The winter solstice marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. Throughout autumn and winter, the days have been getting shorter and shorter. On the winter solstice in Philadelphia, the sun will set at 4:39pm and rise on the morning of December 22nd at 7:20pm– almost 15 hours of darkness. After the winter solstice, we will get more and more hours of daylight each day. Midwinter festivals around the world celebrate that rebirth of the sun and the reawakening of nature on the winter solstice.
This week, we will explore various midwinter customs, including taking a Winter Solstice citrus bath, baking sweet treats for Saint Lucia’s Day, making natural bird feeders, decorating our altars for winter, and doing a midwinter tarot spread. And, as the solstice is the official start of winter, I can finally share my favorite goddess, the Cailleach, The Storm Hag. She is the goddess of winter and wilderness who creates tempests in the seas and covers the land in snow.
Cailleach literally translates as “old woman” or “hag”, and comes from the Old Gaelic word for “veiled one”. The Cailleach is an ancient goddess of Ireland and Scotland who was, over time, recast as an ugly old witch. The appearance of The Cailleach is of a giant old woman who wears an apron and carries a basket on her back. She holds a white rod that freezes the land and a hammer that shapes the earth. In some stories, she has blue skin and one eye. She is a vastly ancient and powerful creator deity whose lore is still associated with many sacred sites and magical landscapes across Ireland and Scotland.
One common theme in the Cailleach tales is her vast age. She was born when the earth began and, in some tales, is the mother of all of the other gods and goddesses. It is said she is also the mother or foster mother of several powerful Irish clans. She not only walked the British Isles long before they were Christianized, she helped create them. Several mountains and hills were created when the Cailleach, in giantess form, dropped huge rocks from her apron.
Some of the numerous place names associated with the Cailleach include The Hag’s Head on the Cliffs of Moher, Hag Cliff in Galway, The Hag’s House at Tigh nam Bodach, the Callanish standing stones on the Isle of Lewis, and Hag’s Mountain, atop which sit the megalithic tombs of Loughcrew.
The Cailleach is often associated with water and wells, which are power sites of magic and portals to the Otherworld in Celtic folklore. She created some of the rivers and lochs in Scotland, and it was her responsibility to put the cap on wells each night to keep the lands from flooding. The Corryvreckan whirlpool in Scotland, one of the largest whirlpools in the world, is named for the Cailleach, and it is said she washes her plaid in it, and when she washes it white, snow has covered the land.
The Cailleach rules from autumn to winter, the seasons that are associated with the elements of water and earth. Water and earth are also the elements that the Cailleach controls and the elements of feminine energy. Her feminine energy is not towards mothering human children but mothering the earth itself, as well as its animals. In Scotland, the Cailleach’s special animals are red deer, and in Ireland they are cows. She is also known to protect goats, sheep, and cattle; to ride wolves; and to transform into birds. Some scholars conjecture that there was an ancient female deer-cult associated with the Cailleach in Scotland, whose priestesses protected animals and holy wells.
The Cailleach is known in many places, in many guises, and by many names, including Veiled One, Old Wife of Thunder, Daughter of the Little Sun, Queen of Winter, Storm Hag, Grandmother Winter, Blue Hag of Winter, Bone Mother, Woman of Stones, Queen of Witches, Lady of the Beasts, and Lady of Gloominess.
I was first drawn to the Cailleach because I love storms, thunder, lightning, and high winds. I can feel the changes in the air when storms are approaching and like to sit outside, under an overhang or on my screened porch, when storms are raging. I didn’t have winter when I was growing up in South Florida, but I did have storms. I experienced several hurricanes and tornadoes, the daily torrential downpours of South Florida’s summers, and a few close calls with lightning in the lightning capital of the United States. Storms are in my blood, so when I found out that there is a Storm Hag in the myths of the lands of my ancestors I learned all about her and claimed her as my patron.
This winter solstice, the darkest night of the year, is an auspicious time to connect to the Cailleach. She is old, no young spring blossom, but she is in the height of her power. She is not usually associated with the other gods in the Celtic pantheon, likely because she is far older than them. She is a primal force, connected to earth and water. And she puts the health and balance of the natural world and the animals that inhabit it before the wishes of the humans around her. She is the personification of cold winter and wild storms– female power that is both wild and wielded.