The Goddess of Winter #folklore

I’m enchanted by the old lore of the world – especially the Celtic goddesses.

The Cailleach is one of the most fascinating, powerful and terrifying of the Celtic goddesses. It is said that she is ancient.

The Cailleach in Folklore

Carmina Gadelica Hymns and Incantations Ortha Nan Gaidheal Volume II by Alexander Carmichael [1900]

Cailleach, a woman, a single woman, an old woman, a carlin, a woman without offspring, a nun; the counterpart of ‘bodach,’ carle; also a supernatural of malign influence dwelling in dark caves, woods, and corries; a period of time.

According to some people, ‘cailleach’ as a period of time is the first week of April, and is represented as a wild hag with a venomous temper, hurrying about with a magic wand in her withered hand switching the grass and keeping down vegetation, to the detriment of man and beast. When, however, the grass upborne by the warm sun, the gentle dew, and the fragrant rain overcomes the ‘Cailleach,’ she flies into a terrible temper, and throwing away her wand into the root of a whin bush, she disappears in a whirling cloud of angry passion till the beginning of April comes again.

Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Alexander Mackenzie [1917]

Beira, Queen of Winter

Dark Beira was the mother of all the gods and goddesses in Scotland. She was of great height and very old, and everyone feared her. When roused to anger she was as fierce as the biting north wind and harsh as the tempest-stricken sea. Each winter she reigned as Queen of the Four Red Divisions of the world, and none disputed her sway. But when the sweet spring season drew nigh, her subjects began to rebel against her and to long for the coming of the Summer King, Angus of the White Steed, and Bride, his beautiful queen, who were loved by all, for they were the bringers of plenty and of bright and happy days. It enraged Beira greatly to find her power passing away, and she tried her utmost to prolong the winter season by raising spring storms and sending blighting frost to kill early flowers and keep the grass from growing.

Beira lived for hundreds and hundreds of years. The reason she did not die of old age was because, at the beginning of every spring, she drank the magic waters of the Well of Youth which bubbles up in the Green Island of the West. This was a floating island where summer was the only season, and the trees were always bright with blossom and laden with fruit. It drifted about on the silver tides of the blue Atlantic, and sometimes appeared off the western coasts of Ireland and sometimes close to the Hebrides. Many bold mariners have steered their galleys up and down the ocean, searching for Green Island in vain. On a calm morning they might sail past its shores and yet never know it was near at hand, for oft-times it lay hidden in a twinkling mist. Men have caught glimpses of it from the shore, but while they gazed on its beauties with eyes of wonder, it vanished suddenly from sight by sinking beneath the waves like the setting sun. Beira, however, always knew where to find Green Island when the time came for her to visit it.

The waters of the Well of Youth are most potent when the days begin to grow longer, and most potent of all on the first of the lengthening days of spring. Beira always visited the island on the night before the first lengthening day–that is, on the last night of her reign as Queen of Winter. All alone in the darkness she sat beside the Well of Youth, waiting for the dawn. When the first faint beam of light appeared in the eastern sky, she drank the water as it bubbled fresh from a crevice in the rock. It was necessary that she should drink of this magic water before any bird visited the well and before any dog barked. If a bird drank first, or a dog barked ere she began to drink, dark old Beira would crumble into dust.

As soon as Beira tasted the magic water, in silence and alone, she began to grow young again. She left the island and, returning to Scotland, fell into a magic sleep. When, at length, she awoke, in bright sunshine, she rose up as a beautiful girl with long hair yellow as buds of broom, cheeks red as rowan berries, and blue eyes that sparkled like the summer sea in sunshine. Then she went to and fro through Scotland, clad in a robe of green and crowned with a chaplet of bright flowers of many hues. No fairer goddess was to be found in all the land, save Bride, the peerless Queen of Summer.

As each month went past, however, Beira aged quickly. She reached full womanhood in midsummer, and when autumn came on her brows wrinkled and her beauty began to fade. When the season of winter returned once again, she became an old and withered hag, and began to reign as the fierce Queen Beira.

Often on stormy nights in early winter she wandered about, singing this sorrowful song:– 

O life that ebbs like the seal
  I am weary and old, I am weary and old–
Oh! how can I happy be
  All alone in the dark and the cold.

I’m the old Beira again,
  My mantle no longer is green,
I think of my beauty with pain
  And the days when another was queen.

My arms are withered and thin,
  My hair once golden is grey;
’Tis winter–my reign doth begin–
  Youth’s summer has faded away.

Youth’s summer and autumn have fled–
  I am weary and old, I am weary and old.
Every flower must fade and fall dead
  When the winds blow cold, when the winds blow cold.

