Demystifying the Nine Sorceresses at the Center of Time
Myths, folklore ancient songs and poems present the number ‘nine’ as being connected with the underworld, and this has been extended into modern pop culture. There were ‘nine circles of Hell’ in Dante's Divine Comedy ; in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth men were given ‘nine rings of power’ and in Roman Polanski’s 1999 mystery thriller The Ninth Gate, the protagonist played by Johnny Depp, embarks on a dark esoteric quest through nine levels of Biblical mystery.
Hesiod and the Muse by Gustave Moreau (1891) - Mus ée d'Orsay, Paris . ( Public Domain )
While the literary devices of nine gates, nine circles and nine rings dominate modern fictional writings, in ancient times, religions, myths, legends, songs, poems and stories featured groups of nine goddesses, mothers, maidens, daughters, sisters and sorceresses and to understand what these nine females originally represented, one must look to ancient Greece.
Questing the Ancient Origins of Nine Supernatural Females
In ancient Greek mythology, according to an account written by Hesiod about 600 BC, the ‘Nine Muses’ were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyn (‘Memory’ personified). Regarded as the personification and source of the secret knowledge embodied in song, mime, writing, traditional music and poetry they later featured in the Roman pantheon. In 43 AD Pomponius Mela, the earliest Roman geographer, wrote about: “a group of nine sorceresses… on an island in the west in the Britannic Sea… famous for its oracle, whose priestesses, sanctified by perpetual virginity are reportedly nine in number.”
Pomponius Mela's map of Europe, printed by F. Nansen in 1911. The Britannic Sea can be seen in the upper left. ( Public Domain )
Scholar George Kish, in his 1978 book A Source Book in Geography, detailed Mela’s description of the nine sorceresses: “they have been endowed with unique powers, they stir up the seas and winds by their magic charms, that they turn into whatever animals they want, that they cure what is incurable among other peoples, that they know and predict the future.” Mela’s 1st century account recorded the supernatural attributes most often associated with the nine females within world myths, which were: island dwellers, shape shifters, healers, controllers of the weather and the ability to predict future events.
In Scotland, according to James Cargill Guthrie’s 1875 book Legend of the Nine Maidens , when the 8th century Saint Donald of Ogilvy died, King Garnard of the Picts granted his daughters, the ‘Holy Nine Virgins’, lodgings in a monastery
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Ashley Cowie is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems, in accessible and exciting ways. His books, articles and television shows explore lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and artifacts, symbols and architecture, myths and legends telling thought-provoking stories which together offer insights into our shared social history . www.ashleycowie.com.
Top Image: Apollo and the Muses by Robert Sanderson (1848 – 1908) ( Public Domain )
By Ashley Cowie
Ashley, if you take this literally that the muses were the daughters of Zeus. Making the bold assumption that Zeus was born and died on Crete, then he is Minoan (probably a Wanax). There may be some association that the Wanax is the embodiment of Apollo. The Minoans have four deities and they represent directions. Gaia (Earth Mother) North, her son Apollo (the Sun) South, consort Venus East, Apollo's Twin (Artemis the Moon) - West. They also represent times of day! Midnight, Midday. Sunrise and Sunset. They are the ones that organise! It's not magic, it's science. When the Sun rises, the land to the immediate East is heated up, surfaces winds are drawn towards the East at sunrise, at mid-day the southern land heats up more (same thing surface winds drawn towards the south), at sunset towards the West and at Midnight towards the North. This is a generalisation, but influences the Wind direction and can be seen if you study wind rose or daily wind patterns (I have). It was probably important to them for sailing.
They had prestress that were the embodiment of each diety. Note there are three female dieties and there were three fates! This is where many of the mythology comes from. Not sure where the nine comes from, but the reference to the underworld is referring to nine DOUBLE hours (18.00) - sunset at Autumn equinox (her time of year) ! The Earth is away from the Sun when the Moon comes out. It is the Prestiess of Artemis that are virgin maidens. Not sure, probably those that don't marry and stay in the sisterhood. All the prestress seem to have functions associated with their corresponding houses, but mostly they are civil servants that organise society, under the Wanax command (could be the embodiment of Apollo). They would not have known the twins as Apollo or Artemis but the Master and Mistress of Animals (potnia theron), domesticated and wild animals respectively. They had a minor deity called BRITOmartis, that was associated with fishing, which may be a reference to the Tin islands, she is sometimes shown small above Artemis in iconography. Long distance sea trade appears to be well established before the Thera eruption. This is the earliest reference to Britain I can find, it is well documented by the Phoenicians but was a well-kept secret.
This gets very jumbled up by the Greeks, that had had different names for the same diety in different regions, that then get certain attributes associated with them. The Mistress of Animals becoming Athena for example. But you can see the four on which they are based are preserved in the Greek Pathenon. How this got to Britain and Ireland I can't explain, but this also shows they may have had a similar belief system (that you can see in myth). By the way, the Minoans had ten figures that were responsible for the technical disciplines too.
A possible explanation is functions were appointing functions into Double hours (12 be day) and reported to one of the four houses. In this way you would get 9 reporting into one head priestess. The Egyptian used the double hour, I think Sumer did too. If Minoans did get this far north, they would have favored smaller defensible islands, they would have setup organisation (food storage for example) and traded with the main island from a smaller base and may explain the early neolithic structures on Manx and Scottish Islands. The Priestess would have probably been perceived as magicians, with potions and chants to cure, astronomy to tell time and could predict future events like eclipse, and organisation of society into functions, etc. The tech they had was well ahead of everyone (possibly eclipsing the Eygptians) for every material: stone, metal, leather, navigation etc. They wouldn't have stirred up the sea, it was more they preserved knowledge, they were fascinated by how things worked, they monitored winds and tides and current to see how they worked and changed by the time of day or season. They were almost certainly doing the same as the Sumerians and Egyptians were doing, but had a practical need to look at meteorology to support maritime trade and navigation between ports. Their peak sanctuaries were at high altitude to monitor shipping lands, coastal approaches, they set fires at night in cloudy skys to help sailors. It's very clever, it combines: science (astronomy, observation) with Art and commerce. The importance of nine is the clock position using double hours (WEST, sunset). Athena of the flashing eyes (that kept you safe when the sun went down by moonlight). The animals they would represent would be doves (Venus), owls (Mistress of Wild Animals), Snakes (Mother Earth - pointing to Thuban the snake, North), who wobbles backward due to precession in a great year - that they well understood - protected by Griffins (sometimes two Dragons in other culturers). The master of Animals, could be a Sun or a bull. Oh yeah all the animals in Irish mythology! I suspect all the islands were trading together before Thera errupted, they share the same iconography, structurers and similar beliefs and critically DNA.