The Cailleach in Irish Megalithic Traditions

© Max Dashu

Irish oral tradition associates the Cailleach with many ancient hilltop monuments that date to the neolithic era. Some passage graves are called by her name, often named as her “house.” Others she is said to have built, or created by tossing boulders from hilltop to hilltop, or by carrying stones in her skirt or apron, which she drops, or the apron-strings break, scattering the stones across the landscape.

Countless Irish myths tell how the Cailleach constructed huge cairns and mounds, megalithic monuments, and even Christian-era round towers in a single night. Some are known by names like “one-night’s-work.” [Wood-Martin, 134] Some of the best-known Cailleach monuments are Slieve Gullion in Armagh, Loughcrew in Meath, and Carrownamadoo 2 in Sligo.

Entrance to House of the Cailleach, Slieve-Gullion, Armagh
Entrance to Calliagh Birra’s House, Slieve-Gullion, Armagh

The Cailleach Bhéarra was said to live in a deep chamber under a hilltop megalith near Slieve Gullion in Armagh. It is called Calliagh Birra’s House. [O Hogain, 68] The highest-placed of all Irish megaliths, it sits on the southern summit of the mountain, where it aligns with solar movements. It was surrounded by kerbstones and had three flat stone basins within its chamber. The name Sliabh gCullinn means “steep-sloped mountain.” People visited this place on Blaeberry Sunday, a survival of Lughnasadh. [Ross 1973: 156] A lake near the summit is also named after the Cailleach, and on the western side of Slieve Gullion, the Ballykeel dolmen is known as Cathaoir na Caillí, the “Hag’s Chair.” [Fossard, 113]

The Cailleach's Chair, Ballykeel, Armagh
The Cailleach’s Chair, Ballykeel, Armagh

Other traditions called the Cailleach of Slieve Gullion a “witch.” Nevertheless, folklore held that she was a guardian of the elixir of wisdom: “On the mountain somewhere, there is a well of wisdom and magic meather [mead], from which if we only knew the recipe, we could go to that marvelous ale, that once tasted — ‘age could not touch us, nor sickness, nor death’.” [T.G.F Paterson, Country Cracks – Old Tales from the County of Armagh, 1939, in http://www.voicesfromthedawn.com/slieve-gullion/ ]

Leabhadh Chailligh, the "Crone's Bed," Cork
Leabhadh Chailligh, the “Crone’s Bed,” Cork

In Sligo, the megalithic site Carrownamaddoo 2 (Castledargan) is also called Calliagh A Vera’s House. [O Hogain, 68] In the mountains above Kilross, in western Tipperary, stands another stone formation the peasants call the House of the Cailleach. [Wood-Martin, 131] The Labbacallee Wedge Tomb in Cork is said to be her burial place; the name, from Irish Leabhadh Chailligh or Leaba Caillighe, means “the Old Woman’s Bed.” [Fossard, 133; http://www.voicesfromthedawn.com/labbacallee/ ]

Megaliths at Loughcrew, Slabh na Caillíghe
Megaliths at Loughcrew, Slabh na Caillíghe

Sliabh na Caillíghe

The megalithic chambers of Loughcrew are perhaps the Old Woman’s most renowned namesake. They stand atop a low range of eastern Meath, Sliabh na Caillíghe, “the Old Woman’s Mountains.” Jonathan Swift was told of her prodigious deeds there in 1720, when he visited Loughcrew:

Determined now her tomb to build,
Her ample skirt with stones she filled,
And dropped a heap on Carnmore;
Then stepped one thousand yards, to Loar,
And dropped another goodly heap;
And then with one prodigious leap
Gained Carnbeg; and on its height
Displayed the wonders of her might.
And when approached death’s awful doom,
Her chair was placed within the womb
Of hills whose tops with heather bloom.

[http://www.voicesfromthedawn.com/loughcrew/ ]

The three hilltops in this story are covered with cairns (“passage graves,” in archaeological parlance, or “womb tombs” in ecofeminist recogntion of their symbolic configuration). Two of the hills are Carnbane East and West in Loughcrew. The monuments on a third hill near Patrickstown have been destroyed within recent centuries, with the exception of a few kerbstones and a single interior stone engraved with symbols. Carnbane East has seven womb tombs: Cairn T at the summit, surrounded by six others in ruins. Carnbane West has more, but is on private property and not open to the public.

Stone honeycombed with deep cupmarks, Cairn T passageway
Stone honeycombed with deep cupmarks, lines, and at least one vulva. Cairn T passageway

The Loughcrew passage graves (that have been excavated) were collective burial sites. Remains of many cremations had been placed on the flat stone basins in their inner recesses, as was also done at Brú na Bóinne, Knowth, and other sites, and have been found in the soil under them, apparently as they were brushed away to place new remains on the stones. But the megalithic chambers were also sanctuaries of renewal and astronomical wisdom, as their solar alignments demonstrate, and places of ceremony. More than half the counties of Ireland are visible from these hilltops. Covered in quartz pebbles, the cairns would have gleamed in the sun from a distance, just as at their larger and more famous successor, Brú na Bóinne.

Aerial view of the cruciform chamber within the great mound of Cairn T
Aerial view of the cruciform chamber within the great mound of Cairn T

The megalithic stone chambers were originally covered by mounds, some of which remain. The major mounds  are surrounded by giant kerbstones in the manner of Brú na Boinne. They are entered through a passageway lined with stones, more or less flat-faced, often engraved with symbols, including sun signs, concentric circles, vulvas, and cupmarks (some of these unusually deep). The narrow hall leads into a central chamber, usually flanked by three smaller recesses, one facing the entrance and two others off to each side. The plan of the interior is in the shape of a quadrant (see above).

