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Although the Modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic word cailleach means literally ‘old woman’, often in the pejorative sense, or ‘hag’, the word has many more connotations than this simple gloss would imply. The OIr. caillech, from which cailleach derives, meant literally ‘veiled one’, and could denote a nun, widow, or old woman. Thus the Irish sovereignty figure, Cailleach Bhéirre, is best described by the resonant Irish term rather than the unsatisfactory English translations ‘Nun’, ‘Hag’, or ‘Old Woman of Beare’.

In both Ireland and Gaelic Scotland, cailleach also denotes the last sheaf of a harvest and is the subject of many beliefs and practices. In Ireland farmers hold races at harvest time so that industrious farmers may call their last sheaf the ‘corn maiden’ while only slower workers are given the cailleach as their last sheaf, presumably a reproach for their procrastination and dilatory ways. The cailleach is kept during the year; some is given to the cattle and some shaken on the land to assure fertility in the coming year. Farm girls avoid tying the cailleach for fear that they shall never have a husband. In Scotland the cailleach is tied with a ribbon and hung up on a nail until spring. On the first day of ploughing it is given to the horse as a token of good luck. On the Isle of Lewis the cailleach was dressed as a woman and her apron filled with bread, cheese, and a sickle. Comparable customs of the old woman of the fields are found in Wales as well as in non-Celtic European countries.

Subjects: Religion

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