As we have seen through the previous chapters, Celtic goddesses are generally difficult to define inasmuch as information about them comes down to a few inscriptions and to the significance of their names, which sometimes remains obscure. Irish mythology can sometimes throw light on the nature of the Gaulish and British goddesses, particularly when similarities between Irish, British and Gaulish goddess names can be established. Queen Medb, for instance, who is one of the most emblematic female figures of Irish mythology, is etymologically linked to two continental goddess types: Meduna and the Comedovae, respectively known from inscriptions discovered in Bad Bertrich (Germany) and in Aix-les-Bains (Savoy, France). An Ogam script engraved in a cave located in County Roscommon in the west of Ireland might also refer to the goddess Meduva, whose name might be the old form of Medb’s name. The names of the Irish goddess Medb and the Gaulish goddesses Meduna and the Comedovae may be derived from an Indo-European word *médhu- signifying ‘honey’, ‘intoxication’, and designate the fermented drink extracted from honey, that is ‘mead’.2208 If this etymology is correct – other possibilities have been suggested -, their names may be therefore glossed as ‘Goddess of Intoxication by Mead’ or ‘Mead Goddess’.
Furthermore, it is noteworthy that these Mead Goddesses bear some resemblance to two British goddesses who also possessed the function of ‘intoxication’ according to the etymology* of their names: Latis, whose name, known from two inscriptions discovered in Cumbria, means ‘the Intoxicating Drink (Purveyor)’, and Braciaca, possibly ‘Goddess of (malt-induced) Intoxication’ or ‘Goddess of Beer’, whose name was revealed on a dedication found in Derbyshire. From these divine names, it can inferred that the insular and continental Celts had a tradition of ‘Intoxicating Goddesses’ in common.
So as not to misunderstand the nature and functions of the Celtic Goddesses of Intoxication, it is worth emphasizing that the word intoxication does not have the same meaning in English as in French. In English, intoxication is literally ‘the state of being drunk’ or, in the figurative sense, which ensues from it, ‘the state of being happy, excited, and unable to think clearly’.2209 It is thus a synonym of the word ‘drunkenness’ or ‘inebriation’, which is in French ‘ivresse’, ‘ébriété’. In addition, the word intoxication can denote the state of euphoria or delirium reached after consuming drugs or intoxicating plants, which is to say plants which alter, fuddle or addle the mind on account of their psychotropic properties. As for the French word intoxication, its meaning is far stronger, for it signifies ‘poisoning’ (from Greek toxikon, ‘poison’ and Latin toxicum, ‘poison’), which is to say illness or death resulting from the swallowing, touching or breathing of a noxious substance: “introduction ou accumulation spontanée dans l’organisme d’une substance toxique ou nocive, c’est à dire qui empoisonne, qui provoque la mort”.2210
Therefore, intoxication connotes death in French, while in English it refers to the state of having one’s mind blurred after consuming alcoholic drinks, drugs or hallucinatory plants. Interestingly, the two languages seem to reflect the dual qualities of intoxicating substances, which can either modify the vision when absorbed in small quantities, or be poisonous and lethal if taken in large amounts. The subject of this chapter is not devoted to poisoning goddesses embodying death, but to goddesses furthering drunkenness, ecstasy or trance by purveying ‘intoxicating’ beverages, which they actually personify. This unusual function arouses surprise, curiosity and multiple questions, for it represents a strong contrast with the traditional land-, water- or animal-goddesses embodying nature or protecting the territory. What was ‘intoxication’ in antiquity and what was its aim and place in the society of the time? How could this cultural aspect be linked and represented by goddesses? The existence of several goddesses bearing the name of ‘mead’ in Gaul and in Ireland tends to reveal that this intoxicating drink played a significant role in Celtic times. Could mead have thus been a sacred beverage giving access to the divine world and purveying immortality like the Soma in Ancient India or the Haoma in Persia? Could the mead-goddesses have been the guardians, representatives or personifications of specific cults and rites among which mead-intoxication figures prominently? If so, which ones? Despite the time gap and the different nature of the sources, is the figure of Medb reminiscent of mead-intoxication and cults attached to it? May she cast light on some possible functions of the intoxicating goddess?
In order to clearly understand, reconstruct and penetrate the essence of these very singular goddesses, it is first necessary to define the meaning, techniques and functions of sacred intoxication in ancient times. The study of the archaeological and literary data in Gaul, Britain and Ireland, will then allow us to determine the place of mead in the religious life of the time and analyze the nature, role and possible functions of the mighty Celtic goddesses of intoxication.
Dumézil, 1995, p. 330 ; Olmsted, 1994, p. 165
Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, 1995. Other examples: ‘the driver was clearly intoxicated (drunk)’ or ‘an intoxicant is something that makes you feel drunk, especially an intoxicating drink’.