Preparation for Dedication

30. Any suggestions for others just starting to learn about this deity?

The last question on the 30 Days of Deity Devotion is a tricky one. There is so little written about the Cailleach Bhearra of the Beara Peninsula, specifically. She’s there, in myths and folklore, but you have to look hard. She creeps in, shrouded in disguise, passing for an ordinary old woman. She’s the wife of a druid on an island with a cow. She’s a woman with a lobster in a box. She’s a farmer with a harvest to reap, competing with any man who believes he can reap it faster. She’s an Old One turned to stone by a Christian saint, looking out across the sea and waiting for her husband the sea-god. Waiting for the right time for her reemergence from the land, renewed and young again.

The best way to meet Cailleach Bhearra – Baoi – is to go to her land, the Beara Peninsula. She is so close to the land that they are indistinguishable. I worry, saying this, that I’m wallowing in privilege and cultural imperialism. I can afford to go to Ireland, and it’s just over the water from me so it’s not difficult to go. I happen to go there every other year or so, anyway, to see my family.

But she’s also in all the land, everywhere. She’s in the wind in the trees. She’s in the mountains that she laid down, and the ancient stones that she flung at her sister, and the harvest that she reaps. She’s the dark cliffs watching the sea from above. She’s wherever chaos and creation swirl about each other, where the Well feeds the Tree, where darkness creates light. She’s in the darkness within us, waiting. In the liminal spaces. In between.

…the darkness that would be cast
between the moment when I could destroy

and the moment when I would devour.

- Leanne O’Sullivan


I’m planning a trip to Ireland at the moment. To dedicate myself to a deity.

In two weeks I’ll be there – alone. This will be the furthest I’ve gone on my own since I became disabled. I’m going to Dingle, where Dovinia’s name is all over the Ogham stones, and to Beara, where my ancestors are from, and on down to Inis Baoi (Baoi Bhearra or Oileán Baoi in modern Irish, Dursey Island in English). I will have a hire car and a bag. And my world gets smaller.

I’ll have to take a cable car over to Oileán Baoi – you can’t sail – the waters are too choppy. The sea keeps you out, Manannan mac Lir protecting his Lady, demanding to know if you are worthy of her. And my world gets smaller.

There’s a spot on Inis Baoi where there will be nothing but me and the land and the sea and the gods. And my world gets smaller… and they get bigger, and I remember that I’m a crucial part of the infinite.

Well, That’s the plan, anyway!

Now I just have to craft a ritual. Little thing. :S

All Wrong: Religion, Culture and Country

Léithin Cluan/Naomi:

Very interesting post on the problems that Americans have when they’re looking for Pagan paths and practices that fit them.

Originally posted on The Lefthander's Path:

Wrong Country: It doesn’t matter if our ancestors didn’t all come to the United States (& various other colonies) for the specific purpose of enslaving and conquering people, but mostly were trying to escape poverty, famine, war or religious/political persecution. Or came here as slaves, prisoners or indentured servants. It doesn’t matter how long our families have lived here. We’re invaders. Or “settlers”, I guess that’s a little nicer. OK, we’ve realized that we messed up. Or someone else did, and we benefited from it. So we’re going to “decolonize” now. It sounds very enlightened and progressive. Wait, does this mean we need to move back to Europe? Black folks have to move back to Africa. (Tried that already, by the way) And so forth. Or is it OK that we stay here, so long as we admit that we have no right to be…

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30 Days of Deity Devotion: Misconceptions and Faith

27) Worst misconception about this deity that you have encountered

I’m always very surprised when ‘hard’ polytheists will talk in one breath about how annoying it is when deities are conflated, and in the next will talk about ‘the Cailleach’ in a very archetypal way. People who see all gods as separate beings will routinely conflate the myths of many different areas of Ireland and Scotland about Cailleachean. Despite her (other) name, Baoi is not the same as them. There’s been cross-pollination of myths, and I don’t know exactly what that means for the deities in question. But they’re not exactly the same, by any means.

I think there are a few reasons for this conflation of figures. One is that some scholars who have collected folklore about Cailleachean don’t seem to care much where each comes from. Another is that many of the recons working with this material are taking it very literally, along with interpretations. Another is that many Pagans love the ‘winter crone’ archetype of the Scottish Cailleach.

But the worst thing, for me, is when people privilege written myths referencing ‘the’ Cailleach, over local folklore about different Cailleachean. For example, there’s not much in writing about the story, from the Beara peninsula, that Cailleach Bhearra is married to Manannan mac Lir. But the myth exists. There are a couple of references to this (literally) in a very few books. But go to the area, and you’ll hear that tale a lot. Is it recent or ancient? I’ve no idea. I love it, though.

