Mabon, Son of His Mother
Gender Relations in Celtic Myth and Prehistory After the One Mother Goddess’s Passing
by Melanie Fire Salamander
This holiday is named for the Welsh god Mabon ap Modron — Son, son of Mother, or Mothers. A mamma’s boy, a mother’s son, a young god, it seems, from a time when it was most important that a god be the son of his mother. A matrilineal time, with a different sort of gender relations than we have now.
In 1985, I could have told you just what that meant. Mabon, I’d have said, came down from the misty early days when the One Mother Goddess held sway over Europe and the Near East — the Goddess of the Moon, Goddess of mares and sows, darkness and nature, death and life — and the Celts danced to her measure. To support me, I would have drawn on Starhawk, the Farrars, Robert Graves, Sir James Frazer, Joseph Campbell and a host of others.
Good-bye to the One Mother Goddess
But the reign of the One Mother Goddess is not a concept you can assert anymore without challenging yourself, I think. Academia has been steadily questioning this idea since the 1970s. Most recently for pagans, Ronald Hutton in his 1999 book The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft has carefully delineated the flaws in the One Mother Goddess idea, and delved into why Victorian and Edwardian scholars and later British and American witches so wanted to believe it. The book makes fascinating reading, even if (especially if) you still hold great affection for the old shibboleth. In showing the passions behind the idea, the idea itself collapses still further, convincingly, into dust.
For all his sledgehammer work, Ronald has not got the last word. Many of the conclusions he draws beg for review. Several times, he asks other researchers to follow in his steps and check his claims. He’s also careful to say that the idea of the one European Mother Goddess cannot be disproved: “It must be stressed once more that none of these developments had disproved the former worship of such a deity; they had simply shown that it could not be proven.” And earlier: “All parts of (the idea) were to some extent anchored in real, proven data, even though it ran beyond this to a very significant extent.”
He also points out a few holes in his own argument, making it clear that the idea of a cross-cultural Mother Goddess can be supported by artifacts in Southern Europe and the Near East, though not so much in Great Britain. Marija Gimbutas, a front-rank archaeologist who to the end of her life in 1994 supported the idea of a cross-cultural European goddess cult in the Neolithic, did her main work in Greece and the Balkans, where Hutton says the idea makes more sense than in Britain. The archaeological community has questioned Gimbutas’s findings; Hutton writes: “Her ideas have met with an increasing volume of criticism from fellow archaeologists… although, in view of the quantity of censure which they have attracted, it may be worth pointing out that at the time of writing they are by no means disproven, and may well never be. The controversy has centered upon the issue that the evidence is susceptible of alternative interpretations.” Academe has marginalized the One Mother Goddess, but she is not gone.
But the era in which one could confidently point to One European Mother Goddess at the Beginning of Time is gone, and we’re standing in the cold morning after.
Reading Triumph of the Moon, I did feel nostalgic. I wanted a ruling Mother Goddess because I’m a pagan and a feminist — that is, I want equal civil and cultural rights for women. I have looked to the past, particularly the past of my British and Northern European forebears, to find a society where women’s rights were upheld, if not in the terms I want today, at least so that women were treated as full human beings. If possible, I’d like to find an earlier pagan society with egalitarian values, study its rituals and adapt them to my usage.
Under a Mother Goddess seemed to be the place to look. It was what Riane Eisler promised me, in her book The Chalice and the Blade, a prehistory in which neither patriarchy nor matriarchy held sway but the sexes were equals and friends under the aegis of a loving Mother Goddess. Even if Eisler’s theory is flawed (she based a lot of her work on Gimbutas), she made many points about reinterpreting prehistory through a less patriarchal lens that still hold true. But there’s a very strong chance she read her prehistory wrong.
Realizing why and how I wanted the Mother Goddess is important. One useful development of the social sciences in the last few decades has been the concept of reflexivity. Hutton in his preface to Triumph of the Moon defines it so: “Reflexivity is the readiness of scholars to be openly aware of their prejudices, preconceptions, instincts, emotions, and personal traits which they bring to their studies and the way in which these can influence the latter. It can also include the impact of the process of study itself upon the personality and attitudes of the scholar.”
Interestingly enough, Hutton rejects reflexivity for his own work. Apparently it was too painful for him: “In the end, lying awake one night at 3 a.m. I decided to excise the whole passage (dealing with the topic)…. There were a number of less pleasant experiences, and whereas on the Pagan side they tended to diminish with time, in the wider society, including the university system, they tended to worsen. To retain the whole section carried the risk of perpetuating the very discomforts to which I have referred, and so deprive myself of the chance that, with the publication of this book and a turn to other subjects, I can finally draw a line beneath them.” Clearly this was a painful struggle for Hutton, but to my mind, he lost it. I want to know the lens through which he gazed at his evidence. Did he wish for a universal Mother Goddess, or was the concept repugnant to him? It does matter; at one point, he thought so himself.
