The Cailleach and ‘the deer cult’

18 Feb

An article on the Cailleach, ‘The Deer-Cult and Deer-Goddess Cult of the Ancient Caledonians,’ has some fascinating tidbits of lore and history about the Cailleach. Mainly focusing on the Scottish evidence, there is some reference to Irish lore as well, which makes it a good source for hunting up other places to look for information on the Cailleach.

The article itself argues that the Cailleach is a ‘deer goddess’, and while much of it is of questionable conclusions and reasoning (only the Scottish lore commonly associates the Cailleach with deer, for one, so the argument blatantly ignores the bigger picture), it’s a good read nonetheless. McKay concludes that the reason for the Cailleach’s lack of presence in the literature – numbering her amongst the other gods of the myths – is that this obviously “…mark[s] her as an aboriginal.” Rather, I would say, it’s maybe because the name itself – ‘Cailleach’ – is no name at all, but an epithet. Like many gods, the Cailleach is more a title than a name in its own right, and perhaps it was one that was not familiar to the scribes who recorded the tale, or one they declined to use for whatever reason. Who knows. Whatever the case, to say that the Cailleach is ‘aborginal’ ignores the fact that she clearly behaves in a thoroughly ‘native’, Gaelic, way…

Anyway, onto the next bit of lore. Suffice it to say I don’t agree with slapping on a label of ‘fish-goddess’ either, as McKay tries to do here. It seems more likely that goddesses were simply associated with things of importance to the locale in which they were honoured, and what with living on an island, fish would have been an important part of the economy. I would love to track down the song, however; if anyone knows of a version anywhere, I’d be eternally grateful if you prod me about it.

(I), Island of Tiree. On the farm of Hianish or Heynish, in Tiree, is a spot called ” The Burial Place of the Big Women.” The name may merely indicate that priestesses were of great stature, as is very likely. But even so, the name suggests a group of such priestesses, and that again suggests a group of goddesses. But the evidence of the name is not strong enough to bear much weight.

(2), Island of Eigg. Still called “Eilean nam Ban Móra”, i.e. the Isle of the Big Women. A little loch, with some prehistoric building or crannog constructed in it, is called “Loch nam Ban Móra “, i.e., the Lake of the Big
Women. The crannog was inhabited by women of such unique proportions that the stepping stones by which they gained their home were set so far apart as to be useless to any one else. Thus says one tradition. Another tradition says that St. Donnan was martyred by the “Amazon Queen” who reigned in the island; the Queen in question can hardly be anything but the condensation of a group.

(3) Island of Mull. An Doideag Mhuileach, i.e. the Mull Doideag (singular), is supposed to have sunk, or to have assisted in sinking, the Spanish Armada. She was much dreaded because of her power in raising storms, and appears in several tales. In other tales, Na Doideagan Muileach, i.e. the Mull Doideags or witches (plural), appear. Snow-flakes are said to be the witches of Mull going to a meeting of witches, from which it is to be inferred that the priestesses of the island dressed in white.

(4) Jura. The name of this island is supposed to be from the Norse, Dyr-ey, meaning Deer’s Isle. A group called the Seven Big Women of Jura occur in two of Campbell of Islay’s tales,* but they occur as an individual in another two of his tales. This individual goddess is also called Cailleach Mho’r nam Fiadh, (The Huge Old Woman of the Deer). She is the only Hebridean instance known to me as being connected with the deer. The other Hebridean goddesses may have been so connected, but I have no evidence that they were. On the other hand, a once well-known song called “Cailleach Liath Ratharsaidh” (now unfortunately known as “Mrs. Macleod of Raasay”) speaks of the three Hebridean Cailleachs of Raasay, Rona, and Sligachan as being fond of fish. They were probably fish-goddesses.

McKay, The Deer-Cult and the Deer-Goddess Cult of the Ancient Caledonians, Folklore Volume 43, 1932, p161-162.

* See Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands Volume 2, 1890, Tale 46.


Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Uncategorized


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2 responses to “The Cailleach and ‘the deer cult’

  1. Brendan

    August 23, 2012 at 9:30 am

    Hello, I came across your post here researching what in the Iona mythology is called the “Island of the Women,” (Eilean nam Ban), where ritual sacrifice by a goddess cult was apparently in practice at the time of St. Columba’s arrival at Iona in the 6th century. The legend of the sacrifice of St. Oran (Odhran) has a weird parallel to the myth you account above. In one variant, St. Columba vigils the night before the construction site of his abbey to see what is causing the footers to lie scattered in the morning. Up from the sea comes a half-woman, half-fish who tells him that the sea god has been disturbed, and that in order for his work to proceed, a man must be buried standing up in the footers to appease the ancient energy. I’m wondering if this apparition was a cailleach figure, perhaps from the nearby Island of Women, between Iona and Mull. (You mention a distant association with the cailleach with a sort of fish-goddess, perhaps in her more primal state.) Iona itself was reputed to once have been the province of a moon-goddess before the druids who preceded Columba’s arrival; Columba forbid any women from the island, requiring them to live on the nearby Island of the Women, where human sacrifice had been recorded as part of some practice by a pre-druidic cult. All this is pretty fragmentary. Any insights or leads? — Brendan

  2. Gordon Macleod

    April 11, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    Aren’t Cailleach Liath Ratharsaidh and Mrs. Macleod two different reels? – I always thought so. Is that what you meant by “unfortunately”?


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