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Another Pagan History -- What's Really Old, and What Likely Ain't PART 11

Author: A.C. Fisher Aldag
Posted: January 28th. 2007
Times Viewed: 4,109

The last several essays were focused on the Pagan Gods, Old, New and Otherwise. We checked out Cernunnos in number eight. We've explored Goddess worship ancient (we think) and modern, including the Goddess of the Moon and a Triple Goddess. This time, we'll take a look at some goddesses of literature, including songs, poems, and fairy tales, and some earth goddesses who've given their names to landmarks in the British Islands.

Goddesses in Literature and Legend: It is difficult to separate the history of Goddess worship in Britain from the belief in fairies and association with the “Queen of Elfhame” sometimes referred to in the witch trials. Volumes have been written about the Fairy Faith, fairy doctors, folktales labeled “fairy stories”, fairy lore, and geographic locations with a relationship to the fair folk. Sacred wellsprings dedicated to a fairy, sprite, water nymph or other supernatural being are common throughout the British Isles. There are many land sites such as hills and lakes related to fairies, shee or shea, especially in Ireland. Anyone with the surname O’Shea, McFee, MacVay or Sheehan is said to be descended from the shee (sidhe) , fey or fair people. Fairies were sometimes called “The Lady’s Own” by the Scots. The Picts, an original ethnic group of Scotland, were believed to trace their lineage through their female relatives. The word “pixies” probably came from the Pictish people. As mentioned previously, fairies in Wales are sometimes called “benedyth y mamau”, or the mother’s blessing. Offerings are set out for fairies in Ireland and Wales to the present day. Some historians believe that this belief in fairies was the basis for witches accused of consorting with “demon” familiars during the witch trial era. Dr. Eva Pocs, a Hungarian scholar, wrote extensively about the fairy faith and its relationship to the accusations of witchcraft. Many writers have linked goddess worship to the ancient belief in fairies or elves, which survived throughout Europe up to modern times.

Although some scholars disagree, there is a great deal of literary evidence for a working class belief in goddesses long past the rise of Christianity. Common folktales, legends and oral literature referencing goddesses were inscribed by monks from the 7th century until the late Middle Ages. Some of these tales may have been altered by the authors’ own patriarchal beliefs, giving women and goddesses less social standing than they originally held. For instance, it is commonly believed that the Lady of the Lake from the Arthurian legends was originally a goddess figure associated with water, such as Coventina. Some of the more brutal stories may represent the takeover of Celtic culture by the Romans, Saxons or other invaders, or perhaps even the Celtic suppression of earlier civilizations. Quite a few of these narratives indicate rape, forced marriage, and ill treatment of women, including the tales of Deirdre, Macha, Rhiannon, Isolde, Muirna and Branwen. Tales where the heroine is rescued by a nobleman, such as Arthur recovering Gweneviere from a kidnapper, might represent that particular aspect of history, or may show a hope of rescuing the land from the conquerors. Other stories show capable women who were vilified for their strength, such as Maeva of Connaught. Many literature professors agree that these tales may reflect an earlier belief in a goddess, or at least a revered female with leadership capabilities, who was reduced by time and misogynistic writers to a shrew, harridan or slut. Folklore was called “old wives’ tales” in a demeaning manner by patriarchal scholars, and “granny stories” were those which had no credibility. Perhaps these terms were used to denigrate women’s wisdom. In their original form, such literature and folk belief was probably held in high esteem by the working class, especially women.

Some folklorists believe that the older songs and nursery rhymes may also show a hidden reference to goddesses. For example, the fine lady upon a fine horse of Banberry Cross may represent the goddess Rhiannon or Epona, and Mary quite contrary with her garden of silver bells and cockle shells may be symbolic of a goddess, with the pretty maids all in a row as her priestesses. The old women who lived under the hill or in a shoe may actually be a witch or fairy who dwelled in the “fairy mounds” or prehistoric underground homes and passage tombs. Robert Graves wrote extensively about his theory that Maid Marion and Robin Hood represented a forest goddess and god. These stories were originally told in ballad or poetic form. Medieval metaphysical song-poems such as “Vertue” by George Herbert, with its line about “a bridall of the earth and skie” may refer to the sacred marriage of god and goddess. “I Sing of a Maiden” ostensibly refers to the Virgin Mary, but the tune may have its origins in goddess worship. And the three maidens fair may be another representation of the threefold goddess.

Some goddesses of the Roman period have come down to us in the form of iconic images, as was previously discussed, with Brittania transformed into Lady Liberty or into a representation of the land. Another example is Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture, who was called Ceres by the Romans, and brought to Great Britain by settlers and soldiers. Shrines to Ceres dotted the countryside during the Roman era, with votive offerings of grain and fruit. Ceres is most often remembered today for the food named after her – cereal. Venus, Minerva and Diana were the inspiration for many classical statues. Justina, the goddess of justice, can still be found on numerous public buildings. And of course the nine muses inspired many a poet.

The penitential writings of the Middle Ages mention a belief in goddesses including Hecate, Diana and Frau Holda. These books were written by lower-level clergy as a list of thoughts or actions considered to be sinful by the Catholic Church, and suggested measures for redemption. They also noted a belief in fairies and other supernatural entities, including the Three Sisters or Fates. Goddesses graced the pages of fiction books, poems, and stage plays, sometimes altered from their original form. Mab the Queen of the Fairies is mentioned by Renaissance authors Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare. These writers likely drew upon the folk legends of working-class people. (More on Mab can be found in a subsequent listing.) Shakespeare’s Titania may have been based on the “Queen of Elphame”, and his characters such as Lady MacBeth might reflect older Celtic figures, including Macha or Maeva. Right up to the modern era, poets including Yeats, Browning and Shelley wrote paens to goddess figures. These writers may not have actually worshipped a goddess; however, it is likely that they referenced the legends and folklore of people who did.

