In Irish lore and custom a person born with a caul was considered to be someone both lucky and magically powerful. They were said to have the ability to foresee the future as well as being able to travel easily to the Otherworld and communicate with spirits. Some caul bearers were healers and had an ability to dowse for water as well as protecting the harvest from evil forces. Interestingly, within Scottish folklore a caul was a sign of a person having been ‘marked’ by the fairies in a darker context, and was sometimes associated with changelings. Personally, I have found that with older lore a caul is considered a blessing, whereas with later Christianised folklore, as we shall see in this piece, the caul was often seen as a sign of witchcraft.
The caul itself is a membrane which is formed when part of the amniotic sac breaks away and forms a type of mask or veil upon a child’s head. The caul was usually kept by the family and sometimes used in rituals concerned with placating dark forces as well as fairies and magic. One reasoning for the attribution of supernatural powers was that the caul represented the veil between worlds and so if a person was born behind a caul this symbolised their ability to venture between the human an non-human worlds. Perhaps one of the more famous uses of a caul was that it was said to prevent a person from drowning. This led to many Irish fishermen paying large sums to those who were prepared to part with their caul. In this example from the Irish folklore archives a family is offered money from a sea-captain for their caul but they refuse to part with it.
A “Caul” is said to be very lucky. If baby is born with caul, the caul is taken with the baby when it is being baptised. When I was a little one I saw a baby’s caul in our own house. We kept it drawn out stretched upon something to keep it so. I remember a sea-captain advertised for a baby’s caul – he would give £5 for one and that was big money in those days but my mother wouldn’t sell the one she had. People were going out to America in those days on the ‘coffin ships’ and someone was always looking for a bit of the caul as it was considered to be very lucky. We cut off a bit now and then for those going by sea and by degrees, the whole caul melted away.” Original source here: https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4770049/4769282
Another example of a supernatural link to cauls is an association with mermaids who were said to wear a caul themselves. In many stories if a person were to manage to steal the mermaid’s caul then the mermaid would be unable to return to the sea until they retrieved it again. We see this type of theme in many other tales of magical folk from the ocean, in particular the various types of seal-person who might be captured by stealing their sealskin. Here is an example from Irish folklore.
“The mermaid is supposed to be half a woman and half a fish, and always lives in the sea convenient to the coast. Tradition says she is very handsome with a beautiful head of green hair. She is seen sitting on a rock brushing her hair. She wears a “caul” and if this is snapped from her, she has no power of getting down to the sea again. Once upon a time early in the morning a man was out bathing, and the wind blew the “caul” towards him. The mermaid screamed, and the man went and caught her and took her to his home. He hid her “caul” and he married her. For three years she lived with him never speaking one word. One day they were cleaning down some loft. The “caul” was found. The mermaid snatched it, put it on her hair, and made out to sea, and was seen no more.” Original source here: https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4921941/5053535/5110774
The belief that a caul bearer had supernatural abilities is not limited to Ireland. In fact it is a worldwide tradition which was also demonised throughout the inquisition. With the spread of Christianity, in many indigenous traditions the luck and power for good associated with a caul was turned into something demonic. Perhaps the most famous example of this is that of the “Good Walkers” or benandanti of Northern Italy around the 16th century. However, it is believed that although their activities were recorded at this time the benandanti were part of a much older and pre-Christian folk and visionary cult or tradition. The benandanti were people who were born with a caul which signalled their ability to participate in spiritual battles against evil forces in order to protect crops and fruits of the land. The Italian scholar Carlo Ginzburg has documented the history of benandanti in his ground-breaking work, The Night Battles, which I highly recommend.
The Catholic church questioned members of this group and in the end saw no distinction between the benendanti and witches, but this went against everything the benandanti said about themselves. In their own words they were people who battled witches. For the benandanti, their spirit excursions during the wheel of the year and “ember days” (times of the year when the crops were planted and sown, harvested and reaped) were undertaken for the good of the community and not in order to cause destruction.
There are many parallels between the shamanistic-type vision quests of the benandanti and examples of spiritual travelling and the wise-women of Irish folklore, not least the often cited description of having been born with a caul. There are also links to the The Wild Hunt and the seasonal parade of fairies and the dead. Another interesting parallel is that the benandanti say that they left their bodies in order to fight witches and in some examples that Ginzburg mentions there are also accounts of dead benandanti being present at the battles. As I have written about on many occasions, there is a strange overlap between the fairies and the dead in Irish lore in this context. Indeed, this association turns up everywhere we find fairies, from Europe to indigenous accounts in the Southern Hemisphere. For more on this:https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/71150.The_Night_Battles
In the folktale The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs, which was collected by the Brothers Grimm in the 19th century, we see yet another example of the caul being associated with travels to spiritual realms. The tale itself contains many symbols scholars associate with older myths as well as visionary motifs such as entering the Otherworld, prophecy, witches and pre-destiny. You can read the story here: https://www.grimmstories.com/…/the_devil_with_the_three_gol…
Returning to contemporary Ireland, I myself have heard of people being born with a caul who have gone on to become healers and in other cases being associated with an almost otherworldly talent in whatever they pursue.
In the accounts of the previously mentioned benandanti they maintained that they were visited by a figure at night who commanded them to partake in the battles against evil. Here in Ireland, though, there is a hesitancy to label fairies ‘good’ within such a black and white context. Whether that is a difference between cultures and the good people or, perhaps, a particular trait of how we interpret their actions and motives is hard to tell. Either way, if a person is born with a caul, folklore seems to tell us that they have a good chance of hearing from the fairies at some point whether they want to or not!
(C.) David Halpin.
1. Haroldstown Dolmen, Co. Carlow.
2. Athgreany stone circle, Co. Wicklow, exhibiting a definite autumnal turn.
3. A misty morning near the summit of Turlough Hill, Co. Wicklow.
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