As I mentioned last week, we get the privilege of picking two of our favorite guest posts for December’s “Favorite Things” theme. Our other favorite guest post this year was from our August theme, Lady Midnight, and it was Juliette F. Martin’s “Celtic Womanhood and the Banshee.”
It’s no secret all three of us ladies at Unbound love our Celtic mythology…so this post spoke to our hearts in that regard. But it also touched on a pop culture topic that many have heard of, but few know the origin of–the screaming banshee. We learned a lot from this article about the connection between Celtic womanhood and the origin of the banshee–so we wanted to share it one more time to give even more people the opportunity to see how women in ancient Celtic culture influenced modern day mythologies!
In ancient awareness, trees have continually played an important role in symbolism across the world, through many cultures and belief systems. Some examples include the Celtic Tree of Life, the Norse Yggdrasil (symbols particularly popularized in the neo-pagan movement of modern day), the Bodhi Tree, its very name meaning the awakening or enlightenment of Buddha, and the Tree of Knowledge of the Judaic tradition. In each depiction, there are strong connections to humanity and the human experience. While the divine, or immortal may be connected to the tree, it is often in a human-like capacity that ascends into some type of enlightenment (in the case of monotheism, knowledge that leads to disaster). This can be explained by the idea that the tree is a mirror of humanity itself – ever rooted to the Earth by reaching for something greater, something higher, caught in a state in-between.
As symbols of humanity, there are plenty of male and female connections to them. However, there are very specific demonstrations of female links that seem to be repetitive in Western culture. I’d like to examine these through the lens of the Greek myth of Daphne, the nymph lustfully pursued by Apollo until she is transformed into the laurel tree in order to escape. It is a timely myth to revisit for the modern audience, as many women via the Me Too movement have spoken out against male sexual misconduct, particularly from powerful men. It has spurred not only conversations on the sexual harassment, pressure and assault on women, but questions concerning sex and power dynamics.
In Greek mythology, there are plenty of stories that feature a deity and a mortal love-interest. In many cases, the female mortal or lesser immortal (such as a nymph) is unwilling, and is subsequently seduced, pressured, tricked or raped into compliance to the god’s desires. Frequently, these women become pregnant from the encounter and face tragedies or suffer greatly because of it. Because of this, it is not surprising that women would spurn interest from a god as at least an unwelcome complication, or greater, a life-threatening or ruining possibility.
Daphne, faced with Apollo’s lust (which is sometimes described as love but is clearly of a purely sexual nature) rebuffs him because she has declared a life free from the complications of men in the model of the goddess Artemis. Daphne treasures her freedom and lives a life hunting and roaming free in the woods. Edith Hamilton remarks that Apollo saw Daphne in a state of physical disarray while she hunted, yet he was entranced saying, “what would she not look like properly dressed and with her hair nicely arranged?”
This is a significant statement, as it alludes to “taming” something wild. The trappings of civilization, where society will ultimately insist on marriage, childbirth and domestic activities for women, are all things Daphne wishes to avoid. The pursuit of Apollo can be symbolic of the pursuit of society for women to acquiesce with societal expectations. Further, submission to male authority.
Daphne is described as athletic and when she flees, she gives a difficult pursuit for Apollo. But he is ultimately a god, so he is able to gain ground on her. Despite Daphne’s abilities, she cannot escape Apollo’s will. We could read this as despite female abilities and potential, women cannot escape society’s will.
Except Daphne does escape. She escapes by changing form, calling upon her father who transforms her at the last minute into a laurel tree. At this point, the myth describes Apollo’s continued “love” for her and elevation of the laurel tree in his esteem. But that glosses over the significance of Daphne’s shape-shifting as a proclamation of both the extremes women’s struggle with patriarchal cultural construction as well as a dire but possible avenue of escape. Daphne’s transformation makes her untouchable, even from men of power.
But what does that mean?
The cover of trees in both history and storytelling have provided exiles from society to
practice religions of their choosing, avoid capture and to create new lives. We might first think of Robin Hood’s Band of Merry Men. Yet it is the overtures of female mysticism that are strongly associated with the woods. In Western lore, the image of the forest dwelling witch pervades mythologies, fairytales and later religious persecution. In the latter, late medieval and early modern witch-hunts believed that women witches held ecstatic gatherings in the woods under the cover of darkness where they dedicated themselves to and engaged in sexual acts with Satan. The Maenads, the cult of Dionysius (or Bacchus in the Roman period) featured similar ecstatic and sexual forest gatherings of mostly women that often resulted in acts of violence.
The forest has often been a place of hiding, where things deemed socially unacceptable were practiced. It can offer refuge, but not without threat. The Tree of Knowledge of the Judaic tradition is forbidden, but Eden partakes unwittingly in a trade of knowledge for the withdrawal of God’s protection. In Celtic culture, trees, or a grove can serve as a gateway to the realm of the faery, a mysterious world of amazement and entrapment, rife with equal parts wonder and danger. Such transformations and withdrawal from societal cooperation are by nature threatening to that society, but there is a freedom that can be found.
These examples have been loud ones, stories and events that often served as subconscious warnings against the desire for liberation from patriarchal structures. Yet the mythological figure of the dryad, or other faery stories such as “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” construct a different outcome. In the case of the dryad, a female nature spirit that lives within and/or is one with a tree, the transformation and womanhood coexist. If we considered Daphne’s transformation into the laurel, akin to the existence of the dryad, then indeed, Daphne not only escaped Apollo but society itself, becoming instead a protective presence.
