Women of the Celts in Myth,Legend and Story

From SkyeViews Issue 8 June 1996

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The new Pabay stamp to be issued on 2nd May 2000 shows the Celtic Goddess Eostre

Sgathaich-The Warrior Queen

The Celts were an ancient, elusive people, who occupied the central stage of Europe and the British Isles for about 800 years, between 700 BC and their almost complete assimilation into the Roman Empire around 100 AD. The Celts built no cities, founded no empires and never developed a written language, but, although their world is now dead, their culture influenced a good part of the continent and spread all the way from Ireland to the shores of the Black Sea. Their name derives from the Greek 'Keltoi', meaning 'hidden people' -a reference to their lack of a written language and all tales were memorised and passed down through the generations by the Druids or 'wiseman' who studied long years to commit all their knowledge to memory. Although these learned men, who functioned as lawgivers as well as priests, could read and write Greek and Latin, they chose to pass on the chronicle of their people's existence orally in the form of verse. It wasn't until the 6th and 7th centuries AD that Irish monks began to transcribe Celtic history and law, and the famous collection of legends known as the Ulster Cycle which is thousands of years old, it is from them that we learn of the old traditions of law, the concepts of kingship, of truth and of the 'fitness of things' which held their society together.

 The gods and goddesses of the ancient Celts were living forces in their imagination and worship, and although Victorian scholars thought their savage war-goddesses; their barbaric sea-gods and the mysteries of the Otherworld, quaint, barbaric and often incomprehensible, these myths reveal the beautiful and often profound beliefs of a passionate, resourceful and creative people. For the pagan Celt, the essence of the universe and all its creativity was female and they left permanent traces of a culture in which women were the spiritual and moral pivot. The mother goddess and all her personifications of fertility, sovranty, love and healing, was an essential basis of their very role in the world. Women feature prominently in Celtic myth and their goddesses occupied positions that represented women of practical, everyday Celtic life. They were free to bear arms, become Druids and engage in politics unlike their Greek sisters, who were highly idealised in myth but not representative of the reality governing the lives of Greek women.

The very phrase 'Celtic women evokes all kinds of images - fearsome warriors, romantic heroines and tragic, wronged queens - goddesses by the score, from old hags to screaming harpies, to beautiful wise women and learned Druidesses, to the great female saints of the early Celtic church. The women of the Celtic myths are a reflection of the historical women of early Celtic society with all their problems, loves, heartaches and triumphs. They display a range of characters and positions in society being powerful weak, serious, capricious, vengeful and ambitious - there are no empty-headed beauties. As Moyra Caldicott says in 'Women in Celtic Myth' . . . "one of the things I find so refreshing in the Celtic myths is that the women are honoured as much for their minds as for their bodies. The dumb blond would not stand much of a chance in ancient Celtic society".

Celtic women then achieved high positions in society and a standing which their sisters in the majority of other contemporary European societies did not have. They were able to govern; they played an active part in political; social and religious life. They could be warriors, doctors, physicians, judges and poets. They could own property and remain the owner even when married. They had sexual freedom, were free to choose their partners and divorce, and could claim damages if molested. Celtic women could, and often did, lead their men into battle. The Roman Deodorizes Sickles observed - "The women of the Celts are nearly as tall as the men and they rival them also in courage". Yet another report by Amicus Marcelling states - "A whole troop of foreigners would not be able to withstand a single Celt if he called his wife to his assistance"! So women went to war in the ancient Celtic world and took command of men. The, training of a warrior was a long task, frequently undertaken by warrior women who were responsible for teaching boys the arts of combat and of love. Specific titles were given to these classes of female warriors such as BAN-GAISGEDAIG (BAN-meaning woman and a derivative of GAS which means young warrior) and BAN-FEJNNIDH (which combines BAN with FEINNIDH meaning 'band of warriors') so it seems they were classed according to age and experience, possibly starting their training as very young girls. Women warriors even appear on Celtic coins as a common iconographic theme. BOUDICCA, the great warrior-queen of the Iceni was a ruler of her people in her own right, and accepted as a war leader against the Romans not only by her own tribe but by the Triumvirates and other neighbouring tribes who joined her, such as the Cretan. Less well-known is our own warrior queen SGATHAICH who presided over a famous military academy at the South end of Skye. Near to Tarscavaig and overlooking the bay of OB GAUSCA VAIG (Whale Bay) stand the ruins of Dunscaith Castle, said to mean 'the Fort of Shadows', a stronghold of Sgathaich.

