When I first discovered the Goddess as a young woman, I was drawn to the Goddess of prehistory. I felt Her power and importance through the statues, figurines and shrines that were uncovered, as Her names and stories have been lost to us.
Later I discovered, in the first written tablets found, the story of Inanna, the Sumerian Goddess. Her story covers all the aspects of a woman’s life – the maiden, the lover, the queen, the mother. She brought the gifts of civilization to Her people. She descended into the underworld and was reborn. As Queen of Heaven and Earth, She ruled all. I worked with images of Her for many years.
Then a couple of years ago I became interested in the stories of my own genetic ancestors, the Celts. The world of Celtic Goddesses and Gods is rich, complex and confusing.
It is widely believed that the Celts, a tall, fair and warlike people, originated around the source of the Danube. Through many centuries they moved westward over Mid-Europe, Gaul, Spain and the British Islands. Here they encountered the indigenous late Stone Age and Neolithic people, who they influenced with their own language, art, and traditions. They intermarried with these tribes, ultimately transforming themselves into a different type of people.
It is this intermingling of Celt with the indigenous people of Western Europe which is so clearly seen in the Celtic Myths and Legends. Layers upon layers exist as names and stories morph and change.
The Cailleach and Brigid remain in their most original form of all the Celtic Goddesses I have explored so far. The Cailleach is clearly a nature/creation Goddess, leaping from mountaintop to mountaintop as She drops rocks to create sacred hills and wielding power over the seasons and the weather. Before the Celts, as far back as 3000 BC, Brigid was known as a spring and summer goddess who shared her rule with the Winter Goddess, Cailleach. Known as “The Bright One” She was probably worshiped by these original people as a Sun Goddess. These two Goddesses were never turned into Faery Queens, though Brigid is still worshiped today as a Christian Saint.
But many of the stories surrounding the wide array of Celtic Goddesses most definitely diminish their powers in a world that was changing from one with a Matriarchal world view to one of Patriarchal male dominance. As those stories were passed down by oral tradition, finally being written in Medieval Christian times, the original and what I believe to be the most powerful meanings of these Goddesses became obscured. The Kings and Queens of these legends were undoubtedly the Goddesses and Gods of the indigenous people. The stories, as we now have them, all have elements which are difficult for modern feminists to hear.
In spite of this, once into this project I became drawn to many of these Goddesses in a deep and personal way. As I work on each small painting, She speaks to me on a level beyond words. I feel my connection to Her ancient primal truth, forgetting for a moment the patriarchal, woman-belittling aspects of the story.
While absorbed in painting Her, Arianrhod was no longer a woman betrayed by Her brother thus becoming a vengeful mother capable of destroying Her own son. I felt myself transported to Her “Revolving Castle” in the stars where She presides over our karma and rebirth. I was immersed in that deep mystery of life – death and rebirth folded within the unity of infinity. I felt connected to the truth of reincarnation.
Rhiannon, beautiful Rhiannon, transported me to a world where love and forgiveness reign. She possesses deep magic and can manifest her dreams and desires both for herself and for the good of all. She chose to leave the Land of Fairies for love of the mortal man, King Pwyll. Once in this mundane world she suffered much at the hands of man. While working on my painting of Rhiannon, I felt deeply the power that love has over hate. Remembering Rhiannon helps me deal with the onslaught of hate currently being unleashed in the world.
But both Arianrhod and Rhiannon have great agency that modern women can relate to and take pride in. So then how do we deal with (or in fact should we even acknowledge) the Goddesses who seem to have no agency? And what of the Celtic War Goddesses whom I have not yet been able to bring myself to cover?
Creiddylad, Welsh Goddess of Flowers and Love, is mentioned only briefly in The Mabinogion. Her original story has been lost to the mists of time. The only action we see Her take in the few lines given to Her is that she chose her own destiny by choosing the man she would marry. But others enter and the men around Her engage in war and its atrocities, as She becomes a pawn in their game. She takes no further action but her symbolism, so closely tied to the Earth, reveals that she is surely an ancient and important Goddess. I felt Her ancient power as I worked on Her painting. I felt the Earth’s power, symbolized by Her eternal presence, to renew itself in the spring and bring forth abundance. Working on Her painting transported me to a field of flowers busy with the springtime work of bees and butterflies.
Etain is another goddess with whom some feel uncomfortable. She appears to have no agency as much is done to her by outside forces. But I was drawn to Her symbols and images from my first introduction to Her. She was called “The Shining One” indicating Her origins as a Sun Goddess. I find great agency in Her ability to endure and endure as the sun rises and sets each day millennia after millennia. Her transformation to a butterfly, ancient symbol of rebirth, and later to a swan, symbol of truth and love held me in sway as I worked on the painting. Through my work with Etain, I felt connected to the mystery of life, its ability to reemerge after death and destruction and to the transmigration of souls. I felt the power of the Goddess to endure even through the times of growing misogyny.
Myth and legend are not absolute truth. Perhaps there is no absolute truth available to us in this world of duality. We all have different stories and ways of being. Personally, studying and even more so painting the stories of myth and legend transport me to a realm where I feel deeply the inscrutable beauty of life, with all of its light and dark elements.
Judith’s deck of Celtic Goddess Oracle Cards is available now. You can order your deck on Judith’s website. Experience the wisdom of the Celtic Goddesses!
