Friday, 26 October 2007

Cailleach Beare

In preparation for our first ADF ritual this weekend, I spent yesterday researching the wonderful goddess Cailleach Beare. Thus in the mood of Samhain, here follows a short and not very scholarly article about the crone goddess of Scotland and Ireland.

Her face was blue-black, of the lustre of coal,
And her bone tufted tooth was like rusted bone.
In her head was one deep pool-like eye
Swifter than a star in winter
Upon her head gnarled brushwood
like the clawed old wood of the aspen root.

(from Campbell: The Yellow Muilearteach, in Popular Tales of the West Highlands Vol 3.)

The Cailleach Beare, also called ‘the popular, ‘she of many followers’, was an ancient goddess who, according to one folk tale ‘existed from the long eternity of the world’. She was a creator goddess, who during the making of the world, carried on her back a great basket of rocks and earth. The earth she let spill from her bag became the hills of Northern Scotland, between them she released rivers and formed lochs.
In a conversation about age with Fintan the Wise and the Hawk of Achill she was once asked, ‘are you the one, grandmother, who ate the apples in the beginning?’ She was the mother of giants and grandmother to various tribes of mankind. She had, according to Professor Kuno Meyer, ‘seven periods of youth one after another, so that every man who had lived with her came to die of old age, and her grandsons and great-grandsons were tribes and races’. She is said to have had at least fifty foster children during her lives.
In Scotland, Cailleach Beare was the roaring mother of tempest who brought winter to the land. Called ‘Bringer of the Ice Mountain’, or the great blue Old Woman of the Highlands, she had one eye in her deep blue face, the sight of which was "as swift as the mackerel of the ocean". During winter she and her herds of deer, goats and swine leapt from mountain to mountain, using her long white staff to smite the hills with ice and frost. Another myth gives her the daughter of Grainne, or the winter sun.

It is she who rules the world through winter, from Samhain to Imbolc, when she is overthrown by Brigid. In some myths, she doesn’t relinquish her power until Beltane Eve, when she throws her staff under a holly or gorse bush and turns into a standing stone to await, again, the coming of winter.

One story tells us how she became furious when her son fled from her on a white horse, carrying with him a beautiful bride. She pursued him over mountains but he fled from her nimbly, taking his bride, the spirit of summer, who was terrified of the tempestuous hag behind them. Cailleach brewed storm after storm, to try and separate her son and his lover, and after the last tempest of ice and snow, which brought floods and was intended to destroy all living, her son fought her and sent her fleeing, and thus, “the old winter went past”.

In Ireland she is associated with Kerry and Cork. According to the Book of Lecan (c.1400 ad) she was the goddess of Corcu Duibne people, from the Kerry region. Other sources consider her as 'The Old Woman of Beare', or Bearhaven, county Cork.
She is the goddess of wells and overflowing pools, rivers and lakes. According to one Irish story, she was given the responsibility of guarding the well at the top of Ben Cruachan. Every night she placed a boulder over it, to stop the restless waters from overflowing, but one night she forgot, and the villages beneath the mountain were destroyed in the deluge. Thus the valley became Loch Awe, and the Cailleach, horrified at what she had down, turned into stone.
In Irish legends she is often a goddess of sovereignty. She appears as a terrifying, ugly hag, and if her chosen young man doesn't spurn her she transforms into a beautiful maiden and awards him Kingship over Ireland and Scotland. A version of this story occurs in the tale of the Nine Hostages. Niall, Fergus and their brothers encounter an ugly hag, who instructs them to kiss her. It is Fergus who kisses her on the cheek, and as she transform into a beautiful woman she presents him with sovereignty over Ireland.
The most absorbing of these tales I've read is the Story of the Enchanted Fawn, or the naming of Carn Mail, from the The Metrical Dindshenchas, and quoted in full below. Here four brothers, after slaying their father's enchanted fawn, encounter an old, withered hag who was "hideous, unsightly', an 'obese lustful horror', taller than a mast, with ears 'bigger than a sleeping hut', a nose as long as a ploughshare and each fist bigger than a basket of sheaves. Struck with dreadful horror, the brothers would rather be buried alive than look upon her, but after being told they and their hunting dogs will all be devoured unless one of the brothers agree to sleep with her, Lugaid Laigde offers himself, and she is revealed as the beautiful maiden, 'Kingship of Alba and Erin'. Lugaid, however, isn't as lucky as many, 'nothing more', says the lady, 'will come of our meeting'. It will be his son whom she will sleep with, and he will be prophet, seer and king. Although not specifically identified here as Cailleach Beare, it is certainly a possible appearance of the goddess.

A Christianised poem from the tenth century describes Cailleach Beare as a frail old women, looking back on her life when she was beloved of kings and mourning her old age:
Time was when cloths of every hue
Bedecked my head as we drank good ale.

The Stone of the Kings on Femen,
The Chair of Ronan in Bregon,
Long since storms have reached them:
The slabs of their tombs are old and decayed.

Some elements can still be seen in this poem of the original goddess, for, despite lamenting her old age and proximity of death, ‘I hold no sweet converse’, ‘my hair is all but grey’, she tells us:

The time is at hand that shall renew me.

