The goddess of winter, the Cailleach, has been revered and feared in Irish, Scottish and Manx folklore for centuries. Her name derives from the Gaelic word ‘Caillech’ which means ‘veiled one’. She is often associated with winter, wilderness and horned beasts or cattle. The goddess is known by many different names, such as Digdi or Digde, Milucra, Biróg, Bui or Bua[ch], and Caillagh. This blog post will explore her legend and look at some locations connected to her story.
Exploring the Legend of Cailleach – Goddess of Winter
The goddess of winter, the Cailleach, is said to have created mountains and hills by dropping rocks from her wicker basket as she walked across the land. She is a one-eyed giantess with white hair, dark blue skin, and rust-coloured teeth. The Cailleach is also known as a seasonal deity ruling the winter months in Ireland and Scotland, while goddess Brìghde is said to rule during the summer. She is seen as a personification of winter, herding deer, fighting against spring and freezing the ground with her staff.
Là Fhèill Brìghde and The Cailleach
On the Gaelic festival of Là Fhèill Brìghde or Imbolc, which marks the beginning of spring, it is believed that the Cailleach gathers firewood for the rest of the winter. If there is bright sunshine on this day, then it is taken as a sign that she intends to make winter last longer. The first farmer to finish their crop in the fall is said to be responsible for creating a corn dolly in her likeness and tossing it into a neighbour’s field who hadn’t finished harvesting. This is believed to represent the goddess of winter and ensure that no crops will be damaged by snow or frost.
Locations Associated with The Cailleach
The goddess of winter, the Cailleach, has strong connections to several locations in Ireland and Scotland. In Ireland she is linked to mountains and outcroppings such as Hag’s Head, Labbacallee wedge tomb and Slieve na Calliagh which houses the megalithic tombs at Loughcrew in County Meath. While in Scotland, Ben Cruachan, the tallest mountain in the region, and Beinn na Caillich are two mountains on the Isle of Skye that are said to be associated with her. The goddess is also connected to Glen Lyon in Perthshire, Scotland which contains a shieling known as Tigh nan Cailleach or Tigh nam Bodach and is home to a number of heavy water-worn stones resembling miniature human beings.
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Worship of The Cailleach
The goddess is sometimes invoked through rituals practised by modern Pagans who follow Celtic traditions. These worshippers make offerings at shrines dedicated to the goddess, such as those found in Loughcrew and Glen Lyon. While some devotees may choose to honour the goddess in more private rituals, many will join together at sacred sites and perform chants or prayers. Additionally, a number of festivals are dedicated to the goddess of winter and include activities such as bonfires, feasting, drumming circles and storytelling.
The Legacy of The Cailleach
The goddess of winter is remembered through folklore, literature and art worldwide. Her legend has been passed down for generations in stories about her magical feats and battles against spring in Ireland and Scotland. She continues to be celebrated in modern times through an annual festival on Imbolc which marks the beginning of spring. Additionally, sites associated with her, such as Glen Lyon, contain shrines made up of heavy water-worn stones resembling miniature human beings and are a popular destination for modern pilgrims.
The goddess of winter, the Cailleach, continues to be an important part of Celtic tradition and mythology even in modern times. From her origins as goddess of the mountains to her battles against spring, she has made a lasting impact on our culture, and we honour her legacy today through festivals, shrines, and stories. Even if you can’t make it to one of these sites dedicated to the goddess this Imbolc season, you can still invoke her powerful energy by making offerings or engaging in rituals with intention.