Mythologies across the world have stories from before the regular pantheon. Before the Norse gods there were frost giants, and before Zeus there was Cronos and the Titans.
The Winter Hag, or Cailleach, is an ancient deity, a goddess of winter and the land who predates even the earliest Celtic pantheon of spirits. My aunt Valeria—an expert on mythology through her own religious practices—once told me a folktale all about how no one could recall the Winter Hag’s age.
The story goes: One day, a parish priest visited Cailleach’s house to asks how old she was. The woman replied that she couldn’t quite remember, but every year on her birthday she would kill a cow and throw the thigh bone in her attic. So if he wanted to, he could go up to the attic and count the bones. In the end the priest sent his assistant to go, and the last anyone heard, the young priest is still counting.
It’s a joke, but it accurately represents the proto-age of the mythos. A dark, scary earth mother from a cold, ancient time where the harsh northern winters of Ireland and Scotland could easily kill. She sleeps throughout the summer and returns in late fall to bring winter across the land.
My aunt has been interested in the legends of the Winter Hag for years. Fittingly, we sat down by the fireplace on a winter night with a glass of wine and talked a lot about the evolution of religion, and how deities are shaped to fit the lands they’re brought to through diaspora and travel. The Winter Hag comes from Ireland and Scotland and was such an integral part of the land there, but being adopted by practitioners across the world shapes the mythology, in much the same way that European and American Christian practices can be so different.
The Winter Hag’s mythology predates the maiden/mother/crone archetypes defining so many women in folklore. These proto-deity earth mothers are found throughout mythologies and come from a time when land was central to existence. The Hag is her own woman, having many lives, faces, and facets representing the whole of her experiences on earth. She’s the grandmother, the spinner, and the weaver, similar to the Fates in other mythologies.
Her appearance is described in the tale of Beira, Queen of Winter as that of a very old, wrinkled woman with a blue face and one eye. In Norse mythology, as recounted in James Weigel’s Mythology, the god Odin shares this feature, having traded his other eye for wisdom.
According to the Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, the name Cailleach means “old woman” in Modern Gaelic, but comes from an older word for “veiled one.” But rather than veiled out of modesty, like the Catholic nuns who came to populate the insular world once Christianity spread across pagan lands, the Winter Hag covers herself in a veil of mystery. She isn’t about hiding her appearance, and neither is it the practice of those who worship her. Valeria described how some contemporary rituals involve looking deep into a mirror to really look at yourself and see the strength of all the qualities you’ve acquired in your life. Seeing Cailleach in yourself means seeing – and accepting – yourself for who you really are.
The stories of the Hag are helpful guidelines when looking at aging, mortality, and change. Old age and ugliness can be seen as terrible things, especially for women in contemporary society. “There’s a lot of this identity where your value as a human being is about being sexually attractive to men,” Valeria mentioned. She feels that, as women grow older, they grow more invisible, but also that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can help take focus off of physical appearance, one of many, many aspects of womanhood. “And you get less focus from creepy men,” she laughs, but it is very true.
A lot of the “fear” of the elderly comes from a fear of death. But, as in the case of the Winter Hag, age can indicate how long you’ve survived just as much as it indicates how close to death you are. It’s good for old and young people to share each other’s strength, and it benefits folklore, stories, and wisdom. I experienced this firsthand while I talked to Valeria; I learned about mythology, but I also gained a better perspective on the relationships between youth and age.
The story of the Winter Hag is all about teaching each other from experiences and accepting aging and changing. This folklore came to Valeria at a point in her life when she was accepting change and becoming an elder within her community; it really made her think about the passage of time – in stories and community – and everyone’s place within it. She’s going to be a grandmother soon, which puts it all into a concrete perspective. It’s similar to the sense in which you’re a different person now than you were in high school, but you’re also still the same person. You are aging and growing, both spiritually and physically.
Winter is resisted the same way aging is. But if it was always summer, and we were always young, the natural balance would be upset. “Part of embracing the hag is accepting the seasons and appreciating what winter offers us,” Valeria reminds me. I offer up the idea that winter functions as a “palate cleanser” for all the emotional strife that summer always brings me; something to wipe away all the drama and leave you ready to start over again. Valeria agrees, “If it was always summer it would be out of balance.” The unchanging can only offer so much.
-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege