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

Bengal Folktales: The Origin of Rubies

Origin of Rubies 2

Image by Warwick Goble from Folk-Tales of Bengal – Public Domain

Bengal Folktales

Bengal is a region of the Indian subcontinent giving its name to the Bay of Bengal and the following story is a retelling of a folktale from that region.  The story retold here is based on a story called the Origin of Rubies, from a collection compiled by Lal Behari Day, and illustrated by Warwick Goble titled, Folk-Tales of Bengal. According to the compiler it ends with a verse that traditional Bengali storytellers used to conclude their tale.  He makes it clear he does not know what it means and why they did it and neither do I, but I chose to end this story in the same way in keeping with the tradition.

The Origin of Rubies

The  Prince

There was once a king who had four sons.  Sadly, this king died and left his sons in the care of his wife and Queen to bring them up.  The favorite son of the queen was her youngest and she made sure he had the best food, the best clothes and the most affection at the expense of her other sons making no secret of her deep love for him.  As her other three sons grew up they saw all of the love and attention their mother heaped upon their younger brother and grew increasingly jealous and resentful. They made him and their mother move into a separate house and plotted against him.  With all the attention and affection heaped upon him by his mother the youngest son grew up very selfish and wilful. He always demanded to have his own way and always got it.

The Boat

One day his mother took him down to the river to bathe.  The young man was intrigued to see that a boat had tied up along the bank and while his mother bathed he went to investigate it.  There was no captain, or crew, on the boat so the prince went on board to have a look around and shouted to his mother to come and join him.  His mother told him to get off the boat as it did not belong to him but the prince replied, “No, I will not!  I am going on a voyage and if you want to come with me you must hurry up and get on board, for I am leaving.”

Hearing this, his mother again told him to get off the boat immediately but her son ignored her and began to untie the ropes that held it to the bank.  The queen ran up the bank and boarded the boat as it began to float off down the river and taken swiftly by the current.  Neither the prince or his mother knew anything about boats so they had to watch as the current took them rapidly down the river to the sea where it continued to float out of control at the whim of providence.  On and on the boat floated with its two passengers helpless to control it as it took them out into the open sea.

The Whirlpool

After a while the boat came to a giant whirlpool and looking down into it the young prince saw hundreds of huge rubies whirling around in the maelstrom of the pool.  Reaching down the prince caught many of these red round rubies and brought them on board. His mother said, “You should not take those red balls because they may be the property of someone who has had the misfortune to be shipwrecked and they may think we are stealing them!”  At first the prince refused to throw them back, but after his mother continued to insist he eventually did, but kept one back which he hid in his clothes.

Marbles

The boat then began to drift to shore and came to rest in a great port where they disembarked.  The port was a thriving, bustling city and the capital of a rich and powerful king who had a beautiful palace and the prince’s mother found lodgings that looked out over the palace lawns.

Like all boys the young prince loved to play and when the king’s children came out to play he would go down and join them.  The royal children liked to play marbles and although he had none he would play with the round red ruby that he had got from the whirlpool.   Using this every time he hit another marble that marble would shatter into shards.

The King’s Daughter

The King’s daughter greatly admired the brilliant red marble this strange, unknown boy played with and wanted it for her own.  She ran to her father and told him all about the beautiful red orb the strange boy was playing with. She told it she wanted it for her own and if she did not get it she would starve herself to death.   The King loved his daughter greatly and indulged her every whim and so he sent his servants to seek out the strange lad with the beautiful red stone.

His servants went out and found the prince and took him to see the King.  He asked to see the red stone and when the prince showed him it he was astounded at his size and rich red beauty for he had never seen its like before.  The King was so impressed he did not believe another of its like existed anywhere else in the world and asked the prince where he had got from. The prince told him he had found it in the sea and when the king offered to pay him a thousand rupees for it the boy, not knowing the value of rubies eagerly accepted and ran quickly back to his mother with the money.  At first his mother was terrified he had stolen the money but he continued to reassure her that he had got the money by selling the red stone to the king had brought the red stone and at last she believed him.

Origin of Rubies 1

Image by Warwick Goble from Folk-Tales of Bengal – Public Domain

The Pet Parrot

Back in the palace the king had given the red stone to his daughter who had put it in her hair and ran to her pet parrot and said, “Tell me beloved parrot how beautiful I Iook!”  The parrot looked at her then retorted, “Beautiful!  You look like a poor serving girl.  What princess would ever wear a single ruby in their hair?  It would be more befitting of your royal station if you had at least two in  your hair.!”

