Humans have been working with metal for a long time: from the Copper Age (approx. 3500 – 1700 BCE) when the soft, malleable metal was the first to be smelted and used. So it’s not surprising that many cultures have smith-gods, and that in the Celtic world the smith-god and his name occur in Gaul, Wales, England and Ireland, making him one of the few pan-Celtic deities.1
And a very literal one – Goibniu, Gofannon and Cobannos all mean “Smith”.
The imagery of the Greek Gorgon can be traced back to Persian and Near Eastern art, but the myth of the beautiful Medusa seems to come from a different source. A story found in various forms in Greece, India, Ireland and Wales tells of a woman who either becomes a horse or has a strong equine connection, gives birth to twins and suffers greatly.
However, Demeter, Saranyu, Macha and Rhiannon are goddesses, while Medusa is considered a monster. Still, her story is so similar to these others that it obviously descends from the same Indo-European myth.
In Irish finn means “fair, bright, white, lustrous, light-hued” (MacKillop: 226), and the Welsh gwyn is similar in meaning, with overtones of sacredness. Similarly, the Gaulish god, Vindonnus, gets his name from a root meaning either “clear light” (Green: 32) or “white, blessed” (Deo Mercurio). Coming at it from another direction, Daithai O hOgain has linked Finn/Vind with the Germanic find and Latin vid, words connected to sight and discovery (208).
From this it has been a short step to assuming a god, *Vindos, lying behind these various figures. However, like the “theoretical goddess” Rigantona, the names is a linguistic construct, and we have no evidence of a cult of Vindos.
The fourth branch of the Mabinogion is shaped by exchanges between Arianrhod and Gwydion. From the moment he brings her into the story by suggesting her as Math’s footholder (which seems such an innoncent idea: let’s get my sister, your niece, to do it!) the two are at odds. For the two men subject Arianrhod to a chastity test, since Math’s footholder must be a virgin, a magical condition laid down for his kingship.
Arianrhod fails the test in grand style, giving birth to not one but two boys. Math has one of them baptized and names him Dylan, but this son opts out of the family quarrels and goes to live in the sea. The rest of the story follows the career of the other son, Lleu, as Gwydion tries to get around the curse that Arianrhod has laid on her son.
“It was said that she lived a wanton life, mating with mermen on the beach near her castle and casting her magic inside its walls.”
When I was researching Arianrhod for a recent post, I kept turning up variants on the quote above. In fact, the sentence: “She enjoyed herself sexually, with a distinct preference for mermen,” cropped up frequently without any variation whatsoever. Obviously a lot of copying was going on, but what did the original say?Continue reading →
In an earlier post I talked about the goddess Matrona, or Mother. This time I want to look at a goddess who is totally unmaternal, Arianrhod. Her story comes from the fourth branch of the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh early-medieval tales.
I have a tic; so many goddesses have been thrown into the “mother” category willy-nilly that I resist any description of a goddess as “mother”. (Also, I have noticed that people who lump goddesses together as “mothers” very often don’t consider the complexity of the title – Lotte Motz’ book The Faces of the Goddess discusses the many meanings of Mother.)
When a goddess’ name means Mother, however, you cannot deny it. It is derived from Mātr-on-ā, “Great Mother”, just like Sirona‘s and Damona‘s names mean the Great Star and the Great Cow. Inscriptions call her Dea Matrona, just to add insult to injury. There’s no way around this – she’s the Mother Goddess.
Procyon suffers from an inferiority complex – even its name points to a more important star. Procyon means “before the dog”, meaning Sirius, the dog-star. (Fun fact: the racoon genus is called Procyon, because it used to be thought that raccoons evolved before dogs.)
This post is a bit of a swizz – the name Rigantona is actually a hypothesis, a reconstruction by linguists of the origins of the name Rhiannon. There are no images, inscriptions or literary references to Rigantona.
There are, however, a few inscriptions to a goddess Rigana (whose name would be cognate to Latin Regina). Sometimes these goddesses are associated with Juno or Minerva (Jufer & Lughinbuhl: 13), other times they appear on their own.