A) Irish River-Goddesses: Drowning and Wisdom

1) The River Boyne: Bóinn and the River Shannon: Sionann

The River Boyne, called an Bhóinn in Irish, Bóand in Old Irish (genitive Bóindeo, Bóinde, dative Bóind),1747 has its source at Newberry Hall, near Carbury (Co. Kildare), flows through Co. Meath and empties into the Irish Sea at Drogheda (Co. Louth) (fig. 5). In Irish tradition, the river is personified by its eponymous goddess Bóinn. The earliest reference is given in the 2nd-century AD by Ptolemy, who calls the river Buvinda, the original form of which would have been *Bóu-vinda according to O’Rahilly.1748 *Bóu-vinda is a ‘co-ordinate’ or ‘co-referential’ compound, composed of , ‘cow’ and *vindā, a word denoting whiteness, brightness and wisdom; hence Bóinn, ‘the Cow-White (Goddess)’ or ‘the Bovine Wise (Goddess)’.1749

Her name points to her bovine shape, which relates her to the Gaulish spring-goddess Damona (‘Cow Goddess’) and possibly to the British river-goddess Verbeia (‘She of the Cattle’?).1750 Her name is also contained in the name of the healing spring-goddess Borvoboendoa, mentioned in a complex inscription from Utrecht (Germany): [Deo(?) (H)erc]oul(eo) Macusa(n)o Baldruo Lobbo(no) sol(uerunt) decur(iones) Vabusoae deo Lobbo(no) Boruoboendoae uo(ta) s(oluerunt) a(nimo) l(i)b(entes).1751 Gutenbrunner, Delamarre and Olmsted propose to split up her name as *Borvo-bō-vinduā, with borvo, ‘to boil’ and the compounding form bō-vinduā, identical to the name of the river-goddess Bóinn.1752 Borvoboendoa might therefore be ‘the Seething White Cow’ and is undeniably a healing spring-goddess envisaged in the form of a cow. The cow-shape motif seems therefore to characterize water-goddesses. Ó hÓgáin points out that the image of the cow is often used as a metaphor for river-goddesses in the Vedic Rig Veda, because the flow of the river is compared to the milk of cows, both of which gave mystical knowledge to seers:

‘[…] the streams of the river being synonymous with the milk flowing from her shape as otherworld-cow. Just as the irrigating waters of the rivers make the countryside productive, so does the divine liquid give mystical inspiration to the Vedic poets.1753

Bóinn’s name also refers to the notion of enlightenment possessed by seers, druids and poets, personified by the archetypal hero-seer Fionn mac Cumhaill, whose tradition is intermingled with the cult of the River Boyne.1754 The earliest form of his name Find is derived from the same root *vind-, ‘wisdom’.1755 Moreover, a 9th or 10th-century legend relates how he met the seer Finnéigeas cooking the ‘salmon of knowledge’ on the bank of the River Boyne and how he acquired absolute knowledge by burning his thumb on the fish and then thrusting it into his mouth.1756 From that time on, Fionn mac Cumhaill would put his thumb into his mouth each time he needed to foresee an event.

The concept of the river giving access to wisdom is widely illustrated in the legends of Bóinn and Sionann, which have the exact same pattern: the drowning of the maiden in the river. As it will be demonstrated, the two stories of Sionann are a copy of the two legends of Bóinn, recounted in the Metrical Dindshenchas.

The first legend of Bóinn, entitled Boand I, was written by Cuán ua Locháin, an Irish poet who died in 1024. The poem relates that Nechtan, the husband of Bóinn, had a dangerous bewitched well in his homestead. Although access to the well was reserved for Nechtan and his cupbearers, Bóinn one day decided to challenge its powers, but soon after she had approached it, the fountain rose and blemished parts of her body. She then ran towards the sea, pursued by the water of the well, and perished, drowned under the waves of the newly formed river, to which she gave her name:

‘Síd Nechtain sund forsin t-shléib, lecht mic Labrada lán-géir, assa silenn in sruth slán dianid ainm Bóand bith-lán.
Cóic anmand déc, demne drend, forsin t-shruth-sin adrímem, otá Síd Nechtain asmaig co roshaig pardus Adaim.
Segais a hainm issin t-shíd ria cantain duit in cach thír: Sruth Segsa a hainm otá-sin co Lind Mochúi in chlérig.
Otá Topur Mochúi chóir co cocrích Midi mag-móir Rig mná Nuadat 's a Colptha a dá ainm ána imarda.
Otá cocrích Midi maiss corrici in fairgi fondglaiss Mór-Chuing Argait gairther di, ocus Smir Find Fedlimthi.
Trethnach-Tond ósin immach connici Cúalnge cráibach. Sruth Findchuill ó Chúalnge chrúaid co Loch n-Echach Abrat-rúaid.
Banna ó Loch Echach cen ail, Drumchla Dílenn co h-Albain; Lunnand hí i n-Albain cen ail nó is Turrann iarna tucsain.
Sabrann dar tír Saxan slán, Tibir i ráith na Román, Sruth n-Iordanen iarsain sair, ocus Sruth n-Eufrait adbail.
Sruth Tigir i pardus búan, fota sair síst fri himlúad: ó phardus darís ille co srothaib na síde-se.
Bóand a h-ainm coitchend cain otá in síd co fairge fraig: mebur lim aní diatá usce mná mic Labrada.
Nechtain mac Labrada laind, diarbo ben Bóand, bágaimm, topur diamair bói 'na dún, assa maided cech mí-rún.
Ní fhail nodécced dia lár nach maided a dá rosc rán: dia ngluased do chlí nó deis, ní thargad úad cen athis.
Aire níslaimed nech de acht Nechtain 's a deogbaire: it é a n-anmand, fri gním nglan, Flesc is Lam ocus Luäm.
Fecht and dolluid Bóand bán — dosfuargaib a dímus n-án — cosin topur cen tarta d' airigud a chumachta.
Immar rothimchill fo thrí in topur co n-étuachli, maidit teora tonna de dia tánic aided Bóinne.
Rosiacht cach tond díb ria chuit, romillset in mnái mbláth-buic: tond ria cois, tond ria súil sláin, tres tond brisid a leth-láim.
Rethis co fairgi, ferr de, d' imgabáil a hathise, ar nách acced nech a cned: furri féin a himathber.
Cach conair dolluid in ben moslúi in t-usce úar imgel: ón t-shíd co fairgi nách fand, conid di gairthir Bóand.
Bóand do bruinni ar mbrúich braiss máthair Oengussa oll-maiss, mac ruc don Dagda, miad nglé, dar cend fir na síde-se. S.
Nó Bóand bó ocus find do chomrac in dá ríg-lind, in t-usce a sléib Guaire glé ocus sruth na síde-se. S.
Dabilla ainm in chon chóir robói oc mnái Nechtain nár-móir, messán Bóinne co mblaid luid ina diaid dia torchair.
Rosróen sruth in mara immach corrici na cairge clach, co ndernsat dá gabait de, conid úad rohainmnigthe.
Atát i n-airthiur Breg mbrass in dí chloich 'sin loch lind-glass; Cnoc Dabilla ósin ille di choin bic na síde-se. S.
Síd Nechtain is the name that is on the mountain here, the grave of the full-keen son of Labraid, from which flows the stainless river whose name is Bóand ever-full.
Fifteen names, certainty of disputes, given to this stream we enumerate, from Síd Nechtain away till it reaches the paradise of Adam.
Segais was her name in the Síd to be sung by thee in every land: River of Segais is her name from that point to the pool of Mochua the cleric.
From the well of righteous Mochua to the bounds of Meath's wide plain, the Arm of Nuadu's Wife and her Leg are the two noble and exalted names.
From the bounds of goodly Meath till she reaches the sea's green floor she is called the Great Silver Yoke and the White Marrow of Fedlimid.
Stormy Wave from thence onward unto branchy Cualnge; River of the White Hazel from stern Cualnge to the lough of Eochu Red-Brows.
Banna is her name from faultless Lough Neagh: Roof of the Ocean as far as Scotland: Lunnand she is in blameless Scotland — or its name is Torrand according to its meaning.
Severn is she called through the land of the sound Saxons, Tiber in the Romans' keep: River Jordan thereafter in the east and vast River Euphrates.
River Tigris in enduring paradise, long is she in the east, a time of wandering from paradise back again hither to the streams of this Síd.
Bóand is her general pleasant name from the Síd to the sea-wall; I remember the cause whence is named the water of the wife of Labraid's son.
Nechtan son of bold Labraid whose wife was Bóand, I aver; a secret well there was in his stead, from which gushed forth every kind of mysterious evil.
There was none that would look to its bottom but his two bright eyes would burst: if he should move to left or right, he would not come from it without blemish.
Therefore none of them dared approach it save Nechtan and his cup-bearers: — these are their names, famed for brilliant deed, Flesc and Lam and Luam.
Hither came on a day white Bóand (her noble pride uplifted her), to the well, without being thirsty to make trial of its power.
As thrice she walked round about the well heedlessly, three waves burst from it, whence came the death of Bóand.
They came each wave of them against a limb, they disfigured the soft-blooming woman; a wave against her foot, a wave against her perfect eye, the third wave shatters one hand.
She rushed to the sea (it was better for her) to escape her blemish, so that none might see her mutilation; on herself fell her reproach.
Every way the woman went the cold white water followed from the Síd to the sea (not weak it was), so that thence it is called Bóand.
Bóand from the bosom of our mighty river-bank, was mother of great and goodly Oengus, the son she bore to the Dagda — bright honour! in spite of the man of this Síd.
Or, Bóand is Bó and Find from the meeting of the two royal streams, the water from bright Sliab Guaire and the river of the Síds here.
Dabilla, the name of the faithful dog who belonged to the wife of Nechtan, great and noble, the lap-dog of Bóand the famous, which went after her when she perished.
The sea-current swept it away, as far as the stony crags; and they made two portions of it, so that they were named therefrom.
They stand to the east of broad Breg, the two stones in the blue waters of the lough: Cnoc Dabilla is so called from that day to this from the little dog of the Síd.1757