A Skye legend tells of how the castle was built in a single night by a witch or faerie "All night the witch sang and the castle grew up from the rock with tower and turrets crowned; All night she sang, when fell the morning dew 'Twas finished round and round". Dunscaith is described as being.. ."surrounded by seven ramparts crowned by iron palisades and protected by a pit full of snakes and beaked toads"... It is believed that the castle was, in fact, a great deal larger than the remaining fragments would indicate, but even these serve to show what an impregnable fortress it must once have been~en. It is built upon a rock with precipitous sides, and approached by a causeway, partly natural, which leads to a bridge over a gully in the rock. The floor of the bridge is missing and it is safer to view it from the main-land rock.

Most Skye duns have their origin in Neolithic, or even earlier times, and history shows this site to be a vitrified fort of early importance. For several centuries it was the stronghold of the MacLeods and the MacDonalds of the Isles, but in fact it is much older than any clan. It was to this fortress that the hero Cu Chulainn (the 'Hound of Culann' and the archetypal superhuman champion of epic tradition) came to complete his training in arms under the guidance of Sgathaich who instructed men in the martial arts. Sgathaich was a formidable woman, a teacher of war-craft and a prophetess (Druid?) who foretells Cu Chulainn's future through divination. She was reputed to be the matron of self-defence and female independence as well as the guardian of young people who seek to know their full potential. Men came from further afield than Gaul to train with. her, and if they passed her rigorous tests they were more feared than any other fighting men. Cu Chulainn's intended bride EMER, niece to Ulster's KING TETARA, had refused to marry him unless he proved himself in this way. She said to her father ."He is a green boy. If I wed it will be to a man who can match me in every way. I am tired of boasting youths and their tedious feats of arms. The man I marry must be the greatest champion ever. He must be capable of protecting me from every danger" And so Cu Chulainn journeyed to Skye, (known as the Isle of Shadows) to seek this warrior-queen and learn her skills. The way to her castle was dangerous and Cu Chulainn's journey was full of strange and magical happenings but although filled with fear and wonder he acquitted himself with honour, and on his third attempt managed to cross the perilous bridge of Dunscaith which threw off all those who failed to get across in two strides! Sgathaich taught Cu Chulainn the martial arts, his famous 'salmon leap' and certain tricks and feats of strength as well as giving him magical weapons and armour for battle including her famous GAE BOLGA (the 'belly ripper') - a barbed spear which inflicts only fatal wounds. (This can also be interpreted as GATH BOLAG - Spear of Light). Cu Chulainn also received a magic visor, gift of MA NNA NAN the Celtic Sea-God, and his charioteer LAEG protected him with powers of invisibility. Was it Sgathaich who taught Cu Chulainn his famous 'battle-rage'? It was said that when the rage was on him he went into 'warp-spasm', a beserk fit which prevented him from telling friend from foe. His enemies were terrified by the sight of such uncontrolled passion but this defence mechanism was to bring Cu Chulainn the greatest grief in his life, as this tale relates. In return for tuition, Cu Chulainn fought battles for Sgathaich as she was constantly at war with her sister AOIFE (Reflection) herself a notable and fearsome warrior. AOJFE proved a formidable opponent, and Cu Chulainn was well matched.

 He finally secured her surrender by means of a trick, and peace was restored between the two women. Soon after, Aoife seduced Cu Chulainn and was pregnant by the time he completed his training with Sgathaich and returned to Ulster. Before leaving he gave Aoife his gold ring for their son so that she could send the boy to him in the future. The ring would confirm his identity. Cu Chulainn then left, and Aoife was certain he would return one day. Time passed, the boy CONLAOCH grew to be an amazing fighter like his father, but when Aoife heard that Cu Chulainn had married Emer and would not come back to Skye, she became bitter and angry, planning revenge. She sent Conlaoch to Ulster under GAES or taboo. He was not to reveal his identity to anyone, no matter who asked, and was never to refuse to fight. The youth arrived at Cu Chulainn's court and refusing to name himself was immediately called arrogant and drawn into combat. After defeating several of his father's men, he was eventually challenged by a very angry Cu Chullain, who, in his famous battle-rage struck down Conlaoch with Sgathaich's gift, the Gae Bolga. As his son lay dying, Cu Chullain finally came to his senses and regognised his ring and the boy's identity. His grief was terrifying. Cu Chulainn, who had tremendous resources as a warrior of worldly battles, couldn't cope with the loss of his only son, and was to spend the rest of his short life learning to handle his passions, doubts, and fears. He never fully recovered from his loss and Aoife's revenge was complete. One of the major features of Celtic goddesses is a fusion of fertility powers with those of war. These goddesses were in effect the Openers and Closers of The Way of Life: the Givers and Takers. The apparent conflict between a goddess ruling both fertility and death presented no problem to the Celt who knew that death comes from life and life from death. Although the later eastern concept of dominant hero and swooning maid is not inherent in Celtic myth, heroes were drawn into the "Otherworld" by beautiful young maiden-type goddesses. The Celts had no straightforward Goddess of love, such as the classical Venus or Aphrodite, but they seem to have worshipped nature goddesses, often portrayed as beautiful and desirable young women. They set tasks, not as mere tasks of manhood, but to send the 'improved' hero back to his tribe or clan having achieved something, or gained some higher state of being which would benefit them all. It was often a dangerous task and in many ways the hero was considered a sacrifice for the good of his people.

