Sunday, 24 February 2013

Notes: Continuity and Adaptation in Legends of Cailleach Bhéarra

Seeing as JSTOR is giving the public access to a wider portion of its catalogue now, I figured doing these occasional notes is a bit more useful to readers. I'm listing the articles covered so far on a page here, and I've added in a link to any of the articles that might be available on JSTOR if any of them happen to pique your interest. Unfortunately only two of them that I've done so far are accessible through JSTOR, but this next summary is one of the first ones I stuck on my shelf after browsing around and trying to think what to pick first. This is one I've been after for ages and I can foresee myself picking my way through pretty much the rest of this journal given half a chance...

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.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Fastern's Eve

While this is a week overdue (and then some) you can still feel free to commiserate and feel sorry for me, dear reader, for I'm about to reminisce in a misty-eyed fashion about my horribly deprived childhood. Yes. Poor me.

It was horribly deprived, you see, because we were only allowed pancakes once a year. This, I think you'll agree, was a terrible travesty - for what else embodies all that is good and yummy in the world than the humble and versatile pancake?

Certainly The Church agrees with me, apparently.

Yes, as a kid there was just one day in the year when my family would have pancakes (and when I say pancakes I'm talking about the thin crepe-like pancakes that are common here, not the kind of pancakes we would call "American pancakes," or other nummy versions like drop scones or pikelets), and that was on Shrove Tuesday - the day before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday.

So as a kid, Shrove Tuesday was a Big Deal. I wasn't raised religiously so the pancakes were very much part of a very secular tradition and Lent never meant all that much to me beyond having a vague idea that the Easter Bunny was on the horizon. And something to do with palm trees at some point? But sod the chocolate: Shrove Tuesday heralded a day of deliciousness served with lemon, sugar and butter, and dad trying to flip a pancake onto the ceiling so it would stick.

As an adult I now have the luxury of making pancakes whenever I like (so there, mother *blows raspberry*). And while I'm still not Christian and nor is my husband, there was a unanimous demand for pancakes in the Seren household last Tuesday because It's Traditional, Damnit. Who am I to deprive my loved ones of tasty goodness? Or deny time-honoured traditions their rightful place?

So pancakes there were.

It's a tradition that might seem a bit odd - whether it's observed as part of a religious context, or a secular one like I've always experienced it. But when you look into its origins it does kind of make sense even though my experience of them has been fuck it, PANCAKES.

It came up on the Gaelic Polytheism group a while back, so I figured that even though it's not particularly relevant to the average polytheist, it's still worth looking at from a cultural perspective. And any excuse for me to waffle on about something, right?

So in the traditional sense it all comes from the idea of penitence. "Shrove" is the past tense for shrive - striving for absolution and repentance - so in that sense the day heralds the start of the Lenten period which focuses on that kind of thing as Easter approaches. Along with penitence, lots of Christians these days tend to give something up for Lent - a vice or luxury, something that represents self-sacrifice. This comes from the traditional fasting that most Christians would have observed from around the Middle Ages onwards - eschewing the enjoyment of rich foods like meat, dairy, and anything sweet. So pancakes - being delicious and made of just the kinds of things that wouldn't be allowed during Lent - were just the thing for Shrove Tuesday, allowing one last chance to enjoy rich foods, as well as providing the opportunity to use up the ingredients.

In parts of Scotland, because Scotland always has to be different, Shrove Tuesday was traditionally better known as Fastern's Eve (or "Fastren's" Eve) - "Fastern" meaning "Fasting." Here the pancakes would be drop scones or sauty bannocks - drop scones made with a little oatmeal and salt added. When the pancakes were to be made the family would gather round the hearth, and one person would make the batter, one person would pour it out onto the girdle, and another person would turn the pancake to cook the other side, and then whoever the pancake was for would get to enjoy it however they liked - with a bit of butter and jam, perhaps.

The last pancake was special, and might be used for divination games. The Easter period was traditionally the time for marriages, so those who were coming up to the age when thoughts were turning to settling down might make a special bannock to take to bed with them - the "dreaming bannock," or "sauty bannock." The bannock would have a little oatmeal added to thicken it, a lot of salt, and sometimes even soot to discolour it, like these (minus the soot):

It was supposed to be made in absolute silence, and then a little bit was eaten before the rest was placed under the pillow. No drink should be taken (the ensuing thirst during sleep presumably inducing the sort of uncomfortable sleep that would make vivid dreams more likely), and the person was supposed to dream of their future spouse.

