The Height of Winter and the Cailleach

“Summer of youth in which we have been
I spent with its autumn;
winter of age which overwhelms everyone,
its first months have come to me.” –The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare

It’s finally winter in my area of Ohio; we had some snowfall around Thanksgiving, but most of December was spent in the 40’s and up (it was 60* Jan. 3). Two nights ago, the temperatures plummeted down to the teens, and we had our first real snowstorm move through. While we don’t get as many inches as places up near the Great Lakes, we do usually have a power outage or three every winter that affects not only the rural-er areas, but many of us townies (I hate being a townie). Last year, both my husband and I slid off the icy roads; blessedly, neither of us were injured, though I was eight months pregnant at the time and driving about 60mph, and he almost went down the hillside and tore off the back bumper. But when I talk to people that don’t live or have never lived in Ohio, we aren’t one of the states that comes to mind when the term “extreme weather” is thrown out. Yeah, we don’t really get 18+ inches of accumulation in one night, and we don’t have to deal with hurricane force winds and flooding, but the idea that what experience isn’t “extreme” is completely subjective.

Before modern communication, we had very little means of knowing what was going on in other areas of the country, let alone the world. So when regions discussed contingency plans for what to do when something extreme happened, it was always in relation to the immediate area. Extreme weather, or any sort of extreme circumstances, are situations that largely interrupt the normal course of life and pose serious threat to life and health. And our season of extreme weather just began.

And with the onslaught of winter comes the need to discuss the Cailleach. Seen as a title, a name, or a group of land deities/spirits, most forms of this being point to her sovereignty during the winter months, the season of potentially deadly weather. And unlike many other deities, there doesn’t seem to be a way to get on her good side.

The Cailleach reminds me a little of one of my grandmothers, and my husband’s grandmother. While there is a 20 year difference in their ages, they are both old women (I think of old as more a frame of mind than an age). They are fond of complaining about their ill-health (most of which is self-inflicted), the lack of care they receive from family (neither of them are isolated or abandoned), and their inability to do the things they once did (because they are the only ones who have ever grown old). There is no reasoning with them, and what compassion and empathy you could once muster has been exhausted by the deaf ears and ungrateful hearts it fell upon. But you keep going back, you keep trying, and you keep helping, because they are family, because you love them, and because someday you too will be faced with growing old. And you will have to decide how to take that.

Interacting with the Cailleach is like interacting with these grandmothers; it is a very one-sided relationship (hint: the one side is not in your favor). Unlike most relationships outlined in old Irish culture, there is no reciprocity and no way to get out of this one when the other side doesn’t contribute. You enter in with no expectation of personal reward, you prepare to just give, and you hope to weather the storm. Sometimes, you receive some recognition or personal fulfillment, but it’s always fleeting. You just have to keep giving.

So when making offerings to the Cailleach, you don’t really try to form a relationship or get anything back. You just try to ease through the season, knowing soon enough it will be over.

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One thought on “The Height of Winter and the Cailleach

  1. Greetings! I found your blog by way of your comment on the Wild Hunt’s article about Millennial Pagans … when I noticed this post of yours about the Cailleach, I thought I’d read further and offer a long-winded comment, to share some of what I’ve experienced with her in my life 🙂

    Although I’ve been on my path for a while, I have to admit that the Cailleach has only recently (within the past half year) made her presence known to me. I journey from time to time, and it was while journeying that I was first made aware of her presence. I do not see her negatively at all. She is, to me, a force of Nature. The Insular Celts considered her to be old before they arrived to the Isles … whether this suggests Pictish or some other Proto-Celtic reverence is something I’d rather leave to the experts to hash out. To me, it speaks enough just to know that the Cailleach’s presence in our world has been observed for a long time (even if I see her as ageless, rather than old). Like with other gods or spirits of various places, the Cailleach has been subject to reinterpretation every time a new people has come to settle in the lands she seems most bound to.

    She is definitely associated with the winter season. Also with storms … which at least here in the North Sea area tend to come most heavily in the fall and spring seasons. The way to reconcile this seeming inconsistency is to understand that it was once very common here to see the year as having two seasons: winter and summer. If I’m not mistaken, old Gaulish doesn’t even have words for spring or fall. The other thing to keep in mind is that in this region, daylight hours tend to vary greatly between summer and winter. In the middle of summer where I live, for example, there is still plenty of daylight with which to see up until eleven at night; and what darkness the night eventually brings is hardly convincing. Conversely, during the middle of winter, daylight is not easy to find – especially if it happens to be overcast, which it often is around here. In Scotland, for example, the difference is even more dramatic. So what we normally refer to as autumn and spring – at least the later and early extremes of each, were also part of the Cailleach’s ‘season.’ What many consider to be a death association with the Cailleach and winter could also be seen as a time of incubation … it is when the acorn rests upon the soil, gathering itself to take root. The winter (particularly Samhuinn) was the beginning of the year, and the darkness of night the beginning of the day: the Cailleach is only an association of death in that death was seen by our Celtic forebears as the beginning of the next life. She is, therefore, the renewed promise of changes and new beginnings.

    She is associated with the animals of the wilderness, as well. And wisdom, and magic. With depictions of her having only a single eye, I’m reminded of Odin – a storm god whose presence I have felt in my life for nearly as far back as I can remember. I have a take on Odin that most don’t share, that the eye he sacrificed for a drink from the well of wisdom is the Moon (which in the Germanic languages tends to be masculine, rather than feminine). We see the Moon ‘floating’ in the well of wisdom, the dark of night. With the Cailleach’s other various associations, I tend to think she and Odin could sit down to a few drinks and understand each other quite well, even if Odin tends to be more concerned with civilization, where the Cailleach seems not to be … the ‘date’ would probably need to take place in more of a countryside pick-nick setting, rather than a restaurant in the downtown area!

    As for getting something out of a relationship with the Cailleach, I’d say that’s a matter of perspective. There are stories of the Cailleach rewarding men who dared to sleep with the ‘hag,’ mostly by showing them her true form. I have found serenity from my brief experience with her, for example. Come what may, the cycle will start anew. That is the promise of her presence in our world. A relationship with her has taught me just how small my worries are, in the greater scheme of things. I also see her as a prominent feature in the Otherworld: she is the black mountain in the night, wearing a crown of perpetual storm. To see the beauty in this is to see the beauty in the storm, in the cold, hard weather and the dark of night: it is these things that bring us the light of day, and the growth of the spring and summer seasons, without them, these things would not exist. To describe this beauty, as far as I can tell, isn’t possible: the Cailleach shows us constantly, reliably; and waits patiently until we are at the right place to notice it for ourselves. One thing I will definitely agree with you on, is that reasoning with the Cailleach is, well … there are probably better ways to spend energy and time. The Cailleach is what she is, she does what she does. It’s for us to see her reasoning 🙂

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