Winter Folklore: Traditions and Customs of the Cailleach Bheur

Gustave Doré [Public domain]

In Scottish, Irish, Manx and Gaelic mythology the goddess of winter is known as the the Cailleach, Beira or the Cailleach 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. 

Harvest Traditions

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.

© 06/12/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attribution and Further Reading

Copyright December 6th, 2019 zteve t evans

The legend of the Moddey Dhoo of Peel Castle, Isle of Man

Black Dog by Spettro84 – Public Domain Image

The Moddey Dhoo of Peel Castle goes back at least to the reign of Charles the Second of England.  In those days there were soldiers stationed at Peel Castle as guards.

Just inside the main entrance was the guard room where the soldiers were posted to keep guard.  From the guard room a passage led to an ancient church and through this to quarters of the Captain of the Guard.

In the evening as night fell it was the duty of one the guards to lock the great castle gate and take the key down the passage to the Captain of the Guard.  This duty was taken in turns and who ever locked the gate would be responsible to ensure the key was taken down through the darkness of the passage and placed into the Captain’s own hands, before returning back up the passage to the guard room.

In the gray evenings after the gate was shut the soldiers would get together in the guard room and light a fire to dispel the cold and gloom. There, they would spend the evening drinking ale and telling stories.

The Appearance of the Black Dog

When the first sightings of a large black dog with a long, shaggy, unkempt coat were reported, some accounts said it was like a huge spaniel.  No one knew who it belonged to, where it had come from, or how it got into the castle.

Its presence was a complete mystery, always appearing after the gates were shut.  Sometimes it would appear in one room, and at other times would be seen in different parts of the castle and grounds.

Every evening after the fire was kindled in the guard room fireplace and as the cold and gloom began to dissipate the dog would be heard padding down the passage to enter the guard room.

The huge creature ignored the frightened guards and making no sound lay by the fireside until dawn.  Then just before the sun rose it would get up and pad into the passage and disappear until evening when it would reappear again.

The dog is said to have had a supernatural appearance and although the guards were frightened of the beast they would ignore it.  Instead of drinking and rebelling they would tend to keep sober and quiet so as not to disturb, keeping on their best behavior.  However, now instead of one soldier taking the key to the Captain’s quarters, two would go.  No one would walk along the black passage alone after the appearance of the dog.

The Drunken Soldier

The legend tells that one night after the appearance of the dog one of the soldiers got drunk and boasted loudly that he would take the key down the passage to the Captain alone that night as he feared no dog, mortal or supernatural.

Although it was not his turn to take the key and his fellow soldiers did their best to dissuade him, he would have none of it and set off into the blackness of the passage alone.  To show his fellow soldiers his courage he taunted the beast, challenging it to follow if it dare.

Although the other soldiers tried to hold him back the drunk would not be restrained and plunged into the passage with the keys, again challenging the dog to follow to see if it was mortal, or supernatural.  The huge black beast slowly rose and followed him down the passage.

Silence fell upon the castle like a black cloak and those who remained in the guard room huddled together in fear and would not follow the drunken soldier into the blackness of the passage.   Time seemed to stand still, but after what could only have been a few minutes they heard the most deathly and terrible cries and screams coming from the passage, but none would leave the guard room to investigate, or give help.

The Return of the Soldier

Shortly, from the passage they heard the staggered footsteps of someone struggling back towards them.  The drunken soldier fell through the door into the room, his face white and twisted with fear, his eyes blazing in terror, his mind destroyed.

From then on he uttered not another sound and he could not, or would not, tell what had befallen him.  Three days later he was dead taking the secret of his ordeal to the grave.  After that night the black dog was never again seen in the guardroom, passage, or anywhere else in Peel Castle.

Could it be True?

It certainly makes a good story!  In many different places of the British Isles there are many legends of black dogs.  Many have associations with Viking settlements and the Vikings built Peel Castle which is actually situated on St Patrick’s Isle and linked by causeway to the Isle of Man.  In the Manx language ‘Mauthe Doog’ means ‘black dog’ and Moddey Dhoo is thought to be derived from this.

In England and Scandinavia phantom black dogs  are also strongly connected with early Christian church and graveyards where a black dog would be buried alive to protect the church and grounds from the devil.  The passage from the guard room was said to have run through an ancient church.

Intriguingly, an excavation in the castle grounds, in 1871, uncovered the remains of Simon, Bishop of Sodor and Man, who died in 1247.  At his feet was found the skeleton of a large dog.

References and Attributions

Copyright zteve t evans