Celebrating spring: Spring Equinox and the Cailleach

by Sharon Blackie

I often hear statements like ‘The Celts didn’t celebrate the equinoxes; they only really celebrated the four cross-quarter days’ (Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain). But the truth is, once we try to go back beyond the past few centuries, we have no real idea what the people in these islands who we’ve tended to give the label ‘Celtic’ celebrated at all. I’ve written about that in other places, but just as a reminder: we have very few written records from the first millenium AD, from anywhere in the so-called Celtic nations except Ireland. In Ireland, those records are emphatically not records of religious practices. The Christian scribes who wrote the old stories down were happy enough to work with the filid (the bards); they had no intention at all of working with the druids, who were still at the helm of a competing religious tradition. So we can find the odd clue about spiritual beliefs and practices in those old tales, sagas and poems, but that’s all they are. Clues. Almost everything which matters is missing.

But there are clues nevertheless about the importance of the spring equinox; in Ireland one of them is the timing of St Patrick’s Day, on March 17 – very close to the day of Spring Equinox (which usually falls around 20th/ 21st March). Given that most major Christian festivals were assigned dates that had formerly been significant to pre-Christian natives of these islands, it may well have been that there was a festival of which little is now known. It’s not entirely unfeasible; we know for sure that the quarter days – the solstices and equinoxes – were marked by the Neolithic (pre-Celtic) people who constructed the old monuments and passage tombs. Take, for example, Sliabh na Cailli, at Loughcrew, County Meath. In 1980 it was discovered that a stone is positioned so that on the spring and autumn equinoxes, the rising sun casts its light onto intricate designs carved on the walls of a passage tomb (Cairn T) by its ancient builders. Sliabh na Caillí – Hill of the Old Woman – is named for the Cailleach, the old woman of Gaelic (Scottish and Irish) myth who created and shaped the land. Are there, then, other connections between the Cailleach and Spring Equinox which would suggest that this time of year might have been associated with her?

In Ireland, there is a rather mysterious holiday on March 18, the day which follows St Patrick’s Day, known as ‘Sheelah’s Day’. It’s referred to in folklore sources from the beginning of the eighteenth century but clearly is a much older tradition. Who was Sheelah? The truth is we have no idea. Theories abound: that she was St Patrick’s wife, or perhaps his mother. But the nature of the stories about Sheelah’s day strongly indicate a pagan origin. In Ireland, and also in Irish areas of Newfoundland, it’s said that if it snows on or around St. Patrick’s Day, Sheelah is using her brush to sweep away winter and bring in spring. Another suggestion is that Sheelah’s Day was originally a holiday to celebrate the Sheela-na-gig. The history of the Sheela-na-gig is a whole other blog post, but there are some associations between these remarkable carvings and the Cailleach. In the Irish language, Sheela is spelled Síle. The name Síle does not, as is often erroneously stated, mean ‘hag’ in Old Irish – however, it is a name that was often given to old women. Which makes sense, as the Sheela-na-gigs have distinctly haggish qualities. And a name for the grey heron in Irish is Síle na bportach – old woman of the bog – which also makes sense, as herons and hags are closely associated in Irish myth.

Although the Cailleach’s mythology in Scotland is in many ways different from Ireland, there are also a couple of clues from Scottish folklore which suggest that there might once have been some association between the Cailleach and this time of year. In contrast to the Irish tradition, in Scotland the Cailleach is specifically associated with the winter season, and with stormy weather. A handful of references in Scottish folklore mention a day named Là na Caillich, or the Day of the Cailleach, the date of which is given as March 25 (which also used to be the official, ‘fixed’ day for spring equinox – a rather bizarre idea, given that it’s a variable astronomical event – in the Scottish calendar). On this day, some sources suggest, she finally gave up her struggle against the onslaught of spring; she threw down the staff which she had been using all winter to bring snow and barrenness to the land. (Is the Cailleach’s staff comparable to Sheelah’s broom?) Other stories suggest that this is the time of year at which the Cailleach renews herself – usually by bathing in a special pool of water – and regains her youth as winter turns to spring. And so Là na Caillich might – appropriately for a festival at a time of the Earth’s rebirth and renewal – have celebrated the Cailleach’s annual rebirth and renewal.

