Posted by: Brian | March 25, 2013

Latha na Cailliche

Here is a short Film in honour of Latha na Cailliche (March 25th)

cailleach aig a bheil cailleach


There are strong Rogerian and Jungian components to my clinical practice, as their theories, implicitly or explicitly, have a Spiritual component, and can even be viewed as expressing the fractal, self-similar, microcosm/macrocosm view of the human person that plays some greater or lesser part in so many of the world’s religions.  For this reason, I would like to follow up on my original post about Spirituality, with the role of psychology in my understanding of Spiritual Care.

Rogers entire theory is based upon the “actualizing tendency”, which serves as the built-in motivation present in every living thing to develop as much of its potential as possible and to make the very best of its existence.  Rogers applies this actualizing tendency to all living creatures.  He compares humans, actualizing their potentials by creating and manipulating society and culture, to animals and plants coevolving or exploiting particular niches in ecosystems.  Rogers even went so far as to systematically and rationally apply this understanding to ecosystems themselves.  The universal applicability of the actualizing tendency to all living beings, and even systems of living beings, is scientifically and spiritually compelling.  It is in harmony with evolutionary principles, as currently understood in the life sciences, and with the essential goodness of life, a principle upheld by most faiths. I see the actualizing tendency as a functional definition for Spirit, constrained by the empirical nature of the field in which Rogers worked.

Jungian ‘analytical psychology’ is more overtly Spiritual, as it often incorporates the broad spectrum of human spiritual experience, including the mythology and folklore of ancient and indigenous religions, to gain a deeper understanding of the human psyche.  It is also a branch of psychology that acknowledges spirituality as a necessary component of our over all well-being.

“[Jung] had established these two facts:

1. The human psyche has an autochthonous spiritual function.

2. No patient in the second half of life has been cured without that patient
finding an approach to this spiritual function.

It might be assumed that, after such findings, theologians would have flocked to Jung’s consulting room; but this has not happened…. [T]hey might have at least been glad that an experimentally proved theologia naturalis exists.”[1]

Despite showing the profound interrelatedness of religion and psychology, Jungian ‘analytical psychology’ draws criticism from both certain psychological and certain Christian schools of thought.  In failing to take sides, both sides find analytical psychology suspect.  The fact that spirituality is endorsed at all alienates secular or reductionist psychologies; and the breadth of spirituality endorsed alienates any version of religion where ideological entrenchment and ‘one-true-way’ thinking is normative.  Some Christian theologians commenting on Jung “have [even] argued that he should not have ventured into theology in the way that he did.”[2] In the negative responses of both secular/atheistic and narrowly Christian commentaries, the violation of self-imposed boundaries is predictably followed by a defensive response– often with the energised emotionality that would indicate a neurotic trigger.[3]

Other thinkers have benefited from a more synergistic relationship between analytical psychology and Christianity, though serious explorations of other expressions of living religion are usually left out of that line of enquiry.[4]  Despite this oversight, I find that exploring the Jungian/Christian dialogue relevant for me professionally, because many of the people I work with are Christian, and to the whole exploration of Spirituality generally, since it is the only in-depth dialogue of Jung and religion available.  Beyond that, it is important to note that not all modern theology is rooted  in, or exclusively made relevant by, Abrahamic scripture. Some of the concepts can shed light on Pagan and Celtic thought, either by comparison or by contrast.  I will touch on that again in future blog entries, with a particular attention to eco-theology, process theology, pastoral theology in a multi-faith world, and the epistemological notions of Bernard Lonergan.

Returning to my main point; despite the constraints placed on Spirituality by Rogerian language and shattered by Jungian language; I see these descriptions as pointing to the same thing chaplains describe when, “[b]y spiritual, we mean the fundamental capacity to have faith, to make meaning, to create community and culture, to long for and practice love, peace, and justice, and to be oriented toward wholeness”[5], or in the key words of my own practice, personally, clinically and in the pagan community: Spirituality is the principle and process of Being, Acting, and Knowing from a stance of authentic Connectedness, Meaning, Values, Purpose, and Becoming.

[1] Meier, 1989, p.127

[2] Watt, et al. 2008. p 294.

[3] Hollis 1996, p.9-10

[4] Watt, et al. 2008 pp. 295-298.

