The Veiled Lady: Celtic Goddess of Winter
Updated: Aug 26, 2022
Happy December! Temperatures are dropping. Christmas decorations are going up. Sweaters are coming out. The calendar may say winter begins on December 31st but it feels like it’s already here. So it’s a good time to talk about the Celtic goddess of winter, the Cailleach.
Particularly worshipped in Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, the goddess is considered a creator, the mother of all gods and goddesses, and the maternal ancestor of all Irish men. In addition, she is said to have formed the mountains of Scotland. Folklore says that Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain, is her throne. She is associated with a number of sites in Ireland as well, including a large rock formation at Coulagh in County Cork. According to legend, it is the Cailleach’s face which turned to stone as she stared out to sea, waiting for her husband to return.
Cailleach is thought to be her title rather than her name. The word is believed to have its roots in the Old Gaelic word, caillech, which means “veiled one.” In modern Scots Gaelic and in Irish, the word cailleach means “hag” or “witch.” Although she is a shapeshifter, generally she is depicted as a veiled old woman. Her skin is deathly pale or even blue. Her teeth are red or decayed, and her clothes are adorned with skulls. Despite her frail appearance, she can leap across mountains and ride storm waves.
The Complex Goddess
A goddess of weather and winds, she was respected and feared. She carried a magical hammer with which she controlled storms and thunder. The Cailleach’s mood was a constant concern for the agrarian Celts who believed the success of their crops was dependent upon her disposition. According to legend, the Cailleach also had control over rivers and a magic well. Periodically, when she was displeased, she flooded the land. Celtic mythology portrays her as a complex personality. She is not evil but she is wild and potentially destructive. On the other hand, the goddess is a protector of animals, especially wolves and deer.
In Ireland, the Cailleach is considered the crone aspect of the triple goddess (along with the maiden and the matron). Both Scottish and Irish folklore connect her to Brigid, the maiden goddess of summer. Some scholars see Brigid and the Cailleach as two sides of the same goddess but folklore presents them as battling each other twice a year for supremacy. The Cailleach rules winter and the dark half of the year. When Brigid overcomes the goddess of winter, the maiden’s rule brings about the spring thaw and the start of the light half of the year. Annual celebration of Brigid’s victory varies according to local custom. In some cases, it takes place on or about February 1st (St. Brigid’s Day). March 25th (the Spring Equinox) and May 1st (Beltane) are alternate dates for celebration of the transfer of rule between the goddesses.
The Cailleach in Myth and Folklore
Folklore from western Scotland says that the Cailleach brings the winter on by washing her Great Plaid (a long blanket-like cloth wrapped around the body, belted at the waist, and pinned at the shoulder) in the Gulf of Corryvreackan, a strait just off the west coast of Scotland. The gulf contains the third largest natural whirlpool in the world. The roar of it can be heard for ten to twenty miles away. The Cailleach throws her plaid into the whirlpool to clean it. After three days, when she retrieves the cloth, it has become completely white. When she spreads the cloth out, the land is blanketed in snow.
Despite the different dates for Brigid’s overthrow of the goddess of winter, the Cailleach is said to reign from Samhain (November 1st) through Beltane (May 1st). Folk custom tells of a way to divine how long winter will last. According to the lore, by the beginning of February, the Cailleach’s supply of firewood is running short, so she must go out to get more. If the weather is sunny on February 1st, it means that the goddess has made the day fine for herself so she can collect wood. This indicates a long winter. If the day is stormy or overcast, it means she has overslept, will run out of firewood, and winter will soon end. Brigid then awakens the land and plants begin to grow again. Some versions of folklore say that, during Brigid’s rule, the winter goddess goes into a hibernation-type sleep until Samhain.
A vital winter staple for the Celts was grain and another folk custom, occurring near Samhain, connects the Cailleach with grain and the harvest. In both Ireland and Scotland, the first farmer to finish harvesting would use his final shaft to make a corn dolly which represented the Cailleach. He then tossed the dolly into the field of a farmer who had yet to finish harvesting. The dolly kept being passed on from field to field. The last farmer to complete his harvest had to take the corn dolly into his house and was responsible for protecting the Cailleach for the next year. No one wanted to end up with the corn dolly because he would be blamed for any bad weather, a sign of the goddess’ displeasure.
The Goddess and Christianty
An Irish legend featuring the winter goddess reveals the struggle between the old religion and the coming of Christianity. According to the story, the Cailleach felt threatened by the arrival in Kilcatherine, County Cork, of a certain saint named Caithighearn who sought to make converts to the new religion. One day, while the saint was asleep, the Cailleach snuck up, grabbed her prayer book, and ran off with it. Witnessing the theft, a man who lived nearby shouted for the saint to wake up. When she did, she saw an old hag running away with her book. The saint chased after the hag. Catching up with her at Ard na Cailli, the saint snatched back her prayer book, and turned the Cailleach to stone with her back to the hill and her face out to sea.
Despite the advent of Christianity, the impact of the Cailleach in the Celtic psyche is evident today. So many areas in Scotland, Wales, and the Isle of Man still bear her name.
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Slan go Foil!
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