The Cailleach is a Celtic ancestor deity, a goddess of cold and winds. She is the Veiled One, the Queen of Winter who determines its length and harshness. A divine hag and a creator deity, she remains a popular topic for poets and writers.
She dwells in Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, and many places are dedicated to her.
Cailleach is a common word in both Scottish and Irish Gaelic, meaning simply “old woman” or “hag.” It comes from Caillech, meaning “veiled one” in Old Gaelic. These stem from the same base root of all words describing women at various ages, such as caillin.
Poets have given her different names across time: Digdi or Digde, Milucra, Biróg (the fairy-woman who saved Lugh of the Long-Arm as an infant), Buí (one of Lugh’s wives), or Burach. Due to many of these being separate characters altogether, some scholars believe this may reflect that Cailleach is more a title than a name, as any old woman can be called a cailleach.
Her most prominent title is Cailleach Bhéara, revealing her as master of winter. The many regions named for her often give her unique titles, reflective of the landscape itself. Examples of this include An Chailleach Bhéara (The Hag of Beara), where she is associated with the Beara Peninsula in County Cork, Ireland, or “the Storm Hag(s)” in Scotland.
The Cailleach appears primarily as a veiled old woman, sometimes with only one eye. Her skin is deathly pale or blue, her teeth red and clothes adorned with skulls. She can leap across mountains and can ride storms. As a shapeshifter, she is capable of transforming into a giant bird in the Manx tradition.
A creator deity, the Veiled One shaped much of the land, whether by accident or on purpose. Her tools of creation and destruction include her hammer, able to control storms and thunder, and in some legends the occasional accidental overflowing well that floods the land.
The Cailleach is neither good nor evil, often a mixture of both. Through her association with storms and thunder, she is a natural and wild destructive force; yet despite this, she also cares for animals, both wild and domestic during the dark winter months. In Scotland she is a deer herder, while across all three Gaelic-speaking regions she is the patron of wolves, made bold by winter hunger.
The Cailleach is ageless and immortal, for as winter gives way to spring, she takes a drought of youth that returns her youth. Thus in Manx legend, half the year she is a young woman, while in the other half she is an old woman: she is only known as the Cailleach in the winter. In Ireland she had seven “periods” of youth, thus outliving her many spouses, but is now permanently old.
The seasonal division between summer and winter, where the Cailleach rules winter and the goddess Brigid/Bride rules summer, highlights the association of the two goddesses. At Samhain, or October 31st, the Celtic year ends and winter begins. In Scotland and the Isle of Man, she transforms into Brigid at Beltane, a fertility festival set to May 1st.
She is also a goddess of grain, given the importance of grain to survival in winter. The last sheath of grain harvested is dedicated to her. During the next planting season, that sheath is used to begin the next harvest.
Like many goddesses of Ireland she is linked to sovereignty and rulership. As she is a goddess of the land, to rule the land a people must have her approval.
Perhaps the most remarkable attributes of the Cailleach are her association with places. Across the Gaelic-speaking Celtic world, she is tied to largely inhospitable places, whether on land or sea. Of all Celtic deities, she is perhaps the most geographically-linked.
There are many, including but not limited to:
Hag’s Head, at the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, Ireland, which is a notable landmark visible from the cliffs on the sea;
The Hag's Chair atop Slieve na Calliagh in County Meath, Ireland, where a megalithic tomb is associated with her;
Ben Cruachan, the largest mountain in Argyll and Bute, Scotland, where she is considered the witch of the mountain;
The whirlpool of the Gulf of Corryvreckan, off Argyll and Bute, Scotland, where she is said to wash her plaid for three days, creating a whirlpool and then covering the land with snow;
Glen Cailleach and Glen Lyon, in Perthshire, Scotland, have a unique ritual dedicated to her. The ritual site of Tigh nan Cailleach can be found here;
Beinn na Caillich, on the Isle of Skye, in Scotland, she lives in the mountains and brings storms and destruction upon the lands below.
The Cailleach has few explicit familial ties, but the most well-known is the Bodach, a Scottish trickster spirit, with whom she had many children.
In an old Irish poem, she was a maiden seven times, allowing her to have many children by many husbands, as well as countless foster-children. By the end of this period, she had outlived them all and was said to be the maternal ancestor of every man and tribe of Ireland.
