Blodeuwedd, Lleu's wife. Painting by Vitor González for his exhibition during the 2003 Interceltic Festival of Avilés.
The enigma is this: when we think of Celtic Women we think of Boudicca, Maeve, Rhiannon, Brigit - all strong and shining women, whether warriors, priestesses, queens or saints. We feel they must have come from a culture where women were respected and counted equal to men. And yet, the Celts were above all a warrior race to whom courage in battle, skill with arms, death to the enemy were the crucial aims. In such a culture we would expect to find women treated as secondary creatures whose beauty might provide solace but who were only truly valued as mothers of warrior sons.
Which version is true? The main clues come from Ireland and Wales where we have a great body of vernacular literature written down in the early middle ages. In an Irish tale Macha, an Otherworld queen, takes pity on a mortal man, sleeps with him and conceives twins. Just before she is to bear them, she is forced by King Conchobar to run a race against his horses. She wins, but dies giving birth, and as she goes she curses the men of Ulster - from henceforth whenever they need to awaken their battle courage they will feel the pains of a woman in labour.
The Ulstermen have insulted the goddess in the form of Macha and she has the power to destroy their manhood just when they need it. The tale expresses a sense that the female cannot be outraged without unbalancing creation, suggesting that Macha might belong to an earlier phase of Irish history during which the Goddess was worshipped and protected. Certainly the presence of the Goddess is visible in the names of many natural and man-made features, 'Emain Macha', the Ulstermen's fort, being one of them, said either to mean'Macha's Brooch' or 'twins of Macha'. The Irish Lebor Gabala (book of invasions) tells of the waves of invaders who preceded the Celts: the first wave was led by a woman, Cessair and sounds like a matri-centred shamanistic culture; another wave comprises 150 women and only 50 men plus a monstrous figure called Lot who has lips on her breast and two eyes in her back. She sounds very much like a caricature of the Great Goddess created by men who would like to ridicule her but fear her power. Then came the famous Tuatha de Danaan, the children of the trans-European Mother Goddess, Don or Dana, who gave her name to rivers as far apart of the Danube, the Dnieper and the Don (to be found both in Yorkshire and Russia!). The children of the goddess were renowned for their magical powers.V I believe that all this points to the fact that patriarchal Celtic society had inherited from the previous waves of settlers a deep and abiding feeling for the goddess and the female power she embodies. Now this may not mean that individual women were respected, but it does suggest that a woman could take and use power, particularly of a magical sort.
In the story of Math from the medieval Welsh Mabinogion we can see how the male magicians began to prise this power away from the women of the Goddess. The battle is between Arianrhod and her brother Gwydion: he has stolen her baby son, Lleu and brought him up, but needs his sister to name, arm and find a mate for the boy. Arianrhod refuses to cooperate: she has been outraged (probably raped by her brother though this is disguised in the tale) and so Gwydion has to trick her into complying. He and his brother want to steal the secrets of the women's mysteries (mysteries of conception, birth, ansd nurturing as well as naming and arming) and exclude women from participation in power. The story, which is long and rich, ends in a victory for the men but only after much suffering. And in truth this is what happened eventually in Celtic Lands, when the Christian priests labelled the old instinctive rites associated with the goddess as evil, and forced the people gradually to abandon them.
But the goddess and her priestesses did not disappear: they retreated into the hollow hills of the sidhe, the Otherworld and exerted their powers from there. The Irish Banshees, and the Scottish 'fairy queens'who kidnap young men and give them strange experiences (as in the border ballads of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin) belong to this category. These fey women are then seen as initiating men into the secrets of the inner world of magic, what is called in the poem The Voyage of Bran, the 'land of women'.
But there were real 'Iands of women' in Celtic countries. There was an island of priestesses just off the coast of Brittany where, according to Pomponius Mela, the women were able "to unleash the winds and storms by their spells, to metamorphose into any animal according to their whim, to cure all diseases said to be incurable, and....to know and predict the future". On another island, at the mouth of the Loire, a group of women lived apart from men and once a year would take the roof off their temple and recover it again. If any one of them let her bundle of material drop she would be torn to pieces by the others! It's a good story for those who would like to believe that the Celts were a gentle nature-loving people. But the most suggestive story of an island of women comes from the Irish tales and tells of Scathach the 'best woman warrior in the world' to whom the hero Cuchullain comes to complete his training. She and her daughter live on the island of Skye and Cuchullain has to make his way over a treacherous bouncing bridge before he can get to her. Once he has passed this test he spends three days making love with Uatach, Scathach's daughter, before she tells him how he must approach her mother. He is to jump into the yew tree in which Scathach sits and, pressing a sword to her throat, force her to grant three wishes. Later he fights as Scathach's champion against Aife, the 'hardest woman in the world', and only beats her by using a magician's trick. In exchange for sparing her life he asks her to bear a son to him and, not surprisingly, she agrees.
The story is a disguised account of the initiation of a young warrior at the hands of three women. Before he can be taught the martial arts Cuchullain must learn about the transformation of sexual energy from Aife. Then her mother Scathach teaches him the magical arts of war which are to do with the manipulation of attention, and nothing to do with the physical skills which he already has. Finally he is tested against someone who is physically a better warrior than he is and can only conquer her by using the cunning magic he has learnt, which previously he would have counted a 'woman's trick.'
So the 'lands of women'were places where priestesses would initiate men into the mysteries, the last traces of a goddess-fearing culture which the Celts first respected but then began to destroy.
In the early Christian church women for a time retained their spiritual power - Saint Brigit's' nuns guarded the sacred flame in Kildare which had first been lit by the priestesses of Brig in pre-Christian time and which no man was allowed to see. But the male priests were to conquer in the end. In 888AD religious women were instructed to cut their hair. Hair was then as now a symbol of woman's sexual power, and Christianity had no room for thatl As the Celtic church died and was replaced by Roman ways the glory of the goddess gradually faded from the eyes of the Virgin Mary and was replaced by submissive piety.
Feminism has brought us women the freedom to operate in the outer world, which has to be good, but we must not forget that inner world for which we have responsibility. We have largely lost the sense of what the function of a priestess is, but there are fragments scattered throughout vernacular Celtic literature which can help us piece together the picture once again. I can only hint at its nature here because this was and still is an oral tradition. To find out more you must follow the clues laid down so cunningly in the old tales ......
- © Lyn Webster Wilde
Lyn Webster Wilde is a film-maker and writer with an active interest in Celtic mythology and the ancient traditions of Britain and Ireland. Her book 'Ce;tic Women' is published by Blandford/Cassell, with colour illustrations by Celtic artist Courtney Davis.