An Irish pound banknote featuring and illustration of Queen Medb / Wikimedia Commons
By Dr. Noémie Beck / 12.04.2009
Professor of Irish Studies
As we have seen through the previous chapters, Celtic goddesses are generally difficult to define inasmuch as information about them comes down to a few inscriptions and to the significance of their names, which sometimes remains obscure. Irish mythology can sometimes throw light on the nature of the Gaulish and British goddesses, particularly when similarities between Irish, British and Gaulish goddess names can be established. Queen Medb, for instance, who is one of the most emblematic female figures of Irish mythology, is etymologically linked to two continental goddess types: Meduna and the Comedovae, respectively known from inscriptions discovered in Bad Bertrich (Germany) and in Aix-les-Bains (Savoy, France). An Ogam script engraved in a cave located in County Roscommon in the west of Ireland might also refer to the goddess Meduva, whose name might be the old form of Medb’s name. The names of the Irish goddess Medb and the Gaulish goddesses Meduna and the Comedovae may be derived from an Indo-European word *médhu– signifying ‘honey’, ‘intoxication’, and designate the fermented drink extracted from honey, that is ‘mead’.2208 If this etymology is correct – other possibilities have been suggested -, their names may be therefore glossed as ‘Goddess of Intoxication by Mead’ or ‘Mead Goddess’.
Furthermore, it is noteworthy that these Mead Goddesses bear some resemblance to two British goddesses who also possessed the function of ‘intoxication’ according to the etymology* of their names: Latis, whose name, known from two inscriptions discovered in Cumbria, means ‘the Intoxicating Drink (Purveyor)’, and Braciaca, possibly ‘Goddess of (malt-induced) Intoxication’ or ‘Goddess of Beer’, whose name was revealed on a dedication found in Derbyshire. From these divine names, it can inferred that the insular and continental Celts had a tradition of ‘Intoxicating Goddesses’ in common.
So as not to misunderstand the nature and functions of the Celtic Goddesses of Intoxication, it is worth emphasizing that the word intoxication does not have the same meaning in English as in French. In English, intoxication is literally ‘the state of being drunk’ or, in the figurative sense, which ensues from it, ‘the state of being happy, excited, and unable to think clearly’.2209 It is thus a synonym of the word ‘drunkenness’ or ‘inebriation’, which is in French ‘ivresse’, ‘ébriété’. In addition, the word intoxication can denote the state of euphoria or delirium reached after consuming drugs or intoxicating plants, which is to say plants which alter, fuddle or addle the mind on account of their psychotropic properties. As for the French word intoxication, its meaning is far stronger, for it signifies ‘poisoning’ (from Greek toxikon, ‘poison’ and Latin toxicum, ‘poison’), which is to say illness or death resulting from the swallowing, touching or breathing of a noxious substance: “introduction ou accumulation spontanée dans l’organisme d’une substance toxique ou nocive, c’est à dire qui empoisonne, qui provoque la mort”.2210
Therefore, intoxication connotes death in French, while in English it refers to the state of having one’s mind blurred after consuming alcoholic drinks, drugs or hallucinatory plants. Interestingly, the two languages seem to reflect the dual qualities of intoxicating substances, which can either modify the vision when absorbed in small quantities, or be poisonous and lethal if taken in large amounts. The subject of this chapter is not devoted to poisoning goddesses embodying death, but to goddesses furthering drunkenness, ecstasy or trance by purveying ‘intoxicating’ beverages, which they actually personify. This unusual function arouses surprise, curiosity and multiple questions, for it represents a strong contrast with the traditional land-, water- or animal-goddesses embodying nature or protecting the territory. What was ‘intoxication’ in antiquity and what was its aim and place in the society of the time? How could this cultural aspect be linked and represented by goddesses? The existence of several goddesses bearing the name of ‘mead’ in Gaul and in Ireland tends to reveal that this intoxicating drink played a significant role in Celtic times. Could mead have thus been a sacred beverage giving access to the divine world and purveying immortality like the Soma in Ancient India or the Haoma in Persia? Could the mead-goddesses have been the guardians, representatives or personifications of specific cults and rites among which mead-intoxication figures prominently? If so, which ones? Despite the time gap and the different nature of the sources, is the figure of Medb reminiscent of mead-intoxication and cults attached to it? May she cast light on some possible functions of the intoxicating goddess?
In order to clearly understand, reconstruct and penetrate the essence of these very singular goddesses, it is first necessary to define the meaning, techniques and functions of sacred intoxication in ancient times. The study of the archaeological and literary data in Gaul, Britain and Ireland, will then allow us to determine the place of mead in the religious life of the time and analyze the nature, role and possible functions of the mighty Celtic goddesses of intoxication.
Definition of “Sacred Intoxication”
The Opening to the Divine World
Intoxication and Trance: Making Contact with the Divine World
As we have seen, ‘intoxication’ has to be understood in the broad sense of the word, which is to say the state reached, such as drunkenness, delirium or ecstasy, after consuming specific preparations or beverages made from vegetal or animal products altering the senses. In ancient times for instance, mandrake, bryone, datura, atropa belladonna, aconite, drosera, hemp, poppy and achillea were all renowned and used in the ‘rites of intoxication’ for their visionary and hypnotic virtues.2211 Intoxication allowed human beings to establish a connection with the otherworld, ensuring a dialogue with the deities and dead ancestors. Archaeology, ancient literature and ethnology prove that the rites of intoxication, be they connected with medicine, war, society, life or death, date from very ancient times and have, throughout the world and civilisations, always born a relation to the divine, for human beings have always required the help, answers and advice of the gods in every domain.
Intoxication actually engendered a modification of the personal state and allowed the consumer to lose contact with reality, thus giving the impression of being freed from material links. In other words, it created a feeling of having one’s soul separated from one’s body, which, in specific ritual or socio-religious contexts, led to trances or astral projections, ensuring travels to the supernatural world and contact with the divine. It was even sometimes possible to be possessed by the deity itself.2212 Michel Meslin explains that “the very semantic field of the word ‘trance’ is fully indicative of an area crossed, a passage or change towards something else or towards somebody else; indeed, you say ‘to get into a trance’, ‘to be in trance’, ‘to get out of a trance’”.2213 The crossed area, which Meslin comments on, is the frontier existing between the natural world and the supernatural world. And sacred intoxication is the ‘key’ which opens the door to the otherworld. It enables the human race to traverse the ‘divine’ boundary, because it changes the rational vision of human beings and allows them to ‘see’ another reality, another world (the other-world), which is to say the one living in parallel to the natural world: the world of the divine and of the dead ancestors.
Irish mythology is very representative of the belief of an invisible supernatural world living within the human world. The gods are indeed depicted living in the sídh or ‘otherworld’, which is subterranean and submarine. It is indeed believed to be situated under the earth, hills, lakes, rivers or the sea. Access to the otherworld is not an easy task and is made possible through visions, dreams, celestial fog, or long voyages across the sea. The respective Echtrai (‘Adventures (to the Otherworld)’)2214 of Cond Cétchathach (‘Wise Leader of the Hundred Battles’)2215 and Cormac Mac Airt,2216 for instance, relate that the two hero-kings managed to enter the otherworld and meet the deities through a thick fog suddenly appearing from nowhere. Accordingly, this fog could be interpreted as the metaphor of the blurred vision reached after performing rites of intoxication, which aimed at ‘seeing’ the supernatural world. Similarly, it may be that the Imrama 2217 (literally meaning ‘rowing’ or ‘sea voyaging’), that is ‘travels’ or ‘voyages’ of fictional characters, such as Bran in the 7th-century Imram Brain maic Febail [‘The Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal’],2218 or Máel Dúin in the 8th-century Imram Curaig Maíle Dúin [‘The Voyage of Máel Dúin’s Boat’],2219 to otherworld islands, are a literary metaphor of the ‘voyage of the soul to the supernatural world’, made possible by sacred intoxication, which permitted one to enter into a trance, cross the frontier between the two worlds and encounter the deities.2220
Furthermore, it is interesting to note that, in Celtic art, some faces (masks) of divinities or possibly of druids in trance are represented with protruding, hallucinated and hypnotizing eyes, which could indicate their state of trance and ecstasy after intoxication (fig. 1 and 2). It is all the more probable since these hallucinated faces are usually found on sacred objects stamped with magic, such as fibulas* or torques* (fig. 1). In addition, some of them are portrayed with animal elements, such as horns, which must be indicative of a divine mutation believed to be furthered by the absorption of visionary substances (fig.1).2221
Fig. 1: Left: End of 5th-century or beginning of 4th-century BC fibula* in bronze from Oberwittighausen (Germany) representing two superposed bearded faces – one of them has animal ears or horns – possibly representing druids in trance or gods? (Length: 0,031m). In Karlsruhe, Badisches Landesmuseum. Duval, 1977, p. 53. Right: Detail of a torque*, dated 4th c. BC, from Chouilly-les-Jogasses (Marne) (diam. 0,16 m). In the Musée municipal de Châlons-sur-Marne. Duval, 1977, p. 10.
Fig. 2: A piece of cart with masks in bronze, dated 3rd c. BC, discovered in Mezek (Bulgaria). In Narodnija Archeologiceski Muzej, Sofia. Duval, 1977, pp. 28, 115.
Intoxication to Establish a “Dialogue”
The ‘Listening Goddesses’: Clutoiθa and the Rokloisiabo
To make contact with the divine, the absorption of alcoholic drinks or hallucinogenic substances was certainly often accompanied by specific rituals, dances, songs, incantations and musical instruments, which played the role of a physical stimulant and constituted a mode of identification for the gods.2222 Indeed, in Gaul, an inscription dedicated to Dea Clutoiθa, discovered in Etang-sur-Arroux (Saône-et-Loire), in the territory of the Aedui, was engraved on an ancient musical instrument, called a crotalum (fig. 3). The inscription reads: Dea(e) Clutoidae Elatussio(?), ‘To the goddess Clutoida Elatussio(?) (offered this)’.2223 The dedicator Elatussio has a Gaulish name and bears the unique name; he is thus a peregrine.2224 A crotalum is composed of two small cymbals or castanets pierced in the middle on the upper scallop, which were used as percussion, by banging the two parts together. It was used to arouse and draw the attention of a deity, so that the pilgrims’ prayers could be heard and then be granted. There are several other representations in Gaul of such an instrument, held by goddesses or by their believers,2225 such as the statue of the goddess from Cosne, which has her laying her hand on a crotalum,2226 or the representation of a young boy, holding such an instrument in his right hand, on a funerary stele* from Autun.2227 The goddess Clutoiθa is honoured in another inscription discovered in Mesves-sur-Loire (Nièvre), in the territory of the Aedui: Aug(usto) sacr(um) deae Cluto[i]dae et v(i)canis Masavensibu[s] Medius Acer Medianni [f(ilius)] murum inter acrus duos c[um] suis ornamentis d(e) s(uo) d(edit), ‘Sacred to Augustus, to the goddess Clutoida and to the deities of the inhabitants of the vicus of Masava. Medius Acer, son of Mediannus, had this wall erected between two archways with its ornaments’.2228
Fig. 3: Crotale dedicated to the goddess Clutoiθa from Etang-sur-Arroux (Saône-et-Loire). Mémoires de la Société Éduenne, vol. 19, 1866, p. 6, fig. 165.
The divine name Clutoiθa is derived from the Gaulish cluto-, clouto-, ‘renowned’ or ‘famous’, cognate with Old Irish clú (genitive cloth), Welsh clod, ‘reputation’ or ‘famous’ and Greek klutόs, ‘renowned’, all derived from the IE root *kleu-, ‘to hear’ or ‘to listen to’.2229 Kluto– is an adjectival derivative with a suffix of passive participle –to-, which pertains to what is heard, that is ‘glory’ or ‘fame’, and thus means ‘renowned’ or ‘famous’.2230 The meaning of the second element of her name iθa remains unclear, because scholars do not know to which sound the Greek letter theta θ could correspond. Lambert and Delamarre suggest that θ might have stood for an affricate and that iθa could thus be read issa. iθa could be envisaged either as a suffix or as a second compound element.2231 If Clutoiθa is a compound, it may be understood as *kluto-wid-ta, with kluto– ‘renowned’ and the IE root wid– signifying ‘to know’. Clutoiθa would thus mean ‘Of the Renowned Knowledge’. Lambert however underlines that the noun of action of the theme ‘knowledge’ is not wid-ta but wid-tu- in Celtic.2232 Kluto– could be based on another verbal root, such as the IE root wedh– ‘to lead’ and be split up as *kluto-wedh-to, that is ‘the One who Leads to Glory’.
Given that the inscription from Etang-sur-Arroux is engraved on a musical intrument aiming at awakening the deity, Hatt argues that Clutoiθa may have been associated with the gift of listening.2233 He relates her to the Rokloisiabo, the mother goddesses invoked in a Gallo-Greek inscription discovered in 1950 on the archaeological site of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence (Bouches-du-Rhône) (fig. 4). The inscription, offered by a woman peregrine bearing a Latin name, is the following: κορνηλια κλοισαβο βρατουδεκαντ, ‘Cornelia, to the Roklosiabo, in gratitude, on the accomplishment of a vow (or with the tithe)’.2234 Lejeune has suggested that Rocloisiabo is composed of an intensive ro-, signifying ‘great’; of a root kloisio-, deriving from the IE *kleu(s), ‘to hear’; and a plural dative bo.2235 The Rokloisiabo would therefore be ‘The Great Listeners’ or ‘The Ears’. It must be borne in mind, however, that, like Clutoiθa, their name may also mean ‘The Very Renowned Ones’.
Fig. 4: Gallo-Greek inscription dedicated to the Rokloisiabo from Saint-Rémy-de-Provence (Bouches-du-Rhône). Lambert, 1995, p. 87.
