In Scottish, Irish, Manx and Gaelic mythology the goddess of winter is known as the the Cailleach, Beira or theCailleach Bheur, which means old woman or hag. In Celtic mythology she had a similar role to Jörð in Norse mythology and Gaia, in Greek mythology.
Donald Alexander Mackenzie
The Scottish folklorist Donald Alexander Mackenzie (1873 – 1936) wrote frequently on the subjects of mythology, anthropology and religion and developed a theory that there was a matriarchal society spread across Europe in Neolithic times.In his book, Myths of Crete and Pre-Hellenic Europe (1917), he argues that these early societies were gynocentric and matriarchal venerating goddesses above gods but during the Bronze Age a patriarchal society evolved supplanting it. Mackenzie called the Cailleach Bheur by the name of Beira, Queen of Winter.
He saw her as a giantess with a single eye who had her mountain throne on Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain and the highest in the British Isles. According to him she had white hair, dark blue skin, and rust-colored teeth. She had a magic hammer that she used to create the mountains and valleys of Scotland. Loch Ness was created when she changed a careless maid named Nessa into a river which then formed the loch. Each year her rule would come to an end when the longest night of the year arrived when she would seek out the Well of Youth and drink its waters which made her grow younger by the day.
As the Cailleach
In Scottish folklore and mythology, as the Cailleach she was believed to have created many of the mountains and hills. She carried a wicker basket containing rocks and as she strode across the land at such a pace many of these rocks accidently fell out creating hills and mountains as she went. Sometimes she was said to have created the mountains on purpose and carried a hammer which she used to shape the hills and valleys. She opposed Spring and herded deer and when she strikes the ground with her staff the ground freezes.
The Cailleach and Brigid
Sometimes she is seen with the goddess Brigid in partnership or operating as two faces or aspects of one goddess. They ruled the winter and spring months between November 1st or Samhain to May 1st or Beltane. Brigid rules from Beltane through summer and autumn to Samhain.
In some traditions the Cailleach turns to stone on Beltane and reverts to her human form on Samhain to rule the winter and spring months. However, this is not straightforward, in some traditions the transfer of jurisdiction between the two goddesses and winter to spring can be celebrated any time between Là Fhèill Brigid or February 1st, Latha na Cailliche or March 25th and Beltane or May 1st. Festivals named after either of the two goddesses are held in between these dates.
Saint Brigid’s Day
According to tradition the Imobolc, or the 1st of February or Là Fhèill Brigid is the day the Cailleach gathers her firewood for winter. If she is planning a long winter she will make that day sunny and bright to help her find plenty of fuel to last her through the cold days of winter.Therefore with this legend in mind people are pleased if the weather on February 1st is wet and dismal as the winter will be short. A tradition on the Isle of Man where she is called Caillagh ny Groamagh, says that on St. Bride’s day she has been seen to take the form of a giant bird that flies around collecting sticks in its beak.
The Whirlpool of Corryvreckan
Another tradition from the west coast of Scotland tells how the Cailleach by washing her great plaid, which can be a kind of kilt, or sometimes a large shawl, in the waters of the Gulf of Corryvreckan causes the whirlpool in the gulf and brings in winter. This also causes a storm that can be heard twenty miles away and lasts for three days. When she is finished her plaid is clean and white and covers the land as snow.
There was an old custom in Ireland and Scotland where the farmer who was first to finish harvesting his crop of grain made a corn dolly that represent the Cailleach from the last sheaf that he cut. This would be thrown into the field of one of his neighbors who had yet to finish bringing in his harvest. If the farmer finished before his other neighbors this was passed to one of them. This was passed on until it at last came into the hands of the last unfortunate farmer to finish who it was implied had the misfortune to have to take care of the corn dolly for the following year. In doing so he was obliged to feed and house the Cailleach, the hag of winter, until summer returned. This gave all of the farmers the encouragement and motivation to get their harvest in quickly.
