FLIDAIS AND THE GREAT IRISH CAILLEACH OF BEARE ISLAND
by Cathy Ravensdeer Aarset
(© 2011. All original material in this site is under copyright protection and is the intellectual property of the author.)
Lady of Beasts
(Image courtesy of http://www.americanneopaganism.com)
I did not think that creating this project would be so difficult. I did not know how much frustration and pain would surface, along with how little information there is about Flidais.
I have searched and dug for many hours in books, academic journals and the Internet only to come up with basic facts about Her. I list them here:
1) Flidais is an Irish goddess of ancient origin of woodlands and wild things.
2) Her name means "doe" and She rode a chariot drawn by deer.
3) Flidais owned herds of deer and cattle, and has been named the Irish Artemis.
4) Flidais is said to have a voracious sexual appetite. Her consort Fergus Mac Roich needed seven human women to satisfy his sexual needs when Flidais was elsewhere.
5) Her daughters were Fand, Be Chuille and Be Teite. Two were considered witches, and one was a fairy queen. All of them were said to have sexual proclivities like their mother.
6) Her herds were able to keep Her people in milk for many days.
These are the basic facts that virtually all books I could find say about Her. I ran into a big wall, and then I felt the wall that was within me. How to get past this obstacle or begin to dismantle it.
Flidais was considered a deer goddess, but she was also said to own magical cows. There is a story of THE CATTLE RAID OF FLIDAIS. Cattle were considered in ancient Ireland, valuable and made up the wealth of a chieftain. The more cattle a chieftain had the richer he was considered by his tribe. This told me Flidais was highly regarded at one time, but there were no supernatural qualities about Her except the fact that Her cows were magical and could provide for Her people. I knew there was more to Her story.
There was a point that She was drawn by deer in a chariot, and Her association with deer. The scene from THE MISTS OF AVALON by Marion Zimmer Bradley came strongly to my mind. It was of Morgaine and Arthur reenacting the coupling of The Great Goddess and King Stag, Arthur receiving his dragon tattoos and together they bless the land as they join in the act of sexual merging. I then began to search for evidence of a deer cult in England and the Celtic lands. I found only one academic journal article written in FOLKLORE journal in 1932. This revealed a treasure trove of stories and evidence gathered over many years by the author.
The Female of the Species - Flidais
(Image courtesy of Valerie McNulty Illustrations)
This article, "The Deer Cult and The Deer-Goddess Cult of The Ancient Caledonians" by J.G. Mckay will be the basis of my opinion that Flidais was a mortal high priestess worshipping and administering the deer cult of the Irish Deer Goddess. She was a human who took the name of "doe" and was confused or fused with the Goddess she loved.
This article by J.G. Mckay, explained what the author figured out or what he saw from the wide collection of stories he acquired over many years.
"There are an immense number of tales, traditions, references, notices of customs, various minor matters, which show conclusively that there formerly existed in the Highlands of Scotland two cults, probably pre-Celtic, a deer cult and deer-goddess cult." pg144
"The tales, traditions, customs, and references of which I have spoken, are scattered through many books and magazines, and those who wrote of them and recorded them probably never dreamed of the existence of such cults." pg144
J.G. McKay goes on to say that only women administered or led these two cults.
"The latter cult ( deer-goddess cult ) was administered by women only, and both cult originated during a period when women were paramount, and man inferior, and when man himself was in the hunting stage of development." pg144
He goes on to state his evidence. He lists the existence of stag dances in England and Germany with men dressed as women and of various saints who have the stag or deer as their attribute. The very fact that deer were considered important in spiritual matters also points to the existence of deer worship or honoring. We know also that this is ancient in origin. So what is the connection to the goddess Flidais?
Flidais is said to be a goddess of the forest. She owned a herd of cattle. How can we know this? The author goes on to state:
"I was attracted long ago by Gaelic tales of mysterious feminine characters who sometimes appeared as mortal witches, and sometimes colossal Old Woman."
"They owned, herded and milked the deer of their respective districts. And the deer themselves are intimately associated with the "fairies", and are said to be cattle." pg145
We see now that women guided the cult of deer, that deer were intimately connected to women and that the deer were known as fairy cattle. Flidais rode in a chariot pulled by deer, her name translated as "doe" and She owned a herd who provided milk for Her people for many days. There is no mention of the Goddesses' name. I ask a question at this point. Is Flidais a goddess or is she a high priestess of the Irish deer cult, turned into a goddess by the villagers and common folk, as the case of Iphigeneia of Greece?
