Excerpt from Secret History of the Witches, copyright 2000 Max Dashu


Celtic traditions contained a rich lode of myths about a divine Old Woman. In Gaelic (both Irish and Scottish)she is called the Cailleach (from caille, mantle or veil, thus veiled one.) [The Q-Celtic word cailleach is related to the Latin pallium, which survived as the name for a priestly stole. MacKenzie thinks cailleach originally signified a nun, but the ancient traditions predate christianity. 137] This is not a veil of modesty—the cailleachan are wild—but of mystery.

[Graphic: Irish cailleach, a shiela-na-gig of the oldest type. Originally freestanding, the stone was later built into the walls of Fethard Abbey.

The Cailleach has universal qualities; she is not a goddess of fertility or death or any one thing, but a deity who is both transcendent and immanent. She is connected with rivers, lakes, wells, marshes, the sea and storms; with rocks, mountains, boulders, megalithic temples and standing stones; and with cattle, swine, goats, sheep, wolves, bird, fish, trees, and plants. Scots call her the Old Wife of Thunder. [MacKenzie]

The Cailleach sometimes assumes the shape of gulls, eagles, herons, and cormorants. [MacKenzie] She rambles the hills followed by troops of deer and wild pigs, and leaps from hilltop to hilltop. She created mountains and lakes, she built the archaic cairns and megaliths. Rees calls her “the most tremendous figure in Gaelic myth today.”

As “daughter of the little sun,” the Cailleach is an elemental power of winter, the cold, wind, and tempests. She comes into power as the days shorten and the sun courses low in the skies. She carries a slachdan (wand of power) with which she shapes the land and controls the weather. In the Skye folk-tale “Finlay the Changeling” she strikes the ground with it, making the earth harden with frost. Wherever the Cailleach throws her slachdan nothing grows. [MacKenzie, 140-1]

The last spurt of harsh winter weather is called A' Chailleach. Then comes Latha na Caillich, which in the old calendar fell on March 25, the equinox, and this is when the hag was “overthrown”—til the next equinox. [That used to be new years day, but now is called Lady Day. Mackenzie, 143] In early spring the Cailleach hurls her slachdan into the root of the holly and gorse, plants symbolic of winter and sacred to her. During the “big sun”—the light half of the year—she metamorphoses into a gray boulder that exudes moisture.

Scots used to say that the Cailleach ushers in winter by washing her big plaid in the whirlpool of Corryvreckan (Coire Bhreacain: Cauldron of the Plaid). As the knowledgeable Mrs. Grant explained to a folklorist:

Before the washing the roar of a coming tempest is heard by people on the coast for a distance of 20 miles, and for a period of three days before the cauldron boils. When the washing is over the plaid of old Scotland is virgin white. [MacKenzie, 141-2]

People observed and watched for definite meterological changes that signalled the coming of the Cailleach, who brought snowfall over the heather-dyed hills and fields. Various accounts show Cailleach Beura and her helpers riding on wolves and wild pigs (like Norse and Russian witches) especially in February storms. [MacKenzie, 165]

Ireland and Scotland are covered with natural shrines associated with the Cailleach. The stormiest headlands on the coast of Mull used to be called Cailleach point. The Old Goddess sat on its rocks, looking out to sea. A nearby cave was called the milking-place of the Cailleach's goats and sheep. Likewise the rocks at Lora Falls were called steppingstones of the Cailleach and her goats. [MacKenzie, 151]

The Muilearteach was an ocean Cailleach armed with “two slender spears of battle.” Upon her head the Muilearteach had “gnarled brushwood, like the clawed old wood of aspen root.” [Ross, 233]

Her face was blue-black of the lustre of coal
And her bone-tufted tooth was like red rust.
In her head was one pool-like eye,
Swifter than a star in a winter sky. [MacKenzie, ScFL2, 159]

Another blue-faced crone was Black Annis, who lived in a cave in Leicestershire. Even the Puritan poet Milton remembered a “blew, meager hag,” but in his time she had become heavily demonized. [Briggs, 24, 58]



The great Old Goddess of Ireland was the Cailleach Bhéara, or Hag of Béare in Munster. She “existed from the long eternity of the world.” [cite] A woman of Tiree once asked the Cailleach how old she was. She replied that she remembered when the Skerryvore rocks were fields where barley was farmed and when the lakes were little wells. [MacKenzie, 162-3] Her great age was a sign of power, truly venerable, and proverbial: “as old as the Cailleach Bhéarra.”

