Insula Feminarum / La Reverdie
Résonances médiévales de la Féminité Celte


Arcana A 59

lnsula Feminarum. Mediaeval echos of Celtic femininity

No not sink upon a bed of sloth,
do not let your bewilderment overwhelm you;
begin co voyage across the clear sea
to find if you may reach
Tir na mBan, the Land of Women
(lmmram Bran, 8th century, translated by K. Jackson)

Insula Feminarum, Tir na mBan, mis Ablach, the Castle of Maidens, Avalon, the Isle Joyeuse... Just as many evanescent, magnetic, parallel feminine universes within the magic precincts of which an archaic — and, at the same time, a very modern — conception of Woman and the role she exerts in the world found shelter and survived, despite work and historical, philosophical and religious upheavals. These blessed islands, a sort of metaphore, peripheral areas (or even disguises?) of Paradise, that men of the sea or pen sighted fleetingly or coveted in vain, throughout the Middle Ages.

The steps by which the fascinating archtype of the Island of Women was perpetuated in Europe, from tradition to tradition, and down through the centuries, are only a specular image of those intermediaries which enabled forms and symbols of Celtic culture to propagate during the Middle Ages, by means of a slow, constant and fertile metamorphosis, going beyond geographical and ideological frontiers with a perfect fluidity and without traumatism.

As with most seminal prototypes of epic cycles, it is possible to define a real core, made up of historic facts, on which are then grafted multicoloured, sometimes rebellious narrative buds. As of the first century, the geographer Pomponius Mela mentioned the Sein Islands off the Breton coast, the seat of a picturesque divinatory sanctuary guarded by nine virgin priestesses who were endowed with the power to control the elements, heal the sick and transform themselves into animals (all faculties which reappear frequently in the material that we will analyze further on).

The sacred prestige of this type of place doubtless contributed, if not to creating then at least to making more intense and widespread the eminently Celtic concept of alltar (‘Another Place’). It is often — but not necessarily — a question of an island which shares with its Indo-European Hellenic homologue, the Hesperides Islands, the western latitude, the resolutely feminine connotation and the predominance of apple trees. In any event, this place co-exists alongside the human world and remains accessible to human beings, even though uniquely through mysterious, deceptive ‘threshholds’, beyond which one reaches Another dimension of being.

Through contact with Christianity, the alltar did not disappear — on the contrary. The painless fusion of Tir na mBan with Tir na mBec (literally, ‘Terra Viventium', a name which, however, already existed in the pre-Christian era) might be explained by J.L.Weston's analysis [From Ritual to Romance, Cambridge, 1920] referring more generally to the innumerable transmissions of symbolic structures from the Celtic to the Christian traditions: ‘...there was something in these legends which not merely made possible but actually invited a transition to high Christian symbolism.’ This is why well-known Immrama (a literary genre in ancient Irish which narrated the marvellous initiatory travels of a hero in supernatural places) find a place of honour in devotional literature: around the 9th century, the travels of the heroes Bran and Maelduin gave birth — without major modifications either in the itinerary or in the style — to the Navigatio of a semi-historical figure, Saint Brandan, abbot of Clonfert. Transposed into its Christian version, the myth becomes even more directly intelligible, and the Saint sets off quite openly in search of the archtypical Paradise, the source of being, whereas the destination of Bran/Maelduin had been more ambiguous. And it is certainly not mere coincidence that the oldest and most sublime mediaeval visions of a Christian hereafter (precisely those which will find their definitive and most perfect version in Dante's Divine Comedy) appear in these works from the Celtic area, in which are drawn spiritual landscapes whose phantasmagorical imagination has no equivalent in other European traditions.

Yet not only the Church assimilated these ancient mythic structures, investing them with new functions; secular culture was also fascinated by them and did not cease to propose them in turn, often without even trying to decipher them, by adapting them to new styles. In the 11th century, almost suddenly, a sort of Celtic flood washed into the cultural basin of continental Europe: this was but the first of a long series of Celtic Renaissances which would occur regularly every hundred years or so (we think especially of Spenser's extravaganzas during the Tudor era, Stukeley and his neo-Classic druids, the Ossianic mannerisms of Romanticism, Yeats, and certain so-called ‘rediscoveries’ of the New Age). Whereas the authors of theological and adventure fiction, in the tradition of the first Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes (c.1180), drew abundantly from Celtic sources concerning the myth of the Holy Grail (numerous studies have proved with certainty that the ontogenesis of the Grail must be put in relation with the Irish — and perhaps pan-Celtic — prototype of the Cauldron of Immortality), the specialists of secular subjects war and love — did so to the same extent.