NIAMH OF THE GOLDEN HAIR, was one such maiden goddess, daughter of Mannanan, the Celtic God of the sea who roamed our west coast waters and gave his name to the Isle of Man. It was Leod (Liotr) grandson of Godred the Black, King of Man, who established Dunvegan castle as the seat of Clan MacLeod. Niamh is described thus:

 her golden hair hung in tresses, and at the end of each plait hung a bead. To some men her hair was the colour of the yellow flag iris which grows by summer water; others thought it like ruddy polished gold. Slender and exquisite as a birch tree, of shape as sweet as the fine clover, of colour as fair as a summer morning, she is the type of the glory of all lands.

Niamh chose a mortal man, QISIN son of FINN chief of the legendary Fenian warriors of Celtic Ireland to be her lover, and took him to Tir-nan-Og, the Celtic "Land of the Ever Young" which lies somewhere in the western sea. The Otherworld was a timeless, ageless, happy place, a source of all wisdom, peace, beauty, harmony and immortality -a world full of magic, enchantment and music. Earthly time has no relevance. If humans visit it they remain young while there, but age catches up if they return home. Oisin, despite all he learns and the happiness he enjoys with Niamh, becomes homesick and plans a visit,to the upper world. Niamh warns him not to set foot on land or he will not return to her. In the upper world Oisin, travelling on horse-back, finds 300 years have passed. His harness breaks, he falls from his horse, and crumbles to dust. This story, like so many others in mythology, is about the inner journey of the human soul/psyche/ spirit - the facing of tests and trials for initiation into the higher or better state of being. Niamh's father was sometimes known as Mannanan Mac Lir, a name meaning Son of the Sea, or as Barmnthus, the primal god of the ocean deeps, and as such he is associated with stellar navigation. Mannanan appeared in many guises, and as a monk called 'Father Barinthus' he visited St Brendan and told him to travel west-wards to the 'Island of Promise of the Saints'. In the 9th century AD StBrendan of Clonfert in County Galway, Ireland, set out in a skin boat with 14 monks to accompany him to search for this land across the ocean. His voyage of discovery has been claimed as the first visit by a European to America. Mannanan is also referred to in the 12th century 'Vita Merlini', when he ferries the wounded King Arthur, accompanied by the prophet Merlin and the bard Taliesin, to the other world for his cure.

The Cells had no religious dogma that we can trace, though accompanying everything they did was a strong sense of holiness and sacredness of all existence. To them animals and trees had souls and immortality and reincarnation were facts of life, and different levels of reality were taken for granted The old role of the animals was to link man, through the collective myth of dreams, to be mediators between him and his gods, and they were considered sacred.

 Many of the gods and spirits of the Celtic world were represented with bird and animal parts, and birds of every kind wing their way through the divine world of the Celts. Indeed birds were generally thought to be bearers of divine information, and their calls and flight patterns were commonly interpreted by the druids for insights into the future.

To the Celts the land itself was a living sacred entity. There was no intellectual separation between religion and living, all life, all acts, all relationships were essentially religious; not in any formal senses but as a matter of simple fact.

 There is no clear cut boundary between the end of paganism and the beginning of Christianity in Celtic Europe. The old gods lingered long, but during the 4th century Christianity was officially adopted as the state religion of the Roman world, and in Britain and Ireland, where Celtic traditions were arguably sustained longest, the Celtic church was established during the 5th century.