This cailleach was named Boí, “Cow,” a title she shared with Bóind and other ancient Irish goddesses. She was also called Sentainne, “Old Woman.” The Irish said that “she passed into seven periods of youth, so that every husband used to pass to death from her of old age, so that her grandchildren and great-grandchildren were peoples and races.” [O Hogain, 67]

[Graphic: The Crone as ancestor, with magical holes bored around her womb and vulva, as well as openings for horns on her head. Shiela-na-gig of Seir Kieran, Offaly.]

The Corca Loighdhe sept claimed Boí as their ancestor, and the Corca Dhuibhne said that she had been their foster mother. The ancestor of this clan, the “people of Duibhne,” was Dovinia, a goddess whose name appears in several ogham inscriptions in west Munster. [O Hogain, 67, 119] The Book of Lecan says “... it was bequeathed [to the Corco Dhuibhne] that they shall never be without some wonderful Cailleach among them.” [Rees?]

Another writer says that the Cailleach raised fifty foster children. In a story recorded around 1000, one of these children was a child of incest who narrowly escaped being burned for it. A druid saved him and gave him to his wife Boí. They raised him, bathing him in the sea every morning on the back of a white, red-eared cow. [O Hogain, 119] This would be Buí’s renowned fortune-bringing cow. [Wood-Martin, 214, who calls her “the celebrated witch Vera”]

The Beare peninsula in west Cork belonged to this Old Woman, and the island Inis Boí at its end was named after her. A sea rock was pointed out as the Tarbh Conraidh, the cailleach's great bull. His bellow impregnated the cows who heard it. But once he went swimming after a cow, and the Cailleach struck him with her slachdan, turning him to stone.

The Cailleach's slachdan relates to staffs used by Celtic shamans. The Fé was made of aspen wood, sometimes with Ogham characters cut on it, and had power both in healing and cursing. It was used to strike what was detested. This striking could also banish ills. Cormac's Glossary calls it a magic wand. Priests considered it pagan and forbade people to bury it with the dead in christian cemeteries. A manuscript of 1509 recommended cutting the name of a man made impotent through magic on the wand in Ogham runes and striking him with it. [Wood-Martin, 305]

While the cailleach's slachdan resembles the Fé and magic wands of the Celts and Norse, it also holds cosmological significance as the power of cold, darkness and winter. It symbolizes the active force of the Old Goddess in Celtic culture. When she hurls it she creates rocks in Ireland and rearranges the coast of Scotland. When the light half of the year begins, she hurls her slachdan to the base of the (evergreen) holly or gorse, storing her power of the cold and dark there until the advent of winter.

[graphic: shiela w/ slachdan, Irish abbey]

The Cailleach Bhéarra was credited with extremely sharp sight, being able to discern from a distance of twenty miles. It is said that she never carried mud on her feet from one place to another, and never threw out dirty water before bringing in clean. [O Hogain, 67-8] This last was a faery taboo widely observed across Ireland.