[5] Spiritual Caregiving in the Hospital, p3

Posted by: Brian | October 22, 2012

The Song of Amergin by Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin

‘The Incantation of Amergin’ interpreted and arranged by Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, from the album ‘Songs of the Scribe


For many people, the first introduction to the Song of Amergin came through Robert Graves “The White Goddess” (1948).  Graves states that, “English poetic education should, really, begin not with Canterbury Tales, not with the Odyssey, not even with Genesis, but with the Song of Amergin.” However, despite this apparently reverential beginning; Graves does not actually put forward the Song of Amergin as we have it; rather he begins by utterly changing this ancient poem to better fit his own pet theory, connecting the lines from this poem to the Ogham alphabet and the ‘months’ of the year.  This creates a vague pattern, unprecedented in either nature or the Gaelic source culture he purports to respect.

Graves provides neither the original Irish poem, nor anyone else’s English translation. Instead he just sets off on his own imaginative journey.

In order to create proof for his notions, he translates the lines of the Song very loosely, which, given the dense and obscure nature of the poem, is completely acceptable.  However, he then proceeds to rearrange the lines, with no consideration of what they might mean in their original order, and invents completely new lines to give it the flow and meaning Graves, himself, wants this poem to have.  The result is a perfectly lovely poem, but it has no real connection to Celtic tradition, myth, or cosmology, save through the mind of Robert Graves.

Grave’s Song does not even begin with “I am Wind of Sea”; so the primordial significance of this line and it’s connection to the last line of poem (which was dropped entirely) reveals his unfamiliarity with the tradition he is pretending to illuminate while pursuing his unique vision.  Instead the poem proceeds like this:

I am a stag: of seven tines,
I am a flood: across a plain,
I am a wind: on a deep lake,
I am a tear: the Sun lets fall,
I am a hawk: above the cliff,
I am a thorn: beneath the nail,
I am a wonder: among flowers,
I am a wizard: who but I
Sets the cool head aflame with smoke?
I am a spear: that roars for blood,
I am a salmon: in a pool,
I am a lure: from paradise,
I am a hill: where poets walk,
I am a boar: ruthless and red,
I am a breaker: threatening doom,
I am a tide: that drags to death,
I am an infant: who but I
Peeps from the unhewn dolmen, arch?
I am the womb: of every holt,
I am the blaze: on every hill,
I am the queen: of every hive,
I am the shield: for every head,
I am the tomb: of every hope.

It’s really is lovely, but bears only a vague and passing resemblance to the original, which he pretends to respect so much.

Having rewritten and rearranged the lines of the Song of Amergin; Graves, likewise, rearranges the letter of the Ogham alphabet and even drops a couple of consonants as ‘late additions’.  This reduces the basic letters of the Ogham from 15 consonants and 5 vowels, to just 13 consonants and 5 vowels.  He does this so that he can connect each consonant to one ‘lunar month’ and so, since each Ogham letter is associate with (among *many* other things) a tree, the ‘Celtic Tree Calendar’ is born.

This is an invention unprecedented in the original lore.  However, Graves’ Celtic Tree Calendar’ spread like wildfire through a growing neo-pagan movement hungry for meaning and short on facts about Celtic calendar folklore.

Graves suggestion is this:

Extra day
Equivalent Dates
Dec 24 – Jan 20
Jan 21 – Feb 17
Feb 18 – Mar 17
Mar 18 – Apr 14
Apr 15 – May 12
May 13 – Jun 9
Jun 10 – Jul 7
Jul 8  – Aug 4
Aug 5  – Sep 1
Sep 2  – Sep 29
Sep 30 – Oct 27
Oct 28 – Nov 24
Nov 25 – Dec 22
Dec 23

The result is a calendar that bears no resemblance to any traditional Celtic time keeping system we have on record and ignores culturally relevant holy days, like Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine, and Lughnasadh.  Graves’ newly invented calendar is less poeticless accurate, and over all less interesting than what the ancients have left us; which he connected to his own rearranged Ogham and his reinvented Song of Amergin. The fervor with which it spread in the ‘60s and ‘70s is rooted only it’s availability and not in its connection to either ancient tradition or the self evident rhythms of natural world – and 50 years later we are still living with the fall out.

