October Blood Moon: Pig, Ivy and the Curse of Macha

As we enter October, named from Octem in the old Roman calendar, we begin our slow descent into the Underworld of winter. The last of the fruits ripen, succulent yellow pears, and the chlorophyl in green leaves dries to produce shades of burnished bronze. Most plants give in gracefully to this Underworld descent, but a few continue to flourish. Foremost amongst these is the virulent ivy, wrapping undeterred its spiralling, waxy leaves around anything standing in its path.

Ivy has been associated with intoxication and poetry in many cultures, with the constellations, and in particular the moon. In the classical world, it was used to enhance the frenzied rituals of the Bacchae, followers of Dionysus, who steeped ivy leaves in wine in order to make it more potent (and the after-effects less so). The Anglo-Saxons also used it to brew beer before the introduction of hops, then known as alehoof, and taverns would display an ivy bush over the door to show they brewed only the best alcohol. [1]This demonstrates that the Celtic world was familiar with the potent intoxicating effects of the plant, and could have used it in ritual contexts to enhance inspiration and bardic ability.

The October full moon was sometimes known as the blood moon because this was when life stock was slaughtered and salted in preparation for the long winter months ahead. Swine herders would drive their pigs throughout autumn to graze on the acorns and beech nuts strewn across the ways and woods, distributing the fat evenly across the body of the creatures through daily exercise. As such the pig, the sow in particular, was often seen as the nourisher, sacred to the goddess in many traditions and held in high regard in the Celtic one. Pigs were herded and consumed in large numbers at clan gatherings and feasts, and also at symbolic Otherworldly feasts where great life-giving cauldrons were said to be endlessly filled with boiled or roasted pork.

Pigs were often used ritualistically in the Celtic world, and at the Iron Age fort on Hayling Island and Cadbury in Somerset, large numbers of pigs have been found deliberately buried, sometimes in avenues.[2] They were also sometimes buried alongside people, whom they presumably continued to nourish in the afterlife, and it was believed that the pigs too would be continually reborn after their slaughter. Whereas the sow was linked with nourishment and life, it was the male boar who was more associated with death and life-taking aspects.

Swine nerds are also mentioned in early Welsh sacred tradition, and the White Ancient One, a sow called Henwen is said to give birth to an eagle, a bee, a kitten and a grain of wheat. This birthing or shapeshifting ability has led some researchers to see links between Henwen and the goddess Ceridwen, who they call the white sow goddess of pigs. Though the evidence for this is thin, there is abundant evidence that the sow was seen as sacred to a life-giving creatrix goddess as far back as early Neolithic times across Europe, and this could be an echo of this belief.

In Celtic tradition, October and the feast of Samhain are often linked with the Morrigan, a triple goddess with one of her aspects taking the form of the intriguing Sovereignty goddess, Macha. She was said to be one of the Tuatha de Danaan, and sometimes considered a triple goddess in her own right, with different persona woven together in the stories to form one multi-faceted person. As a Sovereignty goddess, she is an embodiment of the land, conferring sexual favours on suitable kings selected to step into the role of guardians. As protector of both territory and the people connected with it, she is also both warrior and carer, mediator of fertility and plenty.

One of her most famous stories is told in the Debility of the Ulstermen, where she is strongly connected with the horse, the ultimate symbol of Celtic Sovereignty . Her appearance is sudden and unexpected, for one day she simply shows up at the house of a farmer named Cruinniuc and takes on the role of his wife. ‘She fetched a kneading-trough and a sieve and began to prepare food. As the say drew to an end, she took a vessel and milked the cow, still without speaking.’[3]

 His wealth grew and Cruinniuc prospered with Macha at his side, a sure sign that she was the goddess Sovereignty in human form, and she even becomes pregnant by him. One day he leaves to attend a festival organised by the king of Ulster, and she warns him that he must not speak of her to anyone otherwise she will not stay. However, he breaks the promise and during a chariot race, boasts to the king that his wife can run faster than even his swiftest horse. Cruinnic is ordered on pain of death to prove his claim, and Macha is duly brought before the king. Even though she is heavily pregnant by now, he forces her to run against his horses without mercy.

