The Cailleachs of Gaelic and Celtic Lore

 

Cailleach Bheure

The Cailleach Beure.  Public domain.

The Cailleach is a word referring to a number of mythological figures in the folklore of Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man. In the mythology of the British Isles the Cailleach is a divine hag or crone and survival of a primordial goddess of earth, sky, sun and moon. The Cailleach is sacred crone, a deified ancestral figure and pre-Celtic creatrix, whose name in modern Scottish Gaelic means ‘Old Woman’ or hag. In appearance the Cailleach is believed to have a blue-black face, her eye in her forehead with white hair and red teeth.

This hag is also known as the caillech, the cailliach, the callech (or ‘veiled one’), cailleac, and ‘Gatekeeper to the Spirit World’.  A callech could also refer to a nun or cailleach-dhubh in Gaelic;  an old woman, widow or an owl as cailleach-oidhche in Gaelic; a wise woman or fortune teller as a cailleach feasa in Irish; a sorceress or charm worker or cailleach -phiseogach in Irish. In Irish the plural form is cailleacha and in Scottish it is cailleachan – the ‘Storm Hags who personify the destructive powers of the natural world. Caillech is also an old Celtic name for the goddess Kali. In terms of etymology related terms include the Gaelic caileag meaning ‘girl’ or ‘young woman’.

storm hags

Storm Hags.  Public domain.

The Cailleach was a goddess who, as a personification of the seasons, controlled the weather and winter from samhvinn (or November the 1st) until the summer months starting May 1st or Beltane. In Scotland, as ‘Queen of Winter’, she was called Biero. The winter Cailleach herded dear, resisted springtime and froze the soil with her staff or wand. In this aspect she was the Great Goddess in her aspect of the destroyer. Known thus as Caerlin, and Mala Liath. This is her aspect that represents the last sheaf of the harvest. As Carlin or Carline she was the ‘Corn Maiden’ or corn dolly. The Cailleach was an embodiment of the corn or field spirit, a personification of the last sheaf kept over winter until spring. In Lowland Scots  the words carline or carlin also mean Old Woman or witch.

The Cailleach are enshrined in various localities in Scotland and Ireland. The ‘Hag’s Head’ in County Clare is the Ceann na Cailleach. The Slieve na Calliagh hill is ‘Hag’s Hill’ or megalithic tombs at Loughcrew. In Scotland, on the Isle of Skye, is found the Beinn a Cailleach, the ‘Witch of Ben  Cruachan’ is the Cailleach nan Cruachan at Loch Awe or Loch Okha.

Biera

A number of local variants of the Cailleach exist. These include the Calleach Beara, the Cailleach Bheur, the Cailleach Bolus, the Caillagh Birra, the Calleach Uragaig, the Caillagh ny Gueshag, and the Calliagh ny Groamagh. The Callagh Birra is a variant of the Cailleach Bhierre in Ulster. In the Isle of Man the Caillagh ny Gueshag is the ‘Old Woman of the Spells’, and another name for the Caillagh ny Groamagh. She was and old and gloomy woman and mountain goddess and version of the Irish Cailleach Beure seen on St Bride’s Day as a giant bird. In Ireland the Cailleach Bolus was an aspect of the triple goddess along with Cailleach Bheur and Caillech Corca Duibhne.

The Cailleach Uragaig  is the hag and winter spirit of the isle of Colonsay in Strathclyde. This hag keeps a captive maiden and avoids the lover of the girl by shape-shifting into the moist and grey headland above the sea. The Cailleach Beara or the ‘Crone of Beare’  is an Irish giantess associated with mountains. Carrying giant boulders which she adds to her mountainous lands she is tutelary goddess of south west Munster.

Of significance is the Cailleach Bheur or Cailleach Bui of west Scotland. Known as the ‘Veiled One’ she is the destroyer aspect of the Great Goddess in Welsh and Manx mythology and folklore. Her other name is Scota from which Scotland originates. Known also as Calleach Bhierre, Beirre, Bearra, Bheare, Bheara, Beare, Beara, Bherri. In Old Irish she is the old hag, crone, woman, or nun of Beare or Calliagh Birra.

Caiileach Bheure

Cailleach Bheure.  Public domain.

An ancient pre-Celtic goddess of Ireland she is in parts of Britain a giantess and Winter Goddess. Emerges at Samhain as a blue-coloured ancient crone or hag who gets younger as time progresses. This controller of the weather and seasons, the earth, sky, sun and moon, becomes a maiden who disappears at Beltane. An Irish sovereignty figure her Scottish counterpart is Cailleach Beinne Bric.

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