Beyond misrepresenting Celtic religion and culture, Graves imaginary Tree calendar also misrepresents Nature itself. It creates a system of 28 day months (which is the time it takes for the moon to go around the Zodiac), but is not the 29.5 day cycle of New Moon to New Moon.  This difference is due the fact that the Earth is also in motion and resulting in the full moon appearing in a different sign each month. Many traditional time keeping systems, including the Celtic Coligny calendar, take into account by some pattern of alternating ‘full’ (30 day) and ‘hollow’ (29 day) months, and then adding the occasional inter-calendary month to keep the lunations aligned with the solar year. Various other Indo-European calendars including the Athenian calendar and several from India also follow similar patterns. In contrast to these ancient systems, Graves’ calendar is one or two days short each month and quickly falls out of alignment with the phases of the Moon.

While I can appreciate that Graves felt that poetic inspiration, or “analepsis” (as he termed it) was a valid historical methodology, he was clearly not very good at it given how his results vary from so deeply from the cultural and natural realities he was seeking to poetically capture.

Robert Graves bemoaned the fact that his work was “loudly ignored” by most Celtic scholars,[1] but that should perhaps be considered a kindness, given that when scholars did look at his work he was sited for things like having “misled many innocent readers with his eloquent but deceptive statements about a nebulous goddess in early Celtic literature” among other things.[2]

Personally, I’d like to see Robert Graves’ fantasies laid to rest, that they might stop obscuring the memory those who came before us, so that the fanciful thought of one person might stop polluting popular perception of the past and popular perceptions of the natural patterns evident in the Living World around us.

[1] White, Donna R. A Century of Welsh Myth in Children’s Literature. p. 75.
[2] Davidson, Hilda Ellis (1998). Roles of the Northern Goddess, page 11.

Posted by: Brian | July 8, 2012

Two New Articles

Here is a pair of articles that might be of interest:

Religious Belief: How It Helps Conservatives by Sara Robinson


‘Religion’ is not a synonym for ‘Christianity’ by Jason Pitzl-Waters

My next post, later in the week, will likely be a follow-up to my Introduction to the Song of Amergin, exploring Robert Graves.

Posted by: Brian | June 25, 2012

RTÉ Article: Vandalism at Tara

Here is an article from RTÉ News

Investigation after Hill of Tara monument vandalised

The stone was struck, possibly with a hammer, at 11 places, on all four of its face

In addition to what is stated in the article, it should be noted that in 19th-century oral tradition, the pillar stone currently at Tara was known as Bod Fhearghais [penis of Fergus] and it’s absolute identification with the Lia Fáil is not uncontested.
All agree that the stone was supposed to shout out under the feet of a rightful king, so it is quite likely that actual Lia Fáil was probably an unhewn flat(ish) stone rather than a phallic monument. Fergus Mór mac Eirc was said to have taken the Lia Fáil to Scotland. It is also held that it was carried to Scone then finally removed to Westminster Abbey in the 13th cent.
Regardless, I think it’s terrible that anyone would deface such an important cultural and sacred site.
Posted by: Brian | June 25, 2012

An Introduction to the Song of Amergin

Am Geath i m-Muir
I am wind on Sea

So begins the Song of Amairgen, the ancient mystical poem uttered by Amairgen Glanglun, the legendary bard, as he first stepped foot upon thelandofIreland, on the shores ofKenmareBay.

And while this blog is intended to cover wide and varied topics from contemporary Spiritual Care (chaplaincy), modern paganisms, and Celtic religion generally, I will – time and again – be returning to this beautiful, syntactically dense, mysterious poem as a source of connection, reflection and meaning making.

In case you’re asking yourself WTF – which is, of course, “Why the fuss?” right? – Here is a beautiful rendition of The Song, recited by Lisa Gerrard, of Dead Can Dance.

Am gaeth i m-muir,
Am tond trethan,
Am fuaim mara,
Am dam secht ndirend,
Am séig i n-aill,
Am dér gréne,
Am cain lubai,
Am torc ar gail,
Am he i l-lind,
Am loch i m-maig,
Am brí a ndai,
Am bri danae,
Am bri i fodb fras feochtu,Am dé delbas do chind codnu,
Coiche nod gleith clochur slébe?Cia on co tagair aesa éscai?
Cia du i l-laig fuiniud gréne?

