Book Review: 
The Serpent and the Goddess – Women, Religion and
 Power in Celtic Ireland. Mary Condren. 1989, Harper 
and Row.

ISBN 0-060250156

Although this book is not directly about psychotherapy in any way, it addresses a subject 
of such fundamental importance to the psychological life of women that I feel it should certainly be read by any therapist who is seriously concerned with the effects of social oppression.
 The particularity of the study to Irish history adds to its value for Irish therapists. Indeed I 
would go so far as to say that the book is at its most interesting and lucid in dealing with the 
special qualities of Irish history and society in relation to women, a subject which still suffers 
considerable neglect. (A recent publication on Irish history, JJ Lee’s Ireland 1912 – 1985 – 
Politics and Society, has in all its seven hundred and odd pages only 14 references to women
 and none at all to feminism, women’s movement, Cumann Na mBan!).

The opening chapters, The Age of Eve, cover ground which would be very familiar to 
anyone interested in women’s issues, but they do so clearly and concisely. Condren briefly
 addresses the ways in which Judaism and Christianity disempowered women:

“The sacredness of birth would be replaced by a form of power that took on meaning only 
after death. The proprietors of this power, the Christian priests, would be effective only in
sofar as they were not at the mercy of their biology and resisted the temptations of women. 
God the Father was quite distinct from the Mother Goddess.

“
She draws some important distinctions, however, between the nature of patriarchy and 
matrifocal society:

“It is important to point out that, although women were held with great respect, matri
focal societies were not matriarchal, that is societies where all power rested with the women.
 A matricentred society was not simply the reverse of patriarchy where public power does 
indeed rest with men.”

In contrast with some quasi-historical publications on this subject, Condren resists the 
temptation to fantasise about such societies and instead goes on to concentrate closely upon 
the loss of matrifocal, and matrilinear qualities in the evolving power structures. It makes a
 fascinating read. Suddenly all sorts of facts that are quite well-known but have been perifer
al become critical factors in the formation of the structures we live with today. I found it 
wonderfully challenging to have female saints such as Catherine of Sienna referred to as “holy
 anoretics”, who “used their bodies as ways of defying male authorities.” The problem of so-
called female masochism has haunted the psychology of women from the time of Freud and 
it was most refreshing to read an account of history which let some light in upon it. The inter-relation between the individual psychology and the social paradigms is endlessly fascinating
 and Condren’s analysis of the power struggle of Irish history provides a compelling basis on 
which to think about it. For example, she says:

“The accusations levelled against the witches symbolise vividly the crucial issues at stake.
 Witches were accused of causing painless childbirth (indeed, midwives themselves were con
sidered to be the worst sinners of all)…..”

The fact that this religion actually intended women to undergo pain and suffering for 
being women casts quite a startling light on the convenient construct of female mosochism.


The Cult of the Hero

As Condren carefully argues her way through Irish history, pointing out that the Celts (so
 often eulogised because they were pre-Christian) were actually fiercely patriarchal and developed the cult of the Hero which defined the role of women quite specifically:

“The lesson is clear: giving birth to a hero can only take place under conditions where the 
men are in control. Heroes can only be born when the fatherhood of the child has been clear
ly settled and where paternity is beyond dispute.

“
She cites the curse of the goddess Macha, whose cry to the men of Ulster as they fought 
their heroic and bloody war was: “‘A mother bore each one of you ….possibly the last symbolic attempt to appeal to motherhood as the basis for public social ethics.”

From this time, Condren suggests that whenever men might wish to ridicule a weakling, 
”they would say with all the contempt of the triumphant philosophy, ‘He was as weak as a
 woman in childbirth.'”

In the succeeding Christian period, the social repression of women went through a 
number of twists and turns:

“Women in early Ireland have travelled an ominous path: once revered symbols of creativity, they have become signs of danger and pollution: transformed into virgins, they now
 need to be ‘protected’.”

With considerable subtlety, Condren suggests the personal pain and degradation, the 
losses of self-authority, the misery of self-loathing which this regime could create in women:

“Many women effectively became ‘holy anoretics’ in that they used their bodies as ways
 of defying male authorities. Often commanded to eat, they would appeal to a higher author
ity, that of ‘God’s will’ or to a personal communication with God to resist the authority of a
 confessor or a doctor. The lengths to which these women would go, while extreme and
 painful, gave them a power they would not otherwise have had: immediate access to God 
through the sufferings of their bodies and a tangible sign of their holiness. These women 
wrested control of the system in a perverse act of autonomy that ultimately issued in their 
own deaths.”

It seems to me that such a thorough analysis of the ways in which the position of women 
in society has been eroded and then corrupted under the various systems of patriarchy in Irish 
society can provide therapists with great help and insight into some of the issues which are
 bound to confront them in practice. The most striking and moving quality in Condren’s book 
for me was certainly the compassionate way in which she summoned the pain and confusion
 with which women necessarily respond to the discriminations against them on grounds of
 their sex alone. Often I found myself recognising various hooks and catches which trouble
 me today when I think about the fact of being born a woman, lots of moments when I felt 
”Aha!”, as Perls would say. And Condren concludes with a chapter which I think expresses 
clearly the anxieties about the effects of the oppression of women, and by extension of nature:

“The paradoxical and tragic view of life in the form of the Serpent-Goddess was overthrown in the search for a God who would grant eternal life in return for morality. Yet now
 we are faced with the greatest paradox of all: the more we attempt to control and enforce this
 morality on the rest of the world, the more precarious the basis of human existence becomes.”

Mary Montaut