Theses  on  Celtic  Religion 8

difficulties in the state of the sources

our prejudicial denotations

animistic component

fairy tales and legends as legitimate sources

shamanism and druidism

the stratum of divinities


polarity Death / Mothers

changes in material existence

Mabon vab Genoveva

interface of Death and Mothers

isolated themes 

the realities of the world 





Pole of Death:


Triple Death

Severed Head

Heads in Chains

Head and Water


Tree and Death


Special theme:


Revivification/Reanimation differs from original animation (by way of birth) in that not everyone enjoys it. Special circumstances are required, be it that dead warriors are needed in a battle, be it that a manslaughter or murder must not be accepted and has to be revised. Reanimation is the result of wishful thinking. Reanimation is fur­thermore characterized by the incomplete result: the warriors remain mute, or only the head is revivified, or the individual lives on as tree or flower.

On the other hand is reanimation profoundly different from returning of dead souls who retain the state of being dead and are not typical living human beings.

Reanimation is different from rebirth.


Changes in material existence (general survey)

I. Coming back after death

II. Change (shift) without preceding death

I.1 Coming back as a dead one. The revenant remains dead and re­turns for restricted time and purpose. 

I.2. Coming back as a living person

Shape-shifting. The soul enters another body. This is mostly performed in a regular manner with period and shapes restricted 

Metempsychosis. An end is put to the present existence and a new one begins without intermit­tent death, sometimes though by way of another birth. Soul definitively enters a new body. 

Revivification, the deceased person reas­sumes his/her former existence, dying thus being re­versed


Rebirth. The dead one is re­born into his or her former existence. 

Re-incarna­tion. The dead one is borne again, but into a new exis­tence and another body than before. This requires the separa­tion of soul and body. The immortal soul attains another body 

Note: Coming back as a dead one (I.1.) and coming back as a living person (I.2.1)are quite usual in the context of Celtic traditions (and are the basis of connecting any kind of ghostly appearance to the British Isles.)

Note: For rebirth  and reincarnation no Celtic example is known

Note: Those cases of shapeshifting understood in items II.1  and II.2, have to be separated totally from those in item I,  because death is not a condition. Sometimes however, birth is a condition or in any case new life or a new way of living. Therefore items II are part of the complex Mothers (see below).  




The themes up to this point group around a pole which is best characterized as the Death. It is contrasted by the pole of Mothers, though this theme does not appear explicitely anywhere. It is however deduced from the second array of themes:


Pole of Mothers


Oldest Beings

Origin of the Country




Nourishing Woman


Shiftings which lead
         to a new embodiment (see above, I.2, II.2).

Magic Forces



Special theme: 


1. Several elements which appear dispersed within the fragments of Celtic tradition and lore, are indicative of a thematic complex where a child is been taken away from a mother and reared in isolation. Hands of unknown origin abduct Rhiannon's new­born son; Mabon is taken away from Modron; Gwydion abducts Arianrod's son Lleu Law Gyffes and fosters him; Aoife has the children of Lyr vanished and grown up in loneliness. We find Children of the White Dog, and Cormac is told to have been sto­len by a wolf. Moreover are pertaining here those wide-spread tales about change­lings: the child is stolen from the mother and changed for an ugly child of the fairies.

Might all this be interpreted to be a late reflection of the custom of foster-fathers (which in itself is a reflection of a matriarchal society where children belonged to the house of the mother's brother), we have on the other hand further examples of a child being raised in isolation: Deirdre is damned to grow up separated from all mankind; Lyr's children live alone (in the external appearance of swans); Mabon is prisoner from his third day of life on and was set free only as an adult man; similar to him, Balor's daughter is kept in a tower. Rapunzel of the German fairy-tale may serve as an example for a non-Celtic tradition of this theme.

Thus, we find here a connection to elements of imprisonment. Geir son of Rigantona was prisoner in Oeth and Anoeth. He provides the passage to Pryderi, son of Rhiannon (=Rigantona) and to adult prisoners: Bran, Caratacus and Manawyddan - each of them has passed some years in imprisonment.

We infer from all this a single theme: A child is separated from his mother shortly after birth or in the first year, and is kept in isolation and imprisonment. Rhiannon-Pryderi, Rigantona-Geir, Aoife-Children of Lyr, Arianrod-Lleu Law Gyffes, the changelings - they all may be generalized into Mabon vab Modron. Exception must be made for Balor's daughter, Deirdre and Cormac.


2. There is a body of legends about Genoveva, spread far over Europe, mainly how­ever in countries of roman languages. The German variants typically run as follows: The hypocritical Golo persecutes the virtuous Genoveva while her husband, Golo's lord, is in war. Genoveva rejects him and Golo's love turns into hate. Being his lord's representative, he uses his power to inflict a bad reputation to her and orders her being killed for that. A faithful servant however leaves her alive and she hides in the wilderness. Either she takes her newborn son with her, or else he is born out there. He shares loneliness with her and grows up isolated from all mankind but looked after by a hind. All the animals of the forest come with pleasure to stay with Genoveva's son.

The name of Genoveva which sounds very much to be of Celtic origin - as does Golo's too - is only found in later versions of the legend. In a Breton legend assumed to be an early version the mother is called Azenor, her son Golo. The latter name is only later transferred to the negative male character. The name of Genoveva is said to derive from the Sainte Geneviève of Paris, but apart from being virtuous, there is no further similaritiy between these two women. We assume Genoveva to be the old Celtic (Gaulish) name of the mother.

The motive of the hind has no function whatsoever in the Genoveva legend. It is however of great importance in Celtic tradition (horned animal) and should be re­garded as the remnant of an old theme which later was no longer understood. Inter­preting Mabon as the lord of the animals, we gain a further element of Celtic signifi­cance.

In the German variants, Genoveva calls her son Schmerzensreich = rich in pain or grief. This appears to be a direct translation of Pryderi, if the cymric "pryder" is the grief. Pryderi might also be another form of Peredur, otherwise called Perceval. In Wolfram von Eschenbach's version of the Perceval/Peredur tale the mother is called Herzeloyde = Herzeleid = grief of heart.

The sundry elements of the Genoveva legend and the elements of the Celtic Mabon-vab-Modron material may thus result to be mere variants of an old Celtic or proto-Celtic theme telling of an abducted son and his suffering mother following him into wilderness or imprisonment or other kind of isolation.


3. Why was this story of interest to ancient bards or story-tellers?

A singular behaviour of the lyra antelope Damaliscus might serve as an analogy: Male individuals use to chase and abduct nursing calves thus separating them from their mother and drive them to their own territory. Doing this, they compel the mothers to follow thus entering the territory of the kidnapper and becoming his own.

Though the present author rejects all attempts to adopt animal behaviour in order to understand human actions, he recognizes the analogy. In early periods of European mankind a similar custom might have led to a tale about abducted children reared with or without their mothers in a foreign, strange country. That custom having been lost, the original meaning of the tale was no longer understood and it was interpreted in different, Celtic, Christian or other ways.

 4. For all those who judge this to be a too speculative or not admissible way of thinking, another example of an analogy betwen mythical account and ethological observation may be cited.

Apollonius Rhodius tells us: Before Klytemnestra married Agamemnon she was married to a son of Thyestes, called Tantalos, after his grandfather. Agamemnon however, desiring to posses Klytemnestra killed his cousin Tantalos, tore off Tanta­los' child from the mother’s bosom, smashed it to the ground and abducted the young woman.

To this outrage, at least twenty parallels are reported from among apes, monkeys, lions and birds: Male individuals who have killed their rivals in order to adopt their female, immediately kill all the offsprings of the former rivals.


Continue: interface of Death and Mothers