Cia beir buar o thig tethrach?
Cia buar tethrach tibi?
Cia dám, cia dé delbas faebru a ndind ailsiu?
Cáinte im gai, cainte gaithe.

I am Wind on Sea,
I am Ocean-wave,
I am Roar of Sea,
I am Stag of Seven Tines,
I am a Hawk on a Cliff,
I am shining tear of the Sun,
I am Fairest among Herbs,
I am Boar for Boldness,
I am Salmon in Pool,
I am a Lake on a Plain,
I am a Hill of Poetry,
I am a Word of Skill,
I am the Point of a Weapon (that pours forth
I am God who fashions Fire for a Head.
Who knows the secrets of the
Unhewn Dolmen?
Who (but I) announces the Ages of the Moon?
Who (but I) know the place where falleth
the Sunset?
Who calls the Cattle from the House of Tethra?
On whom do the cattle of Tethra smile?
Who is the troop, the god who fashions edges
in a fortress of gangrene?
(I am) a Song on a Spear,
an Enchantments of Wind.

From early in the 20th century, there are scholars who have suggested that the poem has spiritual and cosmological meaning, connecting the nature of the world to the nature of the soul.  Likewise, from the same period there have been scholars (usually without formal training in the nature of Indo-European religions) who have contested this notion.

As an example of the later, Marie-Louise Sjoestedt in Celtic Gods and Heroes (19) says, “It has been suggested that this poem, which is a tissue of obscure formulas that puzzled even the mediaeval commentators, echoes the druidic doctrine of metempsychosis; but it simply expressed the pride of the sorcerer, whose art has just brought him triumph over his enemies, and who now parades his talents and declares his power. For we know that one of the gifts which all primitive peoples attribute to their sorcerers is that of shape-shifting.” (p. 23-24)

Sjoestedt’s explanation makes clear that she could not possibly imagine deeply spiritual thought, or complex multivalent thought, among so called ‘primitive peoples’ – a bias which has repeatedly been proven incorrect the world over.

Personally, I don’t see this poem as just the swaggering of a simple and arrogant magician-priest, and I’m not alone in that opinion. Well versed in at least one other Indo-European religion, Alwyn and Brinley Rees, in Celtic Heritage offer a far deeper explanation, and one that seems to speak directly to Sjoestedt while at the same time remembers that we are reading medieval text, not unadulterated ancient myth: “The Celtic substratum of our story is particularly evident in the obscure poem which Amairgen utters as he first sets his right foot upon Ireland, a poem which gives the coming of the Sons of Míl a significance beyond that of a mere historical invasion.” p.98 “Potentially, the whole creation is bound up in Amairgen, and Indian parallels preclude the dismissal of his speech as simply an expression of ‘the pride of the sorcerer’. Thus Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita declares himself to be the divine seed without which nothing animate or inanimate exists. He is the Atman, he is Vishnu, Shiva, Brahman, and all the gods, the beginning, the life-span, and the end: ‘I am the radiant sun among the light-givers… among the stars of night, I am the moon … I am Meru among mountain peaks … I am the ocean among waters … Of water-beings I am Varuna: Aryaman among the Fathers: I am Death … I am the Wind…’ He is pre-eminent among hymns, poetic metres, the letters of the alphabet, the months and the seasons: ‘I am the dice-play of the cunning, I am the strength of the strong …I am the silence of things secret: I am the knowledge of the knower … What I have described to you are only a few of my countless forms.’ Vishnu, dormant during the interval of non-manifestation between the dissolution and recreation of the universe delivers himself of a similar series of ‘I am’ utterances. … Similarly Amairgen on the ocean of non-existence embodies the primeval unity of all things.  As such he has the power to bring a new world into being, and his poems are in the nature of creation incantations.” (p.99-100)