Judith Shaw, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, has been interested in myth, culture and mystical studies all her life. Not long after graduating from SFAI, while living in Greece, Judith began exploring the Goddess in her artwork. She continues to be inspired by the Divine Feminine in all of Her manifestations. Originally from New Orleans, Judith now makes her home in New Mexico where she paints and teaches part-time. Her work, which expresses her belief in the interconnectedness of all life, can be seen on her website at http://judithshawart.com
8 thoughts on “Celtic Goddesses – a Personal Journey by Judith Shaw”
Lovely post. This beautifully answers the question a number of us posed in the discussion of your last post. I agree with you that we can “read the Goddesses back” to their pre-patriarchal roots. Sometimes the patriarchal myths give us the clues for this, but the key of course is found in the work of Marija Gimbutas who gave us–you and me and many others–her reconstruction of the Goddess of Old Europe. Your post however does not answer the question of what to do with the patriarchal myths, do we retell them or revision them or try to forget them… or?
All the coincidences! I have puzzled for many years about the myth of Rhiannon and have felt very upset by the story of that woman accused falsely of having murdered her son and agreeing to being punished by telling her story and carrying on her back all visitors to her husband’s castle. Yesterday, I was meditating yet again on its meaning when something came to me. How many times in my life have I told false stories about myself? Stories invented by my father, my ex husband, how many times have I believed and told lies about myself and carried them on my back! May be the meaning of that most patriarchal story is that women need to learn to say no to stories that are made up for them. May be a re-writing of the myth would be for Rhiannon to say “No, I shall not make penance for a crime I have not committed. I shall not tell false stories about myself to strangers. You, my husband who tells me you love me, cannot ask me to do this. I will not do it.” I would also argue that Rhiannon is a christianised version of the celto/roman Goddess Epona, goddess of war, horses, fertility and any number of powerful gifts. Lets liberate Rhiannon from her prison of lies, help her drop her burdens and give her back Eponna’s powers!!! Blessed be. Beatrice
Reblogged this on Barbara Smeaton Fine Art and commented:
Thought I might start re-blogging from other author’s and wanted to start with this post by Judith Shaw. I also have a spiritual side and think that I have a connection with a few of the Celtic deities since I feel them present in my family history. I come from a old line of British and Canadian families and feel that their memory is still with me and readying about the old gods and goddesses connects me with that. There is also some lovely art included with this post as well.
Very interesting! Are you familiar with the work of Jean Markale on the Celts? I just found two of his books on my shelf.
As for the patriarchal versions of stories about goddesses, we can rewrite them whenever we want to. Who’s to stop us? Old patriarchs in skirts? Charlene Spretnak rewrote some of the Greek myths, and I just rewrote the story of Demeter and Persephone and removed the rape by her uncle. Also see Elizabeth Cunningham’s Maeve series. Maeve is the Celtic Mary Magdalen. Whole new stories based on painstaking research.
Jean Markale is amazing and he is a professor of Celtic Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris! I have read most of his books, its a shame he does not appear to be popular in anglo saxon culture. I find his down to earth and realistic approach to the Celtic myths excellent.
Barbara Ardinger, so very true that we can rewrite the patriarchal versions of Goddess whenever we want. I leave that task to those of you who are better writers than I – but happy to contribute paintings if anyone is interested. I would love to read your rewrite of Demeter and Persephone. Is it on FAR – can’t find it? Those two actually came to my mind in the discussion around my posting on Etain last month. After all, in the version we are all familiar with Persephone doesn’t have much agency. She is raped and abducted by one uncle, Pluto, and rescued by another uncle, Zeus. I love the story of Inanna’s descent into the Underworld. She hears the call from that world and answers it – striving to deepen and mature.
Cunningham’s Maeve series is on my summer reading list for this year. I must add Jean Markale to that list also. I am assuming he is translated into English. I’m studying French but still have along way to go.
Beatrice, I think Rhiannon is a little more complicated than just being a Christianized version of Epona. Rhiannon is a Welsh Celtic Goddess whereas Epona was worshiped in Gaul (the Celtic French). Very few stories of Epona survived. Epona is also seen in the Celtic Irish, Macha, who was treated badly in the patriarchal version of Her story. The stories of Rhiannon, Arianrhod and other Welsh Celtic Goddesses are beautifully portrayed from a feminist point of view in the Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton. As she says in her forward, these queens and kings were most likely the gods and goddesses of the earlier matriarchal people of the British Isles.
Barbara Smeaton, thanks for the rebog.
Carol, I dream of the day when the patriarchal rewrites of our ancient history will be footnotes to the Goddess’ stories, illustrating the long, insane fall we humans took into domination and control, reminding us to never take that path again.
Thanks for your response to our questions and comments about Celtic goddesses. I think maybe you did answer the more general question of what we should do with patriarchal myths by sketching your own process with the particular patriarchal goddesses you’ve been drawn to. It seems you worked with their symbols until they resonated with your own (feminist woman’s) experience, and in that way made them your own — Arianrhod as a goddess of rebirth and reincarnation, Rhiannon as a goddess of love as well as magic and manifestation (despite the hate that surrounds Her), Creiddylad as an Earth goddess, especially of the springtime, Etain as a shape-shifting goddess of transformation and transmigration.
To answer this question myself, I think we need to “reverse the reversals,” as Mary Daly suggested years ago. For me, as for Judith, I think we decide based on the myth we’re exploring. There are many ways that the patriarchs “reversed” goddess myths. I once offered a class entitled “Mythic Modes,” where I delved into the patriarchal overlay on the goddess myths that come down to us. Maybe I’ll write a post for FAR about this.
I love the paintings. How large are they?