Just as the Greeks celebrate the change from winter to summer with Persephone arising from the underworld, the Celts had the twin goddesses of Brigid and Cailleach. While the bright Brigid ruled over the summer months, Cailleach was the goddess of winter — the dwindling of the light.
Cailleach was known as the Veiled One or the Queen of Winter and she determined the severity of the colder months. Samhain, or October 31st, marked the end of the Celtic year and the start of Cailleach’s reign. This lasted until Beltane, May 1st, when Brigid ushered in the summer months. Some believe there were two aspects of the same goddess.
This might explain why she aged backward. Cailleach began Samhain as an ancient crone and gradually became younger as the months marched toward spring. Cailleach had total control over the frigid winter winds, being called Cailleach Bhéara in Scotland, the master of winds. She would determine if we received and early spring.
On Imbolc, February 1st, Cailleach ran out of firewood. This forced her to journey out into the woods to collect more. In the Manx tradition, she transformed into a mighty bird, gathering branches in her beak. In Ireland and Scotland, she journeyed out on foot.
This chore determined how severe the last months of winter would be. If Cailleach wanted winter to go on, she would make the day sunny and bright, allowing her to find more firewood and prolong the harsh winds of winter. However, if she overslept, the day remained gray and stormy, signaling that warmer weather was soon to come.
This tradition has carried over into the United States as Groundhog Day. It shifted to February 2nd, but the ritual is very similar. A sunny day means that Punxsutawney Phil will see his shadow and bring six more weeks of winter. If the day is overcast, then he won’t see his shadow and we get an early spring.
Oldest of Them All
There is a legend of a wandering friar and his scribe who chanced upon an old woman’s house (spoiler, this would be our Cailleach). The friar wanted to know how old the woman was, but she had survived so many winters, she couldn’t quite recall. All she did know was that each year she killed an ox and cooked up a soup. Then she’d toss the bones into the attic.
The friar sent his young scribe scrambling up the ladder to throw the bones down for a count. As the pile grew, the friar soon ran out of paper in which to record the years this old lady had lived. He called up to the scribe to see how many bones were left. The scribe replied that he’d not even cleared one corner of the attic.
Another tale involved Fintan the Wise, who accompanied Noah’s granddaughter to visit Ireland. This was before the Great Flood and Fintan felt he was the first to set foot on the Emerald Isle. Instead, he discovered Cailleach living in a small hut.
Fintan was known as the man of a hundred lives, having lived some 5500 years. Yet he surmised that Cailleach was even older than he. He asked her, “Are you the one who ate the apples in the beginning?”, wondering if she might be Eve. He received no answer.
The Well of Youth and the Green Isle
Perhaps Cailleach (also known as Beria) lived so long because each spring, she drank from the Well of Youth. These magical waters bubble up from the Green Island.This island, visible as only a speck off in the west, was a magical land where the only season was summer. It drifted along with the tides of the Atlantic, appearing off the coasts of Ireland and Scotland. Beria always knew where to find the isle and visited each spring to renew her life.