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Another Pagan History -- What's Really Old, and What Likely Ain't PART 10

Author: A.C. Fisher Aldag
Posted: January 21st. 2007
Times Viewed: 4,384

This is Part Ten of the series of essays "Another History of Modern Paganism -- What's Really Old, and What Likely Ain't". This is also part 4 of the segment on the Pagan Gods -- Old, New and Otherwise. Previously we gave an overview of the sources for belief in the Lord of the Hunt, Cernunnos, and discussed some of the origins for modern Goddess worship. This time we'll take a look at some specific goddesses, including moon goddesses and the Triple or triform goddess.

The Moon Goddess: The idea of a goddess linked to the moon phases is undoubtedly much older than Gardner’s Wicca, or even Graves’s white goddess. Many cultures revere moon deities, including Selene, Artemis, and Nakomis. Arianrhod, a Celtic goddess whose name in Welsh means “Silver Wheel”, may be symbolic of the moon as a silvery disc in the sky. Diana, a Roman goddess who was brought to the British Islands by soldiers, is often symbolized by the moon. Her Latin name was “Diana Triformus”, meaning a single entity with three forms, probably relating to the waxing, full and waning moon phases. The sickle-shaped new moon is sometimes called “Diana’s bow”. (More about Diana later, in a subsequent essay. She's important enough to get her very own article.)

Hecate, a Greco-Thracean goddess, was brought to Europe by Romans who created artwork depicting her as a triform image. Several Hecate statues have been discovered with three distinct images, or one central figure with two profiles facing outward on either side. One of these is framed by a symbolic moon. Hecate was adopted by witches in Medieval Europe, perhaps because of her association with sorcery and the dark moon phase. This viewpoint may have been prompted by Shakespeare using her as goddess of magic in _MacBeth_. Hecate is referred to as a “witches’ goddess” or “queen of the witches” several times in English literature. Although she is mostly linked to the darker aspects of witchcraft, Hecate is sometimes shown holding midwifery implements and babies, intimating that she was viewed as a mother figure, as well.

It is well documented that the moon affects women’s menstrual cycles. During the witch trials, women were accused of using menstrual blood as an ingredient in their potions. This actually has a precedent in older rites such as standing in a field while menstruating to fertilize the crops, using moon blood daubed on talismans or poppets, and the presence of menstrual blood in witches’ bottles. Moon blood was supposedly used to “baptize” new witches or as an anointing substance when a witch was accepted into a coven. A few written love spells from the eighteenth century used moon blood to “mark” a potential mate. This lore may have a basis in the ancient use of red ochre, a pigment made from powdered iron ore, to anoint bodies during funeral rituals. Ochre was also used to decorate the prehistoric goddess figurines, perhaps symbolizing birth or menstrual blood. There is ochre anointing the hunting shrine goddess at Lascaux, who holds an instrument shaped like a horn with thirteen notches. This might represent the thirteen full moons in one year on an instrument shaped like the crescent moon. As women have reclaimed goddess culture, the menstrual cycle has become less of a taboo and viewed as a time of strength and magical power.

It is also a scientific fact that the moon controls the tides, which would be important to a seafaring people. Spells and rituals relating to safe voyages, and lore about the moon’s effect on ocean travel, were documented from several Scots and Manx coastal villages from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. The Morien, a sea entity rather like a mermaid, was said to cavort under the full moon in Welsh legend. The moon has also been proven to affect the growth of plants, which may be why almanacs advocate sowing seeds on the waxing moon, and harvesting crops during the waning moon. Sap rises during the period from new moon to full, and pruning to discourage growth can be done during the dark of the moon. Such lore likely had sacred connotations in ancient times, and may have contributed to the lore about moon blood and fertility deities.

The full moon in British folklore is called the pregnant moon, while the new moon is sometimes named the daughter moon. A full moon seen in the water of the well supposedly had the power of bewitchment or was used for divination. Of course, Medieval witches were believed to perform their rites during the full moon, with ecstatic dancing, feasting and copulation. Fairies dancing in a ring under the moon, and the picture of Mother Goose as a witch flying on a broomstick across a full moon, may be cultural remnants from an earlier civilization which honored a moon goddess. Mother Goose is believed to have arisen from the legends of the Germanic Frau Holt, Old Dame Hulda, Hilde, Hilda, Holla, Brunhilde or Mathilde, who was originally a mother goddess called Holda, Holle or Heartha. Mathilde is still a figure of dark legends about the wild hunt, said to occur on the full moon. She is sometimes called Mathilde of the Night, and may have gotten her name from the Mailte y Nos of Wales – or vice-versa. The name Holt means “forest home” in the Saxon language. The Brunhilde of sagas may have given rise to the comic image of witchy Broom Hilda. This goddess icon of Holda, transformed by literature into Mother Goose on her broom, may be one more precursor of the Halloween witch, silhouetted against the full moon astride her flying broomstick.

