Celtic Women: Myth and Symbol





The Celtic people have long been an enigma to the world for their historically independent- thinking minds and for their kind of natural mysticism. The Celts have also been known for their tendency for both their progressivism as evidenced in their early law codes, and for their conservatism as seen in their attachment to native pagan traditions in the face of pervasive Christianity. There is much scholarly debate as to which historical observer has told the most reliable accounts of the Celts or which literature retains the most accurate portrayal of Celtic life. This is especially true of ancient Celtic women. The body of literature that we have was "tainted" by Christian monks and subject to Christian moralizing. Observers, who were usually members of the conquering people, were often woefully inaccurate in their interpretation, using their experience as a lens through which they viewed the Celtic people and as a measure of what was "acceptable" and what was not.

It is important to briefly note that the term "Celtic" refers to a diverse body of languages and a varied group of people. The Celtic language includes Irish, Manx, Scots-Gaelic, Welsh, Breton and Cornish. Further, the term "Celtic" has only be en in use since the 18th century classicists coined it. It was they who "lumped together" the Celts as "noble savages" and circulated the modern stereotypes persistent to this day. No literature survives from ancient Gaul and records of the people are fragmentary. Carolyn Larrington in her book, The Feminist Companion to Mythology says,
"We do not know the Celts but only the Gauls, Irish, Welsh, and Bretons…archeological evidence (of the Celts) is related to the continental Celts, vernacular literature to the insular Celts, thus the two cannot validate each other without the risk of circularity, but they can tell us about their myth and beliefs" (121).
It is my intention to explore the myth of the ancient Celts especially as they focus on female deities. The myths of the ancient Celts suggest the dominant role of the Celtic female, or at least they point up a society that was at one time matrifocused—that is, focused on women. Further, the evolution of these myths suggests a distinct shift in consc iousness shaped by the warrior ethos, Christianity and patriarchy. The female goddess, once held sacred, became violent. Her life-giving qualities brought instead only death and destruction. Consequently, female members of this society who had enjoyed much freedom and equal status among men, were made to suffer at the hands of violence as well. It is my belief that the Celtic woman, while certainly not a direct reflection of the Celtic goddess, was at one time honored for her life-giving ability, thou ght of as wise and treated as an individual. Mythology of the Celtic people does seem to suggest this.

Important in our study then is the role of the goddess in pre-Christian Celtic society. Larrington describes the goddess in this way, she was a "dual-natured female figure, beautiful and hag-like by turns in whose gift was great power" (122). T he goddesses were especially depicted in three's, such as Eriu, Banba, and Fotla, all goddesses of sovereignty. In the eleventh century, Ireland was often called Eire ( a form of Eriu) and also called "the island of Banba of the women" (Mary Condren, Th e Serpent and the Goddess, Women, Religion, and Power in Celtic Ireland, 26). Goddesses, according to Larrington, were often hybridized by Roman and Greek influences, but this did not seem to obscure the native elements. For example, Julius Caesar liken ed one Celtic goddess to Minerva, a classical deity. In fact, some Celtic goddesses seemed to share certain of their characteristics. However, there were no Celtic goddesses of love. There were goddesses more often associated with fertility and the natural cycle of life, including death (23). Perhaps most importantly, the goddesses represented creativity especially as it related to giving life, in all its aspects.

Condren describes the female warrior goddesses respect for death, as a natural part of life, which seemed in translate into "real" life as well. This is best seen in the symbolic marriage between the king and the goddess of sovereignty. This union was to "ensure fertility for the land and for his people in the year to come.

"The king was not the one who put his personal satisfaction or gratification first but the one who was wise enough to embrace symbolically the ambiguity and tragic consequences of the human condition…the natural tragedy of cyclical life and death symbolized the goddess (and) was eventually rejected" (23-4).

The king traditionally had to embrace the goddess in the guise of a hag who would then turn beautiful after receiving his kiss. Condren impressively states here that the king of that time was a man who respected both life and death and importantly, respe cted the giver of life. The king then must marry such a notion, that embrace of the natural.