This poem is identical to an in-tale* of Compert Con Culainn [‘The Conception of Cú Culainn’], entitled Tochmarc Emire [‘The Wooing of Emer’], in which Cú Chulainn relates his journey to Eimhear. He gives her onomastic* details and tells her the story of the River Boyne.1758 Those two texts are particularly interesting, for parts of the river are described as body-parts of the goddess: a portion of the river is her forearm and her calf, while another is her neck and another her marrow. This clearly illustrates the belief in a goddess embodying the river: her body is the river. As Tochmarc Emire [‘The Wooing of Emer’] was continually revised from the 8th c. to the 10th c., it is clear that the stratum of the legend predates the 10th c. Cuán ua Locháin must have had access to this earlier text and quoted the story again.

The second poem of the Dindshenchas, entitled Boand II, is addressed to Maoilsheachlainn mac Domnaill, the Uí Néill High King of Ireland from 980, who was ousted from the kingship in 1002 by Brian Bóramha, the leader of the Dál gCais sept*.1759 The poem was composed before the death of Maoilsheachlainn mac Domnaill in 1022. The story is slightly different from the first poem. It recounts that Bóinn, the wife of Nechtan, met the Dagda at her brother’s house and bore him a son, called Oengus, nine months later. To cleanse herself of her betrayal and guilt, she decided to bathe in the well of Nechtan. Waves then burst from the enchanted spring and drowned her. The poem is the following:

