Because of its life-giving aspect, water has been envisaged as a particularly sacred natural element since time immemorial. The prehistoric and proto-historic deposits of hoards of objects, such as weapons, jewels or coins, in rivers, lakes and bogs, must be understood as votive gifts offered to water-deities with the aim of earning their benevolence and ensuring the fertility of the land. In addition to the tradition of depositing objects in watery places, some rivers, springs and fountains were called deva, divonna and the later Irish banna, that is ‘goddess’, which clearly attest to the sacredness of water and its divinisation. Those hydronyms* prove that rivers, fountains and springs were worshipped as goddesses, who personified and protected the waters. The idea of a lady inhabiting and personifying the water is particularly well illustrated in Irish mythology. Beautiful divine ladies dwell in sumptuous subaquatic otherworldly realms; the wavy hair of the Mórrígain shapes the sea; the River Boyne is described as the body of its eponymous goddess; and maidens, after drowning under the waters, become the river, the lake or the sea they inhabit: Clidna is turned into a wave of the sea, Bóinn into the River Boyne, Sionnan into the River Shannon, Eithne into the River Inny and Érne into the River or Lough Érne.
The tradition of the divine lady embodying the river is attested in Gaul by various archaeological discoveries of great importance. Gallo-Roman inscriptions reveal that the main rivers of France, such as the Seine, the Marne, the Saône and the Yonne, were deified as goddesses bearing their names: Sequana, Matrona, Souconna and Icauni. Interestingly, it seems that it was the spring of the river which was specifically sacralised, for sanctuaries and water edifices were unearthed at the sources of the Seine, the Marne and the Yonne – the source of the Saône has never been excavated. This is not insignificant: springs were primarily revered, for they mysteriously gushed forth from the earth and were directly related to the otherworld. Worship must have later extended to the whole river. The legends of Bóinn and Sionnan are also evocative of the sacredness of the source of the river, which is represented by the mystic Well of Segais.
What were the functions of those water-goddesses? From the study of the Irish texts, it emerges that water was closely related to wisdom, poetry and perceptiveness. The nuts containing the imbas are described falling into the Well of Nechtan and imbuing the river with the much sought-after ‘all-encompassing knowledge’. A sip from the river in June was believed to give access to sacred knowledge and Fionn mac Cumhaill earns his mystical inspiration from the Salmon of Knowledge fished in the Boyne. Similarly, Sionnan is drowned in the river after trying to catch the mystical bubbles. The legends of Bóinn and Sionnan illustrate the fact that the search for wisdom is dangerous and is not within anyone’s reach. By trying to accede to absolute knowlege, one is on the road to ruin.
In Gaul and Britain, water seems to have been worshipped in the context of healing. The wisdom-giving aspect of Irish river-goddesses is not reflected in the character of Gaulish and British water-goddesses, who clearly stand out as healers prayed to for their salutary and beneficial virtues. The most well-known example is the goddess Sequana, who had an important sanctuary and complex of baths built at her source, where pilgrims would come to take the curative waters, invoke the goddess and deposit votive offerings to have their vows granted. As for Sirona and Damona, who were both honoured in relation to thermal springs; the inscriptions prove that their cult transcended frontiers and peoples. Other goddesses seem to have protected specific local springs, wells and fountains, such as Bricta at Luxeuil-les-Bains, Stanna/Sianna at Mont-Dore, Acionna at the Fontaine l’Etuvée, Icovellauna and possibly Mongotia at the nympheum* of Le Sablon and Coventina at the well of Carrawburgh in Britain. While the springs of Luxeuil and Mont-Dore have thermal virtues, the waters of the Fontaine l’Etuvée, Le Sablon and Coventina’s Well do not appear to have any mineral or therapeutic properties. The waters could have lost their curative virtues, either by drying up or by mixing with common waters, but it seems more plausible that it was actually, and more than anything else, the faith in the omnipotent healing power of the goddess which caused the pilgrims to be relieved of their pains. This explains how rivers, the waters of which do not have any salutary properties, were believed to have the capacity to cure, and were worshipped as divine female healers. Gaulish water-goddesses clearly fulfilled a function of regeneration and renewal.
The water-goddess plays the same role as the land-goddess: she ensures the survival of the peoples and the growth of crops and cattle. Like a mother, she gives birth, feeds and maintains her people. The goddess of the River Marne, Matrona, whose name means ‘Mother’, illustrates clearly that function. The life-giving aspect of the water-goddess is counterbalanced by a funerary dimension which is inherent in the mother-water complex: the dead were given back to the bosom of the mother-river to achieve rebirth in the afterlife. In Gaul, various proto-historic ‘coffin-pirogues’ exemplify this aspect. The voyage to the otherworld, metaphorically represented by the boat and the river, was placed in the care of the water-goddess, who, in taking the deceased back into her womb, ensured their renewal in the afterlife.
