Women of Myth - Guardians of Life in Ireland's Rivers

September 28, 2023

Women and Life

I am continuously surprised by how frequently women are regarded as the source of conception and life in myth and legend. River goddesses and Tailtiu are responsible for the formation of rivers and the clearing of land for agriculture in Irish myth. Rivers were used not only for water but were also seen as the boundary between this world and the other world.  They were also used for transportation as travelling by a river was considerably easier than travelling through densely forested trees. Needled to say they were a source of food for the various types of fish that were fed by their waters. Even today, we enjoy seeing salmon leap over obstacles on their way to their spawning grounds.

The Boyne was invented by Boann. Despite her husband Nechtan's prohibition, Boann approached the mythical Well of Segais (also known as the Connla's Well), which was surrounded by hazels. Hazelnuts were known to fall into the Well and be consumed by the speckled salmon (who, like hazelnuts, embody and signify wisdom in Irish mythology). Boann tested the well's power by pacing around it anti-clockwise, against the direction of the sun, causing the waters to surge up forcefully and stream down to the sea, forming the Boyne. She was swept along in the rushing waters and lost an arm, limb, and eye, as well as her life, in the flood.

The Shannon is called after Sionnan, the granddaughter of the Celtic sea deity Manannán Mac Lir (Son of the Sea). 

According to legend, Sionnan visited Connla's Well, the Well of Wisdom in the Celtic Otherworld (the realm of the dead). When Sionnan removed the well cover, it erupted and the water spilled down the mountain, cutting the land in half. Her body was washed down the mountain, and she became the goddess of the Shannon River.

Berba (sometimes spelt Beirbhe) is connected to the River Barrow, one of Ireland's three major rivers, along with the Shannon and the Suir and like Sionnan and Boann she too was drowned. 

The river Corrib flows into Galway bay and is called after Gaillimh inion Breasail, the daughter of a Fir Bolg chieftain who drowned in the river.

The River Erne gets its name from a mythological princess and goddess of the Érainn clan. It is said that her name Érann inspired the name Lough Erne (Loch Éirne). There are several stories regarding the lake's origins in Irish mythology and folklore. The name is derived from Erne, Queen Méabh's lady-in-waiting at Cruachan. In the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology, Queen Méabh is the queen of Connacht. When a frightening giant came from the cave of Oweynagat, Erne and her maidens were terrified away from Cruachan. They fled to the north and perished in a river or lake, their remains melting into Lough Erne.

As a result, these women become one with the creative waters they released and live on in the names of the rivers. We can generalise the concept that women were, and are, the linking force behind the energy that gives birth to life in all its forms if we remember that rivers, and water in general, is considered as the connection between this world and the other world.

This concept is illustrated even more vividly in the legend of Tailtu, who is claimed to have died of exhaustion after levelling the plains of Ireland for agriculture. Lugh, her foster son, founded a harvest festival and funeral games in her honour, Aenach Tailteann, and these games were celebrated until the 18th century.

Finally, there is the Cailleach, who is associated with the creation of the landscape and the weather, particularly winter storms. She is also known as the Hag of Beara and Beira, Queen of Winter in Scotland. She creates and maintains the landscape. She recognised the chief's ascendency to the chiefdom at his coronation and confirms him as the land's custodian. If he does not maintain the land, she is furious and unleashes famine and hardship on the people. It is then the obligation of the people's leader to ensure that the labour of the women who generated the water and land that feeds us does not go to waste. 

When we look at the devastation inflicted by man on the landscape today, we can see the Cailleach's rage, but also the wisdom, insights and understanding that may be garnered from our stories and traditions.

Somewhere along the line, poor Eithne drowned in the rapids near Ballymahon and so the River Inny was named for her.

By one account, the River Erne (and, by extension, Lough Erne) is named for Ierne, a beautiful lady-in-waiting to the famous Queen Méabh. One tragic day, a fearsome giant popped out of a cave and chased Ierne and her fellow maidens all the way up to wherever the Erne rises and, well, you guessed it, the waters rose up and drowned them all. By another account, Erne was a princess of a tribe called the Érainn. Yet another proposes that the Ernai were a sept of the Fir Bolg who were defeated in battle shortly after a lake burst all over them! Whatever way you look at it, you can be sure the waters rose and someone died.

Do you want to explore more of the Irish healing traditions? Read this article.

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