Brighid, the Cailleach, and the Battle for Spring

© by Dillon Carlyon

La donn Bride,
Ged robh tri traighean dh’ an t-sneachd
Air leachd an lair.

The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bride,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.

~~ Scottish proverb ~~

Occurring as it does in the second half of winter, Imbolc can be a rather worrisome time of the year, and acts of celebration and ritual provide a positive outlet of energy during the grimmest of seasons. The spiritual significance of this time of year predates the Celtic presence in Ireland. Just as Newgrange is aligned in such a way as to allow sunlight into the megalith on Winter Solstice, the Loughcrew burial mounds and the Mound of the Hostages at Tara are actually aligned with the rising sun of both Samhain and Imbolc–in other words, the respective emergences of the first signs of winter and the first signs of spring. Perhaps partly due to the physical influence of these sites, Imbolc was equally significant to the Celtic-speaking people who came later. There was undoubtedly much anxiety during this time over how much longer the winter would last; even an extra week of bad weather could mean the difference between scraping by and suffering the effects of malnutrition or succumbing to starvation.

During the Iron Age, the Irish did not practice agriculture to the same extent after it was later introduced to their culture. Livestock, particularly cattle, were the chief food staple and the main form of currency. Wintering a large number of livestock was not practical, and so, before winter, the majority of them were slaughtered, their meat salted and stored, and everything else of practical use was similarly taken from the carcasses. Signs of the beginning of spring meant that it would not be so long before the numbers of livestock would swell again, and the perilous days of winter would flow into the surety of vegetation, meat, and dairy once again made plentiful.

Considering the implications of this all-important seasonal transition, it is not surprising that traditions of weather prognostication are closely associated with this time of the year. The prediction of weather by metaphysical means may seem archaic in light of the satellites and other advanced technology employed today for the same purpose. Consider, however, what the simple event of even a slightly strong storm would have been to our ancestors who farmed the fields, tended livestock, and fished. Lives could be lost and months of hard work could be torn asunder in the blink of an eye. This being the case, it is easy to see that weather prognostication would not have been something that only Druids did. Anyone intent on preserving their own lives and the continuity of their families and communities would have had at least some rudimentary knowledge of how to read signs in the sky, land, or water. Simply put, reading the weather would have been an integral part of everyday life.

Much weather lore that survives our pre-satellite days is very accurate. Take these two rhymes, probably of English origin:

Mackerel sky and mares' tails make lofty ships carry low sails.

When rain comes before the wind, dories, gear and vessel mind;
When wind comes before the rain, soon you'll make the set again

The “mare’s tails” in the first rhyme are the cirrus clouds that indicate the low air pressure preceding wind and rain by about a day. As for the second rhyme, rain before wind can mean a front, and therefore bad weather for one or two days, whereas wind before rain usually means a rainstorm that will blow over quickly.

Two Irish weather proverbs are a little less direct, but both relate directly to a discussion of Imbolc:

Is iomaí athrú a chuireann lá Márta dhe.
There is a lot of weather in a March day.

Is annamh earrach gan fuacht.
Seldom is Spring without cold.

Clearly, traditions of weather prognostication are closely associated with Imbolc. Groundhog Day is a survival of such observances in North America, and the holiday is thought to have originated from an association with the badger in German folklore. If the badger or groundhog sees his shadow–in other words, if the weather is sunny–then winter is doomed to last another six weeks. On the surface, this is a contradiction. If the weather is good, why would the winter be longer, and not shorter? There is certainly an echo of the modern expression “take the bad with the good” here, but there is also deeper symbolism at work.

The connection between sunny weather and a longer winter is reflected in an Irish tradition about the Cailleach, the Goddess in her crone aspect, a fearsome reminder of the power of winter to take life. The Cailleach gathers firewood for the rest of the winter on Imbolc, and she makes the weather clear on that day so she can fetch extra wood. Caillagh ny Groamagh is her name on the Isle of Man, and there she appears on Imbolc as a gigantic bird, carrying sticks in her beak. This reminds of the association that other crone goddesses such as the Morrigan are given with carrion birds. Fascinatingly, Lady Wilde cites a tradition that Irish witches often take the form of hares or weasels. Rabbits have long had a close folk association with spring, while the weasel is in the same mammal family as the badger, the animal thought to be the German folklore prototype that gave way to North America’s Groundhog Day. Did the Cailleach also sometimes take the form of a badger or weasel–or, to stretch things a bit, the form of a serpent as cited in the traditional rhyme at the beginning of this article–when she emerged to see how much longer the winter might last?

