EXCERPT – Druidess, Priestess, Poet & Seer: Women’s Historical Roles in Celtic Religion

By Sharynne MacLeod NicMhacha
(Sharon Paice MacLeod)

We have often seen the Victorian image of the white robed druid carrying a golden sickle while gathering mistletoe from an oak tree. Sometimes there are depictions of female druids as well, although the role of women in Celtic pagan religion seems to be less obvious. What roles did women historically fulfill in Celtic religion? While the evidence we have is sparse, there is actually more than we might think to help us decipher women’s roles in Celtic society, and in particular, their sacred spiritual roles.

Rozentals Nave

First of all, how do we know any of ‘what we know’ about Celtic women in religion? Greek and Roman writers were quick to mention the strength, character and relative independence of Gaulish women, especially compared with women in their own cultures. Later, the early medieval Irish law tracts (which are believed to have preserved some fairly old information about Irish society), provide quite a bit of interesting information about the legal status of women (keeping in mind that these may be laws ‘as recorded,’ and not necessarily reflective of women’s status in all cases). Overall, from what we can see, women in Celtic cultures seem to have had more rights than women in some other ancient cultures, although they did not have equal status. However, a lack of complete equality (which is still a factor in our own society), does not necessarily equate with subservience or victimhood, and there must certainly have been empowered women who ‘broke the mold’ despite the official rules.

We know there were historical female rulers and leaders. A Celtic woman named Onomaris from Galatia bravely led her starving people across the Danube several centuries BCE, conquering foes and obstacles and establishing a new homeland. We also know of at least two historical female rulers in Britain during the Roman occupation: the treacherous Cartimandua and the fierce Boadicea.

Although not historical in nature, female leaders and warriors are mentioned in Celtic legends. The female warrior Scáthach was said to run a school where she taught martial arts to men. Queen Medb (later anglicized as Maeve) was a legendary Irish queen, who in....

Continued in Issue #43 of Keltria Journal.


Cover of Keltria: Journal of Druidism and Celtic Magick -- Issue #42

Keltria: Journal of Druidism and Celtic Magick -- Issue #43

Keltria: Journal of Druidism and Celtic Magick, Issue #43 -- The Heroes Issue. Is available in its entirety from MagCloud.

Books & Papers
by Sharon Paice MacLeod

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Excerpt – Cattle Raids – 1

EXCERPT From Keltria Journal - Issue #42

Book of the Valley: Story One -- “Cattle Raids”

— Caillean ap Gwynedd

Tales are woven of love and sorrow, of adventure and magic, a little truth and a little laughter. Great are the deeds done and many of them true, and many more which grow in the telling, and who now may say which is which? Listen, Cymry, and I will tell you tales from the Book of the Valley, tales of the first great Cattle Raid....

Photo of Ewes Lookat at Camera by Lisa Jarvis [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ewes looking at Camera

Long had the day stretched, and how long exactly is difficult to kin for time spent in the Valley passes not as time passes elsewhere in the world. Fleet had been the warriors and cunning the battles, and many the cattle won and lost and won again. More than cattle alone were traded that day, and upon that hinge will the door of this tale swing shortly. Twilight at last called the Celts to their Tribe fire, there to let the sweat dry from their bodies and the heat to cool from their weapons, and to watch the shadows wage timeless war of their own with the sunlight, winning night with the knowledge that the battle would be lost or won again come morning.

Logs thrown on the past night's embers startled sparks into the darkening skies like fiery bats loosed in hunt for lightning bugs, and the Cymry eagerly settled into their accustomed places to partake of the evening's entertainment. For it is truly spoken that no Celt loves aught so much as a well-crafted story, and so it is told in days past Aonghus Bleidd ap Fainne was beat about the ears by his wife for composing a lusty song celebrating their lovemaking ere the latest lovemaking was quite complete. Any road, the listeners in place and the míd horns full to brimming, the first of the tellers of tales rose to stand in the fire's light.

Iarwain this was, he who it is told was visited by one of the Lords of the far north who traveled from those storm gray lands on a task which is quite a tale in its own right, and who brought rain and thunder to the Valley one summer's afternoon (and other things as well....). And so the first tale was told of the Sun God's love for the Dark Lady, and how the very laws of the Universe were altered for one evening only so that the two (who travel each in hir own...

[Continued in Keltria: Journal of Druidism and Celtic Magick - Issue #42.]

