The early Celts savoured the dark side of life. They embraced war like a lover, plunging into battle naked, singing gloriously boastful songs. They were fearless in the face of death, which their belief in reincarnation taught them was ‘…but the centre of a long life.’ It was not uncommon for a man to lend money and agree on repayment in a future lifetime. Their day began at dusk; the new year at Samhain, the festival we know as Halloween. Darkness was associated with new beginnings, the potential of the seed below the ground. In Celtic mythology and folklore, the wisdom of darkness is often expressed by powerful goddess figures. Whether in the natural, cultural or individual context, their role is to catalyse change through the transformative power of darkness, to lead through death into new life. A Dark Goddess of nature, particularly in Scotland, is the Cailleach, a name that came to mean ‘Old Wife’, but which is literally, ‘Veiled One’, an epithet often applied to those who belong to hidden worlds. To this name is often added Bheur: ‘sharp’ or ‘shrill’, for she personifies the cutting winds and harshness of the northern winter. She was also known as the daughter of Grianan, the ‘little sun’ which in the old Scottish calendar shines from Hallowmas to Candlemas, followed by the ‘big sun’ of the summer months.
She is terrible to behold:
There were two slender spears of battle upon the other side of the carlin,
her face was blue-black, of the lustre of coal,
And her bone tufted tooth was like rusted bone.
In her head was one deep pool-like eye
Swifter than a star in winter
Upon her head gnarled brushwood
like the clawed old wood of the aspen root.
Her one eye is characteristic of those supernatural beings who see beyond the world of opposites. Dressed all in grey, a dun-colored plaid wrapped tightly about her shoulders, the Cailleach Bheur leapt from mountain to mountain across the arms of the sea. When an unusually heavy storm threatened, people told each other: ‘The Cailleach is going to tramp her blankets tonight’, for at the end of summer she washed her cloak in Corrievreckan, the whirlpool off the west coast, and when she pulled it up, the hills were white with snow.
In her right hand, she wielded a magic rod or hammer with which she struck the grass into blades of ice. In early spring, she could not bear the grass and sun, and would fly into a temper, throwing down her wand beneath a holly tree, before disappearing in a whirling cloud of angry passion, ‘…….and that is why no grass grows under holly trees’.
At winter’s end, some accounts say the Cailleach turned into a grey boulder until the warm days were over. The boulder was said to be ‘always moist’because it contained ‘life substance’. But many tales say that she turns into a beautiful young woman at this time, for the other face of the Cailleach is Bride, once a goddess, now gentle Scottish saint, whose special day, February 1st marks the return of the light.
On the eve of Bride, the Cailleach journeys to the magical isle in whose woods lies the miraculous Well of Youth. At the first glimmer of dawn, she drinks the water that bubbles in a crevice of a rock and is transformed into Bride, the fair maid whose white wand turns the bare earth green again.
At a cultural level, the Dark Goddess appears in a number of guises, and her role is to facilitate at important transition times of Celtic society, such as war and the choosing of kings. In Ireland, Morrigan, whose name means Phantom Queen, is a battle-fury. Along with Badb (Crow) and Macha, she forms a terrifying triplicity who unleash their powers of enchantment to bring mists, clouds of darkness, and showers of fire and blood over their enemies. Their howls of menace freeze the blood and cause soldiers to flee the battlefield. Any aspect of this triple goddess might appear among opposing armies as crows or ravens, sinister black carrion birds of death.
Or warriors might see a lean, nimble hag, hovering above the fray, hopping about on the spears and shields of the army who were to be victorious. Another of her aspects is the Washer at the Ford, an old woman seen washing the linen of a soldier about to die in battle. Beholding her at this liminal place, a warrior knew that he would soon be crossing the river that separates life and death.
Yet to the Celts, blood and carnage on the battlefield fertilized and replenished the earth. War and death gave way to life and a flourishing land, and Morrigan, who represents this mystery, was also a goddess of fertility and sexuality, sometimes appearing as a beautiful young woman. She was strongly identified with the land itself, in her guise as Sovereignty, the goddess with whom a king-to-be had to mate in a ritual marriage to the country of Ireland.
Sovereignty, too, appears as an ugly crone. In the story called The Adventures of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedn, five brothers go out hunting in the woods to prove their manhood. They lose their way and set up camp among the trees to light a fire to cook the game they have killed. One of the brothers is sent in search of drinking water but finds a monstrous black hag guarding a well. She will only give him water in exchange for a kiss. He turns away, repelled, as do each of the brothers who follow him in turn, except for Niall who gives her a whole-hearted embrace. When he looks at her again, she has turned into the most beautiful woman in the world, with lips ‘as the crimson lichen of Leinster’s crags…her locks…like Bregon’s buttercups.’ ‘What art thou?’ said the boy. ‘King of Tara, I am Sovereignty,’ she replies, ‘and your seed shall be over every clan.’
By appearing in her most repulsive aspect, Sovereignty is able to test for a true king, one who is not fooled by appearances, who knows the value of the treasure that is concealed in dark places. He is willing to put aside self-gratification and submit to unappealing demands out of compassion. Above all, by kissing or mating (as it is more explicitly expressed in other accounts) with the Dark One, he understands the mysteries of life and death as two sides of the same coin and so will be able to draw upon the wisdom of the Otherworld during his reign.