Hutton’s reaction aside, I think that the application of reflexivity to one’s own work is useful. Knowing my Goddess-desires and their source lets me factor them out, so that I can be careful not to view prehistory and myth completely through them. To understand the things I see, I must look at the past as clearly as I can, reviewing my world-view and comparing it with the new information that comes to me. I cannot let my desires paint the past to my liking and expect also to know the truth.
But I can look at the past truly and find in its sometimes disappointing patchwork inspiration for my life and ritual. I don’t need to have a paradise behind me to take from history, prehistory and myth lovely hints, gestures, modes of dress, alliances and feelings, chants and songs to inspire my rituals.
At this point, the One Mother Goddess seems mainly to stand in my way, as a distorting lens. It may still be that if I study the past truly, I’ll find her. But these days, I need to be careful not to project her before me.
Her image set aside for now, it looks as if gender relations in the pagan past were a mixed bag. Not surprising, assuming human nature hasn’t changed that much, and altruism and selfishness have always had interplay. Women had certain powers in certain places, held in position by culture or by law. Men had other powers, and almost always the power of force, which often trumps. In Crete, well-respected archaeologist Gerald Cadogan indicates in Palaces of Minoan Crete, women’s power may have been strong early in the civilization, then eroded. In Sumer, the same seems to hold true: an early, more egalitarian society’s equal civil rights disintegrated under the rule of the patriarchal Akkadians, as Iris Furlong writes in “The Mythology of the Ancient Near East” in The Feminist Companion to Mythology, edited by Carolyne Larrington. In Britain and Northern Europe, the early power structure is less clear.
In all these cases, division of powers seems to be the rule. There might not have been One Mother Goddess, but often there were strong goddesses. Hutton echoes feminist pagans of my acquaintance: “The evidence from the historic ancient world was full of unmistakable proof of the widespread veneration of goddesses, often locally represented as superior to gods and associated with functions — rulership, justice, city-building, industry, agricultural processing, learning — which could make excellent role models for modern feminists.” Among the division of powers, I find glimmers and hints of the balance I desire.
Welsh Myth: Mabon and His Like
To return to Mabon, Son, Son of Mother: Celtic mythology and prehistory is a tapestry of these egalitarian glimmers and hints. There shine forth many strong women and goddesses, sometimes literally strong: goddesses who defeat men in battle, goddesses who train heroes in arms. Naming a god “Son of Mother” is such a hint.
The legend of Mabon ap Modron appears in the Welsh tale collection The Mabinogion in the story “Culhwch and Olwen.” His presence is incidental to the story line; he is merely one of a list of things retrieved so that Culhwch, a young prince, can woo the maiden Olwen from her father, Ysbaddaden Chief Giant. Mabon steps in, steps out; elsewhere he is noted as one of Arthur’s warriors; and that’s it.
But he was not always such an incidental character. Welsh myths come down to us in a Christianized, demythologized folktale form, and only the more-than-human attributes of certain princes and ladies, birds and beasts, along with supporting evidence such as inscriptions, show these figures’ former status of divine. Welsh scholar Gwyn Jones in his introduction to his and Thomas Jones’ Everyman version of The Mabinogion (1993 revision) wrote, “That such personages as Bendigeidran (Bran), Rhiannon, Math and Mabon son of Modron are in both the literary and mythological sense of divine origin, is so conclusively to be proved from the Mabinogion itself, from the rich and extensive Irish analogues, and from our knowledge of the myth-making and myth-degrading habits of our remote world-ancestors, that the theme needs no development at our hands. Euhemerized though such personages are, they remain invested with a physical and moral grandeur which amply bespeaks their godlike state and superhuman nature.”
“Culhwch and Olwen” tells us a little about Mabon. In the tale, Culhwch applies to his cousin King Arthur for help obtaining the 39 wonders (three 13s) that Ysbaddaden Chief Giant requires in exchange for Olwen. Of all the marvels that Culhwch is to get, Arthur suggests they go after Mabon first. Arthur’s lieutenant Cei and the interpreter Gwrhyr, who knows all tongues, with several others seek Mabon by following the advice of five marvelous animals, each older than the previous: an ouzel bird, a stag, an owl, an eagle and a salmon. It takes all the great age of the salmon to recall hearing of Mabon, but the salmon can help. At the wall of Caer Loyw, where the salmon swims daily, he hears a constant lamentation. The salmon takes Cei and Gwrhyr there; they find the crier is Mabon. Arthur sets him free, and he continues with the band to obtain the other treasures, fighting in the lists.
