Map of ancient Celtic Europe. Source: Public domain.
The term ‘Celtic’ refers to an ancient and varied group of peoples of western Europe and their diverse languages. To the Greeks they were the ‘Keltoi’ and to the Romans they were the ‘Celtae’. Their spoken languages, from the Indo-European family, include Gallic and Gaelic, Irish, Welsh, Breton, Cornish and Man. A feature of the mythology of the ancient Celtic peoples is the dominant role played by the women of the Celts. Celtic society was once, as their mythos indicates, of a matrifocal and matriarchal nature. Celtic mythology eventually came to be subservient to the patriarchal consciousness and thence Christian ideology and interpretation.
In ancient Celtic social organisation descent was traced through the mother where women “…were highly honoured, female symbolism formed the most sacred images in the religious cosmos, and the relationship with the motherhood was the central element of the social fabric, the society was held together by common allegiance to the customs of the tribe loosely organised around the traditions of goddess” (Condren, 1989).
The goddesses of the Celts were renowned for their possession of a “…fundamental duality of personality and function…” (Ross, 1973). However, Celtic women as such were not an actual reflection of the Celtic ‘earth mother’ or ‘mother goddess’, but more honoured in terms of their fertility, life giving role and motherhood. The goddess, especially in pre-Christian times, was regarded as a “…dual natured female figure, beautiful and hag-like in turns in whose gift was great power.” (Larrington, 1992). It follows that in Celtic mythopoeic thought everything had a double meaning. Celtic thought had its basis in a duality expressed in terms of the symbolic and the natural (Ross, 1973). Within this twofold mythos there were no female deities associated with love – their sacredness was connected instead to their role as goddesses of fertility and the natural cycle of life and death.
2. The Irish Triple Goddess
The Celtic goddesses, all of whom were goddesses of sovereignty, were usually depicted in threes known as triads. In Irish mythology the main trinity was that of Eriu, Banba, and Fotla. In Ireland local female deities were Danu (or Anu), Aine, Cliodna (Cleena), Aobhill (Eevill), and Grainne. (Hull, 1928). All were local goddesses of Munster. Eriu, Queen of the Tuatha de Danaan, was a fertility deity and one of the three goddesses known as the ‘Sovereignty of Ireland. Also a warrior goddess who could shape-shift from maiden to hag. Eire and Erin are corruptions of her name and make her one of the eponymous matron goddesses of Ireland. Banbha was the sister of Eriu and Fotla and, as one of the patron goddesses of Ireland, was part of the important triad or triumvirate of deities. Initially her character was that of an earth deity but eventually she was a goddess of fertility and war. Fotla or Fodla was also one of the triple divine eponyms of ancient Ireland who was the personification of the land. One of the tutelary Irish goddesses and one of the Tuatha de Danaan she met, in Irish mythology, the invading Milesians surrounded by her swift fairy hosts. Her name is also incorporated into the Atholl of Scotland.
The goddess Danu was the founding mother, the progenitress of the pantheon of the Tuatha de Danaan, the race of divine and semi-divine inhabitants of ancient Ireland. Worshipped since prehistoric times she was and earth mother as well as an underworld deity, who also equates with the Welsh or Brythonic goddess Don. As an ancient ancestress deity she is described as the Mater Deorum Hibernensium ((Hull, 1928) and a triple goddess who could be maiden, mother and hag or crone. . Two mountains in Kerry called the Paps of Anu are named after her, and she is tentatively the mother of the mother of Leicetershire’s hag Black Annis who required human victims (Leach, 1972). The triple goddess Cliodna or Cleena was known as ‘Cliodna of the Fair Hair’ was an Irish and Scottish deity of great beauty and the Otherworld. As one of the three daughters of the chief druid of Manannan the ‘lord of the sea’ she was also a sea goddess. Regarded as a counterpart of Aine and Aoibell she was also renowned as a heroine and seductress. As the queen of the banshees of the Tuatha de Danaan she became, in later folklore, one of the three faery queens and banshee of Munster. an echo of her ancient role as a triple goddess.
