Prionsias Mac Cana, Celtic Mythology (London: Hamlyn 1970) - ‘The Goddesses of the Insular Celts’

Table of Contents
[ For full table of contents, see Introduction, supra. ]
The goddesses of the insular Celts [85]: Medhbh of Connacht [85]; Goddesses of war [86]; Macha [90]; Goddesses of the happy otherworld [91]; Édaín [91]; The goddess of sovereignty [94].

Medhbh of Connacht
Early in the present century a distinguished Celticist wrote a scathing commentary on the morals of the ancient Irish, basing his remarks on the evidence of the early sagas. He dealt at particular length with the legendary queen Medhbh of Connacht, she who led her armies against Ulster in the saga of Táin Bó Cuailnge, and it is indeed true that Medhbh’s sexual capacity receives, considerable emphasis in the literature. As well as being the paramour of the prodigiously virile hero Ferghus mac Roich and others, she is said to have claimed that ‘never was she without one man in the shadow of another’ and to have always sought a husband ‘without niggardliness, without jealousy and without fear’. But Medhbh’s legend is not a historical document, nor indeed is she herself the historical personage she purports to be. In fact this is one of the not infrequent instances where bad morals make good mythology, and it is precisely in her breaches of propriety that we find the clearest evidence of Medhbh’s divinity; her licentiousness is merely the literary expression of one of the characteristic functions of the Celtic goddess.

It has often been remarked that the Celts had no goddess of love, no Venus or Aphrodite, though on the other hand the majority of their goddesses display a vigorous sexuality. Similarly, early Irish offers surprisingly little literature of love in the conventional sense: it is true that it has numerous tales of ‘wooings’, ‘elopements’, &c., but these deal with the circumstances of the erotic encounter rather than with the personal relationship involved. The poetry of passionate love may very well have existed in popular song (which is practically unattested for the early period), but in the mainstream of Irish literary tradition it receives only the barest recognition. It is not unlikely indeed that the two phenomena – the literary and the mythological – are connected. Since the heroines of the love-tales are for the most part divine, it is natural then that the narratives should reflect the mythological role of love, which is of its nature functional or ritual rather than personal, and in point of fact it is only in the hands of the monastic littéateurs and under the influence of foreign romantic genres that the personal and psychological aspects of love are gradually more fully elaborated.

The mythological role of love and sexuality is bound up primarily with the character of the Irish goddess as divine mother and personification of the land. The cult of the mother-goddess is attested in Gaul from prehistoric times. It may also have preceded the Celts in Ireland, and equally it may have accompanied them there, but in any event its presence is hardly in doubt. The divine people, the Tuatha Dé, were reputed to be the family or descendants of the goddess Danu, as the Welsh gods were said to be issued from Don (or the Indian from Aditi), and Wales, like Gaul, had its ‘Great Mother’ Modron. In Irish literature Danu is frequently confused with Anu, who is described in Cormac’s Glossary as the mother of the Irish gods, mater deorum Hibernensium,and in the Cóir Anmann (‘Fitness of Names’) as the goddess of prosperity, to whom the province of Munster owed its wealth and fertility. Anu’s identification with the earth is brought out even more explicitly in the name of a Kerry mountain, ‘The Paps of Anu’, Dád Chích Anann.

But this equation of the goddess and the earth is normally defined and limited by local affiliations. At its most extensive it comprises the domain of the cultural nation, in other words the land of Ireland, in which sense it is most clearly exemplified in the trio of divine eponyms, Erin, Fódla and Banbha, who reigned over Ireland at the coming of the Gaels. In general, however, the innumerable goddesses known to tradition tend to be associated with certain [85] localities - a province, a district, a river, or a particular place - and modern folklore still retains vivid memories of fairy queens, such as Á ine who had her seat at Cnoc Áine in county Limerick, Aoibheall of Craig Liath in Clare and Cliodna of Carraig Cliodna in Cork. The significant point is that in these instances the ruler of the supernatural realm is a goddess rather than a god, precisely as in those early Irish tales which represent the otherworld as ‘The Land of Women’. It is evidently an old tradition and one which proved remarkably tenacious, and it seems to confirm that the notion of a great goddess who was mother of the gods is a basic element of insular Celtic myth ology. One consequence of this priority is that the goddess often assumes a dominating role vis-à-vis her male partners. An obvious instance is Medhbh, whose husbands are never more than sleeping partners. Another, expressed in more graphic terms, is the monstrous couple who appear in several of the early tales and whose appearance is on each occasion fraught with evil consequence. In Táin Bó Cuailnge the woman rides while her husband walks and, when they are challenged by Cú Chulainn, it is she who answers in his stead. In Branwen the man is described as huge and terrible in appearance, but despite his size his wife is twice as big, The legend ascribes to her two of the common attributes of the Celtic goddess: fertility and warlike vigour, and her name appears to confirm the combination: Cymidei Cymeinfoll, ‘Big-bellied Battler(?)’.