Sure enough, Macha wins the race, and gives birth at the finishing line to a twin boy and girl before the king’s horses reach their goal. Then, for disrespecting her she utters a curse that is to be in place unto the ninth generation: the men of Ulster will be overcome with weakness in the hour of their greatest need, becoming as weak as a woman in childbirth (or in some accounts, suffer the pain of childbirth) for five days and four nights. The place where she gave birth is known as the Emain Macha, and is today equated with the sacred site of Navan in Co. Armagh. All the men who heard her cry were immediately seized with weakness, and the effects come once more into play in the Cattle Raid of Cooley (see ‘June Mead Moon: Honeysuckle, Maeve and Bees‘ above) when the Ulstermen were unable to resist the invasion of Maeve and her men.

As with the other Sovereignty goddesses such as Aine and Maeve in the Irish cycles, or Rhiannon and Branwen in the  Welsh mythological traditions, we abuse or disrespect the goddess of the land, and therefore the land itself, at our peril. Weak and power hungry kinship, where the king has forgotten his role as guardian or the land or people, is also punished with a withdrawal of abundance and wealth, lessons still as relevant today as the times when they were first spoken and written.


[1] ‘Ivy’ in ‘The Green Man Tree Oracle’ by John Matthews and Will Worthington

[2] ‘Sow’ in ‘The Druid Animal Oracle’ by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm

[3] ‘The Debility of the Ulstermen,’ translated by Mary Jones (online)

September Harvest Moon: The Horse, Rhiannon and Blackbirds

The month of September is named simply from the Latin for seven, as in the seventh month, but what it lacks in name it makes up for in the bounty and splendour of the harvest produce, of the often serene last days of summer, and the emerging spectacle of leaves beginning to turn shades of crimson and amber. As the vibrant summer wild-flowers fade, crysanthamuns of every hue step in to fill the colour void and boughs of apple, pear and quince bend under the weight of their ripening load. In the woodland, mushrooms push their way through the fecund soil and brightly coloured berries abound – sparkling orange rowan, rich indigo elder and of course plump inky blackberries. Their briars and brambles are the stuff of fairy tales, said to grow prolifically around lands lost in the mists of time, and permission should always be sought before picking the berries, which can then be turned into wine and a source of inspiration and intoxication.

At this full moon close to the Equinox and time of balance in the seasonal cycle, it is pertinent to consider Rhiannon, one of the most liminal of goddesses in the Welsh tradition. A leading mythological figure in the Mabinogion, she features in two out of the four Branches. Her memorable appearance in the first Branch leaves us in no doubt that we are dealing with an otherworldly being. Her husband-to-be, Pwyll king of Dyfed, is sitting on a fairy mound when he sees  ‘a woman mounted on a great, majestic pale-white horse, dressed in brilliant gold silk brocade, coming along the main road that ran past the mound. To anyone who saw it the horse appeared to have a slow, steady gait as it came even with the mound.’[1]

Entranced by this the most beautiful maiden in the world, he sends his men in pursuit. However, though the horse appeared to be moving slowly, neither Pwyll’s men nor he himself, mounted on the swiftest horse in the realm, can catch her up. Only when he bids her wait for the sake of the man she loves does she stop. She then reveals that she is trying to flee an undesirable suitor, who she is being forced to marry against her will, and that it is in actual fact Pwyll whom she desires to marry. After outwitting her suitor in a rather unworthy manner through a game called Badger in the Bag, Pwyll and Rhiannon do indeed marry and reign happily over Dyfed, until, a year later, Rhiannon gives birth to a son.

Tragically, on the night of his birth he is kidnapped and the women who were supposed to have kept vigil over him devise a macabre plan to save themselves. They kill a pup, and smear the blood over Rhiannon’s face, incriminating her in the death of her son. She was thus condemned for his murder and her punishment was to sit beside the mounting block at the court in Arberth for seven years, and to carry travellers on her back to court like a horse as a penance.

