PBP2014cGiven that I’m re-launching this blog with a more Gaelic recon-type approach, I thought ‘C is for Cailleachan’ wasn’t a bad place to start.[1] There’s more than one Cailleach figure, and I thought I’d take some time to explore the differences between ‘my’ Cailleach and some of the others. The nice thing about the (plural) word ‘Cailleachan’ is that it emphasises the potential separateness of these goddesses and their different cultural origins. They’re not all the same.

When people call the Cailleach a winter goddess, they’re talking about the Scottish goddess, who is said to wash her plaid in the lochs and shake it to bring on snow. The Irish Cailleachan are quite different. It doesn’t snow much in the west of Ireland, and over there the Cailleachan are known more generally as weather goddesses, rather than specifically as winter figures. The Irish figures are also strongly linked with mountains, stones and cairns, and the sovereignty of the land (possibly with cows and harvest themes in there). The Irish Cailleach tales are odd stories that present these figures as simple (if sometimes magical) old women, but which preserve themes of sovereignty and the harvest, if you look closely enough.[2]

I sometimes get irritated with the modern approach to the Cailleachan – subsuming many local goddesses under one identity, even when the cultures of each area are very different, just because they have some features and stories (and a title) in common. This approach mainly comes from some North Americans, who seem to think that Ireland and Scotland are homogeneous. So there’s the idea that there’s one Cailleach who is ‘just’ Gaelic, both Irish and Scottish, which can erase the vast differences between local cultures/local landscapes, and their stories. Partly this is the fault of academics, some of whom talk about them one minute as though they are many, and the next minute as though they are one figure. It’s their way of dealing with the cross-fertilization that has taken place between some of these goddesses – the way the stories move across areas, influence each other, and may have some common origins. It’s not always culturally helpful, though. I’m still finding it incredibly hard to work out which Irish Cailleach stories come from Cork and which come from Kerry and which from elsewhere in Ireland, partly because of the way stories are collected together as just being ‘about the Cailleach’, without always clearly identifying where they come from. And it can be hard enough separating the Scottish stories from the Irish to begin with…

Dursey Island

Dursey Island (Irish: Baoi Bhéarra or Oileán Baoi – named for Bhéarra/Baoi, the local ‘Cailleach’)

In terms of local folklore, I’m most familar with Cailleach Bhéarra (from west Cork), although I also know a bit about Duibhne (from Dingle). In local folklore, Cailleach Bhéarra is also called Buí, Boí, or Baoi. She’s associated with Dursey Island, an island just off the Beara Peninsula (both of which are named for her – the Irish names for Dursey are Baoi Bhéarra and Oileán Baoi). I believe the earliest name we have (recorded) for her is Sentainne Berri. She has some well-known legends, like being turned into the Hag of Beara rock overlooking the cliffs near Eyries, and some less well-known local stories, like how she waits there for her husband Manannan mac Lir. Some scholars think her origins were in County Meath, further north, and that her stories travelled with moving tribes, although others disagree. In medieval myth, Bui (or Bua) is a wife of Lugh and is said to be buried in Co. Meath, but we also have the problem that we don’t know how far myth has influenced local thought on the subject, and so it’s hard to say what her origins are. O’Cathasaigh thinks she’s a goddess of sovereignty and death. Ó Crualaoich focuses more on her land-shaping aspects.

It’s possible that Bhéarra is the same goddess as her Kerry-based neighbour Duibhne, just using different names – but I’ve also read that Duibhne was subsumed into the Cailleach figure later. I think this is possible – that several local sovereignty goddesses of different tribes were linked under one archetype. There’s an inscription on a stone in Kerry that reads ‘Corca Duibne’, which means ‘the people/seed of Duibhne’ – she was a local goddess of the tribe. Her name is sometimes anglicised to Dovinia, which may be an earlier name. I have a relationship with Duibhne that I’m only just starting to get my head around. She’s an… interesting one.

I wrote a bit about the possible links between Bhéarra and other local harvest goddesses in these two blog posts. The Cork-based harvest goddesses who interest me in connection with her are Lasair, Latiaran and Inion Bui, a triad of harvest goddesses who are each in charge of a different stage of the harvest. It’s hard to find out about them, though, and they may be back-formations from later saints, rather than actual pre-Christian goddesses. They’re interesting, though!

Some sources on the subject:

The best source, though, is going to Cork itself. You’ll see Bhéarra everywhere in the landscape there – from place names, to stories, to the land she is reputed to have shaped. She’s very much a goddess of the land.