The aged Beira was fearsome to look upon. She had only one eye, but the sight of it was keen and sharp as ice and as swift as the mackerel of the ocean. Her complexion was a dull, dark blue, and this is how she sang about it:–

Why is my face so dark, so dark?
  So dark, oho! so dark, ohee!
Out in all weathers I wander alone
  In the mire, in the cold, ah me!

Her teeth were red as rust, and her locks, which lay heavily on her shoulders, were white as an aspen covered with hoar frost. On her head she wore a spotted mutch. All her clothing was grey, and she was never seen without her great dun-coloured shawl, which was drawn closely round her shoulders.

It is told that in the days when the world was young Beira saw land where there is now water and water where there is now land.

Once a wizard spoke to her and said: “Tell me your age, O sharp old woman.”

Beira answered: “I have long ceased to count the years. But I shall tell you what I have seen. Yonder is the seal-haunted rock of Skerryvore in the midst of the sea. I remember when it was a mountain surrounded by fields. I saw the fields ploughed, and the barley that grew upon them was sharp and juicy. Yonder is a loch. I remember when it was a small round well. In these days I was a fair young girl, and now I am very old and frail and dark and miserable.”

It is told also that Beira let loose many rivers and formed many lochs, sometimes willingly and sometimes against her will, and that she also shaped many bens and glens. All the hills in Ross-shire are said to have been made by Beira.

There was once a well on Ben Cruachan, in Argyll, from which Beira drew water daily. Each morning at sunrise she lifted off the slab that covered it, and each evening at sunset she laid it above the well again. It happened that one evening she forgot to cover the well. Then the proper order of things was disturbed. As soon as the sun went down the water rose in great volume and streamed down the mountain side, roaring like a tempest-swollen sea. When day dawned, Beira found that the valley beneath was filled with water. It was in this way that Loch Awe came to be.

Beira had another well in Inverness-shire which had to be kept covered in like manner from sunset till sunrise. One of her maids, whose name was Nessa, had charge of the well. It happened that one evening the maid was late in going to the well to cover it. When she drew near she beheld the water flowing so fast from it that she turned away and. ran for her life. Beira watched her from the top of Ben Nevis, which was her mountain throne, and cried: “You have neglected your duty. Now you will run for ever and never leave water.”

The maiden was at once changed into a river, and the loch and the river which runs from it towards the sea were named after her. That is why the loch is called Loch Ness and the river the river Ness.

Once a year, when the night on which she was transformed comes round, Ness (Nessa) arises out of the river in her girl form, and sings a sad sweet song in the pale moonlight. It is said that her voice is clearer and more beautiful than that of any bird, and her music more melodious than the golden harps and silvern pipes of fairyland.

In the days when rivers broke loose and lochs were made, Beira set herself to build the mountains of Scotland. When at work she carried on her back a great creel filled with rocks and earth. Sometimes as she leapt from hill to hill her creel tilted sideways, and rocks and earth fell from it into lochs and formed islands. Many islands are spoken of as “spillings from the creel of the big old woman”.

Beira had eight hags who were her servants. They also carried creels, and one after the other they emptied out their creels until a mountain was piled up nigh to the clouds.

One of the reasons why Beira made the mountains was to use them as stepping stones; another was to provide houses for her giant sons. Many of her sons were very quarrelsome; they fought continually one against another. To punish those of them who disobeyed her, Beira shut the offenders up in mountain houses, and from these they could not escape without her permission. But this did not keep them from fighting. Every morning they climbed to the tops of their mountain houses and threw great boulders at one another. That is why so many big grey boulders now lie on steep slopes and are scattered through the valleys. Other giant sons of Beira dwelt in deep caves. Some were horned like deer, and others had many heads. So strong were they that they could pick up cattle and, throwing them over their shoulders, carry them away to roast them for their meals. Each giant son of Beira was called a Fooar.

It was Beira who built Ben Wyvis. She found it a hard task, for she had to do all the work alone, her hag servants being busy elsewhere. One day, when she had grown very weary, she stumbled and upset her creel. All the rocks and earth it contained fell out in a heap, and formed the mountain which is called Little Wyvis.

The only tool that Beira used was a magic hammer. When she struck it lightly on the ground the soil became as hard as iron; when she struck it heavily on the ground a valley was formed. After she had built up a mountain, she gave it its special form by splintering the rocks with her hammer. If she had made all the hills of the same shape, she would not have been able to recognize one from another.

