In Part 1 of this post, I looked at the relationship between various Germanic goddesses like Frejya and Gefion and compared them to the mother goddess Nerthus mentioned by Tacitus and even Grendel’s mother in the poem Beowulf. But the figure of the mother goddess seems to appear in Celtic mythology as well and, if we look even further, we may see some sort of pan-European mother goddess that predated the emergence of Celtic and Germanic peoples.
The ancient gods of Ireland are known as the ‘Tuatha De Danann’ meaning ‘People of Danu’. Patrick K. Ford associates Danu with the goddess Dôn of the Welsh, Donau of the Gauls and even Danu of the Hindus; a goddess of primordial waters who gave her name to the River Danube (1). It is in the mythology of these peoples that we see an unbreakable link between the land and the king who rules her, for in Celtic mythology, the land was very much a female entity to be sown with seed and guarded fiercely.
Bas-relief of the Romano-British water goddess Coventina who appears here in triple form.
In both Welsh and Irish folk tales, the land is often represented by the Lady Sovereignty who, in various guises, presents the hero with a challenge which he must overcome in order to rule the kingdom. An Irish tale concerning Niall (of the Nine Hostages) has him encounter a hideous old hag dressed in black guarding a well. To drink from the well, one must kiss her. Niall’s brothers balk at the idea but Niall goes ahead with it and the hag transforms into a beautiful maiden who claims to be Sovereignty. Thus, Niall becomes High-King of Ireland.
Caitlin Matthews outlines many parallels between this story and the Welsh tales found in the Mabinogion. (2) She supports the idea put forward by Robert Graves in his book The White Goddess that the Celtic mother goddess was a transitional deity who could appear as a maiden (signifying virginity), a lady (signifying fertility) and a hag (signifying barren wasteland) depending on the ability of a king to rule. These three phases could also be equated to spring, summer and winter and their associated phases of fertility. We can see the Lady Sovereignty in the medieval legends of King Arthur in which she appears as the Lady of the Lake who gives him Excalibur (and with it the power to rule Britain). When Arthur is severely wounded, the land becomes a barren wasteland symbolising the impotence of its ruler. When he dies, Excalibur is cast back into the lake where the Lady will presumably keep it until the next ruler (or Arthur resurrected) will come to claim it.
The Lady of the Lake (a water goddess?) gives Arthur Excalibur; a symbol of sovereignty. – illustration by Alfred Kappes
The marriage of the king with the land alluded to in Celtic sources is, upon first glance, absent from Germanic mythology. However, the Ynglinga saga tells us that an early Swedish dynasty (known as the Ynglingas) held their kings responsible for periods of plenty and famine, and each successive king bore the ceremonial name ‘Yngvi’ after their mythical ancestor. H. Chadwick suggests that there existed in Sweden a custom of kingly sacrifice and the bearing of the name Yngvi could mean that each king was seen as a representative of the god to be wed to the mother goddess (identified as Ingun) and ultimately sacrificed in her honour. (3) This idea gives the sacrificed ‘bog men’ of Denmark an eerie new context.
The preserved ‘Tollund Man’. Sacrificed to the Mother Goddess?
Indeed, we see a similar story in Denmark where the royal dynasty was called the Skjöldingas, descended from Skjöldr (the foundling named as Scyld in Beowulf who washes up on the shores of Denmark in a boat). Skjöldr and Yngvi are brothers according to the sagas which state that their father, Odin, gave them Denmark and Sweden to rule respectively. The sagas also tell us that Skjöldr’s wife was none other than Gefion (see Part 1), the goddess who created the homeland of the Skjöldingas with her plough.
The concept of a mother goddess appears consistently throughout history, all the way back to the Paleolithic period from which came small idols known as ‘Venus figurines’. These primitive statuettes with swollen breasts and thighs probably represented fertility. Everywhere we look we see the figure of the mother, usually associated with water, standing tall above the pantheons of deities who can only claim to be her offspring. And the concept seems entirely logical for mothers, like rivers and springs, give us life.
The mother figure remained important through successive mythologies. She is Isis, whose name means ‘throne’; the symbolic mother of the pharaoh. She is Gaia of the Greeks; a primordial mother goddess who gave birth to the world. She is Gefion, she is Ingun and she is Freyja. Like summer and winter, the mother goddess can be both giver and taker, fertile and barren, maiden and hag. In Grendel’s mother we might see the darker side of her nature; the hag in winter. And it is not hard to see some remnant of mother-worship surviving in Christianity. The Virgin Mary is the ‘Mother of God’; a sacred female venerated by Catholics around the world to this day.
A Brother’s Oath is out now and features a Gefion-worshipping cult that is quickly fading in the face of the Odinism that would dominate Germanic lands until their conversion to Christianity.
(1) Patrick K. Ford (ed./trans.). 1977. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. University of California Press, Berkeley.
(2) Caitlin Matthews. King Arthur and the Goddess of the Land. Inner Traditions International, Vermont.
(3) H. M. Chadwick, The Heroic Age. London, 1912.