Culhwch mainly requires Mabon so as to play houndsman to a famous hound, Drudwhyn the whelp of Greid son of Eri, for the purpose of hunting a famous boar, Twrch Trwyth. Mabon’s being sought first underlines his importance; the talent for which he’s important is the control of animals. Mabon seems thus to have features of the Lord of Animals.
He’s no mere human huntsman. Mabon appears in inscriptions in northern England as Maponus, according to R.J. Stewart in Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses. In a Romano-Celtic inscription, Stewart writes, Mabon is equated with Apollo Citharoedus, Apollo the lyre-player. The connection points to Mabon’s being a musician, a patron of the arts, a god of light. His lamentation, then, at times becomes a song. Mabon was also said to have made prophesies while in imprisonment, another connection to Apollo, patron of oracles. Mabon was the son of a human father; such half-breed children often retain some mortal status. In the Greek myth of Castor and Pollux, the divine twin gives up half of his divinity so that his beloved brother can live half of each year; each of the twins spends half the year in the underworld. Commentators similarly associate Mabon’s prison-castle with the Celtic underworld or other world. His imprisonment is intriguing; when the light of the sun is imprisoned, we have winter. A half-god, half-human being, imprisoned half the year in the underworld — light that trades place with darkness? The light twin of a pair of brothers? We can’t know, but the idea is tantalizing.
But if Mabon is the Son of Mother, who is his mother? Inscriptions from Celtic times across Britain, Stewart writes, often refer to the local goddess simply as Mother — “Modron.” As a group, the Mothers seem to have been earth-guardians, spirits of place that looked after a certain hollow, a certain dell, a certain stream, requiring worship as these places were approached. Mother goddesses also have some background in Celtic myth. The Irish Tuatha de Danann were called the children of the goddess Danu, a goddess also named Anu, called by the medieval Cormac’s Glossary “the Mother of the deities of Ireland.” A recurring figure in Celtic mythology also is the goddess of sovereignty, the goddess of the land that is married to a king, god or hero. Only from her does the king or god get his legitimacy.
Such a mother, it seems, is Mabon’s — female place, female lineage, femaleness as the generative power. Maybe each Modron was local, but the cult of Modron was still strong.
But if we’re looking at gender relations, the tale tells little; Son never relates to Mother in the myth. All the interaction we see between the two is that Mabon was stolen at three days old — “from between his mother’s side and the wall,” in one translation. Was his mother not strong enough to protect him? If he’s imprisoned in the underworld, though, it’s quite possible an extraordinary force brought him there, which no amount of protection would have prevented. So too was Welsh goddess Rhiannon’s son Pryderi stolen, though six women were there to keep watch, in a fort full of soldiers. Perhaps the myths connect; perhaps Mabon is an older or worn-down version of Pryderi. Whether or no, we can usefully look at Rhiannon and Pryderi for a mother’s relation to her newly found son.
When Pryderi meets again his mother Rhiannon, years after his abduction, he comes to her at his father Pwyll’s castle. There, for killing her son (which the six watching women accused her of), she has taken the penance of carrying each visiting man into court, like the mare with which she is associated. Pryderi refuses to treat his mother so. But it is not till the feast that night with Pwyll that Pryderi’s parentage is made clear. In response to the knowledge, “Rhiannon said, `I should be delivered of my care if that were true’” (from the Everyman Mabinogion). The boy’s future name, Pryderi, is taken from her rejoinder — Pryderi means Care or Thought. Here too the mother names the son.
But the myth only nods to matrilineality and female power. In common usage, Pryderi is called son of Pwyll, for all that his given name comes from his mother. Most of the power in The Mabinogion lies in men’s hands. In a myth set when Pryderi is king, “Manawydan Son of Llyr,” he offers his mother to the king Manawydan without even telling her beforehand.
Yet there is an interplay, and a place for strong women and goddesses. When Manawydan meets Rhiannon, “Manawydan and Rhiannon began to sit together and converse, and with the converse his head and heart grew tender towards her, and he admired in his heart how he had never beheld a lady more graced with beauty and comeliness than she. `Pryderi,’ said he, `I will abide by what thou didst say.’ `What saying was that?’ asked Rhiannon. `Lady,’ said Pryderi, `I have bestowed thee as wife upon Manawydan son of Llyr.’ `And I too will abide by that, gladly,’ said Rhiannon.” Manawydan does not take Rhiannon by force but woos her; his affection for her and turnabout is important to him for marriage; and Rhiannon agrees to that marriage as well.