I feel that Flidais was a high priestess who worshipped and led the deer-goddess cult in Ireland, in the days of hunting and gathering in ancient Ireland. I will explain how I came to this conclusion.
The very absence of stories except for one, THE CATTLE RAID OF FLIDAIS or TAIN BO FLIDAIS, signaled something is not right here for me. There are no descriptions of her sacred objects or rituals or holidays associated with her. The fact that she had daughters who are described as witches and a fairy queen, may be her coven daughters, and the fact that she was killed by mortal lover because her consort thought he could not trust her. In all the stories I have read no mortal was able to kill a goddess or god. The author pointed something out to me:
"The Highland Glaistig was woman of mortal race, to whom "fairy" nature had been given, a statement which may well be a folk-memory of ceremonies at the initiation of a priestess" pg152
It seems logical when common folk observed these ceremonies they would assign supernatural abilities to those who wore deer hide. We know that the deer were known as fairy cattle and only women cared for them. Any women who wore the hide in ceremony would be considered "touched". The author goes on to say:
"In modern lore, most unfortunately, she ( glaistig ) has been mixed up with the various ferocious bogles, and vilified. But her ancient character shows her to have been a woman."
I think it is obvious that the glaistig is a priestess or high priestess.
"She is confounded in two legends with the gigantic Deer-goddess of Lochaber, the same character being referred to indifferently as glaistig or as Cailleach. The word cailleach is similarly used in some tales of a gigantic goddess, but in others of an obviously mortal woman. Thus the Cailleach Bheur in some tales is colossal old woman, and in another Appears as mortal woman of stature so ordinary that an ordinary man is able to drag her by the heels through the fire ( which he does for the purpose of nullifying her occult powers ). Here we have cases of a goddess being confused with her priestess. Compare the case of Artemis who was worshipped in some places under the name of her priestess Iphigeneia." pg153
I believe that Flidais was a high priestess who was confused with the Irish Deer Goddess she worshipped. This priestess may have adopted the name of her goddess or been given it over the many years because of the "fairy" nature given her when she donned the deer hide in the high ceremonies she led. Modern Scottish Gaelic dictionaries both give the word Fiadh two meanings, of deer and god. Fiadh and Flidais are similar yes?
Flidais's daughters are listed as Fand, Be Chuille and Be Teite. All are described as sexual and have stories associated with them as fairy queen and witches who enchanted armies for a chieftain they aligned themselves. There is no description of their father or that they married or gave birth. Just the facts of enchanting armies and of one being of fairy origin. If the high priestess can be confused with her goddess, then her coven sisters can be confused as her daughters. Even today sisters call the founder of their order Mother.
Photo by author
I would like to now talk about the deer and their connection to Fairies. The author states:
"But that the deer was once some sort of a god, as well as a divine messenger appears from several tales too long to give here, and in the Highlands the deer is still the fairy or supernatural animal par excellence, and is, besides particular care of supernaturals, is always feminine never masculine, who own, herd, and milk the animals, and dote on them." pg147
He goes on to say that as the forests were cleared, the deer herds dwindled and the bovines took the place of the deer. Fairies and deer are still connected at the hip. It makes sense to me that Flidais was eventually associated to the bovine animal, but it was really the deer we speak of here.
We know that the deer were sacred, and that there was a deer-goddess cult led by only women, and in my opinion, a high priestess took the name of "doe" of Flidais or possibly Fiadh. Her coven sisters became her daughters. Who was this coven's Goddess then?
The Great Goddess was worshipped by every village before society changed and the matriarchy was superceded by the patriarchy. Each had a local feel to them and local customs, but there was a universal goddess known. She was from Ireland.
"She is called in Irish An Chailleach Bhearach, or Old Woman of Beare. Beare is a little island off the coast of County Cork. In "The Chase of Ben Gulbin," she assumes deer-shape in order to lead Fionn ( =Fingal ) into a trap. According to a poem by Dean Swift, doubtless based on tradition, she rode in a chariot drawn by four elks with golden horns to that extent resembling the Arcadian Artemis." pg151
The author writes that this goddess had a chthonic character and that her island is considered the land of the dead. Somehow Her worship found it's way to Scotland and beyond. He lists Her characteristics:
1) "She has a magic cow only one. No other Scottish deer-goddess shows the slightest interest in bovines.
2) She has taken an active part in arranging the geography of each country and she has witnessed various convulsions of nature. She is clearly an earth-goddess, as well as a deer-goddess.