When he came to England St.Augustine is said to have been advised by Pope Gregory to "accommodate the ceremonies of the Christian worship as much as possible into those of the heathen, that the people might not be too much startled by the change", and he seems to have followed these instructions to the letter. Therefore, when the Christian movement at the Council of Ephesus in AD 431, made Mary officially the Mother of God , the Celts turned to her enthusiastically as the replacement mother goddess , seeing in her the goddesses of fertility, love and healing. The early Celtic Christians pictured Mary as the eternal mother figure, encouraging men and women to turn to her in times of trouble.

It is interesting to note that at the time when the Celts began to accept Christianity, Celtic women, as in pagan times, were equal to men in preaching religion. We are told that both Brigid of Kildare and Beoferlic (St Beverley of York) of the Celtic church in Northumbria, were ordained not simply as priests but as bishops as well. A far cry from the situation today!

And so the Celtic world slowly began to change and with it the major pagan-celtic ceremonies which were gradually assimilated into the Christian calendar. Festivals such as SAMHAJN, which was celebrated on November 1st, the beginning of the Celtic year. This was the day of changes, of births and deaths when the gate between the worlds is open and spirits can pass freely from one to the other. We celebrate it as All Saints day and even now some people fear the walking ghosts of Halloween. The Spring Equinox is called ALBAN

EILER - or the Light of the Earth - among the reformed orders of Druidry. It marks the mid-point between the suns least and strongest appearance at Midwinter amd Midsummer respectively. The Celts welcomed the sun with a glad heart, for its dancing rays awakened the seemingly dead earth to new life and signalled the ending of the long, cold winter. "As the light lengthens, so the cold strengthens", goes the old saying. The stark coldness of February seems winter-locked until the emerging tips of snowdrops herald the return of spring. ~ The pagan Celts celebrated the season IMBOLC as spring approached and it encompassed the sprouting period of young growth when the earth emerges from the introspection of winter into the fresh hope of the newspring. This festival coincides with the birth of lambs and the lactation of ewes, which underlies the meaning of the word Imbolic. It was simple to assimilate this pagan festival into the Christian calendar as EASTER.

 Easter, though in name entirely pagan, now describes only the Christian festival of the Resurrection. Many explanations of the origin of this word have been put forward, but that generally accepted is the earliest, given by Bcde more than a thousand years ago. Writing of April he says it was called "Eostur-Monath, which is now rendered the Paschal month and formally received its name from a goddess of spring called EOSTRI, worshipped by the ancient nations of the north in whose honour a festival was celebrated at the vernal equinox".

Although little is known about her cult it seems likely that she was once a dawn goddess as she was connected with ideas of rising and new life. The ancient Sanskrit word for dawn was USRA and from it most certainly came both Easter and the east, the direction from where the sun is known to rise. Since spring with its increasing light and warmth is "the dawn of the living year" it was natural that a dawn goddess should be worshipped then.

 

The Irish cleric Sedulius Scottus wrote. ."Christ the true sun rose from the dark last night. . . may Heavenly Easter joy gather you to the threshold of light". The Germans have a similar name for this season - OSTERN or OSTERFEST -deriving in part from OSTARA, another version of Eostre. In various parts of Germany stone altars called Easter-stones can still be found dedicated to the fair goddess Eostre.

The Celts believed that Eostre's favourite animal and attendant spirit was the hare. Everywhere it represented love, fertility and growth and was associated with the moon, dawn and Easter - the enlightenment of the soul through death, rcdcmption and resurrection. The goddess changed into a hare at the full moon and even to this day there is a superstition that hares carry the souls of the dead. Tradition also has it that the hare was sacred to the White Goddess - the Earth Mother - and as such was considered to be a royal animal. The warrior queen Boudicca took a hare into battle with her to ensure victory and it was said to have screamed like a woman from beneath her cloak. Legend relates how that same Celtic warrior Oisin, beloved of Niamh, hunted a hare and wounded it in the leg, forcing it to seek refuge in a clump of bushes. When Oisin followed it he found, in the thicket, a door leading down into the ground and eventually emerged into a huge hail where he found a beautiful young woman sitting on a throne bleeding from a wound in her leg. The transmigration of the soul is clearly seen in Celtic lore; the life of the body is not the end of the soul, which is understood to take other forms successively.