While some goddesses would specifically personify the rites of intoxication, as we are going to show, it seems that other goddesses, such as Clutoiθa and the Rokloisiabo, the benevolent ‘Listeners’, could be the very representation of the belief that pilgrims could enter into dialogue with a deity, be listened to and have their vows granted. They may have been ‘divine ears’ which could be reached and awakened through the performance of various rites. They might have eventually been perceived or personified as ears. This is very probable since a 1st– or 2nd-century AD altar, bearing the inscription Auribus, ‘To the Ears’, accompanied with a figuration of two ears surrounded by a crown of laurels, was also discovered on the archaeological site of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence (Bouches-du-Rhône) in 1937.2236 Here the Listening Goddesses are reduced to the figurative representation of the organ which enables listening: the ear. As Lejeune has pointed out, there is an obvious connection between this inscription in Latin, which is probably a Latinized version of a Celtic formula, and the Rokloisiabo. It seems that this idea of divine listeners is also pictured on a small obelisk from Pfalzfeld (Germany), dated 4th c. BC, on which we can see a god with two enormous ‘leaves’ coming from the two sides of his head, at the ear level (fig. 5). These ‘leaves’ could be the ears of the god, which are disproportionately represented on purpose, for it lays stress on the divine ability of listening to the pilgrims.
Fig. 5: Small truncated obelisk in sandstone with bas-reliefs* from Pfalzfeld (Germany), dated 4th c. BC (Height: 1.48m) In the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, in Bonn. Duval, 1977, p. 94.
The Fulfillers of Prayers
Such a belief of appealing to the goddesses so as to have one’s prayers listened to and one’s vows granted seems to be highlighted by other names of Celtic goddesses. According to Delamarre, the Mother Goddesses called Vediantiae, mentioned in two inscriptions discovered in Cimiez (Alpes-Maritimes), might be glossed as ‘the Praying Mother Goddesses’. The inscriptions are the following: Matronis Vediantiabus P(ublius) Enistalius P(ubli) f(ilius), ‘To the Mother Goddesses Vediantiae, Publius Enistalius, son of Publius’ and [–deab]us Vedia[ntiabus–], ‘To the Goddesses Vediantiae’.2237 The term vediantiae could indeed bear some relation to the verb (in the first person) known from the lead of Chamalières: uediiumi, ‘I pray, I invoke’ (Gaulish verb gwhedhiiō ‘I pray’> IE *gwhedh-, ‘to pray’, ‘to invoke’ or ‘to ask’), which is cognate with Old Irish guidiu, ‘I pray’, guide, ‘prayer’ and geiss, ‘taboo’, and Welsh gweddi, ‘to pray’.2238 The Matronae Vediantiae, who are etymologically linked to the Gaulish tribe of the Vediantii, located in the area of Nice, would therefore have embodied this cult of soliciting the help and advice of the divine through prayers and various rites.2239
The Menmandutiae, revealed in an inscription from Béziers (Hérault): Menmandútis M(arcus) Licinius Sabinus v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘To the Menmandutiae, Marcus Licinus Sabinus fulfilled his vow willingly and deservedly’,2240 and probably related to the goddess Menmanhia invoked on an dedication discovered in Rome,2241 may be ‘the Ones who pay attention (to the prayers)’, that is ‘those who answer (the prayers)’. Their name can be related to the Gaulish menman ‘thought’, ‘prayer’ or ‘intelligence’, similar to Old Irish menme, ‘mind, ability of thinking, intelligence, feeling, desire’, Welsh mynw and Breton meno, ‘opinion’ and Sanskrit mánman-, ‘thought’, ‘mind’.2242 Delamarre points out that their name could be composed like Latin sacerdōs, ‘priest’ or ‘priestess’ > *sakro-dhōts, ‘who accomplish the sacra’ 2243 : menman-dut- > *ménmn-dhōts, ‘who accomplish (fulfil) the thoughts (prayers)’. Like the Rokloisiabo, the Matres Menmandutiae may thus have been goddesses who had the ability of listening to the pilgrims’ prayers.
Finally, the goddess Garmangabis mentioned in an inscription from north-west of Lanchester Fort (Co. Durham), in Britain, might be understood as ‘She who Takes the Cries away’ or the ‘Cries-Taker’.2244 The inscription is the following: Deae Garmangabi et N(umini) Gor[di]ani Aug(usti) n(ostri) pr[o] sal(ute) uex(illationis) Sueborum Lon(gouicianorum) Gor(dianae) (uexillarii) uotum soluerunt m(erito), ‘To the goddess Garmangabis and to the Deity of our Emperor Gordian for the welfare of the detachment of Suebians of Longovicum, styled Gordiana, the soldiers deservedly fulfilled their vow’. On the left side of the altar, a knife and a jug are engraved, while on the right side a patera* and a disk are represented. This divine name could be either of Germanic or of Celtic origin, depending on the interpretation of the stem gabi-, which means ‘to give’ or ‘to offer’ in Germanic and ‘to take’ in Celtic.2245 If it is seen as a Celtic theonym, Garmangabis could be composed of the Gaulish gabi-, ‘to take’ and garman or garo-, ‘cry’, ‘yell’ or ‘scream’, cognate with Old Irish gáir and Welsh gawr ‘shout’, ‘cry’, or Old Irish gairm, Welsh and Breton garm, ‘clamour’, ‘vociferation’ or ‘cries of rage’, and be the ‘Cries-Taker’.2246
These various names of mother goddesses are interesting for they might denote important functions concerning the Listening Goddesses. The Matronae Vediantiae (‘the Praying Mother Goddesses’) are the very embodiment of the custom of appealing to the divine in order to have one’s prayers answered. As for the Menmandutiae (‘the Ones who pay attention to (the prayers)’, they represented the belief of being heard by the goddesses, who would benevolently aid and relieve the pilgrims by granting their vows. It is clear that the supplications of the believers must have often been filled with sorrow, distress, anxiety or regret, and thus mingled with tears, moans, screams and yells, which the goddess Garmangabis (‘She who Takes the Cries away’) seem to embody. They must have represented this divine function of symbolically taking pain, sadness and misfortune away when listening to the lamentations of the faithful and then fulfilling their orisons.
Contexts of Ritual Intoxication
Intoxication was pursued for various purposes and in different contexts. First of all, it was of great importance in socio-religious rites, which probably gathered together the important members of the tribe to deal with social or political matters, and initiate the youngest. The Indian healers from North America have, for instance, long been using the sacred datura and the stramonium to initiate the young men to the mysteries of the supernatural world and create collective visions for particular socio-religious rites.2247
Furthermore, it is a well-known fact that wise men used visionary substances in the sphere of divination to foretell the future, solve problems or answer important questions in relation to the society of the time.2248 In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder, for example, relates that the Gaulish peoples used the verbena in divination: “The people in the Gaulish provinces make use of them both [peristereon, ‘pigeon plant’ or verbenaca, ‘vervain’] for soothsaying purposes, and for the prediction of future events”.2249 As for the scholiast of Lucan, he stipulates that the druids were used to ingesting acorns to foretell the future: “the name of the druids come either from the trees (oaks), because they lived in remote sacred woods, or because they were used to practicing divination under the effects of an ingestion of acorns”.2250
Moreover, intoxication is very likely to have been part of the funerary rites held in honour of important people in society, for hemp and achillea residues were discovered in various tombs dating from Neolithic.2251 The most striking examples as regards the Celts are the crater* of Vix (Côte d’Or, France), probably containing the remains of an intoxicating beverage, excavated in the tomb of a princess, and the cauldron of mead discovered in the tomb of the Prince of Hochdorf (Baden Württemberg, Germany), which will be the subject of the following part. It must have aimed at purifying the soul of the deceased and at making contact with the divine to ensure his or her voyage to the otherworld and guarantee eternal life in the hereafter.
As we will see in more detail below, intoxication was also part of war rites with the intention of earning and rallying the divine forces to the warriors, as well as gaining supernatural powers to attain invincibility and invulnerability to fight the foes.
Finally, the rites of intoxication were much used in medicine to heal, prevent illnesses and prolong life, for the intoxicating plants also had powerful curative virtues. Moreover, it was very necessary for the patients as well as for the doctors to make contact with the divine world, more particularly the healing gods and goddesses, for they could purvey the sick pilgrims with remedies or relieve them from their pain, as we will develop in the last part of this chapter.
The Holders of the Sacred Knowledge
Texts and archaeology tend to prove that sacred intoxication was generally reserved to the elite, which is to say the kings, hero-warriors, and more particularly the priests, on account of being the ‘divine’ representatives of the gods on earth or the intermediary between human beings and supernatural forces. It is all the more probable since it was quite necessary to perfectly know the properties of the various visionary plants, how to prepare, use and control them after consumption.
Indeed, every plant possessing such mysterious virtues could on the one hand be a remedy and on the other hand be a poison; such is reflected in Latin by the word medicamen, meaning ‘remedy, drug, medicine’ and ‘poison’ at the same time. Many a plant, such as datura, rye grass, hemlock, drosera and hename, were used in medicinal remedies or in sacred beverages, but they could also kill or drive people insane if not carefully and correctly handled.2252 As a matter of fact, their use and absorption could turn out to be very dangerous if the consumer did not have a precise and high-level knowledge of the composition and powers of the plant itself as well as of the elaborate fabrication of the ‘visionary sacred preparation’, which generally combined several ingredients of different nature and virtues. It was also necessary to have a perfect knowledge and a wide experience of the effects incurred by the absorption of such powerful ‘potions’ so as to be able to control them and use them in order to reach the divine world and spirituality. For instance, Ernesta Cerulli underlines that the knowledge of the location, effects and dosage of the hallucinogenic plants, which were used in large amounts in the context of various rites in Amazonia, was only held by the Shamans.2253 Therefore, it would appear likely that, in Celtic times, the gathering of the plants, as well as the making of ‘potions’, were in the hands of the druids.
In ancient times, the plants, on account of being ‘magical’, ultimately pertained to the divine world, which explains why the plant was believed to be the embodiment of some deity. Thus, it seems quite natural that the picking of the plants was filled with sacredness and surrounded by complex religious rituals reserved to the representatives of the gods, as the famous description by Pliny of the gathering of mistletoe by the druids illustrates.2254 Pliny gives three other examples of magical plants, the gathering of which was ritualized, prone to various mysterious taboos* (geasa in Irish) and performed by the druids: vervain, samolus and selago.2255 Vervain, for instance, had to be gathered with the left hand at the rise of the Dog-star, so as not to be seen by the sun or the moon, after offering honey-combs to the earth and tracing a circle around the plant with iron.2256
Absorbing the “Intoxicating Plants”
To release the various beneficial aspects of the plants and become intoxicated through them to communicate with the gods and the dead relatives, different ways of proceeding, dating from ancient times, are known. Obviously, the one which particularly interests us, as regards our subject, is the fermentation of plants in liquids so as to obtain a sacred beverage. Unfortunately, the actual processes in Celtic times are very little known but are open to various hypotheses based on what is known about other ancient civilizations.
First of all, intoxication could be reached through inhalation or fumigation, which means the plants were dried and kindled in order to inhale the intoxicating fumes. The most famous examples are henbane, the smoke of which inspired the Pythia in Delphi to pronounce oracles;2257 willow bark and leaves, the fumes of which were famous for their prophetic virtues in many ancient civilisations of the European continent; rye ergot, used in initiatory rites; and incense, which has furthered communication with the divine world by creating a state of serenity in many religions since time immemorial.2258 Furthermore, Herodotus, in The Histories, dating from 440 BC, attested that the Scythians ritually put seeds of hemp on red hot stones to produce a steam by which they became intoxicated during funerary rites.2259 It is very likely that this process of intoxication was in use in Celtic times, but there is no evidence of it.
Ingestion: Acorns and the Matronae Dervonnae
It is a well-known fact that, in ancient times, intoxication could be attained by ingestion of the plants, either eaten raw or dried. For instance, in Mexican ethnic groups, the peyolt, a cactus, has been eaten raw or dried by the Shamans from immemorial times to allow the soul to travel to the supernatural world.2260
It seems that the Celts had similar ritual practices, for the Scholiast of Lucan relates that the “[the druids] were used to practicing divination under the effects of an ingestion of acorns”.2261 It is yet difficult to understand how this natural product could have procured such an effect, for the hallucinatory virtues of the acorns remain mysterious to modern scholars. There are for instance no alkaloids in its composition, which could have produced evidence of some visionary properties. The alkaloid is indeed an organic compound which directly affects the nervous system and possesses stimulating, hypnotic, medicinal or toxic nay lethal properties when absorbed in large amounts.2262 There are several thousand types of alkaloids, the most famous ones being mescaline, found in peyolt, or caffeine, found in coffee or tea. Alkaloids are found in some plants, such as belladonna, yew, poppy or peyolt, which, as we saw, all procure visionary effects on account of the presence of this compound in their composition.
Even if there is every indication that, on account of the absence of alkaloids in the acorn, this fruit does not possess any possible hypnotic properties, it is interesting to note that it is yet attested as either having fortifying effects on stags or as being lethal to pigs when they ingest them in large amounts.2263 This must indicate that there is a toxic substance in the acorn, similar to the alkaloid – but which one? -, which might also generate some visionary virtues if taken in small amounts and prepared in a specific way. Because of their apparent indigestible nature, it can be assumed that the acorns might have either been grinded or mashed up and mixed with other ingredients so as to obtain a powder, a paste or a mash, which could be chewed and swallowed. It might also have been that the acorns were crushed and squeezed in order to obtain very small amount of juice. As for Brunaux, he suggests, with regard to the ancient technique of the Scythians, that the hypnotic virtues of the acorn might have been released by roasting, i.e. released in the smoke.2264 It is also worth mentioning that, in Ireland, there was a practice of eating much indigestible food so as to reach a state of semi-unconsciousness and meet the deities in a dream.2265
It may also be that the acorn does not possess any particular hallucinatory properties. The ingestion of acorns by the druids before a divinatory session may have been purely and simply symbolical, for the oak was one of the most sacred trees of the Celts, probably representing strength and the mightiness of knowledge.2266 There are indeed ‘Mother Goddesses of the Oak’, known from a dedication discovered in Milan (Cisalpine Gaul), who must have embodied the sacredness of this tree and of its fruit: Dervonnae Matronis Dervonnis C(aius) Rufinus Apronius vslm, ‘To the Dervonnae Matronae, C(aius) Rufinus Apronius paid his vow willingly and deservedly’.2267 Their name is Celtic, for it is based on the Gaulish root dervo-, ‘oak’, which is similar to Old Irish daur, genitive daro/dara, Welsh dâr and Old Breton dar ‘oak’, derived from a common Celtic word *daru designating oak.2268 These Celtic mother goddesses are also venerated in an inscription from Brescia (Italy) which gives them the Roman divine title of Fatae: Fatis Dervonibus vslm M(arcus) Rufinius Severus, ‘To the Fatae Dervonnae Marcus Rufinus Severus paid his vow willingly and deservedly’.2269 In other words, the ingestion of acorns must have been part of a whole ritual aiming at going into a trance, which was certainly reached thanks to other ingredients possessing ‘intoxicating’ virtues.