After the mountains were all formed, Beira took great delight in wandering between them and over them. She was always followed by wild animals. The foxes barked with delight when they beheld her, wolves howled to greet her, and eagles shrieked with joy in mid-air. Beira had great herds and flocks to which she gave her protection-nimble-footed deer, high-horned cattle, shaggy grey goats, black swine, and sheep that had snow-white fleeces. She charmed her deer against the huntsmen, and when she visited a deer forest she helped them to escape from the hunters. During early winter she milked the hinds on the tops of mountains, but when the winds rose so high that the froth was blown from the milking pails, she drove the hinds down to the valleys. The froth was frozen on the crests of high hills, and lay there snow-white and beautiful. When the winter torrents began to pour down the mountain sides, leaping from ledge to ledge, the people said: “Beira is milking her shaggy goats, and streams of milk are pouring down over high rocks.”

Beira washed her great shawl in the sea, for there was no lake big enough for the purpose. The part she chose for her washing is the strait between the western islands of Jura and Scarba. Beira’s “washing-pot” is the whirlpool, there called Corry-vreckan. It was so named because the son of a Scottish king, named Breckan, was drowned in it, his boat having been upset by the waves raised by Beira.

Three days before the Queen of Winter began her work her hag servants made ready the water for her, and the Corry could then be heard snorting and fuming for twenty miles around. On the fourth day Beira threw her shawl into the whirlpool, and tramped it with her feet until the edge of the Corry overflowed with foam. When she had finished her washing she laid her shawl on the mountains to dry, and as soon as she lifted it up, all the mountains of Scotland were white with snow to signify that the great Queen had begun her reign.

Now, the meaning of this story is that Beira is the spirit of winter. She grows older and fiercer as the weeks go past, until at length her strength is spent. Then she renews her youth, so that she may live through the summer and autumn and begin to reign once again. The ancient people of Scotland saw that during early winter torrents poured down from the hills, and in this Beira fable they expressed their belief that the torrents were let loose by the Winter Queen, and that the lochs were, at the beginning, formed by the torrents that sprang from magic wells. They saw great boulders lying on hillsides and in valleys, and accounted for their presence in these places by telling how they were flung from mountain tops by the giant sons of Beira.

The Coming of Angus and Bride

All the long winter Beira kept captive a beautiful young princess named Bride. She was jealous of Bride’s beauty, and gave her ragged clothing to wear, and put her to work among the servants in the kitchen of her mountain castle, where the girl had to perform the meanest tasks. Beira scolded her continually, finding fault with everything she did, and Bride’s life was made very wretched.

One day Beira gave the princess a brown fleece and said: “You must wash this fleece in the running stream until it is pure white.”

Bride took the fleece and went outside the castle, and began to wash it in a pool below a waterfall. All day long she laboured at the work, but to no purpose. She found it impossible to wash the brown colour out of the wool.

When evening came on, Beira scolded the girl, and said: “You are a useless hussy. The fleece is as brown as when I gave it to you.”

Said Bride: “All day long have I washed it in the pool below the waterfall of the Red Rock.”

“To-morrow you shall wash it again,” Beira said; “and if you do not wash it white, you will go on washing on the next day, and on every day after that. Now, begone! and do as I bid you.”

It was a sorrowful time for Bride. Day after day she washed the fleece, and it seemed to her that if she went on washing until the world came to an end, the brown wool would never become white.

One morning as she went on with her washing a grey-bearded old man came near. He took pity on the princess, who wept bitter tears over her work, and spoke to her, saying: “Who are you, and why do you sorrow?”

Said the princess: “My name is Bride. I am the captive of Queen Beira, and she has ordered me to wash this brown fleece until it is white. Alas! it cannot be done.”

“I am sorry for you,” the old man said.

“Who are you, and whence come you?” asked Bride.

“My name is Father Winter,” the old man told her. “Give me the fleece, and I shall make it white for you.”

Bride gave Father Winter the brown fleece, and when he had shaken it three times it turned white as snow.

The heart of Bride was immediately filled with joy, and she exclaimed: “Dear Father Winter, you are very kind. You have saved me much labour and taken away my sorrow.”

Father Winter handed back the fleece to Princess Bride with one hand, and she took it. Then he said: “Take also what I hold in my other hand.” As he spoke he gave her a bunch of pure white snowdrops. The eyes of Bride sparkled with joy to behold them.

Said Father Winter: “If Beira scolds you, give her these flowers, and if she asks where you found them, tell her that they came from the green rustling fir-woods. Tell her also that the cress is springing up on the banks of streams, and that the new grass has begun to shoot up in the fields.”

Having spoken thus, Father Winter bade the princess farewell and turned away.

Bride returned to the mountain castle and laid the white fleece at Beira’s feet. But the old queen scarcely looked at it. Her craze was fixed on the snowdrops that Bride carried.

“Where did you find these flowers?” Beira asked with sudden anger.

Said Bride: “The snowdrops are now growing in the green rustling fir-woods, the cress is springing up on the banks of streams, and the new grass is beginning to shoot up in the fields.”