Hearing her pet parrot’s stinging answer she was flushed with shame and ran to her bedroom and took to her bed refusing to eat or drink.   When her father heard she was not eating and drinking and refusing to get out of bed he went to see her to ask her why she was so sorrowful.

The princess told her him what her parrot had said and told him, “I am very sorry father, but if you do not find one another ruby to match the one I have I will kill myself!”

The king was frightened that she meant it and was very worried because he did not know where he could get another ruby to match the one he had bought for her.  Therefore he sent his servants to bring before him the boy who had sold him the ruby.

When his servants brought the prince before him the king asked him where he could get another ruby like the one he had sold him from.  The prince told him he did not have another ruby in his possession but he knew where he could find one saying, “I found that ruby in the sea and I know where to go to find many more.  They are all swirling around in a whirlpool far over the sea, but I can go and get some more for you, if you like.”

The young prince clearly had no idea of their value and the king was astounded at his reply because he knew their worth.   He promised to pay the boy handsomely if he would bring to him a ruby to match the one his daughter now had.

The young prince ran home to his mother and told her he was going back to sea to bring back a ruby for the king.  His mother was not at all happy with idea being frightened for his safety. She begged him not to go but he would have none of it.   His mind was set and he was intent to go to sea and bring back a ruby for the king and would not change his mind. Without listening to his mother’s entreaties he ran to the boat, untied the ropes and set sail for the whirlpool without her.

The Palace of Siva

When he arrived at the whirlpool he looked into it and saw the rubies swirling around in the maelstrom and looked to find the source of where the stream of rubies were coming from. Once he had located it he went into the centre of the whirlpool where he could see through the funnel of water the ocean floor. Then he dived in leaving the boat riding round and round in the whirling current.

On reaching the ocean floor he was amazed to find a beautiful palace and he went inside to explore.  He made his way to a vast central hall where he he found the god Siva sitting with his eyes closed engaged in a meditative state.  Just behind the god and just above his head that was covered in matted hair, was a platform where a beautiful young woman reclined.  Seeing her and being enthralled by her beauty the prince went to the platform where the he was shocked to find her head had been severed from her body.  The horrified prince did not know what to make of the terrible scene but as he looked on he noticed a stream of blood was trickling from her severed head on to the matted hair of the head of Siva and then seeping  into the ocean, which turned into the red rubies that were whirling around the maelstrom of water.

As he looked on in horror he noticed two batons lying close to the head of the woman.  One was silver and the other was gold. Moving to pick up the batons to examine them closer he accidentally touched the severed head of the woman with the golden one and to his shock the head instantly joined with the body and the woman stood up.

She looked at him in astonishment as is if she had never seen another human being before and then she asked the prince how he had managed to find his way to the palace.  After hearing his story she shook her head and said, “Foolish young man, get you gone from this place now with all speed, for when Siva awakens the very glance from his eye will burn you to ashes! Go now before it is too late!”

The prince had fallen head over heels in love with the beautiful young woman and would not leave without her.   At last after much begging and pleading she agreed to runaway with him and he led her back the way he had come, through the whirlpool to the boat.  Together they collected a great chest of rubies and departed.

Marriage

When they arrived safely back at the port he had left he found his mother anxiously waiting and we can only imagine her wonderment at seeing the young woman who accompanied him.   Bright and early the next morning the prince took a basket of rubies to the king who was astonished at seeing so many big beautiful gems.  His daughter was delighted that now she had more gems to match the one she already had demanded of her father that she marry the strange and marvelous bringer of rubies.

Even though the prince had the beautiful woman he had brought with him from the palace on the ocean floor he accepted a second wife and they all lived happily together for many years.  They had many sons and daughters between them and now this story is brought to an end in keeping with the traditional way of Bengali storytellers: –

Thus my story endeth,

The Natiya-thorn withereth.

“Why, O Natiya-thorn, dost wither?”

“Why does thy cow on me browse?”

“Why, O cow, dost thou browse?”

“Why does thy neat-herd not tend me?”

“Why, O neat-herd, dost not tend the cow?”

“Why does thy daughter-in-law not give me rice?”

“Why, O daughter-in-law, dost not give rice?”

“Why does my child cry?”

“Why, O child, dost thou cry?”

“Why does the ant bite me?”

“Why, O ant, dost thou bite?”

Koot! koot! koot!

© 30/05/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 30th, 2018 zteve t evans