People in Connaught connected the Cailleach with the sowing and harvesting of grain. She taught the Irish how to thresh: using a holly-stick flail, a hazel-wood striker, and threshing sheaves on a clean floor, one at a time. They followed her custom of sowing in late winter—”the oats of February”—and harvesting green corn before the autumn storms came. In many Gaelic-speaking areas the first or last sheaf harvested was called the Cailleach, and treated with ceremony. [O Hogain, 68]

[Graphic: Hag's Chair, Loughcrew megaliths, Ireland]

The Hag's Chair faces north inside one of the great cairns atop the Loughcrew hills. This was a six-foot high stone seat engraved with a vulva-gate, concentric circles, and other signs, with a lot of quartz scattered around it. Legend says that the Cailleach Bhéarra came 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, then on to the next hill, where she let another fall. On her fourth and final leap she slipped and fell to her death. [W-M, 251-3]

Countless Irish myths tell how the Cailleach constructed huge mounds, megaliths, and towers in a single night. Some of them are known by names like “one-night's-work.” [Wood-Martin, 134] Scottish myths often cast the Cailleach as a shaper of the landscape. She carried earth and stones on her back to make the hills of Ross-shire. Sometimes the basket or its strap broke, spilling the contents out to form mounts like Ben Vaichaird and rock piles like Carn na Caillich. Faeries called glaistigean are credited with similar land-building feats. [MacKenzie, 164, 144]

The Cailleach created the Hag's Furrow while ploughing. She turned up huge piles of stones while ploughing on mount Schiehallion, the Caledonian faery hill. (Its Gaelic name, Sídh Chaillean, means “Crone's Mound.” Many other places are named Beinne na Cailleach (her mount) and Sgríob na Cailleach (her writing). Folklore says that the Crone turned into a boulder atop Beinn na Callich, where a prehistoric cairn also stands. [MacKenzie, 144]

In Altagore, county Antrim, stood a stone called the Shanven, “old woman.” People considered it sacred, leaving oatcakes and butter offerings there. One story says that a mason ignorant of the stone's power moved it for use as a gate-post. The next morning it had returned to its old place. [Wood-Martin, 224-5] The Shanven story resembles French tales of Black Virgins' removal and miraculous return to their mountain sanctuaries. Irish folk memory also refers to the medieval practice of taking shiela-na-gigs away from wells and fields to incorporate them into doorways and walls of churches, monasteries, and castles.

In Armagh the Cailleach Bhéarra was said to live in a deep chamber under a hilltop megalith near Slieve Gullion. People visited this spot on Blaeberry Sunday, a survival of Lughnasadh. [Anne Ross, “The Divine Hag of the Pagan Celts,” 156] [insert on megalithic trads of Loughcrew, Slieve-na-cailleach] Slieve gullion in Armagh is called Calliagh Birra's House, and the megalithic site Carrownamaddoo 2 is also called Calliagh A Vera's House. In many places standing stones are said to be people and animals she transformed. [O Hogain, 68]

Near Antrim is a búllan (rock basin) known as the Witch's Stone. When the Cailleach finished building the Round Tower, she leaped off the top and landed on this stone, leaving marks from her elbow and her knee. This stone used to lie near a stream. Much later, a wall was built, cutting the stone off from the water. [Wood-Martin, 247]

Another Irish story says that the Cailleach was so tall that she was able to wade in all Ireland's lakes and rivers, but that she drowned while crossing the deepest loch in Sligo, the Lake of Two Geese. This lake is rumored to have an underground outlet and a monster that guarded treasure in its depths. Folk legends speak of how an attempt to dig out the treasure was foiled by the “good people.” Nearby, in the mountains above Kilross, stands a stone formation the peasants call the house of the Cailleach. [Wood-Martin, 214-6, 131]

[Shiela-na-gig of Celtic make on the Oseberg cauldron, Norway]

As she first enters written record around 1000, this dynamic figure has been rendered nearly unrecognizable in a stunning example of patriarchal revisionism. The untamed cailleach who tossed boulders and leaped hilltops, roaming through the mountains with forest animals or, witch-like, taking their shape, is now pictured an unhappy, powerless nun:

I am Buí, the Old Woman of Beare
I used to wear a smock that was ever-renewed
Today it has befallen me, by my low estate,
That I could not have even a cast-off smock to wear.

