Irish Goddess/Saint of Bees and their Keepers, Patron to the sick
Her name struck a chord in a hidden chamber within me. Like a wishing coin tossed into a holy well, it sent ripples of recognition across the surface of my mind. Gobnait. Strange sounding and foreign to my American ear, and yet like the wishing coin, it drifted down and down through dark still waters until it settled, softly stirring ancient memory.
My Irish namesake, Celtic Goddess, Saint of bees, their keepers and Patron to the sick. Like the Hebrew, Deborah (and Greek, Melissa), meaning bee or honey bee, Gobnait is intrinsically connected to the master pollinators. Though we have little written of Gobnait, she is thought in pre-Christian times to have been a member of a trio of Celtic Goddesses that includes herself, Brigid of Kildare, and Maedhbh of Tara. As goddesses, the three were sought for various attributes including: healing, guidance, as protectresses, beacons of hope and help and with holy wells and pilgrimage sites devoted to them. But, as often happens through the ages, the role of goddess, human and eventually saint become entwined, as is the case with Gobnait.
In her human form, the most commonly told story has her living in the fifth-sixth century. We are told she fled from her Co. Clare home to the Aran Island of Inisheer (Inis Oirr) where upon the death of her father, a prince perhaps, she fled (some accounts site a family feud).
Mindie Burgoyne of Thin Places Mystical Tours writes:
“Legend states that an angel appeared to her and told her that her place was not on Inis Oírr, and instructed Gobnait to go on a journey – to seek her true place of resurrection. “Go until you find nine white deer grazing, ” the angel told her. “It is there that you will find your place of resurrection.” So Gobnait wandered about the southern coastal counties of Ireland – Waterford, Cor, and Kerry – searching.”
On a personal level, I can imagine the refuge she sought from family strife, having had my share over the years. To distance herself from her tribe of origin and make a fresh start takes energy, courage and determination. But then, to be told to continue on to search for her “place of resurrection”, the final destination where she would settle for the rest of her days- what was that like? Putting myself in her place, I wonder if I would have had the gumption to repeatedly forge on as the next passage reveals…
“She saw three white deer in Clondrohid and followed them to Ballymakeera where she saw six more. But it wasn’t until she came to Ballyvourney to a small rise overlooking the River Sullane that she saw the nine white deer all together – grazing … just as the angel from Inis Oírr had prophesied. She crossed the river and settled there. She founded a religious community for women.”
I admire the passion and faith this early saint possessed, obligingly following visions and dreams. Times were dangerous-even more so for a woman traveling alone. And yet, Gobnait journeyed on trusting she’d find where she belonged. I know well the questioning of when will my feet land on my own place of resurrection? When will the time be right to move on from the nesting place of the suburbs, having served its purpose for family, and back to the sea, where my wandering heart longs to be? And what if the calling of something bigger lies elsewhere? Will I have the strength to accept? I take solace knowing I have Gobnait to discuss such things.
Of course, that she founded a woman’s community, endears her all the more. While we have nothing of hers in writing to base what actually happened during her tenure as the foundress of her nunnery, we do have the pilgrimage site in Balleyvourney to satisfy a need for tangibles. Today, a single hive shaped though roofless dwelling survives from her time, as does her tomb and holy well. Pilgrims and those of her cult venture here especially on her Feastday of February 11th and Whitsunday to perform “turas” or rounds of specific prayers and reflections at various marked stops. Also, a wooden statue in her likeness, believed to have been brought back from the Crusades, is brought out by the parish priest each year so that faithfuls can measure a length of ribbon against the statue to take home as a blessed relic to incorporate into their devotions or for healing uses ongoing.
Lore suggests she had what could be likened to a shamanic relationship with her beloved bees, performing what some describe as miracles.
“One of Gobnait’s attributed miracles has her rousting her bees from their hives in order to chase off evil-doers, including a band of cattle rustlers and a rich man who wanted to build a castle on Gobnait’s farm. Some accounts go even further, with the bees miraculously changing into soldiers and their hives transformed into bronze helmets.”
It is thought that as a healer, honey from her bees figured into her works as a powerful mending agent for the ill and wounded, and as considered a Patron to the sick, I adore the account of her fending off the spread of the plague in her community by drawing a line in the sand and claiming the village consecrated ground! The power of word and intention at work!
To know her better, I take daily meditation with her. Once, I experienced her as a shroud-like presence, enveloping me in an unwavering fierceness and joyful determination. Early morning dew bathed bare feet. Blades of green November grass clung to knobbly toes. A rough, dark colored robe grazed her ankles, billowing as a sharp gust of wind crept beneath and coiled itself around her. But, fueled as she is by inner fires of purpose and devotion, such small discomforts go unnoticed. This ritual, performed at the start of each day, with two naked feet planted firmly on the soil of her community, is an act of communion. Communion with the land, the elements; wind, sky, water. She is one with the spirit of the place, with her Creator, with a wholly committed soul.
The connection between the eternal world and the physical is nearly unidentifiable in a place of resurrection – as they are knitted together in an inextricable pattern where neither can be separated from the other. The place of resurrection then is unto itself the combination of both worlds particularly suited to that specific spirit. … and Ballyvourney was St. Gobnait’s place.~Mindie Burgoyne, Thin Places Mystical Tours
This vignette, whether merely imagination or a sending from a Deborah of another age, sustains and enlivens my own journey. It’s vividness feels infused with her essence, linking us through time by an ancient stroke of letter and syllable, a soul sigil that unlocks an aeon old connection and that when spoken acts like a spell, binding us one to the other. This stream of consciousness is a living force that insures her presence is relevant, interactive, alive and accessible. Far from an iconic figure relegated to distant memory, she is here; close as breath, bright as starlight, sure as the heart that beats.
Like her bees, Gobnait’s story spreads life-giving nourishment; pollinating inspiration and providing an abundance of food for thought for times ahead. Together they shared an innate directive toward building community and success in working with and for others. Aerodynamically defiant, bees embody the impossible, stretching the imagination beyond accepted limitations-who better to perform miracles with? And, as we are painfully aware with an apian collapse near at hand, the world cannot survive without them. Visionary that she was, or maybe just soft-hearted, or both (!) Gobnait cared for the bees and the bees took care of her, a reciprocity that included all of whom they served.
Gobnait’s appearance is as unexpected as it is welcome. These are the best surprises, the ones that arrive on our doorstep with no fanfare or warning and whose purpose seems to be to delight, enchant and draw me closer to my own mystic nature. I expect I’ll go on unwrapping layers of her story for some time, discovering more parallels between her life and mine, reflecting on the impact she has had over the centuries and on the many, and now on me. She has become a treasured member of an ever unfolding Irish diaspora that continues to teach me that no matter how far flung I may feel from the land of my ancestors, they are with me wherever I am.
For more on Gobnait and Bee:
Help the Bees