Condren describes not only the role of the goddess in Celtic Ireland, but also the important inter-relatedness of goddess and human woman: "Since the source of life was so integrally associated with women, it would seem to follow that the origin s of life were female. At times of joy or moments of pain, humans would turn to the Goddess who was honored in her many guises" (26). It would not seem strange then to worship a female deity and consequently treat her female subjects with respect and honor. Descent was also often traced through the mother and a strong emphasis was placed on the mother relationship. However, conservative scholars are quick to point out that the power did not entirely rest on women, rather the focus appears to be on women. Life was of tremendous value in what appears to be the most natural, physical sense. Hence the importance of the woman, goddess or human. Condren again observes this early society:

"Women were highly honored, female symbolism formed the most sacred images in the religious cosmos, and the relationship with motherhood was the central elements of the social fabric …the society was held together by common allegiance to the customs of the tribe loosely organized around the traditions of the goddess" (28).

What appears to have dismantled this society was the warrior culture and the spread of Christianity into Ireland. The story of Macha is an instructive example of the "fall" of the Celtic goddess and in some sense the fall of the Celtic woman. Macha (Ulster Epona, the horse goddess) marries Crunnchua mac Angnoman a rich widower. The two prosper together until one day, Crunnchua wishes to go to the annual assembly of the Ulsterman. Macha pleads with him not to go, but Crunnchua insists. While at the assembly, Crunnchua witnesses a horse race. Those in attendance with him, including the king himself, declare that none can run faster than these horses. Crunnchua knows that his wife can outrun these horses with no problem and decides to challenge the declaration. The king, angered at Crunnchua's arrogance insists that Crunnchua bring Macha to them for a match. Macha comes reluctantly, but before doing so, pleads, "Help me, for a mother bore each of you. Give me, oh, King, but a short delay until I am delivered." Macha is pregnant. This request and the king's subsequent refusal are striking reminders of the changes that took place not only in the Irish sagas such as this one, but also the changes in the societies that "authored" such work that became, significantly, myth. The king's ultimate responsibility was to allow the "creativity of women to prosper." King's were to promise that no one would die in child birth, food should grow plentifully, and the traditional dyeing (a woman's art) would not fail. These promises were related to the "needs and concerns of women, and unles s the king could be seen to take care of the cultural and fertility needs of the clan, symbolized by these women's activities, the king would be overthrown" (Condren, 33-4). The king as evidenced in this story, violated the promises he made and instead of being overthrown, is permitted to continue his reign with no apparent resistance from his constituents. This portrayal of Macha is actually the last of three major cycles. In the first she is a brilliant, strong mother-goddess. In the second she is a helpless (but wise) wife, and the third she is relegated to an existence of shame and forced to abandon her life-giving gifts, adapting to the new warrior ethos. This is how she had traditionally become associated with the three war-goddess spiral, join ing Badb and Morrigan. The appearance of the war-goddess appears to develop as a result of the change in Celtic society to one of violence and paradoxically, Christianity.

Macha evolves into a warrior-goddess as the simultaneously the status of women decline in societies constantly under attack, where emphasis is placed on death and bloodlust rather than on life and respect for death. With this, men began, according to Condren, to feel threatened by women as well, by any force seen as competition. Importantly another aspect of the decline of Macha (and other goddesses) was the Christian clerics who began to satirize the goddesses because their patriarchal system of beliefs stood in direct contrast especially to the worship of a female deity. Goddesses were becoming as violent as the society that "created" them. They were raped, murdered and often died in child birth (35-7).