Rhiannon accepts her punishment gracefully, and meanwhile, her son is brought up by the lord of Brent who found the baby deposited on his doorstep as he tried to save a newly birthed colt. Eventually the lord of Brent realises who the foundling is and Rhiannon’s son is returned to her, and to his birthright, as he inherits the seven cantrefs of Dyfed upon the death of his father.

So Rhiannon, established as a sacred otherworldly being, descends to the mortal realm where she is badly treated, even abused. She appears in connection with a fairy mound, the movement of her horse beyond time and space, passing over the landscape steadily yet always out of reach, like the Moon traversing the night sky. She refuses to be given in marriage against her will, and insists on choosing her own love-mate, though this does not go particularly smoothly.

Above all, she, and indeed her son, are deeply connected with the horse, and for the people of Ancient Britain this was an aspect of Sovereignty, the sacred power of the land itself, intricately linked to power and fertility, and the life-death cycles inherent in this.  The relationship between people and horses is one of the oldest and most primal of all, stretching back deep into the Ice Age, and horse sacrifice played a central role in the proto-Indo-European religion that branched out from the Pontic-Caspian Steppe, spreading over western Europe and eventually reaching the British and Irish Isles in the form of the Anglo-Saxons and Celts. These people owed their lives and their livelihoods to the horse, and above all able to journey, to move through the countryside exploring new territories and lands. Both the archaeological record and Vedic mythology attests to the paramount nature of horse sacredness, and horse remains have been found in ritual pits and chariot burials over long distances and time.

This memory was retained later in the form of the Celtic horse goddess, Epona, who was worshipped from Britain to Bulgaria, and even the Romans set up shrines dedicated solely to her. Though the archaeological evidence for the worship of Epona in Britain is scanty and therefore her worship sometimes disputed, some remains from the Dubonni tribe in South Wales have been found consisting of coins with horses,  moons and heads on them, an area very much linked to the myths and legends of Rhiannon.[2] Further evidence for the central role of the horse in proto-Celtic times is the White Horse of Uffington located on the fabulous landscape of the Ridgeway in Berkshire, now dated in its original form to sometime between 1380 and 550 BC.[3]

Rhiannon is also famed for her magical birds, the Ader Rhiannon, which are also mentioned in the Mabinogion in two different Branches. These three birds are said to sing a song that can wake the dead and put the living to sleep. When they sing they sound as though they are very close but when you look for them they appear to be across an ocean. Like Rhiannon’s horse, they are otherworldly creatures holding the keys to life and death, possibly acting as psychopomps, or carriers of the soul to another realm.

Though not explicitly stated, it is possible that these were blackbirds, considered one of the oldest of animals in the Welsh tradition. Blackbirds sing harmoniously at twilight, the magical transition time between day and night, when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest. They are known as the blacksmith’s bird, and in Gaelic the word for both is ghobadhu. [4] As the blacksmith uses an anvil to forge his metalwork, the blackbird uses rocks to crack open snail’s shells. His jet-black feathers are reminiscent of the blackness of the smith and his metals, forged into beautiful and useful objects by the elements of air, water and fire. As the blacksmith works magic in a practical and elemental way, so the blackbird is the otherworldly smith inviting us onto a journey to the depths of our souls with his melodious song.

Rhiannon has thus mastery over both the horse, the ultimate symbol of super-nature and an aspect of Sovereignty, the power vested in the land itself, and the three blackbirds, who also have powers over life and death through their song. Though she is an otherwordly being herself, Rhiannon shares in the experience of mortal women, at times subject to the powers of men and not exempt from tragedy, betrayal and humiliation. We can therefore identity with her suffering, and feel that she can identify with ours. But her story also stirs up something deeper in us, for she makes us question our relationship with the sacred. In Rhiannon’s story we see an example of the debasing of the sacred feminine, at the hands of mortals. And as Rhiannon is an embodiment of Sovereignty, of the land, what does this say about our relationship with the Earth on which we rely and of which we are also a part?


[1] The Maboniogion and Other Medieval Welsh Tales’ Edited and Translated by Patrick K. Ford, University of California Press, 2019

[2] Gwilym Morus-Baird, ‘Is Rhiannon a Goddess?’ Online.

