The Celtic woman in myth and literature

The heart of If Women Rose Rooted lies in our native Celtic mythology and literature, which portrays women as protectors and guardians of the natural world. In Celtic mythology and early literature (especially in the Irish tradition) women are strongly identified with the moral and spiritual authority of the Otherworld. Quotes on the subject of Celtic women follow, from some of the key source materials I explored while writing the book. Some of the quotes relate to what we know about ‘real-life’ women from history; some relate to the concept of the ‘divine’ or ‘Otherworldly’ female in early myth and literature.

Miranda Green (Professor of Archaeology, Cardiff University); quotes from Celtic Goddesses

‘… female spirits – goddesses – were central to Celtic perceptions of the divine world.’ (p 9)

‘It is clear from the comments of Classical observers that Celtic women in Gaul and Britain, unlike their Greek sisters, were not shut away from public life. They played more of a part in society and in theory they could, in Britain at least, rise to the highest power.’ (p 22)

‘…it may be more than coincidence that in a society where female deities seem to have been perceived as particularly powerful, both in terms of pagan material evidence and early myth, there is also evidence for a relatively high status for women, which compares favourably with that enjoyed by their counterparts in the Mediterranean world.’ (p27)

‘…Celtic goddesses … were all, in a sense, protectors, guardians whose functions as deities of land, water, fertility, healing and animals all arose directly from their close link with the natural world. But their concerns also embraced wider, more profound concepts than those resulting from their control of the landscape, though this remained the fundamental source of their power and, indeed, gave rise to their deeper symbolic links with such concepts as warrior-guardianship, sovereignty and human destiny.’ (p203)

Rosalind Clark (Professor of English at Texas A&M University & Notre Dame, Indiana) Quotes from The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses from the Morrigan to Cathleen ní Houlihan

‘Although early Irish society was male-dominated, women had a prominent role in the literature. While the male heroes were idealised portraits of human warriors, women dominated the world of the supernatural.’ (p2)

‘In the Dindsenchas, the predominance of women is unmistakable. The Dindsenchas is a collection of place-name stories and therefore contains a sampling of miscellaneous material from myth, folklore and pseudo-history from all over Ireland. The evidence shows overwhelmingly that most place-names, particularly for wells and other bodies of water, refer to women. Even when a tale is primarily about male heroes and their battles, the place itself is generally named after the one woman mentioned in the story, often as the place where she died. … Place-names are resistant to change and echo a much earlier tradition than the inhabitants realise. From the Dindsenchas, therefore, we catch a glimpse of the past when goddesses of wells and springs were worshipped all over Ireland. These goddesses had their own local names but they doubtless had similar powers and attributes common to the Celtic tradition.’ (p11)

Mary Condren (Trinity College Dublin) Quotes from The Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion, and Power in Celtic Ireland

‘…[A] society in where women were highly honoured, where female symbolism formed the most sacred images in the religious cosmos, and where the relationships with women through motherhood were the central elements of the social fabric. It was a society where men, even where they might have known about their role in begetting children, were not their primary caretakers and had little power over their own children. The society was held together by common allegiance to the customs of the tribe loosely organised around the traditions of the Goddess. When the men married, they moved out of their own family circles and into those of the women.’ (p28)

Peter Berresford Ellis (historian and novelist). Quotes from Celtic Women

‘…in the early period of recorded history, Celtic society was undoubtedly attempting to retain an order in which women were harmoniously balanced in relation to men. It was a different concept from the repressive male dominance of classic Mediterranean society. The position of women in Celtic myth, law and early history now seems to constitute an ideal.’ (p19)

‘They could govern, took prominent roles in political, religious and artistic life, even becoming judges and law-givers; they could own property which marriage could not deprive them of; they chose when they wanted to marry and, more often than not, who they wanted to marry; they could divorce and, if they were deserted, molested or maltreated, they had the right to claim considerable damages.’ (p18)

Gearóid Ó Crualaoich (Professor of Folklore & Ethnology, University College Cork) Quotes from The Book of The Cailleach: Stories of the Wise-Woman healer.

‘Celtic cultural accommodation to divine mother-goddess traditions of Neolithic Old Europe was intensified in Ireland, where an abiding sense of a supreme, sovereign, female, cosmic agency appears to have operated on the incoming culture to a degree that resulted in a continuing, powerful sensibility to the presence in landscape of such divine, female agency – a sensibility that has remained at the heart of Irish ancestral cosmology and mythological legend.’ p27

‘The archaic and continuing Irish sense of a female presence at the heart of reality, at the centre of consciousness and culture …’ (p27)

‘The male pantheon of Celtic deities in Irish tradition – Irish reflexes of the figures of the essentially male, Indo-European pantheon – was, it appears, subject to such significant back-pressure from a pre-existing allegiance to a female divine agency that its members are made to fit into a cosmological conception of a universe whose outer and ultimate layer is the domain of a divine female who permeates the whole with her presence and her power.’ (p27)

‘Proactive, female creativity and power is thus seen, in Irish ancestral culture, to be the major source from which emerges both the general form of the physical universe and the security and well-being of the social order in times of stress.’ (p29)

‘While traditional Irish cosmology has nothing to say of an original moment or agent of creation ex nihilo and ab initio, it privileges a cosmic, female, geotectonic power that has given shape and form to the world throughout the ages.’ (p29)

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