Of the many Celtic legends, those of the Cailleach are some of the most mysterious. She is called by many names, but she is largely known as the “Crone of Winter”. In Scotland, where she is also known as Beira, Queen of Winter, she is credited with making numerous mountains and large hills, which are said to have been formed when she was striding across the land and accidentally dropped rocks from her apron or wicker basket. 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, and is said to be the mother of all the goddesses and gods.
The Cailleach displays several traits befitting the personification of winter: she herds deer, she fights spring, and her blackthorn staff freezes the ground. In partnership with the goddess Brigid, the Cailleach is seen as a seasonal deity or spirit, ruling the winter months between Samhain and Beltane, while Brìgid rules the summer months between Beltane and Samhain. Some interpretations have the Cailleach and Brìgid as two faces of the same goddess, while others describe the Cailleach as turning to stone on Beltane and reverting to human 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 at the earliest, the Spring Equinox, or Beltane at the latest, and the local festivals marking the arrival of the first signs of Spring may be named after either the Cailleach or Brìgid. The Festival of Brigid is also the day the Cailleach gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she intends to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on February 1st is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood to keep herself warm in the coming months. As a result, people are generally relieved if the Festival of Brigid is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep, will soon run out of firewood, and therefore winter is almost over.
On the Isle of Man, where She is known as Caillagh ny Groamagh, the Cailleach is said to have been seen on St. Bride’s Day in the form of a gigantic bird, carrying sticks in her beak. In Scotland, the Cailleachan (‘old women’) are also known as the Storm Hags, and seen as personifications of the elemental powers of nature, especially in a destructive aspect. They are said to be particularly active in raising the windstorms of spring, during the period known as A’ Chailleach. There are indications from early writings that there once existed a priest/esshood of the Cailleach, with followers who were solely dedicated to her. On the west coast of Scotland, the Cailleach ushers in winter by washing her great plaid (Gaelic: féileadh mòr) in the Gulf of Corryvreken (Gaelic: Coire Bhreacain – ‘cauldron of the plaid’). This process is said to take three days, during which the roar of the coming tempest is heard as far away as twenty miles inland. When she is finished, her plaid is pure white and snow covers the land.
In Scotland and Ireland, the first farmer to finish the grain harvest made a corn dolly, representing the Cailleach (also called “the Carlin or Carline”), from the last sheaf of the crop. The figure would then be tossed into the field of a neighbor who had not yet finished bringing in their grain. The last farmer to finish had the responsibility to take in and care for the corn dolly for the next year, with the implication they’d have to feed and house the hag all winter. Competition was fierce to avoid having to take in the Old Woman.
In the tales of the Cailleach, there are some common themes:
- Shaping the land deliberately or accidentally, including the creation of lakes, hills, islands and megalithic constructions
- Association with water, through wells, lakes and rivers
- Association with the season of Winter and Winter storms
- Gigantic size, also manifesting her presence in winter storms and blizzards
- Her vast age, being one of the first beings
- Her guardianship of particular animals, especially deer
- Her ability to shape-shift to a variety of forms, including maiden, heron and rock
- Her ability to control the elements
- Her ability to charm animals with her songs
The Cailleach is known from her many guises as:
- Crone of Winter
- Lady of the Beasts
- Bestower of Sovereignty
- Seer and Foreteller of Doom
Blackthorn Druid Witches are encouraged to honor the Cailleach by lighting a black candle on the night of the Winter Solstice.