Ancient Women Shaman of Ireland: Goddesses of Prophecy and Omens
The Celtic scholar Nora Chadwick notes that in Irish mythology the prophetess Fedelm tells Queen Medb that she has been in the land of Alba learning the art of the Filidect. Medb asks if she has learned Imbas Forosnai, and when told yes, Medb asks Fedelm if she will look into her future to see how she will prosper. She then chants her prophecy in the form of a poem. According to many scholars, the name "Fedelm" itself means "prophetess" and is said to derive from the proto-Celtic stem wēd- / wid- "to know, to see".
Warrior women with sword in a hand ( Maksym Dykha / Adobe)
Shaman Warriors Idolized as Goddesses
Also, from Irish mythology, when the wise warrior woman, Scathach, prophesies the life of the hero, Cú Chulainn, she speaks in Imbas Forosnai. Scathach is also considered a goddess of the dead by some scholars, which points to a shamanic origin.
The Goddess Badb is also a goddess of prophecy and omens. She appears before battles to predict death through her trance-like cries. And, of course, the Morrigan is the most famous seer and prophetess of all from these old Irish texts.
As we can see, all of the attributes of shamanism were well established in Irish tradition by the time these stories were given their Christian makeover by later monks.
Mysterious sorceress in a cold forest in the fog with a white owl. ( kharchenkoirina /Adobe)
How the Shaman Communed with Nature to Receive Powers
One wonders, when looking at comparable cultures, just what was left out of their recordings considering their view of women at the time. Could this be a reason for the scarcity of mentions of Irish women shaman in the Christian controlled texts?
In his History of Ireland, Geoffrey Keating wrote:
The druids used the hides of bulls offered in sacrifice for divination and the acquisition of wisdom. And many are the ways in which they acquired wisdom, such as looking at their own images in water, or gazing at the clouds of heaven, or listening to the noise of the wind, or the chattering of birds.
Photograph of St Keiran's Cathedral, Clonmacnoise, Ireland (JohnArmagh / Public Domain )
The Clash Between Christian Monks and Women Shaman
All of these practices would have been considered demonic by the Christian monks of Ireland, so they were certainly the victim of censure and erasure.
Another intriguing link between Irish women shaman and the Nordic wise-women, the Volur, occurs in the old Irish text the Cogadh Gaedhel re Gaillaibh . In this case the woman shaman is a Volur seer named Otta and she used the church at Clonmacnoise for her oracle workings. She would seat herself in a high chair upon the altar where she would enter her trance states. Chair amulets and ritual staffs have been found at many of the graves of these shamanic women in Scandinavia. There has also been a Volur staff found in Ireland at Kilmanham. Some of the burials have found women riding the staffs in the manner of a broom and many have been found decorated with runes and magical symbols.
Poulnabrone portal tomb, Ireland (Kglavin / Public domain )
A commonality regarding the burial of women shaman is how a large rock was placed upon their remains. It is only relatively recently that archaeologists are finally acknowledging the legacy and standing of these powerful women and their importance in ancient societies as well as the magical and shamanic function of the items they were buried with.
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A pagan conjures in forest ( Денис Прокофьев /Adobe)
Evolution of the Pagan Ways’ Demise
Of course, this tradition continued with time. The names of these women changed, and their treatment also changed as the church grew stronger and the indigenous, pagan ways were demonized.
It seems legitimate, then, to look again at the goddesses and women shaman in the ancient Irish texts and ask if perhaps their appearance masks a much more widespread lineage and tradition. Could it be that a matriarchal spiritual ancestry is the source of many of these accounts and might the scant references be an attempt to extinguish the importance and power of women in ancient Ireland?
Sheela na gigs’ sculpture, found at the archaeological site of Lepenski Vir in Serbia (mazbln / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
What do the ‘Sheela na gigs’ Symbolize?
Recent reappraisal of the figures called ‘Sheela na gigs’ may offer some evidence of this. Until quite recently the academic consensus, while leaving some small room, tended to favor the idea that Sheela na gigs had been created by the Normans around the 11th century. There was always a difficulty with this for a number of reasons.
