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1st World Congress on Matriarchal Studies
Luxembourg 2003
Selected Papers


Center for the Study of the Gift Economy

International Academy Hagia

Michael Dames

Footsteps of the Goddess in Britain and Ireland

Ysbaddaden, Chief Giant of Wales, has a daughter called Olwen. So says the fable, Culhwch and Olwen, written in the fourteenth century from older oral sources. Wherever Olwen walks, four white trefoils or clover flowers spring up behind her; therefore her name is olwen, ‘white track', says the story-teller. Her return from the underworld is marked and matched by emerging clover plants. Their four-fold array connotes the cardinal directions visited by Olwen in her wanderings. In a sense she is the nation's fertile meadow. Britain, as the 6th century monk Gildas explained, is a beautiful bride, decked out for her forthcoming wedding.

Olwen's admirer Culhwch is set more than thirty difficult tasks before her father will consent to the marriage, yet these are accomplished in time for the ceremony to take place at Welsh Calan Mai, May Day, the traditional start of the Celtic ‘Summer Half' of the year. Her father Ysbaddaden, whose name means May Bush, or Hawthorn, is then decapitated. Representing the previous year, his lopped boughs, still dripping with blood red berries, accept the need for a fresh start.

In the British Isles, as elsewhere, the goddess sows and reaps a field of metaphors. Metaphor involves exchange, the give-and-take of shared identity. So Goddess=flower means this=that. A general principle of interpenetrating values is thereby advanced. Olwen silently advocates a poetry of being. Her footsteps are the stitches that sew a world exhausted by aggressive rivalry into a renewed garment of hope.

Her journey embodies a narrative, suggesting that the interchangeability and interdependence of all material phenomena is rooted in, and arises from, a spirit of divine coherence, expressed through mythic dramas of the deities, wherein everything is conceived, born, flowers, comes to fruition and sinks into decay. These events serve as sacred prototypes and exemplars for comparable changes in the ordinary world.

Supervising this endless cycle of death and renewal in Irish myth, sits the mother of the pantheon called An,  Anu, or Danu. In Wales she is called Don. Olwen is indirectly one of her daughters. From Annwn, the Welsh underworld of underlying truths, Olwen appears to permeate the world of surface phenomena, where her cloak may be spun from golden sunlight, corpse worms, horse hair, wheat straw, mountain streams, blades of new grass, tongues of fire, moonbeams, coils of clay and the songs of her devotees. She is both immanent within every petal and hidden below the level of human consciousness, or placed deep in the Otherworld.

How can these archaic forms of understanding have any relevance to the modern world, given its different approach to knowledge and its addiction to secular materialism? What purpose does the retelling of long abandoned tales have in the context of a scientific congress on Matriarchy? Myth, by definition, comes form a pre-Socratic era and speaks directly of sacred revelation from the godhead, via poet or see, to human community. In this transmission the objective detachment central to scientific method is unknown. Instead, myth seeks the fusion of subject with object. The listener is engrossed, intellectually and emotionally, body and soul, in the story, thereby achieving union with the divine.

Instead of analysis and the maximum reduction of variables sought in scientific experiment, the goddesses of Britain and Ireland stood for synthesis. Their narratives incorporate paradox, ambiguity, polar opposites and contradictions, thereby offering a comprehensive fabric in which joy and grief, night and day, winter and summer, match the complexity of human experience. Consequently both the verbal and the visual symbols employed are polyvalent and multifaceted. Thus when Olwen's walk is reactivated and represented by human May-time ritual celebration and performances, the event takes on all- embracing significance, far exceeding the narrow ‘functionalism' of most contemporary British archaeologists' outlook. By misapplying their instrumentalist training to the exclusion of older perspectives they tend to miss the point of prehistoric society's outlook, in which issues of farming technique, farm animals, ‘practical' tool-making and architecture are all regarded as sacred gifts and derivatives of the original knowledge pool, presumed to be divine. To the mythic mind there is nothing so useful as deity. A single clover flower can be an encyclopaedia. A few footsteps in the dewy grass may lead, if followed, to everything necessary.

The goddess who walks across the land is also the land in its entirety. Even the merely allegorical figure Britannia, who appears on coinage in the 2nd century AD, and still presides over Britain's 50 pence piece, is a superhuman metaphor, a version of the English landscape from John 0' Groats to Land's End, viewed as a living anthropomorphic being, a comprehensive organic entity. This female who represents the island is the island, just as the goddess Eriu is Eire, alias Ireland.