[3] Powell, Eric A (September – October 2017) ‘White Horse of the sun,’ Archaeology, 70 (5): 9-10. Retrieved 31.8.2020

[4] The Druid Animal Oracle’ by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm

July Hay Moon: Nemetona, Eagle and Oak

July is the time that the harvests begin, the first gathering in of the bounteous crops ripening over the land, the time for hay making. Wild-flowers abound in this month, meadows now full of poppy, ox-eye daisy, red campion and teasel, and butterflies gather nectar from dangling horns of violet buddleia. In Anglo-Saxon tradition, this full moon was known as the Wort moon, when the wyrt, or medicinal herbs were gathered to be dried and stored, or also Buck moon as July was the month when deer began to grow their velvet covered antlers.

All northern hemisphere agricultural societies associated the energy impetuous needed to ripen the crop with male energy in its most potent form. The month was named by the Romans for their most famous of kings, Julius Caesar, and in a Greece the Olympia, or early Olympic games, when men would come from all over Greece to demonstrate their prowess in competitions in athletics, drama and music, was presided over by Zeus. In Celtic tradition, the eagle and the oak are associated with this time of year, and the eagle was known as the king of the birds and the oak the king of the trees, both powerful images of strength and mastery.

According to legend, two great eagles guard the burial place of Arthur in Snowdonia, in Welsh called Eryri, or the nest of the eagles. It was also said that druids shapeshift into these eagles and create the whirlwinds of stormy cloud that sweep so frequently across Snowdonia with its mercurial weather patterns. The eagle is often also linked to the power of the sun, the source of heat and light on Earth, and in Gaelic it is known as Suil-na-Greine, eye of the sun. As such clan leaders and kings would wear plumes of eagle feathers to symbolise enlightenment.

In the Welsh tradition, the eagle is one of the four sacred birds and named as one of the five oldest animals. In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, it is the Eagle of Gwernaby who leads them to the salmon, the oldest and most revered animal of them all, and who is able to free Mabon. The eagle rules over the domain of air, of intellect and clarity of thought. The salmon, a creature of the waters, symbolises emotion and the unconscious. This story reminds us that it only through the union of the two that we gain wisdom.

The oak is the tallest and mightiest tree in any grove, the roosting place of oracular birds, and as such it was the central tree to the druids. In Celtic tradition it was the sacred tree of the Dagda the king of the gods, and in Norse mythology to Thor, god of thunder and lighting. The month of July has particularly strong associations with thunder and lightning in most cultures and these natural phenomena was seen as the tool of gods (e.g. Zeus was also often depicted with a lightning bolt.) Here we see an echo of father sky culture, where the male gods were seen to preside over lofty (heavenly) weather patterns, but also a reminder that for the crops to grow successfully, copious amounts of rain was also needed, which at this time of warm surface temperatures, would frequently come in the form of storms. This aspect of the male life force was seen as a necessary complementary energy to the nourishing fecundity of the bounteous energy bringing forth the crop from the earth. An oak tree was especially revered if it had been struck by lightning, a living symbol of the fusing of the two complementary energies of heaven and earth.

The pre-Roman peoples of Britain and Ireland did not build temples, but for thousands of years worshipped outside in nature, in particular in the sacred groves. These were natural clearings in areas of trees, deemed sacred on account of their position near water or other landmarks, and due to the particular mix of trees that prevailed. Oak groves were particularly sacred to the druids. These groves were made into sanctuaries, or sanctified, by evoking the presence of Nemetona, the guardian presence of the sacred place, which were themselves known as nemetons. Hawthorn was her most sacred tree, but mixed groves of hawthorn, oak and ash was deemed to be especially sacred.

This most elusive of goddesses has left virtually no trace in the written record, yet her presence would have endured for thousands of years as the guardian of consecrated and sacred enclosures in woods and forests, probably surrounding a central altar. In Roman times, she did have a shrine in Bath where she was depicted seated on a throne holding a sceptre, surrounded by three hooded figures and a ram. She was sometimes also associated with Rigonemetis, the king of the sacred grove whom the Romans associated with Mars. The ram figuring at the shrine was another symbol of potent male fire energy, again preserving this sacred connection between trees and lightning. In Celtic times however Nemetona would not have had a consort, as it was her presence alone that was needed to sanctify a grove. The circular nature of many nemetons could have been linked to later stone circles that also had the function of making an area of land sacred, and therefore able to function as a bond between heaven and earth.

June Mead Moon: Maeve, Honeysuckle and Bees

The month of June, named for the Roman Mother goddess Juno, is the time of the longest days and the shortest nights, a time to celebrate love, fertility and marriage. The Earth is now resplendent, trees decked in shimmering emerald leaves, cow parsley nodding at roadsides, and roses blooming in dazzling profusion. Swifts swoop in the evening skies while rivers and lakes are full of geese, ducks and swans protectively chaperoning their young, teaching them the life skills necessary for survival.

Gardens are spangled with the delicate mauves and purples of lavender, and the tendrils of honeysuckle are just starting to entwine tree trunks and bushes with their delicate golden blossoms, filling the evening air with their sweet scent.  Honeysuckle is associated with love and courtship and when hung over the door, will bring luck to any marriage. It is also associated with secret wisdom, waiting to be explored and uncovered, like the hidden delights buried deep in the blooms. [1]

Everywhere the bees are in full flow and this full moon is also known as the Honey Moon. Busily flying from flower to flower, they squeeze themselves into the nodding heads of foxgloves and emerge laden with their precious hoard, dizzy from its intoxicating scent. Their gentle humming adds an undertone to the midsummer garden, drawing us into a seductive dreamworld of rest and replenishment. Female forager bees return to the hive with their bounty, welcomed back and organised by those assigned to guard duty, regurgitating nectar into the mouth of the house bee, who then processes it some more before depositing it into a cell. Pollen stuck to the bee’s body is also removed by worker bees who pack it carefully for food, or convert some into royal jelly used to feed bee larvae laid by the queen.[2]

There are many traditions associated with the bee, all of which are ancient. For the Druids and the Celts, the bee was sacred and every aspect aspect of their lives was honoured and studied.  Britain was called the Island of Honey in Bardic traditions and in Ireland, the Brehon laws protected bees and their hives. Bees are attuned to the position of the sun and the direction of the winds, and use this orientation to communicate the location of pollen to members of the hive by dancing a sun dance in the shape of the lemniscate, or figure of eight, also known as the waggle dance.[3] Shamanic and goddess traditions including the Path of Pollen have used this sacred movement in a ritual context that pays homage to the social structure of the hive with the Queen Bee at the core.

All of the gifts of the hive have been honoured and used over the ages, from the nutritious and healing properties of honey, to the health benefits of propolis and pollen, the preserving and flavour enhancing qualities of honey when used on meat or salmon, and the uses of wax for candle making , polishing and sealing. Today we acknowledge bees as pollinators, one worker bee can visit up to 2,000 flowers in one day, and these services alone are valued at over 170 billion dollars a year. Yet bees are in decline suffering colony collapse disorder at an alarming rate. In Europe alone over the past 10 years this has risen to over 50% of all hives.[4]

Honey is one of the main ingredients of mead, one of the most ancient of alcoholic drinks. At the royal court of Tara, the assembly hall was known as Tech Midchuarta, the House of Mead Circling, as at festivals the mead was passed round in a goblet, circling all the participants until the last drop was drunk. [5]The mythical Queen Maeve, or Medb, of Connaught is associated with mead, as her name means ‘she who intoxicates.’ This could reflect her role as Sovereignty goddess, offering the chosen king of the land the cup of mead to bestow office upon him. Her story, as told in the Ulster Cycles, is a complex and often disturbing one. Here is it in abridged form:

Medb, ‘a fair-haired wolf queen’ was the daughter of the High King of Ireland and she was married to Conchbar, King of Ulster, as compensation for the death of his father. The marriage did not turn out well, and she left him. However, in her place her sister was given as a substitute. This did not suit Medb, and she murdered her own sister who was pregnant at the time of her death. The child survived and came back later to take vengeance for his mother’s murder.