Behind these ‘mother goddesses, were other dimly perceived figures that included water nymphs or ‘Washers at the Ford’, river sprites, or the Loreag who were weavers, the banshees, as well as the widespread cult of Brigid. Amongst the Welsh the Y Mamau were the fairies or the ‘mothers’. In Welsh tradition, as with the Irish shape-shifting Eriu, the goddess Ceridwen also showed various transformations (Ross, 1973). Goddesses, in early Gaelic traditions within the islands of Britain, have always had a significant role. The duality of the goddesses shows beauty and fertility contrasted with ugliness and destruction. Well known throughout the Celtic domains “…their actual worship can be assumed from the archaeological evidence, and from vested limits in the vernacular texts…” (Ross, 1973). The pagan goddess Brigit was the daughter of the Dagda whose name, derived from Brig, means ‘high one’. A triplicity she was the mistress associated with the three-fold arts of fire, smithcraft and poetry. No goddess had a more widespread cult following and she was also the tutelary goddess of the northern British tribe of the Brigantes.
Brigid as the triple goddess of poetry, culture and metal craft. Source: public domain.
3. The Highland Goddess
The pre-eminence of goddesses is a noticeable aspect of Scottish mythology, and deities who “…were not given offerings but were charmed away by the performance of magical ceremonies.” (MacKenzie, 1912). These Scottish goddesses, the Cailleachan More, are the divine hags. These goddesses were the personification of natural forces, the individualised representation of storms, tempests, raging rivers, thunder and lightening, floods and disasters, in a world controlled by great and fearsome monsters (MacKenzie, 1912). It is these hags who are now an echo of “…a very old stratum of belief and seem to be indigenous.” (Hull, 1928). In Scottish tradition the Cailleach was a one-eyed hag of indeterminate age, the term meaning “…one who wears a hood of veil.” (Hull, 1928). In recent times the Cailleach traditions have waned amongst the Irish but Scottish stores are still widespread and alive compared to Ireland. Much in evidence are numerous place names in Scotland associated the Cailleach.
The Cailleach Bheare, or the Hag of Beare, was called the ‘Auld Wife’ or ‘Auld Woman’, one whose roles was the welcoming of the new-born infant. Alongside Brigid the ‘Auld Woman’ within Scottish and Irish tradition was a goddess of winter. Brigid of Bude was the counterpart goddess of spring. As a supernatural entity the Cailleach Bheara “…appears in the early tradition, and she is enshrined in modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic folk tradition.” (Ross, 1973). In aonther guise she was known as the ‘White Nun of Beare’ or Cailleach Beara Ban. Also in the Gaelic tradition we find a female monster, akin to the Hag of Beare, called A’Mhuileartach.
Celtic goddesses are represented also by the Yellow Muilear-teach, a storm goddess, as well as Gentle Annie the hag of the south-west wind. In Norse mythology the Hag of Larvid is the Easterly Gale. Gentle Annie may echo the ideas of the ‘gentle folk’ when the hag was seen in her beneficent guise. A similar connection in Scotland can be seen with the Cromarty Hag.
4. The Warrior Goddesses
In Ireland carvings on churches and religious structures are often those of a repellent war-goddess. These war goddesses are often associated with the severed head being “…symbolic both of fertility and the otherworld – and in a war-like society which decapitated its enemies – death.” (Ross, 1973). This is not surprising. In ancient Celtic society, as amongst others elsewhere, women often took part or led in battle and this confirms that some female societies could be violent and cruel – as could their goddesses. An example is Boudicca the Queen of the Iceni in Britain known for her human sacrifices in honour of her goddess Adraste (Dudley, 1962). In the Ulster Cycle the Old Irish Queen of Connacht was called Medb or Queen Maeve.. Known for her golden hair, strong will and fiery temper, she was a destroyer, a figure of war and greed “…a powerful warrior, a ruthless insatiable woman…” (Ross, 1973). Originally a goddess of sovereignty would have been involved in the ritual sacred marriage ceremony of the ancient Irish kings. She employed trickery and sorcery to kill Cuchulain. Later folklore describes her as Queen Mab, a fairy figure and succubus.
In the Scottish highlands there is the tradition of ‘the shadowy one’ called Scathach (Ross, 1973), and who is a typical divine hag (Cross, 1969). The daughter of Scathach was ‘The Terrible One’ whose name was Ua Thach. These two divine hags in one guise were also “…two powerful female war-goddesses whose sexuality and maternal aspects are strongly developed as their skill in weapons and strategy…” (Ross, 1978), and from whom the Irish hero Cuchulain learnt his skill in arms. Indeed Cuchulain was fated to do battle with the divine hag on many occasions. The Celts took human heads as trophies in battle and these were offered to the Irish war goddesses in tribute, including the Irish bird-war goddesses, or ‘battle ravens’, one of whom was called Badb Catha. In many folktales it is the warrior hag against whom the hero has to contend. The heads of slaughtered warriors were fixed on the Pole of Macha.
