Yuletide and the Cailleach legend

In Irish and Scottish mythology, the Cailleach, also known as the Cailleach Bheur, is a divine crone, a creatrix, and possibly an ancestral deity or deified ancestor. She is the embodiment of the dark mother, the post-harvest goddess, the hag or crone entity. She appears in the late fall, as the earth is dying, and is known as a bringer of storms. The word Cailleach is Gaelic for ‘veiled one’, and has been applied to numerous mythological figures in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. In Scotland, she is also known as Beira, Queen of Winter.

Cailleach

She is vastly ancient, so ancient that we know virtually nothing of her original myth and rituals. She can be traced through folklore, and through the names of ancient monuments and natural features of the landscape, and through enigmatic verses and stories. In Scotland she is said to be the mother of all the goddesses and gods.

Interestingly, even though Cailleach is typically depicted as a destroyer goddess, especially as a storm-bringer, she is also known for her ability to create new life. With her magical hammer, she is said to have created mountain ranges, lochs, and cairns all over Scotland, which are said to have been formed when she was striding across the land and accidentally dropped rocks from her apron “The land was born when the Cailleach dumped out the contents of her apron” (Patricia Monaghan). In other cases, she is said to have built the mountains intentionally, to serve as her stepping stones. She carries a hammer for shaping the hills and valleys. She is literally “older than the hills.”

Across the Gaelic world there are a number of locations named after her such as Ceann Caillí the southernmost tip of the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, Ireland. There are also ancient stones and burial mounds that are associated with Cailleach and have legends attached to them, such as Glen Cailleach which joins to Glen Lyon in Perthshire, Scotland. The glen has a stream named Alt nan Cailleach. There is a small Shieling (hut) in the Glen, known as Tigh nan Cailleach which has a number of carved stones. Local legend says they represent the Cailleach, her husband the Bodach, and their children. It is said that Cailleach and her family were given shelter in the glen by local people. When they left, they gave the stones to the locals and vowed that as long as the stones were put out to look over the glen at Beltane then placed put back into the shelter for the winter at Samhain, then the glen would continue to be fertile. She is also known as a protector of wild animals, in particular, the deer and the wolves, according to the Carmina Gadelica.

In some versions of the tale, Beira is said to be an old blue hag with one eye. According to one source, Beira’s possession of one eye symbolizes her ability to see beyond duality, and into the oneness of all beings. In one version of the tale in which Beira is portrayed as a hag, the Queen of Winter seeks the love of a hero. If the hero accepts her, she would transform into a beautiful young maiden. This transformation is thought to symbolize the seeds that lay dormant in the earth during the winter, which would begin sprout with the arrival of spring. Thus, Cailleach Bheur is seen not as an opponent of spring, but as spring itself. In Scotland, Beira serves a similar purpose as the personification of Winter; she has a blue face and is born old at Samhain but grows ever younger over time until she is a beautiful maiden at Beltane.

In partnership with the goddess Brigid (Brìghde), the Cailleach is seen as a seasonal deity or spirit, ruling the winter months between Samhain and Beltane, while Brigid rules the summer months between Beltane and Samhain. Some interpretations have the Cailleach and Brigid as two faces of the same goddess, while others describe the Cailleach as turning to stone on Beltane and reverting to humanoid form on Samhain in time to rule over the winter months.

Depending on local climate, the transfer of power between the winter goddess and the summer goddess is celebrated any time between Imbolc (Là Fhèill Brìghde) (1 February) at the earliest, Latha na Cailliche (25 March), or Beltane (1 May) at the latest, and the local festivals marking the arrival of the first signs of spring may be named after either the Cailleach or Brigid.

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