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Samhain Goddesses: Nicneven and the Cailleach

The night of Samhain, in Irish, Oíche Samhna and Scots Gaelic, Oidhche Samhna, is one of the of the most important festivals of the Celtic calendar, and falls on October 31, symbolizing  the final harvest... time to take stock of the herds and grain supplies to survive the winter.

Due to it's meaning of endless birth, life, death, and rebirth, the time of the solstice is often associated with deity and other legendary figures. 


The Cailleach

In Irish and Scottish mythology, the Cailleach (Irish pronunciation: [ˈkalʲəx], Irish plural cailleacha [ˈkalʲəxə], Scottish Gaelic plural cailleachan /kaʎəxən/), also known as the Cailleach Bheur, is a divine hag, a creatrix, and possibly an ancestral deity or deified ancestor. The word simply means 'old woman' in modern Scottish Gaelic,[2] and has been applied to numerous mythological figures in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man

In Scotland where she is also known as "Queen of Winter", she is credited with making numerous mountains and large hills, which are said to have been formed when she was striding across the land and accidentally dropped rocks from her apron. In other cases she is said to have built the mountains intentionally, to serve as her stepping stones. She carries a hammer for shaping the hills and valleys, and is said to be the mother of all the goddesses and gods.

The Cailleach displays several traits befitting the personification of Winter: she herds deer,  she fights Spring, and her staff freezes the ground.

In partnership with the Tripple Goddess Brigit or Brighid (exalted one) , the Cailleach is seen as a seasonal deity or spirit, ruling the winter months between the Celtic Festivals of Samhain and Beltaine ...  while Brighid rules the summer months between Beltaine and Samhain. 

It is interesting to quote that Brighid also retains "creative" qualities : She is the goddess of all things perceived to be of relatively high dimensions such as high-rising flames, highlands, hill-forts and upland areas; and of activities and states conceived as psychologically lofty and elevated, such as wisdom, excellence, perfection, high intelligence, poetic eloquence, craftsmanship (especially blacksmithing), healing ability, druidic knowledge and skill in warfare.

Some interpretations have the Cailleach and Brighid  as two faces of the same goddess, while others describe the Cailleach as turning to stone on Beltaine and reverting back to humanoid form on Samhain in time to rule over the winter months.

Depending on local climate, the transfer of power between the winter goddess and the summer goddess is celebrated any time between Là Fhèill Brìghde (February 1) at the earliest, Latha na Cailliche (March 25), or Bealltainn (May 1) at the latest, and the local festivals marking the arrival of the first signs of spring may be named after either the Cailleach or Brìghde.

Là Fhèill Brìghde is also the day the Cailleach gathers her firewood for the rest of the winter. Legend has it that if she intends to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on February 1 is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood to keep herself warm in the coming months. As a result, people are generally relieved if February 1 is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep, will soon run out of firewood, and therefore winter is almost over.

On the Isle of Man, where She is known as Caillagh ny Groamagh, the Cailleach is said to have been seen on St. Bride's day in the form of a gigantic bird, carrying sticks in her beak.

In Scotland, the Cailleachan (lit. 'old women') were also known as The Storm Hags, and seen as personifications of the elemental powers of nature, especially in a destructive aspect. They were said to be particularly active in raising the windstorms of spring, during the period known as A' Chailleach.

 

Nicneven

Nicnevin or Nicneven Scottish Samhain Goddess(whose name is from a Scottish Gaelic surname meaning "daughter of the little saint")

In the Borders the name for this archetype was Gyre-Carling whose name had variants such as Gyre-Carlin, Gy-Carling, Gay-Carlin amongst others. Gyre is possibly a cognate of the Norse word geri and thus having the meaning of "greedy" or it may be from the Norse gýgr meaning "ogress"; carling or carline is a Scots and Northern English word meaning "old woman" which is from, or related to, the Norse word kerling (of the same meaning).

Even so, the elder Nicneven or Gyre-Carling retained the habit of night riding with an "eldritch" entourage mounted on unlikely and supernatural steeds. In Fife, the Gyre-Carling was associated with spinning and knitting, like Habetrot; here it was believed to be unlucky to leave a piece of knitting unfinished at the New Year, lest the Gyre-Carling should steal it.

Ben Nevis is sacred to both Nicneven and the Cailleach. The tale of Nicevenn riding out with her host on Samhain is reminiscent of the tale of the Cailleach riding out from Ben Nevis with eight sister hags at Summer's End to hammer the frost into the ground. While Nicevenn lives on in folklore, only a shred of her mythology has survived.

When the lore of Gaelic Scotland comingled with the the Norse, Danish and Anglo-Saxon lore of Lowland Scotland, Northern England and the Orkneys, Nicevenn became known as the Elfin Queen of Elphame, the subterranean Scottish fairyland, or Otherworld. She also appears in Christian confessions and several traditional supernatural ballads, including Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, in which she is variously depicted as attractive and demonic. She is so pristine to Rhymer's eyes, the bard mistakes her for the Virgin Mary.


Other Christian confessions depict Nicevenn as the darker, more threatening Scottish fairy queen Nicneven, "daughter of the little saint," a reference that may be based on women who were put to death for being witches before they were given to the Queen of Fairy.  In the ballad of Tam Lin, the Elphen Queen is also a much darker figure, who captures mortal men and entertains them in her fairy mound, then uses them to pay a "teind to Hell."

In the Borders of Scotland, Nicneven is referred to as the Gyre-Carling, which may mean "old female ogress" in Scots Gaelic and Norse. 

In later folkloric tales, Nicnevenn is cunning in charms and joins ranks with European witches in her ability to sail the seas in a sieve.

An old tale still told by the Galloway Scots preserves Nicevenn's prowess as an ancient Celtic goddess. One Samhain, during night ride at the head of the hunt, the ocean highcaps snare some of her fey company's low-flying mounts. Furious, the Huntress strikes out with her slachdan and magically transforms the local geography. 

The Galloway story reminds us of the connection between Nicevenn the Huntress and the Cailleach, Hag of Winter. Both goddesses are elemental powers who grow stronger as the days grow shorter; and they both ride forth from Ben Nevis on Samhain eve, carrying a slachdan, a wand of power with which they can shape the land at will.

Related Sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org
http://ancientworlds.net
Donald MacKenzie, Scottish Folk Lore and Folk Life. (Blackie, London, 1935)
Images: http://wiccancountess08.deviantart.com





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