The first of a three-part series recalling the time before Patrick, before Jesus, even, when Goddesses, such as Maeve, Eriu, Banba, Fotla, and many others, dominated the panoply of Celtic deities.

Part 1: The Mists of Time
Part 2: Her Name is Sheela
Part 3: Brigit: The Goddess Who Became a Woman

By Ronnie T. Stout-Kopp

Merlin Stone wrote, “In the beginning, people prayed to the Creatress of Life, the Mistress of Heaven. At the very dawn of religion, God was a woman. Do you remember?” Before Judaism or Christianity, there was the Goddess. Even before there were gods, there was the Goddess. Come with me and remember your history. Come with me to a long ago time and place, a time when the Goddess was the source of all that was.

Before recorded history began, people experienced divine power directly and interpreted that divinity as feminine.  The indigenous people of Ireland, their culture represented at Carrowmore (8000 BCE) in the west (County Roscommon) and, later, Newgrange (4000 BCE) in the east (County Meath), worshipped the Goddess.  The Celts arrived in Ireland around 500 BCE and combined their religious traditions with native divinities and practices.  Out of this issued forth a rich oral mythic tradition rooted in the worship of the Divine Feminine, the Goddess.

For thousands of years, the Goddess was at the very center of human life and filled and fired the human imagination.  In Ireland, not a myth or a poem was recited without the Goddess woven like a golden thread throughout.  The land was Her sacred body and She lived in sacred groves, rivers and wells.  Poets prayed to Her for inspiration and sang of Her prowess in Her many manifestations.  Potential kings had to receive Her approval before they could be inaugurated, and protection of the sacred land and the abundance of the people and nature were the responsibility of the king on behalf of the Goddess.  But then, the Judeo-Christian male God dethroned and displaced Her for He had no use of Her; however, human consciousness still longs for Her and dreams of Her.

For the Celts and the Irish, She was Maeve or Medb, the triple Goddesses: Eriu (for whom Ireland is named), Banba and Fotla; the Morrigu; Badb, Macha and Morrigu; and the three Brigits who were collectively transformed into the Christian Saint Brigit.  For the Irish, Her body was the land itself, making the land sacred, and She lived in sacred wells and rivers and groves and in one particularly notable image, the Sheela-Na-Gig.

(Right: A Sheela-na-Gig from Kilnaboy, the Burren, County Clare.)

In the Lebor Gabale, an early tale of the Celtic invasions, the Goddess Eriu makes clear that anyone wanting to enter Ireland would have to honor the Goddesses.  Early on, Ireland was called “Banba of the women” and the Tuatha de Danann were named for the Goddess Danu and considered her children.  The Goddess was eventually dethroned by the gods and, later, forced underground by the Judeo-Christian male God.  She became the Old Woman of Beare and the many faces of the Caileach and Cathleen, and She still survives in different guises across the still-sacred landscape.  Although she has been banished, She is not far away.  She is resurfacing in the arts and spirituality and reentering human consciousness once again.

The Goddess of Ireland did not spring from nothing.  They had other ancient cousins across the face of the Indo-European world.  Goddess figures have been found from Egypt to France to Austria dating from as early as 25,000 BCE and probably used on home altars.  Most Goddesses were fertility and Great Mother figures from whom all things were birthed and nurtured at her impossibly huge breasts; however, Marija Gimbutas believes that these goddesses of Old Europe were far more complex than mere fertility figures or Venuses.  In fact, they were queens who held sway over all life and death.  Although the Irish Goddesses were related to other Goddesses from across Europe, they were different in that they were the land but were also embodied in the white mare.

