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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Boann and Sinann: How Irish Rivers Came to Be

Boann's decision to challenge the power of the sacred Well of Sagais led to the creation of the River Boyne.
Boann's decision to challenge the power of the sacred Well of Sagais led to the creation of the River Boyne.

Boann and the River Boyne

The Boyne and Shannon rivers are Ireland’s best-known rivers. Much less well-known are the goddesses that Irish mythology credits with their creation. Today’s post looks at their stories.

Boann had an interesting love life. Irish mythology names a few different men as her husband. Well, over a few thousand years of passing a story along through oral tradition, details can get changed. That’s to be expected and, in truth, it doesn’t really matter who her husband was. Her lover, however, was important and all versions of the story agree that he was Dagda, Irish mythology’s Zeus-like creator / father god. The result of the love affair between Boann and Dagda was a son, Aengus. He became a golden boy of Irish mythology as the god of summer, youth, love, and poetic inspiration. There is much more that could be said about that family triad but none of it matters in regard to the Boyne. So, here’s how the Boyne came to be.

In the Otherworld, according to Irish myth, there is a sacred well. Known as Segais Well (and alternatively, Connla’s Well), it is surrounded by nine hazel trees. Nuts from the tree drop into the well. In Irish folklore, hazelnuts are associated with wisdom. Salmon in the well ate the nuts and became a symbol of wisdom. So, it was said, that anyone who drank from the waters of the Well of Sagais would become wise. And Fionn Mac Cumhail, as a young boy, sucked his thumb as it was burned by fat dripping from the Salmon of Wisdom as it cooked over a fire, and in so doing, gained all the wisdom in the world. He became one of the greatest Irish mythic heroes.

Stand with Ukraine.
Stand with Ukraine.

For reasons lost to time, Boann decided to challenge the magic power of the well. To do this, she walked around it counterclockwise, taking a path opposite the sun’s. In response, the waters churned and rose up, overflowing the well. They swept her away towards the sea. Along the way, she was violently ripped to pieces and died. But her death left Ireland with a great gift. Her journey created the Boyne River.

Sinann and the River Shannon

Sinann’s story is almost the same as Boann’s. There is no mention of her love life but, according to an ancient set of poems known as the Dindshenchas poems, Sinann was greatly skilled and she used her skills for the good of others. One skill she lacked was the gift of poetic inspiration. She probably should have gone to see Boann’s son, Aengus, but instead, she decided to go to Connla’s Well in the realm beneath the sea (i.e. the Otherworld). Her family told her not to go. They were worried that she already had enough gifts and that asking for one that was so powerful might have terrible consequences. They were right. Sinann went to the well, which was encircled by nine hazel trees, and drank from the water into which the nuts dropped. Briefly, she gained all the wisdom in the world. But then, the waters erupted and swept her away towards the sea. She drowns but her journey leaves in its wake the River Shannon, the longest river not only in Ireland but in the UK.

The Stories as Creation Myths

Creation myths are stories told and passed down through the ages in a society that explain how something came to be. These myths usually have religious significance. The Judeo-Christian story of Adam and Eve, for example, explains how humans came into being. Some Native American nations tell a story about the world being created by the Great Spirit and carried on the back of a turtle. Scottish myth tells the story of how the mountains were created by Bearla, the goddess of winter.

Scottish mythology tells the story of how the mountains were created by the footsteps of the giant Bearla, the goddess of winter.
Scottish mythology tells the story of how the mountains were created by the footsteps of the giant Bearla, the goddess of winter.

But creation myths aren’t just simple attributions about which deity created this or that. These stories often explain why the society practices certain traditions or holds specific beliefs. These stories teach each generation values and beliefs that the society considers important. So, what do the stories of Boann and Sinann teach?

That question is open to debate, especially since the society in which they originated has long since passed. Yes, Irish Celts still exist, but the culture has been changed by centuries of time, the coming of Christianity, and changing perspectives from the modern world. And perhaps the real question should be what lessons / meditations do these stories offer to us?

Some commentaries on the stories of the creation of the Shannon and the Boyne focus on the consequences of challenging authority or trying to acquire too much power. Ironically, both patriarchal and feminist readings of the stories have focused on how the protagonists are women who dared to defy authority or to attempted to gain power. What these stories mean will depend, at least in part, on the perspective and agenda of those who are reading, reflecting, and commenting on them.

An interesting commentary about Sinann’s story is given by Chris Thompson in her article, “Why the Story of the River Goddess Who Created the River Shannon is Worth Telling,” which she wrote for The Irish Post (December 22, 2020). She sees the story as an important lesson for today. Writing during the pandemic, she also mentions climate change and living in a time of uncertainty and change. She sees hope at the heart of this story about a drowned goddess in two ways. First, she points out that the story “[reminds] us that there is always an inspirational source in that Otherworld of imagination and creativity.” I would add that wisdom may be found there as well, the wisdom to consider how to respond to the changes. Secondly, she brings up the bright side of the story. Sinann may have died, but “the great wave that changed the land of Ireland…[produced] fresh habitations along river edges.”

What impact are we leaving on the people and things we encounter along our journey through life?
What impact are we leaving on the people and things we encounter along our journey through life?

Everything that Ms. Thompson said about Sinann’s story can be applied to Boann’s as well. I would add that, in both stories, the protagonist’s journey results in life-giving water. This is no small thing. Although I don’t think in either case—Sinann’s or Boann’s—that the death can be seen as a self-sacrifice that is for the good of the greater community, there is something of value in reflecting on how death is not necessarily the end of a person’s effect on others. This can be seen clearly with artists, writers, and entertainers whose work still touches people long after the creator of those works has passed from this earth. But it can be true of us ordinary beings too. Along our life’s journey, we touch and impact others. Then the effect we’ve had on them potentially can affect other people we will never meet.

In both stories, the legacy left behind by Boann and Sinann is life-giving water. The ancient Celts would have resonated with the importance of that. For us who live in a world of faucets and bottled water, it may not be as obvious. But it bears reflecting upon, especially as our rivers and lakes have begun drying up at frightening speeds. Having access to clean, drinkable water is vital to life—all life, human, plant, and animal. Spend some time today reflecting on all the things you use water for. How many times and in what ways has water been a part of your life just today? What would your life be like if that resource became scarce and difficult to access? That may become a reality. What can you do to help protect and ensure the future of this natural resource?

Water can be destructive as well. Boann and Sinann’s actions lead to a land-altering, society-altering flood. There is much to meditate on there too. But again I’m going to focus on the positive. Ultimately, the existence of the Boyne and the Shannon have been a gift to the Irish people. Change that cuts through your life can feel overwhelming, and there may be no way to feel good about it as it’s happening. But think about a time when a major change knocked you down, dragged you along for a while, and left its mark on you once it was over. Identify one or two things that you learned from the experience that, in the end, benefitted you.

Just some thoughts. I’ll leave you with them.

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Slán go fóill

All artwork for this post (except for the Ukrainian flag and the GIF) by Christine Dorman via Bing Image Creator.

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