Irish myth: The Morrigan and Maeve
In Irish myth, we find goddesses more powerful than The Mabinogion’s Rhiannon. Scholars have long argued that females seem stronger in Irish myth because, unlike with Wales, the Romans never conquered Ireland; except for the Norse, the country stayed relatively free of non-Celts until the English won the Battle of Boyne in 1690. Consensus seems to be that because of this relative noninterference, the Irish preserved their female-forward traditions later than the Welsh.
Take the war goddess Morrigan’s relations with the hero of Ulster Cuchulain, for example. She presents herself to him first in the guise of a woman, but no such biddable woman as Rhiannon in The Mabinogion, to be given in marriage will she or not. The Morrigan chooses her own lover. “They went on till they met with a chariot, and a red horse yoked to it, and a woman sitting in it, with red eyebrows, and a red dress on her, and a long red cloak that fell on to the ground between the two wheels of the chariot, and on her back she had a grey spear. `What is your name, and what is it you are wanting?’ said Cuchulain. `I am the daughter of King Buan,’ she said, `and what I am come for is to find you and to offer you my love, for I have heard of all the great deeds you have done.’ `It is a bad time you have chosen for coming,’ said Cuchulain, `for I am wasted and worn out with the hardship of the war, and I have no mind to be speaking with women.’
“`You will have my help in everything you do,’ she said, `and it is protecting you I was up to this, and I will protect you from this out.’ `It is not trusting to a woman’s protection I am in this work I have in my hands,’ said Cuchulain. `Then if you will not take my help,’ she said, `I will turn it against you; and at the time when you will be fighting with some man as good as yourself, I will come against you in all shapes, by water and by land, till you are beaten.’ There was anger on Cuchulain then, and he took his sword, and made a leap at the chariot. But on the moment, the chariot and the horse and the woman had disappeared, and all he saw was a black crow, and it sitting on a branch; and by that he knew it was the Morrigu had been talking with him” (from Lady Augusta Gregory’s Cuchulain of Muirthemne).
The war-goddess has been Cuchulain’s patroness and protector as he learns the art of war from the goddess Scathach and when he fights the warrior-queen Aiofe, by whom he had a son. But during the Cattle Raid of Cuailgne he refuses the Morrigan his love, so when Loch son of Mofebis comes against Cuchulain she begins her revenge: “The Morrigu came against Cuchulain with the appearance of a white, red-eared heifer, and fifty other heifers along with her, and a chain of white bronze between every two of them, and they made a rush into the ford. But Cuchulain made a cast at her, and wounded one of her eyes. Then she came down the stream in the shape of a black eel, and would herself about Cuchulain’s legs in the water; and while he was getting himself free of her, and bruising her against a green stone of the ford, Loch wounded his body. Then she took the appearance of a grey wolf, and took hold of his right arm, and while he was getting free of her, Loch wounded him again.” Despite the Morrigan’s interference, Cuchulain kills Loch, but she tricks him into healing her wounds with three blessings she gets from him, in return for three drinks of milk she gives him, as an old woman milking a cow by the side of the road.
Her enmity doesn’t stop there; throughout the Cattle Raid, the Morrigan harries Cuchulain, stirring up trouble between the fighting armies: “And in the night the Morrigu came like a lean, grey-haired hag, shrieking from one army to the other, hopping over the points of their weapons, to stir up anger between them, and she called out that ravens would be picking men’s necks on the morrow.” In the end, she forces Cuchulain to break a geas, which leads to his death. He has insulted the goddess as a woman, and it is the female power of sex and death who brings him down. But she has loved him, and she hates to see him die. On the day his death is foretold, his chariot is found broken, “and it was the Morrigu had unyoked it and had broken it the night before, for she did not like Cuchulain to go out and to get his death in battle.”
Even in the myths of Cuchulain, for all that his story is mostly arms and battle, women play as great a role as men. When he is brought low, “`without the spells of the children of Calatin, the whole of them would not have been able to do him to death.’” The children of Calatin are three witches — including Badbh, another war-goddess and a double of the Morrigan — who plot revenge against Cuchulain because he killed their father. Doubly the war-goddess brings the great god-hero low. Men’s strength falls at last before women’s.
Cuchulain’s greatest human opponent in myth is Maeve, later considered a queen of the Sidhe or fey folk, which often denotes a fallen goddess. Maeve sponsors the children of Calatin in their revenge, and she sends man after man to kill Cuchulain. He wins her animosity during the Cattle Raid of Cuailgne because he protects the Brown Bull she has sworn to steal.
