The primal and ancestral goddesses are linked to the land, the waters, and sovereignty, and are often seen as the oldest ancestors of the people. They are maternal figures being concerned for the earth itself in addition to their descendants, however additionally fierce defenders, instructors, and warriors. More deities can be related to cultural characteristics such as Brigid, poetry, smith-craft, and healing. Geographic locations can be associated with a particular warrior, hero, or deity. Each feature is linked to a story that stretches back beyond known history, passed on through oral tradition, some of which have subsequently been written down.
Much of the story becomes lost in the subjective nature of the translation. Within Ireland, our lore was passed orally down lineages. It wasn't until the 5th century that our tales began to be written. These translations are subjective to the belief system in how it is translated. Often women were demonized or shamed within the texts that were translated by the new Christian faith. This served to undermine the feminine and thus destructure how Irish society relied on the matriarchal to function. While most stories speak of the destruction, maiming, or death of the woman connected with water, I have cause to wonder if this was just simply prejudiced translations or if there was layered meaning to the tales.
Many wells in Ireland are named for the female saints. There was an intermingling of the deities into sainthood with the melding of catholicism with the pagan. Some of the female figures associated with the lore of the water are prophetic, especially when foretelling death and doom such as the Morrigan who was encountered by Irish legendary heroes at river crossings! She can be linked possibly to the 'washer at the ford' was an omen of death for those who saw her washing bloody garments at the ford of a river. This washer at the ford could be further linked to the banshee of Irish folklore who is also said to give warning of approaching death.
There is an understanding here in the Emerald Isle, that we are part of and not separate from the land we inhabit. As a nation connected to the earth and the spirits of nature, we as our ancestors did, are likely to seek out wild places that feel powerful to us. Our goddesses were not high in the sky, unable to reach but were carved into the landscape and hills, intertwined with our rivers and wells. The edges of the sea brought us in connection with them. We could go and sit with them and if they had keepers, listen to their wisdom as those who commune with them on a daily basis. They were able to answer our questions as they had a total connection to the crystalline structure that is water, and thus the memory of all that had come before them.
On the most basic level, water is required to sustain life. We start our existence in a body of water that is contained by the womb. Water represents an opportunity for new beginnings. Communicating with the spirits or goddesses of that place and establishing a working relationship based on hospitality and mutual respect, could change your life. Through repeated tending with reverence, the well becomes even more sacred. Active participation in giving back to the environment fosters the veneration and careship of a place. It is the expression of spirituality through ecology.
Reaching to our Myth
The belief in a goddess embodying the river is illustrated in Irish myth by legends recounting the drowning of divine ladies in rivers, who, from that moment on, inhabit, personify and protect the river bearing their name. Such is the case of Bóann, the goddess of the River Boyne, Sionann, the goddess of the River Shannon, Eithne, the goddess of the River Inny, and Érne the goddess of the River Érne. What could this symbolism mean? In Irish mythology often nothing is quite as it seems.
"Immersion in water symbolizes a return to the pre-formal, a total regeneration, a new birth, for immersion means a dissolution of forms, a reintegration into the formlessness of pre-existence; and emerging from the water is a repetition of the act of creation in which form was first expressed."
- Mircea Eliade, mythologist
It is generally accepted that our ancestors believed one could access the Otherworld via water. The sea, a lake, a spring, or a river was seen as a gateway to the divine world, water delimiting the boundary between the natural and the supernatural world. Indeed being immersed in water, your relationship to your senses changes, the world is like itself but seen, heard, and felt through the veil of the surface of the water. The world above the water seems distorted and can be seen from a different perspective. Manannan Mac Lir was attributed to the underworld, the boatman is attributed to Donn. Donn was of the mortal race of the Mileasans who refused to recognize the Sovereignty of Ireland. He was thus cursed to never again to set foot on Ireland. His role is to caretake the space between the worlds.
Over and over through the mythology and folklore indicates a transformation of these women when interacting with water. The idea that water is “larger than ourselves” is one society has long believed, evident in many creation stories from around the world. In the “earth diver” creation stories, a diver plunges through a primordial sea into the seabed to bring up sand or mud. A mermaid was said to be formed when a woman was drowned in the creation of Lough Neagh.
Extending to Others Myth
Tales of great floods at some turbulent point in the past are common in many established religions. Usually, after the flood came regeneration and a blank slate. The link between water, the unconscious and emotions has many cross-cultural manifestations. In Hindu philosophy, water is associated with the Moon and Venus, which represent deep feelings, intuition, and imagination. Taoism considers water to be an aspect of wisdom.
