A Celtic Summer Trio: Aengus, Ainé, and Brigid
Last Sunday was Beltane, the start of summer according to the Celtic calendar. This week’s post takes a look at three young, powerful, and popular (in their day) deities the Celts associated with summer. They are Aengus, god of poetry and youth, Brigid, goddess of fire and many, many other things, and Ainé, goddess of love, fertility, and sovereignty.
Aengus / Angus
A boy band pop star of a god, Aengus is depicted as handsome, lithe, clever, and romantic. He both inspires and protects lovers. In Scottish folklore, Angus (as the Scots spell his name) has a beautiful harp made of gold. Its strings are made of silver. Whenever he plays his harp, maidens follow him. In pictures, he often is portrayed with four birds flying around his head. Mythology claims he can transform kisses into birds. Some versions say he sends the birds after lovers to inspire them with thoughts of romance. Other versions say the birds represent kisses given to him. He then transforms them into birds so the memory of the kisses can stay with him.
Aengus is the son of Dagda, who is the father god of Celtic mythology. Who Aengus’ mother is depends on which mythology is read. According to the Irish, his mother is Boanna, the goddess who lives in the River Boyne. The Scots say Angus is the son of Beira, the goddess of winter, a creator goddess who is also called the Cailleach. His wife also varies depending on the origin of the mythology.
Before I delve into his married life, here are a few more things to know about this god of summer, things both Irish and Scottish myths agree on. He was his father’s son. Dagda doted on him. Also, Aengus shared had some things which echoed his father. For example, Dagda had a magic harp too. But his harp didn’t attract women. It put armies to sleep, made people laugh or cry uncontrollably, and could even usher in the seasons. In addition, Dagda had the ability to raise people from the dead. Aengus inherited this gift. The only problem was that, in his case, the resurrection wasn’t always permanent.
When Aengus comes of age, Dagda helps him to acquire some land. Actually, he encourages his son to trick his mother’s husband, Elcmar, out of it. Aengus had been conceived when Dagda had sent Elcmar on a one-day errand so that Dagda could have an affair with Boann. He then made the sun stand still so that they could take their time having the affair and she could go through the pregnancy without Elcmar finding out. To misquote Mel Brooks, it’s good to be a god. Anyway, then Dagda helped the teenage Aengus get land and an estate from poor Elcmar by asking if they can stay in the house for a day and a night. Obeying the laws of Celtic hospitality, Elcmar agrees. But since the phrase, in Old Irish, also can mean “All days and all nights,” once Aengus is on the property, he claims permanent ownership of it. Like father, like son. Again, poor Elcmar.
Aengus and Étaín
Aengus’ main love interest doesn’t have an easy time of it either, regardless of whether the mythology comes from the Irish tradition or the Scottish. In Irish myth, he falls in love with Étaín, a mortal woman of exquisite beauty. Unfortunately, Aengus’ brother competes for her affections. Fuamnach, Midir’s wife and Aengus’ foster mother (Celtic myth can be complicated), becomes understandably jealous of Étaín. She does several mean things to her but the one that’s important to this story is that she turns the poor girl into a fly.
Étaín tries to stay near Midir by buzzing around him, but Fuamnach creates a strong wind to blow her away. This wind blows her onto Aengus’s clothes. He recognizes her despite the enchantment and takes her into his house, doing everything he can to make her comfortable and keep her safe. But Midir’s wife finds out and blows Étaín away again. She ends up in a glass of wine, which is drunk by Etar, a chieftain’s wife. This kills Étaín, although she is reborn when Etar becomes pregnant as a result of swallowing the fly. (I never said Celtic mythology was scientifically accurate.) Furious, Aengus kills his foster mother / sister-in-law.
Angus and Brigid
That’s the Irish account of Aengus’s mother versus his beloved. Here is the Scottish. In Scottish mythology, Angus marries Brigid, the goddess of summer, fire, and patroness of a multitude of other things. Although most people associate the name Brigid with Ireland, the goddess was worshipped across the Celtic world, not only in the British Isles but in the Celtic communities on the European continent. Young and powerful, she was extremely popular. But she runs into problems with her mother-in-law, Beira, the Scottish goddess of winter. Before Angus even marries Brigid, Beira abducts her and holds her prisoner in an underground palace, demanding that she complete impossible tasks. Aengus rescues her. Eventually.
Beira gives mothers-in-law a bad name by crashing Angus and Brigid’s wedding. A weather goddess, she creates storm clouds to disrupt the ceremony and chases the young couple, riding after them on a black horse. Eventually, she grows exhausted. Lies down, and goes to sleep. Who can blame her? She is rather old. During her hibernation period, Angus and Brigid rule as the god and goddess of summer.
But it doesn’t end there. Twice a year, Brigid and Beira do battle. At Samhain, Brigid is overcome and Beira brings on the winter. Sometime between Imbolc (February 1st) and Beltane (May 1st), Brigid prevails. She puts Beira into a slumber and brings light and warmth back to the earth. If you’d like to learn more about Brigid, I’ve written two posts related to her: “Brigid: Irish Saint / Celtic Goddess” and “A Celtic Spring: Brigid and Imbolc.”
Ainé is the Celtic goddess of mid-summer (so she’s celebrated at Summer Solstice), fertility, and love. Why she is the goddess of love is a little puzzling, especially when you learn about the history of her love life. She married three or four times (Celtic myth exists in variants). Her first three husbands were cruel and violent. Each one abused and raped her. Some scholars think the three husbands may actually be the story of one husband told in different versions. In either case, the most famous of her husbands was Ailill, King of Munster. When he raped her, she bit off one of his ears. This took away his kingship since Celtic kings had to be sound and whole in body. Scholars say this is why she is considered a sovereignty goddess.
Although her fourth marriage went better, Ainé sternly warned her two daughters not to marry. But they didn’t listen. The eldest married and her husband chewed her breast off! Ainé used that incident to say to her youngest daughter, “See what I mean? Getting married is a stupid idea.” Yes. I’m paraphrasing. Did the youngest learn from what happened to her mother and older sister? No. She married and ran off with a druid. Throwing her hands up in frustration, Ainé went into her palace and never came out again. From then on, she conversed only with the Faeries. Nevertheless, she remained a staunch protector and patroness of human women who prayed for her help.
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Slan go foil!