Cailleach Bheur - The Hag

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

Cailleach Bheur
The Hag

Also known as Cally Berry.

Cailleach Bheur, the Blue Hag of Winter, is a weather spirit from the Scottish Highlands, traditionally described as a blue-faced hag wearing a plaid and carrying a heavy mallet. She wears a ripped apron filled with hailstones with which she blights crops. Ocean whirlpools serve as her washtubs and cauldrons.

Unlike some hags, Cailleach Bheur clearly retains her goddess qualities. She is the guardian spirit of cattle, boar, deer, goats, wolves, highland streams, and wells. Wild deer were once considered to be the equivalent of her cattle. They belong to her: she herds and protects them. Hunting them was the equivalent of poaching; in essence the Highlands are the Cailleach Bheur’s personal animal reserve and she is the sacred warden. Her sacred plants include gorse and holly.

Cailleach Bheur is a Frost Queen. From Samhain to Beltane she is the personification of winter. She ushers in winter by striking the ground with her mallet to harden it. When she washes her clothes in her washtubs (ocean whirlpools) Cailleach Bheur raises winter storms.

From Samhain to Beltane, the dark half of the Celtic year, Cailleach Bheur dwells in a cave beneath the mountain Ben Nevis, where she keeps the Summer Maiden captive and has fun tormenting her. On Imbolc, one of Cailleach Bheur’s kind sons (she has two) rescues the Summer Maiden and sets her free. Cailleach Bheur then unleashes the Wolf Storms to prevent and forestall the arrival of summer.

At Beltane, Cailleach Bheur transforms from the Blue Hag into a beautiful woman, a sea snake or a cat. Some years, however, Cailleach Bheur hibernates in the form of a standing stone until the arrival of Samhain when her cycle begins again.

When she’s annoyed, Cailleach Bheur blights the harvest. One touch of her magic staff knocks all the leaves off the trees. In the spring she throws this staff under a holly bush, retrieving it at Samhain.

Cailleach Bheur’s throne is at the summit of the hill named in her honor at Kilberry, Argyll. Noblesse oblige: she grants wishes to those who come to petition her there. Make a wish as you throw a stone as an offering onto the seat. Address her politely but do not call her by her name as it angers her.

There are also legends about what seems to be a different Cailleach Bheur. This one lived on the shores of Loch Ba on the Isle of Mull in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides where, every hundred years or so, she immersed herself in the waters of the lake to renew her immortality. One year she waited until it was too late and died.

Another legend may be a variation of that one or may describe yet another Blue Hag. This Cailleach Bheur had charge of a well of flowing water on the summit of Ben Cruachan in Argyll. Every sundown it was her responsibility to cap the well with a large flat stone and then, in the morning, to roll away the stone, releasing the waters.

Once, absolutely exhausted from driving her deer and goats across the mountains, she fell asleep beside the well without capping it. The water flowed all night, creating Loch Awe but drowning people and animals in the process. When Cailleach Bheur awoke it was too late: she was so ashamed and horrified that she turned into a standing stone.

See ANIMALS: Cats, Goats, Snakes; CALENDAR: Beltane, Imbolc, Samhain.