|Caiileach - Art my Dave Migman|
Names mean many things. They describe and assign. They form maps, they are changed and altered, even as they are heaped upon the land like stones upon a mountain cairn. Some lose favour, some cling tenaciously like lichen across the hide of slumbering giants and their kin. Across Scotland the gaelic name Callieach is used to describe many natural landmarks. Cailleach, The Hag, is a name that invokes the memory of an elusive goddess. Fragments of folklore and myth add potency to the claim that she was once a powerful goddess. Sometimes it is said there were many Cailleachs, as many mountains in the Highlands had their own. Cailleach as a name was used to identify hags, such as the three-headed Cailleach who, with a one-eyed, headless man, birthed the witch, Cuillionn. She is a mountain goddess, who brings stormy weather, lifting her skirts she looses avalanches of boulders into the valleys.
|One of my carved stones representing the Cailleach as Cewidwen|
She was known by many names across Ireland and the British Isles, these include; Callech, Carlin, Cally Berry, Bhéirre and Black Annis. She was sometimes accompanied by her husband, Voel Tegid. He is sometimes described as a giant, who stands on a single leg, and has one eye*. Sometimes it is she who has one eye planted in the centre of her dark grey face. She is a creator goddess: powerful, ancient and to be respected. She is the old harvest wife, ushering in the winter, and her reign lasts until she is reborn as the maiden in spring. It was once a custom in parts of Scotland to create a female figure from corn cut after November 1st called the Carlin (another of her names).** Sometimes this corn would be hung to dry inside the house until the time for sowing in the spring. A similar custom existed in Wales too (where the hag was called the wrach). In Northern Ireland the corn was plaited and attacked by the reapers. Whoever cut through it, took it home to hang over his door and it was known as The Carley.
Such traditions aren’t limited to the British Isles and Ireland. In Eastern Europe and beyond this last sheaf of corn was known as the Baba (Hag, or Old Lady) and Mother-Corn. These and many other examples suggest the widespread belief in a divine mother goddess whose roots lie in very ancient cosmologies ( See Matronae Post).This might well reflect the morphing of medieval oral tradition amongst the people (well away from ear-shot of the priest and his pulpit). It could also reflect the echoes of ancient animistic forms of belief - the association of powerful spirits with certain locations in a world that was ‘alive’ in a magical sense. These might be traced back to Indo-European or even Pre-IndoEuropean migrations.
My feeling is all these incarnations are one and the same, that they each contain seeds and commonalities despite regional variations. Names such as Black Annis may also refer to the ancient Irish earth goddess Anu (Danu). I would also add that the adder is said to provide the Cailleach Bheur’s power, and this would also link her with an Earth goddess archetype that is widespread across Europe and beyond. The Cailleach appears in Welsh mythology as Ceridwen and here her character assumes an inspirational aspect.
In the tale of the the birth of the famous welsh bard, Taliesin, the child Gwion tends Ceridwen’s magical cauldron (see post). The tale takes place in the dun of Tegid Voel. Ceridwen has the lad stirring the potion of inspiration that she is concocting to gift her son, Avagddu, with knowledge to compensate for his ugliness. However some drops splash Gwion’s hand as he stirs and he sucks his burning finger, accidently tasting the potion. Instantly he is overcome with a surge of knowledge as the potion takes effect. His immediate and pressing thought is how pissed off Ceridwen will be. So he flees, and there follows a lovely chase sequence of shapeshifting forms as he tries to evade the raging hag. This scene culminates with Gwion being plucked up by the hag when he turns into grain and she a hen. However nine months later Gwion is magically reborn as Taliesin, the mythical bard. In this tale, Ceridwen is the creator of the potion within the cauldron of inspiration. Such poetic awareness was known as Awen. It was the force of inspiration, a power sought by any aspiring bard. Of course it is apt that Nature herself, in her wild, unbridled form is key to providing such inspiration. In fact Gwion is taken into the cauldron of her womb and thus reborn inspired and filled with knowledge.
Both Ceridwen and Voel are giants, their imagery is earthy and ancient. In the Welsh tales they are said to live in the middle of Lake Tegid, now called Lake Bala. It is interesting that an old myth persists in connection to a well in the nearby town called the Gower Well, in which a goddess was said to reside, and who must be appeased. In this legend the tower of Tegid Voel, and the ancient city that surrounded it, were lost beneath the waves when someone forgot to cover the well one night.
Click here to watch my animation
*This apparently reflecting a really ancient spell casting technique in which the caster would stand with one leg raised aloft, one hand behind the back and one eye closed.
** If the corn were cut before November 1st (Hallowmass) then it was referred to as The Maiden. Hallowmass is a Chritian festival lumped onto the pre-Christian yearly festival of Samhain, an important turning point in the yearly cycle.
Duanaire Finn: Book of the lays of Finn - Vol 3 - Gerard Murphy
Encyclopedia of Ancient Dieties -
The Golden Bough - James G. Frazer
The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe - Hilda Ellis Davidson
Celtic Myth in the 21st Century - Edited by Emily Lyle