In addition to connecting the Song and its utterance to, not only the whole of existence, but the act of creation, as a corollary to that, Rees and Rees connect it to transmigration of the soul: “Amairgen…is everything, and it is a fair inference that among the Celts, as in India and other lands, there existed alongside the belief in individual reincarnation a doctrine that there is essentially only One Transmigrant. As Ovid expressed it: ‘The spirit wanders, comes now here, now there, and occupies whatever frame it pleases. From beasts it passes into human bodies, and from our bodies into beasts, but never perishes.’” (p.230)

The Rees brothers draw this conclusion, not from the Song of Amairgen alone, but from a look at the tradition as whole, through the material we have left.  The book, Celtic Heritage, practically culminates with the notion that Celtic religion depicts, “in the concepts of the boundary, the centre, intercalary time, ‘to-day’, betwixts-and-betweens…multiple names, multiple skills, puns and, we may add, metaphors, an ambiguity, or a multiplication or concentration of meaning which makes them fitting symbols of the unmanifest, which is itself the world of chaos and at the same time the ground of all being.” (p.348-9)

This would later be reflected in the words of Alexei Kondratiev, in The Apple Branch (1998), saying that in “Celtic religion… everything interpenetrates everything else, and nothing is only itself” (p.156)

In this light, the Song of Amairgen is not unique, but simply one beautiful instantiation of the Celtic understanding of the interplay between self and totality, and between unity and multiplicity.  In this sense, any such hard distinctions are dependent more on how one approaches existence and at what resolution, than any absolute privileging of one paradigm over the other.


Kondratiev, A. The Apple Branch: a path to Celtic Ritual (Cork: The Collins Press, 1998)

Sjoestedt, M-L (trans. Myles Dillon), Gods and Heroes of the Celts (Berkley: Turtle Island, 1982 (originally 1948))

Rees, A & B, Celtic Heritage (London: Thames and Hudson, 1961)

Posted by: Brian | April 9, 2012

Local Events

The first half of 2012, has filled up pretty quickly for me, and I’m looking forward to all the exciting things I’ll be doing (and the wonderful people I’ll be doing them with) in April, May, and June!


 April 12-15, I’ll be inLondon,ON, for the Mystic Roots Conference.

This year’s theme is “Unlocking the Secrets to Time”, so I’ll be looking important pieces of the Celtic past and how they can inform our present.

On the opening night I’ll be telling a few ancient stories, and connecting them to experiences in our modern lives; stories of, wisdom lost and recovered; stories of confronting the harshness of reality; stories of seizing your boldness, talent, and fate to become who you are really meant to be, here and now!

Then my presentations will include:

The God Lugh and the Feast of Lughnadadh
Patron of shoes? shopping!? horse-racing and hockey!?!Lugh Lamhfada: lord of oaths, protector of the harvest, god of kingship, and so much more… (Re)discover a world of chaos and order, romance and intrigue, contests and battles, magic and monsters… What does this god tell us about the world and ourselves? And what does all this have to do with opening the harvest! Discover the legends and seasonal customs associated with not only Lugh, but the powerful goddesses in his story, and the August festival of Lughnasadh.

We Are the World: a look at Creation, Sacrifice, and Healing
We are star stuff… since the beginning, the Celts and other Indo-European cultures have expressed our connection to the rest of the Living World by connecting the many elements to the various parts of the Living Person. This participatory workshop explores the intimate relationship between the Dúile (meaning ‘elements’ or ‘living beings’) and yourself, through both history and experiential participation. Explore the mysteries that connect you to the Wind, Sky, Sun, Moon, Cloud, Greenery, Land, Stone, Sea, and so much more.

On Darkness and Light
Why does the year start at Samhain? Why does the day start at sunset? Why is the darkness first? We will answer these questions and more in this exploration of the Celtic view of Darkness and Light. Though a blend of history, archaeology and sacred stories, come see how these primordial powers relate to each other and how we can relate to them through Celtic mythology and our own religious experience.


May 5th, I will be inToronto officiating a Bealtaine celebration with Embolden.

Details are still forthcoming, but we will be celebrating with the Os, the Beltane Carlene, and Sacred Fire – a wonderful confluence of folk customs from around the Celtic world!


May 18-21, I’ll be inTorontofor Gaia Gathering, the Canadian National Pagan Conference.