This poem about the Cailleach Bhéarra was written around the 11th century and preserved in the Otia Merseiana collection. [according to Professor Kuno Meyer, who dealt with 2 mss dating to 1500-1600s in Trinity College Library, Dublin. Wood-Martin, 217] The manuscript betrays priestly influences, recasting the Cailleach as the mother of St Fintan or the wife of an 8th century poet, in the familiar pattern of stripping down ancient myths and reinterpretating them according to patriarchal norms. Under these terms, female might of the magnitude expressed in folklore is unthinkable.

Lone is Femen: vacant, bare
Stands in Bregon Ronan's chair.
And the slow tooth of the sky
Frets the stones where my dead lie. [Ibid, 218]

The poem is about death, winter, decay. In this there is some congruence with strands of folk culture linking the Cailleach to winter and the season of little sun. But the poem is brimming over with female bitterness and intense loss. Age is no longer venerable and powerful, rather it is seen as contemptible and weak. Her beauty gone, the Cailleach sits at the fringes of society, disregarded, in want. At last she sings her death song: “My life ebbs from me like the sea / Old age has made me yellow.” [Ibid, 216]

Ebb, flood, and ebb: I know
Well the ebb, and well the flow.
And the second ebb, all three,
Have they not come home to me? [Ibid, 219]

This Buí of Beare laments her poverty and low status, the loss of the company of chiefs and warriors. “Only women folk I hate”—because of their beauty and the pleasures offered them. The old woman remembers the men she loved, and how she raced with them on the fields. King Diarmaid no longer comes to her; he is rowing across the river of the dead. Buí drank mead with kings, but now sits with “shrivelled hags” swillling the whey-water of poverty. She is made to follow the routines of a nun, against her will: “And as upon God I call/ Turn my blood to angry gall.” [Wood-Martin, 218]

While this poem reflects the bitter lot of old women in patriarchal society, it takes Buí far from her origins as the Cailleach of the peasantry: a being of immense antiquity who is able to renew her vitality in wells of virtue and who outlasts generations of offspring, whose age is not shameful but revered, and who joyously heaves boulders and shapes the earth.


In spite of all the efforts of the priests and learned men, the lowly and powerful current of folklore carried the outlawed mythosophy of the Cailleach into modern times. She survived in Ireland as well as Scotland, where the Irish Scota settled, pollinating tales of “great supernatural hags haunting mountain passes or driving their deer over the hills and conferring benefits and evils on humanity as they saw fit.” [Ross, 233]

Mountain springs were sanctuaries of the Scottish Cailleach. She was said to visit them to renew her strength, or to perform rites bringing on passage of the seasons. One Scottish tradition said that the Cailleach came in the dead of night to the Well of Youth (near Loch Ba of Mull) and drank “before bird tasted water or dog was heard to bark.” Her incredible longevity came from the water of life. Over the centuries, said the people, she had borne over five hundred children. In one version of this story, a dog barked before the Cailleach had bent to the water, and she crumbled into dust. [MacKenzie, 162-3]

A much-revered fountain in Banffshire was named Taber Cailleach, Well of the Old Woman. People made pilgrimages and offerings there. Religious trips to springs were as common in Scotland as in Spain, France, or Germany. Scots walked nine times around the Well of Virtues after drinking from its waters, and then circumambulated the menhirs standing beside the well. [MacKenzie]

The Scots often spoke of beur cailleachan in the plural, as powerful beings living in lochs and among rushes. A certain tall lakeside reed was called “the distaff of the Bera wives.” Another water plant like flag was called their “staff.” [MacK, 137] A Gaelic song mentions the three cailleachan of the Scottish Hebrides. [MacK, 153]

The Scottish cailleach's cow was said to give great amounts of milk. In Benderloch “circular green hollows are referred to as 'Cailleach Bheur's cheese-vats.' ” A rock shelter in Ardnamurchan is called the Caillich's Byre, and it was said that she kept her cattle there. [MacKenzie, 151] Like all faery cattle they were inviolate. An Irish legend says that once the cailleach's neighbors stole her magical cow and began driving her toward their farm. The crone gave chase, caught them and struck all three with her slachdan, turning them to stone. The largest of these rocks is called Clochtogla, the lifted stone. [Wood-Martin, 214]