‘A Máilshechlainn mic Domnaill do chlainn ingine Comgaill, adcós duit, a máil Mide, senchas Bóinde báin-gile.
Bóand, bendacht forsin sruth roordaig Críst co cóem-chruth, conid hí ó glenn do glenn sruth Eorthanan na Hérenn.
Find Life, Find Gaileóin gairb, do chomóentaid dá chomainm, dia comrac atá Mag Find, Find lúath Life ocus Mífind.
Oén Find díb-sin, beres búaid, sech tóeb Temrach anairthúaid: ann comrecat 'con chommar ocus Bóand bán-bronnat.
Bó Gúairi sech Tailtin tair siles tre Loch Munremair: Bó Gúairi ainm na haba ria ráiter in mór-Banna.
Mar atá Ordan is an, ó' ráiter sruth Eorthanan, in Bóand bó ocus find, do chomrac in dá ríg-lind.
Tánic Bóand ann andes ben Nechtain cosin cairdes co tech Elcmairi na n-ech, fer dobered mór ndeg-breth.
IS ann dorala in Dagda i tig Elcmairi amra: rogab for guide na mná: rodusasáit re hóen-lá.
IS ann fastaitís in ngréin co cend nói mís, mór in scél, ic gorad in rafheóir ráin i cléithi in aeóir imláin.
And asbert in ben abus "Comrac rit, bad é m' óen-gus": "Is bad Oengus ainm in meicc" asbert Dagda tre daigbeirt.
Luid Bóand ó thig co tric dús dá tairsed in tiprait: derb lé docheiled a col da soised ló a fothrucod.
A thrí deogbaire in drúad, Flesc ocus Lesc ocus Lúam, Nechtain mac Námat dorat do chomét a chóem-thiprat.
Doruacht chucu Bóand mín dochum na tiprat iar fír: ércid tairsi in tobar tenn, corosbáid hí cen forcenn.
Dogabad uirre in cach trácht nách soised inber na mbárc ic Máelmórda, mét ratha, ic mac maisech Murchada.
Dorónad trócaire Dé for leith Chuind don chomairle, coréló in aidchi déin daill chucut, a Máil féil Sechlaind.
O Maelsechlainn son of Domnall of the family of Comgall's daughter! I will tell thee, O prince of Meath! the tale of white bright Bóand.
Bóand — a blessing on the stream did Christ fair of form ordain; so she from glen to glen is the river Jordan of Erin.
Find Life, Find of the fierce Gaileon, from the union of two names, from their meeting is Mag Find named: — swift Find Life and Mifind.
One of the two Finds, that wins victory, flows past Tara from the north-east: there at the Confluence it meets with white-bellied Bóand.
Bó Guairi which flows eastward through Loch Munremair past Tailtiu, Bó Guairi is the name of the river which is called great Banna.
As there is ordan and an from which the river Jordan is called, so Bóand is bó and find from the meeting of the two royal waters.
Thither from the south came Bóand wife of Nechtan to the love-tryst to the house of Elcmaire, lord of horses, a man that gave many a good judgment.
Thither came by chance the Dagda into the house of famous Elcmaire: he fell to importuning the woman: he brought her to the birth in a single day.
It was then they made the sun stand still to the end of nine months — strange the tale — warming the noble fine grass in the roof of the perfect firmament.
Then said the woman here: "Union with thee, that were my one desire!" And Oengus shall be the boy's name," said the Dagda, in noble wise.
Bóand went from the house in haste to see if she could reach the well: she was sure of hiding her guilt if she could attain to bathe in it.
The druid's three cup-bearers Flesc, and Lesc, and Luam, Nechtan mac Namat set to watch his fair well.
To them came gentle Bóand toward the well in sooth: the strong fountain rose over her, and drowned her finally.1760
Fig. 5:
Fig. 5: An Bhóinn, the River Boyne at Trim, in Co. Meath, deified as the goddess Bóinnin Celtic times.

The River Shannon, an tSionainn in Modern Irish, rises at Tiltinbane in the Cuilcagh Mountain (Co. Cavan) and flows into the Atlantic Ocean in the Shannon Estuary. In the 2nd c. AD, Ptolemy gave the name Sēnu to the river, which O’Rahilly reads Senā and translates ‘the Ancient (Goddess)’.1761 It is based on Old Irish sen, ‘old’, ‘ancient’.1762 As Ó hÓgáin explains, the original name of the river must have been Senunā, a word meaning ‘the Old Honoured One’.1763 It was written Sinann and Sinand in Old Irish, and Sionann in Classical (i.e. Late Medieval) Irish.