In mythic usage, symbols enjoy a flexibility of scale, as they span the full range between macro- and microcosm. Foe example, the little crucifix hanging on a Christian breast can stretch to the edges of the Christian cosmos. On an intermediate scale, the goddess in Wales frequently appears as a giantess carrying a load of boulders in her apron. When she accidentally drops these, they become the stones and covering cairn of a Neolithic burial chamber. In this way, the superhuman female of nineteenth century folklore and place names reunites the deity of the New Stone Age, five thousand years older. Plainly the goddess in Britain can stride across time, as well as space. To the question: ‘Who built the chambered tombs?', both give the answer: 'I did.'

The monarch, whose head always appears on the obverse side of Britain's Britannia coins was traditionally regarded as ‘married' to the land deity. This arrangement was converted into the Christian ‘divine right' of kings, the issue over which Charles 1 lost his head. Similarly, in Tara, Ireland, a megalithic stone called Lia Fail was said to roar when the rightful claimant to the throne sat on it (her) as a prelude to the banais rigi, or king-goddess wedding, symbolising the fusion of secular and sacred power, without which chaos would ensue.

After the abandonment of such rites, now considered absurd, the contract between the British counterpart of Greek Ge, the earth goddess, and a respectful concern for our geography, has also markedly declined. Exploitation has replaced loving care, while the former morally responsible husband man has turned to factory framing, cynically indifferent to the abusive quality of the new relationship. Many British folk tales warn against aiming heedless blows at the land lady. At Llyn Fan y Fach, Breconshire, a harvest goddess is seen floating on the lake by a young man, who woos and weds her. Her dowry is a herd of Otherworld cattle. His farm prospers, until, although forewarned, he strikes her three times for no good reason, whereupon she vanishes and his prosperity turns to ruin. This ‘Old Wives Tale' now serves as a message addressed  to a society, heading towards ecological disaster. Whether on a local or inter- national level, the goddess's forgotten transits  have never been more relevant.

The earliest goddess figurines found in Britain date from c.23,000 B.P. They are three images carved out of deer and wild horse bone. Arranged in a group around a male skeleton, which was  covered in red ochre and accompanied by the skull of a mammoth, all lay in Paviland Cave, on Gower peninsula, South Wales. Like a trio of Romano-British Matres, the carvings have hips, waists and breasts. One wears the suggestion of a smile, another carries traces of a decorative binding, implying that the symbol was engaged in ritual action. The limestone headland rising over the cave has been interpreted as a topographical image, a holy mountain and a display of the earth mother's pregnant anatomy.

At Nab Head, Pembrokeshire, Mesolithic figurines carved c. 10,000 B.P. bring the same impulse nearer the advent of agriculture, when focus of worship upon the mysteries of germination becomes of central concern in Britain, as elsewhere in EurAsia, and often expressed through images of the earth mother, squatting or sitting, about to give birth to the harvest child. .This double image, combining agriculture and human parturition was appropriately often made of clay. Mother Earth was more than a figure of speech. Envisaged in human shape, her image could range in scale from miniature to gigantic.

Her pregnant womb is portrayed on a monumental scale at the tallest human construction in prehistoric Europe, Silbury Hill, near Avebury, Wiltshire.The material used to create this 42 metre high edifice was dug, c.4,600 B.P. from a surrounding quarry, deliberately shaped to resemble the rest of her head, neck and body. The quarry floor consists of a thin layer of naturally occurring clay, impervious to water. Therefore, seeping from the surrounding chalk strata, subterranean water turns the dry pit into a lake. Behold! –The Lady of the lake! Her womb-mountain is reflected in her water body, from which it was raised. Rippled by every breeze, her moat image accepts the gold and silver jewels bestowed on it by sun and moon.

This great cultural achievement has a natural counterpart in a nearby sacred spring, the Swallowhead source of the river Kennet. This outpouring from the Underworld, or Annwn, probably inspired Silbury's location.The spring's emergence depends on the same layer of clay which the hill builders located in order to create their ‘Mother Moat'.

 400 metres south of Silbury, the Swallowhead  water flows from an underground channel only 45cm. high,at the base of a wall of exposed chalk rock, 1.5metres tall, topped by a 1metre mass of coomb rock and soil. At the foot of this natural amphitheatre the Kennet is born. From here the shallow water threads its way around grasses and lumps of sandstone and trickles 22 paces  between an old hawthorn and a willow tree, to meet a river much bigger than itself. This river has travelled 4 miles from the north, but it is called Winterbourne, not Kennet. Winterbourne is turned into Kennet by the modest contribution from Swallowhead. Recent geological studies and the eighteenth-century folk tradition agree about this.

