Nicneven and the Cailleach Bhéarra: Queen of Winter

Arthur Rackham. The Snow Queen. 1884.

This article is part of a series on Nicneven. The links to part one and part two can be found here and here.

New Year, New Post: We’re going to venture a little off the beaten path in this next piece, and into the dangerous territory of unverified personal gnosis. Just stay with me on this, all right?

So what we have covered so far is that Nicneven is more than just a one time figure that shows up in one poem. Nicneven, though not specifically named at each time was a figure widespread through the popular folklore of Scottish history – she is named in a few witch trials, and the way that she has been mentioned at every turn implies the reader’s familiarity with her in a way that puts it beyond reasonable doubt.

Nicneven and the titles, authorities, and powers given to her were known to such a degree that written works which mention her assume that the reader will immediately know her. And it’s fascinating, really. The fact that while we are lacking so much on her now, at one point there was enough information about her that it didn’t need to be spelled out in a journal or a book.

Now, let’s turn our attention to another Scottish figure of renown: the Cailleach.

The Cailleach Bhéarra, if you’re not familiar with her, is the winter hag who washes her tartan in the waters at Corryvreckan, heralding the coming of the winter months. The word ‘Cailleach’ in modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic means “hag”. However, the old Irish ‘Caillech’ means “veiled one”, which in turn stems from the Latin ‘pallium’, meaning “woolen cloak”. This second translation is the one that I operate from as a basis for my understanding of her role. The Cailleach to which I am referring is also called Beira or Bui, Queen of Winter, and she has been attributed with the creation of Scotland. But she’s not limited only to Scotland – the Cailleach is found in Irish and Manx folklore as well.

This Cailleach of Scottish folklore is described as a blue faced crone, wearing a grey mantle (like the Gyre Carline). She dropped rocks from her creel or wicker basket to form the mountains. Some of the stories here vary, saying it was an accident and others argue that it was done intentionally to create her stepping stones.

As I discussed in the previous article, Nicneven has already been linked to the Gyre Carline, another harbinger of changing seasons and a shaper of the land. The mountain called Ben Nevis stands tall against the backdrop of all of this activity – this is the home of the Cailleach and perhaps not so coincidentally, also the mountain from which Nicneven rides out.

From the mountain, the Cailleach walks the land and as her hammer strikes the trees and ground around her they become covered in ice. She is the blue faced hag, the winter mother, the fae queen and when the snows begin to fall, we must pay a tribute to her. Much like the folklore of the Gyre Carline and Nicneven, stories of the Cailleach were used to scare children into behaving properly.

“The aged Beira was fearsome to look upon. She had only one eye, but the sight of it was keen and sharp as ice and as swift as the mackerel of the ocean. Her complexion was a dull, dark blue, and this is how she sang about it:

Why is my face so dark, so dark?
So dark, oho! so dark, ohee!
Out in all weathers I wander alone
In the mire, in the cold, ah me!

Her teeth were red as rust, and her locks, which lay heavily on her shoulders, were white as an aspen covered with hoar-frost. On her head she wore a spotted mutch. All her clothing was grey, and she was never seen without her great dun-coloured shawl, which was drawn closely round her shoulders.”

Mackenzie, D.M (1917). ‘Wonder Tales of from Scottish Myth and Legend’.

The Cailleach functions much in the same sort of role as the Gyre Carline – a dark midwife type figure, the lonely hag, the loathly lady, the sharp wife. She is a challenger of humans; those who come across her had better be prepared to be tested. If they pass the test, they may receive a reward. But there are dire consequences for those who fail and for those who have not followed the rules.

Henry Justice Ford. The Snow-Queen. 1901.

It’s been a long time now since I first met the enigmatic queen who ruled a winter kingdom. It’s been years since I made my first dedication to her – ritually bathing myself in a copper cauldron filled with fresh February snow and charmed silver. I didn’t know anything about her back then, just that I was enamored of her. I didn’t know that every year with her would be a revelation, and many of my nights would be spent in song and poetry dedicated to her.