As for knowing whether it was the goddess who gave her name to the river or the river to the goddess, the Irish sources clearly state that the river was called after the maiden drowned in its waters, while in Gaul, it appears that it is the name of the river which was given to the goddess, for river names merely refer to the quality or nature of the water, like Sequana (‘the Dripping One’). Actually, this question is wrongly framed, for, in the mind of the Celts, the river could not be dissociated from the goddess: the river was a divine entity; the river and the goddess were as one. Consequently, the goddess bore the name of the river like the river bore the name of the goddess.
It is interesting to note that the belief in a divine lady dwelling in the river has survived in the folklore of Ireland and France. A few legends, recorded in the Irish Folklore Collection 2197 and in Sébillot’s Folklore de France,2198 recount that rivers are inhabited by beautiful mermaids to whom are attributed macabre and terrifying deeds. Sébillot relates that, in the département of Gers, river mermaids were seen at night singing and combing their long hair. It was believed that “they sucked the brain and the blood, and ate the heart, the liver and guts” of any poor wretch who would pass by.2199 As mermaids are generally creatures of the sea, their presence in fresh-water is not unsignificant. The character of the river mermaid could be understood as the reminiscence of the ancient cult of the river-goddess. The transformation of the supernatural river ladies into evil and damned souls is due to Christian influence.
While healing spring-goddesses are numerous in Gaul and Britain, they are non-existent in Ireland, except for the fairy lady Áine who had a well called after her, Tobar Áine, in the parish of Lios Áine (Lissan, Co. Derry).2200 The worship of healing springs is reflected in the folk tradition of the Christianized wells called ‘holy wells’, which hold a significant place in the customs and legends of Wales,2201 Cornwall2202 England2203 and Ireland. In Ireland, where about 3,000 wells have been recorded, almost every parish has its own sacred or blessed fountain.2204 The wells are generally placed under the protection of a saint, specialized in the cure of a particular ailment: eyes, toothache, warts, etc. Some are visited on specific days, such as Feast Days or Patron Saint’s Days, and the devotional practices generally consist of reciting Catholic prayers, making ‘rounds’, that is walking around the well clockwise (deiseal) on a fixed beaten path, taking sips from the well, bathing the diseased members and rubbing the afflicted part with a shred of cloth dipped into the water and hung upon a nearby bush or tree.2205 The sick person thus symbolically leaves his or her pain to the well. The appearance of a fish in the well ensures recovery, which somehow echoes the big black and white fish called ‘skolopidos’ of the River Saône, the head of which contained a tiny stone which could cure the quartan fever.2206 Various studies have demonstrated that the Christian tradition of the Holy Wells follows directly from pagan practices and customs.2207 The fountains, wells and springs, originally protected by indigenous deities, were progressively Christianized from Saint Patrick onwards and put under the patronage of different saints renowned for their miracles. Even though Irish mythology does not preserve evidence of healing goddesses presiding over curative springs, that does not necessarily mean that wells, fountains and springs were not worshipped and deified there also in Celtic times.
The four previous chapters have dealt with goddesses embodying the land and specific natural elements (animals, trees, mountains, rivers and springs). It has been demonstrated that these goddesses were invoked for different purposes: prosperity, defence of the territory, healing, mystical inspiration and protection in the afterlife. The subject of the last chapter deals with the religious rites pertaining to intoxication, performed with the aim of making contact with the divine world and entering into dialogue with the deities. Some goddesses appear to have personified those intoxicating rites, which were probably performed in various contexts, such as during rituals linked to leadership, healing, war and death.
IFC 733: 111-114 (Westmeath) ; IFC 233: 568 (Roscommon) and IFC 1307: 258-259 (Kerry).
Sébillot, 2002, pp. 619-620.
Sébillot, 2002, p. 619.
O’Rahilly, 1946, p. 518
Quillier-Couch & Quillier-Couch, 1894.
Ó Danachair, 1958, p. 35.
Healy, 1884, pp. 85-93 ; Rhŷs, 1901, vol. 1, pp. 354-400 ; Wood-Martin, 1902, vol. 2, pp. 46-115 ; Ó Danachair, 1958, pp. 36-40 ; MacNeill, 1962, pp. 260-286 ; Logan, 1980 ; Brenneman & Brenneman, 1995 ; Rackard & O’Callaghan, 2001.
De Belloget, 1872, p. 131.
Jones, 1954, pp. 1-11 ; Gribben, 1992, pp. 15-20 ; Carroll, 1999, pp. 54-81.