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]

Folklore and Felines: The Cat Sith

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Cats have always been tenuously domesticated, at best. The relationship between human and feline is one of decided economic exchange, with little of the emotional bond that one sees throughout history between human and canine. That is not to say that our feline companions do not have a fondness for us, but the nature of cats is more solitary in many ways. And folklore echoes this human unsureness about the relationships they have with their cats.

In Scotland, the legendary Cat Sith may have been based on feral and wild cats who roam the area, or even the hybrid Kellas cat, which shares some striking similarities to the descriptions of the Cat Sith. But the Cat Sith was essentially a fae cat creature, capable of cursing households and stealing the souls of the dead. Folkloric descriptions of the Cat Sith is a cat as big as a dog that is all black, except for the white patch on its breast. Looking at images of the Kellas cats of Moray, it’s easy to see where the comparisons are drawn.

But the Cat Sith came to be associated with the folktale character of The King of Cats, as described in a story that was first recorded in the 16th century in William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat. In the story, a man was hailed by a cat in the forest and told to tell his own cat that “Grimalkin is dead.” When he gets home, he tells his wife the story, and their cat jumps up and says that “if Grimalkin is dead then farewell” and left, never to be seen again. Interestingly, in this first written version, the man’s cat is female, as evidenced by the pronoun used by the mysterious cat in the woods.

Later on, this story is expanded upon. The man comes across not a single cat who hails him, but a group of cats carrying a coffin, who tell him that the king of cats is dead, and upon hearing this, the man’s cat jumps up and declares that they are the new king of cats and leaves. Of course the implication was that not only was the man unaware his cat was feline royalty, but also they could talk.

And I think this says a lot about the relationship between man and cat. While wild canines do exist, and were a threat to humans for millennia, cats are somewhat different outside of areas with large cats like lions, jaguars, and tigers. On the isle of Britannia, cats were generally either domesticated, or one of the increasingly small population of wild cats. But even domesticated cats are not entirely domestic, up to the present day. Plenty of people “own” cats who come and go as they please. While our own cat is exclusively an indoor cat, she does enjoy watching the exploits of the neighbor cats who roam the yard.

As a final note, mythology of the Cat Sith includes the ritual of leaving a saucer of milk out for the creature on Samhain eve so that they will bless your house (and to avoid the curse if the cat doesn’t get their milk). There was also a legend that the Cat Sith was a witch who could transform into a cat nine times, and on the ninth time would stay a cat forever, and may be the origin of the idea that cats have nine lives.

So as you enjoy the company of your feline friends, remember to be respectful. You never know when you might be in the presence of the next King of Cats.