In ancient times, the River Shannon was personified as a goddess. In an 8th-century text, preserved in the manuscript known as the Book of Armagh, describing St Patrick and his company crossing the Shannon, the river is indeed given the name of Bandea, that is ‘Goddess’:

‘[…] et uenierunt per alueum fluminis Sinnae, qui dicitur Bandea.
[…] and they came by the River Shannon, which is called Bandea.1764

Moreover, a legend relates how the divine lady Sionann became and gave her name to the river after being drowned in its waters. The Metrical Dindshenchas gives two similar versions of the story. The first poem, entitled Sinann I, probably dates from the late 10th c. and traces the origin of the Shannon to the Well of Segais in the Land of Promise, which is actually the source of the River Boyne. It recounts that Sionann, the daughter of Lodan Luchair-glan of the Tuatha Dé Danann, went to see the well, where the mystical nuts of hazel trees inspiring poets fell. She was seriously wounded by the water and drowned in the stream flowing from the fountain. Her name was then given to the river:

‘Sáer-ainm Sinna saigid dún, dáig rolaimid a lom-thúr: nirb imfhann a gním 's a gleó dia mbói Sinann co slán-beó.
Rop ingen rogasta ríam Sinann sholasta shír-fhíal, co fúair cach ndodáil nduthain ingen Lodáin laech-luchair.
Hi tír tarngire co túi, ná geib anbthine imchrúi, fúair in suthain-blaid rosmill ingen Luchair-glain lúaidimm.
Tipra nad meirb fon muir mass for seilb Chondlai, ba comdass, feib adrímem ria rélad, luid Sinann dia sír-fhégad.
Topur co mbara búaine ar ur aba indúaire, feib arsluinnet a clotha, asmbruinnet secht prím-shrotha.
Immas na Segsa so dait co febsa fond fhír-thiprait: ós topur na tond tréorach fail coll n-écsi n-ilcheólach.
Síltair sopur na Segsa for topur na trén-chennsa, ó thuitit cnói Crínmoind cain fora ríg-broind réil roglain.
In óen-fhecht n-a tuile thrumm turchat uile don chóem-chrund, duille ocus bláth ocus mess, do chách uile ní hamdess.
Is amlaid-sin, cen góe nglé, tuitit n-a róe dorise for topur sográid Segsa fo chomdáil, fo chomfhebsa.
Tecait co húais, ra gním nglé, secht srotha, búais cen búaidre, dorís isin topur the dianid cocur ceól-éicse.
Adrímem in uide n-úag dia luid Sinann co sóer-lúad co lind mná Féile fuinid cona gléire glan-foruid.
Ní thesta máin bad maith linn for in saír sin ná saílfinn, acht immas sóis co srethaib, ba gním nóis dia núa-bethaid.
Rotheich in topur, toirm nglé, tria chocur na ceól-éicse, re Sinainn, rothadaill túaid, cor-riacht in n-abainn n-indúair.
Rolen sruthair na Segsa ben Luchair na lán-gensa cor-riacht huru na haba co fúair mudu is mór-mada.
Andsin robáided in breiss, is rothráiged fo throm-greiss: cid marb in ben co mbruth baidb rolen dia sruth a sáer-ainm. S.
Desin fri déine ndile lind mná Féile fír-gile: fail cech óen-airm, cúairt n-assa, sáer-ainm súairc na Sinna-sa. S.
The noble name of Sinann, search it out for us, since ye venture to lay bare its origin: not paltry was the action and the struggle whereby the name of Sinann became immortal.
Sinann, radiant, ever-generous, was once a maiden right active till she met all earthly misfortune, the daughter of Lodan from heroic Luchar.
In the still Land of Promise, that no storm of bloodshed mars, the deathless maid gained the fame that was her undoing, the daughter of bright Luchar, whom I celebrate.
A spring (not sluggish) under the pleasant sea in the domain of Condla (it was fitting, as we recount in telling the tale): — to gaze upon it went Sinann.
A well with flow unfailing is by the edge of a chilly river (as men celebrate its fame), whence spring seven main streams.
Here thou findest the magic lore of Segais with excellence, under the fresh spring: over the well of the mighty waters stands the poets' music-haunted hazel.
The spray of the Segais is sprinkled on the well of the strong gentle lady, when the nuts of fair Crinmond fall on its royal bosom bright and pure.
Together in plenteous foison shoot forth all at once from the goodly tree leaf and flower and fruit; to everyone it is not unlovely.
In this wise, clear without falsehood, they fall afterwards in their season upon the honoured well of Segais at the like hour, with like excellence.
Nobly they come, with bright activity, seven streams, in an untroubled gush, back into the well yonder, whence rises a murmur of musical lore.
Let us recount the entire journey whereon went Sinann of noble repute to Lind Mna Feile in the west with the choicest of her splendid abode.
There lacks no desirable gift that I could not fancy as belonging to that noble lady save magic lore in its sequences: — it was a new practice for her fresh life.
The well fled back (clear fame through the murmur of its musical lore!) before Sinann, who visited it in the north, and reached the chilly river.
The woman of Luchar of full chastity followed the stream of Segais till she reached the river's brink and met destruction and utter frustration.
There the comely lady was drowned and perished under heavy injury; though the woman of warlike ardour is dead, her noble name clave to her river.
Hence with zealous affection is called the Pool of the pure-white modest woman. In every place (an easy visit) is known the noble pleasant name of this Sinann. 1765

