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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Notable Mothers of Celtic Folklore


Imagine having a Celtic goddess for a mother--or a mother-in-law!
Imagine having a Celtic goddess for a mother--or a mother-in-law!

In celebration of Mother’s Day (here in the U.S.), today’s post takes a quick look at some notable mothers from Celtic folklore and mythology. Of course, not all mothers—even in everyday human life—are warm and nurturing. And some of the mothers from Celtic folklore may challenge your image of motherhood. But every one of the maternal characters below made a big splash in the lore. (Boann did so literally!)


Mothers and their Children


The Bean Nighe: Also known as the Washer at the Ford or simply the Washerwoman, the Scottish Bean Nighe, like the Irish banshee, is someone you don’t want to encounter. She may seem innocent—even innocuous—enough. Just an elderly woman standing in the river, washing clothes. But look closely and you’ll see she’s washing blood from the clothes. She, like the banshee, is a harbinger of death. And you may be the one whose death she is foretelling. To be clear, neither the banshee nor the Bean Nighe kill people (usually). Their appearance simply is a warning, a heads up, as it were.


All right, so, what’s this got to do with motherhood? Well, according to Scottish lore, if you suck from her breasts, she may accept you as her foster child and protect you. But I wouldn’t recommend trying out this theory. As I said above, she may look relatively harmless. Usually, she looks like an old hag, dressed in rags, her hair scraggly, her pointed teeth sticking out of her mouth. But to suck from her breasts (which, you have to admit is a weird thing for an adult to do) you have to get close to her. And she has a big stick with her.


The Scottish Bean Nighe will protect you if you become her foster child--but I wouldn't recommend trying that.

Now, most grandmas will know what to do with that stick if you attempt to do what the folklore suggests, but the Bean Nighe is a faerie woman, so her stick won’t just bruise and batter you. It will paralyze any body part it touches. So, if you really want a foster mother’s protection, you may want to look elsewhere.


Beira, the Cailleach: In Irish, Scottish, and Manx mythology, the Cailleach (or Veiled Lady) is a creator goddess and is considered the mother of all gods and goddesses. Irish folklore says she is the maternal ancestor of all Irish men. The Scots call her Beira. Although she is a shapeshifter, she most often is depicted as an old, veiled woman. But this goddess of winter is far from frail. She carries a magic hammer that starts thunderstorms, and she enjoys leaping across mountains and riding storm waves.

    

Though she may be the mother of all gods and goddesses, in Scottish folklore there is one son she apparently was particularly fond of. That son: Angus (Aengus in Irish mythology), the god of youth and poetry. He was quite a romantic and a lady’s man but eventually married Brigid, the young and beautiful goddess of summer. Beira wasn’t happy about this and, as you will see in the “Sons and Mothers” section below, she was one pain-in-the-neck mother-in-law (even before the marriage took place).


Ceridwen: Welsh sovereignty goddess and enchantress, she was a devoted mother of two. Ceridwen had a beautiful, intelligent daughter named Creirwy a son that only a mother could love. Her son, Morfran, unfortunately, was deformed and said to have a warped mind, but it’s unclear exactly what was wrong with him. Did he have a learning disability? A mental illness? Or was he morally twisted? The folklore does not clarify. But clearly, Ceridwen loved him and went to great lengths to try to make things better for him.

   

Stand by Ukraine.
Stand by Ukraine.

Ceridwen was known as the Keeper of Cauldron Knowledge. She had a large cauldron in which she brewed magic potions. Benevolent and generous, she used her cauldron knowledge to share her gifts with others. And she had many gifts, among them wisdom, beauty, and the ability to shapeshift. So, she decided to create a potion that would give her best gifts to her son, making him handsome, graceful, and wise plus a slew of other things. To ensure that her son would become the best of the best, Ceridwen designed this magic brew in such a way that the first three drops would impart these wonderous gifts then, after the drops were ingested, the rest of the potion would become a deadly poison.

   

There was one problem though: the concoction required constant attention and had to be stirred for a year. Well, Ceridwen was a loving mother but also a busy goddess, so she assigned the task of stirring to a servant, Gwion Bach ap Gwreang.

    

The year of stirring neared its completion but, one day, some of the potion fell on Gwion’s thumb. The hot liquid burned, and, in response, the servant sucked his scalded thumb. This meant, of course, that Gwion received all of the gifts and there was no drinkable potion left for Mafron. Oops!

    

He tried to flee, but Ceridwen pursued him. She may ordinarily have been benevolent, but she became determined to take revenge on the servant who robbed the gifts intended for her son. Having obtained the ability to shapeshift, Gwion 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.


Rhiannon: In no small part owing to Stevie Nicks, Rhiannon is best known as a Welsh enchantress. And that part of her story is interesting. You can read about how she caught the eye and captured the heart of Prince Pwyll here. The story of Rhiannon as a mother isn’t told as often, but it should be. As a mother, she suffered a lot.