This year’s theme is “Building the Mosaic” which represents the diversity of individuals that make up the whole of our community. By bringing together pieces of our respective communities and local groups during the conference, we build a representation of the larger Canadian Pagan Mosaic. I will be one of the speakers at the keynote event, which will be a mosaic of speakers from the greaterTorontoarea.

I will also be speaking on panel discussions for “Reconstructionism” and “Are you willing to pay for your Spirituality?”


June 13-17, I’ll be north of Toronto for Wiccanfest (don’t let the name fool you, many traditions come together for an amazing weekend of fun, growth, and shared experiences).

I’ll be doing one presentation (TBD), hosting a session of sacred stories (TBD, but perhaps having a ‘boys to men’ theme), and a ritual (likely related to Nechtan, since the 17th is his day).


For those of you living in or around southern Ontario, I hope to see you at these and other great events, as this is only a fraction of the wonderful things going on in the region!  We also have Northern Lights Gathering, Spirits of the Earth, Kaleidoscope Gathering, and so much more!!!

Posted by: Brian | March 26, 2012

Wild Hunt Article on Prison Chaplaincy

Here is an article from the Wild Hunt blog, on the plight of Spiritual Care for minority religions (especially paganism) in American Prisons and what many people, including one man in particular, are trying to do about it.

Pagan Chaplain Patrick McCollum on the Pew Forum: Religion in Prisons Survey by Jason Pitzl-Waters

Posted by: Brian | March 25, 2012

Latha na Cailliche (March 25th)

March 25 is Latha na Cailliche (Day of the Old Woman) in Scottish lore, so I would like to explore the Cailleach in this blog entry.

So, who is this goddess, this Cailleach? In Scottish follore, stretch marks – whether on young men who have grown quickly, or women’s breast, or those associated with pregnancy – are seen as evidence of her antipathy to life. They are the marks of the Cailleach’s claws as she tries to hold down the life and vitality that is rising up.

And in parts of Scotland, each river is even said to have a Cailleach, and a certain number of drowning victims each year are said to be her due.

But is this all she is, a mean spirited goddess who inflicts stretch marks and drowns people?

The Cailleach is a rich, complex, and often disturbing personage in Irish and Scottish spirituality. She is an old woman, sometimes benign and sometimes monstrous. She goes through cyclical periods of old-age and youth. She can represent the wilds, the land, the sea, whirl-pools, storms, the harvest, winter, darkness, and death. The Cailleach is that which is ‘outside’. And the Cailleach is that which is hidden or in-between; the occluded or liminal aspects of nature, culture, and the cycles of life.  Her symbols include the owl – usually understood as a bad omen – as well as the sharp-leafed holly, and certain boulders or stone formations.

In contrast to, yet emergent from, this ‘portfolio’ of the dire and the difficult, the Cailleach is a Sovereignty goddess who upholds righteous kingship; the Cailleach is the disenfranchised and the dispossessed; the Cailleach is a source of ancient wisdom.

Since, there is much more to say than can be accommodated in a single blog post, this entry will explore two potential etymologies of her title; times of the year sacred to her; a tiny bit about her role; and why she matters in our lives today.


The word cailleach, literally means ‘old woman’ or ‘nun’, from caille, ‘veil’. Many have suggested that this word is ultimately derived from Latin, pallium, i.e. cloak, cover or veil. This would make the word a fairly late arrival, and would beg the question of whether or not the Cailleach herself emerges in medieval folklore rather than ancient myth. Alternatively, I would suggest that caille goes back directly the the Proto-Indo-European ‘*Kolyo‘. Bruce Lincoln, following the reconstruction of Hermann Güntert, suggests that this ‘*Kolyo‘, meaning ‘the coverer’, is a PIE goddess who is half maiden / half grotesque governing the realm of death, but also the life which is sustained by death. He suggests the name is preserved in Norse Hel and Greek Calypso. And whileLincoln does not mention the Cailleach specifically, the connection is clear. It would share the meaning of ‘veil’ as in ‘to cover’ but not require the Christian context to provide an origin for this very un-Christian personage.

And while I am no linguist, I can’t help but conjecture another etymology for the Cailleach; what if it is rooted not in caille but rather from caill, which means ‘loss’. As an ancient and post-menopausal woman, the Cailleach has lost her fertility and can be compared linguistically to caillteanach, ‘eunuch’ who has also clearly lost something.

