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.