(Photo by Robert Verzo, from Flickr.)
The Irish goddess Boand is famous for two things: she is the mother of the young god Aengus, whom she carried to term in a single (nine-month-long) day, and the river Boyne is named for her, after she caused it to gush forth from a magical well.
Boand and the Well of Segais
The Boyne river rises in the east, in Co. Kildare, flows through Meath, and out into the Irish Sea at Louth on the Atlantic coast. As such, it flows right across Ireland, passing through the mystical centre (and royal residence) at Meath. The Boyne valley in Co. Meath is also home to Newgrange, the Stone Age temple and tomb.
The Well of Segais (or Wisdom) was sometimes imagined to be a sacred centre, and the first poem quoted describes how all the rivers of the world, including the Tigris and Jordan, have it as their source.
Ir was guarded by Boand’s husband, Nechtan, and housed the salmon of wisdom. Only Nechtan and his cupbearers could approach it, since if anyone else did:
There was none that would look to its bottom
but his two bright eyes would burst:
if he should move to left or right,
he would not come from it without blemish…
This comes from the Metrical Dindsenchas (a medieval compendium of place-name lore), which offers two different explanations for how Boand was drowned and became the river Boyne.
The first accuses her of arrogance, suggesting that she went to the well simply to test its power:
Hither came on a day white Boand
(her noble pride uplifted her),
55] to the well, without being thirsty
to make trial of its power.
As thrice she walked round
about the well heedlessly,
three waves burst from it,
60] whence came the death of Boand.
They came each wave of them against a limb,
they disfigured the soft-blooming woman;
a wave against her foot, a wave against her perfect eye,
the third wave shatters one hand.
The second neatly combines the story that Boand had an affair with the Irish god the Dagda, and bore him Aengus, with the origin of the Boyne, by suggesting that Boand went secretly to the well to purify herself after the birth, and the well rose up against her for defiling it:
Boand went from the house in haste
to see if she could reach the well:
she was sure of hiding her guilt
if she could attain to bathe in it.
45] The druid’s three cup-bearers
Flesc, and Lesc, and Luam,
Nechtain mac Namat set
to watch his fair well.
To them came gentle Boand
50] toward the well in sooth:
the strong fountain rose over her,
and drowned her finally.
A shorter, prose version of Boand’s story features in The Wooing of Emer as part of Cú Culainn’s tale of his journey:
It is called Boyne from Boand, the wife of Nechtan, son of Labraid. She went to guard the hidden well at the bottom of the dun with the three cupbearers of Nechtan, viz., Flex and Lesc and Luam. Nobody came without blemish from that well, unless the three cupbearers went with him. The queen went out of pride and overbearing to the well, and said nothing would ruin her shape, nor put a blemish on her. She passed left-hand-wise round the well to deride its power. Then three waves broke over her, and smashed her two thighs and her right hand and one of her eyes. She ran out of the Sid to escape from this injury; until she came to the sea. Wherever she ran, the well ran after her. Segais was its name in the Sid, the river Segsa from the Sid to the Pool of Mochua, the Arm of the Wife of Nuadu and the Thigh of the Wife of Nuadu after that, the Boyne in Meath, Manchuing Arcait it is called from the Finda to the Troma, the Marrow of the Woman Fedelm from the Troma to the sea.’
This version makes Boand out to be a version of Eve, an arrogant rule-breaker, punished for her sins.
Boand and Cows
Boand’s name comes from the root words bó, cow, and *vinda, a word meaning white, bright, or wise. (*Vinda also gives us the names Finn and Find, and the related Welsh Gwyn.) The combination can be interpreted in a number of ways: ‘the Cow-White (Goddess)’ or ‘the Bovine Wise (Goddess)’ or else “she who has white cows”. (Beck and MacKillop) O’hogain suggests “illuminated cow”, meaning both bright and enlightened.
The river and the goddess shared their name since at least Roman times: Ptolemy’s Geography, written in the second century CE, mentions a river Buvinda in Ireland, which can only be the Boyne. (He places the river mouth correctly on the east side of Ireland, or Hibernia.)
Whether Boand had cows or was one, she was hardly the only cow-goddess in the Celtic cultural mix. Her sister was Befind, another cow-name, and the Gauls had Damona, the Cow Goddess. Beck mentions another possibility:
the healing spring-goddess Borvoboendoa, mentioned in a complex inscription from Utrecht (Germany): [Deo(?) (H)erc]oul(eo) Macusa(n)o Baldruo Lobbo(no) sol(uerunt) decur(iones) Vabusoae deo Lobbo(no) Boruoboendoae uo(ta) s(oluerunt) a(nimo) l(i)b(entes). Gutenbrunner, Delamarre and Olmsted propose to split up her name as *Borvo–bō-vinduā, with borvo, ‘to boil’ and the compounding form bō-vinduā, identical to the name of the river-goddess Bóinn. Borvoboendoa might therefore be ‘the Seething White Cow’ and is undeniably a healing spring-goddess envisaged in the form of a cow.
She also mentions Verbeia, a British goddess of the river Wharfe, although she seems to be the only one who translates her name as meaning “She who has Cattle”.
The Vedas, Indian sacred texts, also fused goddesses, rivers and cows, perhaps because like cows rivers were a lifeline and a means of sustenance and prosperity. Still, when you think of cows you don’t tend to think of enlightenment.
O hOgain, however, sees Boand as the “wisdom-giving cow”, so perhaps we should see her as someone who suffered much and sacrificed to gain that enlightenment. As John Carey points out, like Odin, Boand loses an eye when she seeks wisdom from the water, but in the poems the phrase “Odin’s pledge” can refer to the well or his eye, given to it.
Carey suggests that Odin’s sacrifice creates Mimir’s well, allowing the waters to gush forth. Boand’s “transgression” frees the waters of the well to flow across the landscape,1 and Brigit, too, loses an eye, and causes water to flow.
Both cows and rivers give freely; it makes sense that Boand would defy a taboo that kept the source of wisdom and the world’s rivers from those who could benefit from them. As a river, the Boyne runs across Ireland and through the sacred center, instead of being dammed up in one place. In Hindu myth, Indra frees the sacred cattle from a cave, and also frees the rivers. While these are two different myths, perhaps Boand combined them.
Perhaps she and her husband Nechtan were meant to embody two different stances on mystical knowledge: he saw it something precious to be hoarded, with access as difficult as possible. That his cupbearers were able to approach the waters without harm suggests some sort of initiation or at least intensive preparation was required.
Boand’s loss of one eye, one hand and one foot echoes the magical posture of standing on one foot, holding up one hand and closing one eye. Far from the act of a proud or rash woman, Boand’s approach to the well may well have been that of a magical worker who freed the waters of wisdom, at terrible cost, and achieved goddesshood for her pains.
1. So Finn mac Cool has her to thank for becoming enlightened; the salmon of wisdom escaped the well when the waters of the Boyne gushed forth, setting in motion the events that led to Finn accidentally gaining its wisdom.↩
Carey, John P. 1991: ‘The waters of vision and the gods of skill’, Alexandria 1: 163-185.
MacKillop, James 2004: An Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, OUP.
O hOgain, Daithi 1991: Myth, Legend and Romance: An Encylopedia of Irish Folk Tradition, MacMillan.