Keltria Journal #42 - Storytelling

Find out more on MagCloud)

Were They Warriors?

by Steward of the Wood

Photo of Steward of the Wood at the Lia Fail

Steward of the Wood

War has been a factor of the human existence for tens of thousands of years.  Our Celtic ancestors reveled in war among themselves and with others and the Bards revered warriors like Cúchuláinn and Finn mac Cumhaill in tales.  Have you ever wondered if your ancestors were soldiers or supported armies?  Common touch points in the USA are the American Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the American Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the Vietnam War.  Entire organizations, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, have developed around this interest in our ancestors.

Learning whether an ancestor served during a war used to be quite tedious, but recently has become much easier. Increasingly, documents about military involvement of past wars have become available online or at least streamlined through federal, state, and local processes.

My grandfather served in World War I and my father and uncles served in World War II. I always wondered if my ancestors also fought in the Civil War and Revolutionary War. Growing up in the state of Tennessee in the U.S. where sympathies were very mixed between the Union and the Confederacy, I also wondered for which side my ancestors fought. Were they arrayed on both sides? In addition, since my ancestors originated from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Germany, I was not certain whether they fought for the American Republic or the English during the American Revolutionary War.

Like many Americans, rumors and stories abounded within my family as to whether ancestors fought; and if so, for whom they fought. As I embarked on my now-consuming ancestry quest a few years ago, I decided to investigate the issue of whether they were warriors or not.

National Archives Building Washington DC

Military records are available in the U.S. through a variety of sources such as the National Archives, books of lists of muster records, and on-line resources. Given these various resources, my first move was to sort through my family trees to develop a candidate list with men between the ages of fifteen and sixty-five for the Civil War and the Revolutionary War. Given that these wars occurred on U.S. soil, I assumed that it was "all hands on deck"; or in other words, every abled-bodied man (and many women) served in some capacity. This age range at least held most of the best candidates. Then the search began.

Sources of information range from free, such as books available from a library or a historical society, to “for pay,” such as www.ancestry.com. As you can imagine, the free sources require more work but can be effective. In addition, the U.S. National Archives are a great source of military records. My personal favorite source is www.ancestry.com. On their web site, I can search military records and have been able to identify seven possible ancestors who served in the American Civil War. To no surprise, given that Tennessee was viewed as a “border state,” most of my ancestors from the western part of the state were Confederate soldiers while those in the eastern part of the state were Union soldiers. It was literally true that the war divided families.

Men with common names are the hardest to prove; and when I looked up several of my ancestors, I found many soldiers with the same name. To solve one case when I found two likely candidates, I ordered the service records of each. To order, go to www.archives.gov . At the bottom of the home page, select “I want to: Get my military record.” This will take you to another page where you select “Older (pre-WWI) Service Records,” which is listed on the left side of the page. Then choose “How to order older military service or Pension Records” and you have the choice of ordering online or printing the form and mailing it. The cost of each of my requests was $25. From the two soldiers who I checked, I was able to determine which one was my ancestor by where he enlisted. It was so interesting to see copies of the actual pay stubs and to follow him across the South. He was wounded and spent time in a hospital in Murfreesboro, Tennessee; then he was a prisoner of war and ended up in Baltimore, Maryland. It is fascinating.

Daughters of the American Revolution Washington DC

Similar records exist for the U.S. Revolutionary War through books and the U.S. Archives. The records of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) are a fabulous resource and are searchable. Records from the DAR are especially useful because: 1) their requirements for proof are strong, hence the records tend to be reliable and 2) they include descendants of the soldier, so several generations are listed. My grandmother, aunt, and cousin were members and they did the hard work to prove our ancestry. Through various searches, I have identified ten ancestors who served in the war and most of them have proven records in the DAR. Interestingly in one case, both husband and wife occur as veterans. The wife “furnished supplies.” This may seem trivial now but I am certain that it could have meant her imprisonment or death if caught. She must have had the Celtic warrior woman’s genes…go Mórrígan! To date, all my ancestors who I have found were soldiers for the U.S. rather than the British.

These are but a few examples of military actions, which may have involved our ancestors. As mentioned earlier, my grandfather, father, and uncles were all veterans, and I have their service records. Despite whether we are supportive of war or not, our ancestors made their choices and those choices are part of whom they are. As we seek to know them, it is also important to know if they were warriors. If this becomes a source of interest and pride, then there are organizations such as the DAR or Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) that you can join to pursue those interests. Keep up the quest.

Ádh mór ort!

Arthur’s Three Sons

by Virginia Chandler

[Originally published about 15 years ago in Mystic Journeys eZine, 
it is reprinted here by permission of the author.]

How Mordred was Slain by Arthur

”How Mordred was Slain by Arthur” Arthur Rackham 
[Public domain], 
via Wikimedia Commons

Most people know that King Arthur had a son named Mordred or Med0raut.  However, it is rarely discussed that Arthur, in fact, had other sons. Mordred makes a better drama and a better tale, so he's gotten the "spotlight" for centuries while Amhir and Loholt have, except by hard core Arthurian scholars, been forgotten.   Yet, their tales are fascinating, full of emotion and tragedy.

