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Samhain and the Cailleach

Cover art by Jurga Creations

“I feel the nights stretching away, thousands long behind the days, till they reach the darkness where all of me is ancestor.”

Annie Finch

Although Halloween was celebrated on the 31st of October, another anciently acknowledged ‘thinning of the veil’ and, for many, the changing of the year, will not occur until November 7th. This is astronomical Samhain, the last of the 4 cross-quarter days and the mid-point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

Many astronomical calendar functions have been preserved within the construction of ancient monuments and stone circles here in Ireland and these attributes demonstrate stellar, solar and lunar alignments at the culmination points of the year. One example of the pre-Celtic people marking Samhain can be found at Tlachtga, also known as Hill of Ward. Some say this was the site of the very first Samhain bonfire going back to 1200 BCE, at least. Tlachtga was also said to have been a Druidess in Irish mythology whose story is perhaps not as well known as it should be. Here is a piece by Aliisaacstoryteller which gives more detail:…/tlachtga-goddess-of…/

Other ancient Irish sites with Samhain alignments include The Mound of the Hostages, which is over 5’000 years old, as well as Oweynagat at the Rathcroghan complex in Co. Roscommon. As well as ancient beliefs, according to more contemporary fairy lore this is a time when the good people and fairy queens emerge into the human world. There are some folkloric explanations which involve the spirits moving from one ancient monument to another in order to travel with the yearly cycle as well as stellar alignments. This is one reason why it was said to be unwise to wander near mounds or stone circles at this time, especially at dawn or dusk.

Athgreany Stone Circle, County Wicklow

Some people take this opportunity to leave various offerings outside their homes for these spirits, whereas others take the view that it is better to avoid making offerings at all at this time as it is potentially dangerous. So, why associate this moment in the year with ancestors, fairies and the Otherworld? Perhaps the longer hours of darkness accounts for these beliefs. It may also be that our dreams push further into the recesses of our unconscious and draw from these shadow places parts of ourselves we have lost.

Maybe we discover words buried in our hearts once spoken by someone we loved who has now left this world. Ancient traditions across all cultures considered these liminal times moments of opportunity for reconciliation and contact. Although usually the ‘work’ of a priestess, shaman, or native witch, at these moments of the year the spirit world is said to spill over into the everyday and the ordinary creating synchronicities, reminders, and wisdom to those who might stumble accidentally into its path.

A misty dawn over the site of a ruined cairn, Rathvilly, Co. Carlow

Reflection and divination were considered pathways into this Otherworld, although this place was often seen as a realm that was ever-changing depending upon our own actions and state of mind. The landscape of the Otherworld might bloom outwards like clouds in a twisting wind or dissipate into even more ethereal levels of consciousness where only the most skilled healer might enter, so prophecies from the Otherworld were often possibilities as opposed to fatalistic outcomes.

In this way the opportunity for change was itself a pathway towards another potential world. Perhaps the most potent reminder of this change is the arrival of the Cailleach. She is the Goddess and ruler of the winter and the wilds until she eventually gives way to the many incarnations of the light goddesses when spring arrives. At least that’s one version. What you very quickly begin to realise when researching the Cailleach is that she has many incarnations and as many names as interpretations.

Haroldstown Dolmen, Co. Carlow

Some of these are simply down to evolving cultural traditions but there are deeper layers and older masks to be removed before understanding the ancient roots of this sometimes intimidating Goddess. The Cailleach is equated with the ‘Hag’ aspect of various triple Goddesses extending from the Gaelic cultures into deeper antiquity.

While Neo-Pagans, in particular, often acknowledge a triple Goddess consisting of the maiden, mother and crone, there are older mythological and spiritual traditions which incorporate a triple deity outside of this more recent context. Examples of Mother Goddesses who are associated with the ‘Hag’ and ‘wise-woman’ include Hecate, Hera, Minerva, Kali (The Destroyer) and Nana.

There are also fragments of what appear to be more obscure Goddesses sometimes glimpsed through shared motifs and folk stories hiding within the Cailleach archetype. The Cailleach is the winter Goddess. Her voice is the wind across mountain crags as well as the barely heard tremble of new frost forming in the most desolate and wild places. It is here in the stripped and bare landscapes that her words are most easily heard.

She is the archetype of the inner self and the one who reveals to us the result of all we have gathered and become. Some ask whether she is a goddess to be afraid of. My answer is that it depends on how prepared you are for her arrival. This, more than any other reason is perhaps why she is so respected and feared: she is in many ways our own self-created destination.

David Halpin is a writer from Tallaght, now living on the Carlow/ Wicklow border. He has been writing about Irish Forteana and spirituality for over thirty years and has had his articles published in magazines and books throughout the world. David’s photographs of Ireland’s sacred sites have been published in journals and articles worldwide and in 2020 were included in An Taisce’s annual report on the Irish landscape. David is also a reviewer of esoteric writing and as well as publishing for The Occult Book Review, he also contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online publications. His articles have appeared in The Wild Hunt, New Dawn Magazine, Coire Ansic, and he is a regular contributor to Ancient Origins. David also runs the blog, Circle Stories, where he focuses his writing upon the topics of consciousness and folklore.

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