The Cailleach Bhéara was known all over Scotland as the wilderness spirit and protector of wild animals. The highest peak in Scotland, Ben Nevis, was sacred to the Cailleach. From it she takes her name of Nicniven. (The Gaelic prefix Ní- or Nic means “daughter of.”) The Cailleach took her herds of deer to Glen Nevis, singing croons as she milked them. Hunters who could not find deer blamed her for protecting them. [MacKenzie, 152]

The Scots had many songs known as faery croons, sung by cailleachs or other supernatural women associated with animist sanctuaries. The old glaistig of Ben Breck in Lochaber sang a croon to her does as she drove them up the mountainside. It has an incantatory quality, invoking the Hag of Ben Breck herself with a hailing cry:

Cailleach Beinne Bric, horó!
Bric horó! Bric horó!
Cailleach Beinne Bric, horó!
Hag of the fountain high!
I ne'er would let my troop of deer,
Troop of deer, troop of deer;
I ne'er would let my troop of deer,
A-gathering shellfish to the tide.
Better liked they cooling cress,
Cooling cress, cooling cress;
Better liked they cooling cress,
That grows beside the fountain high. [cite]

In another version of this croon, the Cailleach proclaims that she is an old woman who ranges the mountains and glens, and adds, “I never set fetter on black or red cow in the herd.... I am the carlin [old woman] who is light/ Alone on the spur of the cairns.” [Carmichael, 494]

The great Cailleach of Clibhrich used witchcraft to keep the hunters away from her deer. Early one morning a man named William watched her milking her does at the door of her hut. One of them ate some blue yarn she had hanging on a nail in her house, so she took off her protection, predicting that it would be shot. And so it happened. [MacK, 152-3]

Mala Liatha (“Grey Eyebrows”) was the protector of wild animals, including the wild boar hunted by Diarmaid. She taunted the warrior and interfered with his hunting. He grabbed her by the foot and threw her over a cliff. Then he succeeded in killing the boar, but had not triumphed after all. A venomous bristle on its slaughtered body pierced his foot and was the death of him. [MacK, 148-9]

A strange old woman called the Doonie once saved a boy who fell off a cliff and was hanging onto a hazel-bush. She appeared below him, telling him to jump into her apron. He fell through it into the river, but she grabbed his neck and pulled him out. She warned him never again to hunt the rock-doves, “Or maybe the Doonie'll no be here tae kep ye.” [Briggs, 106]

Many legends tell of the Cailleach's fierce struggles with hunters. She tries to get the hunter to bind his dogs with one of her hairs, then grows large and attacks him. “Long have you been the devoted enemy of my persecuted sisterhood.” [MacKenzie, 132]
When a pack of dogs attacked the Gyre Carline, she turned into a pig and ran away. This crone goddess of lowland Scotland carried an iron club. One old poem says the Gyre Carline lived on men's flesh, upholding the demonied witch-stereotype. But Sir Walter Scott called her the “mother witch of the Scottish peasantry.” [MacKenzie c 150]



Powerful old women's opposition to military heroes appears throughout the tales and sagas of barbarian Europe, and survives in modern peasant folklore. The hags in these stories have the power of shapeshifting, transforming themselves into wild animals or stunningly beautiful maidens. Their power reaches to the sun, moves rocks and earth and wind.

The Scottish Muilearteach, who raised winds and storms, came in the form of a hag to Scottish heroes, begging to be allowed near the fire. As she warmed herself, she grew large and aggressive. [Briggs, 304] The same story is told of the glaistig, protector of the deer, who comes to a highland cabin where hunters are gathered. She hunkers down by the fire and begins to swell in size. The hag demands snuff from a hunter, and if he is not canny enough to offer it to her on the point of his dirk, she jumps him and begins to choke him.

