Search This Blog

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The Cailleach

 This material is expanded from the Cailleach entry in my book 'Gods and Goddesses of Ireland'.

The Cailleach's Stone, Cork, picture by me 2018

“Ebb-tide has come to me as to the sea;
old age makes me yellow;
though I may grieve thereat,
it approaches its food joyfully….
I am Buí, the Cailleach of Beare;
I used to wear a smock that was ever-renewed…”
-          The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare

The Cailleach, or Caillech in Old Irish, is a complex deity who seems to have roots in Neolithic Ireland. Cailleach is from a word that means ‘veiled woman’ or ‘elderly woman’ but in later usage was a pejorative generally used to mean hag or witch. In Ireland she is called the Cailleach Beara or Beare for the Beara peninsula which is her main habitation, although in folklore she is also sometimes given the epithet of Béarrach; the Old Irish word berach means sharp or horned. The Cailleach Beara’s true name is said to be Buí, a word that may mean ‘yellow’1. Alternately it may originally have been Boí, a word related to the one for cow (bó) and it’s possible that she was at one time a cow goddess who represented the land and its sovereignty on the Beara peninsula2. This idea is somewhat supported by her legendary possession of a powerful bull, the Tarbh Conraidh, who had only to bellow to get a cow with calf. Certainly she is strongly associated with Beara and because of the irregular orthography of Old Irish either version of her name is possible, although Buí is better attested, appearing in the well-known poem ‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare’. MacKillop suggests that she may also previously have been known as Dígde, a sovereignty goddess of Munster, and Duineach whose name he gives as meaning ‘[having] many followers’, both of which were subsumed into the single identity of the Cailleach Beara at some point3.

  Several different goddesses are called ‘Cailleach’ in Irish myth including the Cailleach Beara of Cork and Cailleach Gearagáin of county Cavan4. The most well-known however is the Cailleach Beara, who is strongly associated with south west Ireland. She is considered a sovereignty figure, the archetypal crone who appears offering the throne to a potential king in exchange for intimacy; those who reject her in this guise will never rule but those who embrace her as an old woman will find her transformed into a beautiful young woman and will themselves become king. She is also credited with creating many of the standing stones and geographic features in various areas, who folklore claims are people or animals that she transformed; her bull the Tarbh Conraidh for example was turned into a stone in a river by her when he tried to swim across it to reach a herd of cows on the other side. In other parts of Ireland including Connacht, Leinster, and Ulster the Cailleach Beara is seen as the spirit of the harvest who inhabits the grain and flees from the scythes in the form of a hare5. In many areas harvest traditions included the practice of leaving the final sheaf standing in the field and naming it the Cailleach, or of dressing the final sheaf as an image of the goddess.
   The Cailleach as Buí is said to be one of the four wives of Lugh, although other sources say that she had seven husbands; she is also said to have had 50 foster children6.  The Cailleach is generally described as an old woman but she also can appear young, and is considered the progenitor of some family lines including the Corca Duibhne7. A tenth century poem says that she was the lover of the warrior Fothadh Canainne. Folklore claims that she has two sisters, also named Cailleach of their respective areas, who live in Dingle and Iveragh8. She is associated with a standing stone, the Hag's Stone or the Cailleach Bheara [hag of Beara], resting above Coulagh Bay, Cork (see image above). The story is that the Cailleach was Manannán's wife and she turned to stone waiting on shore for him to return from the sea. Some say that the stone is her face, still looking out at the water. The stone is on a steep hillside but can be reached by following a narrow path. It is visited by people who leave offerings on and around the stone
  It is said that the Sliab na Cailligh in county Meath were created when the Cailleach flew over the area and accidently dropped the stones9. Cairn T at this site also has a large roughly chair shaped stone at the rear of eth mound known as the Hag's Chair, where people sometimes leave offerings; its said that if you sit in the chair you may be granted a wish. Leaba Chaillí, the Hag's Bed, in Cork is a wedge tomb associated with her, where local folklore claims she both lived and was buried. She is strongly associated with several areas in Ireland including the Beara peninsula and Slieve Daeane in Connacht10. Although she is found in Scotland as well she is not considered a pan-Celtic deity and so there is speculation that she represents a likely pre-Celtic divinity that was absorbed into Celtic culture at a later point11.

