G is for… Gobnait

This is sort of part two of the story that I started to tell in the post B is for… Bhéarra. If you haven’t read that, start there. (Or don’t. See if I care!)

St Gobnait’s well – one of two at the site

Second well

The second holy well

If you ever get the chance to visit St Gobnait’s two holy wells, nestled into the hills in south-west Ireland, beneath the Paps of Anu, GO THERE. It’s one of those places where the Otherworld is so close you can almost touch it.

St Gobnait (pronounced gov-net): saint of bees. No, really. She likes bees. She was also a smith, and one story associates her with deer. And in all the legends associated with her, she goes on a journey to seek her “place of resurrection.”

It was an appropriately misty day when we went over to the Kerry border to visit the Paps of Anu and the well of St Gobnait. I had been on the lookout for holy wells all week, though I didn’t really know why. It was late in the week, and I had already become utterly obsessed with Buí, AKA Cailleach Bhéarra.

“St Gobnait,” my wife announced that morning. “We are going to visit St Gobnait’s well.”

“Who?”

A little-known saint, it turned out. Possibly with pre-Christian origins. One of a triad of sisters.

I suddenly had a feeling. I had never heard of this saint, so I don’t know where the feeling came from. “Tell me the names of her sisters,” I said.

My wife paused for a minute, clicking through some links, then read me the following from the Diocese of Kerry’s website on St Gobnait: “We don’t get agreement on the names of her two sister saints in the tradition. Most usually Latiaran of Cullen and Crobhdhearg are found in the tradition but sometimes a saint called Iníon Buí is substituted for either Latiaran or Crobhdhearg.”

Buí. With no evidence beyond this, I went to meet a saint (who I suspected was also goddess) at a well. The presence I encountered there was extremely hard to pin down. But I can tell you that I’d never been anywhere like her well. A deeply sacred place, where the trees and rocks were covered with pictures of sick people and those who had recently passed on (St Gobnait was known as a healer). When I sat beside her well, the sense of a strong, ancient and holy presence was very palpable. It was beautiful.

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Offerings and votives at the well

So, I had a powerful saint-and-maybe-once-goddess with a possible (but very vague) link to Buí. From there, I started digging. Gobnait is sometimes named in a local trilogy of pre-Christian sister goddesses of the harvest cycle. The traditional names of those three goddesses are Lasair, Latiaran and Inghean Bhuidhe/Iníon Buí. They are all Christianized as a saints, and in various confusing ways, they are then linked to St Gobnait, who sometimes becomes known as one of the sisters. But that’s as far as my exploring took me on that subject, when I was there.

The Cailleach has become known as the goddess of winter. But in my UPG (and it is very unverified), there is also a young, summery side to Cailleach Bhéarra/Buí. I met her on her island, Oileán Baoi, on a warm, sunny day, when the hillsides were covered with yellow flowers reaching towards a deep blue sky. And these local goddess/saint connections are one of reasons why I get summer and harvest vibes for Cailleach Bhéarra, at the right time of the year. All I can say is that I feel like she’s related to these three sisters – but who she is, and who Gobnait is, in relation to them, is very hard to say. Lasair is usually called the first sister, the goddess of the spring, and she’s a fire goddess – her name means ‘Flame’. Iníon Buí is next – the summer goddess of ripening – her name means ‘Yellow-Haired Girl’. Finally there’s Latiaran, who is the goddess of the harvest. They become Christian saints, each with a feast day at the appropriate time in the harvest cycle. There is very little written about these goddesses, and what is written is very confusing – which is the kind of deity folklore that I love the most. There’s also confusion over which of the sister saints is which, and you’ll read different things about them in different localities. Then there are the other overlapping myths, where Latiaran is part of different groupings – which, if nothing else, shows the diffiiculty we’ll always have with trying to tie down pre-Christian gods in Ireland, at least if you want to go beyond the more famous myths. Local tales and traditions in Ireland are incredibly varied.

And then St Gobnait enters the picture, just to make things really complicated. She’s sometimes substituted for Iníon Buí, or sometimes called her sister. One scholar calls Gobnait the Christianised version of the Cailleach (and re-affirms her harvest links) [1]. But it’s entirely possible that it’s much more complicated than that, given how she’s substituted for various sisters in various places. Oh, and there are connections between at least two of these goddesses/saints and Brighid, too – from bees to healing to smithcraft to carrying hot coals. Just to make things really complicated. Her name also echoes that of Goibniu, the smith god from Irish myth, who happens to have a very small island nearby too, so the fact that she’s a smith is interesting. But we’re deep into my own interpretations there.

So back to St Gobnait, and who she might have been. Bees and healing are all that we’re definitely left with. That, and her legend says she knew she’d found her “place of resurrection” when she saw nine white deer, and she chose to build a convent at the spot where she saw them. (Doesn’t that sound beautifully Celtic? As well as linking to the Cailleach’s patronage of deer.) Almost all ancient saints with wells were associated with healing, so that’s not particularly helpful (although her well does feel like a place of healing and peace). Bees could be about prosperity of the land and summer, and a couple of online references claim that the Celts believed the soul left the body as a bee or a butterfly, but I haven’t been able to find much on that.

So that’s all we really have on this powerful, maybe pre-Christian saint, whose well is at one of those ‘thin places’ where this world meets the other. And this, my friends, is where ‘hard’ polytheism fails me. We were discussing forms of polytheism on my online Pagan forum this week, and I realised what a fluffy bunny I sounded like when I said (to all the hard polytheists there) that, while I treat each deity as a distinct and real individual, I’m also stuck with being an aspiring mystic, and that’s where the boundaries between them start breaking down. And when you’re also a mythology and folklore geek, and especially when you’re interested in the Celtic traditions, any attempts to tie down these gods will be quickly interrupted by myth, history, sociology, the passing of a whole lot of time – and the shifting nature of the gods themselves.

