Cailleach - The Hag

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

The Hag

Cailleach (pronounced “coy-luk”) is the Gaelic word corresponding to Hag. Cailleach literally means “old woman” but is usually translated into English as “hag,” although in modern Gaelic dictionaries, Cailleach is also defined as “witch.”

The Cailleach, like the hag, is by definition female but has various manifestations:

Image In Scottish and Irish folklore and mythology, Cailleach is a title for spirits corresponding to the archetype of the sacred hag.

Image Cailleach may indicate an old woman and/or witch.

Image Cailleach is also used to indicate a nun. This association is complex: nuns, like most hag-spirits, are celibate. Women whose lives do not revolve around men or children, nuns were perceived as holy or spiritually powerful women. Some believe that attempts were made to transfer the sacred connotations of the Pagan Cailleach to Christian holy women. In many communities, nuns (and priests) were traditionally respected but also feared, believed to possess secret magical knowledge similar to how many envisioned hags. Many Cailleach are described as veiled as, until recently, were nuns; taking vows as a nun was once described as “taking the veil.” Some scholars believe the veil is the essential link between nuns and the Cailleach.

Image Cailleach names the last sheaf of grain from the harvest. The Corn Mother is often believed incarnate in that last sheaf; many Corn Mothers also correspond to the archetype of the sacred hag. The Corn Mother is a hag at the harvest but emerges as a beautiful, fertile young bride in spring. (See ERGOT: Corn Mother.)

How sacred and influential was the Cailleach? Caledonia, the ancient name for Scotland, may derive from Cailleach. Some historians translate Caledonia as “the Old Woman’s country” or “the Hag’s territory.” In many myths, the Cailleach actually creates and shapes the very landscape. (An alternative theory proposes that Caledonia actually means “Hill of the Hazel Tree.”)

In Scottish mythology, hags are the mothers of giants, corresponding to Norse Jotuns or Troll-Hags. Giants are mountain gods or personified spirits of mountains; mountains are frequently hags’ sacred territory. Scottish hags are also weather witches: thundercloud hags who throw fireballs (lightning) or hailstones when angered.

Cailleach is a title (“Old Woman”), not a name. No complete, coherent mythology of the Cailleach exists; it is next to impossible to determine mine whether the various spirits bearing this title are identical or indistinct—whether there are one, many or several Cailleach. Spirits entitled Cailleach populate Scotland and Ireland. The Manx version is Caillagh.

The Romans encountered the Cailleach in Britain and equated her with Juno.

Folklore sometimes describes the Cailleach. She is identified as a witch and as the primal mother, the Mother of All Existence. She is described as an old hag with bear’s teeth and boar’s tusks.

See also Cailleach Bhéara, Cailleach Bheur, Cailleach Mor, Hag Rune; ANIMALS: Bears, Pigs; CALENDAR: Lupercalia.