The Cailleach is old enough that many of the myths of her life have faded from memory, but many rituals and traditions still exist, which have inspired poets and writers for centuries.
Winter being the Cailleach’s time, by Imbolc, or February 1st, she has run out of firewood. In the Manx tradition, she transforms into a great bird and collects firewood in her beak, while in Ireland and Scotland she does so as an old woman. If she wishes for winter to last longer, she makes the day sunny and bright for her search. If she accidentally oversleeps, the day is stormy and gray. Thus, tradition holds that if February 1st is gray and wintery, winter will be shorter that year, while if it is bright, winter will return due to her preparation.
In the United States, this tradition was transformed into Groundhog Day, removing the Cailleach but keeping the central idea.
Tigh nan Cailleach
The Cailleach, the Bodach, and their children appeared to the people of Glen Lyon and Glen Cailleach seeking shelter. Despite their fearsome reputations (or perhaps because of them), shelter was given and during this period the glens were fertile. Before departing, the Cailleach gave the people there a parting gift: that the area would be ever plentiful and fertile so long as they put up stones for their family between May 1st and October 31st, from Beltane to Samhain.
Each year, this ritual is repeated.
The maidens rejoice
When May-day comes to them;
For me sorrow is meeter,
I am wretched, I am an old hag.
—“Lament of the Hag of Beara”, trans. Lady Gregory
The Cailleach appears in literature across the ages. In the 8th century poem, “Lament of the Old Woman,” she reflects on her faded youth, lamenting its loss. In Donald Alexander Mackenzie’s 20th century retelling of Scottish folklore, the Cailleach becomes Beira, Queen of Winter, retaining much of her usual characterization and, along with Lady Gregory’s translation of old Irish tales, is one of the more prominent sources of the Cailleach’s myths.
The Cailleach is unique among Celtic deities, as she only appears in Gaelic-speaking regions: that is, Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. Brythonic Celtic regions have similar hags in their stories but none with the consistency of name or appearance as the Cailleach. These include Black Annis, a blue-faced hag of Leicester with iron claws who sups on children. These hags are often closer to the popular culture notion of a hag, rather than the more capricious Cailleach.
Outside of the Celtic world, she has numerous similarities based on her individual attributes. As a creation deity, she is similar to the Greco-Roman Gaea/Terra or Norse Jord, both of whom are feminine creation deities who shape the land. She is remarkably similar to the Norse goddess Skadi, the goddess of winter and darkness, and also to the Germanic Holle, wife of Wotan (Odin), as the master of winter cold. Similarly, the Cailleach’s stormy hammer is closely resembles the hammer of Thor, Mjolnir, though the Cailleach’s appearance and behavior is closer to Thor’s foes, the frost giants.
In Slavic mythology, Baba Yaga carries many of the attributes of the Cailleach. An impossibly old woman and just as likely to help as hinder, she appears across Slavic folktales. Her leaping chicken-legged hut moves much the way the Cailleach does between mountains.
The Cailleach appears in multiple pieces of popular culture, including:
In Dungeons & Dragons, a Bheur Hag takes the Cailleach’s name and appearance as a blue-skinned, winter-based hag;
In the fantasy television series Merlin, she appears when Morgana breaks the veil between living and dead and demands a sacrifice for her to return the Dorocha to the land of the dead. Though Arthur and Merlin offer themselves, Lancelot gives himself instead;
The band Crown of Asteria has a song called “Cilleach: Crone Moon” from the album Crone;
A short film, written and directed by Rosie Reed Hillman, tells the story of Morag, an old woman (who wears a hood like a veil) in love with life on the edge of civilization in the Scottish Western Isles;
An analysis of the archetypical “wise woman healer” of Irish's rural oral traditions can be found in the work of Gearóid Ó Crualaoich in Book of the Cailleach: Stories of the Wise Woman Healer.
Augusta, Lady Gregory, trans. “The Lament of the Old Woman of Beara.” The Kiltartan Poetry Book. New York: G. Putnam's Sons, 1919.
Augusta, Lady Gregory. “Part II Book IV: The Hunt of the Slieve Cuilinn.” Gods and Fighting Men, 1904. Accessed 14 February 2019, http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/gafm/gafm63.htm.
Mackenzie, Donald Alexander. “Beira, Queen of Winter.” Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend. 1914, accessed 14 February 2019, http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/tsm/tsm04.htm.