Llachau, Marvellous in Song

In the Welsh remembrances, this son is called Llacheu:

I have been where was slain Llacheu, son of Arthur marvellous in song, when ravens croaked over his blood.
(Rachel Bromwich (ed. and trans.) Trioedd Ynys Prydein. The Welsh Triads (University of Wales Press, Cardiff 1961) p.416)

It is Llacheu, not Arthur, that is "marvellous in song"; so he must have had courageous and noteworthy deeds for the bards to remember him this way.    This comes from the Black Book of Carmarthen, 10th or 11th century, and the poem Mi a Wum or The Dialogue of Gwyddneu Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd.  It is a listing of warrior heroes, and the poet claims to have been at each of their deaths.

In the poem Pa gur yv y porthaur we get a hint into Llacheu's life, and ultimately, his death:

Cai the fair and Llachau, / they performed battles / before the pain of of blue spears (ended the conflict).

(Lines 76-8; Sims-Williams 1991, p.43)

Llachau persevered  in Welsh folklore as one of the great warriors of Arthur's band, as likewise, did Cai.  In the Trioedd Ynys Prydein, (the Welsh Triads), Llachau has great prominence:

Three Well-Endowed Men of the Island of Britain:

Gwalchmai son of Gwyar, and Llachau son of Arthur, and Rhiwallawn Broom-Hair.

**"Well-Endowed" is thought to mean "men of substance" in this case.

Amr, son of Arthur

Map of Ergyng (c. 500)

Ergung (circa 500)

Amr presents an even greater mystery than does Llachau.  Nennius, a 9th century monk, tells us that Amr was killed by Arthur himself at Archenfield and that the grave, called Licat Amr, had the odd habit of changing size.

There is another wonder in the country called Ergyng* (Ercing). There is a tomb there by a spring, called Llygad Amr (Licat Amr); the name of the man who was buried in the tomb was Amr. He was the son of the warrior Arthur, and he killed him there and buried him. Men come to measure the tomb, and it is sometimes six feet long, sometimes nine, sometimes twelve, sometimes fifteen. At whatever measure you measure it on one occasion, you never find it again of the same measure, and I have tried it myself. (John Morris (ed. and trans.) Nennius: British History and The Welsh Annals

(Arthurian Period Sources vol. 8, Phillimore 1980) p.42, marvel no. 13)

Amr is called Amhar in The Mabinogion and is described as one of Arthur's four "chamberlains".   Beyond this, almost unbelievably, we know next to nothing of Amr.

Interesting to note, as far as we know, none of these sons were borne by Gwenhwyfar, lest it be Amr.  Both Mordred and Llachau were bastard sons, though it seems that both were acknowledged by Arthur AS his sons, just not as his heir.  If Amr was the son of Gwenhwyfar and Arthur, then he was killed by his father, and we can only guess as to why; what is more, we have no idea, beyond speculation, of how Gwenhwyfar reacted to Amr's death.


Virginia ChandlerLearn about her new book, The Green Knight’s Apprentice at: www.virginiachandler.com.

Ask the Wild Bee What the Druid Knows

Ask the Wild Bee What the Druid Knows

By Karl Schlotterbeck
Beekeeper and mead maker

Photo of Karl Schlotterbeck

Karl Schlotterbeck

There is, I’m told, an old English saying: “Ask the wild bee what the Druid knows.” Maybe it’s just a quaint folk saying but, even if it were, we’d need to ask why they said it in this way. Indeed, what where they saying? Of course, we do know of the Celts’ fondness for mead, the drink made from fermented honey. In most of the world, it was known that most any liquid with sugars might ferment because of naturally occurring yeasts. [These naturally occurring yeasts, however, (known as “wild yeasts”) made a relatively weaker wine than we are used to today because our modern vintners have bred stronger yeasts able to tolerate a higher level of alcohol before it kills them.] Mead, then, is a product of flower, bee sugar and yeast. Mead is an intoxicating, sweet drink named after a queen – sometimes referred to as a queen of Ireland, and sometimes as queen of the Otherworld.

Our quote suggests that Druids know something not known by others, but could be known by bees. Why would bees be the ones to ask if we want to know about the Druid’s knowledge, if they did not have something to do with it themselves? They are, after all, the source of honey. It may be the mead itself – product of land, water, flower, and invisible forces that provide intoxication. Or might it be something about the life of the bee and its hive?