Maeve begins the raid in a fit of royal pique. Her husband, King Ailell, has complacently complimented her, “`You are better today than the day I married you.’” She retorts, “`I was good before I ever had to do with you” and goes on to list her attributes, including: “`of the six daughters of my father Eochaid, King of Ireland… as for dividing gifts and giving wages, I was the best of them, and as for battle feats and arms and fighting, I was the best of them. It was I had fifteen hundred paid soldiers, and fifteen hundred more that were the sons of chief men.’” She doesn’t mention weaving or singing or womanly arts. She has the strengths of a man.
On top of that, she has the allure of a woman. She lists her many suitors and says she chose Ailell because for her marriage portion she required a man “`without stinginess, without jealousy, without fear…. It would not be fitting for me to be with a man that would be cowardly, for I myself go into struggles and fights and battles and gain the victory; and it would be a reproach to my husband, his wife to be better than himself. And it would not be fitting for me to be with a husband that would be jealous, for I would never hold myself to be bound to one man only.’” As much as any man, she claims the right to go to war and take lovers.
Her marriage portion having been Ailell’s good nature, she in turn gave him costly wedding gifts. In the end, she says, “`the riches that belong to me are greater than the riches that belong to you.’” Ailell disputes this statement; the two compare their wealth. Their riches prove exactly equal, except that Ailell has in his herd a fine bull, Fionnbanach, the White-Horned, who’d been calved among Maeve’s cattle. “But he would not stop in Maeve’s herds, for he did not think it fitting to be under the rule of a woman.” Maeve has no such bull, so she resolves to steal Donn Cuailgne, the Brown Bull of Cuailgne, twice as good as Fionnbanach, so that her riches beat Ailell’s.
Cuchulain ends up defending the bull single-handed against Maeve’s armies for quite a while, because the men of Ulster are under a curse of pain like a woman’s in labor. He kills Maeve’s heroes one after the other; Maeve relentlessly drives her men on. While Ulster’s men are beset by women’s pains, she fights as well as any man; when Cethern of the North weighs in on Ulster’s side, he reports: “There came at me a beautiful, pale, long-faced woman, with long, flowing yellow hair on her, a crimson cloak with a brooch of gold over her breast, and a straight spear shining red in her hand. It was she who gave me that wound, and she got a little wound from me.” Cuchulain names the woman who wounded Cethern as Maeve. Says Maeve’s champion Ferdiad to her, “It is a fit queen you are for Cruachan of the Swords, with your high talk and your fierce strength.’” Generous, warlike, sexual, Maeve is the picture of a queen, equal to her husband or any man.
But Ferdiad regrets Maeve’s war: “‘This army is swept away today; it is wandering and going astray like a mare among her foals that goes astray in a strange place, not knowing which path to take. And it is following the lead of a woman,’ he said, `has brought it into this distress.’” The Morrigan and Maeve live in a world where female and male power are balanced, blended, mixed. Maeve loses the Cattle Raid of Cuailgne to Cuchulain, in the end. Though the hero is broken and bloody, Maeve’s warrior Fergus, Cuchulain’s brother-in-arms from Scathach’s training, surrenders the battle to him. The Morrigan, in contrast, wins against Cuchulain in the end, but her goddess’s heart regrets it.
Maeve and the Morrigan are not the One Mother Goddess but specific goddesses, with specific realms; their attributes are not particularly motherly, though each is a mother. But in studying their aspects, and those of other Celtic goddesses and heroines, we see models of female strength. Like Welsh myth, Irish myth has its patriarchal aspects — men generally rule; sons inherit from fathers and are known by their names; fathers give daughters away in marriage. But strong women and goddesses fight their way through and make their mark on the stories.
From a handful of Celtic myth, I’ve picked some shimmering bits. What I see among these shining ogham pieces is that Celtic myth, like the present, shows us a world of divided powers. In some places and situations, men or gods rule, in others women or goddesses. In the variegated world of Celtic myth, shot with fear, silvered with pleasure, with women and men jostling for power, I can find shards that help me create the egalitarian rituals I want. I can use the past for inspiration, without pretending what I’m doing is authentic to the rituals as done before — it can’t be — and without creating a past to suit my fancy.
If I need One Mother Goddess, I can find her in many pagan rituals — and it’s true if you call the One Goddess with a true heart, she will come. If I need a specific goddess, I can find her too. I don’t need a perfect past for that. Then as now, the world is mixed. I want to start from what actually comes to us from the past, patched and tattered though it be, full of nightmares and dreams, and then move forward.