identified by the name Digde in some stories, Birog in others, and Biu in different sources altogether. In yet another legend she is Milucra, the sister and opposite of Aine the goddess of summer.
In Scotland, Cailleach is most often Beira, the Queen of Winter, a title given to Cailleach by later linguists. In Manx, her name is Caillagh.
Of all these stories, the Scottish tales of Beira give the most definite characterization of Cailleach.
As the Queen of Winter, she is a goddess of weather, particularly rough storms and bitter cold.
She is the enemy of Brighde, the goddess of summer. Although the two goddesses often work against one another, they are also seen as two aspects of the same power.
One legend said that Brighde was imprisoned by the Queen of the Fairies, who was jealous of her beauty. Beira ruled the world in her absence, so she created it to be wintery.
The rocky hills and mountains of Scotland were put down by Beira to be stepping stones so she could stride across the wintery landscape.
Beira was also the mother of all the gods. One of her sons, Aengus, freed Brighde and returned the summer to the land.
The Queen of Winter constantly chased the Lord and Lady of Summer, but exhausted herself before she could catch them. When she slept, summer came to the world, but winter returned when Brighde fled to Tir na Nog to avoid her.
Many versions of the story said that Beira had to visit the Well of Youth often to keep up with the younger gods of summer. Her sleep in the summer months gave her time for the well’s water to restore her youth and vitality after ending the winter as an old woman.
Other versions of Cailleach kept with the theme of being a goddess of harsh weather.
The plural Cailleachan were a collection of minor goddesses who were known as the Storm Hags. The personified destructive weather to the point that the spring windstorms of Scotland were known as A’ Cailleach.
In both Ireland and Scotland, versions of Cailleach were known as deer hunters, an activity most common in the winter months.
Both were also associated with the creation of the landscape, particularly hills and mountains. Many mountains, hills, and ancient stone monuments in Ireland, Scotland, and on the Isle of Man are named for Cailleach.
Both countries associated Cailleach with famous lakes, as well.
In Scotland, she was said to have created Loch Ness when she turned her rebellious maid into water. In Ireland, she tricked Fionn Mac Cumhaill into diving into a lake for a ring she claimed to have lost to turn him into an old man.
As in Scotland, the Irish version of Cailleach likely had many children. One poem that likely refers to her said that she had fifty foster-children and had renewed her youth so many times that her descendants made entire tribes and races of people.
Although Cailleach went by many names and had many local legends, some aspects of the story remained constant. She was a winter goddess who created mountains and lakes, often appeared as an old woman, and was the mother of many other deities.
The reason the name Cailleach is so broadly applied in Gaelic culture is because of its wide interpretation.
As a world, cailleach is often translated as “old woman,” or “hag.” Linguists believe it developed from a word for a veiled woman.
The name Cailleach, therefore, never referred to a specific Gaelic goddess. Instead, it was used for an archetype.
The archetype of the Cailleach is that of an aged creator goddess of weather.
Ancient Gaelic people seemed to recognize that the rugged cliffs, mountains, and valleys of their countries were formed by the harsh climate there. The goddess of summer may have been well-loved, but was the goddess of ice and storms that had shaped the land of Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man.
The generality of the word cailleach also explains why it was applied to so many related figures.
Bad weather in general was personified in Scottish and Irish folklore by female spirits. While Cailleach could be used as a name for a single entity, the more general translation of “hag” could be used for any being associated with the weather.
The weather, however, was not a constant. Like the goddess that created it, the patterns of bad weather were cyclical.
In many traditions, Cailleach was typically seen as an old woman. She constantly renewed her youth, however.
Many Indo-European cultures interpreted winter as a time when a particular goddess slept or was locked away. In Greece, for example, the winter months were those that Persephone spent in the underworld.
Gaelic mythology, however, reversed this cycle. Rather than being dominated by the deity of good weather, it was the goddess of cold and storms that rested.
The Gaelic cycle was not based on the arrival of good weather, but on the absence of bad weather.
Cailleach may not be one of the most familiar names in mythology, but her importance in the Gaelic world was undeniable. Her harshness and activity. created the world as the Gaelic people saw it.
In Gaelic folklore, Cailleach does not refer to a specific goddess.
Instead, the name, which translates as “hag” or “old woman” is used to refer to an archetype that exists across Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man.
Cailleach the hag is a goddess of storms, winter, and harshness. In the plural, the name refers to a collection of storm hags, while the singular Cailleach figure is the ruler of winter and the opposite of the summer goddess.
In most Gaelic traditions, Cailleach is credited with creating the landscape. Rocky hills, jagged peaks, and sheer cliffs were made through the work of the winter goddess.
She is also the mother of many gods in some traditions, and of entire races of men in others. Although she usually appears as an old woman, she constantly renews her energy so winter always returns.
The Gaelic view of the winter goddess as the center of creation legends and the cycle of the seasons seems to be the opposite of what most cultures believed. Rather than focusing on the pleasantness of summer or the growth of spring, Gaelic legends painted these as times of inactivity when Cailleach rested to return winter to the world.
The development of Cailleach as a key archetype is likely due to the terrain and climate of the cultures that revered her. The Gaelic lands were formed by the action of ice, wind, and rain, not the calm weather of the summer.