Similarly, because she’s not referenced in myth, it’s hard to find out about Dovinia, the ancestor-goddess of the Corcu Duibnhe tribe, who I think of as a sister of Cailleach Bhearra (which is sort of hinted at, but very hard to prove, in local folklore). Her name is on Ogham stones all over the Dingle peninsula. I’m planning to go and spend time at these stones soon. But you can’t read about her in books – not really.

If I spoke Irish and could spend time talking to people who tell stories in the oral tradition there, I would find out even more about the deities of my ancestors, through local folklore. But some things are way beyond me, even though I can visit the area and pick up little things.

Cailleach Bhearra is very much about the land where she is from – the Beara Peninsula. The pan-Irish and pan-Celtic approach erases that. No doubt the same goes for other Cailleachean, who I know much less about.

28) Something you wish you knew about this deity but don’t currently

So many things. I wish I knew if she was ever honoured as a goddess, or was only ever a figure in stories. I wish I knew how she was honoured as a deity, if she was. I wish I knew if she had customs and festivals and practices associated with her and her followers. I wish I could speak enough Irish to hear more of her stories, the ones that haven’t been written down by the scholars – and I suspect there are many of those.

But I’m also glad I don’t know some of those things. Is there anything more enchanting than a mystery? Is there anything more exciting than the necessity of faith?

29) Any interesting or unusual UPG to share?

Heh. The whole of this series has involved a lot of imbas and personal experience of Cailleach Bhearra. I hope I’ve done an OK job of saying where I get my impressions of her – whether from myth, from local folklore and tales, or from my own imbas.

And I hope I’ve sparked some interest in honouring her. She should be much more well-known and much more widely honoured than she is.

Hail, Baoi!

Dursey Island/Baoi Bhearra (once known as Inis Baoi in Irish - an island that shows up in a legend about an old woman and a cow...)

Dursey Island/Baoi Bhearra (once known as Inis Baoi – an island from a myth about an old woman & a cow…)

Hag of Beara stone. Photo by freespiral, flickr

Hag of Beara stone, Beara Peninsula. Photo: freespiral

Tarbh Conraidh, the sacred bull of Baoi/Cailleach Bhearra

Tarbh Conraidh, the bull of Baoi/Cailleach Bhearra

Ruined church on Dursey Island

Ruined church on Dursey Island (Inis Baoi of legend)


Sovereignty… and Hugs

This may be one of the most honest posts I’ve ever written. Since the theme of the moment seems to be ‘honourable communication’, though…

I hate hugging. Can we just start there?

OK, and now that we’ve got that out of the way.

At Druid Camp (which was wonderful, and I’m going to write about soon), there was a closing ritual at the end. It closed with “Let the hugging begin!”

As a person with Asperger’s, I spend most of my life trying to fake happiness about things that don’t make me happy, with the aim of making other people comfortable. People are hugging? I must join in, to make everyone else happy! Don’t let other people feel uncomfortable! Even if you end up sobbing in your tent for hours later on! (Which is why, by the way, no one ever realises I have Asperger’s, or that I’m uncomfortable in a situation. I’m incredibly talented at covering it up. I’m a star, y’know! :P )

Well, this time I decided not to let myself end up sobbing in my tent afterwards. I did what NLP calls an ‘ecology check’ – a quick check on how you feel internally – and I made a quick decision. I was not up to hugging today.

For me, Druid Camp was both highly empowering and very difficult. Getting around a field when you can’t walk properly is not nearly as difficult, for me, as spending five days in the constant presence of *other people*. (I used the Quiet Tent a LOT. I escaped to the edges of the field a lot.) It’s quite hard to explain what that can do to a person with Asperger’s. (At least, not without someone coming in and saying “That doesn’t mean you have Asperger’s! That means you’re normal!” — a response which can be deeply upsetting for the person trying to explain how they are struggling very badly with something.)

So instead of that, let’s take the label away, and just do a thought experiment. Imagine that you love people. You really love them – they’re so interesting, and funny, and exciting, and they inspire so much joy in you. You want to be around them, to get to know them, to take joy in their diverse amazing wonderfulness. They make you want to bounce up and down a lot and give them balloons.

