I have already mentioned in passing that the identity of the ancient Atlantic pagan Goddess is tied up in the identity of the seasons: Born at Imbolc, sexually mature (flowering) at Beltain, pregnant (developing fruit and seeds) at midsummer, birthed (harvested) by Samhain, and old and withered between Samhain and Imbolc – she followed the seasons as well as the 9-month cycle of human gestation. The development of her mythos was a perfect analogy of the vegetation and seasonal cycle upon which Atlantic Europeans depended to survive.
This mythos required a rationalisation of the autumn die-back following harvest and this was developed in the British and Irish archipelago into the characterisation of the Cailleach Beara/Bheur/Berry of Irish, Scottish and Manx mythology. There is good evidence that this characterisation once had a much wider reach, but Christianisation and demonization appear to have somewhat altered the folklore of the matter and substituted tales of an explicitly pagan origin with demonic or ‘saintly’ themes.
This ‘Cailleach’ (named possibly from the traditional ‘veil’ of old age – a metaphor for the winter landscape) was attributed with a number of active and historic functions in certain remaining legends about her. Of the active functions, she was a guardian of herds and flocks of nature, guardian of stores of food*, she flew through the air stirring up the winter weather, and she had a stave or stick with which she beat back the vegetation in autumn and winter. Her historic functions were the formation of the physical landscape and the genesis/invention of things.
In the notes to his 1804 book ‘The Grampians Desolate: A Poem’ (Pub. J.Moir, Edinburgh), Alexander Campbell describes on pages 262-263 the classes of Highland dances and gives the following example of a solitary ‘character’ dance:
A dance performed by one person, is, strictly considered, a sort of character, of consequence, in some measure dramatic. If a female, the character assumed is a’ Cailleach, or old wife; and the person who dances is dressed in a very grotesque stile, having a huge bunch of keys hanging by her apron-string, and a staff to support her, for she affects to be very stiff, and lame of one leg. When the tune strikes up, she appears hardly able to hobble on the floor ; by degrees, however, she gets on a bit, and as she begins to warm, she feels new animation, and capers away at a great rate, striking her pockets, and making her keys rattle; then affecting great importance as keeper of the good things of the store-room, ambry (AP ed: a storage recess for important items), and dairy. Meanwhile some of the company present join the person who plays the tune, and sing words suitable to the character the dancer assumes—generally some nonsense of a comic cast with which the matron, or Cailleach seems wonderfully delighted. The names of the tunes and words that I have heard played and sung to this dance, are: A’ Sean Rong mhor, Cailleach an Durdan, Cailleach a’ Stopan-falaimh, and several others that I do not at present recollect.
Campbell’s description of the Cailleach character dance is quite striking, and is one of the sole sources still existing that explicitly describes her as a protector of store-rooms. More importantly, he is describing in this dramatic image of the Cailleach a representation of the asterism of Orion: one of the most important to occupy the winter skies of Atlantic Europe, and usually portrayed as a belted warrior with a sword or staff raised aloft, and items dangling from his ‘belt’. Orion is significant in that it sits on the banks of the great Milky Way, associated with the star Sirius (known as the ‘Dog Star’) and the constellations and asterisms of Canis Minor, Taurus, Auriga and the Pleiades. Those becoming familiar with Cailleach myths will recognise certain features in these stars and constellations that have echoes of Cailleach legends, and for a good reason! Those familiar with Norse mythology might know that Orion was named after Freyja and the item on her ‘belt’ was known as ‘Freyja’s Distaff’. The Pleiades are portrayed as a little flock of birds. The Cailleach is associated with Bulls (the Tain), flocks and in Irish tales with a dog, sometimes a beetle and other specific creatures.
In his 200 year old description of the ‘Cailleach’ dance, Campbell makes it clear that the character has a stave, a bunch of keys, and is lame on one side. It is clear that ‘she’ (the character is danced by a man) has the attributes typical of the ancient Cailleach or ‘witch’ archetype of myth and legend, and what is more the dance emphasises her transition from old and lame back to sprightly and young – a metaphor for regeneration that is strongly seasonal.