And to add to this linguistic muddle, we also have words like the Irish cáithleach or Scottish càileach, both meaning ‘husk’, which could point to either a cover or a loss, but is likely rooted in càth meaning ‘bag’, ‘pod’ but also ‘spent’ or ‘cast’.


There are many times associated with the Cailleach. On the west coast of Scotland, the Cailleach is said to usher in winter by washing her great plaid in the whirlpool of Coire Bhreacain. This process takes three days, during which time the roar of the coming storm can be heard even miles inland. When she is done, her plaid is pure white and snow covers the land. Likewise, as a personification of winter, her season is often said to begin at Samhain (Nov 1st), but customs related to her begin much earlier than that, in the harvest season.

While there is a huge amount of regional and historical variation, at harvest time, a special sheaf was often made into a corn dolly. In some parts of Ireland and Scotland, the dollies were maidens, in others, hags. In some places, the dollies were maidens if the harvest was good and hags if the harvest was bad. In some places the dollies were not human shaped at all, but in the form of hares or mares, both of which have goddess or Cailleach associations. And in still other places, special sheaves were woven into a diverse range of loops, knots, and twists that served as dollies, even though they are not dolly-shaped at all. Regardless, these images were taken into the home at the end of harvest and maintained in a special place for the winter. In the spring, the dollies were either ploughed into the fields or fed to the plough horse.

So, even though there is tremendous variation in the physical form of the harvest Cailleach dollies and the informal ritual patterns associated with them, the spiritual significance of last sheaf practices is very consistent: The spirit of the harvest, and the life affirming power of the growing season lived in the crop, and the harvest effectively made this power homeless. Therefore, fashioning shapes from the last sheaf of wheat (or other cereal crop) would create a vehicle for this power. Thus abundance was kept safe through the winter, both for the well being of next year’s crop, and also to garner ‘luck’ in exchange for caring for the harvest Cailleach through the winter.

More negative variations on this custom have the corn dolly made from the last sheaf of the first local field to complete the harvest. It would then be passed on to each farmer in turn as they completed their harvest, so that the last one finished had to keep this Cailleach as a punishment for sloth. Here, the implicit function of maintaining the fertility of the land through the winter remains, but is overshadowed (whether seriously or in play) by a sort of moral judgment and a hint of danger.

This danger is not unwarranted, for in addition to the fertility and abundance symbolised by the corn-dolly Cailleach, she is also the power of winter itself. Many stories depict the arrival of the Cailleach to some king or hero’s house on Samhain night or in the cold darkness of winter. Likewise there are Scottish tales that have the Cailleach capturing the goddess, Bride, and keeping her captive until Aengus (typically her brother, but here depicted as a suitor) frees her from the Cailleach’s clutches through fierce combat. In this the “Cailleach does not lay down her sceptre without a struggle. It is she who raises the storms of spring, and in the period known as A Chailleach she makes her final effort to arrest growth. Latha na Cailleach, the Auld Wife’s Day…is the traditional date of her final overthrow.”

In fact, each week of March, notorious for unpredictable weather, has a name related to the Cailleach. Marion MacNeill lists them as the Sweeper, the Whistler, the Sharp-billed One, and A Chailleach. Likewise, John Campbell, though also linking March with the Cailleach, lists these weeks as Feadag (the Whistle), Gobag (the Sharp-billed One), Sguabag (the Sweeper), and lastly Gearran (the Gelding or Complaint). Interestingly however, D.A. Mackenzie uses the same names in the same order, to refer not to the weeks, but rather to the winds which the Cailleach uses in combat against Angus, after he rescues Bride from her.

Even later in the year, there are Bealtaine (May 1st) customs associated with the Cailleach. For example, in Glen Lyon, Perthshire, there is a special set of customs which are enacted at Samhain and Bealtaine even to this day. In the valley of Gleann Cailliche, there is a small shrine called Tigh na Cailliche, ‘House of the Hag’. Every year at Samhain, three stones known as the Cailleach, the Bodach, and the Nighean (the Hag, the Churl, and the Daughter), are placed inside their ‘house’ (i.e. the shrine); and every year at Bealtaine, these stones are taken out again, to enjoy the warmer seasons. It is said, that so long as the locals perform this simple act, the Cailleach will insure good weather and good crops.