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Goddesses of war
The warlike propensity of the goddess is variously expressed. There is the quasi-historical Medhbh, ruthless com mander-in-chief of the armies which she sends against Ulster - her very appearance deprived warriors of two-thirds of their valour. There are Amazonian teachers of the martial arts like Buanann, ‘The Lasting One’, mother of heroes’, and Scádthach, ‘The Shadowy One’, who ran finishing schools for young heroes. It was under Scáthach’s tutelage that Cú Chulainn acquired the special skills that later extricated him from many dangerous situations. Above all there is a formidable group who have a special claim on the title of goddess of war. Though often appearing singly these are normally conceived of as a trio. They generally comprise the Morrighan, ‘Phantom Queen’, and Badhbh, ‘Crow, Raven’, accompanied by Nemhain, ‘Frenzy’ or by Macha. Since these goddesses are not infrequently identified with one another, the inference is that they are really the triplication of a single deity, and this is in fact corroborated by occasional references to the three Morrighans. That they were known throughout the Celtic world is virtually certain: the Cathubodua, ‘crow, raven of battle’, attested in Haute-Savoie corresponds to the Irish Badhbh Chatha and the notion of the trio of furies recurs in Britain in the Benwell inscription Lamiis Tribus, ‘To the Three Lamiae’. In Wales the river-name Aeron (from Celtic Agrona, ‘goddess of slaughter’) points to parallel traditions, and a legend of the Washer at the Ford has survived there which closely resembles that of the Morrighan and the Daghdha in the battle of Magh Tuiredh [see p.66, supra]. And no doubt one should also include in this formidable gallery the goddess Andraste whom the British queen Boudica invoked before going into battle.

Normally these war-goddesses do not themselves engage in armed conflict: their weapons are the magic they command and the very terror which they inspire by their dread presence. Before the battle of Magh Tuiredh the Morrighan undertakes to aid the Daghdha by depriving the leader of the Fomhoire of ‘the blood of his heart and the kidneys of his courage’. They con stantly [86; 2pp. of ills. seq.] change form and often haunt the battlefield in the form of hooded crows. At one point in Táin Bó Cuailnge a beautiful young woman approaches Cú Chulainn, declares her love for him and offers him her wealth and cattle. But he replies that this is a time for fighting, not for love-making, adding rather ungraciously that in any case he has no wish to be helped by a woman. The young woman, who is really the Morrighan, then reverts to type and warns Cú Chulainn that she will attack him while he is engaged in single combat, first in the form of an eel, next as a grey wolf, and finally as a hornless red heifer. In the event, she carries out her threat, and Cú Chulainn barely escapes with his life.

Nemhain, as her name implies, is she who creates panic among the fighting men: when she raised her cry over the armies facing Cú Chulainn, ‘a hundred warriors of them fell dead that night of terror and fright’.

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Macha has been mentioned as one of the trio of war-goddesses. She is in fact one of three namesakes known to Irish tradition, all evidently manifestations of the deity who gave her name to Emhain Mhacha, capital of the ancient province of Ulster, and to Ard Macha (Armagh), the future centre of Christian Ireland. She is one of a number of mythical women – Carman and Tailtiu are others – in whose honour annual assemblies or festivals were held after their death. Some of them are warlike in character and most of them are associated with some form of violence or duress, but they are also connected in one way or another with the cultivation of land and its fertility and their assemblies generally coincide with Lughnasadh, the great festival of harvest-time dedicated to Lugh. The first of the Machas was wife of Nemhedh, leader of the third of the invasions recounted in Leabhar Gabhá1a ; she died in one of the twelve plains cleared by her husband and it was for that reason named after her. The second Macha ruled over Ireland alone for a time and repelled by force those. who contested her sovereignty. She then took one of her two rivals, Cimbaeth, in marriage, dominating him as Medhbh dominated Ailill. And when the five sons of another claimant continued to oppose her, she sought them out in their hunting ground, enticed them one by one into the forest to lie with her, and there bound each in turn. After reducing them to servitude, she forced them to build the royal fort of Emhain Mhacha.

