Culture of origin

The Celts do not seem to have been the first to be aware of or build a relationship with the Cailleach. Although the word, ‘Cailleach,’ is a Gaelic one, it derives in part from a Latin loan-word … it would make sense, if the Cailleach were native to the British Isles and truly Celtic, that her name would not owe any part of itself to the Romans. If she were Celtic, but not native to the Isles, would there not have been evidence of her among the mainland Celtic tribes to the south (as seems to be the case with Danu)? As of yet, I have not read about this being the case. So my question is, from which culture does awareness of the Cailleach come? In the Isles, prior to the arrival of the Celts, is a time of sporadic population that goes back a while – an article on Wikipedia about prehistoric Britain says Homo sapiens has been present at various points for ‘tens of thousands’ of years. This leaves us with plenty of options to choose from ….

When I first started reading about the Cailleach, I was inclined to believe she was introduced to the Celts by the Picts. But as I read the article from Kirsten Brunsgaard Clausen, about a possible link between the Cailleach and pre-Viking Scandinavia, I started to wonder just how long people have been aware of the Cailleach, and how widespread awareness of her might have been. I started looking for examples in both regions, Scandinavia and prehistoric Britain, that demonstrate a high regard for women in culture; and I found just enough to leave me with the impression that this kind of gender equality, where women might play a prominent enough role to be considered matrifocal, could go back to the Bronze Age, if not further. I accept that the Picts migrated northward from Iberia; therefore it makes little sense to me that they would have brought awareness of the Cailleach with them, then spread it to Scandinavia where (although there was trade) they had no real dominant presence.

So I started looking at older cultures that were in the greater North European region, looking for similarities that might explain a common matriarchal goddess. What I found regarding the Funnelbeaker and cultures interested me. As I read further, I learned a little more about the Corded Ware culture that came to be due to a blending of the incoming Yamnaya from the east and existing Funnelbeaker peoples; and I encountered the following statement under the ‘Indo-Europeanization and language shift‘ section: “The Old Europeans (indigenous groups [Funnelbeaker culture]) had neither a warrior class nor horses. They lived in (probably) theocratic monarchies presided over by a queen-priestess or were egalitarian society (emphasis added by me). This Old European social structure contrasted with the social structure of the Yamnaya-derived cultures that followed them.” This statement, taken from material from Marija Gimbutas, seems to show not only that the kind of matriarchal culture I was looking for may have existed, it points to a potential event in which this may have begun to shift. The Funnelbeaker culture coincides with the Neolithic period of Britain; and evidence exists of an inflow of ideas to British peoples from the mainland, to include both agriculture and the building of megalithic structures.

If Marija Gimbutas is to be believed – and it should be pointed out that while some of her conclusions have been hotly debated, her work on ‘Old Europe’ Neolithic culture has been largely left unscathed – we have a widespread culture that may have been matrifocal, that did influence the development of peoples already living in the Isles. This would seem to me to be a very good place to start looking for the beginnings of an awareness of the Cailleach. The thought that a deity may have survived in an oral, preliterate form for so long is mind-staggering to me. This kind of longevity (lending new meaning to ‘ancient’) would also explain the variations in her theme that exist today – perhaps even begging the question as to why these variations are not more diverse than they actually are, as I think the consistency is still striking.

After the advent of the Corded Ware culture, it would seem that the invading Yamnaya culture brought with it a more patrifocal approach, making it harder for the awareness of an ancestor goddess like the Cailleach to take form. I am not an archaeologist, and I am not an anthropologist; thus I do not claim any expertise in these sorts of things. For me, this is more or less a process of connecting dots that seem to me to be related. I could be way off; but the Funnelbeaker culture is what makes sense to me. I like the connection between this culture and the megalith chambers built on the British Isles, especially Newgrange, where on the first light of the Winter Solstice, the triple spiral carving is illuminated. As to why this is important to me, it is simply one of many things I am trying to explore along my path to increasing my understanding of this goddess. I feel like if I can learn or understand more about the culture from which awareness of her may have sprang, I might possibly gain insight into the context in which she was first understood; and from here, I can work my way forward through research, Journeying and any other source I can find.


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