Old folk customs involved the creation of a corn dolly at the end of harvest which was named for the Cailleach. Whoever was last to finish their harvest was forced to take the Cailleach into their home and keep her for the winter, caring for her all the while. Quite the opposite of the February tradition of creating a corn dolly to represent Brighde and hosting her through the remainder of the year. One brought light and warmth, the other brough the icy chill of winter and the possibility of food shortages. I can only assume that this rite of ‘taking the Cailleach into the home’ was an act of appeasement dressed as a folk tradition. It seems that if a family took her in for the winter, provided her with food and bed and warmth, it was in the hopes that she might look favorably upon the household and livestock during the winter months.

Brighde was welcomed into the home as the coming of spring and summer, the light in the darkness and the recession of the cold winter months – a harsh time of untenable climate and food that had to be carefully rationed. A bed was made for Brighde, and the front door of the home was opened to enthusiastically invite her in.

However, it is with increasing importance that we recognize that one cannot exist without the other. In the fall, it is Brighde who is spirited away; imprisoned in the stones of the mountain by the Cailleach, as some stories say. The Cailleach rails harshly against the coming spring and summer seasons, lamenting and angrily summoning storms for one final gust of winter before casting her hammer aside in defeat. Brighde is freed from her stony prison, either by Aengus, or by her own hand.

The other version of events is not so dark, but equally important here. As the seasons change, it is said that the goddess Brighde is transformed into the Cailleach. And as the winter begins to recede, she drinks from a well of youth and once more becomes the bright and fiery Brighde.

This physical transformation is a recurring theme throughout fairy and folk lore – most often shown in stories where an ugly woman becomes beautiful. The story of the Cailleach and Brighde stands out as remarkable because it’s not often that you find a beautiful woman shifting into a frightening hag.

Another story with this theme that I find interesting and somewhat connected to Nicneven and the Cailleach is that of Thomas of Erceldoune and the Fair Queen of Elfland. In this particular version (there are many), True Thomas convinces the Fairy Queen to lie with him. After their lovemaking has ended, Thomas is horrified to discover that the beautiful queen has been transformed into a black and blue hag. Similar to the Cailleach and Brighde also, the Queen of Elfland tells Thomas that she will eventually be restored.

Transformation is no easy thing in fairy, it stands in as a sort of threshold between human and fairy nature – we expect them to be beautiful, we may even need it. But the truth is not always so glamorous or pretty. In fairy we find that darkness or ugliness does not mean a thing is bad, just as beautiful does not equate to goodness. The fair folk tend to be morally ambiguous, operating within the shades of grey and never really falling into any sort of definite categorization of good or evil.

I think this is an important thing to remember here – especially when working with the good people, especially those who can be considered Queens or Deities. While I consider the Cailleach and Brighde to be two sides of the same coin, both have very distinct selves which are separate from each other and both have their moments of tempestuousness and generosity.

Whichever story you choose to acknowledge or accept as true here (if any at all), there are clear elements of Nicneven present in the Cailleach’s story. A transformation, a wearing of faces. In the last two pieces I’ve written about Nicneven it’s been made clear that she has many masks. Nicneven herself is the fearsome figure, but becomes much more than just a leader of a Hallowmass faery rade when she takes on the mask of the Gyre Carline, becoming a creatrix; a being who shaped the land that we stand on.

In the role of the Cailleach, she is very much wearing a similar or same mantle as the Gyre Carline – however, now we have a role that ties her even more deeply to the land as a harbinger of seasonal changes, as well as sovereignty.

The importance of this must be taken into account. The land in Scottish and Irish mythology is not a background character, and for any spirit or deity to have a place name, as well as influence or ties to it’s seasons and weather was an important one.

It is also in the Lament of the Old Woman of Beare (TCD MS 1337, pg 42) that the Cailleach, or Hag of Beare laments her reduced status in life. She tells of being the consort of kings, of being a beautiful young woman:

My body, full of bitterness,
seeks to go to a dwelling where it is known:
when the Son of God deems it time,
let Him come to carry off His deposit.

When my arms are seen,
all bony and thin!
-the craft they used to practise was pleasant:
they used to be about glorious kings.

When my arms are seen,
all bony and thin,
they are not, I declare,
worth raising around comely youths.

In fact, what she speaks of in this lament is more or less akin to the role of a sovereignty goddess – she is courted by kings and so tied to the land that a potential relationship or marriage to her meant the bestowing of a rightful rulership upon a king during his reign.