The last of the three Machas recalls the familiar theme of the supernatural bride who lives happily with her mortal husband until in a moment of indiscretion he violates a promise not to mention her name in the concourse of men. One day a beautiful young woman walked into the house of Crunnchu, a wealthy husbandman of Ulster and a widower. Without speak ing any word, she attended to the household duties, and, when night came, she made the ritual right-hand turn (for dessel) to ensure good fortune and entered Crunnchu’s bed. She became pregnant by him and through their union his wealth was increased. In due course Crunnchu went to the great assembly of the Ulstermen. He had been warned by his wife not to speak of her there, but when he saw the king’s horses racing and heard the poets and the public sounding their praises, he forgot the warning and boasted that his wife could outrun them. The king took up the challenge; the woman was summoned and, despite her protestations that her time had almost come, she was compelled to run against the royal horses. She reached the finish before them, but there she cried out in pain and gave birth to twins (Irish emhain), whence the name of Emhain Mhacha. And before she died from her anguish [90] and exhaustion she laid a curse on the Ulstermen: until the end of nine generations in times of greatest peril the Ulstermen would experience the same malady as she, so that every grown man would be as weak as a woman in childbed. And so it happened that when Medhbh attacked Ulster, its heroes lay prostrate and it fell to Cii Chulainn to defend the province alone against the might of Connacht.

Between them these legends of the three Machas reveal two features already noted in connection with the Irish goddesses: first an association with the land and with the idea of fertility throughout animate and inanimate nature, and secondly the assertion of authority by martial prowess. It has further been suggested that Macha’s contest with the racing horses pertains to an ancient rite and thus provides a rapport with the horse-goddess Epona and her possible Welsh equivalent, Rhiannon.

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Goddesses of the happy otherworld
In the frequent tales and poems which concern themselves especially with the marvels and delights of the happy otherworld, there is naturally a tendency to dwell on those aspects of the goddess which are aesthetically most pleasing. This genre of composition was most actively cultivated at a time when the lyric impulse was young and vigorous, and this fact has influenced the delineation of the supernatural heroine. Conla son of Conn of the Hundred Battles is visited by ‘a young and beautiful woman of noble race whom neither death awaits nor old age’ and enticed by her to that delightful land where ‘there are none but women and girls’. Bran son of Febhal is similarly persuaded by a woman bearing a branch from the apple-tree of Emhnae, which was of silver with white blossoms. The goddess Cliodna, as she appeared to Tadhg son of Cian, was remarkably beautiful and the noblest and most desirable of the women of the whole world. She had three brightly coloured birds which fed on the apples of the otherworld tree and sang so sweetly that they would soothe the sick to sleep. These correspond to the three birds of Rhiannon and may also be related to the birds sometimes shown perched on the shoulders of a goddess in Gaulish sculpture.

In the story of ‘The Wasting Sickness of Cu Chulainn’ (Serglighe Con Culainn) Farm and Lí Ban (‘Beauty of Women’) conform to the general idea of feminine beauty and grace, but nevertheless they betray a touch of temper that shows they are ultimately from the same stable as Macha and Medhbh.

One day Cú Chulainn tries, and fails, to capture two magic lake-birds for his wife, who wished to have one of them for each shoulder (like the Gaulish goddess). He falls asleep then, and in his dream two women come and beat him with horse-whips, so that when he awakes he is unable to speak and lies prostrate for a year. Eventually he is restored to health, is persuaded by his supernatural chastisers to offer his aid in arms to their king, and thereafter he tastes of the delights that normally await the mortal hero invited to the otherworld.