As is so often the case, we know very little of what our ancestors believed, and of the rituals in which they engaged. Given the paucity of information available to us, efforts to accurately reconstruct an ancestral religion are doomed to failure. But to me, it makes absolute sense to follow the clues, and sense our way to authentic practices which make use of them – but which also make sense in the very different world we occupy today. This spring equinox, I’ll be celebrating the Divine Hag of the Gaels in all her forms. As Síle, vulva wide open, the epitome of what University of Cork folklorist Gearóid O Crualaoich calls Ireland’s ‘abiding sense of a supreme, sovereign, female, cosmic agency … a universe whose outer and ultimate layer is the domain of a divine female who permeates the whole with her presence and her power.’ As the Cailleach, who the old stories show us as guardian and protector of the wild things and wild places – a Cailleach we could do with calling in today. But above all, as the Cailleach who represents the Earth itself: the land which she created and shaped, and which, through the passage of seasons, periodically renews itself, just as she does.

 

6 Replies to “Celebrating spring: Spring Equinox and the Cailleach”

  1. Another informative and uplifting post, Sharon. Thank you! We are feeling the tenacious presence of the Cailleach here in SE Pa. in the US. Another bout of snow and wind is coming our way, her breath sweeping over us as a reminder that no matter how advanced we may think we are, we are still at the mercy of nature’s rhythms. What you said in your post about following the clues to better understand how out ancestors lived made me think that one of the most useful things we can do is try to live more closely to the natural rhythms of our home place, and of the planet at large.

  2. The more I read by, and about, the antiquarians and early folklorists of Britain and Ireland, the less I trust them as sources. However, I’m not at the point of entirely sorting them all out as individuals in my mind yet. Are there certain of these that you consider more trustworthy?

    1. Sharon Blackie says: Reply

      Kris – that’s a big subject but just to say the early sources were working with much less information than we have available to us now, which is why they’re unreliable. Celtic Studies in general has been revolutionised in the past 40 years – our understanding of languages, origins, archaeology etc has grown remarkably. So unless you’re just looking at folk tales and folk customs, you really need to read the most recent books by accredited scholars.

      1. Yes, sorry, my question was unclear. It was in response to how you prefaced some of your statements about The Cailleach with phrases like “some sources suggest”. I was referring in particular to sources on the Cailleach, most of which I’m familiar with, but also that general group of folklorists who span from the late 18th to early 20th century. It’s interesting that you say that they had less information than we have, since they had a richer source of informants grounded in the oral tradition that we will ever have. What most of them seem to lack is anything like a detached or scientific approach. So my question was meant to ask which of those you feel tampered with their material the least.

        1. Sharon Blackie says: Reply

          I’d love to have time here to weigh up the pros and cons of all those folklorists but I’m afraid I don’t 🙂 They had a rich source of oral lore from their day, yes, and I’m not suggesting they didn’t record that lore accurately, as they heard it. But folk memory of course is often poor, and old traditions often get mangled, especially as they come under pressure and begin to fade. So my own focus (and my own area of expertise) is usually on sources older than the 18th to 20th centuries, to the extent that they exist. Who was ‘Sheelah’ originally, and why did she have a day? We are more likely to find the answer to that in the oldest sources we have, when the traditions were still strong, not the newest. And so in my reply to you above I was referring to the very old sources – the ones which were written down in the first millenium AD and the later Medieval period. Of which there are many which have only recently been translated, or translations of which have been more accurately completed. Hence my comment about the field of Celtic Studies having moved on considerably over the past few decades so that we now have sources available to use that scholars from earlier ages don’t have. It’s also important here, for clarity, to differentiate between the work of traditional folklorists, who are generally (at least at the times you mention; folklore as an academic subject has expanded somewhat now) largely recording the traditions of their time, and Celtic Studies scholars, who study the literature, history and other aspects of culture across the ages and try to make sense of it all from a broader perspective.

  3. Bridget O'Connell says: Reply

    Go raibh maith agat,,,,
    Having looked/dreamt/felt Síle for decades,,,the unknown,,,is Her sanctuary,,,thanks for empathizing this,,,regards,,Bridget(Ireland&France)

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