Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Visions of the Cailleach: Exploring the Myths, Folklore, and Legends of the pre-eminent Celtic Hag Goddess

Book Review: Visions of the Cailleach: Exploring the Myths, Folklore, and Legends of the pre-eminent Celtic Hag Goddess   by Sorita d’Este and David Rankine (Avalonia 2008)

This was an interesting well-researched book about the various manifestations of the Celtic Hag Goddess. The authors drew on many tomes and collections old and new of Celtic Folklore. Each of the traditional associations of the Cailleach are outlined in chapters and examined in detail.

First they try to isolate the oldest forms of the Cailleach. They make a comparison of the Maltese giantess, Sansuma, who also carries stones and is associated with the Neolithic stone temples on the island of Gozo in the Mediterranean off the coat of Libya. Herodotus, Strabo, and Pliny all mention the worship of the Celtic Hag Goddess among the Celtiberians of Spain. The specific tribe mentioned in the histories was called the Kallakoi who later became Galecians. Kallakoi may refer to them as worshipers of the Calilleach. The Port of Cale, or Port of the Gaels, was mentioned as one of their dwelling places. This later became known as the country of Portugal. From here the tribes and their goddesses are thought to have migrated to Ireland and later on to Scotland and south to parts of Britain where seemingly diluted Cailleach legends appear. She is sometimes linked with Irish Bride as her dark hag aspect. Some researchers consider these migrating Iberian Celts to be the Q-Celts while the P-Celts came into southern England from Gaul. There is an Irish legend of the king Owen Mor (Eoghan) who fled to Spain then returned with a Spanish bride, Princess Beara and settled on the isle, the peninsula of Beara named in her honor. The Cailleach Beara, or the Old Woman of Beara, figures in some old tales, some textually dating back beyond the 9th century. Sometimes the Cailleach is also said to have a Norwegian origin as giantesses are well known in Norse traditions.

The word cailleach may mean hag, old woman, crone, nun, or veiled one. Caillech may even refer to a class of beings rather than one being. The related Scottish word carlin, or carling, refers to a hag witch, the most famous of which is Gyre Carling, the biting old woman – another name of whom is the Cailleach Bheur, with the same meaning. Another related figure is Nicneven, the daughter of Nevis. Nevis refers to Ben Nevis, the biggest mountain in Scotland which is said to be the Cailleach Bheur’s home. Nicneven is also known as Queen of the Fairies, another epithet of the Cailleach. She is associated with water nymphs as are Brigantia and Coventina. All have strong associations with water.

“Certain features stand out of the assorted Cailleach legends and may be considered motifs appropriate to her. These are:
1)      shaping the land deliberately or accidentally, including the creation of lakes, hills, islands and megalithic constructions;
2)      an association with water, through wells, lakes, and rivers;
3)      an association with the season of winter;
4)      gigantic size;
5)      her vast age, being one of the first beings;
6)      her guardianship of particular animals {deer, goats, and cattle mainly}
7)      her ability to shape-shift to a variety of forms, including maiden, heron, and rock”
There are many different Cailleach, usually associated with place, but sometimes also with animals as is the Calleach of the Deer. The authors investigate without conclusions whether there was an ancient priesthood associated with the Cailleach as suggested by Mackay in – The Deer-Cult and the Deer-Goddess Cult of Ancient Caledonia. There are legends of the Seven Big Women of Jura who protect the deer.

In legend the Cailleach as giantess  is known as earth shaper, or maker of land. In many myths she carries stones in her apron and when and where the apron strings break – the land, or isle is formed. In Christian times there are similar myths of the devil doing the same. The hag goddess has through time gathered a more evil character through Christian influence. She is also associated with the formation of lakes (lochs) usually by forgetting to put the capstone on a well she opens and closes daily, subsequently flooding the low land. The authors go through several of these legends. In one there is a race of giants which includes the Cailleach Mhore (Great Cailleach) and Gog-Magog. Another is of Carlin Maggie and the Carlin Stones where Carlin Maggie is the head of a Witch Coven and is turned to stone by the devil after flyting him. Flyting is apparently a form of insulting in a kind of contest and sometimes with rhyme. Gyle Carling and Nicneven are also associated with flyting. Dare I say that Scots may be prone to this flyting! Several other stories are recounted including one where two battling cailleach hurl huge boulders at one another. The authors note some similarities to Norse land-shaping giantesses from Jotunheim, particularly the Tale of Gefion. In Jotunheim there are frost/ice giants and rock/hill giants. Gefion and the Caileach are presumably of the rock type.