In a group, a similar kind of pancake might be made - again thickened with oatmeal and well-salted - with charms added to it. Whoever was in charge of baking the pancake had to do it in absolute silence, and everyone else present would make a great game of trying to make the baker break their silence. If they did, someone else would take over the baking, and so on. The pancake would then be broken into pieces and placed in the pocket of the gudewife's apron. She was then blindfolded and would pick out a piece of the pancake and would cry out, ‘Wha owns this?’ until someone claimed it. The charm contained in the piece was supposed to indicate the kind of person the recipient would end up marrying - a bawbee (a halfpenny) indicated a bachelor; a farthing, a widower; a button, a tailor; a piece of straw, a farmer; a piece of cloth, a clothier; a nail, a blacksmith. Apparently this is still a thing in parts of Newfoundland but I've never heard of anyone doing it round here. The kids are a little young to be particularly fussed about who they might, if at all, so I've not done it, but it's all very reminiscent of the Samhainn crowdie.

So...that's Fastern's Eve in a nutshell.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Là Fhèill Brìghde

Since my last post I've been wallowing in the delights of a triple-whammy of never-ending Viral Lurgy Of Dooooom (ohhhh the delights of having school-age children), so while Là Fhèill Brìghde has been celebrated right on time here, I'm only just about mustering the presence of mind to write anything up about it. I hope you're all considerably less germy than things are 'round here.

Seeing as the kids were thoroughly under the weather over the course of our celebrations, they weren't too keen on getting too involved in much of anything so it was mostly just me left to my own devices this time around. I generall aim to try and encourage their interest rather than insist on their involvement, and for the most part Rosie is far keener than Tom is (if Gaelic Polytheism involved robots he'd be sold, but as it is...not so much...). So I ended up making a dealbh Brìde by myself one evening. I'm running low on supplies and didn't want to have to use any glue so it's a little bespoke, but it does the job:

Last year we used an icon that Rosie had made and she insisted on making underwear for Brìde (or "the lady who comes with the cow," as Rosie refers to her). I must confess that this year I didn't. Scandalous.

So anyway. The day before our celebrations had been spent cleaning and tidying, while on the Thursday itself I went into Glasgow to join my mother-in-law at a seminar that was part of the Celtic Connections festival. It was a talk on the state of archaeology in the Orkneys and I thoroughly enjoyed it - part of it was a wee slideshow accompanied by some traditional music, so I got to see lots of sites from around Orkney. Sadly, the point of the seminar was that most of them are under threat from coastal erosion so there were a fair few before/after shots (now you see the Pictish house! Now you don't...). My mother-in-law will be going on holiday to Orkney this summer and I'm thoroughly envious.

I got back home in time to start the dinner and decided to make a Shetland brönie for pudding (dessert); it's a kind of gingerbreadish bannockish...thing...made with buttermilk, so it seemed apt. It was very nice, but would've been nicer with a bit of rhubarb and ginger jam, I think. I set some aside for Brìde, anyway.

Tom was feeling rotten and was good for not much more than lying on the sofa groaning occasionally before sloping off to bed, poor thing, but Rosie was well enough to want to know what was going on and why she couldn't play with the new icon I'd made. She remembered from last year that Brìde would be coming to visit and wanted to take it to bed with her, so I decided to relent a little and got one of the old icons I made a few years ago out - a soft one made from a sew-it-yourself kit - and gave it to Rosie so she could take it to bed. At bedtime I told her to look after it and make a nice wee space for it in her bed, and maybe if she told Brìde she was welcome to come and visit, she might. I told her the words to say and Rosie repeated them back as she fussed about the icon to make her nice and comfy. I invited Tom to join in and he mumbled along from the top bunk of the bed with as much enthusiasm as he could muster.

Along with the old icon I'd dug out for Rosie I'd found some red raffia that wasn't doing much so I decided to make a cros Bríde with it, wrapped around some twigs of rowan. I placed it on my shrine and the next day when Rosie saw it she wanted to make one so I dug out some lollipop sticks and wool so we could make one together (just like I used to make as a kid - except I think we made them around Lent, for some reason, and nobody ever told us what they were for). She found it a bit tricky to do  it all by herself so we did it together, and ended up with this:

Which is now hanging over her bed. As we made the cros I asked her if Brìde had visited her in the night and she said yes she had. Rosie told me that Brìde had sat with her for a while and had told her not to worry about her school work - even though it's hard sometimes, it's how we learn, and even if we get things wrong, then it helps us figure out how to do things right.

But back to my evening...

The night was extremely windy and the rain was being thrown down in clumps and spurts. After putting the kids to bed I got to doing my own thing, put the icon in her bed with her wand and opened the door to invite Brìde in. I spoke softly into the storm and stood for a little while on the threshold before closing the door. I sang, made offerings, sained the house (not necessarily all in that order...), and left out some food for Brìde for the night; I meant to put some clothes out for blessing but somehow forgot (I was going to put something out for my niece, too, who's pregnant, so I kicked myself for that).

It was a quiet ritual (admittedly punctuated by the back door being dramatically pulled open by the cat just after I'd invited Brìde in, who then announced himself loudly, and then blown open again by the wind), and one I've done so many times now that it felt comfortable and comforting. Some people like to do something different for every festival - and yeah, sometimes change is good. But after nearly ten years of finding my way I'm starting to feel like I'm really treading in some familiar footsteps for each festival, each day.