Similarly, the goddess Brighid, the most central figure in Imbolc celebrations, also shows great power over weather, particularly the ability to evoke daylight. St. Brighid asked God for clear weather every other Sunday, the better for her to preach the good word. Her request was said to have been granted and to have stoked a touch of jealousy in St. Patrick, who then asked the favor of having his holy day free of foul weather as well. In another legend, St. Brendan gets frustrated upon observing the ease with which Brighid is able to hang her cloak on a sunbeam, and only after getting huffy and copying her three times is he able to accomplish the same feat.

At this point, the line between Brighid the mother Goddess/Saint and the Cailleach, the starved and wretched hag of winter, begin to blur. Two additional stories further illustrate how intricately interwoven these two goddesses are.

Brigit Spreads Her Cloak

When she was a poor girl she was minding her cow one time at the Curragh of Life, and she had no place to feed it but the side of the road. And a rich man that owned the land came by and saw her and he said "How much land would it take to give grass to the cow?" "As much as my cloak would cover" said she. "I will give that" said the rich man. She laid down her cloak then, and it was spreading out miles and miles on every side. But there was a silly old woman passing by and she said "If that cloak goes on spreading, all Ireland will be free;" and with that the cloak stopped and spread no more.

Clearly, the old woman in this tale is none other than the Cailleach. Another story, entitled “The Hags of the Long Teeth” begins with a troupe of gentleman engaging in a hare chase, leading them to the doorstep of the Hags in question, who cannot be removed from the forest they dwell in until the curse that keeps them there runs its course. During the story a priest is maimed by the dog that guards the Hags, but a robin brings the priest an herb, and his health and senses are restored. The priest and his Bishop are then able to help the witches successfully end their curse forever. Here, I would argue that the robin represents the sun itself, the child of Brighid. Lady Wilde writes that killing a robin redbreast in Ireland is a grievous event that heralds many generations of bad luck. Brighid herself can be associated with the lark, for another folk tradition states that should the lark be heard singing on Imbolc, it is not only a sign of good weather, but also brings good luck for the entire day to whomever hears it first that morning.

In the Auraicept na nEces, the Scholar’s Primer, the lark is associated with the Heather tree. The Word Ogham of Morann Mac Main entry for this Ogham is “cold dwellings, the mould of the earth,” while the Word Ogham of Mac Ind Oic states “growing of plants.” Death precedes life; life and death complement one another. At the same time, a tree that is very important to the celebration of Imbolc is the Birch. The Word Ogham for this tree states, “of withered trunk, fair haired the Birch.” The wounded and sometimes peeling bark of the birch reveals pliant, sweet smelling wood underneath. Consider this tree for a moment, and what a wonderful contradiction we are presented with here. The tree is, itself, an embodiment of the battle between Brighid and the Cailleach–the fair hair of Brighid and the withered trunk, or body, of the Cailleach; it is a picture of the Goddess between forms. It is a tree of new beginnings, of life springing from death and death springing from life, for just as Birch trees can give birth to a new forest, they are overshadowed and sometimes killed by the shadows of the bigger, heartier trees that they once nurtured.

The traditions of weather working and prognostication illustrate the undertones of a battle, and though the specifics are lost to us, we can piece together the main message. The sun, or the light, dies at Yule, the longest night of the year. On Imbolc, the first signs of the return of the light are to be seen, carried into the house by none other than Brighid. She represents the generative forces signaling the subtle but steady changes that herald spring. The buds of flowers are to be seen, and animals that were dormant or in hibernation during the winter are once again becoming active. Brighid, “the fiery arrow,” gives birth to the light, while her darker counterpart and opposite, the Cailleach, fights her, tooth and nail, every step of the way. Some years the Cailleach retreats earlier, and some years she’s a little tougher for Brighid to beat back. But the Wheel of the Year turns–Brighid’s father, the Dagda, sees to that–and eventually, inevitably, the light does win out.

As the light grows longer
The cold grows stronger
If Candlemas be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight
If Candlemas be cloud and snow
Winter will be gone and not come again
A farmer should on Candlemas day
Have half his corn and half his hay
On Candlemas day if thorns hang a drop
You can be sure of a good pea crop
This is the Day of Bride
The Queen will come from the Mound
This is the day of Bride
The serpent will come from the hole

~~ Traditional Folk Rhymes ~~


Sources:
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Dillon Carlyon lives near the Gulf of Mexico in Texas. He is currently a member of the Oak Grove, and has been practicing shamanism and studying Celtic lore since his teens. A graduate of Loyola University New Orleans, where he earned a degree in English, he is now in the process of beginning graduate work in Celtic and Irish Studies. His hobbies include a great deal of reading and writing, making and performing both traditional Celtic as well as goth/industrial music, DJ-ing, and karate.