In Celtic mythology a war goddess in hag form was known as The Morrigan. The Irish triple deity called The Morrigan was a great queen and warrior goddess and shape-shifter. Part of a trio of goddesses comprising, Badb, Macha.and Morrigan. She could appear as maiden or hag, raven or crow. In Gaul some personal names were derived from the word for crow or bodb, which in turn comes from an earlier form of the owl-goddess. The Morrigan then was a war-raven deity who with her two sisters was “…the most terrifying of all the Celtic divine hag.” (Ross, 1973). The equivalent to the Gaulish horse goddess called Epona was Macha , as well as the counterpart of the Welsh Rhiannon. It follows that divine hags were also powerful territorial deities.
Macha Curses the Men of Ulster. Stephen Reid (1904).
5. The Pagan Celtic Divine Hag
In Celtic mythological tradition there are a number of hag types. Within the area of the south west of Ireland there are numerous hag goddesses. Included are the Cailleach Vera; the ‘horned’ Cailleach Biorach; and in the highlands of Scotland the pastroral goddess known as the Cailleach Beinne Brie. An aspect of the hideous and divine hag in the misty pagan Celtic realm was their ability as shape-shifters, a shadowy world “…where the goddesses constantly take on or put off animal, bird, human or monstrous form, and influence the fortunes of mankind by their hostile or beneficent interference in the sphere of human action and destiny.” (Ross, 1973). Celtic goddesses
All the goddesses or divine hags were renowned builders of mountains and cairns. One hag reputed to throw boulders on the Isle of Skye was called Beinn na Caillich. Many of the goddesses were transmuted into mountain makers in folktale just as others were portrayed as combatting a hero after he had killed a husband or son. Another aspect of the Cailleach is the idea that she was also a deer goddess. The goddess as hag was often accompanied by herds of goats and deer, as well as sometimes a magical cow implying she was a deity “…who belonged to a people in the hunting stage of existence, the cult of the deer having been superceded by the cult of the gigantic deer-goddesses, who were originally their priestesses.” (Hull, 1927). As such they are also hags of the moor herding beasts up to hill pastures . The pre-eminence of the probable pre-Celtic and thus Pictish Scottish goddesses “…is suggestive of matriarchal customs and conditions. The Picts recognised succession by the female line alone. It would seem they were Amazons.” (MacKenzie, 1912). It follows that some of the hags were Pictish deities who were worshipped as spirits of the earth by an older matriarchal people.
Warrior goddesses, such as Scathach, were in their hag-like form part of a “…clearly…fundamental and widespread concept in the religion of the pagan Celtic world.” (Ross, 1973) as well as some of many local divine hags. Connected to the idea of the raven-goddesses is their non-warrior aspect which is that of maternal nurturer. Aspects that can be seen with the Irish goddess Danu and the power of the women portrayed in The Mabinogion of Wales. The characteristics of the Celtic goddesses whether warlike of beneficent, with or without their hag-like features, as shape-shifters also “…did have strongly zoomorphic or ornithomorphic characteristics, and could either transform themselves into animals, or be transformed into animals…” (Ross, 1973). In this respect the totemic and shamanic elements underlying the divine hag in ancient Celtic domains become apparent.
References and Sources Consulted.
Campbell, J. F. (1860). Popular Tales of the West Highlands. Edinburgh.
Condren (1989). The Serpent and the Goddess. Harper & Row, New York.
Cross, T. P. & Slover, C. H. eds. (1969). Ancient Irish Tales. Holt, Rhinehart, Winston. New York (1964); Dublin (1964).
Dudley, D. R. & Webster, G. (1962). The Rebellion of Boudicca. London.
Hull, E. (1927). Legends and Traditions of the Cailleach Bheara or Old Woman (Hag) of Bheare. Folklore. XXXVIII (3), September.
Hull, E. (1928). Folklore of the British Isles. Methuen & Co, London.
Larrington, C. (1992). The Feminist Companion to Mythology. Pandora, London.
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MacKenzie, D. A. (1912). A Highland Goddess. The Celtic Review. 7 (28), January.
MacNeill, M. (1962). The Festival of Lughnasa. Oxford.
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Ross, A. (1973). The Divine Hag of the Pagan Celts. In: Newall, V. ed (1973).