In Europe thereare wide-spread remnants of a cult of a hare goddess and man has for centuries feared the hare because of the supernatural powers with which he has endowed her solitude, her remoteness and her subtle, natural skills. Active at night, symbolic of the intuitive, and the fickleness of the moon, the hare is an emblem of inconstancy. Like the moon which is always changing places in the sky, hares have illogical habits and are full of mystery and contradictions. Certainly it has never been regarded as ad ordinary creature in any part of the world, and in ancient Egypt the hare was used as a Hieroglyph for the word denoting . existence. . Many divergent cultures link the hare with the moon and Buddhists have a saying about the "shadow of the hare in the moon" instead of the man in the moon. They see the hare as a resurrection symbol. The moon is perhaps the most manifest symbol of this universal becoming- birth, growth, reproduction, death and rebirth. The moon disappears, dies and is born again, and this underlies most primitive initiation rites- that a being must die before he can be born again on a higher spiritual level.

The Celts counted time not by days, but by nights, and made their calendars (Coligny) not by the sun, but by the moon. Fortnight means 14 nights or half a lunar cycle.

In some parts of Skye, oldand young kept a coin in their pockets to hailRIOGHA INN NA H-OIDCHE (the queen of the night) as the moon was called. The coin,PEIGHINN PISICH (propitious penny) was turned three times in the pocket when the new moon was seen. (from the Carmina Gadelica, collected by Carmichael)

"Hail to thee, Jewel of the night!

Beauty of the heavens, Jewel of the night!

Mother of the stars, Fosterling of the sun, Majesty of the stars!

Glory to thee for ever

Thou bright moon,

This night

Thyself art ever

The glorious lamp of the poor".

 

The symbol of the hare was used deliberately to transfer old pagan religion into a Christian context, and the Albrecht Durer woodcut of the Holy Family (1471-1 528) clearly depicts three hares at the family. s feet. Later superstition changed the Easter hare into the Easter rabbit or . bunny.- far less threatening than the ancient pagan symbol and very few people will be aware that the hare ever held such standing, and why.

As the ancient beliefs died, superstitions about the hare were rife and many witches were reported to have hares as their familiars. In the . 17th Century Witch Trials. quoted by Margaret Murray, one of the old women chants...

"Hare, hare, god send the care

I am in a hare's likeness now,

But I shall be in a woman's likeness even now.

Today we talk of a lucky . rabbit's foot. but for many generations a hare's paw or footwas a much used charm against evil, a throw-back to the long forgotten belief in Eostre the Celtic dawn goddess. By AD 410 when Celtic Britain had emerged from the long centuries of Roman occupation, the Celts were struggling to balance the original co-equal society with male dominance.

The Romans had been horrified by the social status of Celtic women as they enjoyed privileges that would have made Roman women, of the same period, green with envy. This was subversive to the patriarchal paradigms of Greece and Rome and had to be destroyed. The destructive influence of the Roman empire, then of Christianity, when women were no longer allowed sexual freedom, coupled with the cultures of the Anglo Saxons and the Franks, certainly forced the Celts into fundamental change. They clung to the old ways but finally that harmony between the roles of men and women. The harmony that was no dependent on the superiority of one over the other, but on an equality in which each could feel comfortable and the feminist concept of a descent into (modern) civilization is reasonable.

MACHA the Celtic horse goddess, who gave her name to Cu Chulainns war horse, the Grey of Macha, cursed the patriarchal age that had just dawned, with these words...

"Although you may develop sophisticated doctrines of rebirth; although you may have taken on yourselves the right of life and death; although your efforts may seem logical and plausible in the light of a patriarchal culture; your efforts cannot but be doomed to failure as long as they are based on the subordination of women" The story did not end with the conquests of Rome. The Celts continued to exist over Europe, although the language died out in most areas, their ideas, their beliefs and folk festivals, and place names, survived. Ireland and much of Scotland were not conquered by the Romans, an there as in Wales and the Isle of Man, Celtic culture continued to exist, retaining its art, its religion and its language.

Pamela Budge

Original paintings by Pamela Budge at the Croft Studio Dunvegan, available 4 colour as cards or as copies for framing

Sources;

Exploring Scotland's Heritage. by Ritchieand Harman.

Celtic Women. by P.Berrisford Ellis

The Leaping Hare. by G. Evans and L Thomson.

Women in Celtic Myth by Moyra Caldicott.

The Mediaeval Castles of Skye. by D. Roberts and R. Miket.

Carmina Gadelica.by A Carmichael

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