“Evil are the tidings you bring me!” Beira cried. “Begone from my sight!”

Bride turned away, but not in sorrow. A new joy had entered her heart, for she knew that the wild winter season was going past, and that the reign of Queen Beira would soon come to an end.

Meanwhile Beira summoned her eight hag servants, and spoke to them, saying: “Ride to the north and ride to the south, ride to the east and ride to the west, and I will ride forth also. Smite the world with frost and tempest, so that no flower may bloom and no grass blade survive. I am waging war against all growth.”

When she had spoken thus, the eight hags mounted on the backs of shaggy goats and rode forth to do her bidding. Beira went forth also, grasping in her right hand her black magic hammer. On the night of that very day a great tempest lashed the ocean to fury and brought terror to every corner of the land.

Now the reason why Beira kept Bride a prisoner was because her fairest and dearest son, whose name was Angus-the-Ever-Young, had fallen in love with her. He was called “the Ever Young” because age never came near him, and all winter long he lived on the Green Isle of the West, which is also called the “Land of Youth.”

Angus first beheld Bride in a dream, and when he awoke he spoke to the King of the Green Isle, saying: “Last night I dreamed a dream and saw a beautiful princess whom I love. Tears fell from her eyes, and I spoke to an old man who stood near her, and said: ‘Why does the maiden weep?’ Said the old man: ‘She weeps because she is kept captive by Beira, who treats her with great cruelty.’ I looked again at the princess and said: ‘Fain would I set her free.’ Then I awoke. Tell me, O king, who is this princess, and where shall I find her?”

The King of the Green Isle answered Angus, saying: “The fair princess whom you saw is Bride, and in the days when you will be King of Summer she will be your queen. Of this your mother, Queen Beira, has full knowledge, and it is her wish to keep you away from Bride, so that her own reign may be prolonged. Tarry here, O Angus, until the flowers been to bloom and the grass begins to grow, and then you shall set free the beautiful Princess Bride.”

Said Angus: “Fain would I go forth at once to search for her.”

“The wolf-month (February) has now come,” the king said. “Uncertain is the temper of the wolf.”

Said Angus: “I shall cast a spell on the sea and a spell on the land, and borrow for February three days from August.”

He did as he said he would do. He borrowed three days from August, and the ocean slumbered peacefully while the sun shone brightly over mountain and glen. Then Angus mounted his white steed and rode eastward to Scotland over the isles and over the Minch, and he reached the Grampians when dawn was breaking. He was clad in raiment of shining gold, and from his shoulders hung his royal robe of crimson which the wind uplifted and spread out in gleaming splendour athwart the sky.

An aged bard looked eastward, and when he beheld the fair Angus he lifted up his harp and sang a song of welcome, and the birds of the forest sang with him. And this is how he sang:–

Angus hath come–the young, the fair,
The blue-eyed god with golden hair–
The god who to the world doth bring
This morn the promise of the spring;
Who moves the birds to song ere yet
He bath awaked the violet,
Or the soft primrose on the steep,
While buds are laid in lidded sleep,
And white snows wrap the hills serene,
Ere glows the larch’s vivid green
Through the brown woods and bare. All hail!
Angus, and may thy will prevail. . . .
He comes . . . he goes. . . . And far and wide
He searches for the Princess Bride.

Up and down the land went Angus, but he could not find Bride anywhere. The fair princess beheld him in a dream, however, and knew that he longed to set her free. When she awoke she shed tears of joy, and on the place where her tears fell there sprang up violets, and they were blue as her beautiful eyes.

Beira was angry when she came to know that Angus was searching for Bride, and on the third evening of his visit she raised a great tempest which drove him back to Green Isle. But he returned again and again, and at length he discovered the castle in which the princess was kept a prisoner.

Then came a day when Angus met Bride in a forest near the castle. The violets were blooming and soft yellow primroses opened their eyes of wonder to gaze on the prince and the princess. When they spoke one to another the birds raised their sweet voices in song and the sun shone fair and bright.

Said Angus: “Beautiful princess, I beheld you in a dream weeping tears of sorrow.”

Bride said: “Mighty prince, I beheld you in a dream riding over bens and through glens in beauty and power.”

Said Angus: “I have come to rescue you from Queen Beira, who has kept you all winter long in captivity.”

Bride said: “To me this is a day of great joy.”

Said Angus: “It will be a day of great joy to all mankind ever after this.”

That is why the first day of spring–the day on which Angus found the princess–is called “Bride’s Day”.

Through the forest came a fair company of fairy ladies, who hailed Bride as queen and bade welcome to Angus. Then the Fairy Queen waved her wand, and Bride was transformed. As swiftly as the bright sun springs out from behind a dark cloud, shedding beauty all round, so swiftly did Bride appear in new splendour. Instead of ragged clothing, she then wore a white robe adorned with spangles of shining silver. Over her heart gleamed a star-like crystal, pure as her thoughts and bright as the joy that Angus brought her. This gem is called “the guiding star of Bride “. Her golden-brown hair, which hung down to her waist in gleaming curls, was decked with fair spring flowers–snowdrops and daisies and primroses and violets. Blue were her eyes, and her face had the redness and whiteness of the wild rose of peerless beauty and tender grace. In her right hand she carried a white wand entwined with golden corn-stalks, and in her left a golden horn which is called the “Horn of Plenty”.

The linnet was the first forest bird that hailed Bride in her beauty, and the Fairy Queen said: “Ever after this you shall be called the ‘Bird of Bride’.” On the seashore the first bird that chirped with joy was the oyster-catcher, and the Fairy Queen said: “Ever after this you shall be called the ‘Page of Bride’.”

Then the Fairy Queen led Angus and Bride to her green-roofed underground palace in the midst of the forest. As they went forward they came to a river which was covered with ice. Bride put her fingers on the ice, and the Ice Hag shrieked and fled.

A great feast was held in the palace of the Fairy Queen, and it was the marriage feast of Bride, for Angus and she were wed. The fairies danced and sang with joy, and all the world was moved to dance and sing with them. This was how the first “Festival of Bride” came to be.

“Spring has come!” the shepherds cried; and they drove their flocks on to the moors, where they were counted and blessed.

“Spring has come!” chattered the raven, and flew off to find moss for her nest. The rook heard and followed after, and the wild duck rose from amidst the reeds, crying: “Spring has come!”

Bride came forth from the fairy palace with Angus and waved her hand, while Angus repeated magic spells. Then greater growth was given to the grass, and all the world hailed Angus and Bride as king and queen. Although they were not beheld by mankind, yet their presence was everywhere felt throughout Scotland.

Beira was wroth when she came to know that Angus had found Bride. She seized her magic hammer and smote the ground unceasingly until it was frozen hard as iron again–so hard that no herb or blade of grass could continue to live upon its surface. Terrible was her wrath when she beheld the grass growing. She knew well that when the grass flourished and Angus and Bride were married, her authority would pass away. It was her desire to keep her throne as long as possible.

“Bride is married, hail to Bride!” sang the birds.

“Angus is married, hail to Angus!” they sang also.

Beira heard the songs of the birds, and called to her hag servants: “Ride north and ride south, ride east and ride west, and wage war against Angus. I shall ride forth also.”

Her servants mounted their shaggy goats and rode forth to do her bidding. Beira mounted a black steed and set out in pursuit of Angus. She rode fast and she rode hard. Black clouds swept over the sky as she rode on, until at length she came to the forest in which the Fairy Queen had her dwelling. All the fairies fled in terror into their green mound and the doors were shut. Angus looked up and beheld Beira drawing nigh. He leapt on the back of his white steed, and lifted his young bride into the saddle in front of him and fled away with her.

Angus rode westward over the hills and over the valleys and over the sea, and Beira pursued him.

There is a rocky ravine on the island of Tiree, and Beira’s black steed jumped across it while pursuing the white steed of Angus. The hoofs of the black steed made a gash on the rocks. To this day the ravine is called “The Horse’s Leap”.

Angus escaped to the Green Isle of the West, and there he passed happy days with Bride. But he longed to return to Scotland and reign as King of Summer. Again and again he crossed the sea; and each time he reached the land of glens and bens, the sun broke forth in brightness and the birds sang merrily to welcome him.

Beira raised storm after storm to drive him away. First she called on the wind named “The Whistle”, which blew high and shrill, and brought down rapid showers of cold hailstones. It lasted for three days, and there was much sorrow and bitterness throughout the length and breadth of Scotland. Sheep and lambs were killed on the moors, and horses and cows perished also.

Angus fled, but he returned soon again. The next wind that Beira raised to prolong her winter reign was the “Sharp Billed Wind” which is called “Gobag”. lasted for nine days, and all the land was pierced by it, for it pecked and bit in every nook and cranny like a sharp-billed bird.

Angus returned, and the Beira raised the eddy wind which is called “The Sweeper”. Its whirling gusts tore branches from the budding trees and bright flowers from their stalks. All the time it blew, Beira kept beating the ground with her magic hammer so as to keep the grass from growing. But her efforts were in vain. Spring smiled in beauty all around, and each time she turned away, wearied by her efforts, the sun sprang forth in splendour. The small modest primroses opened their petals in the sunshine, looking forth from cosy nooks that the wind, called “Sweeper”, was unable to reach. Angus fled, but he soon returned again.