And now imagine that you’re also terrified of them. At the same time that you adore them. You can have huge panic attacks just from being around other people, especially those you don’t know, especially in large numbers. You don’t know how to act around them, even though you want them to like and appreciate you, too. Coming up to people is a big act of courage, every time – even people you know well. And hugging is only something you want to do with people you know really well and trust completely. But how do you balance that with wanting to fit in, to do what you’re supposed to do, and never, ever make other people uncomfortable?

That day, instead of hugging, I did a little ‘namaste’-type bow, of the type that my father (New Age as he is) often does. It was all I could think of on the spot, to say “I like you and I honour you and I thank you for being you” without hugging. It wasn’t joyful enough, though. (Any ideas on other, more joyful non-huggy things I could do would be wonderful!) But it was the best I could do on the spot.

When someone makes you uncomfortable because they seem a bit different, even quite suddenly and surprisingly – if they have trouble understanding what you’re saying sometimes, or if they need to leave a situation because it’s too difficult for them, or if they communicate in slightly odd ways, or if they don’t want to hug – try to remember that they aren’t doing it for attention, or because they’re stupid, or because they’re not trying hard enough. It can be very difficult to stand up for yourself in these situations, to say “These are my boundaries, and I will assert them.” But believe me, I’m showing that I respect you – and myself – a great deal more when I stop pretending to be what I think you want me to be, and start to become fully empowered in who I am.

The Sovereignty Goddesses of ancient Ireland empowered the King to rule, hand-in-hand with the land. Today, we may see a need for Sovereignty more in our own lives, when our power is regularly taken away from us by a society that would often rather we were not being who we are. Because it can be a bit uncomfortable for other people. But here I am, hand-in-hand with the Goddess of the Land, who whispers “You are a very powerful being”. I hold my own sovereignty. My own boundaries. My own power over my life. And I laugh, and I bow to you.

What would you do differently that would be a fuller expression of who you are, if you could stop worrying about how others would respond?


Hmm. This was going to be a post where I tried to make a start at exploring the concept of equality. I think I’ll have to come back to that another day, though.

Peace, War and My Druidry

I’m currently having a hiatus from Facebook and other social media (though this post will no doubt automatically end up posted in some of those places), as a result of debates – if you can call them that – on Palestine and Israel.

At the same time, Cadno of the Druid Network has got me thinking about honourable debate. I do not think that honourable debate is actually happening on social media in response to this particular topic, at the moment. Nor do I think it’s happening much in person, although it may be slightly better face-to-face. But just barely.

I say this, writing on the verge of tears, because yesterday my wife SJ (who uses the pronoun ‘they’) and I were sitting in a cafe. SJ had a fancy coffee, I had a very nice cup of tea. SJ, who rarely gets emotional, was upset and trying to explain why. They told me how they feel some level of understanding for Muslims after 9/11, who were pushed into speaking for all Muslims, into saying that they disagreed with the attacks, and therefore having to associate themselves with an atrocity that was nothing to do with them. SJ has taken off their Star of David, and is considering not telling people that they’re Israeli. They do not want to be forced into speaking for a country that they don’t even live in. They do not want to fear attacks, whether physical or verbal. To ensure that, they have to deny who they are.

The privilege in that picture is intense. There we were, able to afford nice coffee and tea made by people half way across the world, who are no doubt living in poverty, at least in relation to our excellent standard of living. There we were, SJ speaking with their perfect cut-glass English accent, and therefore rarely asked where their family is from. There we were, able to speak about war and peace in a position of safety – SJ’s had to take off their religious symbol, but they can do that, and don’t have to fear the destruction of their entire village, nor do they even have to sleep in an air raid shelter tonight with members of their famlly.

But still, we hurt.

I’m contemplating which of the Druid Virtues (in the ADF tradition) is relevant to this situation. Which ones do I need to be meditating on at the moment? Wisdom? Courage? Integrity? Perseverence? Moderation?

All of the above – but I think, more than any others, Hospitality. It always comes back to Hospitality for me. It’s a Virtue that has much wider currency in the world religions than we might realise. For example, Jesus said some very wise things on the topics, according to the Christian tradition (which still inspires me greatly). In a parable or prophecy, he is shown speaking to people who were not his followers, at the end of Time. He says:

“For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.”
Then these righteous ones will reply, “Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?”
And the King will say, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.”
- Matthew 25:35-40, New Living Translation

Hospitality matters, at least to me. We’re living in a much bigger world than we used to, and it’s no longer just travellers we invite into our home. We invite all kinds of opinions, through the TV screen and the radio and the internet news page, into our home. We invite debates, through Facebook, into our home. We invite real people, through social media and blogging comments and online chatting, into the hearths that we’ve dedicated to the gods and spirits. Our gods and ancestors see our speech and actions, whether online or face-to-face, whether honourable or dishonorable.

