A very ancient Hag-aspect of the Goddess who was known by many names throughout the Celtic countries. In the Irish Triads, the Cailleach is considered one of the three great ages: (the age of the Yew Tree, the age of the Eagle, and the age of the Hag of Baere)
Illustration by Jill Smith www.jill-smith.co.uk/.../ pages/cailleach_jpg.htm
The Cailleach Bheara, meaning "Old Woman" or "Old Wife," is found widespread throughout both Ireland and Scotland. Many mountains, lakes, and rivers are said to have been created by her. Even some of the cairns are reputed to be piles of stones which fell from her apron. The Cailleach Bheara forms a triple goddess with the Cailleach Bolus and the Cailleach Corca Duibhna. It is said that it was she who let loose the rivers, shaped the mountains, and swung her hammer over the green grasses. The Cailleach was said to possess the ability to change from an old ugly hag into a beautiful young maiden. In Ireland, she is also called the Sentainne Berri.
In Scotland, the Cailleach is a blue-faced hag and represents the three months of winter. Her reign is broken by the appearance of Brigit at Imbolc. At Beltaine, the Cailleach hides her staff underneath a holly bush.
The Romans equated the Cailleach with one of their goddesses named Juno. Later, the Cailleach took the name of Nicneven as the "Bone Mother" and was said to be seen flying through the air followed by a league of demons at Samhain.
Within Manx folklore, there was the Cailleach Groarnagh, an "old woman of spells," who was is considered to be associated with the weather. It is said that if Imbolc is a good day, she will come out to warm herself, but if the day is wet and gloomy she will stay inside. Her bad mood is attributed to her having fallen on a crevice on a mountain located on the Isle of Man called Barrule, or sometimes because it is said that she was thrown out to sea and drifted back to shore.
According to the Yellow Book of Lecan, a 14th century manuscript, the Cailleach Bheara was also known as Bui or Boi, meaning "yellow." She was from a people known as the Corcu Duibne. It is said that the Corcu Duibne "shall never be without some wonderful cailleach among them." The Cailleach Bheara had fifty foster children in Beara, which is a peninsula located in West Munster in Co. Cork. The descendants of her children became many peoples and races. She had seven periods of youth, and her mates died of old age.
A local story from the island of Beare is told about two old women that were separated by a row across the water. One was on the mainland, and other lived on the island. The two hags threw hurling sticks at each other, and consequently these became the standing stones on in the middle of Beare island and others the stones near Castletownbere.
An account from 1894 tells how in Co. Meath, there is a set of chambered cairns on a hill which is known as Sliabh na Caillighe, meaning "the Hag's mountain," or "the witches' hills." It is located near Oldcastle and Lough Crew. The hag, whose name was unknown by the shepherd who told the story, had brought the stones in three apronfuls to the three primary cairns. She placed a stone to serve as her seat, or chair, on a hill point called Belrath. Now, the stone is called Chair Cairn. This stone is ten feet long , six feet high, and two feet thick and is hollowed out in the center. There are notable zig-zag designs and concentric circles engraved in the stone. Around the base and in front of the stone there is a fairly large quantity of quartz which has been broken into small lumps and strewn around. It is said that Cailleach placed the chair here did this so that she could look out upon the countryside whenever she wanted to. The hag loved to ride a pony and would leap from hilltop to hilltop. One day, the hag rode the pony so hard that it fell down, and both the horse and the rider were killed. The Cailleach in this story also gives her name to Bearhaven in Co. Cork.
Another story is regarding the Chair Cairn explains how the Cailleach came from the North to perform a magical feat to obtain great power if she was able to succeed. She took a large apron of stones and dropped some on Carnbane and created a cairn there. Then, she jumped to the top of Slieve-na-cally, otherwise known as Hag's Hill, and dropped another cairn. Again, she jumped and deposited yet another cairn on another hill. If she could make the last leap and drop the last cairn, she would be granted the power she sought. She tried to jump, but instead slipped and fell, and consequently broke her neck killing her. The Cailleach was then buried in the nearby area.
