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The Cailleach: Goddess with an Apron full of Rocks

Author: Sorita d'Este [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: December 25th. 2011
Times Viewed: 4,397

“Determined now her tomb to build,
Her ample skirt with stones she filled,
And dropped a heap on Carron-more;
Then stepped one thousand yards to Loar,
And dropped another goodly heap;
And then with one prodigious leap,
Gained carrion-beg; and on its height
Displayed the wonders of her might.”
~ Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745)

The giant blue form of the Cailleach stands straddling the British Isles; she is the unforgiving crone of winter, who is also the benevolent earth-shaping giantess and the guardian of the sacred wells. She is sometimes described as a beautiful young maiden, sometimes as an ugly old woman, sometimes as a giantess – as the most ancient of spirits she is the one who shapes the Earth itself, she is the Lady of the Beasts, she is a shape-shifter, a seer and foreteller of doom, a Water Witch, she is both malevolent and benevolent, and ultimately she is the bestower of sovereignty.

When David Rankine and I did the research for our book Visions of the Cailleach (Avalonia, 2009) , which tracks the history, legends, and myths of this extraordinary goddess, we knew that we had a task ahead of us that would be challenging. We also, as all researchers, hoped to find some unusual and lesser-known stories along the way, and we were not disappointed. As recently as the early twentieth century, stories of the Cailleach were recorded in parish church records, and when we reached further back into time, we eventually managed to trace her history to Portugal, with tentative links reaching even further back to the enigmatic figure of the earliest known temple structures – that of Sansuna, the giant goddess credited with building the Ggantija temples on the island of Gozo. These Neolithic structures, to put it into perspective, are older than Stonehenge or the Egyptian Pyramids!

From the ancient Mediterranean, the legends (and possibly the priesthood of) the Cailleach migrated with Celtic tribes from Spain to Ireland, and on to Scotland and the Isle of Man. It is here that we focused our research, though we also found many examples of legends which suggested that her influence reached into the rest of Britain too, clues of which can be found in place-names and local folklore from England, Wales and Jersey (where significantly she seems to be replaced by fairies) , as well as through shared motifs found in Brittany (France, again with the fairy motif) and Scandinavia. We found clues in the writings of Herodotus, Strabo, Pliny and in Irish texts such as the Leabhar Gabhala Érenn (Book of Invasions) and the ninth century text Historia Brittonum written by a Welsh monk. But it is in the landscape and the stories of the landscape that we found the essence of this formidable blue hag – and indeed some of the stories suggest that there were more than one Cailleach and that the term ‘Cailleach’ may also have been used for a Priestess cult which might have existed in the British Isles.

The most frequently found motif associated with the Cailleach is in her role as shaper of the land, she does this through a variety of actions – quite often through the dropping of stones which she carries either in her apron or on her head, and sometimes through the accidental flooding of holy wells which form mountains, caves, lochs, lakes and rivers – many of which still bear her name today. The best examples of such land-shaping deeds can be found in the local legends of Scotland. One such example, which has particular amusing and bawdy twist, was recorded by Eleanor Hull in her article Legends and Traditions of the Cailleach Bheara or Old Woman (Hag) of Beare, in it is recorded the mythic creation of the Scottish island of Ailsa Craig. The story goes that one day a French sailor sailed his boat between the legs of the Cailleach as she was wading through the ocean carrying a load of rocks in her apron. The sail of his ship brushed her inner thigh and the surprise touch to such an intimate part of her anatomy caused her to drop some of the rocks with a start, resulting in the formation of the island.

Miller in Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland recorded another rock-dropping story, where we also find the Cailleach in association with other giants who it was believed ruled the British Isles in the distant past. One of these tribes of giant beings lived in what is now Ross-shire in the highlands of Scotland and they were well known for their incredible strength and kinsfolk, the most of famous of who were the giants Gog-Magog and the Cailleach-Mhore (Great Cailleach) . This particular Cailleach was famed for being strong even amongst this mightily-hewed tribe and is attributed with the shaping of the entire landscape in this area. The legend tells us that the Cailleach Mhore was walking over the hills with a pannier of earth and rocks on her back, when she paused for breath and stopped at the site of Ben-Vaichard. She stood gazing around her, and as she did so the pannier gave way with its contents pouring out over the landscape. The Cailleach Mhore cursed as her load was scattered and when the dust cleared the earth and rocks she had been carrying had formed the new hills.

There are many such examples from all over Scotland and Ireland, and elsewhere attributing the shaping of the land to the Cailleach. The Cailleach even had a hand in the shaping of the most famous of Scottish lakes, Loch Ness, now famed for its mythical beast. The story was recorded in Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend and has a clear parallel in one of the tales recorded in the Irish Dindshenchas (History of Places) about the Morrígan, who turned a maiden called Odras into a pool of water in her anger when she discovered that the maiden allowed a bull to mate with one of the cows in the Morrigan’s supernatural cow herd.

The Cailleach, we are told, had two wells in Inverness-shire and it was her duty to cap and open these every day, but tired of having to spread her efforts. She hired a maiden to remove the smaller cap of the well at sunrise and replace it again at sunset. The maid, Nessa, was late reaching the well one night and as she approached the well, she saw the water flowing from it towards her furiously. She ran for her life, leaving the well uncapped and the Cailleach saw this happening from her home at the top of Ben Nevis. In her anger, she cursed Nessa for neglecting her duty: she would have to run forever and never leave water. At once, Nessa was transformed into a river and a Loch, which today is the river Ness and Loch Ness. It is said that each year, on the anniversary of her transformation, Nessa emerges from the loch and sings a sad song, to the most beautiful melody, to the Moon, lamenting her misfortune. I wonder how many sightings there are of Nessa when she performs her song each year, and whether those who have the fortune to hear about her misfortune for being late develop a stronger sense of being punctual and vigilant when it comes to their duties!

It is interesting to note that when the Cailleach was asked the secret of her age, she always gave an answer associated with the Sidhe (fairy folk) . She declared that she never carried the dirt of one place beyond that of another place without washing her feet, thereby not taking the earth from one territory to another. This practice is one commonly associated with fairies, but could also represent a stricture connected with a priesthood. When we started to look into the fairy connection, it was clear this was a common theme with the Cailleach, who was described as the Fairy Queen at times, particularly in the Scottish highlands (and also at times in Ireland) . Thus we found that at one point in her ancient history, the Cailleach Béarra lived on the summit of Cnoc na Sidhe (Hill of the Fairy Mound) , where the wind always blew. Milk and butter also frequently turned up in stories associated with her, recalling brownies and other house spirits. The fairy cows of the Cailleach are a common theme in Irish tales, matched by her herd of deer in the Scottish ones.

I should like to end this introduction to the mighty Cailleach with a verse from a song recorded in Gaelic in 1823, which emphasised her position:

“Tremble mortal, at my power,

Leave my sacred dominion!

Ere I cause the heavens lower,

And whelm thee with a fearful shower,

For sport to my fairy minions!”

Visions of the Cailleach, Sorita d'Este and David Rankine, Avalonia, 2009
Sources are cited in the book.

Copyright: (c) Sorita d'Este, 2011


Sorita d'Este

Location: Glastonbury, England


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