Perhaps we might change the question to ask the Wild Druid what the Bee knows. Indeed, what is it that bees know? An English woman recently told me that her gramps told the members of his family that they should always tell the bees their family news. (Curiously, she hadn’t heard of the saying “Ask the wild bee what the Druid knows.”) Apparently, bees are expected to hold knowledge – maybe even disseminate it as they make their journeys from flower to flower. Perhaps that’s one clue – like traveling Druids open to sources of knowledge that, in their search, also sparks new life in others. I refer here to the honeybee, which is only one kind of bee, but is my favorite.

And then there is the mead. Bees are the source of the basic element of this particular intoxication or inspiration of mead - an alteration of consciousness that can, if used carefully, prompt inspiration, courage, poetry, creative art, love and lust; opening our senses to the world, to possibility and to a freedom that we seldom have in our sober world. That would seem to be enough, but I think there’s more.

 

Photo of Bees

Bees

What does the Wild Druid know about the Bee? Bees are a highly organized matriarchal culture. They may travel miles to collect their riches (pollen and nectar), which are shared with the entire hive; and they recognize no human boundaries. They collect pollen from whatever is available: tree, flower or grasses. They are organized into non-rigid castes or jobs that support the colony: those that attend to the nursery, or attend the queen. There are scout bees that search for sources of food and return to communicate what they’ve found to others through dance-like movements. There are guard bees that prevent “robber bees” from other colonies from invading their food stores. And all of these workers are female.

A healthy colony has few (male) drones that hang around waiting for a queen’s one virgin flight. After impregnating the queen, they are of no further use to the colony. Individual bees live only a few weeks during the summer (except for the queen) and so the survival of the colony depends on the contributions of all members – each one responsible for a fraction of a teaspoon of honey. The health of the queen is paramount and her condition is broadcast to the entire hive through pheromones. If anything in the hive becomes unsatisfactory – like crowding or an ailing queen – the workers feed some larvae “royal jelly” to make a few new queens. The first queen out of her cell finds and kills the others, and then leaves with half the hive to establish her own colony. Watching a swarming hive is an awesome sight as tens of thousands of bees take to the air, circling around an invisible center making a noise like no other. I’ve seen them move slowly away like a cloud of hums. And I’ve seen them cluster on the branch of a tree where, if I’m careful, I can bring them to an empty hive where they make their new home.

We see some parallels here with old Celtic society, where the health and uprightness of the ruler meant a good relationship with the Goddess of the Land which, in turn, brought prosperity to the tribe. Not only men, but also women were rulers, warriors and workers, and the male ruler’s authority derived from the Goddess of the Land. An unfit ruler who lost her or his connection to the fertility of the land could be dethroned and a new one selected. Rulers were, above all, servants to the relationship between the people and the Spirit of the Land.

For bees, there seems little significance given to individual survival as the bee can make only one strike (sting) – and then she dies. Thus, their champions go out to meet the invader and are ready to sacrifice their lives to attack or drive them off. There is an immediate cost to aggression.

We know that bees are responsible for a tremendous amount of pollination and thereby our food. In this way, they are truly intermediaries in the fertility of the land as they go about their work. And they are willing to die for the sweetness they produce.

Modern times have seen “Colony Collapse Disorder” where whole hives disappear. Theories abound, but it seems caused by a combination of factors including the stress of moving colonies for pollination of fruit fields, diseases, and insecticide. This sounds like our life today: accosted by stresses that weaken the immune system, diseases becoming resistant to our treatments, and environmental toxicity. Our needs are so similar to those of the bee: safe food, clean water and air, community and a balance of contribution and benefit.

In short, the state of the bees and that of the land (and, therefore, us) are inextricably entwined; the fate of the bees and human food sources are interdependent. It’s true: what we do to the land we do to the bees and to ourselves. Disruption of the colony’s organized tasks in which all contribute and receive benefit, as well as any cult to an individual, are threats to the survival of the tribe.

That said, we do not have one ruler these days, but rather a collective of people who are charged with making our land prosperous and safe. It’s now difficult to see how our “rulers” (legislators, senators, warriors, presidents, oligarchs and mega-corporations, etc.) gain their right to rule from their fitness in the eyes of the Goddess of the Land. These days it seems to be about the amount of money one can accrue – power for its own sake. And I hear the sounds of discontent, a swarming of people in city after city, objecting to how the benefits of American society are apportioned, perhaps looking for the new queen or champion who will take up their cause and make their lives-in-community worth living again.

It appears that bees do know what it takes to make a working tribe, and they show us what endangers it. So maybe we’d be wise to, indeed, ask the Wild Bee what the Druid should know.
Drawing of a beehiveJoin the Henge and support The Henge of Keltria - Druidism for the 21st Century.

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