This is a retelling of a folktale called The Murder Hole, found in The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction Magazine, 1829 and believed to be set in an area of Scotland about three hundred years earlier.
The Murder Hole
In a remote part of the country there exists a lonely road that runs for miles and miles through an empty and dreary landscape broken by the odd sharp hillock and tor and a few scattered and tortured trees. On one side of the road stands and old stone cross that seems to stand as a bleak warning to the unwary traveler that they are crossing over a boundary into the unknown. Beyond that lies a ruined, abandoned church. There are no flowers and In daylight the landscape appears to be covered in a mass of dull grey, green stringy grass but it is a deceptive and dangerous place. From the road the ground looks firm and solid but there are bogs and marshes whose watery surface take on the grayness of the skies and hide their presence from the unwary and these stretch as far as the eye could see in all directions. The only time their presence can be seen plainly is at times when the veils that shroud this world from the next become thin such as at sunset just before they lift. Then light from the dying sun strikes the watery surface revealing blood-stained pools and streams that appear from the landscape giving it a surreal and disturbing aspect. At such a time any traveler on that road would be vulnerable to their own thoughts as the veil lifts and the night creatures begin to roam through. The road was bad but it was better to keep upon it than risk the treacherous bogs and marshes that changed and shifted. These were dangerous for those who did not know the area but the few locals who remained could find their way through safely.
The only sign of human habitation were a few rough wooden huts clustered both sides of the road that made up a small almost deserted hamlet situated in the center of this God forsaken place. Anyone using that road from either direction must eventually pass this place though it was not quite fully abandoned. There had never been many people making their home in these parts at the best of times and slowly people drifted away to settle in a village beyond the moor telling in hushed tones of the malevolence that haunted that strange forsaken place.
Rumors filtered out that some evil walked upon the moor and travelers used it less and less and then only out of dire necessity and never at night. When people went missing, the people from the hamlet scoured the moor each time, but no body or grave was ever found. No place that may serve as a hideaway was ever discovered that might have been used by those seeking concealment for some reason.
Nevertheless, over the years, people kept disappearing without a trace and the few inhabitants became fewer and fewer. People told of the terrible black nights that fell upon the land and spoke of hearing the deathly silence broken by unearthly screams of anguish from some distant place on the heath.
A shepherd who had been out on the moor one evening came back with a terrifying account of how he had become lost in the featureless plane and came across three dark sinister figures. They appeared to be locked in a terrible struggle, each exuding supernatural effort against the other until one of them slowly sank screaming into the very earth.
This along with similar sinister events persuaded the people of the hamlet to pack up their meager belongings and head for the safety of the village on the other side of the moor. Eventually, the only inhabitants that remained were an old woman and her two sons who owned a humble but ramshackle cottage. They complained that they stayed because they were prisoners bound to this dreadful place by the chains of poverty
The few travelers who used the forsaken road now only did so in groups and would spend the day traveling together and rest up over night at the cottage of the old woman and her sons who were glad of the income they brought. The lodgings were poor and basic but the safety of four walls around them and a roof over their heads was greater draw than traversing that haunted road in the dark. Sometimes by the firelight the cottagers would tell a story or two of the horrors of the moor and watch in dark humor at the terror on the faces of their guests. After a sleepless night In the morning they would gladly pay their hosts and continue their journey glad to be gone
It so happened that one storm night in November, a young pedlar-boy rather than listen to the advice of locals and common sense travelled the road alone. The year before he had traveled this road as part of a group of people and believed himself acquainted and prepared for what a solitary journey may bring but he was wrong
As the night fell and the wind blew he heard the cries and groans of the dying all around him. Fearing to look to the left or to the right he forced himself onward. At last in the distance he saw the glimmer of a fire through a window and knew he was approaching the cottage and hurried towards it. Remembering his last stay as a member of a large party he expected a warm welcome. The old woman had regaled them with terror tales and had appeared to take a shine to him begging him to stay
Reaching the door in relief he rapped loudly upon it but despite hearing a great deal of noise and confusion no one answered. Thinking that the inhabitants might think it was supernatural visitor whom the old lady had spoken so much of on his last visit he looked through a side window. As he looked he saw everyone was busy. The old woman was rubbing the stone floor and sprinkling a layer of sand over it. Her two sons appeared to be trying to push something large and bulky into a chest pushing the lid down and locking it. The pedlar-boy tapped on the window seeking to attract their attention causing them all to jump in nervous surprise and glare malevolent at him. This shocked the boy who was expecting a friendly welcome after his last visit. Before he could do anything one of the men rushed out of cottage grabbing hold of him tightly and pulled him roughly inside.
