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!)
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.”
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.
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) . 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.
Patricia Monaghan, Encylopedia of Goddesses and Heroines