The second poem, entitled Sinann II, must date from the early 11th c., since it is attributed to Cuán ua Locháin, the author of Boand I. It explains that the River Shannon had its source at Connla’s well, around which nine crimson hazel trees of wisdom grew. Their magical nuts used to fall in the waters of the well and engender mystical bubbles. Sionann, spellbound by the bubbles, went into the river with the aim of catching them and drowned:

‘Sinann, cá hadbar diatá, inneósad cen immargá: atbér cen snaidm co solus a hainm is a bunadus.
Innisfed do chách uile bunad Sinna srib-glaine: ní chél in dag-blad diatá: atbér adbar a hanma.
Tipra Chonnlai, ba mór muirn, bói fon aibeis eochar-guirm: sé srotha, nárb inann blad, eisti, Sinann in sechtmad.
Nói cuill Chrimaill, ind fhir glic, dochuiret tall fon tiprait: atát le doilbi smachta fo cheó doirchi dráidechta.
I n-óen-fhecht, amail nách gnáth, fhásas a nduille 's a mbláth: ingnad ciarsad sóer-búaid sin 's a mbeith i n-óen-úair abaig.
In úair is abaig in cnúas tuitit 'sin tiprait anúas: thís immarlethat ar lár, co nosethat na bratán.
Do shúg na cnó, ní dáil diss, dogníat na bolca immaiss; tecait anall cach úaire dar na srothaib srib-úaine.
Bói ingen, ba buide barr, thall a túathaib dé Danann, Sinann gasta co ngné glain ingen Lodain luchair-glain.
Smuainis ind ingen adaig, in bind bél-derg banamail, co mbói da hindus cach mblad, acht in t-immus a óenar.
Lá da tánic cosin sruth ind ingen, ba cóem a cruth, co facca, nochor dál diss, na bolca áilli immaiss.
Téit ind ingen, toisc úaille, 'na ndiaid 'sin sruth srib-úaine: báiter hí da toisc anall; conid úaidi atá Sinann. S.
Dénum aile, mad áil lib, uáim ar in Sinainn srib-gil, cé bethir lim 'ca légud, ní ferr hé 'ná in cét-dénum.
Lind mná féile, ba fír dam, ainm na linde 'nar 'báided: is é a dír maras dise, más fír é fri indise.
Dénum aile, is mebair lemm, rochúala cách co coitchenn; Cú Núadat, ba mór maise, robáite 'sin chrúad-glaise.
Nó combad Sinann co becht Sín Morainn, tre eterchert: nó sí in moirenn, aidble gním: áille Sinann 'ná cach sín.
Sinann — the reason why it is so named, I will declare without deception: I will report clearly without perplexity its name and its origin.
I will declare to each and all the origin of bright-streaming Sinann: I will not hide the source of its renown, I will report the reason of its name.
Connla's well, loud was its sound, was beneath the blue-skirted ocean: six streams, unequal in fame, rise from it, the seventh was Sinann.
The nine hazels of Crimall the sage drop their fruits yonder under the well: they stand by the power of magic spells under a darksome mist of wizardry.
Together grow, in unwonted fashion, their leaves and their flowers: — a wonder is this, though a noble quality, and a wonder their ripening all in a moment.
From the juice of the nuts (no paltry matter) are formed the mystic bubbles; thence come momently the bubbles down the green-flowing streams.
There was a maiden yellow-haired yonder, sprung of the Tuatha De Danann, the sprightly Sinann, bright of face, daughter of Lodan Luchair-glan.
One night the maiden bethought her, — the sweet-voiced red-lipped maiden — that every sort of fame was at her command save the mystic art alone.
The maiden, — fair was her form, — came on a day to the river and saw — it was no paltry matter — the lovely mystic bubbles.
The maiden goes on a lamentable venture after them into the green-flowing river: she is drowned yonder through her venture; so from her is Sinann named.
Another version if ye so desire ye may get from me concerning white-flowing Sinann; though it is to be read in my verse, it is no better than the first version.
Lind Mna Feile, (I speak truly), is the name of the pool where she was drowned: this is its proper title inherited from her if that be the true tale to tell.1766

