Don’t Mess with These Mythical Celtic Women!
Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, described Celtic women as ferocious. He writes they are “stronger than [Celtic men] by far and with flashing eyes…she swells her neck and gnashes her teeth, and poising her huge white arms, begins to rain blows mingled with kicks, like shots discharged by the twisted cords of a catapult."
Without a doubt, his depiction is tainted by scorn and bias since the Romans considered the Celts barbarians. Also, the Romans believed being a warrior was a part of masculine energy and that it was unnatural for a woman to fight. Nevertheless, the historical truth is Celtic culture encouraged women to be strong, even fierce, fighters. Girls could go to school to train as soldiers, and some of these schools were run by women. Celtic women had rights and a social standing most other European wouldn’t acquire for centuries.
So far, though, I’ve been discussing regular, everyday human Celtic women. No, imagine that same fighting spirit combined with the powers of a goddess. Today’s post celebrates some of the most formidable goddesses (and a couple legendary queens) of Celtic mythology. These are women you don’t want to tangle with!
Welsh sovereignty goddess and enchantress, Ceridwen is called the Keeper of Cauldron Knowledge. She possessed a large cauldron in which she brewed magic potions. With these potions, she helped those she deemed worthy to acquire some of the gifts and talents she had. And she had many. They included wisdom, beauty, the gift of poetry, and the ability to shapeshift. Although normally generous and benevolent, she is not to be crossed. It’s particularly unwise to mess with her children.
Ceridwen had two children, a daughter, Creirwy, and a son, Morfran. Creirwy, like her mother, was intelligent and beautiful. Morfran, however, was ugly and deformed. He also, they say, had a warped mind, although what that means (cognitively slow, mentally ill, evil?) is unclear. Any good mother wants to help her child find health and happiness, so Ceridwen decided to mix a potion that would transform him into a picture of grace, beauty, and wisdom.
This potion required constant attention and had to be boiled and stirred for a year. So, Ceridwen did what any busy goddess would do. She had a servant tend to it. His name was Gwion Bach ap Gwreang. The reason his name became legendary is because of a seemingly small oops that brought the everlasting wrath of a goddess down on his head.
The year of stirring was nearing completion when, one day, somehow, when three drops of the potion fell onto his thumb. Undoubtedly, the potion was hot and burned, so Gwion sucked his thumb. It doesn’t seem like a nig deal but here’s the problem. Ceridwen had designed the potion so that the first three drops would impart all of Ceridwen’s best gifts. After these drops were ingested, the rest of the potion became a deadly poison.
Gwion realized the goddess would be furious when she discovered he had gotten the gifts from the potion and there were none left for her son. He tried to flee, but she pursued him. Having obtained the ability to shapeshift, he transformed himself into numerous animals and objects to hide from her but without success. Finally, she turned him into a grain of wheat and ground him with her teeth.
The Cailleach, Goddess of Winter
Worshipped in Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, the goddess is considered a creator, the mother of all gods and goddesses, and the maternal ancestor of all Irish men. In addition, she is said to have formed the mountains of Scotland. Folklore says that Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain, is her throne.
Cailleach is believed to be a title rather than a name. The word is believed to have its roots in the Old Gaelic word, caillech, which means “veiled one.” In modern Scots Gaelic and Irish, the word cailleach means “hag” or “witch.” Although she is a shapeshifter, generally she is depicted as a veiled old woman. But don’t let her frail form fool you. She can leap across mountains and ride storm waves.
In Scotland, she is known as Beira, goddess of weather and winds. Feared and respected she carried a magical hammer with which she controlled storms and thunder. According to folklore, Beira reigns from Samhain (November 1st) to Beltane (February 1st), but the end of her winter can vary. According to the lore, by the beginning of February, the Cailleach’s supply of firewood is running short, so she must go out to get more. If the weather is sunny on February 1st, it means that the goddess has made the day fine for herself so she can collect wood. This indicates a long winter. If the day is stormy or overcast, it means she has overslept, will run out of firewood, and winter will soon end.