Embracing the Dark Goddess as an act of sacrifice for the greater good is also the theme of the Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain and the Lady Ragnell, where the handsome Gawain promises to marry a ‘loathly lady’ in order to save King Arthur’s life. The court is filled with horror at what Gawain must do, so evil and hideous is his future bride, but when he kisses her on their wedding night she turns into a lovely young maiden of unsurpassed beauty. Initiation through the Dark Goddess occurs in many Celtic tales where an individual is transformed through contact with her.
In this aspect, she often appears as the faery lover who initiates the individual into the mysteries of the Otherworld. This theme is nowhere acted out so vividly as in the Scottish ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, the story of Thomas of Earlston, a poet who actually lived in the 13th century. At the beginning of the tale, which has a number of versions that I have drawn from here, Thomas is found at a liminal place: beneath a hawthorn tree on a faery hill. The tree, standing between earth and sky, is often found at the borderland between the worlds and the hawthorn is especially sacred to the faeries. He is playing music, in all cultures a bridge that connects the worlds, and his tunes attract the beautiful Queen of Elfand who rides up on her white horse. She throws down a challenge to Thomas: Harp and carp, Thomas, she said
Harp and carp along with me
And if you dare to kiss my lips
Sure of your body I will be.
Thomas responds to the challenge fearlessly:
Betide me well, betide me woe
That weird shall never daunt me
And he has kissed her rosy lips
All underneath the Eildon Tree
In that moment, the queen’s beauty withers away and she becomes a foul and hideous crone. He is now bound to her, sworn to follow and serve her for many years. She bids him take leave of the sun and moon and the green leaves of the earthly summer, and she leads him into the very darkness of the hill itself, down below the roots of the tree. Thomas must brave the ordeals of the lower world:
For forty days and forty nights
He wade through red blood to the knee,
And he saw neither sun nor moon,
But heard the roaring of the sea.
Thomas survives the ordeal but when he reaches the further shore, he is half-dead of hunger. They ride through a beautiful orchard, but the Queen warns him that if he eats any of the fruit, his soul will burn in ‘the fire of Hell’. She has thoughtfully brought with her food that is safe — a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine; for this is the Tree of Life that stands at the centre of the Celtic Otherworld, and to eat of its fruit means never to return to the mortal world again. They ride on to where the road branches into three. The Queen explains that the narrow path, beset with thorns and briars, is the path of righteousness, and leads to heaven; the broad, smooth road leads to Hell, but the third ‘bonny road’ will take them to ‘fair Elfland’, their Otherworld destination.
Thomas is then taken to a wonderful elven castle, where there are music and revelry. In her own country, the Queen’s beauty is restored, and Thomas dwells with her there for what seems like three days. But now the Queen tells him he must leave, for all of three years have passed on earth, and today the Devil comes to exact his tribute, or ‘teind of Hell’ from Elfland, and the Queen fears he will choose Thomas.
Before he leaves, however, she gives him a suit of green elven clothes and bestows upon him the gift of prophecy and ‘a tongue that can never lie’ that will make ‘True Thomas’, a household name in Scotland for six centuries to come. Seeking to merge with the Beloved forces Thomas, embracing his Shadow, the Guardian on the Threshold, takes an inevitable first step on the journey to the Self, for the truth borne by the goddess is two-fold:
Thomas has been enticed into transpersonal realms by the promise of beauty but he must face all that is ugly, unresolved and unregenerate within himself before he can cross over into the world of Spirit. Accepting his shadow is only the first part of Thomas’ initiation, however. Now he enters into a dark night of the soul in the perilous reaches of the lower world, an archetypal journey into the body of the goddess herself as the Earth Mother who opens her womb/tomb to receive the dead.
The British Isles and Ireland are dotted with such hills and mounds said to be entrances to the invisible lands, many of which are viewed as the Earth Goddess manifest. New Grange in Ireland, for example, is seen in some legends as the womb of the goddess Boandd, who gives her name to the River Boyne flowing nearby.
Thomas’s journey of death and transformation through this chthonic realm is an ancient rite of passage leading to a higher state of existence found in cultures worldwide, often as a ‘night-sea journey’. He has no choice but to trust the Queen, his psychopomp, and she does indeed protect him well, warning him away from acts that would keep him imprisoned in Elfland forever, and saving him from being taken by the Devil.
Her return to her former loveliness heralds Thomas’ entrance into the earthly paradise of Elfland. But he has not come to enjoy the delights of that country forever: he has worldly work to do, although when the Queen bestows upon him ‘a tongue that will never tell a lie’, Thomas’s ego rises up and would refuse such a seemingly profitless gift:
‘My tongue’s my own,’ True Thomas said;
‘A goodly gift you’d give to me!
I’ll dare not either buy nor sell,
At fair or tryst where I may be.’
Thomas is not allowed to deny his spiritual calling. On his return to Scotland, he finds he has the powers of the bard, who ‘present, past and future sees’, gifts which he returns to share with his people. By entering the Eildon Hill, Thomas has died to his old self and gained the skills of the ‘twice-born’ initiate. He is given the gift of prophecy because he consciously embarked upon the Otherworld initiation before death and obeys the Queen’s laws, proving himself a worthy speaker of hidden knowledge on his return to the mortal world. By entering into the timeless realms, he has been able to transcend time itself and see into the future. He can never return to the self that knew only one world, and when his work was over, legend tells us that two white deer, messengers of the Dark Goddess, came into Earlston to summon him back to the land where she reigns.