Theses  on  Celtic  Religion 9

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 




There are some themes to be located at the interface of Death and Mothers, origin and aim, past and future. Among these are the two types of re-animation (see above, I.1,2). Further, the association of female persons and tumuli are of importance.

Tumuli had been erected for Taltiu, Macha and Branwen. Boand and Brug na Boyne is a further example as are Etain, Cruachan and Brig Leith (and the box,  Etain lives in under Oengus' protection). The roches-aux-fées, those megalithic housings for fairies or witches have conserved this idea until close to our times.

The interfacial region connecting Death and Mothers is also the right place for mer­maids. These strange characters are not mothers or women, but originally are mes­senger of the Otherworld. Their maternal aspect is warranted not only by a woman's body. Llyn y fan fach and Mari Morgane incontestably perform a mother's role in the legends (the latter one even having a daughter, Dahut), and nonetheless they are true otherwordly persons. In the Irish tradition, even the typical primordial mother, Ana, may appear as a woman of the lake.

Significant suggestions associate Motherhood and Death: The killing of own off­springs or the fright to be killed by them.

Conmor, King March, and others are afraid of being killed by the own descendant (Tristan as nephew or son-in-law), and K in fact finds his death by the hand of his grandson Lugh. Yspaddaden is killed by the young man who has come to marry his daughter.

Unwanted, illegal children are killed, mostly using the watery way of death:

Dana's son Gerold, whose father is human, is changed into a goose and vanishes in Loch Gur, the British parallel is Arianrod and her son Dylan. The son of Conair Mor who was hidden under DianCecht's arm glides into the water. Ruadh begets a son under water, who dies there (always water and death are close together = water is close to the otherworld).

One is right in seeing here the reflex of infanticide customs as a means to regulate population growth. Anyway, it is remarkable that this theme left its impact to Celtic wise men and they decided to incorporate it into mythic tales. They used it as an allegory to show the victory of Death over Motherhood and Youth. Some strange stories of young prisoners taken from their mothers or being imprisoned together with them also find their place here.

If one assumes the needles found in Coventina's fountain not to be instruments of obstetrics but of forced abortion, then we have to put this Mother-Goddess also at the interface of Death and Mother.

Those relations between Death and Mothers are not just accidental or incidental. Like day and night, dark and light, winter and summer, also Death and Mothers, future and origin are not independent from another but the other side of the same coin, are joint by transition and are phenomena that penetrate each other, the more as also the Mother is a symbol for the future (future of the living will be death – but by the same token, future is what will be borne).

Within this polarized relation the art of healing has a central position. Illness is the grip of the Otherworld for the living being, the first step towards death. The interven­tion to prevent dying is done by the maternal pole. Therefore it is the mermaid who in the Welsh legend offers the art of healing to mankind, and Coventina is the Mother-Goddess of a healing well.

Healing function is one of the three central functions in the Indo-European context, and is not a specifically Celtic theme: nonetheless we have to see its eminent im­portance.

  DianCecht, Miach, Brigit were prominent healers whose names have come down to us. An­other incidence of medical knowledge offers the healing well of Gobniu or the barrel (caul­dron) where Fraech is cured. This event is depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron which itself might have been a vessel used in the art of healing.


Continue: isolated themes