Imbolc and the Cailleach

Imbolc, or Brigid’s Day, was traditionally the beginning of the spring season in the ancient world. It was largely marked by the beginning of lambing, the return of milk from dairy livestock, and the blooming of the blackthorn. But it is still the dark half of the year and the time of the Cailleach, and there is a lot of folklore connecting Imbolc and the Cailleach.

In one of the most well-known, the Cailleach is associated with the Winter Queen Beira, who ages throughout the year and then bathes in a magical spring once a year to restore her youth. It is said that the spring’s magic is at its most potent on the first day of spring, or Imbolc, which is when the aged hag of winter bathes in the waters and transforms into the spring maiden. As the year once again progresses, she ages, until by Samhain she is once again the hag of winter, ruling the dark half of the year.

But in other versions of this story, Beira captures the Summer Queen Bride (associated with Brigid), and keeps her as a drudge. But on the first day of spring, the Summer King Angus rescues her and names the day “Bride’s Day,” which is how the day is known in Scottish folk tradition. This struggle of Angus against Beira, and the liberation of Bride, represents the cycle of the seasons, with Beira representing the stormy time of winter and early spring, while Bride represents the calm times of summer and autumn.

One of the aspects I find so fascinating about this tale is the seeming inversion of the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone. Now, many modern enthusiasts and folklorists have taken another look at the myth of Persephone and Hades with the question of whether Persephone really was abducted, or if she was honestly in love with Hades and sought to escape an overbearing mother. In the same way, I like to take a second look at the story of Bride and the Cailleach and wonder if there is some other tale that has faded into the recesses of unrecorded history.

Finally, my favorite story of the Cailleach at Imbolc is the inspiration for a beloved American tradition. It was said that each year at Imbolc, the Cailleach gathers the rest of the kindling and wood she will need to keep warm until the storms of winter pass and spring and summer return. Because she controls the weather, she makes the day fair if she needs to be out for a long time to gather a lot of wood, but if she doesn’t make nice weather, it is because she doesn’t need much more wood because she foresees a short rest of winter. Now, this story has been change in the States and the wizened figure of the hag of winter has morphed into another familiar creature that is consulted as a weather augury around the beginning of February: a groundhog.

Blessed Imbolc and may the winter end soon!

[NB: You can find the stories of Beira, Bride, and Angus in Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Alexander Mackenzie]

Meet the Cailleach

Cailleach2

It is that pre-dawn time and I lay in bed, half-waking, half-dreaming. In my half-dream, I am in a wide field. Around me stands a ring of stones and I stand in front of one, much larger, and polished like a dark mirror. Beside it is an old woman. Her silver-grey hair spreads out in wild waves, spilling over her plaid-covered shoulders, and the dim light of twilight gives her skin a bluish cast. She has a wolf by her side and a feral grin as she beckons me to her…

Perhaps this would have been a natural first post in this space, but the temptation of launching the blog on Samhain was just too great. And the whole of the dark half the year is the time of the Cailleach, while Samhain is just one day. But who is the Cailleach?

The Cailleach is an ancient deity of the British Isles. The word “cailleach” simply means “old woman” or “veiled woman,” and there are stories that refer to several specific figures as an cailleach in Celtic folklore. At her core, the Cailleach represents the crone phase of the triple goddess cycle, but is also associated with midwifery and birth. She is seen as frightening and fierce, but not necessarily an evil or bad figure. Similar to the Baba Yaga of Russian folklore, the Cailleach is a figure who appears both as a force of natural balance and as an antagonist.

In a similar story to the Greek myth of Persephone and Hades, one story of the Cailleach says that she captured the young and beautiful goddess Brigid, and that Brigid must escape to bring the Spring. But in other tellings of that tale, Brigid and the Cailleach are two aspects of the same person, with the Cailleach either shedding her crone appearance to become the maiden of spring, or else turning into a stone for the summer while Brigid reigns during the light half of the year.

My personal connection to the Cailleach started years ago when I was learning about chthonic goddesses like Hecate of the Greek tradition. The Cailleach struck me as a peculiar blend of an earth goddess, as she was said to predate even the Celtic inhabitants of the British Isles, and a death goddess. She was not necessarily associated with war, like the Morrigan, or the earth itself, like Danu, but was instead the personification of the cycle of living and dying. I’ve written before about her association with predicting the coming of spring and modern traditions around Imbolc, but never really gone into what she means to me personally.

The Cailleach is a goddess who exists at liminal places in the world, like older women often find themselves. They are neither given importance or power, nor are they entirely ignored, and are often feared because of the unknown they represent. The Cailleach is both a goddess of birth, because of her associations with midwifery and Brigid, but also very much a goddess of death. As such, she has been a comfort to me during my own periods of grief in my life. I plan to write more about this in my upcoming book, The Grief Cleanse, in which I’ll chronicle my dealings with grief around a very specific period in my life, but suffice to say that the concept of a woman who is not defined either by youth or fertility intrigues me as a woman. Particularly a woman who is creeping closer and closer to cronehood myself.

The Cailleach is also a wise woman. She knows the cycle of the world. She is said to have control over the weather, or at least over the winter. In my piece on Groundhog Day, I wrote about the tradition of judging the length of the remaining winter by the weather on the day when the Cailleach is supposed to gather firewood for the rest of the winter. And another legend says that at the beginning of winter, she takes her plaid (or shawl) to the river to wash and when she is done, it stretches out pure white and covers the land in the first snowfall.

As the hag of winter, she is depicted with grey or white hair, blue skin, and hooded, often with only one eye. I find that intriguing, as she is almost a sort of Odinic character, with her associations with divination, magic, death, and hidden secrets. And Norse folklore tells of many of those deities not sticking strictly to one gender.

So I have chosen to depict the Cailleach in my own tribute as a woman with one eye veiled with a plaid that has not yet been washed clean. While I am not quite a crone yet, I feel the influence of the Cailleach in my life and heed her call as the wheel of the year turns to her time.