My first post on the Irish goddess Boand sparked a question on the Mythology Stack Exchange about cows as symbols of wisdom. There is a blog called The Wisdom of Cows, but I suspect that a mythological version wouldn’t run long.
However, Boand is the goddess of the river Boyne, and there are many examples of river-goddesses who give inspiration, wisdom and sometimes musical talent to their worshippers.
In fact, the name Boand could mean White Cow, or Sacred Cow (yes), but it could also be a possessive form, which would make it She who has White Cows. (MacKillop: 45) This would fit better with other river-goddesses, who give abundance and wealth.
In this post I have ignored the many Celtic river-goddesses, who tend to lack mythology, in favour of two well-documented goddesses, one Iranian and one Indian.This may seem a strange choice, but since Ireland, Persia and India were all home to people speaking Indo-European languages, it would not be surprising if these three goddesses showed some similarities.
Anahita: purifying waters
Anahita was an Iranian goddess, whom we know mainly from Zoroastrian religious texts. Although the Zoroastrians were monotheists, many of the older gods and goddesses remained as lesser powers, yazatas, who were seen as subordinate to the greatest yazata, Ahura Mazda.
Her full name gives a better idea of her importance as a goddess (and later Zoroastrian yazatā): Aredvi Sura Anahita, moist, mighty, immaculate. She was always associated with fertility, wisdom, and healing, but as time went on she took on characteristics of Innana/Ishtar as well, so that she was associated with the planet Venus and became a war-goddess.
Like the Greeks and Norse, the Iranians imagined that a large body of water encircled the earth, a world river, which flowed from a spring on the cosmic mountain. The river was itself called Aredvi Sura Anahita, and it was the source of all moisture in the world:
3. ‘The large river, known afar, that is as large as the whole of the waters that run along the earth; that runs powerfully from the height Hukairya down to the sea Vouru-Kasha.
4. ‘All the shores of the sea Vouru-Kasha are boiling over, all the middle of it is boiling over, when she runs down there, when she streams down there, she, Ardvi Sura Anahita, who has a thousand cells and a thousand channels: the extent of each of those cells, of each of those channels is as much as a man can ride in forty days, riding on a good horse.
5. ‘From this river of mine alone flow all the waters that spread all over the seven Karshvares; this river of mine alone goes on bringing waters, both in summer and in winter. This river of mine purifies the seed in males, the womb in females the milk in females’ breasts.
In another version of the creation, the waters are called Ahuranis, the wives of Ahura, another name for Apam Napat. This may be the link between Boand and Anahita, as Apam Napat is the Fire in the Water, a sort of luminous glory that lights up in the water.2
As I mentioned above, it’s more useful to look at Boand as a goddess who has cows, and while Anahita does not have a flock of her own, she provides water for all animals:
89. ‘”O pure, holy Zarathushtra! Ahura Mazda has established thee as the master of the material world: Ahura Mazda has established me to keep the whole of the holy creation.
‘”Through my brightness and glory flocks and herds and two-legged men go on, upon the earth: I, forsooth, keep all good things, made by Mazda, the offspring of the holy principle, just as a shepherd keeps his flock.”
This comes form Yasht 5, a hymn praising Anahita. It refers to her twice as “the herd-increasing and holy, the fold-increasing” emphasizing her role in sustaining life.
The same hymn says that priests and students should pray to her for wisdom:
86. ‘”The men of strength will beg of thee swift horses and supremacy of Glory.
‘”The Athravans who read and the pupils of the Athravans will beg of thee knowledge and prosperity, the Victory made by Ahura, and the crushing Ascendant.
The Zoroastrian rite of Ab-Zhor, or “offering to the waters”, is part of the Yasna ceremony, with haoma poured out into water with invocations to Aredvi Sura Anahita. (The remaining haoma is then shared out among the celebrants.)
While Anahita and Boand have a fair bit in common, Anahita seems to have been a virgin goddess. This ties in with her immaculate nature, and when the Greeks encountered her cult they compared her to Artemis and Athena. It is tempting to imagine a relationship between her and Napat, but there is no evidence to back it up.
Like Boand, Saraswati was the personification of a river, as well as a goddess, but in her case there is some mystery about which river.
While early Hindu texts like the Rig Veda talk about the Sarasvati river, later texts (including the Mahabarata) say that it dried up in a desert. More recently, several candidates have been put forth for the Sarasvati, including the Ghaggar, the Helmand in Afghanistan, and the Beas or Yamuna rivers. (And now the Indian government says they’ve found it, and are excavating it.)