“Wait, wait! I am not what you think I am! I am only the poor pedlar-boy who came this way last year and you gave shelter. Don’t you you remember me? I stayed with you last year and you asked me to stay. When I said I couldn’t. you invited me back at any time and here I am,” he said laughing adding, “I am not what you think I am.”
“I am but a poor pedlar-boy all alone in the world. If I died tomorrow know one would miss me – no one would mourn me. I am completely and utterly alone! ”
The cottagers glared at him suspiciously and the old woman asked “Are you alone?”
“No one would miss you?” asked the old woman in a whisper.
“No one in the world, ” he answered beginning to feel nervous and sorry for himself, “would shed a tear, or be remotely distressed if I died this night!”
“Then indeed you are welcome here!” said the old woman looking at the other two slyly.
It was not the cold that made the pedlar-boy shiver and draw near the peat fire. He was thinking that the shelter of any of the dilapidated buildings in the ghost hamlet may have been a better choice than this. Despite the warmth of the fire he still felt chills running through him and now looking upon the sinister aspect of these three cottagers his apprehension grew. Nevertheless being alone and beyond any assistance he determined to conquer his fears, or at least suppress them to prevent them being revealed to his hosts
He was shown to a room that had the look about it that some violent confrontation had taken place. The curtains hung in tatters, the table had been broken by some mighty blow and whatever scarce furniture graced the room, parts of it lay scattered on the floor. The pedlar-boy begged for a candle to burn until he had drifted off to sleep and was reluctantly given one. When he had been left alone he explored further and found the door had been broken and to his consternation the latch and lock snapped off.
He tried to compose himself for sleep but his nerves were on edge. It had been a long arduous journey and he eventually drifted into an uneasy slumber. In his sleep his imagination was working overtime and vivid scenes of terror and horror flashed through his mind. He was in a lucid world of fear where he saw himself being alone and wandering lost upon the haunted heath. Something followed on behind and people appeared before him warning him not to enter the cottage before dissolving into mist before his eyes leaving naught but a hollow cry echoing in his mind. He found himself sat before the peat fire in the cottage with the three cottagers all looking upon him greedily. Suddenly the old woman moved and grabbed his arms holding them behind his back and the two men rose and moved slowly towards him grinning malevolently. Then he heard the sound of a slow tortured cry and awoke with a start. Covered in a cold sweat he sat up in bed he listened but could hear nothing. As he gazed fearfully around him his eyes were caught by a movement under the door. He stared in horror as a stream of bright red blood oozed silently and slowly underneath the door towards him
Jumping out of bed he crept to the door and peered through a crack into the next room. Seeing the trail of blood came from a goat one of the men had just slaughtered relief swept over him. Just as he was about to return to bed one of them spoke to the other saying,
“Hah! This was a far easier victim than last night’s. It’s a pity all of the throats we have slit were not as quiet or as easy. It is a good job we have no neighbours for miles around. The old man last night would have woken them all had they heard his cries for mercy. How he howled when saw you were going to cut his throat!”
“Let’s not speak of it. I hate blood shed!” replied the other
Oh, you do, do you?” laughed the first.