The Hag's Chair at Sliabh na Callaigh, picture by me 2016

  The Cailleach in Scotland has a different although related character, associated more tentatively with the harvest but also with the winter and storms. Called the Cailleach Bheur [beur meaning sharp or cutting in Gaidhlig] she was associated with the bitter winter wind and snowstorms as well as with creating geographic features which bear her name12. In the 1917 book “Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend” we learn that the goddess Bride (Irish Brighid) ruled over the summer half of the year, from Beltane to Samhain, and the other half of the year was ruled by the Cailleach. There are a variety of stories about how the year changed rulers which either feature the two goddesses contending against each other or describe them as aspects of one being. In one version Angus is the Cailleach’s son who falls in love with Bride, so the Cailleach imprisons her which causes winter to come to the land; only when Angus finally succeeds in freeing her on Imbolc does winter begin to relent13. In other versions of the story the Cailleach must drink from a magical spring, either on Imbolc at which point she transforms into Bride, or at Beltane at which point Bride is freed14.

  In the Cailleach we see a complex and ancient deity, perhaps rooted in pre-Celtic belief but certainly once a powerful sovereignty goddess. It was she who created several features of the landscape of Ireland and Scotland making her cosmogonically significantly, and it is she who controls the storms of winter in Scotland. The Cailleach may appear old or young, and may give sovereignty to kings, even divine kings if we see her as Lugh’s wife and the source of his legitimacy as king of the Tuatha De Danann. Although she is often considered a more obscure deity today, and her place among the Tuatha De Danann is somewhat uncertain, she seems to have been very significant historically and certainly maintains a powerful place in folklore today.

1Murphy, 1956
2O hOgain, 2006
3MacKillop, 1998
4Smyth, 1988
5O hOgain, 2006
6MacKillop, 1998
7Smyth, 1988
8O hOgain, 2006
9Smyth, 1988
10MacKillop, 1998
11Monaghan, 2004
13McIntyre, 2015
14 McNeill; 1959; McIntyre, 2015


MacKillop, J., (1998) A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
McIntyre, M., (2015). “The Cailleach Bheara: a Study of Scottish Highland Folklore in Literature and Film”. Retrieved from
McNeill, F., (1959). The Silver Bough, volume 2
Monaghan, P., (2004) Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore
Murphy, G., (1956) Early Irish Lyrics: eighth to Twelfth Centuries
O'hOgain (2006) the Lore of Ireland 
Smyth, D., (1988). A Guide to Irish Mythology

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Three Book Reviews: Folklore 101, Fairytale 101, Sex Education 101

Today I wanted to do a combined review of three books by the same author, dr Jeana Jorgensen, because while the topics vary the wider purpose of each book is the same, to offer a solid basic introduction to a complicated topic. This goal is admirable and one I share myself, because I think that its important to have material that can bridge the gap between layperson and academic, and can offer a way for people to either get a basic grasp of a subject or offer a starting point for those seeking to study something more deeply. Dr Jorgensen's books succeed marvelously at this goal.