Irish mythology is likely to be reminiscent of this ancient Gaulish custom of ingesting acorns to foretell the future, for it pertains to ‘the nuts of wisdom’, which are hazel nuts conveying wisdom, poetry, and esoteric knowledge. This idea is clearly evocated in the story of the river goddess Sionann. The legend, the two versions of which are contained in the Metrical Dindshenchas, recounts that nine hazel trees, the crimson nuts of which were teemed with mystical knowledge, grew over the Well of Connla (see Chapter 4).2270 Later, the nuts fell into the waters of the fountain, producing red bubbles of mystic inspiration, which were fatal to Sionann who, mesmerized by them, tried to catch them and drowned. No sooner had the nuts dropped into the well than the salmon ate them, causing crimson spots to appear on their bellies. These spotted salmons, known as ‘salmons of knowledge’, were thought to have been filled with the wisdom contained in the mystic nuts they had eaten. The one who could catch such a salmon and eat it was believed to inherit the salmon’s enlightment. The most famous instance in Irish mythology is the legend of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, who gained the otherwordly wisdom by thrusting his thumb he had burnt on the salmon of knowledge – caught and cooked by the bard Finnéigeas – into his mouth.2271 Therefore, one could suggest that these nuts transmitting wisdom to the one who eats them are somehow a survival of the ancient belief that acorns could grant divination and mystic inspiration to its consumer. In addition to being the personification of the mighty tree dear to the Celts, could the Dervonnae Matronae ‘Mother-Godesses of the Oak’ have been, to a certain extent, the embodiment of such a belief and custom, which consisted in acquiring divinatory and preternatural powers through intoxication by acorns?
In addition, the plants, after being reduced into powder, could be blended with animal fat to make ointments or salves which would be applied to the skin.2272 This process must have particularly been used in medicinal rites to allow the patient to make contact with the healing gods and cure his or her pain at the same time. The mix of visionary plants with the fat of a venerable animal (ox, ewe, etc) must have added sacredness to the preparation.
‘Intoxicating’ Containers: Yew and the Eburnicae
Finally, intoxication could be reached through the absorption of decoctions, that is infusions of plants, or of fermented drinks – various plants or honey being left to macerate and ferment in some liquid. Before going into more details about sacred beverages, it is worth noting that the nature of the container, in which the drink was left to macerate, must have played a very important role in the composition and preparation of the drink itself, for it must have added some other intoxicating or visionary properties to it.
According to Matthieu Poux, more than 90 % of the wooden buckets used for the mix of the alcoholic beverages were made of yew (taxus baccata).2273 And it is noteworthy that buckets made of yew were excavated either in tombs or in ‘offering wells’ (sometimes 10-metre deep) on sacred Gaulish sites, such as the two yew buckets, probably dating from the end of the 2ndc. BC, discovered on the plateau of the Ermitage (Gaulish oppidum* of the Nitiobroges), in Agen; and the bucket, dating from the 2nd or 1st c. BC, which was part of a wine service, excaveted on the site of Vieux-Toulouse (territory of the Tolosates).2274 Modern scholars agree that the votive deposits in ‘offering wells’ are the reflection of ancient magic-religious rites in honour of the gods.2275 Consequently, it is clear that the yew buckets discovered in sacred places contained sacred intoxicating beverages. As the choice of oak wood in the making of votive statues dedicated to water-goddesses was certainly not done by chance, the use of the yew in the making of bucket containing sacred liquids is certainly not insignificant.
Yew was known in ancient times for its healing powers as well as for its dangerous psychotropic and poisoning properties, and thus played an important role in various magic-socio-religious rites and medicine of the time.2276 The toxicity of the yew was known from the Celts, for Caesar reported that the chief of the Eburones, called Catuvolcus, poisoned himself with yew, preferring death to surrender to the Romans.2277 Pliny also alludes to the fact that its toxic sap was used in the making of specific ointments applied at the end of the spears or arrows of the Celtic warriors to create lethal weapons, like they did with datura stramonium.2278
As regards the buckets, the yew was used on account of its solidity, longevity, and imputrescibility, which allowed for the preserving of liquids. Beyond the technical approach, it is also possible that yew, the psychoactive effects of which are mentioned in the classical texts and attested by recent research, played a part in the making of some divine beverages.2279 If a beverage is made to ferment in a bucket of yew, it is, scientifically speaking, quite possible that the visionary properties of the wood are released in the drink. This possibility is attested by Pliny who denounced the specific intoxicating effects of wine preserved in barrels made of yew:
‘Similis his etiamnunc aspectu est, ne quid praetereatur, taxus minime virens gracilisque et tristis ac dira, nullo suco, ex omnibus sola bacifera. mas noxio fructu; letale quippe bacis in Hispania praecipue venenum inest, vasa etiam viatoria ex ea vinis in Gallia facta mortifera fuisse compertum est.2280
Not to omit any one of them, the yew is similar to these other trees in general appearance. It is of a colour, however, but slightly approaching to green, and of a slender form; of sombre and ominous aspect, and quite destitute of juice: it is the only one, too, among them all, that bears a berry. In the male tree the fruit is injurious; indeed, in Spain more particularly, the berries contain a deadly poison. It is an ascertained fact that travellers’ vessels, made in Gaul of this wood, for the purpose of holding wine, have caused the death of those who used them.2281 ’
Marguerite Gagneux-Granade explains that the lethal alkaloid of the tree would have had a limited effect on a beverage contained in a yew bucket, given that it was made of cut-down wood.2282 Therefore, it can be suggested that an intoxicating beverage (mead, beer, wine), prepared for a religious occasion, is highly likely to have been left macerate in a yew bucket on purpose, for it to become infused with the psychotropic substances contained in the wood.
Interestingly, an inscription, engraved on a Gallo-Roman altar, discovered in Yvours-sur-le-Rhône, near Lyons (Rhône), in the territory of the Segusiavi, is dedicated to the Matres Eburnicae (‘Mother Goddesses of the Yew’): Matris Aug(ustis) Eburnicis Jul(ius) Sammo[…] et […], ‘To the August Mother Goddesses Eburnicae, Julius Sammo[…] and […]’ (fig. 6).2283 The first dedicator has Latin names and is a Roman citizen, for he bears the duo nomina.
Fig. 6: Inscription from Yvours-sur-le-Rhône (Rhône), dedicated to the Matres Eburnicae. CIL XIII, 1765.
Their name is based on Gaulish eburos signifying ‘yew’, similar to Old Irish ibar, ‘yew’, Breton evor and Welsh efwr, ‘alder buckthorn’.2284 The Celtic word is found in names of Celtic tribes, such as the Eburouices (‘Combatants of the Yew’)2285 or the Eburones (‘People of the Yew’)2286 in Gaul, and the Eόganacht (‘People of the Yew-Tree’) in Munster, Ireland,2287 and in toponyms*, such as Eburo-briga (‘Hill of the Yew’) – modern Avrolles (Yonnes, France) – and Eburo-dunum (‘Fort of the Yew’) – modern Yverdon (Switzerland). It is besides interesting to note that there may be a homonymy between the place-name Yvours (*Eburnicum, ‘Place planted with Yew Trees’?) and the divine epithet Eburnicae. Finally, the word is also found in proper names, such as in the Irish mythical name Eógan, which derives from a Celtic Iwo-genos, literally meaning ‘yew-conception’, ‘conceived by the yew-tree’ or ‘born of the yew’ (éo is ‘yew’) indicates a divine filiation.2288
Olmsted considers these mother goddesses to be simple protective mothers venerated by the Eburones, and justifies the location of the inscription (Lyons) by the mobility of local peoples in Gallo-Roman times.2289 There may be an alternative explanation, for these mothers were certainly the very personification of the yew tree, which was highly revered by the Celts and used in war, social and religious contexts.2290 They must also have embodied the powerful intoxicating properties of the tree, as its wood was used in the making of ritual buckets, which were part of religious rites of intoxication in order to make contact with the divine. From all of this, it follows that the Matres Eburnicae could have had the functions of Intoxicating Goddesses.
Decoctions / Fermented Drinks
The Indian and Persian sacred texts describe precisely the making of some ancient intoxicating beverages which were consumed during very specific religious rites to make contact with the otherworld. For instance, the Atharva Veda, a collection of sacred Indian texts dating from around 1500-1300 BC, celebrates the mystic virtues of the ‘Bhang’, a beverage based on milk and spices, blended with a paste of cannabis leaves, which allowed the sacerdotal class to embrace the divine world.2291 Similarly, one hundred and twenty hymns of the Rig Veda are devoted to the rituals accompanying the fastidious preparation of the Soma (‘jus’ in Sanskrit), a divine fermented beverage drawn from the honey of a plant called ‘soma’ or ‘ray of light’,2292 which the Brahmins drank in Vedic times, for it led to ecstatic experiment and bestowed eternity of the soul.2293 In the mythology of Ancient India, the divine beverage is personified as Soma, a polymorphic god who reigns on the realm of the plants, cures illnesses and symbolizes the link between men and the divine world.2294 In ancient Persia, the counterpart of the Soma was called the ‘Haoma’, a trance-inducing drink obtained by the distillation and fermentation of some plant or sacred herb, which was used in religious rites, for it fired spirituality and conveyed access to the otherworld.2295 A god bearing its name, Haoma, who was the intermediary between earth and heaven in Persian mythology, also embodied the intoxicating beverage.2296
If other ancient civilisations had their own specific fermented beverage giving access to the divine world, spirituality, wisdom and eternity, it is likely that the Celts had their own sacred intoxicating drink. As there are no written sources in Gaul, and as Irish literature does not seem to record such a custom, the ultimate question which comes to mind is: what was the intoxicating beverage consumed in Celtic times to reach the divine world?
Mead: The Ambrosia of the Celts?
The Purveyors of Intoxicating Drinks
Even though there are very few surviving examples of such practices among the Celtic peoples, it is possible to assert that intoxication held a very important place in the religious life of the Celts, for the names of several Celtic goddesses – known from inscriptions discovered in Britain and Gaul and from Irish literature – refer to sacred intoxication by means of alcoholic beverages and more particularly by mead.
Irish Literature: Medb
Two different etymologies have been suggested for Medb’s name. It is generally accepted that Medb (*medhuā-) is derived from Indo-European *médhu-, signifying ‘honey’ or ‘mead’.2304 This etymology has caused much controversy, and some scholars propose that it must be understood as ‘the Intoxicated One’ or ‘the Drunken Woman’, while others maintain that it should be glossed as ‘the Intoxicating One’, that is ‘the one who provides intoxicating drinks’.2305 There is indeed an Old Irish word medb, cognate with Welsh meddw, Breton mezzo, Gaulish meduos meaning ‘drunk’, ‘intoxicated’ (from IE *meduo-).2306 However, in Irish mythical lore, Medb is never portrayed as being inebriated after ingurgitating some alcoholic drink, whereas she is described offering intoxicating drinks to men of her own will (see below). Moreover, Tomás Ó Máille underlines that “the word [medb] occurs in the Amra Conruí, Ériu II 5, 12, in the phrase medb domun, which is glossed mesc dorcha, ‘intoxicating and dark’”.2307 In addition, he translates the third name of the province of Connacht, Cóiced (n-) Ólnécmacht, mentioned in Cóir Anmann [‘The Fitness of Names’] (§ 77), as ‘the province of the drink which renders powerless’, that is ‘which intoxicates’. And this province is also called Cóiced Meidbe (‘The Province of Medb’).2308 Therefore, for all these reasons, it is generally agreed today that her name means ‘the Intoxicating Goddess’ or ‘the Mead Goddess’. She is not the one who gets drunk but the one who makes men drunk by offering them intoxicating beverages, as illustrated in Irish mythology.