It is noticeable that the legends of Bóinn and Sionann have the same motif. As the story of Bóinn is older and as Cuán ua Locháin is the author of both Boinn I and Sinann II, it seems clear that the legend of Sionann is a derivative of the legend of Bóinn. Both those legends mention the well of Nechtan, situated at the source of the River Boyne, where hazel trees with nuts giving mystical powers are situated. Patrick Ford, in an article entitled ‘The Well of Nechtan and ‘La Gloire Lumineuse’’, explains that the imbas forosna or ‘wisdom that illuminates’ - which was sought after by Irish poets and characterized poetic arts - was believed to be contained in those nuts.1767 In falling into the well, the nuts would imbue the river with all-encompassing knowledge: the source of wisdom thus resided in the body of water. It is interesting to note that an early Irish text, entitled Togail Bruidne Da Derga [‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’], composed around the 8th or 9th c., specifies that on the river Bush (in Co. Antrim) and the River Boyne could be found imbas, i.e. mystical inspiration and great wisdom:

‘[...] 7 imbas for Búais 7 Boind i medón in mís mithemon cacha blíadna [...]
[...] and imbas on the Bush and the Boyne when the Boyne in the middle of the month of June each year [...]1768

Moreover, as mentioned above, Fionn mac Cumhaill obtains his imbas forosna by burning his thumb on the ‘Salmon of Knowledge’, fished in the River Boyne, the ancient name of which *Bóuvinda directly refers to the notion of mystical illumination. When the lady Bóinn decides to challenge the Well of Nechtan in trying to drink water from it or bathe into it, it is certainly to gain access to the absolute seer-knowledge contained in its waters rather than out of mere curiosity. Maud Joynt explains that “the original legend perhaps foreshadowed the dangers which await those who seek the higher wisdom”, because absolute knowledge was believed to be perilous when not handled correctly and was not understandable to anybody: it was reserved for a select few.1769 From this, it follows that the rivers in Ireland, such as the Boyne or the Shanonn, were envisaged as divine figures to whom were attributed the gift of poetical inspiration, mystical wisdom and all-encompassing knowledge.

