The Cailleach

The mysterious figure usually known as the ‘Cailleach’ (pron: ‘Kallyoch’, or near to it) is one of the most important and enduring characters found in the folklore of Atlantic Britain and Ireland, who also has parallels throughout the rest of Europe (eg – as the German/Scandinavian ‘Holda’).

In most traditions she represents the figure of the ‘Hag’: an ancient magical female, in character both sympathetic and frightening, who inhabited the world of story and the legendary past where nature, humans and animals occupied a more undifferentiated origin: A world in which she was a creatrix and destroyer of nature and geography, originator of ideas, prophetess of the past and future and progenitor of the people.

She was known by a myriad of titles, as befits the great age of her traditions that have been shared across many cultural and linguistic sub-zones, and her epithet has often been transformed in apparent attempts to obfuscate her existence and nature: Protean forms of the title ‘Cailleach’ include: Caillagh, Calliagh, Callagh, Callich, Caillech, Callie, Calligh, Carlin, Carline, Callin, Cuillin, Cuillean, Gullion, Gwyllion, and Whallin as well as various phonetic and spelled variants of the same. The name was often appended with a number of secondary titles. For example: Cailleach Bheara, Cailleach Beara, Cailleach Berri, Cailleach Vear, Calliagh Dirra, Caillagh y Groamagh, Cailleach Bheur, Caillagh ny Faaishagh, etc.

The meaning of the epithet ‘Cailleach’ seems to centre around the prefix ‘Caill-‘ which is generally interpreted to mean a ‘covering’. When the character appears as an aged crone in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s tale (I will digress on this in another post!), she refers to womankind as those who wear a ‘Coverchief or Calle’ upon their head, referring to the veil or headscarf which once a traditional accoutrement of a woman in Europe. The usual interpretation of ‘Cailleach’ is therefore ‘Veiled One’ or ‘Old Woman’ and the term is also used in Celtic languages to mean ‘Nun’. The origin of the ‘Caill-‘ or ‘Call-‘ prefix seems to identify the Greek Kalux (covering of a bud, a husk) and its borrowed Latin equivalent Calyx as well as the word Pallium (a covering garment, but with the ‘P-K’ phonetic switch) and Calyculus – a cup-shaped item. In the English language, the word Caul is also a variant – meaning the birth-sac of the placenta: the membrane covering a newly born child, combining the ideas of both ‘vessel’ (as in calyculus) and ‘covering’ (as in calyx). The monk’s ‘Cowl’ (a variant of Caul) is derived from the Latin equivalent Cuculla.

In the corpus of the various folktales associated with the Cailleach collected from Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, she is ascribed a number of attributes and roles:

1. Great age.

2. Guardian of flocks of animals: Cattle, deer, birds etc

3. One eyed, and/or withered on one side of her body.

4. Carries a stave with which she beats down foliage in winter.

5. Lives in a cave.

6. Creates lakes by forgetting to cover a well at night.

7. Creates landscape features by dropping/throwing rocks, and leaving damage in her giant leaps.

8. Flies through the air, generates storms.

9. Inhabits mountains.

10. Regenerates herself and becomes young again.

11. Landscape features are her ‘chairs, ‘beds’, ‘baths’ etc

12. Has a consort/husband from whom she appears estranged.

13. Recites prophecies and histories.

From this, she appears to have all the attributes usually ascribed to a major deity, yet the historical literary record is surprisingly quiet about her: She does not appear (explicitly) in such a role in any medieval Irish or Welsh romances about the ‘old gods’ or the Tuatha Dé Danann. In fact, she fits the aforementioned description of Danu/Aine asmater deorum hibernesnsium’ so closely that we must assume that they are the same idea and entity. Instead, the legends of the ‘Ulster Cycle’ and ‘Legendary’ cycle and the MAbinogion give us Lugh and the Dagda, Brân the Blessed, Branwen and Pryderi and  Manannan and Eithne, and a pantheon of euhemerised ‘heroes as gods’ fitting the continental Roman and Greek conceptions of paganism, that could be conveniently documented and filed away in a monkish library.  It is very obvious however that relatively few landscape features in Atlantic Britain and Ireland are named after these supposed major gods of yesteryear, yet the Cailleach has made such a striking mark!

Just a few examples of ‘Cailleach’ places, many of whose names are still current:

Scotland: Cailleach Vear – a rock off Mull, Sgeir na Cailleach – Jura, Beinn a Caillich – Skye, Ceum na Caillich – Arran, Craig Cailleach – near Killin, Glen Caillich, Cailleach Head – Ross, Carlin’s Loup near Carlop, Loch na Cailleach on Lewis, and Creagan Biorach na Cailliche Moire – also on Lewis. There are many more!

Ireland: Slievecallan and Ceann Caillí in County Clare, Slieve na Calliagh in County Meath, Slieve Gullion in County Armagh, Slieve Gallion in County Derry, Sloc na Calliagh on Rathlin, Carnacally in County Armagh (where there is a River Callan), and Caislean na Caillighe island on Lough Carra in County Mayo. Again, there are many others!

Isle of Man: Ballacallin, Slieu Whallian (the ‘Wh-‘ is traditionally pronounced ‘Kwh-‘!) etc

In addition to such places where the term ‘Cailleach’ and its derivatives are used in the name, there are countless more references to her using the English terms ‘Hag’ and ‘Devil’ and still more landscape features whose creation stories have been transferred from Herself to some local or national saint.

I will go on to explore this character and her importance in the following posts.

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