I’m trying to catch up with all the blog posts I’ve been meaning to write for ages, but haven’t. Continuing my series on Baoi/Cailleach Bhearra, here’s the next in the #30DDD blog series.
16) How do you think this deity represents the values of their pantheon and cultural origins?
Well, to start with, talking about a ‘pantheon’ in relation to Cailleach Bhearra doesn’t make a great deal of sense. I would argue that our insistence on making a pantheon out of the Irish gods doesn’t work too well when you’re looking at local cults and traditions. Tribes and localities had different gods, and not all of those gods will have been represented in the ‘official’ medieval myths. (Especially not when you’re looking at a very marginalized area like West Cork.) Baoi and Duibhne/Dovinia are cases in point. While there is a Bui/Bua in some medieval texts, it’s very hard to say if she’s Baoi/Cailleach Bhearra. Likewise, the Lament of the Old Woman of Beare is a fascinating piece that doesn’t fit particularly well with local folklore. It’s even harder with Duibhne/Dovinia, whose name is all over the Dingle peninsula on ogham stones, but who isn’t represented in myths at all, and about whom contradictory stories are told. (Some dictionaries of mythology even tell you Duibhne is a male ancestor of the tribe – while others call her the Hag/Witch of Dingle, sister to Cailleach Bhearra. So to some extent, my entire relationship with Duibhne is UPG/personal experience. Which is a bit frustrating, sometimes, when you’re talking about one of your patrons.*)
But Baoi does represent some values that are relevant to the old gods of Ireland. She’s a sovereignty figure – and sovereignty goddesses seem to have been incredibly important to the Gaelic tribes, with different queens of the land in each area. She may also be a fertility and prosperity deity, as many of the sovereignty queens seem to have been. Baoi is much more wild than some of them (based on my reading of other myths), though. She gives life and takes it away again. She’s chaos and creation. She’s a Cow Goddess with Mare Goddess attributes. She’s impressive but deeply chaotic. She’s not a tame lion, to quote a certain writer of fantasy.
17) How does this deity relate to other gods and other pantheons?
There’s evidence that she might have Norse origins. Dursey Island, which is her place, has a Nordic-influenced name as well as the Gaelic one (which could in fact be a later name). If I were more familiar with Norse mythology, I might say that she feels a bit Jotun-like. But I’m not so I won’t. ;)
18) How does this deity stand in terms of gender and sexuality? (historical and/or UPG)
Well, it seems likely that she had a role to do with prosperity and fertility. I tend to focus on the prosperity and fertility of the land, in this context, since I’m not planning to produce any babies anytime soon. But I don’t have any personal experince of her pushing the ‘polarity’ stuff on me. In some local traditions she’s married to Manannan mac Lir, but he’s not her consort – they are ever separated by the sea, and she is left looking out over the cliffs, waiting for him.
My personal impression is that she likes creativity, including sexual expression, whether opposite-sex or same-sex.
19) What quality or qualities of this god do you most admire? What quality or qualities of them do you find the most troubling?
The qualities I admire in her are also the qualities that terrify me. She has wild, unpredictable whims – like a storm. My experience is that Bhearra is not like us. She’s very unlike us. Sometimes I feel that, while I can have a vaguely rational conversation with Duibhne, talking to Bhearra is like trying to talk to the mountains. She has such an entirely different perspective on creation, destruction, life and death that she can’t relate to some of my passing concerns. The ageless Mountain sees us as ants who live and die in a moment… Which doesn’t mean I experience her as callous, exactly – though it can sometimes feel that way. On the positive side, though, she takes the long view – and this little ant often needs that.
A child of the Mountain lived in a little hut beneath that mountain, at the very edge of the seashore.
At night, when the sea came close to the edge of the shore, it brought the winds with it. They rocked and shook the hut, the spray of the sea battering against the windows, the cold wind whistling through the cracks in the walls. She feared for her safety.
So the child climbed the Mountain.
“Help me, Lady Mountain,” she said, when she got to the top. “Your winds are battering my little hut, and I’m afraid that it won’t stay standing for much longer.”
“What do you want with a hut?” said the Mountain. “One day all things will be washed away, and all that will remain is the sea and the mountain, and then even I will be gone, and there will be nothing but land, sea and sky. You have no need of shelter. If you want to serve me, embrace the chaos. It’s all there is.”
Well, thought the child of the Mountain, while this was probably good advice, it wasn’t quite what she needed.
So off she went across the bay to talk to the Mother of the Tribe.
She found Her sitting serenly on the cliffs, watching the tide go in and out.
“Help me, Mother of the Tribe,” she said. “Across the bay, my little hut is battered by raging winds and rising tides. The Lady of the Mountain will not calm the winds. Can you?”
Duibhne laughed. “You serve the Forces of the wild, and you thought that you could escape them? You built a hut on the edge of the sea beneath the mountain, and you think you can find shelter from Her chaos.”
She went on, “If you want peace and quiet, you can leave the mountain and come and live here with me. Life with my people is quiet and safe. I tend the land where the people live, not the empty wilderness where only the wild animals can survive. Come and farm sheep here, among the people of the Tribe. Or, if you’d rather, go back to the Mountain and live in the wild with her. Your choice.”
So she built a sturdy cottage, set back from the seashore, surrounded by farmland, and lived among the people of the Tribe.
And she lay awake at night, wishing she could hear the spray of the sea that used to sing against the windows of her hut, wishing she could feel the cool winds whistling in through the cracks in the walls. She missed the thrill of the hurricanes that used to rage around her, missed the wonder of the mighty sea in its eternal dance with the land. Here the sea was silent and the winds were mild and warm. This was not her home.
So it was with a mixture of fear and excitement that she returned, one day, to the Mountain. She found her hut in pieces. She sat in the foothills and waited for the storm to roll out over the sea.
“Embrace the chaos,” said the Mountain, approvingly.
J. MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
All the other books I’ve cited on the topic of Cailleach Bhearra in this blog post series
And a story out of my own head.
*For want of a better word. I do not have one.