Dawn Pisturino's Blog

My Writing Journey

Women in Celtic History and Lore

on August 25, 2021
Boudicca

The Celtic world spread over a large territory, from central Europe to Spain to the British Isles. Celtic culture originated in the Iron Age and continues to this day in places such as Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Brittany.

The Romans, in particular, wrote about the Celts because their armed forces invaded Celtic territory and enslaved the Celtic people. Most Celts had been absorbed into the Roman Empire by the 1st century C.E. By 500 C.E., Celtic culture was confined to Brittany and the British Isles. Because of their commonly-held language and traditions, these Celts stood out from other cultures and became the historical model for Celtic culture.

Celtic women were protected throughout their lives: first, by their fathers; secondly, by their husbands; and lastly, by their sons. But Celtic women were not weak and dependent creatures. They were highly regarded as daughters, wives, mothers, and warriors, if the need arose. They were expected to give good counsel, keep their households in good order, and remain virtuous and loyal to husband, family, and tribe.

Queen Boudicca

The best historical example of a fierce Celtic woman is Queen Boudicca of the Iceni tribe, who reigned in the East Anglia region of Britain. In 60 C.E., she led a revolt against the Romans. Bravely driving a chariot against Roman forces, she fought for the liberation of her tribe and vengeance for the rape of her two daughters by Roman soldiers. Although defeated, she went down in history as a British folk hero.

The Old Hag of Beara

The Old Hag of Beara is a legendary Irish Cailleach (divine crone) whose story originated in the Beara Peninsula in County Cork, Ireland. She represented a woman’s life cycle. In her youth, she was the consort of kings, toasting the king and giving sage advice to her royal lover. As an ugly old crone, she sits on the Beara Peninsula as a pile of stones, wielding power over the wind and sea. She has been associated with the coming of winter.

The Old Woman of Beare Poem

It is of Corca Dubhne she was, and she had her youth seven times over, and every man that had lived with her died of old age, and her grandsons and great-grandsons were tribes and races.

And through a hundred years she wore upon her head the veil Cuimire had blessed. Then age and weakness came upon her and it is what she said:

Ebb-tide to me as to the sea; old age brings me reproach; I used to wear a shift that was always new; to-day, I have not even a cast one.

It is riches you are loving, it is not men; it was men we loved in the time we were living.

There were dear men on whose plains we used to be driving; it is good the time we passed with them; it is little we were broken afterwards.

When my arms are seen it is long and thin they are; once they used to be fondling, they used to be around great kings.

The young girls give a welcome to Beltaine when it comes to them; sorrow is more fitting for me; an old pitiful hag.

I have no pleasant talk; no sheep are killed for my wedding; it is little but my hair is grey; it is many colours I had over it when I used to be drinking good ale.

I have no envy against the old, but only against women; I myself am spent with old age, while women’s heads are still yellow.

The stone of the kings on Feman; the chair of Ronan in Bregia; it is long since storms have wrecked them, they are old mouldering gravestones.

The wave of the great sea is speaking; the winter is striking us with it; I do not look to welcome to-day Fermuid son of Mugh.  

I know what they are doing; they are rowing through the reeds of the ford of Alma; it is cold is the place where they sleep.

The summer of youth where we were has been spent along with its harvest; winter age that drowns everyone, its beginning has come upon me.

It is beautiful was my green cloak, my king liked to see it on me; it is noble was the man that stirred it, he put wool on it when it was bare.

Amen, great is the pity; every acorn has to drop. After feasting with shining candles, to be in the darkness of a prayer-house.

I was once living with kings, drinking mead and wine; to-day I am drinking whey-water among withered old women.

There are three floods that come up to the dun of Ard-Ruide: a flood of fighting-men, a flood of horses, a flood of the hounds of Lugaidh’s son.

The flood-wave and the two swift ebb-tides; what the flood-wave brings you in, the ebb-wave sweeps out of your hand.

The flood-wave and the second ebb-tide; they have all come as far as me, the way that I know them well.

The flood-tide will not reach to the silence of my kitchen; though many are my company in the darkness, a hand has been laid upon them all.

My flood-tide! It is well I have kept my knowledge. It is Jesus Son of Mary keeps me happy at the ebb-tide.

It is far is the island of the great sea where the flood reaches after the ebb: I do not look for floods to reach to me after the ebb-tide.

There is hardly a little place I can know again when I see it; what used to be on the flood-tide is all on the ebb to-day!

From The Kiltartan Poetry Book by Lady Augusta Persse Gregory, 1919.

Dawn Pisturino

August 24, 2021

Copyright 2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.


2 responses to “Women in Celtic History and Lore

  1. In Europa’s cultural consciousness the Celtic roots are still visible everywhere in poetry, art and architecture. There are no European sagas, which have not a trace of Celtic origin in them and one of the last great European architecture styles, the Art nouveau traces its forms back to Celtic ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

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