In the meantime, Medb’s father installs her as the Queen of Connaught. But she is raped by her former husband Conchbar at an assembly at Tara, whereupon war broke out between the two nations. She marries several times and eventually finds a man who ‘is without fear, meanness or jealousy’ in the person of her bodyguard Ailill, when she marries forthwith. They have seven sons together and one daughter.

In the ‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’, we are told of a conflict between nations that arose because of a competition between Medb and her husband over their respective wealth. Unfortunately for Medb it turned out that Ailill had a magnificent white bull and she had nothing to compare to this. Determined not to be outdone, she sent out her messengers to search the land, and eventually they came across the Brown Bull of Cooley. He was so magnificent that Medb had to possess him – even though a soothsayer warned of impending doom.  She offered endearments, gold, sexual favours, but Daire, the owner of the bull would not surrender it. Maeve would not take no for an answer: she  assembled a great army to invade Ulster and steal the bull. Even this did not work. Nothing, not even the curse of Macha (see above) and single combat could bring victory to her side. But on the eve of battle, Medb managed somehow to steal the creature and bring it back to Connaught.

The prized bull was placed in a pasture alongside Ailill’s magnificent white horned beast, but alas! The two animals gored each other to death. All the loss of life and warfare had been in vain. Several years later, it was Medb’s turn to meet a sticky end. One morning whilst taking her ablutions at a well, she was recognised by Furbaide, the son of her murdered sister. He acted quickly as follows:

‘He was eating a piece of cheese. He did not then tarry to seek a stone. He put the piece of cheese in the sling. When Medb’s forehead was turned towards then, he let fly the piece of cheese and it struck her on the crown of the head so that he killed her by the one cast in vengeance of his mother.’[6]

And that is the story of Medb of Connaught. There is jealousy, revenge, rape, murder and pointless warfare in this tale, but also a measure of human passion, folly, love and above all, power. Medb is certainly a force to be reckoned with, but like Villanelle in the Killing Eve series, with whom she has something in common, she  is not exactly your classic role model. Some of her power and passion can be attributed to her role as Sovereignty goddess where she bestowed and took away the power of kings, but there is an ambivalence towards this role in the telling of the tale that bears witness over the centuries to the changing nature of man’s relationship with the land. Maeve was said to be buried standing up, so as to face her enemies head on from the grave. I am hoping to visit her cairn at Knocknarea in August and hear for myself what her long since silenced voice has to say…


[1] ‘Honeysuckle’ in the ‘Green Man Tree Oracle’ by John Matthews and Will Worthington

[2] ‘The Bee Book’ by F Chadwick, S Alton, E S Tennant, B Fitzmaurice and J Earl, Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2016

[3] ‘Bee’ in ‘The Druid Animal Oracle’ by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm

[4] The Bee Book, as above

[5] ‘Bee’ in ‘The Druid Animal Oracle’ by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm

[6] The Violent Death of Medb’ ed. And trans. Vernam Hull

Picture credit: Queen Maeve by J.C Leyendecker, public domain

May Flower Moon: Etain, Willow and Crane

The May Flower full moon is the time when the Celtic goddess Etain brings beauty, grace and fertility into our lives. Known as the Shining One and as a White Lady of the Fae, Etain is a goddess of transformation and rebirth, associated with water, the sun, apple blossom and horses, to name but a few. She is also associated with butterflies, swans and other beings that symbolise the transmigration of the soul. Her story is complex and warrants a deeper analysis than is possible here, but her message of grace, rebirth, and maturation of the soul is deeply resonant for our times.

In ‘The Wooing of Etain,’ her story is told largely through the lens of a series of male protagonists, all of which seek to court her (indeed possess her) in some way. It revolves primarily around the character of Midhir, a king of the Tuatha de Danann, who lived among the sidhe. We are told that he loses an eye whilst visiting his foster son, Aengus Mac Og, and asks compensation for his loss which includes ‘the fairest maiden in Ireland.’ This is Etain, the daughter of king Ailill of Ulster and she is said to have ‘shimmering waves of fire-gold hair, skin as white as snow, and blushing cheeks red as foxgloves.’