Beira was not yet, however, entirely without hope. Her efforts had brought disaster to mankind, and the “Weeks of Leanness” came on. Food became scarce. The fishermen were unable to venture to sea on account of Beira’s tempests, and could get no fish. In the night-time Beira and her hags entered the dwellings of mankind, and stole away their stores of food. It was, indeed, a sorrowful time.

Angus was moved with pity for mankind, and tried to fight the hags of Beira. But the fierce queen raised the “Gales of Complaint” to keep him away, and they raged in fury until the first week of March. Horses and cattle died for want of food, because the fierce winds blew down stacks of fodder and scattered them over the lochs and the ocean.

Angus, however, waged a fierce struggle against the hag servants, and at length he drove them away to the north, where they fumed and fretted furiously.

Beira was greatly alarmed, and she made her last great effort to subdue the Powers of Spring. She waved her magic hammer, and smote the clouds with it. Northward she rode on her black steed, and gathered her servants together, and called to them, saying: “Ride southward with me, all of you, and scatter our enemies before us.”

Out of the bleak dark north they rode in a single pack. With them came the Big Black Tempest. It seemed then as if winter had returned in full strength and would abide for ever. But even Beira and her hags had to take rest. On a dusky evening they crouched down together on the side of a bare mountain, and, when they did so, a sudden calm fell upon the land and the sea.

“Ha! ha!” laughed the wild duck who hated the hag. “Ha! ha! I am still alive, and so are my six ducklings.”

“Have patience! idle chatterer,” answered the Hag. “I am not yet done.”

That night she borrowed three days from Winter which had not been used, for Angus had previously borrowed for Winter three days from August. The three spirits of the borrowed days were tempest spirits, and came towards Beira mounted on black hogs. She spoke to them, saying: “Long have you been bound! Now I set you at liberty.”

One after another, on each of the three days that followed, the spirits went forth riding the black hogs. They brought snow and hail and fierce blasts of wind. Snow whitened the moors and filled the furrows of ploughed land, rivers rose in flood, and great trees were shattered and uprooted. The duck was killed, and so were her six ducklings; sheep and cattle perished, and many human beings were killed on land and drowned at sea. The days on which these things happened are called the “Three Hog Days”.

Beira’s reign was now drawing to a close. She found herself unable to combat any longer against the power of the new life that was rising in every vein of the land. The weakness of extreme old age crept upon her, and she longed once again to drink of the waters of the Well of Youth. When, on a bright March morning, she beheld Angus riding over the hills on his white steed, scattering her fierce hag servants before him, she fled away in despair. Ere she went she threw her magic hammer beneath a holly tree, and that is the reason why no grass grows under the holly trees.

Beira’s black steed went northward with her in flight. As it leapt over Loch Etive it left the marks of its hoofs on the side of a rocky mountain, and the spot is named to this day “Horse-shoes”. She did not rein up her steed until she reached the island of Skye, where she found rest on the summit of the “Old Wife’s Ben” (Ben-e-Caillich) at Broadford. There she sat, gazing steadfastly across the sea, waiting until the day and night would be of equal length. All that equal day she wept tears of sorrow for her lost power, and when night came on she went westward over the sea to Green Island. At the dawn of the day that followed she drank the magic waters of the Well of Youth.

On that day which is of equal length with the night, Angus came to Scotland with Bride, and they were hailed as king and queen of the unseen beings. They rode from south to north in the morning and forenoon, and from north to south in the afternoon and evening. A gentle wind went with them, blowing towards the north from dawn till midday, and towards the south from midday till sunset.

It was on that day that Bride dipped her fair white hands in the high rivers and lochs which still retained ice. When she did so, the Ice Hag fell into a deep sleep from which she could not awake until summer and autumn were over and past.

The grass grew quickly after Angus began to reign as king. Seeds were sown, and the people called on Bride to grant them a good harvest. Ere long the whole land was made beautiful with spring flowers of every hue.

Angus had a harp of gold with silver strings, and when he played on it youths and maidens followed the sound of the music through the woods. Bards sang his praises and told that he kissed lovers, and that when they parted one from another to return to their homes, the kisses became invisible birds that hovered round their heads and sang sweet songs of love, and whispered memories dear. It was thus that one bard sang of him:–

When softly blew the south wind o’er the sea,
Lisping of springtime hope and summer pride,
And the rough reign of Beira ceased to be,
         Angus the Ever-Young,
The beauteous god of love, the golden-haired,
         The blue mysterious-eyed,
Shone like the star of morning high among
         The stars that shrank afraid
When dawn proclaimed the triumph that he shared
         With Bride the peerless maid.
Then winds of violet sweetness rose and sighed,
         No conquest is compared
To Love’s transcendent joys that never fade.