Rhiannon was an enchantress but the story of Rhiannon as a mother should be told too.
Rhiannon was an enchantress but the story of Rhiannon as a mother should be told too.

Pwyll and Rhiannon had a good start to their marriage. They were a loving couple. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son, providing Pwyll and the kingdom with an heir. All should have been roses. But life doesn’t tend to work that way.


Exhausted from giving birth, Rhiannon turned the care of her newborn son over to maids and went to sleep. But the baby disappeared and the maids, fearing for their own safety, smeared animal blood on Rhiannon while she lay sleeping. She awakens to find her baby gone and herself accused of infanticide.


Pwyll loved Rhiannon but his nobles insisted he execute her or, at least, banish her. Rhiannon asked for mercy and the opportunity to do penance. Pwyll agreed. He sentenced her to sit by the castle gate for the next year and tell her story to passersby. Then she had to offer to carry them on her back like a horse.


Rhiannon dutifully did her penance and Pwyll, to affirm his love for her, had her eat dinner with him each night seated beside him as his queen.


A few years later, a horse lord came to the castle bringing with him a young boy. He claimed to have rescued this boy from a monster. The boy so resembles Pwyll that he is accepted as the king’s son. Rhiannon’s reputation is redeemed. She names her son Pyderi, which means “loss” or “grief.”


When Pyderi became a young man, he went on a trip. After a time, Rhiannon received news that he was trapped in a magical tower. She rushed off to rescue him but never returned. Those who accompanied her on the journey returned to the court and gave a mysterious explanation for her disappearance. They said she ran into the tower. Then a mist enveloped the enchanted structure. Rhiannon, her son, and the tower all completely vanished. An intriguing ending to the story of one of Welsh folklore’s most intriguing women.


Ainé, Celtic goddess of love, tried to persuade her daughters not to marry, but they wouldn't listen.
Ainé, Celtic goddess of love, tried to persuade her daughters not to marry, but they wouldn't listen.

Ainé: is the Celtic goddess of mid-summer, fertility, and love. It may seem odd, then, that she strongly advises her two daughters never to marry. But it’s not so surprising once you know her history. Each of Ainé’s three husbands (some accounts say she had married a fourth time too) treated her abusively and at least one raped her. So, as a good mother, she wants to spare her daughters the trauma she has endured. But did they listen? No. The eldest married a man who—I’m not kidding—chewed her breast off. Ainé used the incident to persuade her daughter not to make the same mistake, but the youngest ignored her mother’s advice too.  She married and ran off with a druid.


Perhaps that marriage turned out all right. I don’t know. But Ainé responded to it by throwing her hands up in exasperation. She went into her palace and never came out again. From that point on, it is said, she conversed only with the faeries.


Sons and Mothers


Aengus / Angus: I mentioned above that Angus was a beloved son of Beira, the Scottish version of the Cailleach, goddess of winter. In Scottish mythology, he married Brigid, the goddess of fire, summer, and a whole list of other things (Brigid is one of the most popular and revered of the Celtic goddesses).


Beira was against the match. Was it jealousy? Possessiveness? Did she just dislike Brigid? Who knows, but she gave the poor young goddess one bloody bad time! Before the marriage could take place, Beira kidnapped Brigid, imprisoned her in an underground palace, and gave her impossible tasks to complete. Angus rescued her. Eventually.


Then Beira crashed their wedding, creating storms to disrupt the ceremony. The young couple fled from her wrath, but she chased after them until she became exhausted and had to lay down (she is an elderly woman remember). Beira fell asleep. Angus and Brigid took advantage of this to take over and rule. In both Scottish and Irish folklore, each year Brigid and her mother-in-law fight twice a year for dominance. When Beira wins, she brings the winter.


Beira the Cailleach crashed her son's wedding to Brigid, the goddess of summer,and created quite a scene!
Beira the Cailleach crashed her son's wedding to Brigid, the goddess of summer, and created quite a scene!

Brigid eventually overcomes her and brings warmth and sunshine back to the earth.


In Irish mythology, Aengus’ mother is Boann, the goddess who created the river Boyne (read that story here). His father is the creator god known as Dagda. Aengus was their love child. Boann was married to Elcmar, but Dagda, wanting to be with Boann, sent her husband on an errand. Then he made the sun stand still. For a long while so he and Boann could take their time having the affair and she could go through the pregnancy without Elcmar finding out.


Lugh: The Celtic fire festival of Lughnasa (August 1st) is named for Lugh, the Celtic sun god. He was exceptional at all he did. And he did a lot: sports, music, poetry, art, and more. But I want to celebrate his mother—and so did he. According to mythology, Lugh established Lughnasa in her honor. Her name was Tailtiu. Maybe. Some scholars claimed that it is a placename rather than her personal name. Regards, the myth is clear about what she did. She cleared all the land on Eire so the humans could farm. Then, exhausted, she died. So, Tailtiu gave her life so others might be nourished. Now that’s a mother!


Happy Mother’s Day!


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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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