Cailleach and the Groundhog

Cailleach is the Celtic Crone. Punxsutawney Phil is a groundhog. And believe it or not, they are related to each other.

Wood-gathering and Shadows

The Crone can create fear, or minimally create a great deal of anxiety for contemporary folks. So we have transformed a mythic but powerful immortal spirit who leaves her winter shelter half way between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox to gather wood wood for the rest of the season into a rodent, a marmot. In the old tales, if it is a bright, sunny day, the Cailleach enjoys her gathering time and collects much wood, which will last through the long, extended Winter. If it is a damp, gloomy day, she gathers on a bit of wood if she gathers any at all and Winter will end soon because she has only wood enough in her hut to last but a short time.

So, obviously, Phil the groundhog replaces the scary old women in the fortune telling we as a people engage in when we tire of Winter and want to know how much longer it will be with us on February 2nd. It must be a truly ancient superstition as the groundhog was translated from a badger in German folktales to a groundhog in North American tales.

But both the Celtic and the Germanic traditions probably derived from a similar ancient belief about seasons and weather.

Dark, Cold, Old, Scary Women

Culture pretends to love the grandmother, but we love individuals, the singular person, the Grandma whom we love. The collective aggregate of grandmothers is frightening to contemporary people..  We call the generic old woman a crone, a hag, or a witch.  She is the the frightening old lady who lives near woods and marshes just beyond the civilized edge of the village and is everything that the predominantly patriarchal culture fears:

  • a woman who can live on her own
  • in the wild
  • with knowledge of herbs and women’s wisdom
  • that can influence life and death
  • and women’s secret processes
  • and who assist young women, birthing women, and mothers
  • apart from the male controlled aspects of the village

Sometimes women join in this male-orchestrated suspicion of the old wise woman:

  • as knowledge one does not have can seem strange
  • the winter, or the last quarter of a long life is a distant, foreign, and frightening country
  • if they are fearful of losing  the appeal of their good looks and fertility

The fear of aging is endemic in western culture.  Appearance is often valued over experience.  And I have to admit, even with being aware of all this, I do not care for the word crone.  Being very much a product of my culture I do not care for anything that conjures up the word hag.  Though I embrace my age, the stereotype and lack of linguistic nuance, can make me crazy.
We need a positive word for women of age, for mature women.  I love the concepts of mystery and the all-knowing vantage over life of the wise woman.

Cailleach is a powerful being and brings the winter, the respite of from farming and harvest; some say she ages backwards in recognition of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. The wise recognize Winter and death/rebirth as a process that exists beyond mortal life.

Celtic lands still have signs of an ancient Cailleach though they vary from rural Scotland where a still tended shrine to the goddess Cailleach exists, to the far Irish Coast where Cailleach Beara is a remembered as a Winter Goddess.

Cailleach may trace back to an Ice Age migration from the Iberian Peninsula.   Ancient historians Herodotus and Pliny mentioned that Callaeci or followers of the Cailleach resided in Iberia.  Other early Irish religious sources mention a Spanish origin for populations in the British and Irish Isles.

The stories of Cailleach do seem to be distinct from the pantheon of other Gods and Goddesses, and are probably older than them as her stories cover the entirety of the British Isles while other deities correlate with specific migrations of later times.

Further reading:

Sorita d’Este & David Rankine

2008            Visions of the Cailleach: exploring the myths, folklore and legends of the pre-eminent Celtic hag goddess.  London: BM Avalonia.

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