    Backstone of Cairn L, Carnbane West, Loughcrew (from Wood-Martin, Elder Faiths of Ireland)
Backstone of Cairn L, Carnbane West, Loughcrew (from Wood-Martin, Elder Faiths of Ireland)

In some cairns, the backstone of the recess facing the entryway is engraved with elaborate petroglyphs, which the sun lights up at certain times of year, such as the equinoxes. The backstone of Cairn L has an elaborate design of concentric circles (clustered in patterns suggestive of cell division), spirals, and vulvas. A blueish limestone menhir, called the Whispering Stone, stands in the central chamber and receives rays of sunlight at set calendrical intervals.

Backstone of Cairn T receives sunlight at dawn on spring equinox
Backstone of Cairn T receives sunlight at dawn on spring equinox

In Cairn T, solar symbols on the backstone are aligned to catch the rays of the rising sun on the spring and fall equinoxes. This excellent site has a video of the light moving through the chamber.

Vulvas in the passageway stones of Cairn T: two details
Vulvas in the passageway stones of Cairn T: two closeups

What amazed me most at Cairn T was the passageway orthostats. They were carved with concentric circles, curving lines, solar patterns, and portals, including a lot of very definite and deeply engraved vulvas. There are also numerous round cupules—some four inches deep—and grooved lines. Some of the cupules are clustered in honeycomb patterns. The concentric circles and vulvas repeat on the backstone as well. These patterns are repeated in other cairns. And yet no one ever seems to write about them. Some of the concentric circles are not in fact circular, but oval and peaked at one end, with a vulvular hollow at their center. These symbols bleed into one another.

Stone with vulvas, passageway into Cairn T chamber
Stone with concentric circles and vulvas, in Cairn T passageway

Why vulvas on the stones? The entire shape of these ancient chambers is like a womb of Earth that receives the dead. Their cremated remains sink into the soil, returning to Earth to be reborn. The vulvas are portals of life, of rebirth, in the perpetual bones of Earth herself. They appear amidst concentric circles, suggestive of conception, suns, and energy lines.

The deep cupules on these same stones are known to be involved in conception magic in many cultures, and it is likely that women desiring to conceive children might have come to these ancestral sanctuaries, to touch or rub, make ablutions upon the stone vulvas — or to engrave new ones. What we are seeing in these shapes is a continuation of themes that begin before the megalithic era, in petroglyphs across the landscape of Ireland, of Britain, and in fact of the entire world.

Petroglyphs on rock face at Derrynablaha, County Kerry
Petroglyphs on rock face at Derrynablaha, County Kerry

The Hag’s Chair at Cairn T faces north, looking across the countryside. It is a ten by six foot stone seat engraved with concentric circles, portals, cupules, cup-and-ring marks, triangles, and maybe a snake. Most of the symbols have greatly eroded since the Eugene Conwell published a drawing of it in 1870, and have faded even more since the sketch in Wood-Martin’s Elder Faiths of Ireland after the turn of the century. Very few of the markings remained visible when I was there, especially on the upper parts of the stone.

Hag's Chair at Cairn T, summit of Carnbane East, as it appeared in mid-19th century
Hag’s Chair at Cairn T, summit of Carnbane East, as it appeared in the mid-19th century

Folklore says that the Cailleach looked out over her domain from this chair, where she watched the stars. [http://www.carrowkeel.com/sites/loughcrew/cairnt2.html  ] “Local lore states that a modern visitor, seated on the chair, will be granted a single wish.” [http://www.voicesfromthedawn.com/loughcrew/ ]

The Hag's Chair as it appears today.
The Hag’s Chair as it appears today.

Garavogue is the name given to Cailleach in the stories about Loughcrew told to Jonathan Swift. Megalithic tradition in Sligo also names the Cailleach Garavogue [Gharbhóg], who shares her name with a river in that county. She may have originated there. In a later telling of the Loughcrew story, Cailleach Bhéarra comes there from the north to perform a magical act that would give her great power. She filled her apron with stones, dropping a cairn on Carnbane; then jumped a mile to Slieve-na-cally (Hag’s Mountain) to drop another, and on to the next hill, where she let another stone fall. On her fourth and final leap — here we see the repeated attempt to mythically kill her off — she slipped and fell to her death. [Wood-Martin, 251-3]

Stone at Cairn H, Carnbane West
Stone at Cairn H, Carnbane West

The many engraved stones at Cairn H on Carnbane West repeat the concentric circles and solar symbolism of the eastern cairns. This large passage grave is rimmed with 41 kerbstones. In the back recess was the largest of all the stone basins—a slab, really—found in the megalithic chambers of Ireland. It rested on six small stone balls and remains of cremations (which may have originally been placed on the stone slab).

Engraved bone slips from La Tène period, Cairn H
Engraved bone slips from La Tène period, Cairn H

Cairn H also contained evidence that ceremonial activity continued in these monuments into the late Iron Age. Slips of bone carved with La Tène swirl patterns were found there: “It may be that these decorated bone flakes were placed into the passage tomb, some 3,000 years after its construction, as a votive offering to its long forgotten, but still respected, spiritual powers. The appearance of bronze rings, bone pins, and glass beads also found in this location would seem to support that hypothesis. Another possibility is that the cairn was the location of an oracle, who may have “read” the decorated bone fragments, as would a fortune-teller.” [More at http://www.voicesfromthedawn.com/loughcrew/ ]

Inscribed stone in entrance way, Cairn T
Inscribed stone in entrance way, Cairn T