3) She is universal, whereas all the other Scottish deer goddesses are local, each being restricted to Her own particular district, strath, mountain or island." pg152
"It remains to be said that the Irish goddess was a mother-goddess also a point to be dealt with later. As a mother-goddess, a deer-goddess and a goddess of the dead, the Irish Cailleach is clearly a very complicated character, and may perhaps be an amalgamation, the result of a prehistoric fusion." pg152
To conclude, I believe that Flidais was a mortal woman, who lived in the hunter-gathering period in ancient Ireland. When born she might have had a spiritual connection with the deer near her village. Because of this connection, I feel she was sent to Beare Island to become a priestess. If she achieved the rank of High Priestess, she would have been powerful indeed. It makes sense to me that she would have been deified after her death.
This cult worshipped a great goddess of universal renown. This goddess was an aspect of the Great Mother we know and have experienced in ritual, dream and vision. In the ritual I have written, the simple act of listening and feeling seems to be a beginning. There are no rituals written or facts of sacred objects. Maybe just sitting and asking, listening and being still, The Great Irish Cailleach will come to us, to teach us once more. Maybe too, that High Priestess Flidais' spirit will come also to tell us her story, and to tell us about what is next for each of us following after her.
Close Up of Original Art by author
I went to purchase a deer skin. It was a leather store, but I could feel the animal spirits there. I chose a deer skin and took it home. From time to time I put it around my shoulders during the day. I could feel the deer's spirit and knew that it was glad to come home with me. I thought after this project was done, I would make small medicine pouches with it, but that I will never do with this skin.
I had been thinking what does this Irish Goddess like, what is sacred to Her? Nothing really came to mind. Off and on, in the days before doing the major writing, I was musing about would go nice on an altar for Her. It was after I had written the major portion of this project when I could focus and let Her speak to me. It was in September, the night before the Equinox, that I felt it was time to go out into the night and listen. The evening was transitioning into night, the stars just making themselves seen and the clouds still had a touch of sunlight. I took my deer skin and wrapped myself with it against the cold. I was surprised and amazed how warm the skin felt, how soft. I had never felt this before. I hugged it close to myself and sat. The light faded from the clouds gradually and this is what I heard and experienced.
She said, " I Am Ancient and Available." I bowed my head and cried. I still hurt deep inside from a relationship of 17 years, that was broken 3 years before. I cried my hurt. The tension and hurt lay in my hips. I cried, my hips hurt and relaxed for a time. A deer came to me, in my mind's eye, one with antlers and laid it's nose on my hand. I prayed and thanked the animal who gave this skin. What a gift this was. When I was musing I thought that raw emerald, any green stone and this skin would be a perfect altar for Her. A fresh tree branch with still green leaves would be good too.
With the deer standing in front of me that night, She told me, " Yes, raw emerald, green stones and a fresh tree branch will bring me to you. I Am Ancient and Available." I looked around me and saw the trees and grass and the sky. I felt that this was Her too.
This will be done with stillness and quiet, like the forest itself. Let the noise around you help you sink deeper into Earth and Forest.
- deer hide or any deer object
- a fresh tree branch cut moments before or that day kept in water to stay green and firm
- raw emerald or any green stones you have.
- green candle or brown
- sage to cleanse
- journal to write what She tells you
- Cleanse the area you will working in
- Build your altar and focus on your intent
- Cast your circle, while you build your sacred space ask in The Great Irish Cailleach
- Sit and breathe
- When you are ready light your candle, ground thoroughly into Earth
- See your roots grow into Her body, breathe again
Focus on Her, Great Irish Cailleach, become as quiet as you can, as still as you can.
" I am here, Great Goddess of Beare. Tell me of Yourself. What would you have me know."
Now is the time to listen. Take as much time as you want. The length does not matter. By being in this space, at this time and place is what matters. Write down anything that you feel you want to. There are no spells to work here.
When this feels that it is finished, release your circle in the way you always do. Make sure you eat to ground what you have heard and felt. Drink water too.
Original Art by author
- Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan
Publisher Facts On File, Inc New York, NY 2004
- Encyclopedia Of Goddesses And Heroes by Patricia Monaghan
Publisher Greenwood, 2010
- "The Deer Cult and the Deer-Goddess Cult of the Ancient Caledonians"
Author: J.G. Mckay
Source: Folklore. Vol. 43. No. 2(Jun, 30, 1932), pp. 144-174
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1256538
- Legends and Traditions of Cailleach Bheara or Old Woman (Hag) of Beare
Author: Eleanor Hull
Source: Folklore, Vol. 38, No. 3(Sep 30, 1927), pp 225-254
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1256390
Return to the Goddess Gallery