Another part of the folklore is that each year, Beira is defeated by Brigid, the goddess of summer. Brigid’s Day is celebrated on February 1st so Beira’s rule is said to end each year on Beltane. For a more detailed account of the struggle between Beira and Brigid, click here to read my post “A Celtic Summer Trio: Aengus, Ainé, and Brigid.”
One of the most famous, formidable, and complex goddesses of Irish mythology, the Morrigan is thought to be the inspiration for Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend. A triple goddess, she has three aspects: the maiden, the matron, and the crone. She can appear in any of these forms, but as a shapeshifter as well, she can take on any form she wishes. Most frequently, she appears as a crow. A goddess of war, destiny, and rebirth, she often flies above battlefields, watching over and assisting those she favors. But while it might be comforting to have her there (if you believe she’s on your side), it’s never good to encounter her on the way to battle as that is a portend of death.
Some stories tell of her washing the clothes of warriors who will die. This connects her to the bean nighe (also known as the Washerwoman) of Scottish folklore as she does the same. Similarly, she often is associated with the Irish banshee, who is a harbinger of death.
It is good to have the Morrigan on your side as she is a strong protector, but don’t get on her bad side. She is vindictive, Cuchulainn, one of the chief heroes of Irish myth discovered. His main antagonist was Maeve, the Queen of Connacht (see below), but during his ongoing battle with Maeve over the Battle Raid of Cooley, he ran afoul of the Morrigan. It was a fatal mistake.
She initially appeared to him at a stream in the form of a beautiful young woman. When she tried to seduce him, he rebuffed her.
Later, as Cuchulainn rode to meet Maeve’s forces in another battle, he saw an old woman washing bloody clothes in a river. He asked her, “Woman, whose clothes do you wash?”
She looked up at him and replied, “I wash the clothes of Cuchulainn.”
Unnerved but determined, he continued on to the battle. During it, he was mortally wounded. As he sat propped up against a boulder, slowly dying, a crow flew down and sat on Cuchulainn’s head. The Morrigan may or may not have been instrumental in his death, but she certainly let him know she was happy about it.
The legendary Queen Maeve, whose name means “intoxicating one,” ruled the ancient Irish province of Connacht in her own right. A fierce warrior, she created her own army and led them in battle. The soldiers respected her and were steadfastly loyal to her. According to some versions of the myth, she gave some warriors sexual favors as a reward for bravery.
She went through a series of husbands, six in total, but maintained her own sovereignty. Her best-known husband was Ailill mac Mata. Her desire to best him led to the famous Cattle Raid of Cooley and, ultimately, a deadly conflict between her forces and those of Cuchulainn. Read more about this important Irish myth in my post “Maeve and Rhiannon: Never Underestimate a Celtic Woman.”
Maeve believed in destroying people she felt did her wrong. She did not have a good relationship with her first husband, Conchobar mac Nessa, the King of Ulster. Long after she left him and he married her sister, she encountered him at a gathering. He raped her. It took a while to get her revenge, but she waited for it. In the end, one of her sons avenged her by killing the king. She killed Ailill herself when she found him in bed with another woman. Maeve is sometimes blamed for the death of one of her sisters (Clothra or Eithne, depending on the version of the legend), but it is debated whether she actually killed her sister or was simply believed to have been responsible for her death. In any case, she met her own end when her nephew, the sister’s son, killed her.
Morgan le Fay
This well-known archenemy of King Arthur is not a goddess. She’s a faerie (le Fey). But she’s got more than enough power to destroy anyone who gets in her way (or on her nerves). Although some scholars believe the character is based on the Irish triple-goddess, the Morrigan, Arthurian legend is believed to be Welsh in origin. Over the centuries, her character has degenerated from a noble Queen and healer into a crazy, vengeful witch. Some of the villainous things she does in modern retellings of the legend, such as seducing her half-brother, Arthur, and sending their son, Mordred, to kill him, were deeds originally done by her sister, Morgause. Their characters often are merged today. Read more about her in my post, “Morgan le Fay: Malignant or Maligned.”
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Slan go foil!