“She is a symbolic personification of a cosmos that has been in place since time immemorial, certainly since before human society.” Gearoid O Crualaoich (2003)
While growing up my Samhain’s (Halloween’s) were all about Guising – diving into my grandmother’s bag of old clothes and wondrous fabrics and piecing costumes together. Guising was all about dressing up so that when the ancestors and spirits came through from the otherworld, they wouldn’t know who was who as we were all in disguise. I can remember the thrill of running from neighbours’ houses imagining the ancestors and spirits embodied in the night’s winds – swimming through treetops and swooping down to chase us while blowing up piles of fallen leaves for dramatic effect.
Aspects of this ancient Celtic festival were taken overseas by generations of people that moved to the USA – some went by choice while some had no option. Years later these traditions were imported back to the UK as the great commercial festival of trick and treat met by a modern generation starved of this festival’s original roots.
I value the snippets of Samhain my grandmother fed me – a crumpled aged piece of paper that described a rite for carrying out a Dumb Supper – how to lay out place settings for those ancestors recently departed – inviting them to the Samhain meal, caring for them and giving thanks and recipes to bake a Samhain cake in which certain trinkets and charms were placed.
These days I celebrate Samhain as a blood and bone ancestor festival – remembering our blood relatives, those whom we know by name and knew while alive, some we never met but know their stories. It’s also a festival of honouring our bone ancestors, those ancients who lived hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of years ago. When we go back as far as these ancestors they are shared ancestors, ones we are all descended from who I call the Grandmothers.
The greatest Grandmother of all returns to the land at Samhain, the eve of our descent into the dark months. The Cailleach is no sweet little Grandmother but one who stands firm embodying the true power of the crone, she who sees through all illusions to how things really are. The one who doesn’t suffer fools, lies or injustices.
She is the oldest deity in both Scottish and Irish mythology and she stands alone without any genealogy. She is the great hag, the bone mother and divine creatrix.
In modernity, she has been viewed as a winter hag, an evil witch who is as angry and bitter as the winter storms she whips up, as severe as the darkening thunder clouds that she commands, carrying out a vengeance she unleashes on the world by striking all life down dead. But this is just one layer of the Cailleach, just one thread of her story. We need to dig a little deeper, to brush off the top layers to see how her myth has been shape shifting for thousands of years, her meaning morphing and changing alongside the shifting beliefs of humanity.
Her changing story
Though she appears in both Scottish and Irish mythology, the Cailleach wasn’t an immigrant from Ireland as her story is firmly rooted into the Scottish landscape as her name is found in many place names and stories that were born of Scotland (McHardy 2013). The earliest tales of the Cailleach describe her greatest theme as that of renewal. It is said that every one hundred years (around the end of March towards Beltane), the old crone had to submerge herself fully in water and upon emerging had renewed herself into a young woman. In entering the waters, she returns to her primordial cosmic source.
In modern myth, the Cailleach is thought of as the hag while Brighid plays the role of the young woman. Who came first? Was it the Cailleach or Brighid? Did the Cailleach come first and then Brighid take over the role of the young Cailleach or did in fact Brighid come first – this ancient Goddess, whose roots are possibly entwined with the earliest veneration of all animals – the bear? She who plays out this winter descent myth in her annual hibernation and miraculous return to the earth once more – awakening from her great slumber and seemingly bringing the return of life to the land (Lally 2013).
As the young Cailleach became Brighid, we have the superimposing of a new story onto the old, keeping the old aspect and still honouring it, but adding the new layer, introducing a new figure and adding the rich layers of the beliefs of the people. It is an impossible task to separate the threads that make up the ancient cloth of this story and I feel it is important to leave room for the mystery that they both carry.
For each is represented in the endless renewal reflecting the outward cycle of the earth’s seasons – winters death ensured springs return, summer’s growth providing autumn’s bounty – then a dying back where the energy went back to the roots, dormant until springs first stirrings began again.
As Samhain brings us into the dark of the year, a time most associated with the Cailleach, she comes back into the world at Samhain. On her return she makes her way to the great cauldron, Corryvrecken, which lies off the West Coast of Scotland, to wash her plaid. The whirlpool is the biggest in Europe and is also called the Cailleach’s Cauldron. It is active all year round but more noticeably so in the winter months. As she pulls her great plaid from the whirlpool cauldron and shakes it dry, the drops of water instantly freeze. As she lifts it up and around her shoulders, the tops of all the surrounding hills turn white with the first dusting of snow as we begin our descent into the dark winter months.
The Victorians with their love of all things Celtic enjoyed rewriting the ancient myths adding some embellishments. They might have been responsible for starting the aspects of the myth which imprison the Cailleach in winter – where she remained as the evil hag – compared to Brighid who is seen as sweet and good and maiden like. This is a familiar treatment in our society where the witch, crone and elder are perceived as dark and evil to be ridiculed. In popular culture, we can see this pattern applied to Maleficent, Snow White’s Godmother. Perceived as a witch and dark and evil, yet in the end it is she who saves Snow White. The Victorian Cailleach is the Queen of Winter who imprisons Bride and it is the hero of the story, Angus, who rescues Bride in the story by Mackenzie (1917).
To be continued…
Click here to go to a guided meditation by Jude Lally The Cailleach’s Cauldron
For more on The Cailleach, including a five session online course by Jude Lally, click here: Celtic Soul Craft
Gimbutas, Marija. 1989. The Language of the Goddess. Thames and Hudson, USA.
McHardy, Stuart. 2013. Bride in Scotland. Contained in: Monaghan, P. and McDermott, M. (eds). Brighid: Sun of Womanhood. Goddess Ink, USA. Pgs 49-58.
Lally, Jude. 2013. The Great Bear Mother: A Journey with Brighid to the Ancient Dawn of Imbolc. Contained in: Monaghan, P and McDermott, M, (Eds), Brighid: Sun of Womanhood. Goddess Ink, USA. Pgs 10-16.
Mackenzie, Donald, A. 1917. Wonder tales from Scottish Myth and Legend. Blackie and Son, UK.
O Crualaoich, G. 2003. The Book of the Cailleach. Stories of the Wise-Woman Healer. Cork University Press, Ireland.
O Duinn, Sean. 2004. The Rites Of Brigid. Goddess and Saint. The Columba Press, Ireland.