The Druid's Path
Mother of Waters: Boann and River Goddesses
by Jenne Micale
The mighty Susquehanna courses through the land where I live. Sometimes placid, brown-faced and slow, sometimes she roars to the drumming of the downpour, tearing away streets, homes, livelihoods, lives. She has many moods and many tributaries, fertilizing the farm fields with her floods, drawing human communities to her banks in the days of water transportation.
I especially honor Boann of the Susquehanna in early springtime when – in a normal year – the ice cracks and breaks, freeing her flow from winter’s prison. It’s a treacherous, exciting time, one that can often lead to ice jams that flood neighborhoods.
Rivers are goddesses in Celtic tradition, which is why I refer to the Susquehanna with a female pronoun. It’s an old association, with roots that span Indo-European cultures. Witness, for example, some of the river goddesses of India: Yamuna, Ganga of the Ganges, and Sarasvati, whose river dried up in ancient times but who lingers as the matron of the arts and learning. Goddesses were connected with rivers and springs in both Gaul and the British Isles, which were often the site of healing shrines: Sequana of the Seine, Coventina, Sabrina of the Severn, Brigantia of the Brent, and Sinann of the Shannon, to name a few. James Joyce’s Anna Livia Plurabelle, the personification of the River Liffey in Finnegan’s Wake, is a modern example.
Worshiped today as the Earth Mother, Danu may have originally been a river goddess, linked to streams such as the Danube, Don, Dneiper and others (Rees, 53). Sanskrit literature includes a river goddess of the same name (MacKillop 9), who is the mother of the serpent Vrtra, the adversary of Indra who holds back the waters of heaven (Rees 53).
The river goddess most prominent in Keltrian lore is Boann or Boand, the great lady of the Boyne, considered in some circles to be the Ganges of Ireland. In my own practice, I view Boann as the goddess of all rivers, albeit in localized forms; I invoke Boann of the Susquehanna and Boann of the Chenango, for example. She is the goddess not only of the physical river, but of the celestial river above, the Milky Way and the wheel of time.
Boann’s name is frequently assumed to be derived from Bo Finn, or “White Cow”; an alternate translation would be “Great Cow” (Rua 24) or “She who has white cows.” In some tales, however, her name is also given as Eithne, “sweet nut meat,” perhaps a reference to the hazelnuts that grow around the Well of Segais; Patricia Monaghan believes Boann to be the same as Eithne who is the daughter of the Fomhoire Balor, and who lay with Cian and conceived Lugh (183). Boann has a sister – the goddess of childbirth Bébinn – and even a dog, Debilla (MacKillop 13).
Akin to the connection between rivers and goddesses, the connection of cows with water also has cross-cultural roots. A Vedic hymn describes Danu laying down with her son “like a cow with her calf” (Rig Veda 150). The Rig Veda, one of the oldest texts in the Indo-European tradition, consistently refers to the waters released by the storm-god Indra as cows (151), who may be synonymous with the “seven rivers” (161).
In Ceisiwr Serith’s reconstructed Proto-Indo-European pantheon, the ur-deity that becomes Boann is the cow goddess Gwouwinda, a “completely benevolent character” who functions as a wife, mother and bestower of abundance upon her worshippers (67). Cow-goddesses in other cultures include the Roman Juno; the Greek Hera with her epithet of Bopis, or cow-eyed; and, of course, the many bovine goddesses of India, including the spirits of the waters, the aforementioned Danu and Sarasvati herself (67-68). As one Vedic hymn states: “Your inexhaustible breast, Sarasvati, that flows with the food of life, that you use to nourish all that one could wish for, freely giving treasure and wealth and beautiful gifts – bring that here for us to suck” (RV, 81). The goddess gives both water and milk, the substance of life itself, the sustenance that becomes fertility and wealth.
For Aedh Rua, Boann isn’t just the goddess of the river; she is the goddess of the moon, who is allegedly referred to as a cow in Irish folk-speech (24). Rua also suggests that she is the river of heaven: the Milky Way, or the “Way of the White Cow.” In Irish, that equates to Bealach na Bó Finne (Ellis). Interestingly, this also recalls the Greek myth of the Milky Way as milk from Hera’s breasts that spilled as she nursed Heracles.
Tales of the river
In Irish myth, Boann is the wife of Elcmar or Nechtan, who are sometimes believed to be synonymous with Nuada; both the names Nechtan and Nuada are believed to be connected with the Gaulish Nodens. Scholar Jaan Puhvel also links Nechtan linguistically with the Roman Neptunus, the Indo-Iranian Napat and ultimately with the Vedic Apam Napat, the “Offspring of the Waters” who contains a sacred, hidden fire (277-280).
While her husband is away, Boann lays with the Dagda and conceives Aonghus Mag Og, the Young Son associated with love and springtime. To conceal her adultery, she – or, in some versions of the tale, the Dagda -- stops time, making nine months appear as a single day. His birth thus concealed, Aonghus is given to his half-brother Midhir to raise.
Boann and Sinann, the goddess of the River Shannon and daughter or granddaughter of the sea-god Lir, share an identical myth. The goddess goes to the forbidden well of knowledge and circumambulates it widdershins, whether to gain its power for herself or to cleanse herself of the adultery that conceived Aonghus. Offended, the waters rise up and pursue her. She flees to the sea – giving up her physical body in the process, and becoming the goddess of the newly created river. Interestingly, the creation of the river through death has echoes yet again in India, where Yami -- the twin sister of the death god Yama and the first woman – ultimately becomes the Yamuna.
Boann in particular is believed to be the mother of many of the world’s prominent rivers, with her stream passing underground at various locations and ultimately returning to her source at Nechtan’s well (Puhvel 279). Her interaction with the well isn’t just an act of transgression; like the Vedic Indra, Boann “releases the water for all people – a fact which is acknowledged in most poetic texts, since it is Boand, not Nechtan, who is remembered as the source and patroness of the fertile imagination of poets,” according to Caitlin and John Matthews (17). She is the source of inspiration in other ways as well, since she is believed to be the mother by Dagda’s harper Uaithne of the three strains of music : lamentation, joy and sleep (Matthews 327).
Plucking the strings of my harp, I sing to honor the Mother of Waters both above and below, she who bestows abundance and wisdom hard-won:
Flower of wisdom
Mother of love
Mother of the Waters
- Ellis, Peter Berresford. “Early Irish Astrology: An Historical Argument.” First published in Réalta vol 3 no.3 1996. Retrieved March 10, 2012 from http://www.radical- astrology.com/irish/miscellany/ellis.html.
- MacKillop, James. Myths and Legends of the Celts. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
- Matthews, Caitlin and John. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom. Rockport, Mass.: Element, 1994.
- Monaghan, Patricia. The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog: The Landscape of Celtic Myth and Spirit. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2003.
- Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.
- Rees, Alwayn and Brinley. Celtic Heritage: Ancient tradition in Ireland and Wales. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.
- The Rig Veda. Trans. Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty. New York: Penguin Books, 1981.
- Rua, Aedh. Celtic Flame: An Insider’s Guide to Irish Pagan Tradition. New York: iUniverse, 2008.
- Serith, Ceisiwr. Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2007.
Note: You can hear me sing the chant above on my album, The Twisted Book, available at www.kwannon.net.