Oh – and happy Imbolc/Lá Fhéile Bríde to anyone who celebrates it!

My attempt at making a brideog with a slat bride...

My attempt at making a brideog with a slat bride…

*Apologies that this is largely a re-post of a post I made at the Cauldron forum a few weeks ago. I’m moving, and have no energy left. Also, recycling stuff is a good idea when you’re moving. :D

[1] With thanks to Stephy for the idea of writing about Cailleach Bhéarra this week!

[2] These stories have been collected by the Irish Folklore Society, but they’re mainly in Gaelic – but Ó Crualaoich has translated some of them in his book – The Book of the Cailleach: Stories of the Wise Woman Healer, 2006. Which I strongly recommend. A fantastic collection of folklore!

13 thoughts on “Cailleachan

  1. Pingback: Spirits of Winter | The Lefthander's Path

  2. So far I have found it difficult to differentiate whether deities with similar root names are the same deity under different titles, existing with different stories in different landscapes or if they’re different gods or goddesses altogether. I get the impression you see each Cailleachan as a different goddess arising from a different landscape, rather than one goddess who is the same in essence but appears with local variations. Am I correct?

    • Yes. I find the concept of ‘The Cailleach’ a bit foreign. From what I can tell, it’s based on interpretations from ‘The Golden Bough’, based on the Scottish Cailleach (or, perhaps, one of the Scottish Cailleachan). I get a bit irritated when people say “Oh, I love the Cailleach!” when I talk about Bhearra – it subsumes her into an ‘archetype’, when to me, she’s very much an individual – an individual who reflects her land and its culture.

      At the same time, though, there’s no doubt that there has been cross-pollination between (at least some of) the Cailleachan. It’s possible that, as tribes moved around, they carried the stories of their land goddess with them. In my UPG, though, different goddesses of the land would have responded to that archetype and filled that gap… Does that make any sense at all?

      • Yes, many thanks for clarifying. This confirms why when I tried connecting with Brighid in the north of England it didn’t quite work until I made contact with Brigantia, I know Nodens rather than Nuada or Nudd and Gwyn frequently appears here as ‘the White One’ (as a Gallo-Brythonic deity he was Vindonus meaning ‘clear light / white)… So yes, matches with my experiences.

      • Yeah. I think that, with many Brythonic and Gaelic gods, there’s a sense of ‘the same but different’. They may have common origins with other gods, which probable means they’re still ‘linked’ in some way to those gods. But personally I can’t connect with all of them at once. With Brighid, too, I know a form of her that may be Brigantia – she’s certainly different from the Brighid that others talk about. Thanks for sharing your experience – I’m glad someone else can relate! :D

  3. I’ve been writing a series of posts on spirits of winter, and I think yours does more justice than I probably would have done! Hence I added a link for this post on the Cailleach section.

  4. Loved this post….both reading about your insights into/relationship with the Cailleach and the photo of your brideog.

    Brede, Brede, come to my house, come to my house tonight. Open the door for Brede, and let Brede come in.

    Happy Imbolc & Candlemas blessings to you…..SRTB.

  5. It doesn’t matter if this is largely a repost, its still an excellent article!
    Since the Samhain before last I’ve been acknowledging the Cailleach, though I am sorry to say my version is a general one. Through this post, you have actually inspired me to look into the Leicester based figure of ‘Black Annis’…. I wonder if she is a local based Cailleach whose myth was transformed into a monstrous creature…

    Here is my prayer to the Cailleachan:

    ‘O, Cailleach!
    Hooded one,
    Lady of winter,
    Lady of the Mysteries,
    Lady of life and death.

    A bit short, maybe but this winter she has shown me that you can’t have something new with out sacrificing the old, that you must make an effort to do something you want and…. shit happens.

    • Black Annis is interesting! Some locals say she was a real person whose legend became deified, but there’s no reason why a local spirit couldn’t have responded to the legend and become Black Annis… Ah, the mysteries of the gods. :D

  6. I’m glad you posted this here as I hadn’t read it elsewhere. I have a relationship with a being who answers to the title of Cailleach but I have the impression that that is merely a more recent title. To me this being is of the wilder places of Scotland. She’s in the hills of the Campsies and the mountains further north. She’s not an easy being to know but not unkind just very blunt at times :)

    • How interesting! I’d love to talk to a devotee of another Cailleach sometime, and get more of an idea of the differences as from experience, rather than just from my reading. :)

  7. Pingback: Favorite “C” PBP Posts | The Lefthander's Path

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