Peter Berresford Ellis in his book, Celtic Women, Women in Celtic Society and Literature, concurs with Condren that goddesses in literature were often raped, died in childbirth and their status was destroyed by the symbolism of the rape. The goddesses, however, gave birth to great men who would in turn become great warriors. Indeed, "the famous warrior society triumphed over the culture of the wise women" (31). Several sources consulted point to the war-goddess as a symbolic adaptation to the culture who called on her to wreak death and destruction. The war-goddess is often portrayed too with a voracious sexual appetite. Ellis quotes Moyra Caldecott:

"Her twin appetites for sexual gratification and for bringing about violent death are a trave sty of the very necessary and natural forces of creation and destruction that keep the universe functioning and imbalance of which brings about disaster" (32).
Scholars agree that for a time women participated in battle. An important myth tells the stor y of the outlaw of females in combat. A mother observes the carnage after a battle with her son at her side, after which she insists he swear to change the laws of combat for women. What disturbs the woman so is a beheaded woman whose child is still clut ching her mother's breast, milk on one cheek, blood on the other. Evidence also points to the cruel treatment of women during this particularly violent time. They were often raped by course warriors, starved, and basically used as bait. This is not to say that women were not capable warriors, there is some historical evidence to support their successful and consentual role in battle. However, a society is a society in the grips of disaster when their women are treated in such a way. Where a child is orphaned and starving. Where life begins with murder.

In the myths that survive what appears to come through quite loud and clear is the diversity of the women in the stories. These women are intelligent, brave, beautiful, chaste, passive, romantic, aggressive, crafty, sexual, wise, sensible—they represent a whole range of personality types, just as in real life. All of the women have characteristics which give them roundness, and make them believable female prototypes. It has been suggested these depiction's of women at some level must not only shape later figures such as Arthurian heroines or Christian saints, but they must suggest something of the ancient Celtic woman. Larrington disagrees, "The evidence is too limited to say that Celtic goddesses and the divine world is a direct reflection of Celtic mundane society…myth in literature cannot be said to have survived to any coherent extent" (123). Indeed, the mythology that comes to us is so influenced by patriarchal consciousness and Christian dogma, seemingly little of the original is left but the bare bones. Indeed such heroines as Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere, King Arthur's queen) was a triune goddess like Eire, Fotla, and Banba. The question of why Arthur is completely guilt-free in the face of his infidelities and Guinevere sentenced to burn at the stake for hers is never resolved. Except that it shows the treatment of women in that time. How does this figure in with Christian morality? (Ellis, 63) The discussion, of course, is not whether Christianity is "wrong" or "right." Countless heroines are represented in a variety of ways. The disgraced and sentenced Guinevere though must somehow reflect attitudes about women at the time, just as the goddess of soverignty, Gwenhwyfar, was somehow a reflection of attitudes about women when she was honored. Myth is only significant as long as it is relevant to the context it exists in. Thus myth is dynamic but also enduring so long as it is important to a particular society. However, it is difficult to dismiss the numerous examples of Irish and Welsh mythological heroines such as Rhiannon, Brigid, Etain, Scathach, Iseult, Queen Branwen and others, and call them just machinations of Christian monks. There are elements to be sure which are undeniably Christian. Some heroines such as Dahud start out interesting and intelligent and then later cycles depict her as a nymphomaniac, destroying the original legend (Ellis, 67). Christian interpreters used the myths to serve their own purposes in their own context, and shaped them as they pleased, but some myths do survive which give us a glimpse of the certainly rich literary pre-Christian past.

Another interesting case for the elevated status of Celtic women, especially Irish, is found in their surprisingly progressive early codes of law. Ellis discusses the Celtic woman's freedoms in some detail. First, children had status and worth, they also had the opportunity for education, with no discrimination against gender. Children were to be brought up by both parents. If the child was a product of rape, the child had to be the responsibility of the man alone. Most importantly, however, was: the woman's eligibility to inherit property; retain the wealth she brought into a marriage; take part in the military and political activities of the clan; divorce (in eleven different cases); engage in polygamy for almost any reason; seek recourse for rape or assault; and face the same punishment as a man for homicide. Interestingly, as Christianity began spreading into Ireland, laws for prostitution became necessary. Ellis posits that this is because of the change from polygamous relationships which were restricted by the church to monogamous relationships. There was also a new importance on a woman's state of virginity (113-141). This evidence is quite compelling and yet despite this, Lyn Webster Wilde, author of the book, Celtic Women in Legend, Myth and History suggests:

