Mirror of Isis - An Official Fellowship of Isis Publication

The Coming of the Cailleach

COVER: Volume V, Issue 3, Samhain 2010
Table of Contents
The Wild and Grassy Slope
We Honor the Earth
The Berwyn Mountains of Poetic Adventure
The Coming of the Cailleach
An Isian Midwinter Meditation
Wenet the Swift One: Hare Goddess of Ancient Egypt
Awakening of Aengus Og and Tara Rite
Druid in the Garden
Ancient Egyptian Creation Myths
Announcements: From Olivia Robertson
REPORT: Convocation of the Fellowship of Isis at the Temple of Isis 2010
REVIEW: Avalonian Aeon
MUSES SYMPOSIUM: Bentreshyt: Harp of Joy
Hestia's Hearth Fires
Shadow Queen
Hymn to Isis
Prayer to Isis
Correspondent's Reflections
Mark Your Calendar
Staff and Contact Information
Archive of Past Issues
Blank page
"The Coming of the Cailleach"
The Eight of Arrows from Chesca Potter's Greenwood Tarot

The Coming of the Cailleach
By Caroline Wise

I write as Scotland and the North-East of England prepare for freezing weather and snow this week. Darkness has made gains on the wheel of the year since the equinox. Michaelmas has come and gone. Samhain beckons, and turns on towards Martinmass, when the animals were once chosen for slaughter and salting down for the winter. This is the coming of the Cailleach Bheur, the goddess of the winter. Dark cloaked and with bleached bones, she is Lady of the red deer, the wild boar and the horned cattle. The shrieking geese herald her as they fly south. As the old Scottish deer goddess, she governs the life cycles of the deer and their bone and antler track ways in the forests and mountains of Scotland, keeping their population in balance. She is their queen, and she decides which will live – the younger, the fertile and the strong - and which will be targets for the hunters. Scarlet blood will gleam on the snow. There is a folklore tale from the 18th century in which she leads some hunters to the deer. She will punish the hunters who take the wrong ones.

The Cailleach is The Old Lady of the Mountains, and is probably older than them, for her ice and boulders carved the rivers, the lochs and the valleys. She starts her journey in the snow-capped peaks, and descends the hard grey rock in her blue-black tatters like a shadow across the land. It is her time. If you listen, you can hear her staff banging on the hard ground, echoing around the valleys. Boulders roll down the slopes, dislodged by the vibrations of the sound. Listen more keenly, and you may hear the howls of now the hungry wolfs who accompany her. Each thump of her staff measures the spread of winter in the west of Scotland, Ireland and the Isles. The icy skeletal hands of her companion Jack Frost reach out greedily over granite foothills, over streams and farms, forests and towns, gripping the world in ice and snow. Those venturing into the mountains and the forests for firewood risked death, as the snow covered the tracks, veiling the world from sight. You could be lost and perish in the old days. 

By the bleak cliffs and the raging sea, The Cailleach is the Storm Hag, heralded by the cries of the scavenger gulls. The whirlpool of Corryvreckan is a powerful nature phenomena created by the tidal flows between the islands of Jura, Scarba and the Argyle coast. In flood, the rocks on the seabed and the Caillieach Peak agitate the waters, and a deadly maelstrom forms.  Here, in one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the British Isles, the Cailleach washes her tartan cloak snow white to the roar of the boiling sea. The booming crescendo of the whirlpool is her warning that winter has begun. Winter, a time of hard barren earth, bare trees, illness and darkness. A time when there must be enough food for family and livestock, and when scavengers must be kept at bay.

As the wheel turns on from Martinmas towards the Winter Solstice and the Yule feasts, the imagery is now of the reindeer and the Fly Agaric toadstools once popular as Christmas tree decorations. The reindeer goddess promises cheer. We anticipate parties and presents, a gathering of the clan and more daylight.  

Eight of Cups, Greenwood Tarot by Chesca Potter
"The bones go into the Cauldron of Birth, watched by the horned one."

In the South West of England, the Goddess of winter and death is the bird-woman, whose company is the creatures with large, slow-beating wings: the carrion crows, the scavenger birds and the leathery-winged circling bats, who haunt ill kept graveyards and the long-barrows. In black tatters and feathers, the hidden goddess walks among the old stone monuments and the places of the death and rebirth rites. The snow is marked with the sign of the crow’s foot.  The bones of the dead, human and animal, go into the barrows, (her cauldrons), to be guarded and guided in the underworld. The souls will to be reborn to her sister Bride in spring, or they may move on to other realms, if it is their time, by ex-carnation in the bodies of the crows.  

Moving further around the wheel, we approach the Janus gate of New Year.

I remember from childhood my father’s Scottish custom ‘First Footing’ – he, or a dark haired Scottish visitor would leave by the front door after the new year had been rung in. He would carry a piece of coal, walk around the house and enter through the French windows at the back. This brought good luck to the household, this black talisman from deep within the earth.  It marks the turning of the year, a new start. Brigit’s candles glint just over the horizon. The Queen of Winter has brought us through the hard times in her cloak. We promise to be good this new year, to be better, our resolutions well meant and glowing.

It is interesting to me that the modern pagan revival which we are part of has really taken off to become almost mainstream in these times of central heating, indoor lavatories, bathrooms, double glazing, draft-free homes and decent bedding. I remember in my childhood that our house did not have central heating, or double-glazing, or constant hot water. In the winter mornings the milk bottles on the doorsteps had the silver tops pushed up by the frozen cream; the beautiful fern-like patterns on the windows were Jack Frosts fingers – which we loved, and icicles hung on the window frames outside, and sometimes inside.  It is now in this age of comfort, with warmth and food available in all seasons, with no with no hard work involved, that with a sense of romanticism  we can conjure up these once feared figures that have survived in our folklore and our psyches.

We hail the veiled one, the hooded one, the cloaked one, feared by our ancestors, whose blood runs in our veins and whose memories exist in our cells. In this modern world of plenty, she helps us to hear the ancient natural rhythms and reconnect to our ancestors, to the cycles of life and time, and to the landscape. Now only idiots get lost in the mountains in winter.

An excellent article on the Cailleach, by Max Dashu, can be found here.




About the Author: Caroline Wise has been a member of the Fellowship of Isis for 21 years. She is Priestess, Hierophant, ArchDruidess, Grand Dame Commander, Solar Alchemist and member of the ArchPriesthood Union, ArchDruid Union and Grand Commander Union within the FOI, and a Priestess in the Temple of Isis, Geyserville, California. She helped to found several lyceums, groves and priories within the Fellowship. Caroline organized the first FOI Convention which took place in London in September of 1990. She has been active in the esoteric community for many years. Her research on the Goddess Elen is due to come out in book form later this year. Caroline is a regularly featured contributor in the Mirror of Isis. She is a member of the Star of Elen Advisory Board, the Circle of Isis Advisory Board and a founding member of the Muses Symposium.   


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