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Advent Calendar of Winter Mythos Day 1: Cailleach Bheur

Updated: Dec 3, 2023

Pre-Celtic, Gaelic, Scottish Highland folklore, British, Arthurian,

THOUSANDS of years old – no can find where she started!

We’ll start this advent off with Beira, the Queen of Winter. She’s very old with belief that perhaps she travelled from Indian culture somehow since there are so many overlapping qualities as the Hindu goddess Kali. Regardless, she was a common presence and Irish and Scottish culture and her name, Cailleach Bheur can be translated in many ways depending where you look, the translator, and more importantly, which variation and time period. Some say it means “veiled one” or “hooded one” which in terms of the older myths meant aged or burdened in some fashion meanwhile it literally can be translated as simply as “old hag” or “sharp winds” or a combination of the two. Other names tied to the Queen of Winter is more reflective of her role, such as the Mother of Magic, a creation goddess of old, or more uniquely, the Triple Goddess, where she is known to change her appearance or age with the seasons. Infamous for how she transitions from an old had into a young maiden, aging in reverse, only to return to a woman bearing a child at some point, essentially giving birth to herself. I mean, she has a lot of cool names… Bone Mother, Blue Hag of Winter, Woman of Stones, Cailleach Nollaig (Christmas’ old wife), Cailleach Mhor Nam Fiadh (great old woman of the deer), and more. She’s even suspected to be an ancient Spanish princess and found seeded in cultures all over Europe. Even so, her Celtic opposite it Brighe and married to the wizard and sea god Manannan – see Artemis for that lovely trickster! (Cawl-ee-ahk Moor Nam Fee-ah)

As an old woman, she is said to have 1-eye in the middle of her face, bad teeth, blue-gray skin, uncanny eyesight reaching up to 20 miles, and matted hair. They say she might be the reason we dress as witches in Halloween to mimic this ugly hag appearance. In some tales, she is called the Hag of Hair or Hag of the Long Teeth and would choke hunters who killed pregnant animals in the wild woods. Another aspect says she would carry materials in a basket or her apron to mold the land in order to create hills and change the land. She is often blamed for the rocky landscape, said to drop rocks from her basket or apron, or throw them at men in anger. There are tales of King Arthur’s contenders being asked to kiss or have intercourse with this said old hag. Any who braved to do so, soon discover her to be a splendid young woman who bestows sovereignty on any men kind enough to oblige an old woman’s desires. Yes, as in Arthur of the Round Table (who apparently said yes to this)! This folktale was even portrayed in Beauty and the Beast when the old hag was turned away by the prince.

Beira is most active during the dark days, starting with Samhain or October 31st and walks the world until spring or the Beltaine on May 1st. Arriving in late Fall, she is responsible for bringing storms and causing the earth to die. Sometimes she is called a witch-god due to the concept she turns into stone on Beltaine only to be revived again next fall, instead of aging in reverse. Going back to her Pre-Cletic roots, Beira was part of a cosmic tale with no name for her original believers. She is the winter sun’s daughter, born old and grows younger throughout winter, ending the season as a young spring maiden. For Scottish beliefs, she is depicted as a crane with sticks in her beak to forecast storms or a herder of deer. During winter storms, a common proverb was “The Cailleach (hag) is trampling the blankets tonight” and referred often to as the “sharp old wife” or Daughter of the little sun, or winter sun. They believed the Mumming dances, a celebratory crossed sword and scabbard or wooden sticks dance, would drive her away. You know, that awkward dance that Duncan Lacroix does while he travels with Claire looking for Jamie in Outlander? It was to drive away the old hag and bad omens! You can indulge and listen to ‘The Mummer’s Dance’ by Loreena McKennitt for a more modern spin on these chants and songs of old ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LzE32ChEp24 ).

She was a dangerous being to come across let alone to be tested by. She was the reason winter happened and came crashing down with sharp, cold winds teaming it with rocky landscape she made in her wake while traveling. There were tales of her holding reaping contest for harvest at the end of Fall where she would always win, and by doing so, use that same scythe to reap her opponents of their legs entirely. It was believed her scythe was only successful due to the chafer that was hidden in the handle, a bug famous for feeding on cold roots. Perhaps this was simply a warning not to wait too long to harvest or the pest would take you out entirely right before the cold came. Stranger still, and something portrayed in the anime Ancient Magus’ Bride is her riding upon another demigod of some kind, like a deer-centaur, while holding her swelling belly in preparation of giving birth to the winter. It’s said looking upon them would have you withering away with the rest of the trees and bushes. Many left offerings of saplings, again the youth and death and aging cycling of life giving her that worthy title of being a triune goddess.



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