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The Cailleach, the old woman of winter

As the days grow shorter and autumn turns to winter, cold winds, the breath of the Cailleach Bheaur the blue hag of winter, scour the land. In Scottish folklore the Cailleach arises every Samhian and is responsible for bringing cold, snow and treacherous weather before turning to stone every Imbolc. The Cailleach, whose name simply means ‘older wise woman’ in Gaelic, is both feared and respected in British and Irish folklore. She is intimately connected to witches in their old role of midwives and layers out of the dead, and is likely to be a folk memory of an initiator goddess.

On the Isle of Man she is the Cailleach ny Groamagh ‘the old gloomy woman’

bringing the winter. She sometimes takes the form of a giant bird, reminiscent of the ancient bird goddesses of the Neolithic. As the Cailleach Bheare or Beara in Ireland, she is associated with the Beara peninsula and the Sliabh na Caillech ‘mountain of the Cailleach’ in County Meath. She is said to be responsible for raising the mountains and hills and placing the cairns and barrow mounds upon them. Her association with stone and the building of barrow mounds reveals her connection to the underworld and ancestral realms, of death but ultimately also of rebirth. The owl or ‘Cailleach oidhche’  is sacred to her and is also associated with death, the underworld, magic and the ability to see spirits. Deer and Cattle are also sacred to her and cattle bones, particularly horned skulls, have been found in numerous long and round barrows.


In Scottish folklore the Cailleach Bheaur, like the Welsh Goddess Cerridwen ‘crooked bent one’ or 'beloved, sacred', is said to endlessly chase her son / lover, the god of youth, analogous to Oenghus og, Mabon and of course Taliesin. Here her role as initiator is revealed, as she remains the constant throughout the triple cycle of life/ death/ rebirth. Cerridwen is always associated with the cauldron of rebirth, the destination of all life as it falls throughout the winter months before being reborn in the spring. It is interesting that in Gaelic there is a link between the word cailleach and the word for chalice; the chalice or grail being a later term for the cauldron of rebirth/ immortality, which is of course the womb of the goddess herself. Although this form of the goddess is often feared it is really a mercy, her sovereignty in the land of the dead ensuring the rebirth to come. This was still remembered in Wales well into the twentieth century, where Neolithic burial mounds, often considered entrances to the underworld, were known as ‘Cerridwens courts’. Several stone ‘cauldrons’ containing human bones have been found in burial mounds in Ireland, and are likely to signify that this belief stretches as far back as 3000 BCE.


Once the Cailleach was known as a triple goddess, her sisters/ other sides are the Cailleach Bolus and the Cailleach Corca Duibhne. In some tales the Cailleach Bheare is the wife of the sun god Lugh, but she is said to outlive many husbands, whilst remaining youthful herself, and mothering many children. Here we see an example of the earth goddess’s fecundity enduring whilst her lover rises and falls throughout the solar year. The Cailleach’s great age signifies her position as keeper of the mysteries, and as gateway to the infinite. She serves as midwife for the dying year as tenderly as she holds the seeds of the new, warm and safe in her lap beneath the earth, whilst her cauldron bubbles, hinting of the new life that will eventually come, after the long sleep that is the winter. 

First published in The Glastonbury Oracle Nov 09. 
                                      copyright Danu Forest 09

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