In the old days, when there was no Calendar in Scotland, the people named the various periods of winter and spring, storm and calm, as they are given above. The story of the struggle between Angus and Beira is the story of the struggle between spring and winter, growth and decay, light and darkness, and warmth and cold.

Conall and the Thunder Hag

Among the hags who served Beira was the Thunder Hag. When Angus began to reign she fled across the ocean to a lonely island, where she plotted to wreak vengeance by bringing disaster to man and beast, because they had rejoiced when Beira was overcome.

One day in midsummer, when all the land was bathed in warm, bright sunshine and the sea was lulled to sleep, the Thunder Hag came over Scotland in a black chariot drawn by fierce red hounds and surrounded by heavy clouds. The sky was darkened, and as the hag drew near, the rattling of the chariot wheels and the baying of the hounds sounded loud and fearsome. She rode from sea to sea, over hill and moor, and threw fireballs at the deep forests, which set them ablaze. Terror spread through the land as the chariot passed in smoke and clouds.

On the next day the hag came back. She threw more fireballs on forests of fir and silver birch, and they burned fiercely. Dry heather on the moors and the sun-dried grass were also swept by flame.

The king was greatly troubled, and he sent forth his chief warriors to slay the hag; but they fled in terror when they saw her coming near.

On the third day she returned. Then the king called for Conall Curlew, the fearless hero, and spoke to him, saying: “My kingdom will be destroyed if the hag is not slain. I need your help, O brave and noble one.”

Said Conall: “I shall go out against the hag, O king, and if I do not slay her to-day, I may slay her on the morrow.”

Conall went forth, and when he saw and heard the chariot drawing near he went up to the summit of a high mountain and waited to attack her. But the hag kept herself hidden behind a cloud which surrounded the chariot. Conall had to return to the king without having done anything.

“I could not see the hag because of the dark cloud,” he said.

“If she comes again to-morrow,” the king said, “you may fare better.”

Conall then made preparations for the next coming of the hag. He went out into the fields that were nigh to the royal castle, and separated all the lambs from the sheep, all the calves from the cows, and all the foals from the mares. When morning came on there was great tumult among the animals.

There never was heard before such a bleating of sheep, such a lowing of cattle, or neighing of mares, in the land of Alba, and it was piteous to hear the cries of the lambs, and the calves, and the foals which were taken from their mothers. The men were filled with wonder at the thing Conall had done, nor could they understand why he had done it, and the hearts of the women were touched by the cries of the young animals, and they wept to hear them.

It was indeed a morning of sorrow and wailing when the cloud in which the hag’s chariot was hidden came nigh to the castle. The cloud darkened the heavens, and when it passed over the wooded hill the fire-balls set the trees in flame, and all the people fled before the cloud and concealed themselves in caves and in holes in the ground, all except the warriors, who waited, trembling, with deep eyes and pale faces.

Conall stood alone on a green knoll, and his spear was in his hand.

When the cloud came over the valley of the castle, the hag heard the cries of the animals that assailed her ears, and so great was her curiosity that she peered over the edge of the black cloud.

Great fear fell on the hearts of the warriors when they saw the horrible face of the hoary-headed hag; but Conall was a man without fear, and he was waiting for the hag to reveal herself.

As soon as he saw her, he swung his right arm over his shoulder, and he cast the spear towards the cloud. The swallow does not dart swifter than the spear of Conall darted through the air.

The hag was wounded, and threw wide her grisly paws and sank down within the chariot. She called to the black hounds: “Race quickly!” and they ran swiftly towards the west. The sound of the rattling of the chariot wheels grew fainter and fainter as it passed out of sight.

The clouds which the hag passed over swiftly in her flight were rent in twain, and rain fell in torrents, quenching the fires that were in the woods and on the moors.

There was great rejoicing in the land because of the mighty deed done by Conall, and the king honoured that noble hero by placing a gold ring on his finger, a gold armlet on his arm, and a gold necklet on his neck.

There was peace and prosperity in the land after that. The hag did not return again, so greatly did she dread Conall Curlew, the hero of heroes.

Myths of Babylonia and Assyria by Donald A. Mackenzie [1915]

The ferocious, black-faced Scottish mother goddess, Cailleach Bheur, who appears to be identical with Mala Lith, “Grey Eyebrows” of Fingalian story, and the English “Black Annis”, figures in Irish song and legend as “The Old Woman of Beare”. This “old woman” (Cailleach) “had”, says Professor Kuno Meyer, “seven periods of youth one after another, so that every man who had lived with her came to die of old age, and her grandsons and great-grandsons were tribes and races”. When old age at length came upon her she sang her “swan song”, from which the following lines are extracted:

Ebb tide to me as of the sea!
Old age causes me reproach . . .
It is riches
Ye love, it is not men:
In the time when we lived
It was men we loved . . .
My arms when they are seen
Are bony and thin:
Once they would fondle,
They would be round glorious kings . . .
I must take my garment even in the sun:
The time is at hand that shall renew me. 