The hunting dogs spring at her, and she tells the hunter to keep them back. She pulls a gray hair from her head to tie them up, but the wise hunter will use his garter instead. The glaistig goes after him the minute the hounds are tied, saying “Tighten hair.” But the hunter says “Loosen garter.” With the dogs after her, the glaistig backs out the door. They pursue her like a deer until suddenly she turns and fights. The hounds come back mangled and plucked clean of hair. Without these animals and their own cunning the hunters do not fare well in combat with the glaisteag.

The Tale of the Strath Dearn Hunter shows the influence of the witch hunts. The supernatural glaistig becomes a human witch. After appearing first as a hen, then as a hag, she ends up fighting the dogs. They return to the hunter in very poor shape. He returns home to find his wife has gone off to attend a neighbor woman who seemed to be in terrible pain. The hunter is suspicious, goes to the house and tears the covers off her. Her breasts have been torn off by hounds' teeth. The hunter denounces the woman as a witch and kills her with his sword. [Craigie?]

The Russian skazki show Baba Yaga or the amazon Nastasya defeating the bogatyrs, male heroes of phenomenal strength. Hags battle or enchant Find and other warriors in Irish and Welsh epics. A hag fought the war-hero Cu Chullain, attempting to bind him magically with one of her hairs.

The fateful Morrigan confronted CuChullain in the form of a red-eyebrowed woman wearing a long crimson mantle. She then changed herself into a crow. “A dangerous enchanted woman you are,” said CuChulainn. His ultimate doom was set in motion when three old women on the road shamed him into breaking his geis against eating dog meat. Their words to him could be said to sum up the conflict between hags and warriors, peasants and aristocrats: “Unseemly are the great who endure not the little and poor.” [Anne Ross, “The Divine Hag of the Pagan Celts,” 157]

As in so many of these stories, CuChullain is made out the hero, and the elders' reproach is presented as an unjust manipulation of him, completely isolated from the cultural context of the grandmothers. But it represents a survival of the politically submerged concerns of women elders: the true nature of war, and the arrogance of aristocratic heroes in the eyes of the common people.

In the end, the fateful raven goddess prevailed against the renowned warrior. Appearing in the shape of the maiden Niam, she tricked CuChullain into singlehanded combat with an advancing army. Faring to Emain, he saw Babd's daughter washing blood at the ford, a foretold omen of his death. The Morrigan broke his chariot, and the Grey Horse of Macha reproached him. When he fell, the Morrigan swept down from a great height to utter three triumphant cries over him. [Markale, 113, 214; Races 155-6]

In many Irish stories the crone goddess, often under the name of the Badb (bao, or raven), ordains or foreshadows the warrior's death. She is seen washing at the ford, and the clothing belongs to one about to die in battle. [Ross, Hag, 158] An Irish tale, The Enchanted Cave of Keshcorran, shows her as a threefold spinner of fate. When Finn MacCumhal angered the Tuatha Dé by hunting on their lands, three women set out to work vengeance on him.

The women sought the entrance of the cave that was in the mound, and there sat by each other. Upon three crooked and wry sticks of holly they hung many heathenish bewitched hasps of yarn, which they began to reel off lefthandwise in front of the cave. [Ross, 160]

In this way they drained vigor from Finn and Conan, who perceived them as wild-haired hags with fangs and claws and furry legs. [Anne Ross, “The Divine Hag of the Pagan Celts,” 160; also Rees] Although epic singers made Finn MacCumhall into a national hero, his Fianna historically oppressed the people of Leinster. Their exactions “became so heavy that king and people rose against them and routed them at Cnucha...” [M.A.R., 160]

A similar dynamic counterposing a powerful hag goddess against the brute force of war-heroes is played out in the Finnish Kalevala, “Land of Heroes.” Its main action centers around warriors' attempts to seize the daughters of the old spinner Louhi. She fights to protect her daughters, whose mates must be chosen by merit, not force. Although she retains divine powers, Louhi is demonized as the storyteller sides with the male heroes.

