chapter  9
Women and Goddesses in the Celtic World
ByMiranda Aldhouse-Green
Pages 16

This chapter concerns the evidence for the veneration of the female principle among the ancient Celtic peoples of Britain and Continental Europe during the period from about 500 BC-AD 400. One of the major problems in establishing contact with Celtic belief-systems lies in the virtual illiteracy of Iron Age communities; thus all our evidence is, to an extent, second-hand. There exist the written comments of Classical observers on their barbarian neighbours, but these contain inevitable bias or misunderstanding; significant matters are frequently omitted and unimportant things exaggerated. We possess also the writings of early post-Roman Ireland and Wales, but these present their own difficulties based on the lateness of their extant form. Whilst many of the vernacular stories do demonstrably contain important allusions to pagan Celtic religion, they were written down in the early Medieval Christian period and are thus somewhat removed from the context of the Iron Age (MacCana 1983, pp. 14-19). Finally, there is contemporary iconographic and epigraphic material, the evidence of archaeology, which is our most valuable resource. But even here, it is necessary to be aware of bias in terms of what has or has not survived and of interpretation from the viewpoint of the contemporary period. Of necessity, any attempt at interpreting the thought-processes and beliefs of past, illiterate societies will contain a subjective and circumstantial element. We know from a study of material culture that women could attain a high

rank in Iron Age barbarian Europe. In the fourth century BC, a lady of high status was buried at Reinheim in Germany with much ceremony, attesting her considerable prestige (Megaw 1970, nos. 73, 79-83). She was interred in a fourwheeled wooden cart, wearing sumptuous imported fabrics including silk, and with masses of solid gold jewellery. One item was a bracelet whose imagery is interesting, since on the terminal is depicted a goddess accompanied by a bird of prey and other animals, as if she is a divine mistress of beasts. This is a theme to which I shall return. Of even earlier date and more spectacular still was the burial, at Vix in Burgundy, of a princess with an enormous wine-mixing vessel

or krater, imported over the Alps from Etruria: the container is 1m 64 cm high and is of solid cast bronze, superbly decorated with figural designs. It was manufactured in about 500 BC (Megaw 1989, pp. 42, 45-6, 48). If we investigate what contemporary Greek and Roman writers, like the

Greek geographer Strabo (in his Geography, Book 4) or the Roman general and historian Julius Caesar (in de Bello Gallico), say of Celtic society in the first centuries BC-AD, the society which they describe is predominantly maledominated, with a strict hierarchy of chiefs, knights, holy men and craftsmen, below whom were free men and serfs. But there are indications that women were not wholly in second place: Caesar mentions the practice of polyandry in Britain (Book 5, 14) and Dio Cassius alludes to the ferocity of womenfolk on the battlefield, describing them as nearly as large and formidable as their husbands (Roman History, Book 76, 2). More importantly, we know from other Mediterranean commentators that Celtic tribal queens reigned in their own right: Cartimandua of the great northern British confederation of the Brigantes is an example, but the most celebrated was Boudicca of the East Anglian Iceni:

There is another category of evidence for females of high status, capable of wielding power: this is the early Irish and Welsh literature, dating in its extant form to the Dark Ages and the early Medieval period, but full of pagan allusions which must relate to pre-Christianity. The Ulster Cycle of early prose tales provides us with some significant information about females and indeed goddesses – we will come to these presently. But the tales speak of sovereign queens, like Medb of Connaught who, like many female rulers of early Ireland, were more than queens and possessed superhuman, semi-divine status. Medb’s husband Ailill was nothing more than a cipher, a passive consort whose character is not developed in the literature. It was Medb rather than her husband who mustered and led the Irish army to war against the Ulstermen (MacCana 1983, pp. 84-6). From the concept of powerful Irish queens, we pass naturally to religion,

since Medb herself was part-human, part-goddess She is an example of a tradition which runs through the vernacular legends of Ireland, whereby the land’s fertility is blessed and the earth made fruitful by the ritual marriage between the goddess of territory and successive mortal kings. Thus ‘motherearth’ is of prime importance and her union with the king is simply so that the

land will flourish, though the male ruler also gains prestige and sovereignty by the marriage. Also of interest here is Irish literary information concerning the Druids. Whilst Classical writers speak at length of this priestly caste as being exclusively male, we know from the Ulster Cycle that female Druids existed: one named Scathach was responsible for instructing the young super-human hero Cu´ Chulainn (MacCana 1983, pp. 86, 102). So it is possible to establish the presence of a tradition within Celtic society

for powerful and influential females. If we now turn to religion per se, it is no suprise that, bearing the foregoing remarks in mind, many of the most important divinities we know from the archaeological evidence were female. An overview of these deities shows up several striking features: one is the close association between the goddesses and animals; another is the dualistic, ambiguous nature of their role (the same goddess may be in charge of war and fertility, or healing and death); a third feature is that a number of the goddesses have a direct or indirect link with fertility or prosperity, healing, renewal and rebirth after death; a fourth is the predominance of triplication in female religious imagery. Finally, we may note a predisposition for divine couples within Celtic cult-expression, embodying the male and female principle for particular divine concepts or themes.