Continuity and Adaptation in Legends of Cailleach Bhéarra
Gearóid Ó Crualaoich
Béaloideas Iml. 56, (1988)
This is an article that's mainly aiming to bring together the variety of traditions about the Cailleach Bhéarra in Ireland, with a view to tracing the evolution and influences of those traditions and legends. Or, as Ó Crualaoich puts it:
At different stages and at different levels of Gaelic tradition the figure of the Cailleach Bhéarra has been used to represent different clusterings of cultural meaning so that we are faced with a multiplicity of forms and functions of Cailleach Bhéarra that prove very difficult to distinguish and whose historical and/or functional relationship to each other continues to be obscure to a great degree.These forms and functions include the Cailleach functioning as a "Mother Goddess" with Indo-European roots, or else she's a Divine Hag and Sovereignty Queen, and ancestress of various peoples. Otherwise she might be a supernatural woman of the wilderness and weather, which is perhaps most pronounced in Scottish traditions. Ó Crualaoich argues that this latter expression of the Cailleach is particularly influenced by Norse cosmology. Then there's her "geotectonic role in the landscape" - lobbing rocks about the place and making mountains, or causing rivers, lochs and whirlpools and so on. All of which can be seen to interrelate to each other to a certain extent.
There are some important points raised in the article, and while some of them are only incidentally mentioned they provide a good reference as a starting point. For one, there's the fact that although the Cailleach is an incredibly important and popular figure in legend and lore, she's not a prominent figure in the myths. This can partly be explained by the fact that we can see she's been known by other names like Buí or Sentainne Bérri, before the name "Cailleach" takes over (the word itself being the result of Christian influence, originally referring to a nun, a 'veiled one' - as in a married women, and then old women/hags) and Ó Crualaoich comments:
I find it very interesting indeed that Professor Wagner, in his recent Zeitschrift article, should identify both these earliest names for Cailleach Bhéarra, viz. Sentainne (Bérri) and Boí/Buí with derivations from the Indo-European forms *Senona and *Bovina meaning, respectively, ‘female elder’ and ‘cow-like-one’ - the latter being, Wagner claims, a characteristic appellation of Indo-European manifestations of the Magna Mater. On Professor Wagner’s terms, then, both the rivers Shannon and Boyne are named ultimately for the female divine who herself begins to become known as Cailleach Bhéarra round about the late eighth or early ninth centuries when the famous Lament was composed.This comes across as being a wee bit conflationist (the Magna Mater??? is that still a thing?), and is something that Ó Crualaoich does quite a few times, but it's interesting to ponder nonetheless.
Another point that's raised is the explicit association of the Cailleach with the seasons in Scotland, but not so much in Ireland - something that would be great to see more on, but Scotland isn't really Ó Crualaoich's focus (there are several pointers to other articles on that - most of them old and already public domain).
If you're looking for a good article that will help you pick apart the various strands that have accrued to the traditions of the Cailleach over the years then this is a good place to look. It may ultimately end up raising more questions than it answers, but it's a start, right? And while I have a bit of a problem with Ó Crualaoich's position on the Magna Mater, that's read around easily enough.