The Celtic-insular origin of Arthurian romances and the legend of Tristram and Isolde (the subject matter of Brittany), as well as the complex and refined intellectual game which is generally called ‘Courtly Love’, is an established fact, even if there remain logistical and chronological hesitations concerning the precise ways and means of transmission (one of the most likely hypotheses postulates an itinerary going from Ireland to the Continent by way of Wales, to Breton authors, following the Norman conquest). J. Darrah [Paganism in Arthurian Romance, Bury, 1994] clearly sums up this concept in a few lines drawn from a monumental recent study of pre-Christian motifs in the cycle of the Round Table: ‘Violence and sex in the Arthurian legend... follows track deeply implanted in the human psyche as to explain their long survival.., they originate in a primitive religious system of great antiquity... Once the significant features of this system (in which strong men fought to obtain the brief possession of a goddess) have been identified, it will be recognized as providing some of the most popular topics in the romance, those topoi constantly recurring. The real life «retainers» of the original deities, their human representatives such as sacred kings, became transformed into medieval knights... and their consorts into wives or mistresses; and the original driving force of the great heroes of epic, which... will be shown not to be love, but the devotion of a sacrificial victim to his goddess... was interpreted as romantic love, an unfamiliar concept in the 12th century. Thus a force that irrevocably altered men's conception of women, and which ensured the survival of the Arthurian legend as romantic love's most powerful medieval exponent, arrived on the literary scene almost as an accident.’

The Lady of troubadours' poems and courtly romances was in fact rather different from her sisters in real life: ladies who, in the effective exercise of power, counted for nearly nothing (with a few notorious exceptions which confirm the rule) found themselves thus invested, in the theories of mystical love then fashionable in their salons, of an absolute power of life and death over men. They were sung and recognized by men as the source and instigators of all virtue, martial or otherwise, Mistresses and Initiators, exactly like the warrior-goddesses, -queens and -magicians from pre-Christian Celtic myths. We may thus subscribe to the remarks of Jean Markale [L'Epopée Celtique d'Irlande, Paris, 1971], doubtless the most knowledgeable and most eloquent standard bearer of the modern Celtic Renaissance — for once, scientifically and philologically irreprochable: ‘Courtly love is only the poetic form which, in the 12th and 13th centuries, was adopted by the cult of the Magna Mater Omnipotens... If the Queen takes lovers, it is not for alienating the Sovereignty but for transmitting her strength and giving man the power to work towards the exclusive good of the Sovereignty... Courtly love.., is fairly disconcerting in the Christian society of the Middle Ages and, even if its origins are supposedly Occitan, it corresponds closely to the preoccupations of the Celts and refers to their socio-juridicial system.’

Classical Celtic society was (as doubtless was also mediaeval European society in its entirety) essentially patriarchal. All Indo-European societies, in fact, were founded on this model; but within this vast domain, the range of more or less openly patriarchal orientations was undeniably quite broad. Also, alongside societies in which the role of the woman was clearly subordinate and secondary (Latin and Hellenic), we find others in which her function was, at least ideally, much more elevated and prestigious (Vedic, Germanic and, to an even greater degree, Celtic society). Obviously, we do not have precise information at our disposal concerning the effective social impact of this particularity of the Celtic world. Nonetheless, even though mythology, epic and the customs of matrilinear succession undeniably show that woman was considered as a being endowed with an extremely powerful ‘energy’ — overflowing with ‘mana’ as an anthropologist would say — both spiritual and material, that she alone could transmit efficiently to the male, through highly precise channels.

If, as has been asserted, specific linguistic constructions are the profound expression of the mental structures of the society which produces them, it will be useful here to recall that, in Celtic and Germanic idioms, the genders of the Sun and Moon are the opposite of those in the Romanic languages. Beyond language appears the mythic ideology: the active, imperishable principle, giver of light and strength, is feminine, whereas that which is passive, cyclical, cold and vulnerable is masculine (see, for example, at the height of the Stil Novo period, the archaistic image of the knight on his charger, its hooves ‘shod with ice’ (‘ferrato a ghiazza’), and his defeat by the powerful Donna di chalora (Lady of Heat) in a madrigal by Jacopo da Bologna). This sort of game of inverting the roles of the Sun and Moon is related in significant fashion to the mythological and social motivations which progressively brought about the violation (imposed not in a ‘premeditated’ but a ‘functional’ way) of a theogonic system already widespread throughout the whole territory of European civilisation. The original sun goddess, now supplanted, had to content herself with domination over the Moon, whereas the ‘modern’ figure of the Cultural Hero, a new Apollo vanquishing the Serpent Python (the latter being a characteristic emblem of the subterranean mother goddess), seized abilities, prestige and attributes (prophecy, domination over the animal kingdom, patronage of the hunt, arrows bearing epidemics as well as health, particular links with harts, wolves and large migrating birds...) which heretofore had belonged to his own sister-mother-rival.

This latter may be brought back to the Indo-European prototype of Danu/Anu/Anna/Anann: so many sovereign female deities who, in the most varied cultural environments (from Vedic India to Ireland, from Iran to the ancestral lines of the Urals) always appear with their cortege of sacred birds, associated with waters (see the etymology of innumerable European rivers: the Don, Dniester, Danube, RoDano [Rhône] and so forth), to the domination over wild beasts, fountains and springs, maternal fecundity... These goddesses (or rather these different cultural avatars of the same divine figure) present a marked tendency to appear in a ‘trinitarian’ form: doubtless the same having survived — up through the 16th century, notably in regions where ancient Celtic settlements had existed — in a Christianized version through the particular iconography of Anna Selbdritt (the feminine Trinity made up of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus in the arms of Saint Anne, which Masaccio himself certainly did not ignore). This ‘goddess of origins’ continued to reappear regularly during Classical periods, in the multiform semblances of various proto-Dianas/Artemis (like the very fecund Mother Goddess worshipped at the sanctuary of Ephesus, or the Mother Goddess Anu/Danann who gave her name to places and mythic episodes famous in Ireland); she made it nearly unscathed through the passage to the Middle Ages, becoming in turn Anne, sister of King Arthus, or Saint Anne, whom certain royal Welsh families placed at the head of their dynastic pedigree, or yet again, the different Ladies of the Lake of Diana, the Hunting Maidens (Chacereces) who, in the romances of Breton subject matter, perform typical, stereotyped functions as initiators, inspirers and persecutors regarding the heroes.

It is in the constant interaction of these immemorial archetypes with the evolving European imagination that one must seek the origin of this sense of breathless atmosphere, like a never-ending initiatory journey in quest of the Eternal Feminine which is scattered throughout beliefs, cultures and arts and which — eternally unquenched — continues to cyclically produce our ‘daily Celtic Renaissances’. Once again, we can thus subscribe to Jean Markale's remarks, which are both poetic and provocative: ‘The image of the Celtic woman, even if it is dreamt more than actually lived, is unquestionably more beautiful and richer in meaning than the servile hetaera (courtisan) with whom the Mediterraneans too often replaced the Goddess of Beginnings, she who was honoured at Ephesus, well before the Virgin Mary's dwelling place was put there... To rediscover the Goddess of Beginnings in her fullness, it is necessary to destroy the chaotic and shadowy monsters which interpose themselves between the hero and the Lady of Light. Thus can appear the mysterious Dana, whom the Irish made the mother of the gods, and whom the Bretons recognized, even unconsciously, in the features of Saint Anne, she who can take on all names and faces, the Sun-Woman.’


It is in an eminently Celtic context that we have chosen the titles of the four sections presented here, conforming to certain primscéla (literary genres of the first category) which are to be found in the traditional repertoire of the filidhs, one of the innumerable categories of Irish bards from the early Middle Ages, subject to rules and artistic and deontological customs as precise as they were strict.

I. SERCA—All the pieces belonging to the ‘Loves’ section, disseminated over a period of approximately two centuries, are so many manifestations of the most typical commonplaces of Courtly Love. However, a typically Celtic atmosphere inhabits every one of them: from Tir na mBan, an eponymous piece from the collection, judiciously written for three voices (the Three, a mystical number for the Celts, was a symbol of totality, fullness, transcendence and abundance itself— see the significance with which the term ‘très’ is used in French) to Wyth right al my hert (whose heroine is evocatively named Annis — a Black Annis, both fairy and witch, still exists in English folklore), by way of Tre fontane from the Italian estampie, evoking places both aquatic and trinitarian quite often willingly frequented by various Dianas and Maidens of Arthurian romances. As for our version of the well-known Lamento di Tristano, in the background, we seem to hear two moving verses from l'Intelligenza, a brief poem written by an anonymous Italian author in the early 15th century: ‘Audi’ sonar d'un arpa, e smisurava / (‘non si curava delle costrizioni della mensuralità musicale’? ‘si lasciava andare emozionalmente, con celtico abbandono’?) / ‘cantand'un lai, onde Tristan moria’ (I heard the sound of a harp which poured forth / [not worrying about the construction of the musical mensurability’? he let himself go emotionally, with the Celtic abandon’?] singing a lai where Tristan was dying).

II. BANFLAITH—In ancient Irish, this term can mean both an abstract concept (Royalty, Sovereignty) as well as a mythic character: the marvellous Lady from the Other World whose kiss, carnal friendship or attentions in the broad sense of the word result in a mortal being automatically raised to the rank of kings, of beings in relation with the Beyond. This fundamental Celtic concept (the same according to which, in myths and the epic, Queens—tangible personifications of Banflaith — are situated on a different level as regards their husbands, whereas the Kings are there only due to their being the husbands, effective or mystical, of a Goddess who, incarnated or not as a mortal queen, is the true mistress of the kingdom), destined to exercise a determining influence over the mediaeval theories concerning Royalty. The phenomenon is verified thanks to a process of transmission which one might roughly schematize as follows: from ancient monastic Ireland, depository and, in a certain sense, guardian of native pre-Christian traditions, to the particularly dynamic Anglo-Saxon cultural milieu of the 8th century; from this milieu (thanks to personalities such as Alcuin and Scoto Eriugena, for example) to the Carolingian Palatine Academy; and from there to the mediaeval world in its entirety. Furthermore, almost parallel, an interesting phenomenon was occurring in certain Northern European and insular areas: that of the Virgin Kings. These were doubtless mystic spouses faithful to the ancient Goddess by tradition, or rather, beings jealously possessed by the abstract, philosophical personification of Banflaith. Theywere canonized by a clergy who, just like the Anglo-Saxons and Irish, always considered the sovereign as physically and viscerally responsible for the well-being of his kingdom (cf. the eloquent definition placed at the head of the list of pieces belonging to this section, drawn from a treatise of political theology from the period) and continued to enjoy a flourishing veneration up until the very end of the 15th century. Here we present two particularly striking cases: that of Saint Magnus Erlendsson, jarl (governor) of the Orcades during his lifetime and patron saint following his premature death at the hand of his cousin, Hakon Palsson (Nobilis humilis Magne), and that of Saint Edmund, last king of East Anglia and patron saint of England (Deus tuorum militum/De flore martyrum and Ave miles celesis curie/Ave Rex) whose hagiography overflows with fascinating mythic motifs of clearly Celtic origin (for example, the ‘multiple death’ during the sacrificial period of Samuin — the month of November — and the miracle of the talking severed head which is associated with innumerable kings of Irish epic cycles).

III. ECHTRAI—In the Celtic tradition, the constants relative to Adventure could be schematically reduced to three: the Quest (for a person, animal or object of capital material and spiritual value); the Visit in the Alltar — or else, from the Alltar — (in the course of which a supernatural Lady or King bursts into the world below in order to kidnap or call back to them a mortal of whom they are particularly fond); and the Seasonal Combat (the theme of which always remains essentially that of the young champion of the Rebirth — sometimes represented by a young girl — who victoriously stands up to the waning powers of Winter). By all appearances, Di novo è giunto un chavalier may be related to this last category; the second, on the other hand, is represented by Seguendo 'l canto, in which the extremely Arthurian Diana shares with the great Celtic goddesses mentioned above the mythological apple tree, the zoomorphic and warlike appearance as well as one of those messenger birds whose flight sometimes determined — at least according to the late Latin historiographer Justin — the migration of entire populations (as in the case, for example, of the Illyrians). With Nel bosco sanza foglie, we finally witness a spectacular hybrid quest in which the Hunting Maiden is in turn hunted, with the features of a ‘white hare’ (a disguise favoured by fairies and witches in Irish folklore). In passing, we may point out that this remarkable ‘Arthurian connection’ of texts underlying the Ars Nova is nothing other than the prolongation of an outdated frequentation of the matter of Brittany in the artistic milieu of northern and central Italy. Beginning in the mid-12th century, on the north portal of the cathedral of Modena, one finds a bas-relief illustrating a rare episode drawn from the cycle of the Round Table; the particular shapes taken by the names of Guinevere and the knights, in the explanatory inscriptions, refer directly to the earliest sources in middle Breton — of which the knowledge in the Emilian region is an ulterior and stupefying proof of the ubiquity and persistence of Celtic literary motifs.

IV. FISI—For this predominantly ‘Marial’ section, which attests to the encounter of the rising courtly ideology and a prodigious expansion of the cult of the Virgin Mary, we once again leave the word to Jean Markale's remarkable talent for synthesis [La femme celte]: ‘All the great sanctuaries devoted to the cult of the Virgin Mary are, for the most part, places devoted to a feminine Celtic divinity, be it the Cathedral of Le Puy-en-Velay or Notre-Dame in Chartres...’ ‘The Galls always accorded the cult of the Mother Goddess a place of honour... a statue of her... stood in a subterranean sanctuary on the site of the cathedral of Chartres, and this Virgo Paritura became Notre-Dame-de-Sous-terre ('Our Lady of-the Underground’), an object of veneration for Christian pilgrims. It was thought to have definitively depicted the triumph of Jahweh and Christ, but from behind reappeared the troubling, desirable figure of the Virgin.., who took on rather surprising dedications: Our Lady of the Waters, of the Nettles, of the Bramble Bush, of the Hillocks, of the Pines...’

As for Godric, a British hermit with a stormy past as a pirate-merchant, he maintained equally confidential relations with music, animals and the supernatural world (it was the Virgin Mary in person who made him memorize, in a dream, the song Sainte Marie viergene; as for Crist & Sainte Marie, he learnt that from the lips of his beloved sister Burgwen, recently deceased, who appeared to him in a vision accompanied by two angels). Here is what the researcher Margarete Riemschneider says in her book Die Religion der Kelten: ‘If one looks closely, one will notice that his whole legend is a Christian interpretation of ancient Celtic sagas... Godric is linked, even more closely than others, with animals which, previously symbols of Hell, become gentle companions to Saints... Amongst the latter, those who have something typically Celtic, even after their conversion, remain close to craftsmen and peasants, especially when they become hermits.’

We will bring to a close this voyage to the Island of Women with a particularly lucid analysis which was written by a woman, Hilda Ellis-Davidson [Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, Manchester, 1988], whose argument was to strike a fair balance between philological erudition and emotional weight, by studying some of the most profound European roots which she associated with others, attributing a renewed significance to them — yet, it is precisely the meticulous and complex ramifications of the same roots that LA REVERDIE has attempted to cover again here: ‘While there are great problems, there are also great riches in the tradition left by the... peoples of north-western Europe [...] which deserve something more than pedantic analysis. We should not be content to wrangle over minute fragments isolated from the whole, but need to search for what can be discovered of a world-picture which endured over a long period of time for many men and women, to perceive where its strengths lay. In this way, we may come to understand more dearly the strengths and weaknesses in our own picture of the world.’

Ella de Mircovich
Translated by John Tyler Tuttle