Hesper! Sweet Aphrodite’s golden light!
Hesper! Bright ornament of swarthy Night,
Inferior to the Moon’s clear sheen as far,
As thou outshinest every other star;
Dear Hesper, hail! And give thy light to me,
Leading the festive shepherd company.
For her new course today began the moon,
And is already set–O much too soon!
‘Tis not for impious theft abroad I stir,
Nor to way-lay the nightly traveller.
I love; and thou, bright star of love! shouldst lend
The lover light–his helper and his friend.
My last post on Gefjun touched on the question of her status. She is counted among the goddesses, but so are Skadi, Gerdr and Jord, all of whom are giantesses by birth. John Lindow has argued that she was obviously a giant or other primal being, although others have seen her as an earth goddess.
The only real myth about Gefjun tells how she “entertained” the Swedish king Gylfi, and he rewarded her with as much land as she could plough in one day. Gefjun either already had four sons by a giant, or else went off and conceived and bore them for the occasion, turned them into oxen and managed to plough enough land to make the large island of Zealand.
This was the giveaway that the oxen were imbued with giant strength: they ploughed deeply enough to cut Zealand away from Sweden entirely, and Gefjun gave it to the Danes. Far from anyone being angry with her for this, Odin rewarded her with marriage to his son Skiold, king of the Danes.
Gefjun will be forever be famous as the goddess who gave Zealand to Denmark. The Danes immortalized her feat with a fountain in Copenhagen harbour, showing her and her oxen ploughing out the land.
She has many similiarities to Odin, as a goddess who travels between worlds, tricks mortals, and straddles moral and sexual boundaries. Far from being an earth and ploughing goddess, Gefjun is a magical and complex figure.
This week’s post could easily have been called “fearsome deities“. Odin, whose name means “fury”, and the Morrigan, who steps out of the fairy realm to stir up war and slaughter. It’s not hard to see what they have in common.
Two previous posts compared each one to the benign goddess Brigit, and although I was forced to conclude that apart from being goddesses and having a cow, the Morrigan and Brigit had very little in common, the Leinster goddess and Odin shared a complex of myths about water, eyes, and insight.
I was partly inspired by this, and partly by other things I had read (see links at end), to bring the Irish war-goddess and the Norse battle-god together. And then get quickly out of the way.
Do you still remember: falling stars,
how they leapt slantwise through the sky
like horses over suddenly held-out hurdles
of our wishes—did we have so many?—
for stars, innumerable, leapt everywhere;
almost every gaze upward became
wedded to the swift hazard of their play,
and our heart felt like a single thing
beneath that vast disintegration of their brilliance—
and was whole, as if it would survive them!
Back in 1977 Patrick Ford published a paper called “Celtic Women: the Opposing Sex”. It could have been tailor-made for the Morrigan, a fearsome goddess who spends most of the Tain trying to destroy the hero Cúchulainn.
By contrast, Brigid seems to be the “good girl” of Irish myth. She is the daughter of the Dagda, and mother of three sons. She marries the Fomorian Bres to end the war between his people and hers, and later weeps bitterly when her son dies in battle. (And when Christianity comes, she smartly transitions to a saint. It’s very hard to picture a St Morrigan, although I wonder what she would be patron saint of…)
Two very different goddesses? Sometimes I imagine that Irish goddesses were invented by someone heavily into Winnicott and Klein, and the theory that babies imagine their mothers as all-powerful beings that they alternately love and hate/fear.