“There is nothing in the world more soft and weak than water, and yet for attacking things that are firm and strong there is nothing that can take precedence of it;—for there is nothing (so effectual) for which it can be changed.”
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
All these things are considered wise. In Taoist thought, the negative emotion associated with water is fear, while the positive emotion is calmness. In dreams, water represents the total unconscious mind. “The land is the conscious mind: what you can see, what you know, what you can stand on. Water is the unconscious mind: what you don’t know or understand but which you’re deeply attracted to.” As you read through the following myth, bear in mind the interpretations offered forward and draw your own connections.
Boann & The Well of Segais
According to legend, there was a sacred well (Sidhe Nechtan) the well of Segais that contained the source of knowledge. All were forbidden to approach this well, with the exception of the god Neachtan leader of the Tuathe De Dannann and husband of Boann, and his cupbearers. Boann ignored the warnings, she was walking with her hound Dabilla and strode up to the sacred well. She walked widdershins (anticlockwise) around the well thus violating the sanctity of the area. For this act, she was punished, and the waters of the well swelled and were transformed into a raging river, a river that pursued her. In some versions, she was drowned; while in others, she managed to outrun the currents. In other she lost some of her limbs. The water became the river that was known henceforth as the Boyne, and Boann thereafter became the presiding deity. When Boann was flung out to the sea she is said to have had her precious dog Dabhilla with her. Dabilla was also flung out to sea and turned to rock. Dabilla or Dabhilla is the gaelic word for Rockabill, and the story is that the Rockabill Islands are the permanent rocks of Boanns hound Dabhilla.
(Sionainn) is one of Ireland’s rivers of knowledge said to flow from Connla's Well (Well of Nechtan). This is the well of wisdom associated with the Celtic Otherworld. The story is very similar to that of the goddess Boann who created the River Boyne after she went to the magical Well to taste the water. Sionann also went to Connla's Well to find wisdom, despite being warned not to approach it. In some sources she is said to have caught and ate the Salmon of Wisdom who swam in the well. However, the well then burst into a torrent, and in the same manner of Boann, forming the river, then drowning Sionann and carrying her out to sea.
Patrick Ford, in an article entitled ‘The Well of Nechtan and ‘La Gloire Lumineuse’’, explains that the imbas forosna or ‘wisdom that illuminates’ – which was sought after by Irish poets and characterized poetic arts – was believed to be contained in those nuts. In falling into the well, the nuts would imbue the river with all-encompassing knowledge: the source of wisdom thus resided in the body of water. The original legend perhaps foreshadowed the dangers which await those who seek the higher wisdom”, because absolute knowledge was believed to be perilous when not handled correctly and was not understandable to anybody: it was reserved for those who embodied sovereignty. From this, it follows that the rivers in Ireland, such as the Boyne or the Shannon, were envisaged as divine figures to whom were attributed the gift of poetical inspiration, mystical wisdom, and all-encompassing knowledge.
The River Erne takes its name from a mythical princess and goddess of a tribe of people called the Érainn. It is thought that her name Érann also gives Lough Erne (Loch Éirne) its name. In Irish mythology and folklore, there are a number of tales about the origin of the lake. One is that it is named after Erne, Queen Méabh's lady-in-waiting at Cruachan. Queen Méabh is queen of Connacht in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. Erne and her maidens were said to have been frightened away from Cruachan when a fearsome giant emerged from the cave of Oweynagat. They fled northward and drowned in a river or lake, their bodies dissolving to become Lough Erne.
Reflecting back upon these seemingly tragic tales connected to the bodies of water in Ireland, we could perhaps shed a different perspective. As with the tales of Sionann, Boann, and Erne all experienced a swell of emotion(water). They seem to be motivated from a place of entitlement and possibly ego when approaching the well. The wells(emotion) in each tale swell, causing a drastic change. Both tried to flee the inevitable but were soon overcome. They both transformed through the aspect of water(wisdom) to become the water. Eventually finding that ability to move along the path of least resistance and go with the flow. There is regeneration in who they become, everlasting, in impacting the land (the conscious mind) forevermore. All feelings are energy. Energy is vibration-in its natural state, energy moves fluidly and freely. When you resist your feelings either because you believe it’s not okay to feel them, or because you’re afraid to feel them-or conversely when you cling to your feelings, or layer thoughts, ideas, and stories onto them, it, like Boann, these emotions can destroy you. It will eventually wear down even the hardest resistance. It has the power to transform your inner landscapes.