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It is in this congenial company that the goddess Édaín fits most easily, though her legend –one of the most fascinating in Irish literature – is not directly con cerned with this Elysian otherworld. It is a story in three parts. In the beginning Oenghus, In Mac Óg, woos Édain Echraidhe daughter of Ailill, the loveliest maiden in Ireland, on behalf of Midhir, lord of the sídh of Brí Léith. But when Midhir returns home with his bride, his first wife Fuamhnach, a woman of great cunning and magic, strikes her with a rod and changes her into a pool of water. The water turns into a worm, and the worm into a purple fly of great size and radiant beauty that [91] fills the air with music and fragrance. ‘Midhir knew that it was Édaín that was in that form, and so long as that fly attended upon him, he never took to himself a wife and the sight of her was his nourishment. He would fall asleep to her humming, and whenever anyone approached who did not love him, she would awaken him’. Fuamhnach then raised a magic wind which carried Édaín out onto the rocks and waves of the sea where she was buffeted about for seven weary years. She was then found by Oenghus and maintained by him in a beautiful crystal sun-bower. But once again Fuamhnach intervened and drove her abroad until in the end she fell into the golden drinking cup of the wife of Edar, a champion of Ulster. The woman swallowed her and in due time she was reborn as Édaín daughter of Edar a thousand and twelve years after her birth as the daughter of Ailill.

The two succeeding tales are concerned with Midhir’s constant endeavours to recover Edain. When Eochaidh Airemh becomes king of Ireland he dispatches messengers to seek out the most beautiful girl in the land. They find Édaín daughter of Edar and he marries her. Later she is approached by Midhir who explains that she was once his wife and asks her to return to him; but she refuses unless it be with Eochaidh’s consent. Midhir then visits Ailill and they play at ‘chess’. After losing three games and forfeiting high stakes, Midhir wins the fourth and when asked his wish says simply: ‘My arms around Edain and a kiss from her’. A month from that day he returns to claim his prize. Eochaidh has the royal house of Tara ringed by armed men and the doors are locked – but his precautions are in vain: as soon as Midhir is permitted to embrace Édaín, he rises through the roof-window of the house bearing her with him, and they are last seen flying away in the form of two swans. Eochaidh and the men of Ireland set out in pursuit and, fortified by their discovery of certain magic procedures, they begin to dig up Midhir’s own residence, the sídh of Brí Léith. Midhir comes forth and promises to Édaín, but in the event fifty women appear, all of like form and raiment as Édaín. Eochaidh’s problem is that of Damayanti in the Indian Manhabarata, but whereas Damayanti successfully identified Nala among the gods who had assumed his appearance, Eochaidh was less fortunate, only much later does he discover that the girl he has chosen is not Édaín, but her daughter – and his. And from this involuntary incest was born one of the celebrated kings of Irish legend, Conaire Mór.

In its complete form this tale has a strange, haunting quality and a sense of timelessness which are no doubt attributable in some measure to the fact that it moves as it were between two worlds. Eochaidh is here represented as a mortal king and lover vying with a supernatural rival, and – in keeping with a common feature of Irish tradition – the mortal can here mount an offensive against the gods and subdue them by main force and by magic, but especially the latter, for magic is a potent instrument in whatever hands and one to which even the gods must sometimes yield. Eochaidh’s bride, the reborn Édaín, is described as the daughter of an Ulster champion, whereas the narrative reveals her clearly as one of the im mortal race of the gods. For example, it is stated that Eochaidh became king and that in the following year he commanded the men of Ireland to hold the feast of Tara in order to assess their tributes and taxes. But they replied that they would not convene the feast for a king that had no queen, and this is why he instituted the search that led to his marriage to Édaín. In the context of Irish tradition the meaning of this is clear: Eochaidh had become king, but his kingship could be validated only by his union with the goddess of sovereignty, in this case Édaín. This [92] union of king and goddess was at one time ritually enacted at the Feast of Tara.

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The goddess of sovereignty
The notion of a mystical or symbolic union between the king and his kingdom is older than Indo-European society. And where the kingdom was conceived anthropomorphically as a goddess, the latter then symbolised not merely the soil and substance of its territory, but also the spiritual and leg which the king exercised over it, in other words his sovereignty. Nowhere was this divine image of sovereignty visualised so clearly as among the Celts, and more especially in Ireland, where it remained a remarkably evocative and compelling concept for as long as native tradition lasted. For obvious reasons it will be more convenient to discuss its mytho-historical role when we come to deal with the notion of sacral kingship, but this should not be allowed to obscure the fact that it is closely implicated in all the various epiphanies of the Celtic goddess already referred to ; in a sense it is the factor which integrates them into a single unity. We have seen that the Irish, and indeed the Celtic, goddess is primarily concerned with the prosperity of the land: its fertility, its animal life, and (when it is conceived as a political unit) its security against external forces. All the seemingly contradictory characters of the deity - maternal, seasonal, warlike, young or aged, beautiful or monstrous - maybe referred to this fundamental nexus, and it is significant that, in general, each individual goddess reveals several or all of these characters, and even though one of them may predominate, the others are rarely absent. Thus Anu, who is explicitly described as a goddess of plenty, is sometimes identified with the Morrighan, the war-goddess par excellence, and the Morrighan, like Anu, was commemorated in a placename (‘The Paps of the Morrighan’) that testified to her maternal function.