The old woman declares that whoever is able to forge the magical Sampo will be allowed to marry her daughter. One of the suitors hires a smith who performs the feat. When this suitor presents Louhi with the Sampo he has purchased, she passes him over and, true to her word, marries the maiden to the smith who forged the Sampo. The warrior Ilmarinen, failing to get Louhi's consent to marry another daughter, abducts her. The rejected suitors gang up on Louhi and capture the Sampo, but as they flee in a boat, the old woman calls up a terrible storm, wrecking Vainamoinen's magical zither and scattering the Sampo. When the warriors regather its parts, Louhi shuts the sun and moon up in a cave, but in the end she is killed.

[Graphic: Louhi attacks thieves of the Sampo. Kallen-Gallela, 1896]

Like Demeter and Amaterasu, Louhi has the power to shut off life force when female sovereignty is outraged. Though the epic portrays her as evil, she retains divine qualities. She is called the Lady of Pohjala, the northern land of the dead. There are hints that she is the rightful guardian of the Sampo. When she is killed, the Sampo withdraws to a faraway island in the mists “where they eat not and they fight not, whither swordsmen never wander.” [Walker, Crone, 105] Everything having to do with war is incompatible with the sacred nature of the Sampo.

The Finns said that first the Sampo ground out prosperity and happiness, then salt. Now it grinds sand and stone, “generating a vast whirlpool at the bottom of the sea.” Its multicolored lid was the vault of heaven, its central post the world Tree. [Laurie, E.R.]

Scandanavians, like the Celts, had legends about women who flung great boulders across the land and were responsible for the placement of rocks and other geographic features. These beings were variously called tröllkonur (troll women) and giantesses, names often interchangeable with “witch” in folkore. [Grimm, 1041] Often the trollkonur can be recognized as immanent divinities of the land. Givinarhol, the giantess' cave, belonged to an old woman who left her footprints in the rock near the lake. She ground gold in a quern. [Craigie] In feudal times, these beings are described as falling into bondage.
About 2000 years ago, when Frothi of the Skjoldings was king, he bought the bondmaids Fenja and Menja, of jötun (giant) kindred. The might of jötun women was legendary; they could lift huge boulders and hurl them long distances. The king brought them before two magical millstones, so huge that no man was capable of grinding them, but which had a power of grinding out whatever they were told. Frothi ordered his thralls to grind out gold for him. So Fenja and Menja labored at the stones, and the greedy king gave them small rest—no longer than the cuckoo remained silent. As they ground, the magical women chanted of their great strength, how they tossed boulders as children, and how they gave battle in Sweden.

Ultimately, the king's attempt to harness natural powers out of greed for gold ultimately fails, as “the foreknowing pair” chant down their master. They prophesy his fall, enemies burning his hall, their song mounting as they grind harder and faster, rocking the quern, overturning it, splitting the its stone with their momentum. “Ground have we, Frothi, now fain would cease; we have toiled enough at turning the mill.” [Grottasongr, Hollander 158; Helgakvitha H. II reworks the tale of the mighty bondswomen with Helgi in drag, disguised as a woman to avoid capture by his enemies. He fools them into thinking he is a captured valkyrie.]

Other stories compare the giantesses with ordinary women who saw their loved ones killed. One jötun woman avenged her husband by hurling a battle-ax across the bay, driving it into his killer's forehead. [MacK] In a saga episode of The Flyting of Atli, the giantess Hrimgerth confronted Atli, a lieutenant of the man who killed her father. Atli told her that their fleet was protected with iron “so that no witches may work us ill.” [Hollander, 173]

The two antagonists duelled with poetry (flyting was a ritual of insults). Atli bragged that he was hateful “to hags,” having often done night-riders to death, and wished Hrimgerth nine leagues under the ground. Then he accused her of holding up Helgi's ships by witchcraft. Hrimgerth retorted that it was her mother who did that; she herself was working on drowning part of the fleet.

