Sovereignty goddess

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Sovereignty goddess is a scholarly term, almost exclusively used in Celtic Studies (though parallels for the idea have been claimed in other traditions, usually under the label hieros gamos).[1] The term denotes a goddess who, personifying a territory, confers sovereignty upon a king by marrying or having sex with him. Some narratives of this type correspond to folk-tale motif D732, the Loathly Lady, in Aarne and Thompson's Motif-Index. This trope has been identified as 'one of the most well-known and often studied thematic elements of Celtic myth'.[2][3][4][5] It has also, however, been criticised in recent research for leading to 'an attempt to prove that every strong female character in medieval Welsh and Irish tales is a souvenir of a Celtic sovereignty goddess'.[6]

Historical evidence

There is some evidence in Greek and Roman accounts of historical Celtic women that leading women such as Camma and Cartimandua might in antiquity actually have been associated with goddesses.[7] It is also clear that medieval Irish rituals inaugurating a new king sometimes took the form of a banais ríghe ('wedding-feast of kingship'), because the king was imagined symbolically to be marrying his dominion,[8] and that similar rituals known by the term feis might involve both sexual activity, and horses (in turn evoking the idea, prominent in modern scholarship, of Celtic horse-goddesses). Most luridly, Giraldus Cambrensis, in his 1188 Topographia Hibernica, claimed that at the inauguration of the king of the Cenél Conaill, the successor to the kingship publicly sexually embraced a white mare. This would then be slaughtered and cooked into a broth in which the king bathed, before he and his people drank it.[9]

However, the type-text for the idea of the sovereignty goddess is the medieval Irish Echtra Mac nEchach ('the adventures of the sons of Eochaid'), in which a hideously ugly woman offers the young men water in return for a kiss. Only Niall kisses her with conviction, and moreover has sex with her, whereupon the woman becomes beautiful and utters the verse[10]

King of Tara, I am the sovereignty [Old Irish: in flaithes];
I will tell you its great benefit.
[It will belong] to your descendants forever, above every kindred;
that is the true reason for which I speak.[11]

The story is transparently a pseudo-history composed in support of the claim of the Uí Néill dynasty to dominance in Ireland.[12]

Criticism

The fairly strong evidence for a tradition of sovereignty goddesses in early Ireland has led to a fashion in Celtic scholarship for interpreting other female characters as euhemerised sovereignty goddesses, or for arguing that the portrayals of women have been influenced by traditions of sovereignty goddesses. This way of reading medieval Celtic female characters goes back to the 1920s, and is related to the myth and ritual school of scholarship.[13] For example, the protagonist of the Welsh Canu Heledd is sometimes read in this way,[14][15] and figures as diverse as Guenevere;[16] the Cailleach Bhéirre;[17] Medb;[18] Rhiannon;[19] warrior women such as the Morrígan, Macha and Badb;[20] and the loathly lady of Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale[21] have been viewed in the same light.[22] However, recent scholarship has tended to criticise these assumptions, in both medieval Irish and related material.[23] For example, the portrayals of Gormflaith ingen Donncadha (d. 861), Gormflaith ingen Flann Sinna (c. 870–948), and Gormflaith ingen Murchada (960–1030) have all been read as showing influence from the idea of the sovereignty goddess, but this has been shown to rest on little evidence.[24] Likewise the role of the Empress of Constantinople, who appears in the Middle Welsh Peredur but not in its French source, has been found to be open to other readings.[25] Even where female characters might historically owe something to traditions of sovereignty goddesses, reading them primarily through this lens has been argued to be limiting and reductive.[26]

References

  1. ^ James MacKillop, A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), s.v. Sovereignty, Lady.
  2. ^ Victoria Simmons, 'Sovereignty Myth', in Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, ed. by John T. Koch (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005), s.v.
  3. ^ Cf. Proinsias Mac Cana, ‘Aspects of the theme of king and goddess in Irish literature’, Études Celtiques, 7 (1955-56), 76-114, 356-413 and 8 (1958-9), 59-65.
  4. ^ Cf. J. Doan, 'Sovereignty Aspects in the Roles of Women in Medieval Irish and Welsh Society', Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, 5 (1985), 87-102.
  5. ^ Cf. R. A. Breatnach, 'The Lady and the King: A Theme of Irish Literature', Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 42, No. 167 (Autumn, 1953), 321-36; https://www.jstor.org/stable/30098456.
  6. ^ Erica J. Sessle, 'Exploring the Limitations of the Sovereignty Goddess through the Role of Rhiannon', Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, 14 (1994), 9-13 (p. 9), https://www.jstor.org/stable/20557270.
  7. ^ Victoria Simmons, 'Sovereignty Myth', in Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, ed. by John T. Koch (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005), s.v.
  8. ^ James MacKillop, A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), s.v. Sovereignty, Lady; http://oxfordindex.oup.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095444376.
  9. ^ Medieval Ireland: An Encyclopedia, ed. by Seán Duffy (New York: Routledge, 2005), s.v. Feis
  10. ^ Victoria Simmons, 'Sovereignty Myth', in Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, ed. by John T. Koch (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005), s.v.
  11. ^ Echtra Mac nEchach, trans. by John Carey, in The Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe & Early Ireland & Wales, ed. by John T. Koch and John Carey, Celtic Studies Publications, 1, 4th edn (Aberystwyth: Celtic Studies Publications, 2003), pp. 203-8 (at pp. 206-7).
  12. ^ James MacKillop, A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), s.v. Sovereignty, Lady.
  13. ^ Erica J. Sessle, 'Exploring the Limitations of the Sovereignty Goddess through the Role of Rhiannon', Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, 14 (1994), 9-13, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20557270, citing Tomas Ó Máille, 'Medb Chruachna', Zeitschrfit für celtische Philologie, 17 (1928), 129-63.
  14. ^ Jenny Rowland, A Selection of Early Welsh Saga Poems (London: The Modern Humanities Research Association, 2014), p. xx.
  15. ^ Flint F. Johnson, The British Heroic Age: A History, 367-664 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2017).
  16. ^ Roger Sherman Loomis, The Grail, from Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol (Cardiff: Wales University Press, 1963).
  17. ^ Jo Radner, 'The Hag of Beare: The Folklore of a Sovereignty Goddess', Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, 40 (1970), 75-81.
  18. ^ Tomas Ó Máille, 'Medb Chruachna', Zeitschrfit für celtische Philologie, 17 (1928), 129-63.
  19. ^ Catherine A. McKenna, 'The Theme of Sovereignty in Pwyll’, Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, 29 (1980), 35-52.
  20. ^ Francoise Le Roux and Christian-J. Guyonvarc'h, La Souveraineté guerriére de l'Irlande: Mórrígan, Bodb, Macha (Rennes, 1983).
  21. ^ Sigmund Eisner, Tale of Wonder: Source Study for the Wife of Bath's Tale (Wexford, 1957).
  22. ^ Victoria Simmons, 'Sovereignty Myth', in Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, ed. by John T. Koch (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005), s.v.
  23. ^ Roberta Frank, ‘The Lay of the Land in Skaldic Poetry’, in Myth in Early Northwest Europe, ed. by Stephen O. Glosecki, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 320/Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, 21 (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2007), pp. 175–96.
  24. ^ Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, 'Tales of Three Gormlaiths in Medieval Irish Literature', Ériu, 52 (2002), 1-24 (2-4). https://www.jstor.org/stable/30008176.
  25. ^ Natalia I. Petrovskaia, 'Dating Peredur: New Light on Old Problems', Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, 29 (2009), 223-43 (pp. 224-25); https://www.jstor.org/stable/41219642.
  26. ^ Erica J. Sessle, 'Exploring the Limitations of the Sovereignty Goddess through the Role of Rhiannon', Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, 14 (1994), 9-13 (p. 9), https://www.jstor.org/stable/20557270.
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