Indeed, the famous epic of the Ulster Cycle, the Táin B ό Cúailnge [‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’],2309 the initial composition in both prose and verse of which dates from the 7th c. and 8th c. AD, portrays her as a mythical queen providing intoxicating drinks to the most renowned warriors, such as Fer Báeth, Láríne mac Nóis, Fer Diad mac Damáin and Fergus, her lover, so that they should accept to fight the invincible Ulster hero Cú Chulainn (‘the Hound of Culann’).2310 The pattern is repeatedly the same: the warrior is sent to the tent of Ailill and Medb, and first refuses to fight because he is Cú Chulainn’s foster-brother, but each time Medb uses the same trickery. She offers the champion her daughter Finnabair (‘Fair Eyebrows’) in marriage and gets him inebriated with an intoxicating beverage – wine is mentioned in the text, but, originally, it was obviously mead on account of her name.2311 Under the influence of the drink, the warrior finally accepts to fight a duel with Cú Chulainn. She paints in glowing colours what they would get if they married her daughter: wealth, power and, above all, access to the forthcoming throne (kingship):
‘Dobretha Medb techta for cend Fir Diad […] Tucad Findabair, ingen Medba 7 Ailella, fora leathláim. Is í ind Findabair sin no gobad láim ar ach cúach 7 ar cach copán d’Fir Diad ; is í dobeired teóra póc fria cach copán dí-sin dó ; is í no dáiled ubla fírchubra dar sedlach a léned fair. Is ed adberead-si bah é a leandán 7 a toga tochmairc do feraib in tsáegail Fer Diad. Inaim robo sáithech subach sofarbaílig Fer Diad, is and adbert Medb: ‘Maith aile, a Fir Diad, in fetair-seo cia fáth ma radgoired isin pupull sa?[…] bith a Crúachain do grés, 7 fín do dáil fort and […] Findabair m’ingen-sa 7 ingen Aililla do όenmnaí dait 7 comaid dom sliasaid-sea’.2312
Medb sent messengers for Fer Diad […] Finnabair, the daughter of Medb and Ailill, was placed at his side. It was she who handed Fer Diad every goblet and cup; it was she who gave him three kisses with every one of those cups ; it was she who gave him fragrant apples over the bosom of her tunic. She kept saying that Fer Diad was her beloved, her chosen lover from among all the men of the world. When Fer Diad was sated and cheerful and merry, Medb said: ‘Well now, Fer Diad, do you know why you have been summoned to this tent? […] [You will be given …] permission to remain all time in Crúachu [Medb’s royal place] with wine poured for you there […] and Finnabair, my daughter and Ailill’s, as your wedded wife, and my own intimate friendship.2313
Adfét Láeg dó uile aní sin. Ro congrad Fer Báeth hi pupull do Ailill 7 Medb, 7 asber fris suide for láim Findabrach 7 a tabairt dó ar ba hé a togu ar chomrac fri Coin Culaind. Ba hé fer a dingbála leó ar ba cuma dán díb línaib la Scáthaig. Doberar fín dό íarom corbo mesc, 7 asber fris bá cáem leό-som a llind sin, ní tobrad acht ere cόecat fén leό. Ocus ba hí ind ingen no gebed láim fora c[h]uitseom de.2314
Láeg recounted it all to him [Cú Chulainn], telling him how Fer Báeth had been summoned to Ailill and Medb in their tent and told to sit beside Finnabair and that she would be given to him as a reward for fighting with Cú Chulainn, for he was her chosen lover. They considered that he was a match for Cú Chulainn for they had both learnt the same art of war with Scáthach. Fer Báeth was plied with wine until he was intoxicated. He was told that they prized that liquor for only fifty wagon-loads of it had been brought by them. And the maiden used to serve him his share of the wine.2315
Congairther dóib Láríne mac Nóiss olla n-aile bráthair side do Lugaid ríg Muman. Ba mór a úallchas. Doberar fín dó 7 doberar Findabair fora desraid. Tossécai Medb a ndís. ‘Is mellach lim ind lánamain ucut’ ol sí. ‘Ba coindme a comrac’ ‘Ní géb-sa dít ém’ or Ailill. ‘Ra mbia día tuca cend ind ríastairthe dam-sa.’ ‘Dobér immorro’ ar Láríne.2316
Láríne mac Nóis, brother of Lugaid King of Munster, was summoned to them [Ailill and Medb]. His pride was over-weening. He was plied with wine and Finnabair was placed at his right hand. Medb looked at the two. ‘I think that couple well matched’, said she. ‘A marriage between them would be fitting.’ ‘I shall not oppose you’, said Ailill. ‘He shall have her if he bring me the head of the distorted one [Cú Chulainn].’ ‘I shall do so indeed’ said Láiríne.2317
Is and gessa do Fergus mac Rόich techt ara c[h]end-som. Opaidside dano dul ar end a daltai .i. Con Culaind. Dobreth fín do 7 ro mescad co trén 7 ro guded im dula isin comrac. Téit ass íarom ό ro bás ocá etargude co tromda.2318
Then Fergus was begged to go against him [Cú Chulainn]. But he refused to encounter his foster-son, Cú Chulainn. He was plied with wine then until he was greatly intoxicated, and again he was asked to go and fight. So then he went forth since they were so earnestly importuning him.2319 ’
By the same token, in Fled Bricrend [‘The Feast of Briccriu’], a story composed as early as the 8th c., and probably drawing on ancient antecedents, which recounts the competition, organised by Bricriu biltenga ( ‘evil-mouthed’), between Lόegaire Buadach, Conall Cernach and Cú Chulainn, to get the curadhmhír (‘the champion’s portion’), Medb is described handing cups of wine – which obviously replaced mead – to the three champions: Lόegaire receives a cup of bronze, decorated with a silver alloy bird, full of luscious wine (cúach créduma ocus én findruini for a lar […] a lán do fín aicnetai and), Conall is given a silver alloy cup with a gold bird on its bottom (cúach findruini dano ocus én όir for a lar) and Cú Chulainn is awarded a gold cup of wine with a bird of precious stone set in the goblet (cúach dérgoir dó ocus a lán do fín sainemail and ocus én do lic lógmair for a lár).2320
Interestingly, it can be observed that Medb is etymologically cognate with the Indian goddess Mādhavī, the name of which comes from Sanskrit mádhu, ‘spring’, ‘honey of flowers’, ‘honey’, ‘intoxicating beverage’ or ‘mead’ (from IE *médhu).2321 According to Georges Dumézil, the word mādhavī can be understood as either ‘spring flower abounding in honey’ or ‘intoxicating beverage drawn from honey or from this flower particularly rich in honey’, which is to say ‘mead’.2322 Therefore, her name undeniably refers to the inebriation provoked by the madhu, of which she was undeniably its embodiment like Medb. And yet, the story of Mādhavī, recounted in the fifth hymn of the Mahābhārata, does not refer to an intoxicating drink offered by the goddess to the four kings she marries.2323 The ‘intoxication’ emanating from her is not provoked by a drink but by her beauty which creates amorous desire. Anyhow, Georges Dumézil agrees that her name is inductive of some traces of an ancient religious cult glorifying the madhu, which was later personified into a goddess, Mādhavī. The existence of goddesses of mead-intoxication in Irish and Indian ancient literature is indicative of a very ancient religious pattern with regard to mead.
Medb’s name may also be linked to the notions of power and sovereignty. Pinault, studying the Gaulish proper name Epomeduos (‘the one who masters horses’), points to the homonymy between the IE roots *medwo-, ‘drunk, intoxicated’ (from *medhwo-) and *medwo-, ‘master, the one who rules’, which gave the verbal theme med– ‘to rule’ and the word medu-, ‘mead’ in Celtic.2324 Lambert infers from Pinault’s analysis that the name of the goddess Medb can refer both to the intoxicating drink and to political power.2325 The Ancients must have cultivated the ambiguity between the two homonymic words, because, as will be demonstrated, sovereignty and intoxication were interrelated: it was the drink, personified by the goddess, which granted sovereignty. The play on words between laith, ‘ale’ and flaith, ‘sovereignty’ in the Irish texts supports that idea. Various supernatural ladies are described offering the ale (laith) which confers sovereignty (flaith) on the new king. The name Gormfhlaith or Gormlaith, ‘Black Blue Sovereignty’ or ‘Black Blue Intoxicating Drink’, borne by many early Irish abbesses and noblewomen, and notably by the wife of King Brian Bóramha (AD 926-1014), are good examples of that equivocality.2326 Queen Medb is thus both the ‘Intoxicating Goddess’ and the ‘Ruler’; two functions which she clearly embodies in the literature, as will be developed at the end of this chapter.
Ogam inscription: Meduva?
An Ogam inscription found at the site of Rathcroghan, near Tusk (Co. Roscommon, Ireland), in the cave of Cruachnu – which is a natural rock fissure, to which a drystone masonry porch was added – is worth mentioning, even though its reconstitution and meaning remains problematic and hypothetical (fig. 7).2327 The Ogam VRAICCI MAQI MEDVVI is engraved on the lintel just inside the entrance.
Fig. 7: Ogam inscription found in the Cave of Cruachnu at Rathcrogan (Co. Roscommon, Ireland). Macalister, 1996, vol. 1, p. 16.
Ó hÓgáin suggest that this Ogam means ‘Vracos son of Meduva’, and refers to the goddess Medb, the antique name of which would have been Meduva.2328According to him, this Ogam can be dated from the 6th c. AD because the legend of Queen Medb, first attached to Teamhair (Tara, Leinster) was brought by the powerful Connachta sept* to the impressive site of Cruachain during the 5th c. AD. The Connachta gained possession of Teamhair in or about the 4th c. and decided to build another stronghold in the western part of Ireland at this time.2329 Vracos may have been a noble of the Connachta since his filiation is divine. An example of a personal name denoting divine filiation to the goddess of mead-intoxication is also found in Gaul. The proper name Medugenos can indeed mean ‘Born of honey, mead, intoxication’ or ‘Descendant of the goddess of mead-intoxication’.2330 Olmsted points out that the use of the suffixes geno-, ‘lineage’ or ‘born of’ and gnato-, ‘son of’, usually expresses mythological filiation, such as in Boduo-gnatos and Boduo-genus, which can be either glossed as ‘Son of the Crow’, or more likely as ‘Born of Bodua’, that is the Irish crow war-goddess.2331 Likewise, the personal names Camulogenus, the leader of the Aulerci in Gallia Lugudensis,2332 and feminine Camulognata, mentioned in an inscription from Berthouville (Eure),2333 also give filiation from the god Camulos (‘Warrior’ or ‘Of Conflict?’).2334 In view of these Gaulish personal names, the Ogam inscription of Rathcroghan could therefore mention the divine filiation of a man, Vracos, from the goddess Medb. The name Vracos might be related to the divine name Fraech, meaning ‘heather’ (from Irish froích, fróech, ‘heather’), which would have been in archaic Irish, Vraecah, from Celtic Vroecos.2335 An epic tale, entitled Táin Bó Fraích [‘The Cattle Raid of Fraech’], tells that Fraech died and was interred in this very cave of Cruachnu.2336 One is tempted to think that this VRAICCI was the name of the mythical hero, and yet, in Irish mythology, Fraech is not the son of Medb, but the son of Bé Find, sister of Boand. Ó hÓgáin suggests that the original oral story was probably invented when somebody came into that cave and read the inscription (late 7th c.).2337
The interpretation of the Ogam script as ‘Vracos, son of Meduva’ is, however, unlikely, for Lambert points out that it is generally not the name of the mother which follows mac (‘son of’), but the name of the father.2338 Moreover, MEDVVI is uncontestably a masculine genitive, and thus MAQI MEDVVI means ‘son of Medvvos’. A feminine genitive could be conceivable after MAQI only if it is considered that the letters –AS are missing at the end of MEDVVI, for the genitive of Medb, which is Meidbe, is derived from a Celtic *Medwias. As for the name VRAICCI, it is problematic from a philological point of view, and could refer to the genitive of Fracc or Froéch. From this analysis, it ensues that this Ogam script is certainly not to be understood as an ancient epigraphical reference to the goddess Medb.
Inscriptions from the Continent
The Comedovae (Matrae, Dominae)
An inscription, dedicated to the Comedovae, was discovered in Aix-les-Bains (Savoy) – the date and place of discovery are unknown. In the 16th c., Alphonse Delnène, a local historian, pointed out that the inscription was embedded in the wall situated to the right of the castle – which is today the town hall -, not very far away from the Gallo-Roman ‘Temple de Diane’, probably originally dedicated to an indigenous healing deity presiding over the curative waters of Aix-les-Bains, that is Borvo or the Comedovae.2339 In 1838, the inscription was brought to the property of the Marquis d’Aix-les-Bains in Sommariva, located in Piémont (Italy). The stone, lost for a long time, was rediscovered a few years ago by Giovanni Mennella in Sommariva Bosco, where it was embedded in one of the outside walls of the castle.2340 The inscription is the following: Comedovis Augustis M(arcus) Helvius Severi fil(ius) Iuventius ex voto, ‘To the August Comedovae, Marcus Helvius Iuventius, son of Severus, in accordance with a vow’ (fig. 8). The dedicator has Latin names and bears the tria nomina of Roman citizens.
Various etymologies have been proposed for the theonym Comedovae. Rémy and De Vries have argued that their name is based on a theme *med– which can mean ‘to judge’, ‘to think about’ or ‘to recover (health)’.2341 Accordingly, the Comedovae may have been healing water-goddesses presiding over the thermal spring of Aix-les-Bains. Delamarre and Olmsted have suggested that it is a compound *co-medovis, composed of the Celtic suffix co meaning ‘with’, ‘together’ or ‘similar’ and of the Celtic root *medu, ‘mead’.2342 The suffix co probably emphasizes the fact that these mother goddesses were envisaged as similar figures, deeply interrelated in their function of intoxicating, which tends to increase the image of their power. The Comedovae could therefore mean ‘the Ones who all together intoxicate by means of mead’. Finally, Lambert, who disagrees with Delamarre’s etymology, has demonstrated that the divine name Comedovae (*kom-med-wōs) is based on the theme *med– meaning ‘to govern’ or ‘to command’.2343 According to him, the Comedovae may be ‘the Ones who Rule’, that is the ‘Sovereign’. As explained above, these last two etymologies are acceptable, since *med– and *medu– are derived from two homonymic roots, respectively referring to intoxication and sovereignty; notions which were interrelated.
Fig. 8: Inscription to the Comedovae from Aix-les-Bains (Savoie). Lambert, 2006a, p. 1516, fig. 1.A.
The Comedovae can be linked to the other two inscriptions discovered in Brison-Saint-Innocent – a village next to Aix-les-Bains -, honouring the Dominae and the Matrae. The inscription dedicated to the Dominae was discovered in the wall of the cemetery of Brison-Saint-Innocent. It reads: Dominis, exs voto [v(otum)] s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), Marcus Carminius Magnus pro salute sua et suorum, ‘To the Dominae, Marcus Carminius Magnus, paid his vow willingly and deservedly, for his salvation and (that of) his family’ (fig. 9).2344 The dedicator has Latin names and bears the tria nomina of Roman citizens. In Latin, the word domina refers to the woman in charge of the domestic aspects and means ‘housewife’ or ‘mother’, as well as ‘ruler’ or ‘sovereign’. It is an epithet expressing affection and profound respect, usually employed for a queen or a housewife. The Dominae are thus the ‘Rulers’ or ‘Sovereigns’, which directly links them to the Comedovae. Lambert explains that their name is certainly the Latin translation of the Gaulish theonym Comedovae.2345 This translation process, which aimed at replacing the names of indigenous deities by Latin names of the same meaning, is attested in other parts of Gaul and has been studied by Fleuriot.2346 Lambert adds that the Dominae are very likely to be the same divine figures as the Comedovae, because the two stones are of same style and dimension, and come from the same stone carving worshop.
Fig. 9: Inscription to the Dominae from Brison-Saint-Innocent (Savoie). In the Musée Lapidaire d’Aix-les-Bains (Savoie). Lambert, 2006a, p. 1517, fig. 1.B.
The inscription dedicated to the Matrae, probably dating from 2nd c. AD, was discovered in 1866 in the steeple of the Church of Saint-Innocent. It reads: Matris Au[gustis], L. Daverius […] v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) [m(erito)], ‘To the August Mother Goddesses, Lucius Daverius […] paid his vow willingly and deservedly’ (fig. 10).2347 The dedicator has Latin names and is a Roman citizen, for he bears the duo or tria nomina. As explained in Chapter 1, an epithet, endowing the mothers with a specific location, status or function, was often attached to the title Matrae or Matronae, such as in Moutiers, where a dedication to the Matronae Salvennae have been unearthed.2348 As a consequence, Comedovae could be envisaged as the epithet of the Matrae revered on that very inscription, giving Matrae Comedovae.2349 Therefore, Comedovae, Dominae and Matrae are certainly different names used to refer to the same mother goddesses.
Fig. 10: Inscription to the Matres, found in Brison-Saint-Innocent (Savoie). In the Musée Lapidaire d’Aix-les-Bains (Photo: N. Beck).
An inscription discovered at the hot spring of Bad Bertrich near Trier (Germany) mentions a goddess called Meduna. The inscription, housed in the Museum of Trier, is the following: De(abus) Vercan(a)e et Medun(a)e L(ucius) T(…) Acceptus v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘To the goddesses Vercana and Meduna, Lucius T(…) Acceptus paid his vow willingly and deservedly’.2350 The dedicator has Latin names and is a Roman citizen, since he bears the tria nomina. The goddess Meduna (*medu-ono or *medu-ana, with the dropping of the o or a) is etymologically related to the Irish Goddess Medb and to the Comedovae. She may thus be understood as a goddess personifying mead and sovereignty. In this dedication, she is associated with the goddess Vercana (‘Fury’ or ‘Rage’), who occurs in another inscription from Ernstweiler (Moselle), and must be a goddess embodying war-like feelings (see Chapter 3).2351 Vercana and Meduna may have been healing water-goddesses presiding over the curative springs at Bad Bertrich, where Gallo-Roman spa installations were excavated.2352 Moreover, the association in an inscription of a goddess of war and a goddess of mead-intoxication and sovereignty is not insignificant, for it can be taken to illustrate the close link between intoxication, sovereignty, war and protection of the territory.
Fig. 11: Analytical map of the ‘Mead Goddesses’ distribution in Gaul and Ireland.
It is worth noting that the function of conveying alcoholic drinks is also reflected in the names of two British goddesses: Latis, mentioned in two inscriptions from Cumbria, and Braciaca, honoured in a military dedication from Derbyshire (see map, fig. 19).
Latis (‘Intoxicating Drink’)
The first inscription to the goddess Latis is engraved on an altar discovered in 1843 near the ruins of a fort at Fallsteads, which is situated to the south of Burgh-by-Sands, near Hadrian’s Wall: Deae Lati Lucius Vrsei(us), ‘To the goddess Latis, Lucius Urseius (set this up)’ (fig. 12).2353 The dedicator has Latin names and bears the duo nomina of Roman citizens. The second inscription was found in 1873 at Birdoswald, which is also located near Hadrian’s Wall: Di(a)e Lat[i], ‘To the goddess Latis’ (fig. 12).2354 On the back of the altar, a jug and a patera* are engraved.
Fig. 12: Inscriptions to the goddess Latis, found in Fallsteads and Birdoswald (Hadrian’s Wall). In Carlisle Museum. RIB 2043 & 1897.
It can be assumed that Latis, if based on lǎti– with a short ‘a’, is to be related to Old Irish laith, ‘ale, intoxicating drink’ or ‘swamp’ and laithirt, ‘drunkenness’ or ‘addicted to drunkenness’; Welsh llad, ‘ale, intoxicating drink’ or ‘mud’-; Latin latex, ‘liquid’; and Greek látaks, ‘a glass of wine which is almost empty’. These words come from an IE root *lat– which can either mean both ‘wet’, ‘damp’ or ‘swamp’, and ‘drink’ or ‘fluid’, which explains why the Irish, Welsh and Breton words have two different meanings, either referring to water, or to an intoxicating beverage.2355 It follows that, on the one hand, Latis can mean ‘Goddess of the Bog/Pool’, and thus be a deity of watery places, which is quite conceivable since the two inscriptions were discovered in stations and since there is a River Latis in the Plain of the Po.2356 On the other hand, Latis can mean the ‘Intoxicating Drink’ and be a goddess of intoxication, like Medb.2357 It is even more probable, given that a jug, bespeaking her function of pouring drinks, is engraved on the back of the altar found at Birdoswald.
Braciaca (‘Beer Goddess’)
A military inscription engraved on a gritstone altar, discovered in 1695 in the grounds belonging to Haddon Hall near Bakewell (Derbyshire), associates the Roman war-god Mars with an indigenous theonym, Braciaca: Deo Marti Braciacae Q. Sittius Caecilianus, Praef. Cohors I Aquitanorum, ‘To the God Mars Bracacia, Quintus Sittius Caecilianus, prefect* of the First Cohort of Aquitanians, fulfilled his vow’ (fig. 13).2358
Most scholars, apart from Olmsted, regard Braciaca as being a local indigenous ‘epithet’ for the god Mars and conclude that Braciaca is a god.2359 And yet, Braciaca seems to be a feminine name, since a-endings are generally names of goddesses: Sequana, Aventia, Bricta, Icovellauna or Nemetona, while names of gods usually end with -us (-o in the inscriptions) or -is/-ix (-i in the inscriptions): Demioncus Apollo (Apollini deo Demionco), Danuvius (Danuvio), Entarabus (deo En[t]arabo), Randosatis Mars (Marti Randosati), etc. In terms of epigraphy, it would appear that, if Bracacia had been a god, its name in the British inscription would have been: Deo Marti Braciaco or Braciaci, giving Mars Braciacus or Braciacis. Moreover, it is not rare in inscriptions to find the names of a god and a goddess placed side by side without the coordinating conjunction and. Thus, the inscription should perhaps be read: Deo Marti [et] Braciacae, ‘To the god Mars and to (the goddess) Bracacia’.
Fig. 13: Inscription to Deo Marti [et?] Braciacae, found in Haddon Hall near Bakewell, in Derbyshire (Britain). The altar remained in the possession of the Duke of Rutland. RIB 278.
Lambert explains that Braciaca is not to be understood exactly as a divine name but possibly as a localizing epithet in –iaco, parallel to the formation, referring to a place or domain belonging to somebody.2360 Like Rosmertae Dubnocaratiaci is ‘Rosmerta from the place known as Dubnocaratiacum’, that is ‘the property of Dubnocaratius’,2361 the epithet Braciaca could be interpreted as ‘the goddess from the place called Braciacum (?)’, that is ‘a place owned by Bracius’; but the supposed place-name is open to other interpretations. This etymology is likely but not absolutely certain, for, compared with Gaul, there are very few occurences of localizing epithets in Britain.2362
The name Braciaca may also be related to Gaulish bracis, which signifies ‘malt’ or ‘grain used in beer brewing’. According to Pliny, braci was the Celtic name for a variety of cereal (barley?) used in the preparation of malt and the brewing of beer, called ‘cervesia’ or ‘curmi’.2363 The Gaulish word bracis is similar to Welsh brag, ‘malt’, Old Cornish brag, ‘bratium’, Breton bragez, ‘wheatgerm’, Old Irish mraich, braich, ‘malt’, ‘wort’ (< *mraki-), and Galician émbrekton, ‘kind of beverage’.2364 The French word brasser, ‘to brew’ comes from the same root (< *braciāre). Therefore, Braciaca may mean ‘Goddess of (malt-induced) Intoxication’ or ‘Goddess of Beer’. If this etymology is correct, she may have been closely linked to the cultivation of cereals and the brewing of beer or other local fermented drinks, which she personified, protected and purveyed to her people. She can thus be seen to be closely related, in function, to the other goddesses of intoxication, such as Latis, Medb, Meduna and the Comedovae. Even though this etymology remains conjectural, it is at any rate an interesting hypothesis, for intoxication seems to have been mainly linked to female deities in Celtic times.
The names of Irish Medb, Gaulish Meduna and Comedovae (‘the goddesses of mead-intoxication’), and of British Latis (‘Ale’) and Braciaca (‘Beer Goddess?) evidence that the tradition of goddesses purveying alcoholic drinks was important and common to the various Celtic peoples from Ireland, Britain and Gaul. The fact that three goddess names refer to mead-intoxication is not insignificant. It tends to prove that mead was a sacred beverage in Celtic times, consumed within the context of religion. Before considering in detail the archaeological and Irish literary data evidencing the consumption of mead within ritual contexts, it is necessary to explain why mead was envisaged as a sacred drink pertaining to the sphere of the divine and conferring immortality of the soul.
Fig. 14: Map of the inscriptions dedicated to British Goddesses of Intoxication: Latis and Braciaca.
The Sacredness of Mead
How could a drink simply made of honey and water, the taste of which is not necessarily appreciated today, have been regarded as sacred in ancient times? From a modern point of view, it is indeed quite difficult to understand how a drink which is nowadays not regarded as a valuable drink, in comparison with vintage wine or champagne, could have held such importance in the religious life of the time.
The Complex Fabrication of Mead
At first sight, the fabrication of mead does not seem to be a very difficult task because, nowadays, honey is a very easy foodstuff to get. The collecting of honey was already in practice in prehistoric times, as a 12,000 year-old rock painting, discovered in the ‘Cueve de la Arana’ [‘Cave of the Spider’], situated near Valencia (Spain), reveals.2365 In Celtic times, honey certainly had to be collected from wild swarms, generally situated in rock holes or in trees, which must have turned out to be a difficult and often perilous task. Apiculture goes back to high antiquity (7th c. BC in Egypt); and the Celts must therefore have had some basic notions of it.2366 Early apiculture may have consisted in simply hollowing out tree trunks to further the formation of natural swarms which would then be placed near the village or habitations.2367 According to Green, the discovery of the head of a worker-bee in an Iron Age sump at Hardwick tend to suggest that bee-keeping was already in use in the 2nd or 1st c. BC in Britain.2368 Anyhow, the collection of honey must have required much time and deep knowledge of the functioning of nature, which can partly explain the notion of sacredness attached to the fabrication of mead.
Furthermore, as we will see presently, the flavours and beneficial properties of honey varied greatly, according to the geographical location of the wild swarms, possibly the type of tree in which they built their nests, the type of bees, and, more particularly, the plants on which the bees had fed. Some types of honey, collected in specific areas, were certainly much sought after for the particular virtues they would bring to mead. There were undoubtedly many types of meads, made from various honeys, which were reserved for different religious rites. In Rwanda, for instance, where mead still played, at the beginning of the 20th c., an important role in the religious rites of the tribes, groups of ‘hunter gatherers’ were sent in diverse areas to bring back a peculiar mountain honey, called ‘tsama’, which was used in the preparation of the Inkangaza, the ‘Royal Mead’, reserved for a very specific rite which consisted in bringing the king to an enclosure where he would drink alone.2369 In other words, the somewhat difficult collection of honey, principal ingredient in the fabrication of mead, in that case, helps account for the sacredness attached to the fermented drink.
The fermentation of honey and water also required time, patience and savoir-faire. Various ways of fermenting are known from ancient times. The recipe of Columnelle shows that the fabrication of mead required a lot of care, patience, techniques and attention.2370 He explained that rainwater, kept for several years, had to be mixed with half a litre of honey and then bottled. After forty days of fermentation in the sun in midsummer heat, the bottles had to be stored to receive a certain smoke. Mead could apparently reach more than fifteen degrees – which is much more than beer – after one year of maturation of natural honeys.2371
Mead and Immortality of the Soul
When taking an interest in the elements composing mead, that is to say water, honey and the producers of the sweet nectar, i.e. the bees, it can be noticed that these three elements had a strong symbolism in ancient times. Throughout the world, the bee symbolized perfection, absolute knowledge, intelligence and poetry, and materially represented the Soul leaving the Body after death. Basically, the bee was the symbol of the passage to the otherworld or resurrection, which explains why bees were sometimes engraved on tombs or why their sweet production, honey, was offered in libation* to the gods.2372 Honey, seen as a divine product, was highly revered in Antiquity, for it was believed to confer mystical knowledge and wisdom. As for water, it symbolised the unconscious energies or powers of the soul and was a powerful means of purification (lustral water), repelling evil spells. Symbolically speaking, one can easily understand the mystical and spiritual importance of the combination of water and honey into a beverage ensuring the route to the otherworld.
This divine product of the bees was left to ferment in water, sometimes up to one year. Anthropologists interestingly point out that ‘fermentation’ was symbolically attached to immortality and resurrection in Antiquity, for it modified, developed and prolonged the life of inert foodstuffs or beverages in mysterious and arbitrary ways. Laurence Bérard explains: “La fermentation introduit dans la matière inerte une sorte d’animation spéctaculaire […], elle fait sortir la vie de la mort et symbolise parfaitement la résurrection”.2373In other words, the passage from inert to fermented foodstuffs or beverages by the mysterious process of fermentation was a powerful symbol of resurrection, renewal, purification and immortality, which could be believed to be transferred to the people when consumed. For example, the transmutation of must, which is perishable, into wine by means of fermentation, was interpreted in Antique Greece as an allegory of the passage from the earthly life to eternal life.2374 It can inferred from this example that mead was also regarded as a beverage symbolising resurrection and immortality, explaining why it was divine and sacred.
The Cauldron of Hochdorf and the Cauldron of the Dagda
The use of sacred mead on the occasion of religious rites in Celtic times is confirmed by some archaeological discoveries, the most significant one being the 500-litre cauldron, discovered in 1978 in the sumptuous burial place of a Celtic prince, dated c. 550-500 BC, in Hochdorf (Baden Württemberg), Germany (fig. 15).
