Since there is snow on the ground here in Minneapolis, and I just
started working on a new piece of art that is related to it, this
month I thought I would mention a very old, and perhaps lesser-know
bit of Celtic seasonal mythology.
The Cailleach, or “veiled one” (pronounced “kye-luhkh” or KAL-y-ach)
is a title for an aspect of winter. “Caille” is a word for veil, and
the title apparently was sometimes used for nuns or, elderly women.
There are several regional versions such as the Cailleach Beare of
southwest Ireland, the Cailleach Bheur, or Blue Hag of Scotland, or
the Gwrach in Wales. (More are listed at the end of this article)
As the personification of winter the Cailleach is sometimes said to be
the opposite, or balance of the spring/summer goddess Brighid. Brighid
begins to refresh the land in spring starting at Imbolc. Imbolc, also
known as the Feast of Saint Brigid, is one of the four principal
festivals of the Irish calendar. It was celebrated among Gaelic
peoples either at the beginning of February, or in some areas based on
local first signs of Spring. Imbolc is also said to be the day the
Cailleach gathers firewood for the remainder of winter. Legend has it
that if she intends to make the winter last longer, she will make sure
the weather on Imbolc bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of
wood for her hearth.
The reign of the Brighid ends, and that of the Cailleach begins at
Samhain (Halloween) as the Cailleach of snows, storms and death to the
land. It is said that when she washes her plaid in the waters off the
Scottish coast, the next day the hills be white with snow. Some
stories even claim that the hag Cailleach holds the beautiful Brighid
captive in a mountain throughout the winter
The Cailleach is not necessarily evil even if she is sometimes a
bringer of death. She is also a protector, or keeper of the wild
animals, especially the deer and wolves. She looks after the deer and
keeps them healthy by choosing which animals to cull from the herds.
It was probably in this aspect that the Cailleach was said to tell to
hunters where deer were grazing, and how many they could kill and
when. Experienced hunters knew that ill-luck would fall upon those who
did not follow her advice.
Although she brought cold and death to some, her rains and snows also
protect and provide for the seeds that will sprout in spring when
Brighid returns. In her way, she is also seen as a creator, for as she
flew through the skies she dropped stones from her apron which became
mountains and cairns across Scotland and Ireland. One story says that
during one of her winter travels a young man got below her and tickled
her “where you would expect a young man to tickle her”, whereupon she
dropped the load of rocks from her apron and created a large group of
For more information about the Cailleach also look for her other
names: Cailleach Uragaig, Cailleach Beinne Bric (“Old Woman of the
Speckled Mountain”), Cailleach Mor (“Great Old Woman”) (Scotland);
Cailleach Bheirre, Cailleach Bolus, Cailleach Corca Duibhe (Ireland);
Caillagh ny Groamagh, Caillagh ny Gueshag (Isle of Man).
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[Originally Published Dec 1, 2008]