Folklore 101: An Accessible Introduction to Folklore Studies. 
   Folklore is one of those subjects that can seem simple on the surface but which has surprising depth and breadth to it, and this book serves as a perfect, easy introduction to that complexity. Folklore 101 begins by explaining what folklore is and why folklore is important then segues into a section containing 13 basic folklore concepts which form an important basis for understanding the wider subject. Following this is a shorter section discussing three "big categories" of folklore: verbal, customary, and material culture. Then the author offers 27 specific folklore genres, clearly explaining each one and providing examples. This is followed by a section on special topics, discussing 11 types from women's folklore, disability and folklore, and the intersection of folklore and literature. The book wraps up with a conclusion that looks at how folklore can and does effect all of our lives and how the information in the book can be used on a personal level. 
   Dr Jorgensen masterfully presents the academia of folklore in a way that is approachable and the book is structured so that it builds of off itself, making it easy to move from one section to another, and simultaneously deeper into the subject. I also really appreciated that the author didn't shy away from tackling more difficult issues within folklore, including the concept of 'American' which is often used as shorthand for mainstream white US culture. For many people who have a narrow idea of folklore as story this book will be an eye opening read; you may particularly enjoy the sections of folk speech and jokes. 

Fairy Tales 101: An Accessible Introduction to Fairy Tales
   If you ask most people what a fairy tale is they will probably respond with an example like Cinderella or Snow White, but if pressed to describe what a fairy tale actually is will probably be unable to give a clear explanation; fairy tales are a core part of culture but are somewhat ephemeral. Fairy Tale 101 embraces this ephemeral nature and rather than trying to fit it into a small box, explores the range of concepts and stories that make up fairy tales across history, beginning with the author's description of what makes a fairy tale what it is. The opening section includes 10 topics that help establish an understanding of the fairy tale and ground readers in the wider concepts involved with them. This is followed by a section containing 10 articles or blogs that dig deeper into issues that frame fairy tales, from 'original' versions to tale types to why which translation you use matters. The next section is academic articles by dr Jorgensen, including two papers about the intersection of female agency/femininity in fairy tales and one on masculinity. The book wraps up with a section on resources, which is invaluable for those seeking to move forward and learn more. 
   Fairy Tale 101 is more academic in tone than Folk Lore 101, but still stands as a great introduction in my opinion. It helps readers navigate the often confusing, sometimes genuinely baffling, genre of Fairy Tales, and the way the book is set up as a series of, in effect, short articles, makes reading it and absorbing the material easier than it would be in a book using a more typical chapter structure. This is my go-to recommendation for anyone interested in learning more about fairy tales, whether that's out of personal interest or academic interest. It offers all of the need to know basics as well as a bit more depth in some areas, and sets a reader up with a great foundation to go forward from. 

Sex Education 101: Approachable Essays on Folklore, Culture & History
      I had been eagerly awaiting this book since I first found out about it, and it did not disappoint. I should probably preface this by saying that my own degree is in psychology but I am active in the folklore field, I am a long time advocate of comprehensive sex ed, and a fan of dr Jorgensen's other books, so I went into this with high expectations - and I was not disappointed. 
     Sex Education 101 is not another book focused on the how-to's or anatomy of sex, but rather is a comprehensive look at the beliefs that we have and forward about sex, how those influence and shape us, and the way that story and belief affect our understanding of and relationship to sex. The introduction outlines what the book is and isn't and the author's intentions, then the book moves into sections on the folklore of sex, how sex actually works, the history of sex ed, taboo topics, and the case for sex ed. Each of these sections is broken up into various shorter articles which makes the text both easy to get into and also perfect for both referencing and reading one article at a time. Articles are clearly titled and each one works on its own and within the wider flow of the book. 
   I appreciated that Sex Education 101 took an honest look at the US history of the subject, from Kellogg and Graham's obsession with anti-masturbation foods to conversion therapy, and how that has impacted generations of people. It worked to both define and debunk common misconceptions that are perpetuated through both formal and informal channels, and explored the history of sex education and the ways that various cultural factors shaped it. All in all this book is essential not only to gain a better understanding of how we culturally understand sex but also why, and the way that 'facts' can be shaped by belief. highly recommended to anyone who wants to understand sex, beliefs around sex, or get a glimpse of cultural history on the subject. 

Ultimately I think all three of these books are essential reading, and each helps clarify a confusing and complex subject.