Hrimgerth taunted Atli, calling him a gelding with the whinny of an uncastrated stallion but with his heart in the hind end. She dared her opponent to step on land “in reach of my claws,” but he demurred on the excuse of his duty to Helgi. Then the jötun witch called out Helgi, her father's killer. Only with the help of Helgi's valkyrie lover was Hrimgerth prevented from slaying all his men. As the sun rose, the giant woman turned to stone in the legendary manner of trolls and dwarves. [Hollander, 173, Helgakvitha. Cf Alvismal, in which Thor questions the “allwise” dwarf, detaining him until dawn, when he turns to stone.]

Flesh-and-blood witches were believed to be on good terms with these elvish divinities. A 10th-century charm in Bald’s Leechbook purports to protect against female sorcery and the elves:

Against each evil witch [leodrune, literally mystery-singer] and against elvish fascination, write this writing for him, these Greek letters... [I. 44, mid-10th c. MS, in Meaney p 22]

This priestly spell instructs a man to write a Greek magical formula in silence, to be worn on his left breast as an amulet. In a similar vein, the Old Saxon sowing charm that begins, “Erce, Erce, Eorthan Mother” has survived only in its clerical revisionist version. The plougher invokes the Lord to guard his field against “witchcrafts sown throughout the land” and prays “that no witch be eloquent enough nor any man powerful enough to pervert the words thus pronounced.” [Berger 65]

Conflicts between divine hags and warriors model the antagonism of old wisewomen to warlords in real life. Not surprisingly, warlords' contempt for witches was accompanied by a strong dose of fear. Anglo-Saxon men believed that witches and elves could make them sick or weak, even kill them. They were afraid of hags or hedge-riders (hagtessen) travelling by night, and of spirit warrior-women called walcygean, the Saxon equivalent of valkyries. In 1022 Wulfstan, archbishop of York, wrote, “Here in England there are witches and walcygean.”

[Graphic: Old woman attempting to dissuade a warrior from violence. Illustration of Kalevala by Gallen-Kallela.]

Witches represented an impressive obstacle to conquest in the minds of early medival warriors. It is written that before the Norman invasion of England, Gyrth had a dream that a great witch stood on the island, opposing the king's fleet with a fork and a trough. Tord dreamed that “before the army of the people of the country was a riding a huge witch-wife upon a wolf,” and she tossed the invading soldiers into its mouth. [Branston, 101]

An 11th century English spell “to cure a stitch in the side” interprets the pains as haegtessen geweorc, the work of a hag-witch who inflicts magical wounds. It also draws on the archaic idea of the valkyries as fateful spirits:

Loud were the mighty women when they rode over the hill
Loud were the mighty women when they rode over the land...
I stood under a shield while the mighty women
Prepared their strength and sent screaming spears...
[see Grimm 1244, Storms, 50 others]

Aristocratic warriors demonized the witch because she resisted their brute force with spiritual power. At severe physical and political disadvantage to the warlord, the female serf turned to folk religion for protection against feudal violence, including institutionalized rape.

Though the oppression of women and peasants was on the rise, old beliefs in the witch's power endured. A heavily armed man might hesitate to harm or offend an old woman reputed for her Cræft. The hagtessen avenged wrongs committed against themselves and their kindred. An impressive body of traditions validated the powers of women elders. The witch's cultural influence was strong enough to form a significant breakwater to the incoming tide of patriarchy that automatically assigned all authority and all privilege to the male, the warlord, the priest.


MacKenzie, Donald, Scottish Folk Lore and Folk Life, Blackie, London, 1935

O hOgain, Daithi, Myth, Legend, and Romance: An Encyclopedia of the Irish Tradition, Prentice Hall, New York, 1991

Wood-Martin, W.G., Pagan Ireland: An Archaeological Sketch, Longmans, Green & Co, London, 1895
_______. Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland: A Handbook of Irish Pre-Christian Traditions, Vol II, London 1902

Ross, Anne, Pagan Celtic Britain, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1967

_______. "The Divine Hag of the Pagan Celts", in Venetia Newell, ed., The Witch Figure: Essays in Honor of Katharine M. Briggs, Routledge Kegan Paul, 1973

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