But I think we’ve stopped seeing real people on the other end of those Facebook comments. We’ve started thinking we can just shout in the marketplace, and that the humanity of passers-by don’t matter. We invite them into our homes, but we don’t offer them food or wine or a nice cup of tea. We continue to shout at them, as though they weren’t people. They’re only words on a page, after all. And what we say here doesn’t really matter - right?

And that kind of Othering, that kind of making an ‘us and them’ dichotomy, is what leads to the dehumanization of prejudice and hate and war.

What if we thought of every person on the other side of the TV screen as our brother or sister – Palestinian and Israeli alike?* What if we offered good wine to everyone we invite into our homes through Facebook? What if we saw the person in the street wearing the Star of David not as a representative of a country she may never have been to, but as a real person who needs to see a friendly face? And what if we insisted on making a nice cup of tea for anyone we engaged with online – metaphorically speaking?

That’s the first thing I do for someone who comes through the door of my home, dedicated to the gods and spirits as it is. I learnt that from my Irish (Catholic) family. Everything I say in this home needs to be honourable. I need to start thinking of the people I engage with online as sitting in my living room, holding a cup of tea that I made for them, refusing the cake that I keep offering them to the point of mild mutual annoyance. Sitting under a Brighid’s cross that hangs on the wall.

We are not Other. We are the same. I think we need to start there. I think I need to start there.

I’m so, so tired. I’m writing this in tears, for everyone involved, on any level. For my wife. For their family. For my friends without air-raid shelters whose safety I’m concerned about. Most of all, for the Palestinians being killed in the thousands. This is a conflict that is so emotive, for a lot of us. And I can’t be on Facebook, or really ask for support anywhere, because I get shouted down. But ultimately, my feelings (as a non-involved, incredibly privileged, very safe person) don’t matter. It’s my behaviour that matters, and that needs to be honourable.

May Brighid the Peacemaker and Morrigan the Honourable Warrior guide all my words and actions today. Face to face, and online.

Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me…

P.S. Members of the Druid Network are currently talking about a communal prayer/ritual for peace. I’ll share the details as we get them sorted, so others can join in.


*I say this as someone who does in fact have Israeli brothers and sisters, who treat me with wonderful hospitality. They’re not evil people, and I can never look upon their entire country and see evil people, as a result.


I posted this over at the Druid Network’s social site recently. I realised that it was as long as a blog post (sorry, TDN people!) – and I thought it was worth sharing here. This is the reason why I’ll never use the term shamanism. While I don’t expect others to agree with me, I do think it’s important that Druids and other Pagans *think* about the language and techniques they use, and decide in an informed way what they are going to do about issues of social justice relating to their spiritual work. After all, as the Druid’s Prayer says: “Grant, O gods… the knowledge of justice, and in the knowledge of it, the love of it.”

I am extremely opposed to using the word ‘shamanic’ to describe anything that isn’t happening in a tribal context (and really not even there). As a sociologist, I’m aware that the word is being used less and less in academia, where academics have realised that it is a very poor description of spirit journeying and spirit work. Its use suggests that all tribal spirituality is the same, when it is NOT – different tribes have different kinds of spirit-workers who do different things. The word was initially an imperialistic, Western-context-imposing concept that academics used to present tribal people as Other, exotic and all the same. Eliade, who is no longer popular in academia, did a lot of damage there.

Furthermore, many tribal people have been offended by the Western use of the term. Harner’s ‘Core Shamanism’ has been criticised by indigenous people for stealing their sacred techniques, churning them up and spitting them out in a form that they don’t recognise. Some Native Americans and others have talked about ‘plastic shamans’, arguing that real tribal spirit-workers cannot be separated from their tribal context. They serve communities, and a Westerner journeying on their own rather than for a tribe cannot relate fully to what they do.

Many academics are coming round to this point of view. Alice Kehoe, in her book Shamans and Religion: An Anthropological Exploration in Critical Thinkingtalks about how our ideas of ‘shamanism’ can reinforce the imperialistic concept of the ‘noble savage’. She describes how courses like Harner’s have misrepresented and mangled stolen techniques from peoples without much social power, who could therefore do little about it. She demonstrates how the techniques we now consider ‘shamanic’ actually show up in almost every religious context, including branches of Christianity. She also shows how these technqiues are used very differently across different tribes and peoples – there is not one ‘shamanism’, but many cultural forms of spirit-work that are tied to the cultures and tribes that they emerge from.