Below is an extract from The Metrical Dindshenchas.
1. Pleasant is the theme that falls to my care, the lore not of one spot only, while my spirit sheds light eastward on the secret places of the world.
2. How is it that none of you demands, if he seek to weave the web of knowledge, whence came at any time the name of Carn Mail in the eastern Plain of Ulaid?
3. Lugaid Mal, great ruin he wrought, was exiled from Erin: with seven ship-loads sailed the prince from Erin to the land of Alba.
4. He contended for the eastern lands, in combat and conflict, from Brittany to teeming Norway, from the Orkney isles to Spain.
5. When he gained the right of proud kingship, he brought with him the hosts of his array till the harbours of Ulaid were filled with the grim warriors' barques.
6. A challenge comes from Lugaid to the men of Fal demanding battle or tribute, to carry them into battle with him who was to be their overlord.
7. Then down he comes with speed to offer battle, even-matched; a stone for each fighter he brought to battle, with these was built Lugaid's Cairn.
8. There stood Lugaid Mal, on the massy white-sided cairn, till he brake the great and famous fight against the goodly men of Erin.
9. Lugaid received at Less Breg hostages from Gall and Gael: he was the king that reared the round cairn which stands above fair Mag Ulad.
10. Seven sons had comely Daire, Lugaid was the honoured name of each: because of the prophecy—better so! one name served for all.
11. Daire, fiery warrior, owned an enchanted fawn, shaped like a wild deer: four of them loosed their hounds after it, from old Tara north-westward.
12. Swift fled the fawn before them as far as the stream by Sinann: the fawn fell a prey to the four noble striplings.
13. The sons of Daire from Dun na n-Eicess cast lots gleefully, that each might know his share of the enchanted fawn, without quarrel.
14. To Lugaid Corb there fell the carving of the fawn, rough though he was; so from him is named the clan Dal Mess Corb in the region of Cualu.
15. While each was busy with his share, Lugaid Cal fell asleep; so his offspring unsubdued are the Calraige of Connacht.
16. Lugaid [Orc] brought a draught of water; fair he was yet not forspent: so his seed thenceforth is Corco Oirche in the confines of Cashel.
17. Lugaid, Mac Con's great father, all Erin belonged to him alone: so from Lugaid Loeg onwards the clan of Corco Laigde has its name.
18. When the men were in the house sitting over by the fireside, there entered a hag, a loathly offence; she was hideous, unsightly.
19. Taller was she than a mast upright, bigger than a sleeping-hut her ear, blacker than any visage her form, a weight on every heart was the hag.
20. Broader her row of teeth—what portends it?—than a board set with draughtsmen; her nose stood out far before her, it was longer than a ploughshare.
21. Bigger than a basket full of sheaves was each fist of the misnatured woman: bigger than rough-hewn stone in rampart each of her black bony knees.
22. A paunchy belly she bore, I trow, without rib to the armpits: a scabby black crown with a crop of wens, like a furzy hillside, upon her.
23. She set upon them in the strong house where sat the King of Erin's sons; dire the dazzlement she cast upon them from her eyes—alas the deed!
24. A change fell on the nature of the tender youths before that obese lustful horror: sooner than look upon her they had chosen to be buried under earth alive.
25. Their spirit and senses turned, with a throb sorer than stark combat: the sons of Daire gave themselves over to a death of shame.
26. She addressed them with an evil saying: ‘One of you must sleep with me to-night, or I will devour you all, unaided, hound and strong man alike.’
27. When he saw the danger plain, Lugaid Laigde spoke: ‘I will sleep with her—unwelcome task: enough for you to lose me only.’
28. As the firelight fell dim, she changed to another wondrous shape: she took on a radiant form, beyond praise; rosy she grew, round-bosomed.
29. Such were her eyes (they were no tricks of cheating craft)—three shafts of sunlight in each of them: where her glance fell all was bright.
30. Down slid the crimson mantle fair from her breasts untouched by age, till the flesh-worm might be crushed in the room by the light of her lovely body.
31. Then the young man asked her, ‘Fair maiden, whence comest thou? name thy race, tell it now, speak to me, hide it not from me!’
32. ‘I will tell thee, gentle youth; with me sleep the High Kings: I, the tall slender maiden, am the Kingship of Alba and Erin.’
33. ‘To thee have I revealed myself this night, yet nothing more shall come of our meeting: the son thou shalt have, he it is that I shall sleep with—happier fate.’
34. ‘I will tell thee thy son's name, lucky his lot; Lugaid shall his name be and Mac Con thereto: of him therefore I pronounce thus much: he shall be seer and prophet and poet.’
35. Daire uttered a prophecy to them concerning Mac Con unreproached: ‘Mac Con shall win the ringing Hill of Brega, with Erin and pleasant Alba.’


Anonymous said...

Wow, Joanna You are good at writing... I was thinking, You could take care of our "international reach out" (ie. English) part of website?
It would be certainly a pity if nobody reads Your articles!

Lesia said...

The stories about Cailleach remind me of Morena, the slavic goddess of winter and death who also rules the world in the winter, and of Baba Jaga - an old bad witch from the fairytales, who also chases young people who are for some reason trying to run away from her and makes bad weather...