I found the reference to Boanns little dog interesting, that wee Dabhilla was considered a guide through the Otherworld. Patricia Monaghan (2003) tells us that in Celtic iconography dogs act as guardians of water goddesses in their healing aspect. We are once again reminded of the death before the birth, this continual reference to being guided into a new way of being.
Niall of the Nine Hostages
Niall Noígíallach (of the nine hostages) was out hunting with his many brothers one day, they stopped at a well to draw water. The well, however, was caretaken by a hideous old hag who demanded payment of a kiss in exchange for the water. Brothers, Fergus and Ailill were disgusted and refused. Fiachrae gives her a quick peck on the cheek, but she is not satisfied by his chaste offering.
According to Whitley Stokes’ translation, this is what she looked like:
“Every joint and limb of her, from the top of her head to the earth, was as black as coal. Like the tail of a wild horse was the gray bristly mane that came through the upper part of her head-crown. The green branch of an oak in bearing would be severed by the sickle of green teeth that lay in her head and reached to her ears. Dark smoky eyes she had: a nose crooked and hollow. She had a middle fibrous, spotted with pustules, diseased, and shins distorted and awry. Her ankles were thick, her shoulder blades were broad, her knees were big, and her nails were green. Loathsome in sooth was the hag’s appearance.”
Niall bravely steps up and places his mouth upon hers, offering her a kiss to remember. He even takes to extending an invitation to bed her. In that instant, she was transformed into a beautiful maiden and furthermore deemed his bloodline to be kings for the following nine generations.
Interpreting the tale from Niall and the nine hostages, one could deduce that the path to kingship occurred by engaging with a passion to the most arduous of tasks. Kissing the hag challenged his engagement with his perception of beauty.
One would imagine that it would take compassion and kindness to find the passion for an older lady so hideous. Did it show his ability to see the potential in something that seemed dry and withered, much as one would hope to view land needing replenishment? He presented himself with calmness when asked to kiss the cailleach, He showed initiative and dedication in his choice by further offering to bed her. In this engagement, he proved himself to display all traits that would bear his success as a king. As a result, not only was he rewarded with kingship but so were the generations that came from his seed.
Dearbhla is said to have lived in the sixth century, of noble lineage in County Meath. Like many women of her time, she was supposed to marry but didn’t want to. So she fled to Belmullet in the northwest of County Mayo. Her lover followed her there much to her dismay. She asked him why he loved her, and he swooned over her beautiful eyes. The story tells us that she then plucked them out of her head and extended them out to him. He was, of course, horrified, and ran away. Dearbhla is then said to have washed her eyes in the waters of the holy well and her eyes and sight were miraculously restored. She began to perceive the world with new eyes, unencumbered by the attachments of the world. We once again find this challenge to the perception of beauty. It also carries the theme of changing the perception of how we see and are viewed by the world. Her lover could not muster the same courage as Niall and fled the scene, failing to reap the rewards of love regardless of your perception.
What is Sovereignty
Jordan Hall aptly explains "sovereignty is the capacity to take responsibility. It is the ability to be present to the world and to respond to the world — rather than to be overwhelmed or merely reactive. Sovereignty is to be a conscious agent.” He further divides personal sovereignty into three domains. First, there is the domain of (directed) perception. This refers to where one directs one’s attention and the facts and other patterns of the world one focuses on (i.e., the where and what you look at). Second, there is the domain of conceptual sense-making. In the language of the unified theory, this connects most obviously to one’s system of justification. It is the story that one develops of one’s perceptions—it is what one thinks is true and why that is the case and what should be done about it. Finally, there is agency. This refers to one’s capacity to act in the world and make the desired changes.
Emotional Sovereignty is personal freedom. It is a powerful inner state that one can reach once they develop the skills to lovingly hold whatever emotion arises. You conserve more energy and cultivate greater vitality. You don’t hold on to emotions that leave you stuck in the past, but allow them to flow effortlessly through you. Youhave cleaner, healthier, co-empowering interactions with ALL people you connect with. You attune more to your body wisdom and make choices with beautiful clarity. It gifts you the ability to see and feel unhealthy ways of relating, offering you the freedom to choose self-love over self-sacrifice. Ultimately giving you permission to be like the water, to move through the world as you please.