John Keats describes the faery woman – la belle dame sans merci (the beautiful lady without mercy) as Apollo may have described his sighting of Daphne as she hunted. But the power structure is different, the rules of society reversed or if you will, transformed. Here the faery woman has the power.
We could consider this from a negative perspective, that such a link is a sinister one, a warning to men of what could happen if women were allowed such self-direction. Indeed it hints at the very destruction of male power structures, “…pale kings and princes too, pale warriors, death-pale were they all.”
However, in its place is the woman, forced to transform in order to escape. Despite this, she has changed herself and her reality. By doing so, she has saved herself from abuse and violence, and further has claimed an unconventional power over her person, ultimately escaping patriarchal cultural requirements.
I love studying mythology. Since we generally live in a society that brushes myths off as “mere superstition” and “just stories,” we run the danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater; of denying the truth of mythology simply because it does not line up with our understanding of the facts.
But facts and truth are not the same person. They are siblings–they share blood, and perhaps DNA, but are two distinct, unique beings.
For if mythology were “mere superstition,” we should have no need of any fiction, for fiction–and mythology especially–are not just stories which allow us to escape from this world. Rather, they are stories that allow us to understand it. Few stories do this better than creation myths.
There are those who say all creation myths are the same. There’s something to that–but only because they do not vary by kind; still, they do vary somewhat by degree.
But in considering our November theme of women who have experienced much and done much, I could think of no mythological figure who fit this theme better than the Celtic goddess Brigid, whose role is pivotal not only to the Celtic creation myth, but to the culture as a whole. Brigid literally translates to “Exalted One,” and we find that though Brigid is a well-rounded goddess, what makes her truly exalted is her thirst for wisdom.
The Celtic creation myth, much like other myths such as the Greek or Norse traditions, has supernatural figures that exist before the gods. In Celtic mythology, Danu–the “Mother Goddess”–and Bíle–the sacred oak–fulfill these roles. Into the void, Danu sends her divine waters to the thirsting oak, and from the oak come two acorns. The first is Dagda, “Father of the Gods”; the second is Brigid, the “Exalted One.”1
Brigid becomes the mother of many gods. She was known for imbibing from the holy waters of her mother, Danu, and thus grew in wisdom.2 In this is a beautiful picture of the historical significance of wisdom being passed from mother to daughter and continuing through generations. Because of Brigid’s willingness to drink from her mother’s fountain–being nourished by her both literally and figuratively–she became one of the most accomplished goddesses of mythology, overseeing healing, craftsmanship, smithing, poetry, war, and so forth. As one mythologist puts it, “she excelled in all knowledge.”3 Many mythologists believe that it was her understanding that the secret to all wisdom came from her mother which granted her access to such knowledge and insight. This again points back to a culture that values the voices of women as being voices of wisdom. Without these voices, we, the children, cannot hope to attain the heights or enter the secret places of discernment.
That isn’t to say the Celtic culture is the only one who understands this. Indeed, it seems many ancient cultures had similar ideas; the entirety of Proverbs 31, from the Judeo-Christian tradition, is a king reciting a series of lessons his mother taught him, including to stand up for those who cannot defend themselves and to look for a wife who “speaks with wisdom and…faithful instruction.”4 Can you imagine how much different the world might be if we sipped from the fountain of wisdom which came before us?
Brigid is “exalted,” revered, listened to, believed. Not simply because she is a goddess; she enjoys her stature because of her thirst for wisdom and because she is relentless in her pursuits. Though she is the goddess of war, she is also the goddess of poetry, two perhaps contradictory pursuits that she, being steeped in wisdom, understands how they connect. In one story, she tells her children to go and people the world, but to beware their cousins who are all the inverse of their grandmother (what’s a myth without a battle between good and evil?). It’s in this war that one of Brigid’s own sons (Ruadan) is killed, and Brigid shows that even the exalted can be brought low. Yet, from this defeat, rises a new form of song, keening, showing Brigid’s other face–the face of emotion. Of Poetry:
“But after the spear had been given to him, Ruadan turned and wounded Goibniu. He pulled out the spear and hurled it at Ruadan so that it went through him; and he died in his father’s presence in the Fomorian assembly. Brig came and keened for her son. At first she shrieked, in the end she wept. Then for the first time weeping and shrieking were heard in Ireland. (Now she is the Brig who invented a whistle for signalling at night.)”5
Her symbols are fire, water, snakes, and oxen. She is goddess of the home, and goddess of the battlefield. Goddess of the flame, and goddess of the well. Goddess of those who create, and goddess of those who destroy. It’s almost as though there is no end to her multi-faceted being. In some versions of the legend, she is a three-part goddess, and each part represents a different aspect of her nature. Her wisdom is the seed for all else; it allows her to understand, to empathize, to learn, to seek, and to do.
It’s hard to believe Brigid would be quite so renowned and exalted if she had not first sought wisdom and discernment from the waters which flowed from heaven and “showed her children that true wisdom was only to be garnered from the feet of Danu, the Mother Goddess, and so only to be found at the water’s edge.”6 Whatever one might say about the factual nature of this statement, the truth of it cannot be denied; in fact, it’s the old paradox repeated in story after story, “mere myth” after “mere myth”–in order to ascend the heights, we must first humble ourselves at the feet of another. Only then can we obtain the wisdom necessary to know what true potential is.
Ellis, Peter Berresford. Celtic Myths and Legends, London, 1988, pp. 25.