Moving from Scottish folk customs, to Scottish folk tales, it is at Bealtaine that the Cailleach traditionally either regains her youth, by bathing in a certain lake sacred to her (the exact lake varies by region and story), or turns to a pillar of stone, after throwing her wand or mallet under a holly bush.

In other Bealtaine celebrations, the Cailleach is remembered by the male participants drawing lots (usually oat cakes, one of which is scorched) out of a woman’s bonnet. The loser would have to wear the bonnet and be symbolically driven away, as a scapegoat representing winter and all inauspicious things.

Sometimes a show was made of capturing this Cailleach and pretending to throw him (now her) into the fire; but someone would intervene and the unlucky person would then jump over the fire three times to be purified, and so returned to his normal state. In other parts ofEuropea straw effigy of a “witch” is burned around this time, which clearly holds similar symbolism.

Bealtaine processions might even be led by a hobby horse, a man-in-black, and a man cross-dressed in the clothes of an old woman – a fuller manifestation of what is merely hinted at with the bonnet custom above. On theIsle of Man, this procession was divided into two rival parties, one led by the Cailleach and the other by a beautiful young woman elected as the May Queen. These parties would engage in a mock combat, with the powers of summer driving away the powers of winter so that summer could arrive.

This particular image clearly represents the Cailleach, not only as winter, but through cross-dressing, as both liminal and ‘other’.


While this exploration of the Cailleach through the seasons has touched upon some neutral or even benevolent aspects of the Cailleach’s nature, the overriding tone is one of danger and strangeness. So, to balance that out a little, I will conclude with a story that emphasises her potential as an ally.

The story of Niall and the Hag is a just a portion of a larger and richer tale, but in the interest of space I will make due with an excerpt. Niall is a semi-historical king who lived in the fourth and fifth century CE, but this story takes place just before his rise to power:

Once, long ago and far away, Niall was hunting with his four half-brothers, all sons of Eochaid Mugmedón, High King of Ireland.They had set up camp in a glade when they realized they had no water. So one by one his brothers went in search of water, but each came back harrowed and shaken. Finally, Nial said he would go. In this way he came upon a well of bright and shining stone, upwelling with lustrous water. But between him and the well was a bluish Hag of horrific aspect. Her teeth were like green sickles and her claws like grey scythes. Her knees and elbows were black and her hair was like bracken in winter.When he asked to approach the well for water, she said, “You may have as much water as you like, young prince, but first you must kiss me; even as your kindred could not.”Niall, at first was silent, then braced himself and said, “I’ll give you kiss, and more. I will lie with you.”

He sank down to the grass with her, steeling himself to fulfill his word.

But, with their limbs entwined, all of a sudden, all had changed. There with him was not a hag, but a beautiful maiden with golden hair and fair white form.

Looking into his eyes, she said to him, “And so you have seen me: at first fearsome, wolfish, terrifying, and at last beautiful. This is Sovereignty: for it is not attained without battle and conflict; but at last it is fair and gracious to everyone.”

Not long after, Niall became High King of Ireland and founded the Uí Néill dynasty, which would dominateIrelandfor the next 6 centuries. Included in this illustrious line would be Diarmait Mac Cerbaill, who ruled from 545-568; the last pagan high king ofIreland.

Other tales of Sovereignty goddesses, whether or not they bear this changing ‘loathly lady’ motif, emphasis the need for the king to be virtuous lest she abandon him for another more suitable candidate.

I think this story can help us make sense of the Cailleach, in all her ambiguity, paradox, change, treacherousness, generosity, and unknowable-ness. And, while we have barely scratched the surface of all the lore associated with her, I hope it gives some sense of her importance. To me, even this little bit speaks of her as an embodiment of the world itself. Like living in general, and hard times in particular, she brings us face to face with the basic facts of life and our finite nature; asking us to exceed who we have been. As all primordial or natural phenomena, she is a tremendous, amoral power, who nonetheless demands a moral response. Perhaps the Cailleach personifies existence itself, not as we perceive it, but as it really is – summoning us, in return, to become who we really are.

Some further reading:

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »