Women, Myth and

Nuala MacDowell

It has rightly been said that in Ireland we have a rich
 heritage of myth that not only connects us with our 
earliest ancestors, but was also a living and enduring 
part of Irish life into the last century. Today our
 mythology has an enduring fascination, but one that is 
mysterious to ourselves, for we no longer understand our
 own myths, although we still feel their enduring power.

Growing up myself on the borders of Louth and Down, the setting of our most 
famous epic, Tain Bo Cuilgne, I experienced that power at first hand, hearing the sto
ries of Chucullin, the hound of Ulster, of Queen Maeve and the great black bull who
 wandered the flower fields of Colley. I saw those very fields and the places where the 
raven of battle had hovered, where still today blood is spilled in the gap of the North.
 These stories formed so strong a grip on my imagination that, when I was shown the 
statue of Chucullin in the GPO and was told of the Easter Rising, I formed the un
shakable belief that Chucullin had taken part in the defence of the GPO in 1916.

The magical power of women suffuses the myths. This might be as the Morrigan,
 who holds the threads of the Tain Bo Cuailgne throughout, who sets it in motion and 
understands the underlying purpose, who is both a battle Goddess and a nurturing
 Goddess, raven of battle and sacred cow, mother of bulls. It might be as Maeve, now
 great queen and mortal battle chief, now Goddess of sovereignty, or Emer, wife of 
Chucullin who sets him the conditions under which he may marry her and who fights 
with the sea Goddess, Fand, for his love.

Because of the overriding power of the local, Irish myths can seem repetitive and confusing. There are no paramount Gods or Goddesses as in the classical world, with clearly
 defined powers and responsibilities in a hierarchical setting. Rather there are stories with
 the same themes told about different personages and different localities. The Great 
Goddess of life, death and regeneration is Macha in Ulster, a horse, fertility and war
 Goddess; and the Cailleach Beara in Munster, possessed of the same powers, is a cow 
Goddess. One is not superior to the other; they are both supreme on their own ground.
 The Irish also have their Gods – the Dagda, the good God, and the young hero cham
pion, Lugh. But though they are war heroes, skillful craftsmen and fertile Gods, they 
appear uninterested in dominating the Goddesses, who are at once supreme on their 
home ground, absolutely nurturing and of a terrifying ferocity.

What has any of this got to do with psychotherapy and women in particular, fasci
nating stuff though it may be? Irish women have been called both the victims and the 
furies of Irish society, and as both victims and furies they figure largely in the practice 
of psychotherapists, as well as in our political life as a nation. They are victims because
 the powerful bronze age Goddesses were indeed made subject, though much later in
 Ireland than we generally realise. Indeed only in the nineteenth century, with the great
 famine, did Gaelic Ireland finally succumb to the twin powers of the British Empire and 
the Roman Catholic church, although the death had been 200 years in the making.

They are furies because the powers of the ancient Goddesses lingered so long, and
 because the Irish Goddesses were not split off from their original selves, so that they did 
not become the embodiments of good or evil forces as the classical Goddesses did. They
 remained whole with both the power to give life and to bring death, to terrify and to
 heal. Irish women have as a result access to more psychic energy than most northern
 European and American women, though they do not as a rule use it in pursuit of feminist or liberal goals. Irish society accepts far more overt aggression from its women than 
most North European societies, though it does prefer this aggression to be channelled 
towards a tribal enemy, the other crowd in politics, or the other side in a dispute, rather
 than internally to the family or community life. Irish Goddesses were never pacific hearth 
huggers, but warrior queens who chilled the blood of their enemies with terror and panic.
 Alongside the aggression to her enemies, the Irish Goddess, emulated by Irish women, 
cherishes a protective and nurturing sweetness to her own. There is nothing she will not
 do and no trouble she will not go to for those she loves and considers her people. Cross
 her and she will kill you, but if she loves you, you will see her other face and she will set 
no limit to what you may need of her.

Women as individual and separate

The operation of such dynamics in the psyche of Irish women in the context of a pa
triarchal society has confusing consequences. We are rapidly becoming a less 
community-oriented society, and the close community or extended family life that supported and allowed such a psychic polarity in its women is becoming extinct. Women 
are now beginning to discover themselves as individual and separate. As separate indi
viduals, the old nurturing and aggressive dynamic refuses to work. The aggression must 
be suppressed in favour of more bourgeois and less tribal behaviour, and the nurturance 
is no longer supported and can become extremely exploited.

Fused with the aggression and nurturance that the Irish Goddesses display, and deriving energy from both, is a natural sexuality that is as matter of fact as it is omnipresent.
 Prodigious sexual capacity is a normal divine attribute in Irish mythology and the 
Goddesses display it as readily as the Gods. Indeed there is no concept that women as 
well as men should be other than fully sexual. Whatever about aggression and nurtu
rance, women who were uninhibitedly sexual ceased to be tolerated as Gaelic Ireland 
diminished. Women’s sexuality became completely controlled, and men’s diminished and 
guilt-ridden. Ireland now became fully involved in the process of the separation of sexuality and spirituality that prevailed elsewhere in Europe for so long, and as its people
 were subdued, the strictures and controls were the harder imposed. The subversive
 power in Celtic myth to insist to the rest of the Judeo/Christian/Graeco/Roman world that nature and spirit were one, and that it is not the mind of the father but the whole
ness of the mother that gives us life, is now needed badly here at home. The holy Grail
 of the unity of nature and spirit is however a deeply-rooted undercurrent in Irish life, 
forced out of us in peculiar directions without a clear understanding any more of what 
we are about.

The myths of the Celtic world can give us an insight into ourselves that is particularly Irish, that helps us get a grip on how we differ from the British, American and 
European cultures that envelop our small island, and help us to pinpoint the ways in
 which this works for us today, and the ways it does not work for us. As Irishwomen bat
tling for equality in our lives, it is also fascinating or us to discover how deep set and how
 far back are the roots of independent, assertive and powerful women in Ireland. As
 Irishmen, it is salutary to realise the ease and pleasure with which men and Gods could 
once co-exist with powerful women.

For all of us the extent to which we have as a people kept faith with this deep past, 
and the extent to which our conservatism has been a positive force in maintaining a sense 
of ourselves, will be of deep interest. We need to begin again to celebrate our stories,
 keep our ancient festivals and visit our sacred places. As we do this, we will find ways of 
bringing our lives once more into contact with the timeless world that is the source of
 our strength as a people.

Through storytelling, psychodrama and ritual, we can work with the myths, re-eval
uating their symbolism for ourselves today, and through them making sense of ourselves 
and of our history. We can take a story such as that of Ethne, daughter of the steward of
 Bru No Boinne, who on becoming a Christian, loses the taste for the food of the Tuatha
 de Danaan, the cloak of invisibility that protects them, and who exchanges their ever
lasting life for baptism, death and the Christian heaven. To explore the sexuality of
 women, we can listen to the story of Maeve, who always had one man in the shadow of
 another, and who invites Daire mac Factna, the owner of the Bull of Cooley, to enjoy 
the friendship of her thighs. In the stones of Bridghid, the exalted one, we can experi
ence the power of women and its expression as poet, healer and craftswoman.

Nuala MacDowell is a psychologist and counsellor who is writing about Irish 
mythology and who runs workshops or journeys to the Celtic underworld.

Contact her if interested at 01-2876574.