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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

30 Days for An Chailleach Bhéarra: Helping and Not Helping

24) A time when this deity has helped you

I wrote a whole post about being rescued from an unexpected snowstorm in Cumbria here. Bhéarra isn’t usually into the helping – she’s much more about teaching you to stand on your own two feet – but sometimes, when the situation is ironically ‘her’ enough, she laughs and helps.

25) A time when this deity has refused to help

Oh, so many times. Like I say, she’s about teaching you to stand on your own two feet. Or, in my case, to get on your own mobility scooter. :P

Based on my imbas, she’s not a deity you go to when you want help, when you want someone to intervene and take your troubles away. She sees the long view, from up on the mountain top. She knows that chaos is at the heart of nature, and that nothing would ever change or grow or be created anew without it. Crows and ants feast on dead foxes. A flooding river finds a new course. The seed breaks open and begins to grow.

Duibhne, on the other hand, helps and guides. I wrote the little story about the Lady of the Mountain and her sister, the Mother of the Tribe, illustrating this idea. I’m not someone who can sit in the sheltered embrace of a motherly god forever – but I appreciate it when I can’t be doing with the harshness of the queen of the wild for the moment.

26) How has your relationship with this deity changed over time?

She’s become ever more demanding, asking more and more of me. And I think that’s the way it should be. You don’t serve a deity by paying them lip-service and not doing the Work.

Find the rest of this blog project here.

30 Days – An Chailleach Bhéarra: Art, Music, Filidecht…

The next four questions fit very well together, so I’m tackling them all at once.

20) Art that reminds you of this deity

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An Cailleach Bheara by the Irish Film Board. They take from both Irish and Scottish myths about the Cailleachean, but there’s a lot of ‘my’ Bhéarra in this film. Her associations with the wild, and with wild animals; the story of the bones in the attic (which is Ireland-wide but feels very relevant, especially the way they bring out the theme of the clash of Christian and pre-Christian aspects of Ireland); the renewal of the Cailleach every 100 years… Really, really beautiful.

21) Music that makes you think of this deity

For me, the sadness that this song expresses for the people of a little town comes straight from the heart of their tutelary deity. Poor men from across Ireland went to fight in whatever wars England was engaged in at the time, and had no choice in the matter. Bantry is a little harbour town in Beara – the girls would have stood on the docks and watched their men leaving them. (My great-grandmother taught lace-making in Bantry.) It’s entirely possble that this song comes from a different Bantry, but the song works very well for me as a picture of life in that little town.

22) A quote, a poem, or piece of writing that you think this deity resonates strongly with

If we’re specifically talking about Baoi, rather than other Cailleachean, then my favourite writing about her is the collection of poetry called ‘Cailleach: the Hag of Beara’ by Leanne O’Sullivan. It draws strongly on local myths about Bhéarra, which are quite hard to come by outside of the peninsula. In this collection, Bhéarra is simultaneously a mortal woman and a goddess, as the stories and history of ordinary people from Beara merge with the legends of their Hag. In the poems, her husband, the sea god, is also a fisherman – and they are destined to join and then part, like land and sea.

This is the sea at the end of it;
the sky and the sea’s tangled cries flooding
inwards, then out to the grey reflection of itself.

I am lost in this encircling.

But my favourite poem from the collection is a somewhat indecipherable one. The woman’s fisherman-husband is dead, and she is at the end of her 100-year life, preparing to turn to stone and be reborn:

The Wanderer

Would you walk with me, woman?
The cold is in for the night now,
and the mountains quiet. It’s scarce
the sun rolls around her face
or walks out in the fields. The cold is in.
Would you walk with me, woman?

The night makes a blaze of my grief,
my only soft and finest love.
Her long hair is flung out before me
like moonlight on the sea.
All the memory of her is me.
Would you walk with me, woman?

I have no talk of war or song,
I have no ready ear to the earth
or words in passion for their work.
Sooner comes the dark engrained
on summits, and the ocean louder.
Would you walk with me, woman?

One more road in a whirl of roads
opens before me like a ritual of place.
I remember the foreign lightness of her touch.
I loved her soft and undecipherable notes.
The mountains are dark now. The cold is in.
Would you walk with me, woman?

