the sovereignty goddess of ireland
Updated: Mar 19
Following my recent posts on Macha and the site of Emain Macha, it occurred to me that I have referenced, but never really elaborated, on the concept or function of the sovereignty goddess in Irish myth.
To be honest, she’s quite a hard character to pin down. She is thought to represent the land, and sovereignty over the land. A would-be king was expected to unite with her in order to legitimise his right to the kingship. Feasting would be involved, and sex. Another important feature was the offering of an alcoholic drink by the goddess to the king.
According to Muireann ní Bhrolcháin, the sovereignty could manifest in three ways, and an element of transformation was always involved:
1. She appears to the king as an ugly old hag, who becomes young and beautiful when he completes the challenge she sets him, usually sex or a full-on kiss, at least.
2. She appears as a woman who loses her mind and then regains it.
3. She appears as a woman who loses her status, but regains it.
Personally, I’m not convinced by the latter two. I don’t believe the stories following these themes fit the criteria; certainly it’s a stretch, in any case. But there are several stories which appear to support the first. Let me give you an example.
Niall Noígíallach (of the nine hostages) is thought to be a real historical person, although his life is now shrouded in legend and myth. He was a high king of Ireland, possibly during the 4th or 5th centuries, and fathered the mighty Uí Néill dynasty which dominated Ireland throughout the early medieval period.
When he was out hunting with his many brothers one day, they stopped at a well to draw water. The well, however, was guarded by an ugly old hag who demanded payment of a kiss. Fergus and Ailill were disgusted, and refused. Fiachrae gives her a quick peck on the cheek, but she is not satisfied by his chaste offering.
According to Whitley Stokes’ translation, this is what she looked like:
“Every joint and limb of her, from the top of her head to the earth, was as black as coal. Like the tail of a wild horse was the gray bristly mane that came through the upper part of her head-crown. The green branch of an oak in bearing would be severed by the sickle of green teeth that lay in her head and reached to her ears. Dark smoky eyes she had: a nose crooked and hollow. She had a middle fibrous, spotted with pustules, diseased, and shins distorted and awry. Her ankles were thick, her shoulder blades were broad, her knees were big, and her nails were green. Loathsome in sooth was the hag’s appearance.”
Undeterred, Niall launches a no-holds-barred, full-on snog on the old woman, even offering to sleep with her though she only asked for a kiss, and thus gratified, she transforms into a beautiful young woman and bestows upon him and twenty-six future generations of his descendants the right to the high kingship of Ireland.
Fiachrae is also rewarded; two of his descendants enjoy the high kingship of Ireland, too. Note though, that the beverage offered by the goddess of sovereignty is but a humble sip of water, not an alcoholic drink.
Compare this with the story of Conn, who finds himself entering the Otherworld through mist. There he encounters the God Lugh, one-time high king of the Tuatha de Danann. With him is a beautiful woman bearing a golden goblet filled from a gold and silver barrel. Such a vessel is unlikely to hold water. She asks Lugh to whom she is to offer the cup, and he tells her to give it to Conn, who drinks whilst Lugh then goes on to recite a long list of Conn’s descendants who will become high king after him.
Here, the woman does not fit any of the three categories above; she is already beautiful, has not lost her mind, and as consort of Lugh possesses high status. Feasting and drink is involved, but not sex. Although not specified, the implications are that the drink is wine or mead or ale, definitely alcoholic… water would not be served from a god to a king at a feast. And although the drink is given by the woman, the right to kingship is bestowed by Lugh. Not only that, but they have passed through the misty liminal margin between the mortal and magical worlds, the whole ceremony taking place in the Otherworld.
Neither of these stories seem to compare with Macha as a sovereignty goddess either. Although the Macha who dies giving birth to twins is clearly an Otherworldly figure with the superhuman ability to run faster than a horse, she does not perform any of the functions of the sovereignty goddess.
Neither does Macha mong Ruadha; in addition, she appears to be a mortal rather than a goddess, a woman with intellect, courage and power, qualities normally reserved for men, and elite men at that. However, there are those who seem to think that any woman portrayed as a Queen must have been instead a goddess figure bestowing sovereignty upon a man, because in those days, women functioned only in a domestic, subservient role and were not permitted power of any kind. It seems to me that this might be a view prejudiced by the patriarchal values of our own society rather than an objective interpretation of the past.
Examples of the second and third sets of conditions, in which the woman loses her sanity/ status, seem to be associated with the province of Munster and include the stories of Mór Muman and Suithchern, her sister, and also Mis and Dubh Rois.
Mór Muman was the daughter of a seventh century historical king known as Aed Bennan, of the Eoganacht Locha Léin. She is said to have lost her mind after hearing voices in the air, causing her to escape by jumping over the embankment which surrounds her home. My lecturer says that such leaping is typically a sign of mourning, loss or madness in early Irish literature.
Anyway, she (Mór, not my lecturer) wanders Ireland for two years, crazed and dressed in rags. No one recognises her. Finally she comes to Cashel, where she gets a job minding King Fingen mac Aeda’s sheep. Fingen’s wife mocks the new shepherdess, daring her husband to sleep with her. He obliges, and afterwards takes her as his new wife, giving her a ‘purple cloak and queenly brooch’. Her sanity is restored and she duly produces a male heir, Sechnasach. When Fingen dies, Mór marries another king named Cathal, and after him, another king of the Eoganacht.
According to ní Bhrolcháin, Mor’s fertility and her multiple marriages indicate a goddess role, but Mór was a mortal, not an Otherworldly figure, and high status women were often remarried more than once, so I am not convinced by this argument.
Mór had a sister named Suithchern, who plays a minor role in Mór’s story. She turned up at Cashel after her sister married Fingen in a similarly deranged state. As Mór did before her, she tended the king’s sheep, until Mór arranged a marriage for her with Lonán mac Bindig, King of Éile. Suithchern is captured by Cuanu mac Cailchine, provoking Lonán into battle in which both men are killed.
However, Suithchern also has her own tale. Here, she is married to a different king: Rónán mac Dícholla of Uí Liatháin. For some reason, her father has cursed her, so she flees to take refuge with her sister in Cashel, but she does not recognise her, as she has disguised herself in dirty, grey peasant clothes, rubbed her face with rye dough (to give the appearance of leprosy) and has blackened her skin. This is much the same as Macha mong Ruad’s disguise, when she goes after the brothers who are plundering her kingdom.
So Suithchern goes to seek her lover, Cuanu mac Cailchine; note in this story he is her lover not her abductor. However, the manuscript is damaged and incomplete; the next legible piece of writing has her at Rónán’s court, where he is already married to another woman. This wife teases her husband into sleeping with the ugly newcomer. Suithchern then washes herself and dons a purple cloak in readiness for her night with the king.
Scholars claim this represents the transformation from ugly hag to beautiful goddess, but to me it looks like a woman who disguised herself in order to travel alone and un-accosted who then takes a bath before a night of passion with a king. Don’t forget she was also a mortal woman, daughter of a historical king.
Needless to say, the next morning Rónán abandons his wife and marries Suithchern, but after twelve childless years she leaves him to resume her search for her lover, Cuanu, and is never heard of again.
The story of Mis and Dubh Rois is a right raunchy little tale, if ever I heard one. I can just imagine medieval audiences enjoying the innuendo of this one.
Apparently, her father is killed at the Battle of Ventry (so he fought with Fionn mac Cumhaill, which places this story in the third century). When she finds his body, she is so distraught that she loses her mind and drinks his blood. She then goes on the rampage around the area of the Sliabh Mis mountains, causing so much havoc that the king sends his harper, Dubh Rois, to sort her out.
Dubh Rois knows a thing or two about wild women, and he decides the best way to win her round is with gold, music and sex. He lays down on the mountainside, undoes his trousers to expose his privates, hoists up his harp, and begins to play. Mis is drawn to his harp playing at first, but quickly becomes more interested in him.
“A glance she gave, and she saw his nakedness and his playthings, and she said: “What are these?” she asked of his bag and his little eggs, and he told her. “What is this?” she asked of the other thing that she saw. “That is a branch of the trick,”he said. “I don’t remember that,” she said. “My father did not have such a thing.” “Branch of the trick,”she said again. ” What is the trick?” “Sit beside me,” he said,” and I will perform the trick of that branch for you.” “I will,” she said, “and stay beside me.” “I will,” he said. He lay and slept with her and she said: “Ho ho, a good trick. Do it again!” “I will,” he said. “But I will play the harp for you first.” “Never mind the harp,” she said. “Do the trick again.”
Dubh Rois then builds a fullachta fiadh in which he boils deer meat to feed her, and gives her bread he has brought with him. Then he melts deer fat in the warm water of the fullachta and bathes her in it. She can’t have smelled too good, but I guess soap was originally made from animal fats.
Thus the gentle harper gradually returns Mis to civility and restores her sanity. They go on to marry and have children together. I think equating this story with the sovereignty myth, however, is stretching the imagination a bit far.
According to Wikipedia, the trope of the sovereignty goddess was identified in the 1920’s, and some scholars today believe that this has had a limiting effect on strong female characters in mythology, reducing them to euhemerised sovereignty goddesses, rather than as powerful women in their own right.
Personifying the land as a woman is not just an ancient tradition, however; it still goes on today. England is characterised as Britannia, America as Columbia. In the nineteenth century, the English portrayed Ireland as Hibernia, the pretty but vulnerable and weak sister of Britannia.
However, the Irish saw their sovereignty in a somewhat different form; she was Kathleen Ni Houlihan (in Irish, Caitlín Ní Uallacháin), Mother Eire. She manifested as an old woman calling Ireland’s young men to fight for her, to throw off the chains of oppression which bound them to colonial rule.
Yeats and Lady Gregory staged a play entitled Kathleen ní Houlihan in 1912 during the Gaelic Revival. I studied it as part of one of my English modules this year, and true to form, at the end of the play, one of the characters observes the old woman’s transformation into a beautiful young woman with ‘the walk of a Queen’.
Here though, the myth has been manipulated to represent not the right to sovereignty of a king, but of a nation. I love how this demonstrates the meaning and power mythology still has in modern times, how old tales and characters can be reborn, re-invented, and woven into our psyche thousands of years after they were first created. Like fairy tales, they are a part of us, with new messages and new layers of meaning laid down by successive generations.
Refs. My own notes from lectures, ‘The Cultural Heritage of ‘Royal Sites’. Muireann ní Bhrolcháin, ‘An Introduction to Early Irish Literature’, Four Courts Press.
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