The “Cailleach” (pronounced “kye-luhkh”) is said to be an ancient spirit, and is described as being one of the most fascinating, powerful, and most terrifying of the Celtic underworld. By Celtic Bards she s described …
“She crouched like a wild beast ready to spring,
She of the long nails, she of the long teeth,
She ran through the hills like thunder.”
The ‘Cailleach’ is a mystery, whose memory and presence has survived many centuries after tribal worship to her died out among the Celts. She is, however, known in Celtic tradition as a very ancient spirit. In fact her tradition is so old that we know almost nothing of her origins, or the myths and rituals that surround her. The ‘Cailleach’, however, is found in the ancient traditions of Ireland, Scotland, and England, traceable through the folklore of those countries, the names of ancient monuments, natural wonders, and through the ancient verses and stories handed downfrom generation to generation.
We know that the Celts came to these lands over two millenia ago, bringing with them their own pantheon of Gods and Goddesses. But, when they arrived here the tradition of the ‘Cailleach’ was already ancient. It is almost impossible for us to know, or understand, what this particular spirit meant to those who worshipped her, but she must have been very important because, unlike countless deities and demons, she did not disappear. In fact, there are many who insist that the ‘Cailleach’ is still alive, and still a power in these lands and we must know something about her if we are to understand the story that follows.
In Celtic folklore the “Cailleach” is known by many titles, but chiefly as the ‘Old Woman of Winter’. She shows herself in late autumn as the days grow shorter and the weather turns wintry. It is said that the cold winds of winter, which scour the land is the breath of ‘Cailleach Bheaur‘ , or the Blue Hag of Winter. It is she who is responsible for bringing cold, snow and the treacherous weather that steals life from the land. She is the Goddess of Winter, Mother of Mountains, Ageless Lady of Dark Places, and the Ancient Crone of Wisdom.
When the winter came to an end, it is said that the ‘Cailleach’ used a magic rod, which she carried in her right hand, to strike the grass into blades of ice. The end of Winter, of course, brings with it the Spring, and she could not bear the grass and sun. On first sight of the season of renewal she would fly into a temper, throwing down her wand beneath a holly tree, before disappearing in a whirling cloud of angry passion. Some accounts say that the ‘Cailleach’ turned herself into a grey boulder to await the end of the warm days, when she would be renewed. The boulder, it was said, would always be moist to the touch, because it contained slumbering substance of the spirit.
There are other tales that tell us the ‘Cailleach’ changes herself into a beautiful young woman at this time, for the other face of the Cailleach is Briege, once goddess, who has been amalgamated into Christian saint, whose feast day, February 1st is said to mark the return of the light. Tales tell us that on the eve of this feast day the ‘Cailleach’ journeys to a magical island in whose forests lies the miraculous ‘Well of Youth’. At the first glimmer of dawn, she drinks the water that bubbles in a crevice of a rock, and is transformed into Briege, the beautiful spirit whose magical, white wand turns the bare earth green once more.
The name, “Cailleach”, in simple language means, “Older wise woman”, but the title is very much connected to the tradition of witches and the dark arts. At a cultural level, this Dark Goddess appears in a number of forms, and her role was to facilitate tribal elders at important times in Celtic society, such as declaring war and the choosing of kings. The ‘Cailleach’ was described as being of fierce and terrifying in her appearance. She was described as having only one eye, but it was an eye of exceptional sight, and sat in the middle of her blue-black face. Another outstanding feature of the ‘Cailleach’ was her red teeth and her white hair, that was like a snow covered mountain top. Over her head she wore a kerchief of sorts, and over her dull grey clothing she wore a faded plaid shawl. But, it is important to remember that this old woman can take on many disguises and, in many parts of Ireland, is said to be responsible for the placing of cairns and barrow mounds on the hills and mountains. It is her association with such things that reveals her intimate connection to the underworld and the ancestral realms of death.
This Celtic spirit not only controls the seasons, the ‘Cailleach’ is considered to be a goddess of the earth and sky, the sun and moon. In the guise of an earth goddess she can create life and nurture it, but she is also a destroyer that brings only death in all its forms. The ‘Cailleach’ can also form, alongside other spirits, the group known as ‘The Storm Hags’, who can control the winds and the weather for their own means. In Ireland, alongside, ‘Babh’ (Crow), and Macha she is part of a group who unleash their magical powers to bring mists, clouds of darkness, and showers of fire and blood over their enemies. Their howls of menace can cause blood to freeze, bringing a paralysis to soldiers on the battlefield. Any aspect of this goddess might appear among opposing armies as crows or ravens, all of which are considered to be sinister black carrion birds of death.
In times of battle the warriors might just see a lean, nimble hag, hovering above the fighting, hopping about on the spears and shields of the army who were to be victorious. Another of her guises is the ‘Washer at the Ford’, which takes the form of an old woman who can be seen washing the clothing of a soldier who is about to die in battle. When the warrior saw her at this task, he knew that he would soon be crossing the river that separates life and death, and he embraced the dark side of life. They, the Celts, took to war like a lover, plunging into battle naked, while singing gloriously boastful songs. They were fearless in the face of death, which their belief in reincarnation taught them was “…but the center of a long life.” It was their belief that the blood and carnage on the battlefield fertilized and replenished the earth. War and death gave way to life and a flourishing land. In fact, it was not an uncommon thing for a man to lend money to another and agree on repayment in a future lifetime. Darkness, then, within Celtic tradition, was closely associated with new beginnings, such as the potential of the seed below the ground.
In some ancient tales, the ‘Cailleach’ does not turn to stone at the end of winter, but appears at a house where there was a young man lying. At this house she begs that she might be allowed to warm herself by the side of the fire, which is granted. But, later she would creep into the young man’s bed, and through her wily, magical spells the young man did not throw her out. Instead, he only put a fold in the blanket between them. But, after a while, the young man awoke with a start, for this old crone had changed into the most beautiful of women that man had ever seen. Such tales in Celtic folklore reinforce the tradition that says the ‘Cailleach’ endlessly chases youth, using magic means to seduce the young men. It is, therefore, right that the ‘Cailleach’, in her many disguises, is deeply feared because of her authority in the land of the dead. It is said that she outlives many husbands and lovers, while she remains youthful and mothers many children.
“The Cailleach sees with an all knowing eye,
A dark spirit with two faces,
One of which is bluish-black and
is filled with the knowledge of the ancients.
She is a withered old crone,
and older than time,
who watching over the land,
and guiding victims back to her.
With a quick and terrifying strike,
She is eager to unleash her power,
Causing mayhem and destruction in the world,
To bring about her renewal of life.”
The ‘Cailleach’. then, is known to all as ‘The Keeper of the Mysteries” promising all a new life, after the long sleep she brings to the world. But, as with any witch, the ‘Cailleach’ is interested only in her own aggrandisement. And so we meet the ‘Cailleach’ of Balligran…