From the earliest times, human beings have worshipped at, in, and before water-issuing caves, because the cave epitomises those states of transition which are compelling and of universal interest: light-dark, enclosed-open, in-out, life-death. These pairings and paradoxes have sexual references in the broadest sense, and the symbolic amalgam is also contained in the name ‘Swallowhead'.

Swallowhead is perhaps the most physically memorable inland cave-spring to be found anywhere on the chalk, and because, in Cassirer's words, ‘all the sanctity of Mythical Being goes back ultimately to the sanctity of the origin', we can see why the Silbury birth woman was built beside it.

The sixteenth century topographer John Leland emphasised the connection: ‘Kennet riseth at Selbiri hille botom', while the early 18th century antiquarian William Stukeley again and again links Swallowhead to Silbury, although to do so contributes nothing to his theory that Silbury was a hero's tomb:  ‘The person that projected the forming of this vast body of earth… pitched upon the foot of the Chalk hill, by the fountain of the Kennet…At Silbury Hill [the river] joins the Swallowhead or true fountain of the Kennet, which country people call by the old name of Cunnit and it is not a little famous among them'. Further on he writes: ‘Silbury Hill, where the real Head of the Kennet is'.

This pairing is further supported by the frequency with which Irish Harvest Hills were associated with holy springs, and also by the siting of the Great Goddess ‘s temple at Eleusis: ‘But now let all people build me a great temple…upon a rising hillock above the Kallichoron.' Scholars agree that the Kallichoron was a well.

With the help of the Avebury peasants of Stukeley's day we may yet discover the Kennet as Cunnit, and the Swallowhead as Cunt. The name of that orifice is carried down stream in the name of the river. Cunnit is Cunnt with an extra i. As late as 1740, the peasants of the district had not abandoned the nomenclature, and the old name was in use all down the river to Hungerford, in 1723. The antiquity of the form is clearly shown by the Roman riverside settlement called Cunetio – their principal town in the entire Kennet valley.

The rediscovery of the Silbury Hill treasure depends on unearthing what Eric Partridge, in his Dictionary of Slang, describes as ‘the most notable of all vulgarisms…Since 1700 it has, except in the reprinting of old classics, been held to be obscene, i.e. a legal offence to print it in full.' Unable to take the risk Partridge settles for C*UNT, but perhaps he should not have included the word at all, because J.S.Farmer affirms that it is not slang, dialect or any marginal form, but a true language word, and of the older stock. Other language stocks show:

Latin CUNNUS (Andrews E. A., Latin English Lexicon, 1854)
Middle English CUNTE (Stratman F.H., Middle English Dictionary, 1891)
Old Norse KUNTA (Ibid.)
Old Frisian KUNTE (Ibid.)
Basque KUNA (Griera A., Vocabulario Vasco)

Although the dreaded C*NT (the medieval cleric's mouth of Hell) was not, and is not, admitted into the Oxford Dictionary fragments of the world which she generated are included:

CUNABULA: cradle, earliest abode, the place where everything is nurtured in its beginnings, associated with:
CUNINA: the goddess who protects children in the cradle (Roman).
CUNCTIPOTENT: all -powerful, omnipotent.
CUNICLE: a hole or passage underground (obsolete).
CUNICULATE: traversed by a long passage, open at one end.
CUNDY: (N. English dialect) a covered culvert. Enquire into, explore, investigate, to have experience of, to prove, test, make trial of, to taste (obsolete).
CUNNING: (in its earliest sense) to know, possessing a practical knowledge or skill, able, skilful, expert, dextrous, clever. Possessing a magical knowledge or skill.

The Silbury designers had to satisfy an awe-inspiring list of demands. They had to build in the immediate vicinity of the sacred spring. They had to tap the underground water supply, and find the only strata of chalk that could be cut into large blocks. They were asked to construct on an unprecedented scale, so that the Hill could be seen clearly from the other monuments in the ritual cycle, such as the West Kennet long barrow, whose chambers are arranged to describe a hollow image of the squatting mother, here seen giving birth to death. Equally important,the promise of maternal fulfilment had to be offered to those gathering on Mayday at the Avebury Henge, which served as a  ‘wedding ring.' Therefore the Silbury summit  is visible from the centre of the Henge's south circle. Furthermore, Silbury as a mighty sculpture had to be modelled in an unmistakably figurative idiom to look like the Mother of the Universe, combining supreme intelligence (eye) with her role as giver of physical life, with herwomb doubling as ‘world mountain'.

 The primary reason for building Silbury has yet to be described, for if Silbury failed to give birth, the builders would have regarded the whole achievement as inadequate. At the traditional start -of -harvest  eve, which preceded the Quarter Day, August 7th, midway between summer solstice and autumn equinox, and now called Lammas, the completed structure is put to the test.

So let us go to the Hill on Lammas Eve,at the start of August, when a full moon, regarded in British folklore as its ‘pregnant' state,coincides with Lammas,  to see if the ‘ harvest child' will appear. The sequence of events outlined below takes account of the Silbury latitude 51º 25' and may be witnessed by moving round the periphery of the terrace, incorporated into the original design of the Hill, just below its flat summit.

It presupposes that the ditch should be clear of silt though, in some years, such as 1971, the August water level may rise above the sediment accumulated since Neolithic times.
On the night of August 7th-8th, the goddess gave birth and gave birth for all to see. Nothing less than total theatre was required and provided. The theme was to be the same every year – namely the birth and nourishment of the harvest or ‘first fruits' child. Heavy cloud could ruin the performance, but every effort was made to ensure the action could be seen and understood by the audience participators. In this respect the scale of the ‘ Mother stage' was crucial. It had to be broad enough to absorb all known variations of Lammas full moon behaviour, while avoiding the consequent danger that the actress with the most dynamic part (the goddess as moon) would muddle up her moves. The Lammas Eve sun, going down in the north west shortly after 7.30pm., aligns with a pronounced curve in the otherwise straight moat edge, corresponding to her neck, to which the setting sun contributes a length of golden-orange ‘hair', as  a moat  reflection, snaking towards the mound.

After this show has disappeared, there is a pause, lasting about 30 minutes, during which the observers move to the southeast edge of the terrace to await moonrise. At 8 o'clock the moon's upper edge shows itself at 109 degrees. At 110º the full disc occupies the Silbury moat, its light falling across the thigh and indicating the vulva. (And the vulva lies precisely on a due north-south axis, joining the Avebury henge to Swallowhead.)

. By 10 p.m. the reflection has fallen on the Mother's big left knee, and when the last stain of twilight has given way to true darkness, at 10.45 p.m., the moon is hanging over the narrow gap between her ‘knee' and ‘child', both defined by the causeways which are features of the Neolithic plan. The ‘child', who doubles as  a monumental ‘first grain' of wheat, waits to be defined and so born, by moonlight on the inter-causeway moat.

of the squatting goddess.By midnight,  the infant's head appears as a full round lunar reflection on the inter-causeway moat. At the same moment, it is seen suspended over the Swallowhead. Silbury Mother and river Mother are in harmony, and share the child making, while affirming, in the inter-causeway moat as ‘ditch-phallus', the bisexuality of the great creator. For in addition to being part of the goddess, the phallus also stands as ‘son' to feminine matter. He discloses the mystery of  masculinity that has hitherto been hidden within. The god springs from the darkness of the maternal womb.'In Wiltshire folklore he is called King Sel. A world in balance accepts and cherishes the male.

Seen from the south rim of the terrace shortly after midnight, the moon is at its highest altitude, lying at 180ºwhere the mother's navel might be found. This was the moment to cut the umbilical cord, to declare the birth achieved, and also to cut the first heads of new corn, severing them from the earth in which they had been rooted. (Perhaps wheat grew on the summit itself, to be ceremoniously decapitated at this time, when the reflected disc defined the baby's navel.)

Here was the great moment, the classical demonstration of the goddess's power of generosity, where riverhead, lunar pulse, and temple image combined. We may hear the echo from  Demeter's temple at Eleusis: ‘At Eleusis, in the course of the night … the heiro-phant shouts: ‘Holy Brimo has born a sacred child, Brimos;' that is, the mighty gave birth to the mighty one.'This moment was accompanied, according to Pindar, by ‘ the showing of the great and marvellous mystery of perfect revelation, in solemn silence: cut wheat.'

No wonder the Wiltshire moon-rakers, characters from local folklore,  looked into their ponds and streams and saw silver treasure, long after their behavior had come to be regarded as the depths of rustic folly, for they had inherited a mighty tradition, and were in love with moonshine, with good reason.The corn child can still be seen by Lammas full moon, swaying over Swallowhead-Cunnit. The very name Cunnit helps to bring to mind the cununas, the young girls who, in Transylvania, personified the harvest babies. They wore a spherical crown of wheat, and sang:

Two girls have cut down
Ripe wheat, high as a wall
From where the cununa comes.

The little cununa, glittering like gold
Must slake its thirst
With water from the mill
With wine from the inn
And with water from the stream.