Today, the source of the River Boyne, situated in Newberry (Co. Kildare), is still worshipped by the local population: it is a holy well, called ‘Trinity Well’, where people gather to perform various religious and secular activities on Trinity Sunday.1770 The pattern generally consists of reciting the rosary and taking a drink of water from the well, which is followed by music, games and dancing. The well is believed to preserve health all the year round and bring good luck, and local people particularly stress that its water contains a cure for eye-problems and even blindness.1771 An oral legend recorded in the Schools’ Manuscript Collection,1772 1938, is particularly interesting, for it recounts that the origin of Trinity Well is pagan and was attributed to a pagan queen called Boyne or Bóinne, wife of King Cairbre - holy wells are generally attributed to a patron Saint. This legend relates that Bóinne was drowned under the waters of the well after making trial of the bewitched well:

‘Trinity Well is of pagan origin. The River Boyne rises in Trinity Well, it is said that the name Boyne or Bóinne was also the name of a pagan queen who lived in a palace that stood on the site of the present Newberry Hall. Cairbre was the king’s name and he would not allow anyone but himself and his three cupbearers to get water from the well. Bóinne went in spite of all warnings to the well, it overflowed and carried her on its water to the sea.1773

This folklore account is the same as the early medieval legend recounting the origin of the River Boyne and its deification. This illustrates the long-lasting tradition of the legend of the goddess Bóinn, and the Christian holy well situated at the source of the river proves that the waters of the river are still regarded as sacred.


RIA Dictionary s.v. ‘Boänd’.


Ptolemy, Geography, II.2.7 ; Pokorny, 1953, p. 11 ; Mac an Bhaird, 1991, p. 11; O’Rahilly, 1946, p. 3.


Ó hÓgáin, 1994, pp. 17, 21-22 ; Ó hÓgáin, 1999, pp. 110-111 ; Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 38 ; Holder, ACS, vol. 1, pp. 646-647 ; Olmsted, 1994, p. 354 ; Delamarre, 2003, pp. 79-80 ; O’Rahilly, 1970, p. 105 ; O’Rahilly, 1946, pp. 2-3.


Sergent, 2000a, p. 235 ; Sterckx, 1996, p. 38 ; Lacroix, 2007, pp. 148-149.


AE 1977, 539-540.


Gutenbrunner, 1936, pp. 67-68, 211 ; Delamarre, 2003, p. 79 ; Delamarre, 2007, p. 46 ; Olmsted, 1994, pp. 355-356.


Ó hÓgáin, 1994, pp. 17-18 ; Ó hÓgáin, 1999, p. 112 and notes 38, 44 and 45, p. 234 for references.


Ó hÓgáin, 1994, pp. 25-28.


Ó hÓgáin, 1994, p. 21 ; Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 235-237.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 243, 254 ; Mackillop, 2004, p. 376.


Gwynn, 1913, pp. 26-33, 480-481.


Van Hamel, 1933, pp. 16-68 for Tochmarc Emire & pp. 37-38 for the story of Bóinn. The text is given is Chapter 2.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 45.


Gwynn, 1913, pp. 34-39, 481-482.


Philip, 2001, pp. 74, 113 ; O’Rahilly, 1946, p. 4.


Delamarre, 2003, pp. 270-271.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 454-455.


Stokes & Strachan, 1903, pp. 264-265.


Gwynn, 1913, pp. 286-291, 529-530.


Gwynn, 1913, pp. 293-297, 530.


Ford, 1974, pp. 67-74. See also Ó hÓgáin, 1999, p. 111 ; O’Curry, 1873, pp. 142-143.


Knott, 1936, p. 6.


Joynt, 1912, p. 193.


Jackson, 1979-1980, pp. 46-48, n° 7 ; O’Conor, T., OSL Kildare, 1837, vol. 1, 93. Trinity Sunday is the first Sunday after Pentecost and celebrates the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, i.e. the three persons of God: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 39.


Material collected in primary schools.


Schools’ Manuscript Collection 771: 91-92 located in the archives of the Irish Folklore Departement of University College Dublin (Ireland).