– Leanne O’Sullivan

23) Your own composition – a piece of writing about or for this deity

I don’t write poetry very often – I have to be really caught by imbas – but here’s one I wrote for her people, a little while ago. I’ve posted it before, so I’ve stuck it behind a tag.

You are forgotten people of forgotten gods. Continue reading

30 Days of Deity Devotion: Pantheons

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 Story

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.

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References

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.

I know what I like… (30 Days of Deity Devotion 8, 9 & 10)

There was a woman here long ago that they used to call An Chailleach Bhéarthach and she never shed a tear and she never drank or ate anything, hot or cold, only cow’s milk, always.
– Folk-tale from Galway, cited in O Crualaoich

And what she had to eat was:
Real, pure
madhbhan* from Whiddy
Duileasg* from the harbours of Cape Clear.
Fish from above in the Laune

And wild garlic from Beleach Bheimis.
– Folk-tale from the Beara Gaeltacht, cited in O Crualaoich

*Types of seaweed.

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8) Variations on this deity (aspects, regional forms, etc.)
9) Common mistakes about this deity
10) Offerings – historical and UPG

8 & 9:

There are many Cailleachean in Ireland and Scotland. I think that they’re not the same – except when they are. Many of them have enough in common that they may have roots in common,1 which is why it’s easy for people to (mistakenly) talk about ‘the Cailleach’, as though there were only one. Usually, when they reference ‘the’ Cailleach, people are talking about the Scottish lady, and her seasonal associations. But there are others. All tied to the land, in my experience, but not all winter deities.

I’ve already talked about Duibhne, who is also known as the Cailleach Corca Dhuibhne (or, in English, the Cailleach of Dingle). She appears to me most often as a young woman, and it may be that she was only syncretised with the concept of the ‘Cailleach’ later2 – she may have been an independent land goddess first. There are Cailleachean in Sligo (I really want to read this book), and at the megalithic tomb in County Meath, and up north, in County Clare. And of course, there are the Scottish Cailleachean, of whom I know very little.

But just because there are Cailleachean all over Ireland, doesn’t mean they’re all the same. While I don’t know the others well (except for Duibhne), I know that Bhéarra is the embodiment of her land and its culture. Songs and tales from the peninsula are not about the whole of Ireland – they’re about specific places, like Bantry, the little harbour on the edge of the Beara peninsula that has seen famine, oppression and loss, as well as joy of its own. ‘My’ Cailleach is all of these things and more — everything the land and its people have experienced.

Bantry Bay - photo by Visit Cork, flickr

Bantry Bay – photo by Visit Cork, flickr

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Bantry village. Photo by Jim Vaughey, flickr

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Grey seals in the harbour at Bantry Bay. Photo by Jos van der Heiden, flickr

10) Offerings:

As a fertility-of-the-land and harvest goddess, I offer her ‘fruits of the land and sea’ a lot (mentioned in her myths) – fruit, vegetables, nuts, fish, grain. That always seems to go down well. Grain-based products are particularly good – oat-bread and porridge are mentioned in one tale. So are sea foods, in another, from seaweed to lobster.

Given that Baoi’s name may mean ‘white cow’, and that she has a bull, I really like the story that says she never ate anything except dairy products. I’ve only just started offering Bhéarra dairy products, and so far, my personal thinking is that she seems like them, but not as much as some things. I’d like to try offering her beef, too.

She seems to like whiskey. Like, really like it. I have no textual provenance for this idea – it just felt like a thing to offer her, so I do. I try to find whiskeys local to Cork, which is a bit tricky – I can usually only find those when I’m there. (The owner of the off-licence in Bantry has looked at me weirdly several times when I’ve asked for the most local whiskey he has, which is usually the cheapest!)

In the next few posts, we’ll start moving into serious UPG territory. Advanced warning!

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[1] O Crualaigh argues that Bhéarra is the root, the figure from which all the others came. I’ve read other interpretations that say that the Scottish lady came first, though. I think we’ll probably never know, but it’s interesting to speculate.

[2] O Hogain, Myth, Legend and Romance: An Encyclopaedia of Irish Folk Tradition.