More Triple Goddesses: A threefold goddess seems to have quite a precedent in Europe, not just as a copy of the Holy Trinity of Christianity. Her worship had been around for years prior to the Christian incursions. St. Augustine denounced the concept of a triple goddess as blasphemous. Many legends, artwork, and lore relate to a triform or threefold female deity, much of it surviving into modern times. For instance, the Lithuanian sun goddess Saule has two daughters, the morning star Ausrene and the earth Zerne. All three are associated with a stag bearing nine horns or tines, similar to the entity found in Celtic myth.

A classic example of the triform goddess is the representation of Brighid, who appears as a young woman, mother and elderly lady. This goddess of Celtic legend was believed to have two sisters, both also named Brighid. She / they have triple characteristics representing fire, poetry and smithcraft. In her youthful aspect, Brighid is associated with healing and fertility. As a mother, she is the matron of agriculture, particularly cattle and dairycraft. One Romano-Celtic fresco depicts her milking a cow. As an older woman, Brighid represents warriors and battle, often shown holding a sword, spear or rod similar to the Gardnerian magical staff. There are legends of Brighid as a mother mourning the death of her son, as a young woman ashamed of being too beautiful, and as an elderly nun, serving her congregation as a teacher and healer. She is said to be a wife of several different husbands, perhaps all at once. Brighid or St. Bridget was extolled as a daughter of a druid, the midwife of Jesus, an abbess of a convent, and a Pagan woman who out-witted the Christians by asking for as much land as her mantle would cover, then magically enchanting the cloak to spread for miles. The holy well dedicated to St. Bridget at Kildare has two breast-like fonts gushing water, likely symbolizing Brighid’s earlier image as a nurturing mother goddess. On Imbolc, many Irish women still create “Bridey” dolls from straw collected during the harvest. These dolls are kept for three years and called the Maiden, Mother and Grandmother. Brighid was undoubtedly a model for the Wiccan image of maiden, mother and crone.

A deity believed to be related to Brighid is Brigantia or Brittannia, the goddess symbolizing the land of Great Britain. She was thought to have been worshipped by Boudicca of the Iceni tribe, but she may have been an invention of the Romans – or another Romanized Celtic goddess. There was a tribe called the Brigantes which occupied most of what’s now Northern England prior to the Roman invasions, who may have taken their name from the deity. One Romano-British statue of Brighid or Brigantia has three female images stationed around a cental pillar, with a bowl for offerings on the top. All three figures wear crowns resembling flowers. One goddess bears a sword, and one holds tongs, perhaps to signify war and the craftsmanship of the forge. Brittania was depicted on 2nd century C.E. English coins with a sheaf of grain representing abundance, as well as bearing a sword. It's possible she isn't any older than that; some scholars consider her a deity invented to symbolize the land. Her image could also be seen on the twentieth century fifty-pence piece. On other artwork, Brittania is shown holding a sword, scroll or book. In later times, she may gradually have become the icon of liberty and justice on a courthouse wall or in New York harbor.

Worship of Brighid has continued into the present day in the form of veneration of St. Bridget of Ireland, St. Fraid of Wales, and as a goddess of the sacred springs throughout Europe. Hundreds of wells dedicated to Brighid or St. Bridget survive into modern times, adorned by clooties and votive offerings. Proper names of women in many European lands include Brigitta, Brea, Brittany, and Bergitte – pronounced “bear-zheet”, as well as many different spellings of Bridget, which means lofty, exalted, high one or shining one. Nicknames include Biddy, Birdie and Bridey, and the word “bride” may have come from Brighid, originally pronounced “breed” or “bree-id”. (More on Brighid and sacred wells appears below; also please refer back to the subject of Imbolc.)

Other Celtic goddesses have triple aspects, but they seldom appear all together in the same legend. The Morrighan of Ireland has three images associated with war, sometimes called the Badb and Macha. The three goddesses of Ireland are sometimes called Eriu, Banba and Fiodla, whose names are associated with the land. The latter may vary, with different names given in different legends. They are further attributed to cattle and sovereignty. Some Celtic female deities are described as a maiden in one story and a mother in another, such as the Welsh Rhiannon. Others appear as a mother and elder, such as Cerridwen. The older Arthurian legends tell of three Gwenenveres, possibly sisters, all of whom were married to the king. The three Norns, Wyrds or Fates of the Anglo-Saxons, brought to the British Islands during the invasions, may be where Shakespeare got his idea for the three Weird Sisters in _MacBeth_. While the latter are not considered actual goddesses, they may have been deified in the distant past.