Sheela na gigs have been found in high numbers in Ireland, as well as Western Europe. This seemed to play into the Norman hypothesis. It was only after later comparative scholarship in anthropology and archaeology that researchers realized that the archetype of the Sheela na gig could be found worldwide.
The ancient 'Foremother' figure found at Lepenski Vir, Siberia has been dated to roughly 6500 BC.
Megalithic mound Bryn Celli Ddu, north-east side, main entrance Môn/ Anglesey Rhion Pritchard (Rhion / Public Domain )
Megalithic Mounds – An Extension of the Sheela na gig
She was the most prominent goddess found at this site and she seems to have been associated with wombs, water, and birth. Many archaeologists also now see megalithic mounds as having a womb-like ritual purpose, perhaps indicating a shamanic re-birthing process.
Marija Gimbutas has also written about the correlations between the Sheela na gig figure and the frog goddess of Egypt, Heqet, who was also a protector of pregnant women and birth.
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Carving of Sheela na gig at Moura Pena Furada - Coirós, Coruña ( Elisardojm / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Symbols of Regeneration and Protection
This image may even date back further to the Palaeolithic where we have bone engravings of frog/ toad women. These carvings are interpreted to represent regeneration.
Seeing the Sheela na gig as a representation of a goddess who was a protector of women would certainly seem to make sense and link to the hypothesis of an ancient Irish matriarchal tradition. Not only do we have a direct relationship to ancient goddess carvings, but to a goddess who has been documented as being specifically evoked by women.
But if Christianity wanted to erase this knowledge why would they have placed representations of this pagan goddess on their buildings?
Sheela na gig on the south west pillar of the presbytery in St. Magnus Cathedral, Orkney, c. 12-13th centuries, Romanesque and Norman. ( Wordandsilence1979 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The Sheela na gig Attempts to Evade Suppression by the Church
Today, we have a wider understanding about the repression of wise-woman traditions in their many manifestations. All over the world, from witch trials to the wiping out of indigenous cultures, there has been a suppression of women shaman, sorceresses, and the older earth goddesses themselves.
The monotheistic aversion to the expression of women’s power and sexuality is a reason Sheela na gig’s may have been placed within church structures. It would be a way in which to visually curtail this power and assert its ‘sinfulness’. In other words, imprisoning the image of women’s power within the church symbolically represented the church’s victory over the goddess.
Pope Gregorius I dictating the gregorian chants (Hartker of Sankt-Gallen / Public Domain )
Pope Gregory Commands - Curb the Attacks Against the Pagans
We actually have a historical precedent for this deliberate suppression of older, pagan gods and goddesses.
In a letter sent by Pope Gregory in 500 AD, Christian missionaries and monks are told to curb the violent attacks against pagans and their places of worship. They are instructed to instead Christianize the sacred sites and swap pagan idols for Christian saints. This would indicate that a process was in place to change the meaning of idols from representing the more ancient gods and goddesses to something else entirely.
Wise Woman in black cloak in the forest ( edinorog12 /Adobe)
The Shamanic Practices Experience Survival and Rediscovery
Over the course of time these deities were banished to the fringes of cultures. In Ireland the Bean Feasa or ‘wise woman’ managed to survive and continue the legacy of indigenous shamanic practices but the ancestral connections were cut through the rewriting of Irish history by arriving monks. Remnants remain though, and by connecting the attributes of prophecy and the association with ancient sites, comparative anthropology is beginning to rediscover the original shamanic women of Ireland.
Top image: Women shaman of Ireland in trance - magic rotates the leaves. Source: kharchenkoirina / Adobe
By David Halpin
David Halpin is a writer from Carlow, Ireland. He compiles local folklore and documents alignments between ancient monuments near his home in Ireland, and is a regular contributor to Ancient Origins and various Fortean and occult websites. Join him for virtual and physical guided tours of ancient Irish sites at @CircleStoriesDavidHalpin
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