The river was also seen as a cosmic river, which came down from heaven to earth. (Like the Ganges.) Performing rites on the banks of a river, or purifying oneself by washing in it, reflect that belief.
The name Saraswati means “one with plenty of water” in Sanskrit, and a hymn in the Rig Veda calls her mother and river:
Best Mother, best of Rivers, best of Goddesses, Sarasvatī, We are, as ’twere, of no repute and dear Mother, give thou us renown.
17 In thee, Sarasvatī, divine, all generations have their stay.
Be, glad with Śunahotra’s sons: O Goddess grant us progeny.
18 Enriched with sacrifice, accept Sarasvatī, these prayers of ours,
Thoughts which Gṛtsamadas beloved of Gods bring, Holy One, to thee.
Like Anahita, Saraswati is much more than a water-goddess. She and the goddess of speech, Vac, were often compared or merged, and Saraswati grew into a goddess of culture, poetry and music.
In classical and medieval times, she was a goddess of learning and poetic inspiration. (Kinsley: 55) In addition to all the usual connections you might expect from a river-goddess, such as healing and purification, the Indians saw crossing a river as an escape from ignorance or bondage in to freedom, so Saraswati took a more mystical role as well.
This fit in well with her choice of husband, Brahma, an abstract deity who personified wisdom, and who was the father of the four Vedas. He is the creator in the Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva trinity, although sources vary as to whether he created the universe or was created by one of the other two.
Brahma has four heads, and Saraswati sometimes has four hands to show that she is his shakti, who puts his ideas into action. One story has it that Brahma split her off from him, to pervade reality with insight, knowledge and learning. (Kinsley: 58)
The Rig Veda has an interesting take on this. Although I haven’t been able to find any connection between Saraswati and cows, it compares learning to milk and butter from the goddess:
Sarasvati’s role as goddess of music links her to Boann, as this passage from the Tain bo Fraech shows:
Gentle and melodious were the triad, and they were the Chants of Uaithne (Child-birth). The illustrious triad are three brothers, namely Gol-traiges (Sorrow-strain), and Gen-traiges (Joy-strain), and Suan-traiges (Sleep-strain). Boand from the fairies is the mother of the triad: it is from the music which Uaithne, the Dagda’s harp, played that the three are named. The time the woman was at the bearing of children it had a cry of sorrow with the soreness of the pangs at first: it was smile and joy it played in the middle for the pleasure of bringing forth the two sons: it was a sleep of soothingness played the last son, on account of the heaviness of the birth, so that it is from him that the third of the music has been named.
This story is likely allegorical; the three types of music were the kinds that harpers had to be proficient in before they could ply their trade, imagined as Boand’s sons by the Dagda, whose harp (and sometimes his harper) was called Uaithne. (Paice MacLeod: Loc. 1825)
Inspiration, and musical ability, are among Saraswati’s gifts to her worshippers. Another connection with Boand is Saraswati’s colour: white. She is always dressed in white, sits on a white lotus and has the swan for her bird. Boand, of course, has white cows. Unlike Boand, however, Saraswati is a transcendent goddess, not particularly sexual or interested in fertility.
As far as I can see, however, there is no connection between Saraswati and the Vedic Apam Napat, who seems to have been a very obscure god. There is one hymn in the Rig Veda dedicated to him, and he seems to have been a mere form of the fire-god Agni.
If you like the image at the top, click here.
1. The Napat element is linguistically related to the name Nechtan, Boand’s husband and keeper of the well of wisdom.↩
2. The ability of oil to burn in water may have suggested the form of this particular god, although the suggestion that the word naphtha (ancient Greek for petroleum) comes from Napat is unlikely.↩
3. ‘Meath’ most likely refers to a narrow strip of grazing land beside a river. The word comes from Irish English.↩
and a link to an image of a cow playing a harp.
Green, Miranda 1997: Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins and Mothers, British Museum Press.
Kinsley, David 1988: Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition, University of California Press. (Google Books and Questia)
MacKillop, James 2004: An Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, OUP.
MacLeod, Sharon Paice 2011: Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief, with Newly Translated Prayers, Poems and Songs, McFarland. (Kindle)
Nabarz, Payam (ed.) 2013: Anahita: Ancient Persian Goddess and Zoroastrian Yazata, Avalonia Books.
Puhvel, Jaan 1987: Comparative Mythology, The John Hopkins University Press.
Ross, Anne 1992: Pagan Celtic Britain: Studies in Iconography and Tradition, Constable and Sons.