The cauldron, of Greek manufacture, was situated in the Prince’s funeral chamber, next to the bed, and rested on a specially-made wooden support (fig. 16). A gold cup, which originally lay on a piece of embroidered cloth, the remains of which were preserved on the brim of the cauldron, was discovered at the bottom of the cauldron. The Prince’s funerary furniture also included nine drinking horns (eight small ones made of aurochs and a 5.5-litre iron drinking horn), which were hung on the wall next to the funerary bed.2375 The richly decorated elements of this drinking set are indicative of a carefully-prepared religious rite in relation to drinking.
Fig. 15: Cauldron discovered in the princely burial mound at Hochdorf (Baden Württemberg, Germany). Biel, 1987, p. 179.
Fig. 16: Reconstitution of the central funerary room of the Prince of Hochdorf and his furniture. Biel, 1987, p. 136.
Botanical analysis, carried out by Dr. Haas of the Botanical Institute of Hohenheim, revealed that the residue was very rich in pollen grains which had been the components of a particular honey. This analysis proved that the cauldron did not contain southern wine but a liquid based on a maceration of honey and water, that is mead.2376 The gold cup was almost certainly used for drawing the liquid from the cauldron to fill in the drinking horns. The pollinic analysis revealed that the mead originally contained in the Cauldron of Hochdorf was composed of a relatively large amount of honey (between 73 and 292 kg), which meant that this mead was strong and of high quality. The honey used in the preparation of the beverage came from a surprising number of varieties of plants, growing in quite diverse terrains and areas. It was indeed a complex composition of thyme, jasmine of the mountains, plantains, centaurea jacea, anthyllis vulneraria, carex (acid herbs), ranunculus lingua, meadowsweet, succisa, several types of campanulas, sweet peas, papilionaceous plants, vetches, etc.2377 It is interesting to note that 98-99% of pollen grains come from herbaceous plants, while only 1-2% belong to tree essence. This means that the honey of Hochdorf was a summer flower honey and was not a simple honey, but an elaborate and very rich composition of different types of honeys, gathered from numerous bee colonies – given that a wild colony can produce up to 10kg of honey per year – situated in various areas on account of the impressive variety of flowers. The complexity of the preparation of the Hochdorf mead and its large quantity prove that we are in the presence of an intoxicating beverage of a sacred nature.
Furthermore, this discovery proves that mead was used on the occasion of religious and funerary rites. We have seen through the previous pages that intoxication was an ancestral custom specifically practiced in various religious contexts with the intention of reaching the divine. Here the drinking of mead must have aimed at making contact with the divine so as to assure the deceased a safe travel to the otherworld. The composition of the drinking set – the enormous size of the cauldron and the nine drinking horns – attests to the sharing of mead in the context of a religious ceremony. The intoxicating rite must have been accompanied with prayers and songs to honour the dead and be heard by the deities. The priests (druids), intermediary of the deities on earth, were in charge of the preparation and course of the funerary rites. After carefully preparing the complex intoxicating beverage and consuming it, they must have gone into a trance, invoked the gods and prayed for the deceased to be accepted in the otherworld. In drinking the divine beverage, the priest would have symbolically ingested the deity itself, for mead, and its ensnaring powers, is personified by goddesses bearing its name. The goddesses of mead-intoxication must have consequently symbolized the cult of consuming intoxicating beverages on special occasions which required the presence of the divine, as well as its series of rituals.
According to Jörg Biel, the drinking set of Hochdorf is quite unusual for a Hallstatt funerary room, as regards the number of drinking horns and the cup in gold, which is quite rare. The singular number of drinking horns, and their size and location in the funerary room, is nevertheless highly significant, for it reinforces the idea of sacredness. It is noteworthy that the number of drinking horns (nine) was a ‘magical’ number possessing a ritual and sacral value in ancient times. The number nine is indeed the square of three, which was the Celtic magical number par excellence, emblem of the divine force (see Chapter 1). Nine therefore induces completeness and omnipotence of the divine powers.2378 Moreover, it is worth noticing that, being the last of the series of figures, it evokes the end of a cycle, both an end and a new beginning. In other words, it denotes the ideas of death and rebirth, which perfectly suits the death of a Prince who would rise from his ashes in the otherworld. The number of drinking horns, as part of a religious funerary rite in honour of the dead, is thus revealing and not insignificant. Moreover, the biggest horn, the content of which is atypical (5.5. litres), was probably destined for the dead Prince, for it was hung right above his head in the funerary room. He would have therefore been included in the rite of mead-intoxication.
The Cauldron of Hochdorf can be related to the enormous bronze crater*, holding 1,100 litres, discovered in 1953 in a female’s tomb, dating from around 480 BC, in Vix (Côte d’Or), which could have also contained mead or some local sacred beverage (fig. 17).2379 One cannot help thinking that these huge cauldrons, containing intoxicating drinks ensuring contact with the divine and immortality, brilliantly echo the mythical huge cauldron of the Irish Dagda, the father god of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The main attribute of the ‘Good God’ was indeed a great inexhaustible cauldron (coiri an Dagdai) from which “no company ever went away unsatisfied”, as described in Cath Maige Tuired [‘The Second Battle of Mag Tuired’].2380 The cauldron is the Celtic symbol of feasting par excellence. The text does not specify what the cauldron of the Dagda contained: was it food or was it drink?2381 The archaeological discoveries in Gaul and Germany, such as Vix and Hochdorf, tend to prove that the cauldron was not necessarily a kitchen utensil as is generally believed, but rather a piece of crockery specifically used in religious and ceremonial contexts, containing offerings to the gods, such as animal or vegetal offerings, or intoxicating drinks which were served and shared in the context of peculiar ceremonies or rites aiming at making contact with the divine world.2382 The Dagda’s cauldron of plenty and immortality is therefore the mythical reflection of ancient Celtic religious rituals, which are evidenced by archaeological discoveries, such as the Cauldron of Hochdorf.
Fig. 17: 1100-litre crater* from Vix (Côte d’Or), dating from around 480 BC (Source: Musée du Pays du Châtillonnais, Châtillon-sur-Seine).
The Feast of Goibhniu and the Feast of Samhain
If Irish mythology can sometimes shed light on archaeological discoveries, it has to be carefully and correctly handled. Too many facts or ideas which are supposed to come from Irish mythology are in fact not mentioned in the texts, on account of an extrapolation or a false interpretation of the original text. In other words, it is important to analyze the texts and advance hypotheses, but only when they remain faithful to original texts. As regards mead, Irish mythology does not seem to refer directly to religious rites in relation to this intoxicating beverage, contrary to what is often suggested. Nonetheless, it is true that it is possible to deduce from the texts that mead was a divine and sacred beverage most certainly consumed on specific religious occasions.
The Feast of Immortality: Mead?
When comparing the various ‘Indo-European’ mythologies – among others, Vedic, Persian, Greco-Roman and Norse mythologies – it appears that the gods are, without exception, represented eating special food and drinking intoxicating beverages, bestowing on them immortality of the soul and eternal youth in the otherworld. The name designating the intoxicating drinks consumed by the gods varies from one mythology to another – that is Amrita in ancient Indian literature, Hoama in Persia, Nectar or Ambrosia (recognised as mead) in Classical mythology, and Mead in Norse mythology – but all seem to refer to the exact same notion of a sacred honey-based beverage purveying immortality, the generic term of which is ‘Nectar of the Gods’ or ‘Ambrosia’.2383 It can be noticed that the otherworld drinking feast is present in every mythology, which is indicative of a very ancient pattern and belief. Consequently, it is not surprising that the Celts also represented their gods drinking a sacred beverage. Irish mythology is not very clear on that point and offers very few details. It is however possible to infer some reasonable interpretations.
It is often claimed that the Irish texts tell of the preparation of mead by Goibhniu, the Smith God, for the Tuatha Dé Danann. Irish mythology indeed refers to a feast of immortality gathering the gods in the otherworld, the chief occupation of which is drinking and eating. This feast, only mentioned in late texts, is called fled Goibnenn (‘feast or banquet of Goibhniu’). It is very briefly mentioned in a text composed in the 12th c. and in a tale dating to the 13th or 14th c. They both relate that, after being defeated by the Clann Mhíleadh,2384 the Tuatha Dé Danann were obliged to retreat into the sídh, underneath the hills. Manannán held a counsel in Brugh na Bόinne (New Grange) with the surviving chiefs to appoint the new king (Bodb Derg), and prepared for the champions:
‘[…] dorinneadh in feth fiadha 7 fleagh Goibhneann 7 muca Manannain dona mileadhaibh .i. in feth fiadha tar nach faici na flaithi, 7 fleadh Goibninn gan aeis gan urcra dona hardrighaibh, 7 muca Manannain re marbadh 7 re marthain dona mileadaibh.
[…] the Feth Fiadha and the Feast of Goibhne and the swine of Manannán were made for the warriors, i.e. the Feth Fiadha through which the chiefs were not seen, and the Feast of Goibhne to ward off age and death from the high kings, and the swine of Manannán to be killed and to continue to exist for the warriors.2385 ’
Thus, the feast of Goibhniu has the property to “ward off age and death”, which is to say confer eternal youth and life.2386 And the other mythologies are clear on that point; immortality is conveyed by a fermented drink based on honey: Nectar or Ambrosia in Greek mythology, Amrita in Vedic mythology and Mead in Norse mythology. Therefore, the phrase ‘feast of Goibhniu’ implies that the smith god2387 was in charge of preparing the intoxicating drink confering immortality on the Tuatha Dé Danann, which was undeniably mead in view of our previous researches and analyses.
Besides, another fanciful 12th-century text, entitled Acallamh na Sen ό rach [‘The Colloquy of the Old Men’], refers to the feast of Goibhniu as an ale possessing healing and curing properties, which, by extension, implies immortality. Indeed, this account tells of the encounter of St Patrick with an otherworld woman called Aillenn Ilchrothoch (‘Ailleann the Multishaped’) who spoke to him thus:
‘Cach áen ro bόi ac όl fhleide Goibnind acaind, ní thic saeth ná galar ríu.
Everybody who would be drinking the feast of Goibhniu with us, neither illness nor disease comes upon them.2388 ’
Likewise, in the same text, the old warrior Caoilte complains of an old wound and says that an otherworld woman called Bé Bind:
‘is aicci atá deoch leighis ocus ícce Tuatha Dé Danann, ocus is aicci atá in deoch mairis do fhleid Goibhnenn.
has the drink of healing and curing of the Tuatha Dé Danann, she having the drink which survives from the feast of Goibhniu.2389 ’
As these references are late, one could assume that the feast of Goibhniu was a borrowing from Classical mythology, for Hephaistos, the smith god, is also described serving the immortal beverage to the gods in the first chapter of the Iliad.2390 And yet, the fact that the Greek and Celtic smith-gods are both in charge of the preparation of mead may actually be indicative of an ancient belief and pattern. The actual drink would appear to have been part of indigenous Irish tradition, as Goibhniu himself is addressed as a healer in an early Irish prayer from the 8th century.2391
Samhain and Mead
It is also often said that the Irish texts tell of the practice of drinking mead at Samhain, which is one of the four ancient Celtic feasts held on October 31st celebrating the new year, but this is actually once again not specified.2392 One thing leading to another, it often results in the belief that Irish mythology recounts that the druids were used to drinking mead at Samhain. In reality, it seems that there are no texts mentioning such a custom. As Samhain was the only timeless mystic night of the year when the supernatural world opened up to the natural world, it is nevertheless possible that the druids consumed some sacred intoxicating beverages specifically at this time, so as to facilitate the communication with the divine, but this is not related in the Irish texts.
In fact, despite the persuasive account given in Christian-Jacques Guyonvarc’h’s remarkable work on the subject, there is no clear evidence that mead was part of the feast of Samhain. He supports this idea by quoting the famous episode of Mesca Ulad [‘The Intoxication of the Ulstermen’], preserved in the 12th century Book of Leinster (folios 261b-268b), describing the feast held by Conchobar in Eamhain Mhacha at Samhain, during which mead was flowing freely.2393 The Irish version actually does not precisely refer to ‘mead’. The confusion may come from the mistranslation of the Old Irish word mét (Modern Irish méad), which Guyonvarc’h glossed as ‘mead’, whereas it actually signifies ‘size’, ‘extent’, as Watson specified in his glossary.2394 The Old Irish word for ‘mead’ is mid, genitive medo or meda (Modern Irish miodh). The Irish text and its translation are the following:
‘Blíadain don chúiciud amlaid sin ina trí rannaib co ndernad feiss na Samna la Conchobar I nEmain Macha. Ba sed mét na fledi cét ndabach do cach lind. At-bertatar áes gráda Conchobair nar furáil mathi Ulad uile ic tomailt na fledi sin ara febas.2395
A year was the province thus, in three divisions, until the feast of Samhain was made by Conchobar in Emain-Macha. The extent of the banquet was a hundred vats of every kind of ale. Conchobar’s officers aid that all the nobles of Ulad would not be too many to partake of that banquet, because of its excellence.2396 ’
However, it can be assumed that mead is highly likely to have been part of the “every kind of ale” mentioned in the legend.2397 The only reference to Samhain and the drinks consumed on that day is an adorable poem, dating from the 8th c., describing the specific foods and drinks ingested on the four Celtic feasts. This poem, which is given in Appendix 4, refers once again to ‘ale’, not to mead. When you come to think about it, this poem pertains to folklore and not to mythology. Thus, it seems quite normal that it does not refer to mead, for ‘ale’ was probably drunk by the folk, while ‘mead’ was reserved to the sacerdotal class.
From all of these etymological, archaeological and literary data, it can be concluded that mead was the intoxicating beverage consumed in religious contexts to make contact with the divine world. The Cauldron of Hochdorf proves that mead was for instance ritually used for funerary rites and that its complex composition and preparation certainly required much time and an immeasurable knowledge of Nature and its various virtues. There were different kinds of mead, depending on the various honeys of flowers, trees or even mushrooms, used in the composition. Mead was therefore the ‘Ambrosia of the Celts’, a counterpart of the Soma or the Haoma, the respective preparations of which were also based on honeys of various plants which are today unknown. Like the Indian and Persian intoxicating beverages were deified as gods bearing their very names, it can be noticed that mead was also deified as goddesses in Celtic religions: the ancient forms Meduna and Comedovae, mentioned in Gallo-Roman inscriptions, and the later form Medb, reminiscent of those old forms. These goddesses embodied the drink itself, symbolised the intoxicating powers of mead, and, to my mind, all the cults and rites attached to this divine beverage. What were then the functions of those intoxicating goddesses? Why did they purvey intoxicating drinks and in which context? What did it symbolize? In other words, what were the rites of mead-intoxication attached to?
Celtic Goddesses of Intoxication: Essence and Functions
Given that the data evidencing the cult of intoxicating goddesses is very scarce, the nature of their functions remains hypothetical and debatable. It is first intended to show that the goddesses of intoxication might have been worshipped in connection with health and war, embodying the various intoxicating cults and rites, performed within a religious context, which consisted of drinking alcoholic beverages within the context of healing to make contact with the goddess and obtain her cure, or before a battle to become possessed by the goddess and attain a sort of war fury, bestowing moral and physical strength to defeat the enemies. The last part of this chapter will study, though the character of Medb, one of the most vibrant and emblematic feminine figures in Irish mythology, the notions of intoxication and sovereignty. Many brilliant and comprehensive studies have already been done on Queen Medb, detailing all her stories and attributes.2398 As a consequence, this study shall largely confine itself to studying the earliest texts which could shed light on the possible role of intoxication in the granting of sovereignty.
Intoxicating Goddesses as Healers?
As seen above, the name of the Comedovae, mentioned in an inscription from Aix-les-Bains (Savoy), may refer to different notions, according to the various etymologies: health, sovereignty and mead-intoxication.2399 The nature and functions of the Comedovae, however, remain obscure. If we consider that they were ‘Intoxicating Goddesses’, what could they have protected, symbolised or embodied? What were their functions as regards mead?
Intoxicating Goddesses related to Healing Waters?
The goddesses of intoxication must bear some relation to curative waters, for the inscriptions dedicated to Meduna, Latis and the Comedovae were all discovered near thermal springs, and several rivers bear their name: the Meduna in Venetia, the Medu(a)na (now la Mayenne) in the region of the Loire, and the Meduacos (Latinized Meduacus, now La Brenta) in Northern Italy.2400
Concerning the Comedovae, it is possible to establish a link between the goddesses and the thermal waters of Aix-les-Bains, the healing virtues of which were already known and used in Celtic times, as the excavations, carried out by Alain Canal, in 1980, under the town council, situated in front of the Gallo-Roman spa, revealed.2401 Various objects dating from the last period of La Tène and indigenous structures were excavated, such as pot-holes the organisation of which suggested the presence of enclosures and constructions in the earth, probably houses, which at last provided a sound proof of pre-imperial occupation near the curative spring. This was already implied by the veneration of deities bearing Celtic names, such as Borvo, Bormanus, the Comedovae and the Matres, but it had never been archaeologically proved before.
Symbol of good health, honey has always been, from time immemorial, and throughout the civilisations, recognised for its purifying, preserving, protective, healing and soothing properties, so that it became the constitutive element of many a medicinal treatment and rite – such as in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Greco-Roman world, as well as China, India, Africa, etc.2402
Curative virtues of honey and mead
It is significant that honey, in addition of being rich in living constituents and composed of sugars which are immediately assimilated, has the quality of directly transferring the properties of the flower(s) from which it is made.2403 The ancients certainly knew that remedies could be found in nature, and more particularly in the plants. And the bees gather pollen and sugar from almost every plant,2404 therefore honey is like a thousand-flower beneficial tea.
The belief in the transmission of the properties of the plants to honey is illustrated by examples in antiquity of men who got intoxicated or died after consuming a certain type of honey, coming from toxic plants.2405 For instance, Aelien mentioned a type of honey, gathered on boxwood in Trébizonde du Pont, which drove people mad but which cured epilepsy.2406 Similarly, Xenophon and Diodorus recount the story of some people who, after eating honey, gave the impression of being drunk, raving mad, and even dying.2407 The curative properties of the plants are, in the same way, transferred to the honey they constitute. For example, rosemary honey, like the plant itself, it is said to improve the functioning of the liver, while lime honey has the sedative properties of the lime flower. Heather honey is diuretic and anti-rheumatic, while fir, lavender and thyme honeys are antiseptics which soothe the bronchial tubes, for the plants have the very same virtues, etc.2408 In addition to integrally preserving all the vitamins, perfumes and therapeutic virtues of the plants, honey contains a small amount of formic acid added by the bees to ensure its preservation, which procures a supplementary natural anti-bacterial agent.2409
If honey contains the salutary virtues of the plants from which it is gathered, mead is also said to keep the properties of the honey from which it is made. As Jean Hurpin states, there is not one mead but multiple and diverse meads, possessing various tastes, colours, bouquets and beneficial properties, according to the type of honey you choose and the way of preparation and fermentation, or if you add other ingredients, such as spices or plants, to infuse in the drink before, during or after fermentation.2410 In Ireland, for instance, there are various recipes of mead, including herbs and spices, such as thyme, rosemary or sweet briar, which must add supplementary virtues to the drink.2411 This is the reason why mead has always been regarded as a popular beverage, possessing hygienic, fortifying, tonic, gastric and diuretic virtues, from which diverse curative concoctions could be made.2412 Moreover, it is interesting to note that to mead were attributed properties concerning fecundity, since an old custom, which consisted in giving mead to newly weds during a whole lunar month – from which the expression ‘honeymoon’ derives – was widespread in Northern Europe and Brittany.2413
It is an acknowledged fact that medicine and religion were interrelated in Antiquity, and sacred intoxication must have held a special place in this religious healing context. The Comedovae could have therefore been the very representatives of some medicinal religious ceremonies during which mead was ritually absorbed, being a means of simultaneously contacting the divine (intoxication) and providing a curative treatment (therapeutic virtues). Significantly, Irish mythology refers to the healing properties of mead. Indeed, the 12th-century text Acallamh na Sen ό rach [‘The Colloquy of the Old Men’] explains that the ale of Goibhniu, which confers immortality on the gods, has the peculiarity to cure illnesses and heal wounds.2414
In Gallo-Roman times, it was a common procedure to ‘incubate’ sick people in thermal establishments. Incubation, known from the Greek and Roman worlds, was practiced in a specific room or in the temple dedicated to the healing deity, which consisted in a series of rites aiming at salving pilgrims’ pains more quickly.2415 The sanctuary of Asclepius,2416 erected around 500 BC at Epidaurus (Greece),2417 was renowned for its practices of incubation, which was said to be quite effective for the patients in search of recovery. Some of the sick people, after praying and taking the waters, would remain overnight on the premises of the sanctuary to sleep. If they were lucky enough to come into contact with the healing god or goddess, who would appear to them in a dream or vision, they were believed to recover more rapidly.2418 The deity would directly heal the patient during the night, or would procure recipes for salves and ointments to be applied externally, or would give advice on the peculiar foods or plants to be eaten or avoided, etc. The doctor-priests, who played the role of the intermediary between the pilgrims and the healing gods, had sometimes to interpret the riddles or obscure dreams which the patients had had the previous night, or expel the diseases by the use of specific spells or rites indicated by the deity. They also had to make the curative preparations, the formula of which had been revealed by the gods. Those remedial mixtures required deep knowledge of the essence and combination of the natural products, of which the priests were the only holders.
Incubation was not within the reach of everybody, since it touched the supernatural and esoteric sphere. It is indeed highly likely that intoxicating beverages, concocted by the priest-doctors, were ingested, so as to facilitate the connection with the healing deity during the night. It is all the more probable as intoxicating drinks, such as mead, had a double function, i.e. enabling the patient to establish a connection with the otherworld and purveying primary curative effects at the same time.
Even if oracular incubation is not attested for the Celts as regards the field of health, Nicandre stipulated that they had recourse to this practice near the burial places of their dead.2419 It is actually the exact same tradition of sleeping near the burial of a deceased person or near the sanctuary of a god, with the intention of meeting the ancestors or the deities through a dream. If oracular incubation was accompanied with rites of intoxication facilitating the contact and the visit of the deity, the Comedovae could have been the embodiment of some religious customs which consisted in absorbing an intoxicating beverage (mead) in a medicinal context, so as to approach the divine, open the spirit, obtain answers or remedies to relieve the pains. In addition, mead could have at the same time been thought to act on the various illnesses, on account of its diverse beneficial virtues. Accordingly, the ingestion of curative-intoxicating beverages would have been concomitant with votive offerings, ablutions*, incantations and prayers addressed to the deities.2420 And this medico-religious practice could have survived in the very name of the Comedovae, who personified the drink itself, as well as its powerful restorative virtues and the rites of intoxication attached to it.
Intoxicating Goddesses related to War?
In the inscription from Bad Bertricht (Germany), it is interesting to note that Meduna (‘Mead Goddess’) is associated with a goddess whose name, Vercana (‘Fury’), indicates that she was related to war. The association in an inscription of a goddess of mead-intoxication and a goddess of war is not without significance. It can be taken to illustrate the close link between intoxication, war and protection of the territory. It is also worth pointing out that, in the inscription from Derbyshire, Braciaca is associated with the Roman war-god Mars and that the dedicator was a soldier in the Roman army. Even though this argument is weak, because the etymology of Braciaca is debatable, it could point to a connection with war. There are therefore two examples of goddesses of intoxication who might be linked to war on account of their association with war-deities in the inscriptions, not to mention Medb herself, a sovereign war-like figure par excellence in Irish mythology. In Táin Bó Cuailnge [‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’], Medb is indeed pictured as a warrior queen who is thirsty for power, which she cannot fully possess unless she seizes the greatest bull of Ireland, Donn Cuailnge in Ulster. She then summons the armies of Connacht and Leinster, of which she is the sovereign, and declares war on Ulster. In view of these examples, why were there goddesses of intoxication related to war in Celtic times? What were their functions?
‘War frenzy’: the divine possession
It is not in itself surprising to find goddesses of intoxication correlated to war, for alcoholic drinks played an important role in the preparation of war and the course of the battle in Celtic times. Indeed, warriors were used to drinking fermented beverages before battles with the aim of acquiring mental and physical strength, as well as reaching a sort of ‘war trance, fury or insanity’, called in Latin furor, a word which denotes a state of ‘divine possession’ – it was used to designate the Roman mythical heroes as well as the Celtic and Germanic combatants. This ‘war frenzy’ apparently explained the strength and motive of the Celts in battle and explained how they could have settled all over Europe in the 3rd c. BC. As a matter of fact, the enemies were generally terror-stricken on seeing the madness possessing the Celts, which could engender the dispersion of the troops even before fighting. Brunaux states in Les religions gauloises:
‘For a Gallic warrior, fighting was not a human undertaking, until the Roman conquest of Gaul. War was a huge ordeal in which the warrior was only the hand of the deity. The strength of weapons and the subtleties of strategy were secondary preoccupations. It was only the means of placing oneself in the service of the divine force which counted.2421 ’
A battle was not engaged without the support of the gods, who also participated in the fighting. As we saw earlier, access to the otherworld was made possible through the consumption of sacred intoxicating beverages within the context of religious rites. One can easily imagine the warriors drinking so as to become heated and invoking the gods in various rites, such as war dances or incantations,2422 before joining in the fighting. Interestingly, Caesar spoke of a concilium armatum, ‘armed council’, which was held before going into war. This was probably more a ritual drinking gathering than a council,2423 which aimed at making contact with the gods so as to be protected, helped and possessed by the supernatural forces. Poux, in L’âge du vin, points out that:
‘The war character of Gallic intoxication has been clearly testified by written sources and archaeological data. […] The role of alcohol in the war sphere is well-known and acknowledged: stimulating moral courage and physical strength, it [alcohol] puts combatants in a state of self-transcendence, of surpassing of oneself and of sacred exaltation, which has always had its source in trance, drug and alcohol, throughout time and space.2424 ’
Concerning the Celts, the account by Orosius describing the Numantines2425 besieged around 134 BC by the Romans explicitly mentions the traditional use of indigenous alcoholic beverages before fighting to reach a state of unconsciousness, leading to a sort of trance, establishing a connection between the warriors and the divine world, through which they would acquire a ‘divine’ force and invulnerability:
‘Igitur conclusi diu Numantini et fame trucidati deditionem sui obtulerunt si tolerabilia iuberentur; saepe etiani orantes iustae pugnae facultatem ut tamquam uiris mori liceret. ultime omnes duabus subito portis eruperunt, larga prius potione usi non uini, cuius ferax is locus non est, sed suco tritici per artem confecto, quem sucum a calefaciendo caeliam uocant. Suscitatur enim igne illa uis germinis madefactae frugis ac deinde siccatur et post in farinam redacta molli suco admiscetur; quo fermento sapor austeritatis et calor ebrietatis adicitur. Hac igitur potione post longam farnem recalescented bello ses obtulerunt.2426
So when the Numantines had been besieged for a long time and were demolished by famine, they offered to surrender if tolerable conditions should be proposed, at the same time begging again and again for an opportunity to do regular battle that it might be permitted them to die like men. Finally, they all suddenly erupted from two gates, having first partaken of much drink, not of wine, for the cultivation of which the place is not fertile, but of a juice artfully concocted from wheat, which juice they called caelia because it caused heat. For the power of the moistened fruit bud is aroused by heat, and then it is dried and, when reduced to a powder, is mixed with a pleasant juice by which through fermentation a sour taste and the glow of drunkenness are added. So growing warm from this drink after a long fast, they offered themselves for battle.2427 ’
Welsh Literature: Y Gododdin
Y Gododdin [‘The Gododdin’], the early sixth-century AD Welsh poem describing the Battle of Cattraeth, also illustrates the early Celtic tradition which consisted of liberally providing intoxicating drinks to the warriors before they go into battle – the text mentions mead, beer, bragget, ale, malt and wine. Some parts of the text describe the drinking of the ‘ensnaring’ intoxicant, which, when heated up and brought the warriors, means that the latter no longer care for their lives, and are ready to commit bloody deeds and carnage in battle:
‘Gwyr a aeth gatraeth gan wawr / Dygymyrrws eu hoet eu hanyanawr / Med evynt melyn melys maglawr […].