I do a lot of spirit work and journeying, but I call it different things. There are Pagan terms, like ‘technician of the sacred’, ‘spirit-worker’, ‘journeying’, ‘Ovate work’, ‘oracle work’ etc, which I prefer. We are using techniques which are common to every religion, like journeying based on visualisation, that we don’t need to name as ‘shamanism’.

Yeah, I have strong feelings about this! As a Druid, I believe in Justice in all things. Social justice for indigeous people is very important to me. Too many indigenous groups have been mistreated for too many years. I personally won’t have anything to do with practices that indigenous groups have said are misappropriating and misrepresenting their sacred concepts and techniques.

Myths and Words that Shaped My (Pagan) World

Mostly books, a few TV series. So little, in words. So much, in meaning.

In no particular order:

‘American Gods’, Neil Gaiman
“Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.”

‘Triumph of the Moon’, Ronald Hutton

‘Celtic Myths and Legends’, Eoin Neeson
My first detailed encounter with Irish myths, which I read when I was about 18.

‘Cailleach: The Hag of Beara’, Leanne O’Sullivan
“the darkness that would be cast / between the moment when I could destroy / and the moment when I would devour.”

‘Druidry and the Ancestors’, Nimue Brown

‘Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation’, Eli Clare
“Laugh and cry and tell stories. Sad stories about bodies stolen, bodies no longer here. Enraging stories about the false images, devastating lies, untold violence. Bold, brash stories about reclaiming our bodies and changing the world.”

‘Rivers of London’ – Ben Aaronovitch
“I once asked my dad how he knew what to play. And he said that when you get the right line, you just know because it’s perfect. You’ve found the line, and you just follow it.”

‘The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries’ – W.Y. Evans-Wentz

‘Loneliness and Revelation’, Brendan Myers
“I am empowered with the knowledge that as I say this prayer, thousands or even millions of people say it with me, and I am not alone.”

‘Carmina Gadelica’ (especially the translation/re-imagining by Morgan Daimler)
“The Three who would protect me / Keep me this night and always”

Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America’ – Margot Adler
“I acted out the old myths and created new ones, in fantasy and private play. It was a great and deep secret that found its way into brief diary entries and unskilled drawings. But like many inner things, it was not unique to me.”

Doctor Who
“We’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?”

‘The Art of Conversation with the Genius Loci’, Barry Patterson

The Bible
“For where your treasure is, there is your heart.”

The Nag Hammadi Library
“I am the utterance of my name.”

Battlestar Galactica (2004)
What is the most basic article of faith? That this is not all that we are.”

‘The Book of the Cailleach: Stories of the Wise-Woman Healer’ – Gearoid O’Crulaoich
“Nature is renewed eternally in the recounting of the tales of how Cailleach Bhearra impressed herself onto and expresses herself within a landscape made both vital and sacred by association with her divine and sovereign presence.”

‘She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse’ – Elizabeth Johnson

The Life of Pi
“Since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story…?”
“…The story with the animals is the better story.”

“And so it goes with God.”

‘Kindling Our Stars: Nurturing Bright and Dark Flames’ – Genevieve Wood

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
“It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem.”

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
“You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity.”
“Everything is true,” he said. “Everything anybody has ever thought.”  

‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ – C.S, Lewis
He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

‘Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans’ – Ceisiwr Serith

‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’, Audrey Niffenegger
“Through each moment I can see infinite moments lined up, waiting.”

Pride Against Prejudice: A Personal Politics of Disability’, Jenny Morris
The first disability theory book I read. Changed my world.

‘The Essential Rumi’
“Why do you stay in prison / when the door is so wide open?”

‘Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom’ – Erynn Rowan Laurie
“With poetry the world is made.”

Pistis Sophia
“Thou has set the light of thy stream in me; I have become a pure light-power…”

The Culture novels
“There are no gods, we are told, so I must make my own salvation.” – ‘Use of Weapons’

The Water Horse – Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill
Poetry bringing Irish myths and folklore into the modern world. Written in Gaelic, but with translations.

Babylon 5
“We are the universe trying to understand itself…”

‘Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic: A Materia Magica of African-American Conjure’ – Catherine Yronwode

‘The Mysteries of Druidry: Celtic Mysticism, Theory & Practice’ – Brendan Myers

Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel
“If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do…”

‘The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability’, Nancy Eiesland

tir na nog