The little cununa must drink, and so must the Silbury child. To do so it had only to descend the original Neolithic steps into the moat. But babies prefer milk and, by 1 a.m. on the Silbury birth night, the child's moon head has moved to the west  end of the inter-causeway moat, and is demanding to be fed. If the Neolithic child is not to starve, where is the milk? None is to be had on the broad, dry, west causeway but, accompanied by the first sign of dawn, the moon indicates the nipple at 3.17 a.m. The anxious wait for milk is over once the moon has touched the tip of the breast with white light. For the next hour, the breast fills with white light.

A flight of Neolithic steps, each 30cm.  high, was found by A.C.Pass, and led to the bottom of the 6 metre-deep breast. At this place he discovered stags' horns, the Neolithic symbols for maternity. The steps and the implied immersion suggest a ritual, involving representative human mothers, mimetically engaged with the Great Mother.This annual event may be reflected by local 17th century folk-lore which states that ‘Silbury was built while a posset [or bowl] of milk was seething.'

As the Silbury start-of-harvest night drew to a close, the reflected moonlight was removed from the moat breast by the growing shadow, cast by the high rock wall forming the outer edge of the breast lobe. When the moon had dropped to within 8º of the horizon, the water was left in darkness, while the outermost crest of the ditch, defining that part of her anatomy, continued to glisten with silver light and therefore became the centre of attention. This was now focussed on the natural soil line, and the cornfields beyond, and so away to the southwestern horizon, where eventually the moon would set.

The genius of the Silbury designers is nowhere better demonstrated in this use of moonlight and shadow to create an apparent flow of fecundity, where birth moved from the specific monumental Mother, to the Mother in her extended form – the entire  landscape, awaiting harvest. The goddess casts her eye and her example over the island as a whole, as a visceral and intellectual endowment. Such an attitude receives divine confirmation at Bath (Roman Aquae Sulis), where the native eye goddess Suil ,(Celtic suil, ‘eye',a word from which Silbury probably got her current name], merges with Minerva's wisdom at the famous hot spring.

By contrast, the dualistic split advocated by Descartes between abstract thought and physical process – a schism introduced by Socrates and Plato, is now orthodox in Western culture. Nevertheless, the steaming waters still flow freely from the eye and vulva of Sulis – Minerva at Bath. There, head and body are conjoined, even today. This reunion of idea and thing and of insight and embodiment, is much needed in every realm of contemporary life, not least in the field of British and Irish Archaeological studies But how can it and the modern  World  expect to rediscover the art of synthesis if it relies too heavily on an analytical methodology, while ignoring the poetic, pre-scientific spirit of Antiquity, perpetuated by the folk tradition?

While enjoying and benefiting from scientific procedures, perhaps it is time to adopt a pluralistic methodology, composed of different strands, in which science becomes one among several. This pluralism would offer an open welcome to subjective and intuitive responses, as valid means towards achieving empathy with lost societies and with neglected or despised routes towards understanding. In doing so, it would affirm that the human family is essentially one. What draws it together is more significant than what splits it apart. A shared sense of wonder is an inheritance that we should be encouraged to reclaim. Then we might step into the footprint left by Olwen.

The Irish scholar, T. O'Rahilly has made a convincing case for enlarging Olwen's range beyond underworld and earth surface, to include the sky. He derives her name from Eurolwyn, its alternative form, which means ‘Golden Wheel'.[EIHM, 304].It turns out that she was also a sun goddess.The wheel of her chariot was her all-seeing, travelling eye.

This is confirmed in Culhwch and Olwen,  when the shepherd Custennin says: ‘She comes here every Saturday to wash her head, and in the bowl where she washes, she leaves all her rings. Neither she nor her messenger ever comes for them.' [C.and O. p.93]

What are these rings? They are the circuits, the spun gold of her daily sunbeams, as she passes. [Then] ‘She was sent for. And she came, with a robe of flame–red silk about her, and around the maiden's neck a torque of red gold,…yellower was her head than the flower of the broom,…whoso beheld her would be filled with love for her.'

Whether on foot, or in her sky car, she envisages and marks out a dynamic track, joining elements and hemispheres together, in one image of adorable unity. There is no limit in space or time, to the goddess as a working metaphor, combining  grace, ,elemental power, comprehensive affection, and the skill to return.


"Culhwch and Olwen", in The Mabinogion, translated by Jones, G. and Jones, T.,1949

The Silbury Treasure; The Great Goddess Rediscovered, by Dames, M. 1976 and 1992.

Early Irish History and Mythology, O'Rahilly, T. , 1949