In the mid-1900s, an interest in folklore experienced a revival, and authors such as the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen reproduced the tales of their native lands. Many of them included good queens, wicked witches and fairy godmothers, who either granted magical boons or cast spells to harm the protagonists. While intended to entertain children, the “Mother Goose” tales often had a basis in pre-Christian legend. One has only to read a book of Irish or Welsh fairy tales to find a recent belief in goddesses, witches, and “supernatural” beings including fairies, elves, and water nymphs. Some of these stories closely resemble the legends transcribed by monks, although there are slight differences, suggesting that changes were brought about by an oral recollection passed down through the generations. Others have nothing in common with the Medieval scripts, which leads me to conclude that these stories were still in circulation, yet not written down until recently.

Earth Goddess: As Gerald Gardner wrote, many British and Irish goddesses were worshiped by individual tribes, and were unique to a particular location. Others were more widely accepted, including the Teutonic Heartha or Holda; the Celtic Danu, Anu or Don; and the Basque Mari, who actually predated the Virgin Mary. Several of these personifications arose on the continent and came to Britain with settlers. Some may be aspects of the same deity, including Brighid, Brigantia and Brittania. There are place names, proper names, and sacred sites identified with Celtic, Roman and Germanic goddesses throughout the British Islands. Goddesses have given their names to European land features including mountains, hills, lakes, rivers, standing stone monuments, and even caves.

For instance, the old name for Scotland was “Caledonia”, from a Pictish tribe called the Caledonii, who possibly took their name from the goddess Don, Danu, Donu, Dana, Dannuia, Donia, Danann or Danand. The mountain range called Snowdonia in Wales may have a similar origin. “Donia” in Latinized Welsh means either “the endowed one” or “dark-skinned”, which may be a metaphor for the earth. The Irish goddess Danu possibly derived from an Indo-European source, similar to the Danu mentioned in the East Indian Vedas, who is associated with water. The Danube of eastern Europe, the Don River of the Ukraine, and the Donau river in Austria are likely named for the goddess Don or Danu. The Dane Hills of England may have taken their name from this deity, or from Danish invaders. The Tuatha de Danann, people of the goddess Danu, are mentioned frequently in old Irish literature as fairies, supernatural beings, gods or a race of people who proceeded the Celts. A mountain range in County Kerry, Ireland is familiarly called the “Paps of Anu”, because they are shaped like breasts. In Gaelic this land feature is termed Dhá Chíoche Dhanann, or Danu’s Breasts. A more obscure Irish and Cornish sea goddess is called Domnu, Christianized as St. Domnu, for whom a sacred well is named. European women’s names including Donna, Dana, Danuta, Donia, Danica, Danae, Anne, Anna, Aine, Anja and Ana might have derived from these sources. Men’s names including Donald, Donal, Dane, Dana, Duane or Dwaine and the surnames Donner, O’Donnal and Donelly may also reflect an older reverence for the earth goddess of Europe.

The old Brythonic word “guern” is possibly the origin of the word queen and the place-name Guernsey. This term also lends itself to a dialect unique to that channel island, called Dgèrnésiais or Guernésiais, which arose from a combination of Breton and Norman French (or possibly the original Gaulish language) . There are two prehistoric goddess statues called “the Gran’meres”, which means grandmothers, and numerous female-shaped dolmens on Guernsey, showing that a woman-based culture was once revered there. As late as the 1930s, these monoliths were garlanded with flowers on Mayday. Although some sources have translated the word guern as “swamp” or “alder”, which is a tree often found growing in wetlands, it is very likely that “guern” also denoted a female ruler or priestess. Its Indo-European root means “leader”. In the Arthurian legends, “Yguerna” is the original name for Igrainne. This possibly came from “y guern”, the queen, or the name of another goddess, the Irish Grainne or Grania, associated with the sun. The word “grain” may have come from either source.

Some modern place-names are associated with aspects of the goddess, as well. There is a Maiden Lane in London, as well as Maiden Stones in a dolmen monument. A small town in Cornwall near Penzance is called Madron, a word which likely has the same root as Madrone or Matrona. The name is also given to a nearby sacred wellspring. There are hundreds of Bride’s wells in Ireland, Scotland and Britain, probably named for Brighid, and countless Lady wells, including the Brideswell and Ladyswell of London. These wells named for Our Lady may make reference to the Virgin Mary, although quite a few are believed to be older than the Christian incursions. There are several Anne’s wells or granny wells found throughout the British Isles. These may have been named for St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, and thus the grandmother of Jesus. However, Ancester or Anna’s encampment was a Roman fortification likely named before the Christian incursions. (More about sacred wells appears below.)

Once again, I urge readers to Google everything I've written. Look at pictures of the Goddesses. Read some Welsh and Irish fairy tales. Do they contain metaphors about Goddess workship? Visit sites on the Internet related to the Goddess. Check the literature out of your local library. Read Dr. Eva Pocs's essays. Listen to some poems and songs. Is "Vertue" a song about a Goddess, or is it simply a Christian mystical hymn? Is Maiden Lane named for a Goddess, or the Virgin Mary? Are the penetential books addressing superstition, or Goddess worship which survived past the Middle Ages? You decide.

Copyright: Copyleft 2006 A.C. Aldag. Please feel free to distribute as you will. The nice people here at the Witches' Voice request that you please wait a week until it's off their front page. Thanks.


A.C. Fisher Aldag

Location: Bangor, Michigan

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