The Romans also brought their own threefold goddesses to Britain, or co-opted deities who were already there. The three Matres or Matronae were revered in Europe from at least the first century C.E until the fifth century. The Matronae are believed to have originated in Celtic cultures, although they weren’t depicted in artwork until Roman times. Several statues of these goddesses have been discovered or preserved on the European continent. Some of them have one bare breast, as do the Roman images of Diana. The Matronae occasionally appear as a maiden, mother and older woman, as well as a trio of matrons. In Britain, more recent art depicts them with cornucopias, sheaves of grain, or baskets of fruit or fish. Others are shown holding small children. A triple goddess fresco commonly called “The Three Matrons” can be found near a natural spring in Cirencester, Glouchestershire, England, which was once the second largest town in Romanized Britain. The three matrons are seated, holding baskets of grain and a baby. In Lincolnshire, a Romano-British triple goddess statue called “the Three Mothers” survives on what is now St. Martin’s church wall at Ancaster, which translates as “Anna’s encampment”. This site was originally a Pagan shrine. Each seated goddess figure is holding bread, a basket of apples, and piglet or lamb. Unfortunately the statue has been damaged, and the middle head is missing. Another triple deity image called the “Matres Domesticae” can be seen in Chicester.

Similar threefold goddess icons have been found in London and in the north of England near Hadrian’s Wall bordering Scotland. Other triple deity statues may be attributed to Coventina, another Romanized goddess believed to have British origins. An excellent carved relief survives at Coventina’s Well, which was originally located in a temple in Northumberland. Three female figures hold vessels in one hand and pour water with the other, rather like the “Star” tarot card in triplicate. Dedications in Latin are etched into the stone wall nearby. (More on Coventina in a subsequent essay, about sacred wells.) The Matronae and triple Coventina statues are sometimes referred to as the “Witches Three”.

The original name for the Matronae is not known for certain; the Latinized “matronae” means “important mothers” or “venerated ladies”. A similar mother goddess exists in legend and place-names as well. The River Marne in France was named after the Gaulish deity Dea Matrona, a single earth-mother figure who was revered throughout the southernmost Celtic lands. She is called “y Mamau” in Welsh, which simply means “the mother”. “Benedyth y mamau” is translated as “the mother’s blessing”, which is also a generic term for the fairies of Wales. Madrone of the Welsh legends may be a precursor of the Matronae. Up until the eighth century, the day before Christmas was called “Madron nect” in the Germanic languages, which means “Mother night”. While this holiday was later attributed to the Virgin Mary, it very likely arose from worship of a mother goddess. The single earth-mother entity or trio of dieties are likely the source of the English word “matron”. All of these images or legends may have inspired the belief in the triple goddess or mother goddess as Robert Graves, Dion Fortune and Gerald Gardner wrote about in their books.

As previously mentioned, the Romans also brought their threefold goddesses Diana Triformus and Hecate Triformus to Britain, where they were accepted by the common people as representations of witchcraft and magic. Originally from Thrace, the worship of Hecate spread to Greece, where artwork depicted her as a single entity, a trio of voluptuous ladies, or as one woman with three faces. Gazing in different directions, she was a goddess of three-way crossroads. Some legends tell of Persephone as the daughter, Demeter as the mother, and Hecate as the wise elder goddess. Hecate herself was depicted in triplicate up until the year 400 C.E. in Greece, Rome and on the European continent. She sometimes had three animal heads including a horse, dog and serpent. One Greek marble relief now housed in the British Museum shows Hecate standing with a dog, placing a wreath on a horse’s head, perhaps associating her with the hunt. Although she is not depicted as an old woman or crone in artwork, legend sometimes portrays her as an elder figure. In Britain, she was usually related to the night, the waning moon, sorcery and mystery. Literature tells us of Medea, the priestess of Hecate and keeper of her accumulated wisdom. And popular tales hold that Hecate is the goddess of witches, the queen of ghosts, and the matron of all darksome magic. Reverence for Hecate survived into the modern age, in the form of written spells, invocations and rites of protection found in individual grimoires.

Although these goddesses are frequently depicted as a triform entity or triple deities, this is not always true. Some Romano-Britons referred to their goddesses as symbolizing the four seasons. Many Roman, Celtic or Germanic goddesses were the members of large extended families. And some forms of the Goddess may have existed alone, as a Great Mother figure, just as modern neo-Pagans suggest.

In the next essay we'll take a look at some Earth Goddesses, and Goddesses of Literature. In the ones after that, we'll check out Goddesses of Art, and THEN sacred wellsprings. Topics still to come are Real Witches, Really; The Burning Times, Fact and Fallacy, and some traditions which really did exist unbroken up to the present times. We think so, anyway. What's really old, and what likely ain't? Please look things up, and decide for yourself!

Please Google some of the sources listed in this article. Go look at pictures of Hecate, Diana, Mother Goose, Frau Holda, the Matronae, and Bridget / Brighid / Brid / Brigantia / Britannia. Read some of the material available online, in your library, and at museum sites. Read Merlyn Stone's "When God Was a Woman". Read Mary Daly. Read some of the authors that think these two are full of it. Look at Max Dashu's "Supressed History" slides. Have you cracked open Dr. Gimbutas's work yet? It's worth it, even if you don't buy the hypothesis about rampaging Kurgans.

Copyright: Copyleft 2006 A.C. Aldag. Reproduce as you will. Please wait until this article is off the Witchvox front page before using it. Thanks!


A.C. Fisher Aldag

Location: Bangor, Michigan

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