by Patricia Monaghan
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Magazine for Goddess Women Near & Far
In the heart of summer, darkness makes its home.
This is the mystery
the ancient Celts acknowledged in their seasonal festivals: Light was
celebrated in winter darkness while the dark was honored in the bright
times of harvest. The religion of my ancestors was one of paradox rather
than dualism. Light was not the opposite of darkness but was contained
like a seed within it, just as the seed of darkness was planted in the
time of light. Thus Lughnasa, the harvest festival on August 1 that marked
the end of the ritual year, celebrated the death of Lugh, the divinity
who represented light.
you can still visit the great sites of the Oenachs or assemblies held
at Lughnasa in Celtic times. I've visited the great flat hillfort near
Slieve na Cailleach, the mountain of the hag in Co. Meath, where the Teltown
Games were held in honor of Lugh's mother Tailtiu. I've been to Croagh
Patrick, the pyramidal Co. Mayo mountain that as many as 60,000 pilgrims
still climb on Lughnasa, now Christianized with a promise that three ascents
guarantee you heaven. I've sat on the shores of Lough Gur in Co. Limerick,
staring at the gray waters in hopes of seeing Áine, the lake's
lusty goddess, rise to celebrate the festival night. I've been to Kilorglin,
Co. Kerry, to watch Puck of the Mountains hoisted onto his kingly throne.
But no Lughnasa site moves me as much as a single stone in the tiny town
of Cullen, Co. Cork, right beneath the famous breast shaped peaks topped
with stone nipples, the Paps of Danu.
Few pilgrims visit
the standing stone next to the grotto to the Virgin Mary at the entry
to the town's graveyard. Local people still gather for a little village
fair on Lughnasa, as they've done for millennia, but I've never been there
on the last weekend in July to witness the event. When I've visited, the
Stone Heart of Latiaran stood alone, untroubled by tourists or celebrants.
Below the graveyard, I've drunk the cold water of one of Ireland's smallest
holy wells. Although I've never encountered another person on my visits
to Latiaran's holy sites, stone and well are tended sufficiently to suggest
someone in the area still pays homage to this Celtic "saint."
She is known nowhere else, this holy woman with the untranslatable name. Legend tells us that she was carrying boulders in her apron one day when a smith -- that magical being -- admired her shapely ankles and she, suddenly modest, dropped her apron, from which fell a huge stone in the shape of her heart. There is only one other Irish goddess of whom that story is told: the Cailleach, the world-creating hag, who built mountains by dropping stones from her apron.
In many lands, the world-creator is a fire-goddess (often connected to earth-creating volcanoes), and so it is not surprising that Latiaran had two sisters named Lasair ("flame") and Inghean Bhuidhe ("yellow-haired girl"). The trinity of goddesses may have been worshiped by the pre-Celtic people of the area who nippled the nearby hills in honor of their mother goddess, for the Cailleach derives from that cultural strata. If so, they were adopted into the festival cycle of the Celts, with Latiarin becoming the goddess of the harvest, honored by every woman who curtsied to her stone heart during the period of ripening.
For every Irish local
legend there is another contradictory one, and such is the case with Latiarin,
for her sister Lasair was said to have been the twin of a truly obscure
goddess named Ciar. The only thing we know about Ciar is the meaning of
her name, "extreme darkness." Thus we are again reminded of
the complementarity symbolically contained in the Celtic ritual year.
I have been pondering
this Celtic wisdom of late. Every few days we hear pronouncements about
the danger of "evil" people who, our leaders claim, seek to
harm us. Public discourse has never, in my memory, been so replete with
references to "evil." Implicit in these pronouncements is the
corrollary concept, that of "good." And if "they"
are "evil," certainly "we" must be "good."
That Iraqi mother who picked up the decapitated head of her daughter from
the rubble of America's attack on a private home in which her country's
hunted leader may have been dining -- I cannot shake her image -- is an
unfortunate resident of the "axis of evil." We, the world's
do-gooders, were only trying to help her when we murdered her child.
Implicit in the political rhetoric of the day is an idea that "good" and "evil" are fixed qualities that are always in opposition. (Need I comment on the implicitly racist connection of good with light and evil with darkness?) But the words themselves reveal a different set of possibilities. "Evil" is not a negation of "good" but derives from a familiar and welcome word: "full." What is e-full is what is excessive, out of control, disproportionate, unnatural. "Good," by contrast, derives from words meaning "to gather." Thus the history of the very words our leaders use betray a different worldview than they embrace. It is a world in which the natural order is the measure of rectitude. Greed for an excessive share of the earth's resources: that is e-full. Gathering with our friends and loved ones to celebrate nature's abundance and to acknowledge the seed of darkness even in the brightest time: that is good.
Monaghan, author of The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog: The Landscape
of Celtic Myth and Spirit (New World Library, 2003) and the forthcoming
Encylopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore (Facts on File, September,
2003), is finishing a collection of poems about the effects of war on
children; you can see a sample at the website www.fourthorder.org.