You can read more in The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan.

Cailleach Bheur

Blue Hag, a weather spirit of the Scottish Highlands. The Blue Hag is the personification of winter. She is the daughter of Grainan, the winter sun. in the old Celtic calendar there were two suns. The “big sun” shines from Beltane to Samhain. The “little sun” shines from Samhain to Beltane. The Cailleach Bheur is reborn each Samhain, when she smites the earth with her staff to fight off spring. When Beltane comes, she throws her staff under a holly tree or gorse bush and turns to stone.

She is the guardian spirit of deer, which she herds, milks, and protects from hunters. She is a friend to wild cattle, swine, and wolves, and sometimes assumes the shape of a wild boar. She is also a guardian of wells and streams.

You can read more in The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies by Lucy Cooper.

Cailleac Bhuer

Variations: Black Annis, Blue Hag, Cally Berry, Daughter of Grianan, Stone Woman

Cailleac Bhuer is a personification of winter and likely a diminished goddess who was reduced to fairy status. A nocturnal, solitary fairy, she described as looking like an old woman wearing black or blue and white tattered clothes. Some descriptions of her have a crow sitting on her left shoulder. The holly staff she carries has the ability to kill a person with a single touch. As she flies over the Scottish Highlands, she drops stones on people as she passes overhead.

On May Eve Cailleac Bhuer will throw her staff under a holly bush and shape-shifted into a grey stone, then on each All Hallows Eve she would be reborn and set out blighting the earth, calling down the snow.

You can read more differing lore about the Cailleach in Theresa Bane’s Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology.

Further Reading

The Cailleach in Modern Culture

Merlin TV series

In Merlin, the Cailleach (Kay-lex) is the guardian of the veil between the living and the dead. She appears to Merlin when Morgana sacrifices Morgause to tear the veil between worlds. She requires another blood sacrifice to close the veil.

Wicked Lovely book series by Melissa Marr

Beira is the Winter Queen. She made a deal with the Dark King to bind the Summer King’s powers. Then she is defeated and a new Winter Queen takes her place: Donia. The new Winter Queen restores balance to the earth, keeps her Winter fey happy and safe, has all the power over Winter that a queen should have, and keeps peace among the Courts through her friendships with the other rulers.

Faery Tales and Nightmares by Melissa Marr

“The Sleeping Girl and the Summer King” is the story of how the Cailleach comes to be – from one generation to the next.

The Cailleach in My Writing

Origin of the Fae: The Cailleach

AKA Cailleach Bheur AKA Beira, Queen of Winter
Sacred tree: holly and Gorse bush.
Storm Hags accompany her.
All turn to stone (standing stones) from Beltane to Samhain. According to myth – turning to stone only happens when they do not fulfil their duty to the land, the Dark Court and the Dark King.
The Cailleach has a staff that freezes the earth with each tap. She is also guardian of the animals during winter.
The Cailleach is aligned with the Unseelie (Dark Court) since the Rift for protection and power. Though the Storm Hags accompany her wherever she goes, it is more for their entertainment than her protection.
She holds the power of winter. She can appear as an old woman (thus her name) or at any stage of life; whatever suits her purpose.
She lives in Tir na nÓg – a realm all of her own filled with snow, various fae that either come willingly to her realm or accidentally or by force, a castle that sometimes appears as a cottage, and various animals from the mortal realm that find their way to her for comfort and safety. She sends the cold from her realm to Faerie and the mortal realm as needed.
Storm Hags
They are an ugly veined blue. They are truly hags.
They cause storms wherever they go. Their cackling can be heard in the wind.
They follow the Cailleach around because they are drawn to her strength and cold. They obey her every command – as long as it is in line with the wishes of the Unseelie King.

beira English Afrikaans

Here’s a sketch I did of her.

I also used her in my short story collection “Once…”. I think this shows a side to her that the fae rarely get to see.

once book extract
Get it here.

You can also get a quick look at Tir na nÓg in “Twisted Tales”:

twisted tales book extract
Get it here.

What do you think of the Cailleach? I can’t wait to write more stories featuring her. Here’s the Pinterest board I created dedicated to the Cailleach.

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4 thoughts on “The Goddess of Winter #folklore”

  1. By the time I got to the end of this article, I had this image of CailLeach–and then your picture arrived (the one I think you drew). That fit perfectly, except maybe something nasty stuck in somewhere.

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