The Church cannot deny the Goddess

One fascinating and rather controversial aspect of the Goddess is her exalted role as Goddess of Sovereignty.  Although the Celts seem to have been patriarchal and there is no evidence proving they were a matriarchal or matrilineal culture (women were not the rulers and daughters did not inherit from mothers), Celtic and Irish culture were clearly matrifocal and matricentral (the Feminine was central to culture and consciousness).  This becomes important because, although the king was male, the queen also had a powerful part to play, thus reflecting the Celt’s tremendous awe and respect for the Divine Feminine and Her strong mythic tradition.  Although a male king ruled, they could not do so without the approval of the Goddess.  This was done through a rather strange and shocking inaugural sacred marriage ritual between the Goddess and the king to be. (This will be discussed in the next installment in this series.)

(Left: “Queen Medb” by J. Leyendecker, 1916)

The Celts had a particular love of learning and a strong oral tradition, where poets recited the ancient myths that were foundational to culture.  They told of the Dagda, the Good God, whose three daughters were all named Brigit and were the Goddesses of fire, poetry, learning, healing, law and smithcraft.  When Brigit’s son died, she was the first to mourn him with keening.  The triple Goddesses Badb, Macha and Morrigu had to do with war and battles, as they sought to confound and confuse armies.  Interestingly, none of these Goddesses, except perhaps Dana, were conceived of as mother or fertility Goddesses, neither was there a Goddess of love in Irish myth.  Rather, they were queens in their own right who would appear and endure through all Irish mythology and would even be transformed into Christian saints. The poets sang of the glories of Macha, who runs faster than any horse.  When she is forced to compete with the king’s horses, although pregnant, she wins the race and curses the men of Ulster: that they shall suffer the same birth pains for nine generations.  They told of the Morrigu, the three sisters or bad fairies or warlike furies who are the Goddesses of war and death, of whom Macha is one.  They also recited the tales of Medb or Maeve, wife and mother, queen and horse Goddess, warrior woman and the very land of Ireland itself in the Ulster Cycle, the stories of the Donn Duailgne, the Brown Bull of Cuailgne and her enemy Cuchulain.  Although she is queen, she inspects and leads her army in battle and is clearly in charge.  She is also independent and chooses her sexual partners.  Her name is cognate with mead and means “the inebriating one.”  She was the archetypal warrior woman, her body the earth, the Goddess of the land of Ireland who held power over life and death.  She was the matrix out of which human beings came and to which they returned.

There was a time when Celtic women were strong and so were their Goddesses.  There was a time when women could be anything they wished, including Druid priestesses, judges (Brehons), bards and warriors.  They could freely invite sexual activity, choose their mates, divorce, and own and inherit property.  There was a time when women could look up to Goddesses for strength and inspiration.  Those feminine divinities were larger than life, yet not radically different from flesh-and-blood women.  Then, all that changed with the coming of the male Christian God who was jealous and intolerant and would not abide the Goddess, her myths or rituals.

The Church would try to eradicate the Goddess, but it would come to understand that the native population of Ireland was not going to give Her up easily or quickly.  As much as the Church tried to dethrone, defile and banish Her, she never fully disappeared from human need and consciousness.  She stands in the shadows and whispers, “I am still here, just beyond the Pale.” WG


Part 2: Her Name is Sheela


Views: 4131

Tags: Celtic, Folklore, Mythology, Women

Comment by Micheal Ua Seaghdha on February 26, 2013 at 2:09am

Respectfully I have to disagree with the general thesis behind this article. There is a wish present here to say that Celtic society derived from a matriarchy, but I see no convincing evidence at all that would confirm the theory that there ever was such a matriarchy, as a rule, despite its immense popularity, mostly under the academic aegis of Marija Gimbutas, author of "The Civilisation of the Goddess"among others. ( Here are my reasons.

(1) In Celtic times Queens there could be, but, as now, rather rarely. (Boudicca was a revenging wife for her late husband, the king.) It is true that Women could aspire to, and occasionally achieve leadership in Celtic society, as in ours, but kingship was quintessentially a male preserve, and though it is widely accepted that seeresses had special powers to contact the dead, also as now, most officials in religious affairs and most leaders in society were almost certainly male. In that context a male-led pantheon is to be expected, and any "matrifocal" elements can be largely atributed to men's interest in sex. You might just as well say that Celtic society was beer-focal. But you would not suggest that beer explained anything more than men's interest in drinking it. 

