Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Cailleach

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 

  Ceridwen's Cauldron


*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

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Runes Runes & More Runes

Rune book cover

I've written, and completed, a book of information about the Futhark runes. There are heaps of rune books out there. Tons of them - but where are the interpretations for each rune coming from? 

I went for a more grounded approach in my  researches for this book. I was driven by a desire to unearth the kernels of each symbol. As explained in the book this approach proved problematic. But I persevered and the result is a book that differs from others in its approach and its breadth. 

The book is entitled Stone Mad Runes: Drinking at Mimir's Well, for reasons that will become apparent if you read the book. There was also some information I had to omit which will find its way into future posts here. 

Kindle book available

Thursday, February 20, 2020

The Hare In Mythology - Guest blog Post by Steph

Hand Carved Hare by Dave Migman of Stone Mad Crafts 

The Names of the Hare in English* 

Dew-beater, dew-hopper,

The sitter, the grass-hopper,

Fiddlefoot, form-sitter,

Lightfoot, fern-sitter,

Stag of the cabbages, herb cropper,

Ground creeper, sitter-still,

Pintail, turn-to-hills,



White womb,

Layer with the lambs

Hare Today…

The hare is everywhere in art these days. However as their habitats are urbanised and become more inhospitable, they are less visible in their natural environment.  Perhaps the popularity of “hare fayre” today speaks to the wildness within us, buried beneath a veneer of societal norms and plastic detritus.

 The hare’s contradictory nature is evidenced by their ubiquity in folklore. They feature worldwide in stories of the moon and fantasy and were also anthropomorphised into everyday folks. They are comfortable in the company of rude mechanicals and divinity alike. Often confused with rabbits, their gentler cousins, we are drawn to their beauty and grace which can seem otherworldly and has inspired many legends.

The Nature of the Hare

Why then are there so many legends across the world surrounding hares? They are indigenous to every continent excluding Antarctica, yet they remain stubbornly unfamiliar. They are solitary in nature, and even leverets born in the same litter are separated at birth. Yet they are known to congregate on mountainsides and even airfields in vast numbers… and nobody knows why.

In researching this post, I encountered so much contradictory information. So little is known about their habits. In fact it was only in recent years that it was discovered that “boxing hares” are not males competing for mating rites, but females rejecting potential mates. They are rarely visible out-with springtime, when they can be seen trying to outrun cars on country roads or sitting sentinel in fields. 

Hares differ from rabbits in several key ways – a hare has no home to retreat to, resting in forms above ground which makes them entirely reliant on hiding and running for survival. Their massive hearts power these high speeds. This is why they make lists of fastest animals on the planet with top speeds of up to 60km per hour. They are small prey animals with a reputation for being feisty.

Beast of Venery

As prey animals, hares have long enjoyed an elevated status and a reputation for scrappiness. In Medieval Britain, the hare was designated one of four “Beasts of Venery”. Hares were for the landed gentry only, not for peasants and poachers. Laws were passed to forbid the common man from poaching hares, as they were revered alongside the deer, boar and wolf. The unlawfulness of eating hare may have been adopted by conquerors from Celtic customs. Perhaps this status as food fit for a king only is in part responsible for the anthropomorphic interpretation of the hare as arrogant.

Whether full of bluster, like Aesop’s Hare and the housemate of Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit, or full of cunning like Brer Rabbit, hares are culturally elevated to a higher status. It is possible to see a correlation between this and their aloof, solitary nature.

Celtic and Anglo Saxon Tradition

Hares have been revered across many cultures in mythology. Both the Anglo-Saxons and Celts treated the hare as forbidden flesh excepting a ritual hunt (Celts at Beltane, Anglo Saxons at ‘Easter’ time)**. Celts viewed hares as creatures of divination. There is a well-known story of Boudicca releasing a hare as a portent during a speech. It is said that hares can shape shift, or that women (often, defined as witches) could change into hares. The Celtic warrior Oisin chased a hare and found a beautiful woman with identical injuries. There are stories too of witches, under the guise of hares, stealing milk from cows in the field. 

‘I shall go into a hare,

With sorrow and sych and meickle care;
And I shall go in the Devil’s name,
Ay while I come home again.’ 

 1662, Isobel Gowdie’s confession.

Hand carved stone pendant by Stone Mad Crafts

Moon gazing hares

The most common image by far we see of hares in art is that of the moon-gazer. The hare’s association with the moon spans across many cultures and seems to derive, in part, from their nocturnal habits and tendency to stillness. However it could also be attributable to the shape of a hare perceived in a full moon.

To Be or Not To Be…

The ancient Greeks used hares to represent both homosexual and heterosexual love. Gender fluidity is attributed to the hare in legend and they are associated with fertility in many different legends. They are associated with the god Eros and the goddess Aphrodite. It may be this reputation, along with their speed and dynamism, which led to them being used as a symbol of regeneration as well as a messenger of the gods. In Egyptian hieroglyphics, hares were most commonly used to mean ‘to be’. 

The individual hare representing existence flows nicely into some of the theories about the triskele of hares. Three hares appear in a circle formation, sharing ears so that between the three ears  they each have a pair. Three as a number represents community (where individuality and duality precede it). It is often associated with worship – trinities of gods or triskele patterns form a triangle of dependence and interconnectedness. A circular image appearing along the silk path, from the Far East to the south of England,  is known as the “Tinner’s rabbits”. It appears carved in Romanesque churches and painted in Buddhist caves.

Hieroglyph from Saqquara, Egypt, 2400 BC (Photo - S. Johnson)


The Private Life of the Hare by John Lewis-Stempel ISBN 9781473542501

The Way of the Hare by Marianne Taylor ISBN 9781472942265

The Leaping Hare by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson ISBN 9780571336050

Foot notes:

 *Middle English poem, circa 13th Century, first published by ASC Ross in Proceedings of Leeds Philosophical Society, Literary and Historical Section, in 1935 (p347-77)

Translation into modern English is largely my own, Seamus Heaney has his own sweary and inaccurately translated version if you like that kind of thing!

**Easter is often referred to as having had its origins in the celebrations of the Germanic goddess ‘Oestre’ who had a hare for a companion – in reality we know very little about the extent of worship to Oestre before being referenced by Bede in 725ad and theoretically, there may well have been a host of goddesses of the spring and fertility, localised, who all became generic and celebrated under one banner… however we can readily recognise the hare’s symbolism of fertility and spring from their habits.

***oral traditions in Africa seem to make it hard to pin down an origin for this story, but there is a tradition generally of smaller, prey animals being tricksters who outwit larger creatures. There is another typical type of pan African tale which explains the origins of different animals – both aspects are present in this particular story.