Swift chariots
and steeds that carried off the prize,
there has been, for a time, a flood of them:
a blessing on the King who has granted them!

And later, she states:

I am cold indeed;
every acorn is doomed to decay.
After feasting by bright candles
to be in the darkness of an oratory!

I have had my day with kings,
drinking mead and wine;
now I drink whey-and-water
among shrivelled old hags.

Finally, her connection to the land is sealed:

My right eye has been taken from me
to be sold for a land that will be for ever mine;
the left eye has been taken also,
to make my claim to that land more secure.

Coming back to the topic of the land itself, Ben Nevis is actually an inactive volcano. Now, if this was a piece of spoken history that had been passed down orally through generations, it makes for an interesting thought that perhaps an ancient eruption of a volcano could have brought forward the concept that the Winter Queen held the Fire Queen imprisoned throughout part of the season. It makes for a nice thought, though it’s unlikely that either of them have anything to do with one another.

However interesting the story may be to consider, Beira is important enough to stand on her own without the additional story of a volcano. So with this in mind, we have a multi-faceted deity who functions as a creatrix, a sovereignty queen, a shapeshifter, and a changer of seasons. This is important – as a sovereignty goddess, whether she has been forgotten or not, she was still a remarkable deity. This was a goddess that kings sought and courted favor from, her touch meant the changing of the seasons from summer to winter. How gentle or harsh she decided to be could determine the wealth and health of the land and it’s people.

Edmund Dulac. Snow Queen. 1844.

In conclusion, it is my personal belief that the Cailleach of Bhéarra and Nicneven, the Queen of Witches and Fae, are in fact, the same being. I also believe that “Cailleach”, like the “Gyre Carline”, are titles attributed to this being and others of that nature who reign over similar domains.

It’s been a long journey, and the research and work has sent me down some interesting rabbit holes (which I intend to write about here eventually), and it’s ongoing. There are still so many more pieces to the puzzle, and hopefully more obscure folklore to dig up.

I began with Nicneven, an enigmatic footnote in the margins of history and started seeking out the intersections of her folklore – what she was capable of, what she looked like, where she was most well known and expanded on that by looking at other folkloric beings who shared the same attributes. This is how I came to my understanding that Nicneven, the Gyre Carline, and the Cailleach Bhéarra are all connected – and in my personal views – the same being. Stories change, they fracture and split and become new entities as oral folklore is carried down. Pieces of the stories get lost, they go missing, they’re forgotten. It was my goal to try to piece some of this together – after all, how can a spirit such as Nicneven who, when discussed in the surviving folklore, is so well-known that the authors assume they do not need to further extrapolate? The answer may simply be that she held these other titles and names; when one was mentioned, everyone listening instinctively knew about the others and the associated stories.

Speaking solely from my own experiences, Nicneven is a fierce and fearsome being; the Fairy Queen of Witchcraft and Winter. She’s not someone that you would want to approach lightly. She’s not here to mother anyone or hold their hand, if she has work for you she will make it known. She has high expectations and she holds her subjects to them. Her lessons and rewards are great – there are many things I never expected of myself or of my relationship with her, and each year brings new depth and learning to my practice.

If you open the door to Her, make sure you are prepared. Sing folk songs to her, offer her a strong whiskey and fresh bread marked with blood. Let her wash you in her waters and baptize you anew.

Sources and Further Reading:
Wonder Tales of Scotland. Donald Mackenzie. 1917.
The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare –
The Fairy Tradition in Britain. Lewis Spence. 1948.
The Silver Bough, Vol. 1. F. Maire McNeill. 1989.
An Encyclopedia of Faeries. Katharine Briggs. 1976
The Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune. J. A. H. Murray. 1875.
The Festival of Brigit: Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman. Séamas Ó Catháin. 1995.
The Sharp Witted Wife. J. Gregorson Campbell. The Scottish Historical Review. 1915.
Continuity and Adaptation in Legends of Cailleach Bhéarra. Gearóid Ó Crualaoich. Béaloideas. 1988.
Non-Sovereignty Queen Aspects of the Otherworld Female in Irish Hag Legends: The Case of Cailleach Bhéarra. Gearóid Ó Crualaoich. Béaloideas. 1994/1995.

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