Sharon Blackie is a writer with a PhD in behavioural neuroscience from the University of London, an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University, and she is completing an Ma in Celtic Studies at the University of Wales Trinity St David. Her recent non-fiction book, If Women Rose Rooted, offers an ecofeminist approach to Celtic mythology. Find out more on her website: www.sharonblackie.net
I’ve often heard it declared that Celtic myths and legends are largely heroic in nature, dominated by the exploits of roving adventurers like Fionn Mac Cumhaill, the battles of formidable warriors like Cú Chulainn, and the courtly questings of Gawains, Galahads and Percevals for the Holy Grail. It’s true of course that the old stories have their fair share of male heroism and adventure, but what often goes unrecognised is that the major preoccupation of their heroes is with service to and stewardship of the land. And the Otherworldly (divine) woman who just as consistently appears in these tales happens to be the guardian and protector of the land, the bearer of wisdom, the root of spiritual and moral authority for the tribe.
Old Irish texts contain an abundance of stories of powerful women who were embodiments of the Sovereignty, an allegorical figure who in many senses represented the spirit of the Earth itself, the anima mundi, a deeply ecological force. The power of Sovereignty (in Irish, flaithius) was the power to determine who should rule the land – but if the power she bestowed was abused, then disaster befell the tribe. Whilst a king reigned who was favoured by the goddess, the land was fertile, and the people were prosperous and victorious in war. But if the king didn’t meet her expectations, crops would fail and the tribe would falter.
So it was that the ancient rites of kingship in Ireland included a ceremonial marriage contract, the banais ríghi, between the king and the goddess of the land, and so fundamental was that idea to the Irish way of life that those rites lasted into the sixteenth century. In this sacred marriage, the king swore to uphold and protect the land and his people, and to be true to both; in return Sovereignty granted him the gifts which would help him to keep his oath. These old stories make it clear that, while there is mutual respect between the two partners – between the goddess and the king, between the land and the people, between nature and culture, between feminine and masculine – then all is in harmony and life is filled with abundance. But when the contract is broken, the fertile land becomes the Wasteland.
Sovereignty figures, however, are very different from the usual ‘Earth-Mother’ archetypes who symbolise fertility and prosperity. Like most women in early Irish literature, they are infinitely more ambiguous, unpredictable, and on occasion, decidedly dangerous. Mess with them at your peril. Sovereignty could show herself as a beautiful young woman, fairy mistress or wife; she could appear as a powerful (and by modern standards, promiscuous) sexual figure; she could take the form of a leprous old hag, or a harbinger of war and death.
Let’s take the example of Macha, just one of many fascinating and complex Sovereignty figures in early Irish mythology. Typically, her attributes include tribal/territorial goddess (she is associated with Armagh, Ard Mhacha, in Ulster) and fertility goddess – but she is also a battle goddess. And as is so often the case with these complex divine women, there are three different versions of Macha in the early texts.
In one story, Macha appears as a typical Otherworldly bride, turning up out of the blue at the door of Cruinniuc, an unsuspecting farmer, and bestowing good fortune and prosperity on him. But one day, at a fair, disobeying Macha’s instructions, he boasts to King Conchobar of Ulster that his wife can run faster than any of the king’s horses. In spite of the fact that she is heavily pregnant, Conchobar forces Macha to come and prove herself: to race against his horses. She wins easily, but at the finishing line she collapses and goes into labour; as soon as her twins are born she dies. But before she does, she curses the men of Ulster to experience labour pains at the hour of their greatest need.
In a second story, Macha Mong Ruad (‘red mane’), daughter of Áed Rúad, is the only queen in the List of High Kings of Ireland. She defends her right to her father’s throne against male rivals who deny her because she’s a woman. She marries one of them, defeats the other in battle, and pursues the latter’s sons into the wilderness of Connacht. Surprisingly, since she’s disguised as a leper, the men seem to find her attractive and, one by one, they follow her into the woods to sleep with her. But Macha overcomes each of them and takes them back as slaves to her territory, where she forces them to build her a fortress: the great Emhain Mhacha. This Macha, clearly, is keeping the Sovereignty firmly for herself.
In a third set of references to her, Macha is a woman of the Tuatha Dé Danann, one of three daughters of Ernmas – the others being Morrígu, the dangerous and powerful goddess who appears often as a raven or crow, and Badb. In the Yellow Book of Lecan, she is referred to as ‘one of the three morrígna’, ‘raven women who instigate battle’. In the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, the Morrígan ensures victory for the Tuatha Dé Danann by sleeping with the Dagda, one of their leaders.
Inevitably perhaps, the old goddess of Sovereignty has been treated badly over the centuries, as patriarchal values have increasingly taken hold. She began to lose some of her power when these stories from ancient oral traditions were first committed to paper by Christian monks. Later, she might find herself reinvented as a saint. But if the qualities she embodied in a specific incarnation didn’t fit new images of what a good woman should be, she would be dismissed simply as a ‘fairy woman’, or (for example, in many stories about Medb – or Maeve – of Connaught) remodelled as a promiscuous, pseudo-historical queen. The Morrígan, impossible to whitewash, was simply written out of later versions of the old stories. And by the seventeenth century, when a woman could no longer be accepted in any significant position of influence, all that persisted of the once-powerful goddess of Sovereignty were the dreamlike visions known as aislings in which she appeared as a muse to inspire (male) poets – a weak, melancholy, vaguely Otherworldly maiden, sexless, romanticised and distinctly unreal.
And yet, in the last century Sovereignty, irrepressible, has risen up out of her iconic landscapes and undergone something of a renaissance. We see her, alive and well, in contemporary Irish poetry – from the fertile, female bogs to which Seamus Heaney declared his betrothal, to Nuala Ní Dhomnaill’s Cailleach-ridden Kerry mountains. We see her in a growing interest in the female divine, and the divine female of Irish legend is more interesting than most. It is her complexity, perhaps, that fascinates above all else; these dangerous women for sure don’t lend themselves to easy archetypes, to simple psychological classifications, as has happened with the Greek pantheon in way too many ‘find the goddess within you’ books by a string of Jungian psychologists. Throughout their stories, these women of old Irish literature teach us about the beauty of balance and the dangers of excess. Along with fertility comes promiscuity; the giving of life is balanced by the bringing of death; adherence to the light must be balanced by embracing the dark.
Lebor Gabála Érenn: The Book of Invasions
Annals of the Four Masters
The Second Battle of Mag Tiured
Bitel, Lisa M. Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland. (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1996)
Clark, Rosalind. The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses from the Morrígan to Cathleen ní Houlihan. (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1991)