"…there may well have been goddess-worshipping cultures, probably hunter-gatherers, in which relations between men and women, in particular the power balance them may have been very different from what it became in later patriarchal societies. But they (scholars) point out, the fact that a goddess does not necessarily mean that individual women had power or status, or were necessarily protected from the depredations of male-or female- violence. For instance, it could be that the earth goddess would require the sacrifice of young virgins in order to ensure fertility in the land" (page number unavailable).

Wilde is not the only writer to submit the possibility of an earth goddess (mother-goddess) as possibly violent. Larrington also poses that some all-female societies were extremely violent and cruel (119). In modern Irish literature, Joyce and Yeats also wrote about the mother/warrior-goddess at her most terrifying. They fear this cycle of life and at the same time fear unnatural death that the war-goddess brings. Patrick Keane in Terrible Beauty, Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female explores this issue in some depth. The goddess is the "female necessity to Nature, Tempt ress to Nature, Destroyer and back again in an eternal recurrence" (18). It is not the violence of the mother/warrior goddess that is so compelling, nor is it surprising to hear again the cycle of life she is responsible for. What is compelling is Yeats' parallel to his "mother," Ireland. Ireland had come to the twentieth century, still fighting, too much shed blood. It is interesting that Yeats should pose the question, "Is there anything in Ireland worth saving?" (30). It would be a major over-simplification to suggest that because Ireland turned it's back on the matricentered, goddess-worshipping society they must reap the consequences of Christianity and patriarchy. But however symbolically, poets like Yeats and Joyce place the blame of the blood shed on her, for the love of her. In her is the heart of their land, their spirituality. It is interesting that her influence should be felt so long, endure so long. It is obvious that the poets lament the slaughter, are disgusted by the "warrior ethos" and have only to blame the earth (not themselves) for their "fanatic hearts" (96). They love her, fear her, blame her.

In conclusion, I have examined the often problematic role goddesses have played in the myths of the Celtic peoples. The myths are fascinating and may suggest something about the ancient pre-Christian culture of the Celts, especially women. The literature is rich with possibilities but also heavily influenced by Christian translators. It is difficult to say with any real accuracy whether or not the extant literature reflects much of anything of the ancient Celtic society, but it is my hope that it does. It is easy to point the finger at men and their violent ways as reasons for the disruption of peace in the world, but of course matters are not so simple. We can see some evidence of the violence of women as well. It is certainly not limited to men alone. Equal status for women is important and almost always elusive in any society. Perhaps some (myself included) wish to look to the past for evidence of a better time for women and the world. We look for reasons as to why the world has become so violent and blood thirsty. It is indeed grasping at straws to lay the blame on one particular group for causing all of the world's problems.

There is intriguing evidence found in myth, literature, historical accounts, archaeology and dairies. These are all admirable vehicles for studying this subject. This poem by Heaney describes the symbolic struggle that endures, and the still tragic modern study of the goddess that is endlessly fascinating:
	"Our mother ground
	is sour with blood
	of her faithful, who lie gargling
	in her sacred heart…
	Those who come to Ireland to 'report us fairly'
	must tell 'how we slaughter
	for the common good,…
	how the goddess swallows
	our love and terror" (Keane, 98).       
           


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Works Cited

Condren, Mary. The Serpent and the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.

Ellis Berresford, Peter. Celtic Women. London: Constable, 1995.

Keane, Patrick. Yeats, Joyce, Ireland, and the Myth of the Devouring Female. Columbia: University of Missouri, 1988.

Larrington, Carolyn. The Feminist Companion to Mythology. London: Pandora, 1992.

Webster Wilde, Lyn. Celtic Women in Legend, Myth and History. This book is currently at press, information can be obtained at this URL: http://www.wdi.co.uk/celtic/women/main. html