The old tales tell of a woman who lived high on the mountain. A frail looking creature, skin as blue as the ice and hair, white as the snow-covered mountain top. The tales could not agree whether she was a witch, a faerie or something else entirely. One thing they did agree on was that he visited her.
It was in late October, at the waning of autumn; the time of year when the world grew grey and cold. Darkness had just began to fall when she heard a faint knocking at her door. A visitor was a rarity and never anyone but her sister. This was different: Brighde never came earlier than November.
She opened it with some curiosity.
Outside stood a young boy. He was shivering in the frosty air despite his thick coat. She regarded him with a raised eyebrow. He stamped his feet and folded his arms across his body, tucking his exposed hands into his armpits.
At first, she wondered if he was lost but then he spoke.
‘M-M-Mother W-W-Winter?’ he enquired through chattering teeth. When she nodded, he continued: ‘I’ve come to look after you until spring.’
She eyed him up and down. A waif of a thing, small and pale. She began to laugh. A deep cackle that sounded like cliff faces crumbling into the raging surf.
‘You?’ She asked after a time. Her hand wiping at an icy tear. ‘Do you know who I am, boy?
‘Aye, ma’am. You’re the Cailleach. The Winter.’
‘I’m so much more than that, child.’
She shifted her weight onto her knurled willow staff and held out her hands to the boy, palms facing up. He leaned in to look.
‘You see that, child? The calluses? The scars? I made this land with these hands. I shaped the mountains and the lakes and everything in between.’
Her hands withdrew. Fingers curling around the staff once again.
The boy jumped as she slammed it hard into the ground. His eyes wide.
Beneath him, the ground shook. Fissures radiated out from point where the willow touched the earth. Small fractures widening to deep crevasses.
The mountain split in two.
‘I control the skies and the squalls. I’ve wrecked ships and drowned sailors.’
Dark clouds gathered. From over the horizon came the crash and roll of thunder. Flashes of light cut through the darkness.
‘I am the chill in the air. The driving snow…’
And with the word, the first flakes glided from the sky to rest on the frozen earth.
The boy grinned and reached a cold hand beneath his coat, taking something from within. He offered it to her, wrapped tightly in his small fingers.
The Cailleach smiled at the proffered bundle of knotted cornstalks. An offering in her own likeness.
‘Och! You do so much, Mother Winter,’ the boy said. ‘Maybe it’s time you rested. I’ll gather your firewood this year.’
Her icy heart warmed a little.
C is for Cailleach Bheur
The Cailleach, also known as Cailleach Bheur, is a divine hag and creatrix in both the Irish and Scottish Pantheons. The Cailleach is the personification of winter and is credited with the creation of mountains and other natural landmarks. In partnership with the goddess Brìghde, the Cailleach is seen as a seasonal deity or spirit, ruling the winter months between Samhainn (1 November or first day of winter) and Bealltainn (1 May or first day of summer), while Brìghde rules the summer months.