“I do and it is true. I prefer the Murder Hole. It tells no tales, leaves no trace. There is nothing to get rid of after and no one will ever find them. No one will ever find it and if they do no one will suspect there are over forty dead bodies hidden within it. It looks nothing more than a deep puddle and small enough for the long grass to bend over it concealing it. Unless you know you could stand next to it and never guess it was there or what it was.”
“Unless of course you step in it,” replied the second.”
“Indeed, it’s a fact and it sucks them down, so quick, it is a wonder of nature! How do you think we shall we end the pedlar-boy?” asked the old woman who stood watching hem and pointed towards the door which the pedlar boy was huddled behind trembling. Her eldest son looked at her and with his knife in his hand and a look of sheer evil motioned his knife across throat.
Although terrified the pedlar-boy had lived all of his life alone in a never ending struggle against the odds of fate. He had never given up and always won through and despite his fear and the odds against him he was not prepared to surrender his life easily. One thing he had learnt was there was a time to fight and a time to fly and decided there and then flight to be the best answer. Creeping silently to the window he gently eased it up and slipped out silently. Once outside he paused to get his bearings but was shaken to the core when he heard one of the men cry, “Curses! He is gone! He must have heard and will bring ruin upon us!”
“Let loose the bloodhound!” cried the other
“Make sure he does not escape,” cried the old woman, “do not bring him back here. Use the Murder Hole for this!”
The pedlar-boy’s heart stopped at these words and he feared greatly for his life but he was determined and quickly roused himself and fled into the darkness of the haunted moor. It was not long before the baying of the bloodhound broke the silence of the night as it picked up his trail. Forcing himself to greater speed he stumbled on through the night but could tell by the baying of the hound and the voices of the men they were gaining on him.
Although he struggled to see in the darkness the hound was unimpeded simply following his scent trail and grew nearer and nearer followed by the men carrying lanterns. Again he redoubled his efforts and ran blindly through the night but caught his foot on pile of stones, tripping and cutting his hands and knees and staining the stones with his blood. Stunned he lay on the ground panting and bleeding but hearing the baying of the dog growing louder and the men’s voices following he forced himself up and onward. It seemed like his feet had grown wings and he flew over the moor. He heard the hound yapping and baying at the spot where he had fallen and if he had dared to have looked back he would have seen it lapping at his blood on the stones where he had lain. To the annoyance of the men it would not move from the spot but continued lapping up his blood regardless of how cruelly they beat it. At last satiated with blood it refused to take up the scent a second time.
The villages dropped weighted hooks down the Murder Hole and brought up the bones of several victims. It was impossible to tell how many more were down there or how they had been dispatched. There was also the question of what had happened to those who had not gone down the Murder Hole and some suspected these were disposed of in a in a less than savoury way. Perhaps it is as well that we shall never know, but now at sunset when the veils grow thin and part three more wailing ghosts wander the haunted heath.
The pedlar-boy did not know this and continued his wild flight across the moors. Luckily he did not fall into the bogs but found the road where he could run faster. Although his assassins continued to seek him they could not find find him. As dawn broke he reached the village on the edge of the moors and knocking on every door raised the alarm. After the villagers had managed to calm him enough for him to tell them his tale the light of realization dawned upon them. It was the cottagers who had been responsible for the disappearances of so many of their loved ones. Forming themselves into a gang they marched to to the cottage and seized the old woman and her two son and took them back to the village for trial. The cottagers confessed to over fifty murders and took the villagers to show them the Murder Hole where they had disposed of so many of them. They were duly tried and found guilty and three gibbets were quickly constructed and justice dispensed.
The villages dropped weighted hooks down the Murder Hole and brought up the bones of several victims. It was impossible to tell how many more were down there. There was also the question of what had happened to those who had not gone down the Murder Hole and some suspected these were disposed of in a in a less than savory way. Perhaps it is as well that we shall never know, but now at sunset when the veils grow thin and then part, three more wailing ghosts wander the haunted heath.
By w:Sidney Paget (Uploading for w:User:188.8.131.52) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (cropped)
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