So there is a small bottle of water from St Gobnait’s well on my altar to Bui, Cailleach Bhéarra. Are they sisters? Are they the same entity? Or are they both – a shifting, merging-and-separating goddess, as difficult to distinguish from her sisters as it is to mark out the last day of spring from the first day of summer?

I just know that when the last storms and cold spell of the Cailleach’s last stand have ended, and Cailleach Bhéarra-sometimes-called-Buí washes her face in the sacred waters at her place of resurrection and becomes young again, I will meet an ever-shifting, ever-changing childlike goddess on the hillsides, a yellow-haired girl running through meadows full of bee-covered flowers. My journey with her is only just starting. And St Gobnait is coming along for the ride.

Dursey Island

Dursey Island (Irish: Baoi Bhéarra or Oileán Baoi). Picture taken on a warm, bright day.

References

[1] Gearóid Ó Crualaoich, Non-Sovereignty Queen Aspects of the Otherworld Female in Irish Hag Legends: The Case of Cailleach Bhéarra

Patricia Monaghan, Encylopedia of Goddesses and Heroines

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16 thoughts on “G is for… Gobnait

  1. I love the way the Gaelic stories of gods and saints and spirits twine round and through each other like verdant growth. I really resonate with this, in particular:

    “I said (to all the hard polytheists there) that, while I treat each deity as a distinct and real individual, I’m also stuck with being an aspiring mystic, and that’s where the boundaries between them start breaking down. And when you’re also a mythology and folklore geek, and especially when you’re interested in the Celtic traditions, any attempts to tie down these gods will be quickly interrupted by myth, history, sociology, the passing of a whole lot of time – and the shifting nature of the gods themselves.”

    That is so much my experience, it’s good to know I’m not alone. I feel guilty when my polytheism grows soft around the edges, but it seems to be the way it is.

    • I totally agree with you, Grace. I’d love to be a hard polytheist, and for the most part I am, but it’s hard to do with the Gaelic gods. They keep blurring into each other. I love your image of twining in verdant growth :)

  2. Great article.

    I never sought to be a mystic. I was first ‘claimed, marked, called’ as a child some sixty years ago. One thing I have learned over this time, is that it really is as weird as it seems. I go into this with no real expectations these days. As my experiences become more integrated, I am recognizing that there is no place, person or event that is not sacred in one way or the other. As Grace stated above ‘my polytheism grows soft around the edges’. Ah, the richness of existence. LOL! As I meet more ‘folk’ (living and dead, human and otherwise) the more I begin to suspect that there is no simple understanding of anything. I am finding deep comfort in the idea that the only constant in the multiverse is change. For me this statement has become more just pretty words.

    I am grateful.

    • My term ‘aspiring mystic’ for myself is a slightly ironic self-effacing one. It’s because I’m afraid of calling myself an actual mystic – it sounds so full of myself. But I agree wih you – it’s a path that calls you, not the other way around. Thanks for your thoughts!

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  4. Very interesting, well researched, and well written. One of Bridget’s titles or names is Ban Goibnui or Begoibnui (Goibnui is the Irish Smith God and his name is said gov-ee-new.) As there is a connection in the landscape to Goibnui I am wondering if Gobnait and Ban Goibnui are connected. Thank you very much for a new strand of the tapestry.

    • I’m so glad you found it helpful! I personally have difficulty with the tendency to connect the Cailleach and Brighid, which is one reason why I shy away from associating St Gobnait with Brighid. Also, I honour both of them, and find them quite different ‘presences’. But everyone’s opinion on that will vary, no doubt! I went to Kildare on the same trip as I visited St Gobnait’s well. You might be interested in my post, on my old blog, on my Kildare visit: http://lightingmycandle.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/ireland-part-1-kildare.html (There never was a ‘part 2′ there – all my posts on Cailleach Bhearra and Gobnait are part 2!) Hope you enjoy.

      • This is a wonderful blog on your Kildare visit. When I was in Kildare I also visited Croghan Hill just outside Kildare where Brighid the Smith eternally forges the Undry — you may have guessed I connect pretty strongly to Brighid the Smith.

      • I’m really glad you like it! I didn’t make it to Croghan Hill, as we only had one full day in Kildare and there was so much to see. I’d love to go back at some point. Several more things I’d like to see! It’s a wonderful place :)

      • The energy at Croghan Hill is very different from the energy at the Holy Wells. It seems that Brighid Mother of Healers is not identical to Brighid Mother of Smiths. I dont’ usually subscribe to Triple Goddess theories but in this case … as the Mother of Smiths and Lady of the Forge Fire she is very — well — fiery and energetic. No big surprise there, I guess. But the fire is in service — if you know what I mean. It is controlled and directed — it does not run wild and is not destructive.

      • I think I know what you mean. I don’t know Brighid as well as some of my other gods, but I do experience different ‘parts’ of her better than others. I particularly encounter her as a hearth goddess, which has overlaps with the Smith – I do a lot of service for her.

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  7. Great post! Thank you very much for sharing. I am currently researching the traditions of Latiaran, Iníon Buí, and Lasair. I am wondering you could recommend any sources on these sisters? Trying to track down information on the internet has proved to be a nightmare.

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