The Cailleach Bheara is thought to have originally been a Spanish princess named Beara. It was prophesied that she would go to the River Eibhear on a certain night and discover a salmon dressed in colorful garments. On that night, she would meet her future husband. As prophesied, that night came to pass and she eloped with Eoghan Mo'r of Magh Nuadat. They set sail together for Ireland and upon their arrival landed on the North side of Bantry Bay. Eoghan named the peninsula after his wife, Beara.
The Dingle Peninsula is considered to be Cailleach Country. There are more than 2,000 archaeological sites in this area, many of which are thought to pose religious significance. The mountain range of this area is rules by Mish, a personification of the Cailleach. In Fact, almost every aspect of this area is named after the Cailleach Bheara. In the area of the Cliffs of Moher, she is called Bronach, which means "Sorrow." At Hag's Head, she is called Mal. Her names and variations are quite numerous.
On the Isle of Colonsay, Argyllshire, the Cailleach Uragaig is also considered to be associated with the winter months. It is said that she keeps a young girl imprisoned and avoids the attacks of the girl's lover by shape-shifting into the moist gray headland which is above the sea.
The Cailleach is also featured in the sovereignty myths, such as the one found in the telling of the Nine Hostages. Niall and his brothers encounter an old woman which they must kiss, and only Niall and Fergus resist the urge to kill her became she is so ugly. Fergus kisses the hag on the cheek and is rewarded with sovereignty over all of Ireland, and then the hag turns into a beautiful young woman. A poem from the tenth century describes the Cailleach as a frail old woman who had gone into a nunnery and looks back on her life as being the beloved of kings. It is believed that this was a Christian rewriting of the sovereignty stories. Also to note, the English had a habit of translating the word cailleach to mean nun.
There is another story that is told about the Cailleach in the area of Slyne Head. It was said that she was on the sea with her children and that they were freezing in the cold darkness. The cold chilled them all the way to the marrow of their bones. The Cailleach then explained to the children that they could warm themselves by baling the sea in and out of their boat. By doing this, the children were able to warm themselves until morning.
In the folklore of Ireland and Scotland, the term cailleach was used to denote the last sheaf of the harvest season. A variety of things were done with the last sheaf depending on the locale. Some of the more popular traditions included feeding the sheaf to livestock, tilling it or shaking it over the fields, and keeping it throughout the winter months. Young girls were often fearful of tying the last sheaf for fear that they would never be married.
In Scotland, one folklore tradition involves tying the cailleach with a ribbon and hanging it up on a nail until Spring. On the Isle of Lewis, they would take the cailleach and fill her apron with cheese, bread, and a sickle.
Although reference is made to her beauty, she is also described as having an eye in the middle of a blue-black face, red teeth, and matted hair. She controlled the seasons and the weather.
The Cailleach Bheur of the Scottish Highlands, is a blue-faced hag who personified winter, is one of the clearest cases of the supernatural creature who was once a primitive goddess, possibly among the ancient Fomorians before the Celts. She has various facets of her character in which there is a striking resemblance to the primitive form of the Greek goddess Artemis. At first sight she seems the personification of winter. She is called the daughter of Grainne, or the Winter Sun.
There were two suns in the Old Celtic calendar; the Big Sun, which shines from La Baal Time, or Beltane Eve to Samhain, and the Little Sun which shines from Samhain to Beltane.
The Cailleach was reborn each Samhain and went about smiting the Earth to blight growth and then calling down the snow. On Beltane Eve she threw her staff under a holly tree or a gorse bush - both are her plants - and turned into a grey stone, therefore making lonely standing stones sacred to her.
In some tales, she does not turn to stone, but rather appears at the house where the fiana lay and begs that she might be allowed to warm herself at the fire, and when she crept into his bed he did not repulse her, only put a fold in the blanket between them. After a while he gave, "a start of surprise," for she had changed into the most beautiful of women that man ever saw. So, it would seem that the Cailleach represented a goddess of both winter and summer.
So is also her guardian spirit a number of animals. The deer have that first claim to her. They are her cattle, she herds and milks them and often gives them protection against hunters. Swine, wild goats, wild cattle, and wolves were also her creatures. In another aspect, she is a fishing goddess, as well as the guardian of wells and streams. She also turns up in Manx-Gaelic as Caillagh ny Groamagh.
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