Kith and Kin of The Cailleach
Most people try to stick The Cailleach in with the Celtic pantheon of Deities, and the rare story may try to link her to other Deities, plus of course, there are many stories pairing her with Brigid as her opposite.
Here again though, the scant bits of evidence available would seem to indicate that The Cailleach was a presence in and around the British Isles long before those first Celts ventured off the European mainland.
The Hag of Beara
A rock that rises above Coulagh Bay in Ireland is said to be the fossilised remains of the
face of the Cailleach Beara. She sits there waiting and watching for the return of her husband, Manannan, God of the Sea. It is said in legend and verse that she lived 7 lifetimes, and took 7 husbands, having scores of children and grandchildren before being turned to stone.
Just why she was turned to stone depends on which story you read.
Visitors to the area leave small trinkets and offerings on and around the rock.
The Cailleach and Brigid
You can find several stories linking The Cailleach and Brigid, originating both in Scotland and in Ireland. Some stories state that they are one and the same Deity, with one transforming into the other with the changing of the seasons from winter to summer and back again. Other stories say that Brigid is the daughter of The Cailleach.
And yet more stories would indicate that there is no relationship at all, but that Brigid was held captive by the Cailleach.
The Cailleach Beira and Bride
Long ago, or perhaps last winter, high upon the top of Ben Nevis in Scotland lived The Cailleach Biera. Deep in her mountain home, this ancient hag kept the youthful Bride captive, treating her like a slave and making Bride do Her bidding.
One day, The Cailleach handed Bride a dirty brown fleece and told her to wash it in the stream until it was pure white. Bride washed and she washed, until her fingers were raw from the cold mountain water, until her fingers were numb and red from the constant immersion in the icy stream. And though she could see the dirt flowing away with the water, still the fleece remained a dirty brown.
One day, an old man passed by as Bride toiled away and asked her what she was doing. Bride explained, and the old man asked to see the fleece. She handed it over, and after carefully looking at it from all side, he tapped it 3 times. On the third tap, it turned a beautiful snowy white.
Well you can imagine the joy that Bride felt when she saw the fleece was finally cleaned! The Old Man, who indeed was an Old Man but was also Father Winter smiled and handed Bride a bunch of snowdrops and asked her to convey the flowers with the now white fleece to The Cailleach with a message.
“Tell Her,” Father Winter said, “they come from the green rustling fir woods and the cress is beginning to grow by the stream and the grass in the fields is beginning to shoot.”
Well, when Bride returned to The Cailleach with a white fleece, snowdrops, and the message from Father Winter, She was greatly angered. She flew into a rage and calling Her eight hag servants set out in each of the directions to cover the land with ice and snow and kill all of this new plant growth.
As for Bride, she was a captive of The Cailleach to keep her away from The Cailleach’s son, Angus who had fallen in love with Bride. The longer She could keep the two young lovers apart, the longer She could rule as Queen of Winter.
Angus grew impatient though and did not want to wait, so he borrowed three days from the month of August and cast a magic spell over the land to bring good weather in early February. He used those three days to search for Bride but could not find her. On the 3rd day, The Cailleach caused such a storm to come up that Angus had to abandon his search.
(This is why we can have a few days of balmy spring-like weather in February, and such cold stormy days in August.)
Angus was not dissuaded though and continued his search until he finally found Bride on the first day of Spring, Brides’ Day. They were taken in by the faery-folk and taken to the faery court where they were married. Angus again cast a spell that made the grass grow and flowers bloom across the land.
In a rage, The Cailleach cast spells of cold to counter what Angus was doing, causing the ground to be enveloped in frost. This battle continued until finally The Cailleach borrowed three days of winter in order to bring an another fierce winter storm of freezing winds and cold.
But, with this last effort The Cailleach was done. She had no more energy to expend. Summer once again came to the lands and The Cailleach retreated until the Autumn winds once more began to blow.