Next the Water Witch motif is examined. The Caileach is associated with the prediction of weather, particularly dangerous weather. As we have seen she is a creator of floods. There is a place in the ocean north of the Island of Jura on the west coast of Scotland called the Corryvreckian Whirlpool. This means ‘the Cauldron of Plaid’ and refers to the place where the Caileach washes her plaid. It is a place of dangerous unpredictable storms. When the Cailleach’s plaid is washed to white it is said to be the advent of winter, white being snow. In some places she is called ‘The Old Woman of Thunder.’ She is placated by sailors as ‘Gentle Annie.’

She is also known as the Crone of Winter. Some say she rides on the back of a wolf. She is said to rule from Autumn Equinox to Spring Equinox (or from Samhain to Beltaine) and is associated with Lady Day on March 25th which was once called Cailleach Day. Autumn and winter are associated with her elements of earth and water. She has some similarities to the Germanic Frau Holda, or Holle, as a winter goddess. Both are crones that can transform into a beautiful maiden and both are associated with water as pools and fountains, and with weather. There is a Scottish custom where a stone is placed outside at Beltaine and brought inside on Samhain. One place where this is done is called the Hag’s House. In some tales she turns into a stone in the spring to return in winter. There is a Scotch-Irish legend where the Cailleach Beira captures the maiden-goddess Bride and imprisons her under Ben Nevis. The Irish god of love, Angus Mac Og was said to be the son of the Cailleach and to be in love with Bride. The Cailleach tried to keep them apart but Angus was steadfast, borrowing three days from August to hold down the winter. There was a fierce battle of weather but eventually flowers bloomed and the lovers were united. So basically, it is a tale of the Crone of Winter hiding then giving way to the Maiden and Lord of Spring. There is another legend of the Woman of the Mist, or Hag of the Mist where people claim to see an old woman collecting sticks in the mist. The Cailleach is known to gather sticks to keep warm in winter.

Great age is attributed to the Cailleach. In a fragment of the Carmina Gadelica she gives her diet of seaweed, dulse, wild garlic, lakewater, and fish. Perhaps this is her longevity diet. The authors suggest that perhaps this, and numerous other dietary references, represents a strictured diet of a possible priesthood. Another thing they suggest is that since she is known much as the fairies to wash her feet when traveling from one land to another, that this may be some sort of ritual ablution of the conjectured priesthood. The tradition of the Cally-Berry, or the corn dolly Cailleach, aka. the Hag of the Harvest is recounted. This was made by the first farmer to finish his harvest and was to be kept for the winter by the last to finish the harvest. Bad luck could come to that farmer in winter but if he made it through OK better luck would come next season. The Cailleach is also associated with butter and milk. In some tales she milks her deer. Both are offerings on Lady Day and Beltaine, usually prime milking times. Lady Day is also a time to make cow protection charms. Milk and butter were also offered to fairies and house sprites. There are stories of raising the dead with magical milk. There are other tales given as well of the uncountable age of the Cailleach.

The Cailleach was often said to have a herd about her of deer, and sometimes goats, wild boar, cattle, or wolves. As Lady of the Beasts she protects her herds from greedy hunters and assists honest ones. In this guise she was a supernatural hag or witch haunting mountain passes while driving her herds. She is also connected with birds, particularly the heron. She is sometimes named as wife of the sea god Manannan MacLir and sometimes as a wife of Lugh.

The Cailleach is also a shapeshifter. She transforms from crone to maiden, symbolizing the seasonal cycle. In this respect she is sometimes seen as the winter aspect of Bride. The transformation from crone to maiden is also associated with the bestowal of sovereignty. She often shapeshifts into a heron. The Gyre Carling is said to shapeshift into a sow.  There is story of the Cailleach who renews her great age by dipping in a certain Loch (lake) every 100 years at the exact first light of dawn – she must be the first being in the vicinity to see the dawn or she will die – which eventually happens when a dog barks before she dips. In some stories the Cailleach is said to be a one-eyed giantess. The one-eye motif likely represents supernatural powers and magical sight. The story of Thomas the Rhymer has the Cailleach as Fairy Queen conferring prophesies and giving Thomas the power to prophesize. In another version she gives him accursed fruit to prevent him from lying. In the tale she takes Thomas under the earth as a maiden but then transforms into the Fairy Queen as a hag with blue skin.

There are several Celtic stories of candidates for king being presented with a hag as a lover and it is usually the one that accepts her that becomes the wise king after which she transforms into a beautiful maiden. Many tales tell of this including those of Sir Gawain, the Ballad of King Henry, Chaucer’s the Wife of Bath’s Tale, and the Ballad of Knight and the Shepherd’s Daughter. Incidentally, Steeleye Span does great song versions of both Thomas the Rhymer and the Ballad of King Henry. One of the most famous of the crone/sovereignty stories is that of Niall of the Nine Hostages where the crone guards a well and in order to have a drink the five brothers need to kiss the crone. Only the youngest, Niall does so and she transforms into a beautiful maiden. When he asks her name she replies, “I am Sovereignty.” Although the authors don’t mention this one can make the connection that since the Cailleach created the land it is under her care and as a guardian of the land she keeps a say in who rules it. She may not have liked certain of the Vikings for she is sometimes attributed as ending the Viking Age by appearing in a vision just before the last battle where they were defeated.

The Cailleach has another aspect as Seer and Foreteller of Doom. In some tales she was cryptic in the manner of an oracle. She also has a rather obvious trickster side, often attributed to ornery old women anyway. One such prophetess is called Cailleach of the Spells. The motif of the Washer at the Ford, an old woman seen washing armor there, is said to foretell a great warrior’s death.

An interesting example of rather obvious Christian propaganda is the attributes of the Scottish Gyre Carling as not only Queen of the Witches, but also as Queen of the Jews and the wife of Mohammed. Several of the malevolent forms of the Cailleach show Christian influence, although to be sure she was considered dangerous before then. The English story of Black Annis, or Cat Anna, is a tale in which she is a hag that captures and eats children who wander near her cave which is near a large oak. In the Scottish version she has a single eye like some versions of the Cailleach. After eating her victims she would wear their flayed skin as skirts. Another peculiar set of hag creatures were the imp creatures called Glaistig, who were half-goat and half woman and said to haunt lonely lakes and rivers. They were said to live in caves near water or under waterfalls. They were depicted in various ways and said to herd cattle and look after elderly and mentally disabled humans and children in the manner of brownies. They were said to wail at deaths in the manner of banshees. The Welsh ‘Woman of the Mountains’ was said to lead wanderers astray in the mist. There is a tradition to offer a bowl of water at the base of the May Pole on Beltaine to keep her away, possibly a reference to the end of the seasonal reign of the Cailleach on that day. Mala Lia was a Cailleach that protected swine. When the hero Diarmaid ignored warnings by her and a raven not to hunt a boar with poisonous spines, both he and the boar were killed. Another hag form is that of the Mulidheartach, a dangerous water fairy of the Fuath class, “characterized by a tendency to appear at the door, dripping wet and begging to be allowed to dry herself by the fire. A refusal would result in her growing in size and ferocity...”And again there is the figure of Nicneven and her nymphs, watery beings associated with witchcraft and magic, referred by some as “the Hecate of Scottish necromancy.” There is a St. Bronagh that may be associated with the Cailleach Bearra in Ireland. She is said to have set up a monastery there suggesting a typical case of adapting the old to the new in the Celtic transmutation to Christianity, which it should be pointed out, happened earlier than in much of Europe.

This was a great book with a long bibliography of fabulous references. I am looking forward to reading more books by these authors as they have about five more that interest me.

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