An Cailleach in Appalachia

It is told that in the days when the world was young Beira saw land where there is now water and water where there is now land. Once a wizard spoke to her and said: ‘Tell me your age, O sharp old woman.’ Beira answered: ‘I have long ceased to count the years. But I shall tell you what I have seen. Yonder is the seal-haunted rock of Skerryvore in the midst of the sea. I remember when it was a mountain surrounded by fields. I saw the fields ploughed, and the barley that grew upon them was sharp and juicy. Yonder is a loch. I remember when it was a small round well. In these days I was a fair young girl, and now I am very old and frail and dark and miserable.'”

Donald Mackenzie, Scottish Wonder Tales from Myth and Legend, p. 26

Beira is the great Creatrix of Scottish myth and the oldest of the Gods in Scottish cosmology. She built the mountains and lochs that mark the Scottish landscape, and She is the mother of the giants that inhabit it. Natural features bear Her name, or reference stories about Her. Take, for example, Loch Ness. The story goes that Beira had a maidservant named Nessa whose job it was to uncover a well at sunrise and cover it again at sunset. Once the maid was late covering the well and it overflowed into the valley around it. It overflowed so quickly, in fact, that the maid ran from it once she saw it. Beira, having seen this from Her mountain perch on Ben Nevis, cursed the girl so that she’d run forever but never leave water (27). Nessa was transformed into the River Ness, and thus it and Loch Ness were formed.

Something that I have been thinking about for some time is the fact that the Grampian Mountains in the Scottish Highlands were once part of the same range as the Appalachians where I live. These rocks here are the same as the rocks there. My mountains — and when I say “my,” I don’t mean it in a proprietary way, but in a familial way, as the place to which I belong — are the sisters of the Grampians. If Beira made the Grampians, then it’s not unreasonable to say that She also made Appalachia.

It’s hard to comprehend just how ancient these mountains are.

…Ancient, eroding under the weight of time, they’re older than oceans, older than dinosaurs, older than limestone, older than bones.— Carrie Cuinn (@CarrieCuinn) February 6, 2021

They began forming around 480 million years ago and were still growing 200 million years ago as Pangaea formed. The Blue Ridge Mountains, one of the subranges in my region, is one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, second only to the Barberton greenstone belt in South Africa. Certainly, Beira would have seen “land where there is now water, and water where there is now land.”

Like many mountain Goddesses, Beira is at the crux of wilderness and civilization — it is She who decides whether a hunt is successful or not, and the wild animals cleave to Her as their caregiver and nourisher. In this way, She is similar to continental giantesses like Holda/Holle, Perchta, Fricke, and Harke. And, like them, Beira is associated with winter — that season of unyielding, bitter cold, hard earth, and lean food stores. In this aspect, She is brutal and cruel, blue-faced with one eye and rust red teeth. But this is only one aspect of Her. Mackenzie tells us that, just before the spring equinox, She is beaten back by Her son Angus and His wife Bride and retreats to the floating Green Island in the Atlantic to drink from the Well of Youth. Afterwards, She falls into a restorative slumber and, when She wakes again, She is young and beautiful:

with long hair yellow as buds of broom, cheeks red as rowan berries, and blue eyes that sparkled like the summer sea in sunshine. Then she went to and fro through Scotland, clad in a robe of green and crowned with a chaplet of bright flowers of many hues.”

Mackenzie 24

Of course, as the spring and summer pass, She ages and transforms again into the unyielding, fierce old woman — An Cailleach. This is because She is the Goddess of the land itself. She turns as the land does; they are one and the same. And Bride, as the spirit of summer and all it entails, is captured again by Beira in the cold months and locked in servitude until Angus, driven by dreams of Her, frees Her once again.

This vision of the coming of spring agrees with me. It’s not a sudden event marked by a date on a calendar, but a process. Winter seems to fight against it; some days are warm, others are cold. It does feel like a battle between two seasonal forces. Imbolc has just passed: in mythic time, Angus and Bride will have met and married, and are now on Their way across the Atlantic to Scotland. There will be some warm days, as Bride touches Her hand to the frozen earth, and some cold days, as Beira and Her Hags raise storms and winds to keep the land for Themselves.

I’m just beginning to feel Beira here in Appalachia, and at the moment, I don’t have any original myths of Her in this place. I may not ever. Hierophany is a delicate, slippery thing — you can’t grasp it outright and expect it to submit. You have to sit quietly, watch it from the corner of your eye as it sniffs and pokes just outside your reach, and then slowly extend your hand to caress it. If you’re patient, it’ll let you. It might even come back after it slides away.

There’s always a danger in applying the works of Gods known in other places in the world to other landscapes. I’m aware of this, and it’s difficult to reconcile that with the persistent, urging impressions I get sometimes — those thoughts and feelings that grow on me like a mold, consuming me, no matter how I try to push them away. It’s possible that the One known as Beira or An Cailleach in Scotland had another name to other peoples, or perhaps there’s more than one creator God of a place. When I talk about mythic time and mythic events, I think of them as occurring on a plane of existence parallel to and interwoven with this physical plane. On this plane, a winter storm builds in the atmosphere, blows in on air currents, and freezes the roads and trees and pools of water in a very natural, mundane, scientific way. On the spiritual plane, Beira blows Her icy breath across the land and conjures the snow clouds. It’s possible that there are innumerable spiritual planes — innumerable worlds — connected to this physical one, affecting what we perceive as real events, in which different myths occur synchronously, different stories with different Gods and Goddesses and powerful spirits, and they are all true. These spiritual planes are not separate or cut off from this physical one; they are one and the same. All that exists in one exists in the others, though they may be experienced differently.

Here, in this ancient place that has been the home of many peoples, some of whose myths I may never know, I feel the power and presence of my own Gods and Goddesses. Again, the use of “my” isn’t proprietary: I belong to Them; I am connected to Them through my worship of Them and my observation of Their acts and influences. Some of Them are known to other peoples and other parts of this world, and some of Them are “new” in the sense that I am the first (as far as I know) to perceive and then write of Them and Their stories, which are linked to the sacred shared landscape on which I live.

Work Cited

Mackenzie, Donald A. Scottish Wonder Tales from Myth and Legend. Dover, 1997. Reprinted from Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1917.

By thecunningwif

An ageless forest spirit. A whole ass Virginian mountain witch. You can also call me Heidi. Animism, polytheism, folklore, spirit work, & witchcraft. She/her.

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