30 Days of Deity Devotion, 3 & 4: Symbols and Myths

3) Symbols and icons of this deity

Well, it all depends how many of the stories of the other Irish Cailleachean you integrate into Baoi’s mythology. I put a limit on this, to some extent – but if I’ve read of/heard Beara people talk about it as an aspect of Baoi, I’m more likely to include it.

Based on that, some of her possible symbols are:

 

Photo by Ivar Husevåg Døskeland, flickr

Photo by Ivar Husevåg Døskeland, flickr

– The cow. Her name may mean ‘white cow’, an epithet that hearkens back to her roots as a primordial prosperity goddess. I’m not entirely sure which part of Ireland the story of the Cailleach’s bull that was turned into stone comes from, but I’ve heard Beara people reference it. It is said that she had a bull, whose presence increased the fertility of cows in the area. One day he ran away from her, and she turned him to stone. In pre-Christian Gaelic culture, the cow would have been deeply important for the welfare and security of the community/tribe. I see Baoi’s cow as a symbol of her prosperity and fertility associations.

 

 

IMG_0543– The mountains. The giantess dropped stones from her apron pockets as she crossed the land, and they became the mountains of the Beara peninsula, the most beautiful part of Ireland (not that I’m biased, or anything). I have a stone from the seashore at Adrigole, near my family’s farmhouse, that now sits on my altar to my Lady. The stones are vital to who she is.

Talking of which…

 

 

 

Photo by freespiral, flickr

Photo by freespiral, flickr

– The Hag of Beara stone. Here she sits, watching and waiting for her husband the sea god. There are several stories about how the Cailleach Bhearra was turned into the stone. The most well-known one has a priest or Naomh (Saint) Caitiarin turning her to stone for stealing his prayer book. And Martin Verling’s book of local folklore includes a strange story which has her turned to stone by a young girl with a magic wand. Locally she is sometimes said to have turned herself into stone so that she will always be with the people of Beara, or temporarily, before she renews her youth again (see Leanne O’Sullivan’s poetry) – and I much prefer the sovereignty of this idea, as well as the concept that she returns to the land. Local stories say that you can see both the old woman and the young woman that is Cailleach Bhearra in the hag stone, which relates to her age/youth paradox.

Talking of which…

Photo by dennoir, flickr

Photo by dennoir, flickr

– Age and youth. In the poem ‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beara’ (in which the Cailleach calls herself ‘Bui’), one manuscript has a prose introduction which says she passed into seven periods of youth, i.e. renewed her age. That’s reflected in some local folklore too. I wonder if it’s something to do with the renewal of the land, as it ages into winter and passes into youth again in spring – but that’s a very personal interpretation without much to back it up.

 

 

 

– The sea. In Beara she is said to be married to a sea god, sometimes Manannan mac Lir, waiting for him from her position as the Hag of Beara stone, from where she overlooks the sea.

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4) A favorite myth or myths of this deity

There are grand myths that represent An Chailleach Bhearra as a giantess, a creatrix and land-shaper, and an ancient bestower of sovereignty. And there are the little stories that show her as a canny old woman. I almost prefer the second set. There’s wisdom and firinne there, but you really have to look to find it.

– From Marting Verling’s edited book ‘Beara Woman Talking’, but my own retelling. (Quotes from the original story in italics):

The Hag of Beara went down to the sea one day, gathering fish at the shore. She put her hand under a flat stone, and a crab grabbed her and would not let go. (As the local story puts it: She was there and then every screech out of her.)

A man, her neighbour, came to see what was wrong. “What’s making you shout so loudly?” he asked.

She said, “I went down to the shore looking for fish, and put my hand under a stone, and a crab grabbed me and would not let go.”

Said the man: “Have you still got the crab? Show it to me.”

“Oh, I have,” said she. “It’s a bad man who isn’t better than nothing.”

“May yourself and itself croak, then!” retorted the man.

“Oh, I’ll keep it, my bright leggy crab,” she said.

“You should throw it into the fire!” said the man.

“I won’t,” she said. “My bright leggy crab. It’s a bad man who’s not better than nothing.”

– And from ‘The Book of the Cailleach’, another story (that begins by referencing Whiddy Island, Cape Clear and the River Laune, places in Cork and Kerry):

She had the reputation of great wealth also and people were anxious to steal it from her, since there were people that time who wouldn’t be long doing just that. She understood that herself as much as anyone, and what did she do, this day, but go down to Sceic in Cuan Leitid and steal a lobster out of the pot that was there. She brough it home alive in her apron and she put it into the box where her money was.

The following day, when she was away collecting food from the different places, a thief went up the hillside and stole in through the window of the cailleach’s house. He wasn’t able to locate the money, high or low, until he noticed the box in under the old bed. He dragged it out. It wasn’t too big but there was great weight in it. “It’s full up with gold, of course,” said the thief to himself. He noticed that there was a sizeable hole in the side of the box. “Isn’t it a pity, you filthy old cailleach,” says he, “that you didn’t think to mend that hole — but ’tis an ill wind that doesn’t blow for someone’s benefit.”

With that he thrust his hand into the hole and started to grope around inside in the box looking for the gold. What did the lobster do but seize the hand in between his two claws and squeeze hard on it. No matter how the thief turned and twisted he couldn’t break the grip or pull out his hand. When the sun was setting that evening the cailleach arrived home. “You did well, lobster,” said she, and she killed the thief with an axe.

References

Brooke, B., 2011. ‘The lament of the Old Woman of Beara: Contrasting the passage of life’, Hektoen International. http://hektoeninternational.org/lament-of-the-old-woman.html
Carey, J., 1999. ‘Transmutations of immortality in ‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beara”, Celtica.
O Crualaoich, G., 2003. The Book of the Cailleach.
The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare. http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/beare.html
Ritari, K., 2012. ‘Images of ageing in the early Irish poem Caillech Bérri’, Studia Celtica Fennica.
Tairis Tales: Cailleach Bhearra. http://heelancoo.wordpress.com/tag/cailleach-bhearra/
Verling, M. (ed.), 2003. Beara Woman Talking: Folklore from the Beara Peninsula.