Aengus duly goes to the king and asks for his daughter, as bidden by his step father. In return, he must perform a series of tasks which he successfully does, but before he is permitted to take her, he must also provide the maiden’s weight in gold and silver. Finally, she is brought to Midhir, and stays together with him at the home of Aengus for another year. When the pair eventually return to his castle, his first wife, the queen, becomes jealous and ‘strikes Etain with a rod of scarlet rowan, turning her into a pool of water.’ In time the water congeals and forms a hard chrysalis, or a worm, out of which a beautiful purple fly, or butterfly, emerges. [1]

Midhir takes the butterfly and cherishes it, but the queen now conjures a strong wind that blows the butterfly around for seven years without rest until she finally alights on the breast of Aegnus, who feeds her pollen and nectar for nourishment. Alas, the queen intervenes again and sends such a wind that the butterfly is now tossed around for 1000 years in misery, without respite, until finally, she lands in the goblet of another queen of Ulster. This queen swallows her down with her wine, then gives birth nine months later to a beautiful daughter who she calls Etain.

Her beauty once more becomes legendary in this new life, she is coveted by the High King in Ireland, and they duly marry at Tara. Over the course of time, however, his brother also falls in love with her and starts pining, much to the concern of the king, who asks Etain to do everything in her power to heal him. At this point, her former lover and husband Midhir, in a desperate bid to get her back, uses spells and enchantment to get her to sleep with him instead. In an echo of their former existence, he carries out a series of task designed to make her current husband let go of her, demanding a kiss from Etain as his prize. In this way he ‘reminds’ her of the love they once had for each other and reunited in ‘the dining hall,’ he takes her into his arms and they change into swans, linked together by a golden chain, and fly off into the distance. [2]

The story of Etain functions on many levels. On one hand it is the story of the soul, of hope and maturity in adversity, of love, jealousy, possession and the belief that through all the trials of life, our inner essence remains pure and unsoiled, shining like Etain. There are also specific number references throughout the story, showing clear calendrical or symbolic connections, maybe even links to astronomical cycles. The time frames and frequent use of shapeshifting into different animal forms is a powerful way to depict the cycling of the soul through space and time, and the experiences it gathers along the way. The butterfly is a potent and beautiful symbol of rebirth, and the swan a psychopomp, or accompanier of souls into the afterlife.

Though swans are named in this story, another bird is also linked to the flight of the soul in Celtic mythology. The crane, or heron, is one of the four sacred birds in both Irish and British tradition, and in one version of this tale it is said that three cranes guard the entrance of Midhir’s castle.  Cranes were linked to the Cailleach, to longevity and wisdom, and a crane bag was a key part of the druid or medicine woman’s equipment. They were also famous for their dances, which they performed in circles. This has led to their association with birth, in the form of storks, and then death, when they perform the function of psychopomp as the swan does in this story. [3] Both are large migratory birds, that mysteriously appear and disappear with the seasons and seem to take pre-destined flight paths across the heavens.

The crane is also linked to the flight of the soul not just in death, but also in the quest for otherworldly knowledge. The story of Etain has this aspect to it in that the soul experiences and gains wisdom and deep knowledge through not just love and loss, but through the wisdom of nature in the form of water, worms, butterflies, even wind. Cranes are also sometimes associated with the willow tree, the tree that along with the hawthorn, governs this time of year.

Like Etain the willow is beautiful and full of grace. They are also one of the oldest trees in Europe, embodying deep wisdom, and they are frequently found close to rivers and streams due to their love of water. Etain was changed into a pool of water, symbolising a deeply transformative potential, the ocean of possibility, or waters of rebirth. In Celtic mythology journeys are often taken by boat to the Otherworld in search of inspiration and wisdom, crossing over water as part of the process. The willow stands guard to this entrance, showing us that when we are in the flow of grace we can attain both of these prizes. [4]

Perhaps most of all, Etain’s story reminds us of the deeply healing and transformational power of beauty, in herself but also in the Nature around her. She loves to make people around her happy through kind words and smiles, and with her music she breaks through sadness and dissolves it gently into tears. Flowers bloom when she is near, and mankind falls in love with her. In all the trails and tribulations of the souls journeying, she reminds us of the beauty and nourishing power of Earth’s abundance through water, butterflies, swans and cranes. Each of them wondrous in themselves to be sure, and also holding up the mirror to us so that we can see the beauty of our own soul in them.