Equally complex and more fully documented, is the legend of the Caillech Bhérri, ‘The Hag of Bérre’, who is as famous in modern Irish folk lore as she evidently was in the early literary tradition. Her epithet connects her with a peninsula in the south-west of Ireland, but her associations in folklore extend throughout Ireland and Gaelic Scotland, and it is related of her that ‘she dropped cairns on to hills in Meath out of her apron, was responsible for moving islands in west Kerry, built mountains from rocks carried in her creel in Scotland, and was queen of the Limerick fairies’. The geotectonic role thus ascribed to her is an expression of her intimate connection with the land, and accords well with other traditions which picture her as a divine ancestress of numerous progeny and as an epitome of longevity who had passed repeatedly through the cycle of youth and age. ‘She entered upon seven periods of youth’, says an early note, ‘so that every husband used to pass from her to death through old age, and so that her grand-children and great-grandchildren were peoples and races’. She was known also as Bui (or Boi), and under this name she is described as the wife of the god Lugh, who is elsewhere represented as a model of kingship, and she is brought into a close association with the megalithic monument of Knowth in Co. Meath.

In the eighth or ninth century one of the monastic literati,availing himself of a semantic ambiguity in the word caillech, invented the fiction that she had taken the nun’s veil (caille) in the end of her days. He went on to compose around this notion a poem as rich in its, symbolism as in its lyric beauty, in which the ‘Nun’ of Bérre contrasts her present state of penury and physical decay with other glorious days when she was young and beautifully arrayed and the companion of princes:

Swift chariots
and horses that carried off the prize,
once I had plenty of them:
a blessing on the King who granted them.

My body seeks to make its way
to the house of judgement;
when the Son of God thinks it time,
let him come to claim his loan.

My arms when they are seen
are bony and thin;
dear was the craft they practised,
they would be around glorious kings...

I envy nothing that is old
except the Plain of Femhen;
though I have donned the thatch of age,
Femhen’s crown is still yellow.

The Stone of the Kings in Femhen,
Rónán’s Fort in Breghon,
it is long since storms first reached them
but their cheeks are not old and withered....

I have had my day with kings,
drinking mead and wine;
today I drink whey and water
among shrivelled old hags....

The flood-wave,
and the swift ebb;
what the flood brings you
the ebb carries from your hand. ...

Happy is the island of the great sea,
for the flood comes to it after the ebb;
as for me, I do not expect
flood after ebb to come to me.

The real subject of this poem, ‘the greatest of Irish poems’ it has been claimed, is the deep incompatibility between Christianity and the world of pagan belief and the inevitable outcome of their conflict in the conquest and impoverishment of the latter. It is one of the great crucial themes of the Irish past and it is handled here with an artistic restraint and a depth of understanding and compassion that match its importance. In the present context, however, the significant thing is that the monastic poet should have chosen to present this great ideological theme through the legend of the Caillech Bhérri, mother- goddess, shaper and guardian of the land ... and consort of kings.

The same kind of functional and aspectual variation holds true for Brighid. The composite legend of goddess and saint connects her on the one hand with learning, craftsmanship and healing and on the other with childbirth and animal abundance–all of them predominantly pacific concerns. Yet in time of war St Brighid was wont to intervene in favour of the Leinstermen and more or less in the manner of the pagan war-goddess. But there is no essential inconsistency here, for Brighid was tutelary goddess of the land of Leinster and, as such, she was as much concerned with its political as with its economic well-being. In this, the interests of the territorial goddess coincide with those of the sacral kingship: the criterion of a rightful king is that the land should be prosperous and inviolate under his rule - and this can be achieved only if he is accepted as her legitimate spouse by the goddess who personifies his kingdom.

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