(2) In the Neolithic there may have been greater equality, it is true, between the male and female principles, but there can be little doubt - looking at the symbolism of sites such as Newgrange, that it was the MALE principle that was seen as giving life, vigour and spirit, with the female principle acting as the nurturing recepticle of that life. Life did NOT come from women then, but from men and men's work. Women feed them and cared for them, as now. 

(3) Many of the names we are given for Goddesses are poetic kennings for the land or sovereignty, viewed as female. Some of these are very late and quite probably belong to the medieval era. It is doubtful in such cases if any of these names would have been known as Goddesses by druidic teachers, even though some clearly became popular in local traditions. That said, some of the names are old enough and widely distributed enough to have greater credibility. Names like Fodla ("Sod-hair" = the land that feeds us), Banba ("Sow" = one who nurtures) however cannot be taken as anything other than poetic names for the one Goddess of the land (P)iveria ("The Full/Pregnant Woman" = Mother Earth) from which both Iberia and Eire derive as modern names for the land, in the Caucasus, Spain and Ireland. She was, doubtless, the wife of the life-giving Sky-father, and the mother of his children. But the Great Goddess of Gimbutas she was not. She was imagined as a wife first, and a mother later, so in no way can we see her as the origin of life. 

(4) HOWEVER There is a case for saying that the Cosmic Ocean, from which live can be imagined as coming, was female, just as the darkness from which the first light came can be seen as female, but the fire in the water, the light in the darkness, were clearly male, and represented, in a sense the first LIFE per se. The Cosmic waters, like the darkness were symbols for the potential for life, rather than life itself, for without darkness, how can there be light? And without formlessness, how can there be form? In this sense, I can agree that that primordial Cosmos had a female aspect (not yet a personalised Goddess) but that that aspect was inseparable from the male aspect within it, and not at all superior to it, rather a necessary pre-condition to it, where it, the male principle, represented the true start of life.

More on this and other Celtic themes in my own blog shortly, including a discussion of the evidence that ancient farming peoples (and others) mis-understood human conception as a form of "planting" the active life force by the male in the receptive and nourishing, but ultimately passive "soil" of the female; a medically incorrect model, but one that explained the development of patriarchy and the popularity of sucession exclusively through the male line in subsequent history.

Comment by Gerry Regan on February 26, 2013 at 10:32am

Micheal, I've asked the author to reply directly. Thank you for taking the time to reply in depth. Feel free to post on this topic using the blogging platform you and each member now have. You can also simply copy posts from your other blog here. We are delighted to have your insights here in the community! Go raibh maith agat!

Comment by Micheal Ua Seaghdha on February 27, 2013 at 12:29am

Failte romhat! But, you know, the author doesn't have to comment at all. These are my responses, based on my interpretations of the evidence. Others clearly interprete the evidence differently. Each person can look at the  arguments and decide for themselves, as indeed they must. I have merely set out my stall, albeit opposite to Joe's! My reason is not to oppose Joe, pe se, but to question what I believe to be a popular, but false interpretation of the evidence. Joe can answer if he wishes, but there is no reason why he must or should.

Comment by Gerry Regan on February 27, 2013 at 8:26am

Micheal, Joe posted the article but it was written by Ronnie Stout-Kopp, a cherished colleague. I'm sure she's interested in learning of your take on her work, and so I've asked her to review your comments. We're hoping she is available to address questions on the role of women in Irish mythology in a chat session during our March 9 gala launch. More on that later.

Comment by Micheal Ua Seaghdha on February 27, 2013 at 1:43pm

there will be blood...

Comment by John Anthony Brennan on February 1, 2017 at 9:56pm

Brilliant article no matter who wrote it.

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on February 4, 2017 at 10:13am

Yes it was brilliant article with a brilliant response from someone who knows his history.... It is a wonderful forum we have here to debate and argue... History is made up of different perspectives, and people in general analysis historical documents differently....... 


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