[1] Sharon Blackie, ‘The Wooing of Etain.’

[2] www.orderwhitemoon.org, ‘Etain the Sining One’

[3] The Druid Animal Oracle, Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm

[4] The Green Man Tree Oracle, John Matthews and Will Worthington

April Hare Moon: Eostre, Andraste and Hare

The month of April is the time of the full Hare Moon, or Planters Moon, when the sowing of the crops takes place and early blossoms and shy wildflowers unfurl with the rapidly awakening Earth. The name April could be linked to that of Aphrodite the Greek goddess of love, but to the Anglo Saxons this was the month of Eostre, goddess of spring and fertility. Her name has survived in both the Christian festival of Easter and the hormone oestrogen, responsible for orchestrating the female reproductive cycle and therefore birth. She was also linked to the growing light and budding of Spring, like Eos the Indo-European goddess of the dawn.

In the British countryside it was once the call of the lapwing (plover) that heralded the birth of spring, along with that of the cuckoo, and her eggs were particularly highly sought after. Unusually for a bird, the lapwing lays her eggs in the ground, and it was customary to find them and gift them at Easter, probably the origins of the Easter egg hunt. Unfortunately during Victorian times the hunt took on epic proportions and so many eggs were harvested that the lapwing was brought to near extinction and they are sadly rarely seen today.[1]

The lapwings shares the same territory as hares, leading to a remarkable misunderstanding. Hares live solely above ground and make indentations in the Earth in which to sit and sleep. When abandoned, the lapwing would come along and lay her eggs in these same idents, which then led to the notion that it was the hares who had laid them. This all added to the mystery of these nocturnal creatures: not only were they deemed to lay eggs, but it was also believed they changed sex every year, as well as participating in frenzied boxing matches most often seen in March. Their appearance at spring, their breeding and egg laying habits and the fact they sat in rings, led to an association with rebirth, resurrection and new life.

Hare bones were often found in ritual pits, showing their sacredness in ancient times, and there were taboos around eating their flesh. Later when the Romans took over the land, hare coursing (hunting) became a favoured past time, again drastically reducing the numbers of the original indigenous species, the Arctic hare. Under Christian domination, the rabbit took their place as prime fertility symbol, and Easter would not be complete today without the ‘Easter bunny’ and the distribution of chocolate eggs in place of the older land-based customs.

The hare was also sacred to another more shadowy goddess in Anglo-Celtic Britain, Andraste, goddess of love, fertility – and battle. Andraste was the patron goddess of the Iceni tribe, a pre-Roman Brittonic people who inhabited parts of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. Boudicca was their queen, and famously fought the Romans, with some success, before being brutally subdued along with her tribe. On the eve of battle, Boudicca was said to evoke the goddess Andraste and a hare was used in divination. According to the classical write Dion, Boudicca would address her people then let a hare escape from the fold her dress. [2]The success of the battle could be foretold according to the direction in which the hare chose to run. It could have been the left side that was unlucky (the origins of the word ‘sinister’ from ‘sinistre,’ left) but there is no record attesting to this. It is also said that the Iceni took no captives in battle, but those that were defeated were dispatched to Andraste, showing that she accepted sacrifice of human blood. [3]

In more peaceful times, she was worshipped in the sacred groves as a woodland/lunar goddess, presiding over the life death cycle of nature, as is the natural order of things. This notion of life, death and rebirth is still enshrined in the festival of Easter to an extent, though it has now been separated from the cycle of nature and projected onto the figure of Jesus.


[1] See ‘The Lapwing – unsung hero of Easter and farmland icon’ by Rebecca Hoskins,  www.permaculture.co.uk (Accessed 5.5.2020)

[2] ‘The Druid Animal Oracle’ by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm

[3] www.thewhitegoddess.co.uk (Accessed 7.4.2020)