The heroes marched to Cattraeth with the dawn / Feelingly did their relatives regret their absence / Mead they drank, yellow, sweet, ensnaring […].2428
Gwyr a aeth gatraeth buant enwawc / Gwin a med o eur vu eu gwirawt / Blwydyn en erbyn urdyn deuawt / Trywyr a thri ugeiut a thrychant eurdorchawc / Or sawl yt gryssyassant uch gormant wirawt / Ny diengis namyn tri o wrhydri fossawt / Deu gatki aeron a chenon dayrawt / A minheu om gwaetfreu gwerth vy gwennwawt.
The heroes who marched to Cattraeth were renowned / Wine and mead out of golden goblets was their beverage / That year was to them one of exalted solemnity / Three hundred and sixty-three chieftains, wearing the golden torques / Of those who hurried forth after the excess of revelling / But three escaped by valour from the funeral fosse / The two war-dogs of Aeron, and Cynon the dauntless / And myself, from the spilling of blood, the reward of my candid song. 2429
Gwyr a gryssyasant buant gytneit / Hoedyl vyrryon medwon uch med hidleit / Gosgord mynydawc enwawc en reit / Gwerth eu gwled e ved vu eu heneit / Caradawc a madawc pyll ac yeuan / Gwgawn a gwiawn gwynn a chynvan / Peredur arveu dur gwawr-dur ac aedan / Achubyat eng gawr ysgwydawr angkyman / A chet lledessynt wy lladassan / Neb y eu tymhyr nyt atcorsan.
The warriors marched with speed, together they bounded onward / Short lived were they,—they had become drunk over the distilled mead / The retinue of Mynyddawg, renowned in the hour of need / Their life was the price of their banquet of mead / Caradawg, and Madawg, Pyll, and Ieuan, / Gwgawn, and Gwiawn, Gwynn and Cynvan, / Peredur with steel arms, Gwawrddur, and Aeddan / A defence were they in the tumult, though with shattered shields / When they were slain, they also slaughtered / Not one to his native home returned.2430
Nyt ef borthi gwarth gorsed / Senyllt ae lestri llawn med / Godolei gledyf e gared / Godolei lemein e ryuel / Dyfforthsei lynwyssawr oe vreych / Rac bedin ododin a brennych […].
He would not bear the reproach of a congress / Senyllt, with his vessels full of mead / His sword rang for deeds of violence / He shouted and bounded with aid for the war /And with his arm proved a comprehensive support / Against the armies of Gododin and Bryneich […].2431 ’
The Gundestrup Cauldron
This idea of getting intoxicated before battle to be divinely possessed may be illustrated in one of the plaques of the Gundestrup Cauldron (fig. 18),2432 which depicts a scene of warriors, divided into two parts by a vegetal motif – a tree, a pea or a bean. The lower part of the relief* shows a cortège of six soldiers with spears and shields, followed by a warrior holding a sword and wearing a helmet topped with a boar, and by three carnyx* players.2433 These ten warriors are making their way towards a colossal character who is plunging a man, with his two hands, into what seems to be a huge vat. On the upper part of the relief*, four soldiers riding sumptuously-harnessed horses are heading towards the right, possibly following the ram-head snake preceding them. Two of them are wearing helmets bearing a boar and a crow.
Recently, an astronomical interpretation has been proposed for this plaque. It could be the symbolic representation of the two equinoxes, the two solstices and the twelve lunar months (?), or of the passage from autumn to spring.2434 Even though this interpretation is interesting, it is not convincing. It is indeed undeniable that this relief* is a scene depicting the preparation of soldiers heading for a forthcoming battle. The signification of the pre-war scene is nonetheless difficult to determine, especially because of the presence of this huge personage thrusting a man into a vat.
In view of our previous work, a plausible interpretation of this scene seems to be possible. First of all, it is clear that the disproportionate size of the character on the left is indicative of a being of divine origin, i.e. a god or a priest holding the sacred esoteric knowledge. The man he is plunging in the vat is undeniably a soldier, because the latter is wearing the exact same helmet and costume as the other warriors. Furthermore, the ten soldiers are represented, on the lower part, as going towards the huge personage, moving very slowly and even seem to be at a standstill, as though they were queuing, waiting their turn to be thrust into the vat. Unlike this motionless line of soldiers, the riders of the upper part are represented in motion, for their mounts seem to be galloping. It seems that, after being plunged into the vat, the soldiers have become heated and ready to set off for war. The vat could therefore contain the sacred beverage giving access to the divine world. Besides, the vegetal motif, i.e. the sacred tree or stem, separating the two lines of warriors, may mark the frontier between the supernatural and natural world, which would be crossed after ingurgitating the intoxicating drink. This scene could thus be suggestive of the rites of intoxication held before the battle to warm up the soldiers and make contact with the otherworld to require its help and strength.
Fig. 18: One of the thirteen plaques of the Gundestrup Cauldron, discovered in 1880 in a peat bog near the village of Gundestrup (Aaras, north of Jutland, Denmark). This plaque depicts a scene of warriors, divided into two parts by a vegetal motif – a tree, a pea or a bean. In the Nationalmuseet, Copenhague. Goudineau, 2006, pp. 60-61, 73.
The goddesses of intoxication, embodiment of the sacred beverage, could thus have represented the ancient cult of achieving force and courage through the absorption of ‘magical’ beverages before going into the fighting. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that faces with protruding and hallucinated eyes are represented on some pieces of carts (see fig. 2). This may also be significant. These faces with spellbinding eyes could depict a state of trance and thus illustrate the effect of ritual intoxication on the warriors when waging war on their foes. It may be that these masks picture some divine figures symbolizing the rites of intoxication in the context of war. The goddesses of intoxication may have helped the tribes in the protection of their territory by giving them moral and physical strength to fight the foes. The intoxicant personified by the goddesses was the means through which divine force could be transmitted to the warriors. By ingesting the drink, the champions symbolically swallowed the goddess, which took possession of them. In this way, the Intoxicating Goddesses would represent this whole framework of complex religious beliefs and rites related to war and intoxication.
Intoxicating Goddesses Conferring Sovereignty?
In the previous part, we saw that Medb was depicted several times in Táin Bó Cuailnge [‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’] offering a cup of intoxicating drink to warriors so as to achieve her ends, which is to subdue the invincible Ulster champion, Cú Chulainn. Each time, she also promises the warrior the hand of her daughter, which means access to the future throne of Connacht. Therefore, it can be noticed that the intoxicating drink, embodying Medb herself, is related to the notion of sovereignty, which Medb symbolises perfectly.
Medb: the Emblematic Figure of Sovereignty
Medb is represented in the ancient texts as a goddess of sovereignty, sometimes presiding over Leinster (Teamhair), under the name of Medb Lethderg, or presiding over Connacht, under the name of Medb of Cruachan (Rathcroghan, in Co. Roscommon).2435 They appear as separate characters within narrative texts, and yet, all the scholars agree that they are the very same figure.2436 The tradition of Medb Lethderg may be older: hence, Medb of Cruachan is highly likely to be an emanation from the former.
Their respective stories stress on impressive number of husbands they had one after the other and reveal that it was Medb who granted sovereignty to the future king by coupling with him. In the Book of Leinster, Medb Lethderg is said to have successively been the wife of Cú Corb, then Feidlimid Rechtaid, father of Conn Cétchathach, then of his grandson Art, and later still of Cormarc Mac Airt:
‘Roba mor tra nert agus cumachta Meidhbhe insin for firu Erenn air isi na leigedh ri a Temair gan a beth fein aigi na mnái agus is le conrotacht in righ-raith for taeb Temra .i. raith Medhbhe […].
Great indeed was the strength and power of that Medb over the men of Ireland, for she it was who would not allow a king in Tara without his having herself as a wife. And by her was built the royal rath on the side of Tara, i.e. Rath Medbae […].2437 ’
Another version, from the R.I.A., says:
‘Doratsat Laighin na lann rigi do mac righ Eirenn nocor fhaidh Medb lesin mac nirbo righ Eirenn Cormac.
The Leinstermen of the blades gave the kingship to the son of the king of Ireland – until Medb mated with the son, Cormac was not king of Ireland.2438 ’
Like her namesake, Medb of Cruachan is the goddess of sovereignty. In Cath Boinde [The Battle of the Boyne], a text dating from the early 10th c., she is explicitly referred to as the one owning the crown of Cruachain, for her father gave her the throne:
‘Eochaid Feidleach […] cuiris Meadb i n-inad rig i Cruachain.
Eochaid Feidleach […] set Meadb up in the royal seat of Cruachain.. 2439 ’
The text also indicates that Medb married five husbands in a row: Cochonbar of Ulster, Fidech mac Féice, Tindi mac Con, Eochaid Dála, and finally Ailill mac Máta, who is Medb’s husband in the Táin B ό Cúailnge [‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’]. The important thing to note is that each time Medb chooses a new husband, this one becomes the new king of the province by her own will and consent:
‘co rob i comairle do-ronsad:- rigi Condacht d’ainmneochad d’Eochaid Dala do deoin Meadba. Do deonaid Meadb sin dia m-beith na ceili di fein agus cen et, cen oman, cen neoidi do beith and, uair ba geis disi beith ac ceili na m-beidis na treideada sin. Do rigad Eochaid Dala trid sin co roibi trell i Cruachain na cheili ac Meidb.
The counsel they decided on was to appoint Eochaid Dala to the kingship of Connacht with the consent of Meadb. Meadb consents to that on condition that he should marry her, and that he should have neither jealousy, fear, nor niggardliness, for it was a ‘geis’ [taboo*] to her to marry a man who should have these three qualitites. Eochaid Dala was crowned through this, and was a while in Cruachan, as Meadb’s husband.2440
cor gradaig Meadb é ar a sobésaib, cor æntaich ria, cor bo ceili di he tar cend Echaid Dala […] Gabais Ailill rigi Connacht do deoin Meadba da eisi sin, corob é ba rig Conacht ac rigad Chonairi Moir agus ic tobairt thosaich na tana for Ulltaib.
Meadb loved him [Ailill] for his virtues, and he was united to her, and became her lover in place of Eochaid Dala. […] Ailill assumed the kingship of Connacht thereafter, with the consent of Meadb ; and it is he who was the king of Connacht at the time of the crowning of Conaire the great and the beginning of the cattle-raid against the Ulstermen.2441 ’
In addition to these various literary references, it has been observed that Medb’s name can be derived from two homonymic Indo-European roots, respectively meaning ‘intoxicated’ and ‘master, ruler’.2442 Her name thus directly refers to the notion of sovereignty, like the meaning of her two epithets. Indeed, as regards Medb Lethderg, her epithet means ‘Half-Red’ or ‘Red-Side’ – Old Irish derg and Gaulish dergo– mean ‘red’ as well as ‘bloody’.2443 This would hint that kingship was sometimes ‘bloody’, either because the sovereign had to fight to preserve or gain territory, or because there might have been bloody contests to gain access to the throne.2444 As for Medb of Cruachan, her epithet may be derived from crú, genitive cró, ‘blood’ and thus signify ‘With Red Skin’ or ‘Bloody Red’. Ó Máille proposes that Cruachan could designate a place of sun-worship and blood-sacrifices in ancient times, but this remains conjectural.2445 At any rate, both Medbs have epithets which refer to the red colour, which obviously connotes blood, violence and war, which is to say sovereignty and the protection of the territory.2446 And Medb is clearly portrayed as a war-like female figure in Irish mythology. Moreover, it should be added that the red colour is generally used to refer to the supernatural forces in Irish medieval literature.2447 This epithet consequently indicates that Medb was a divine personage in the origin, even if she was euhemerized as a mythical queen in the Irish texts.
According to this series of traditions, it is significant that Medb represents the sovereignty of Ireland and it is she only who grants kingship. These texts do not mention an intoxicating drink or a cup given to the forthcoming kings. Nonetheless, we have seen that, in Táin Bó Cuailnge [‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’], she is pictured offering intoxicating drinks to the potential future sovereigns. Therefore, in view of these elements, it can be maintained that the libation*-element is implied by her name in those tales portraying her as the personification of sovereignty. Medb being the embodiment simultaneously of drink and sovereignty, it can be inferred that sovereignty was symbolically granted by an intoxicating drink – mead on account of her name. To support this idea, Ó Máille alludes to a difficult and corrupt poem contained in the 9th-century prose tale Scéla Cano meic Gartnáin [‘The Story of Cano son of Gartnán’], which says that:
‘niba ri ar an Erind . mani toro coirm Chualand.2448
he will not be a king over Ireland, unless he gets the ale of Cualu.2449 ’
And it might be significant that Medb Letherderg is called ingen Chonain Cualann, that is ‘the daughter of Conān of Cualu’ in the Book of Leinster, for it would mean that Medb is ‘the ale of Cualu’ which bestows kingship.2450
Intoxication and Sovereignty
With regard to this subject, it is worth mentioning that a reference to ‘mead’ is contained in the name of the great banqueting hall of Tara, which is in Old Irish Tech Midchuarta and in Late Medieval Irish Teach Miodhchuarta, literally ‘the house where the mead went around’, i.e. ‘the mead (miodh) circling (chuarta) house (teach)’ or ‘the circular house of the (mead-) feast’ – cuairt meaning a circular visit -, belonging to the myth of Cormac mac Art, the fourth husband of Medb Lethderg.2451 This name is highly likely to have been a fanciful interpretation by an Old Irish writer of the prehistorical structure – which is actually rectangular – unearthed at the sacral site of Tara, where religious ceremonies were undoubtedly held as shown by the archaeological evidence.2452 Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that a mythical celebration, anciently known as Feis Temro (‘Feast of Tara’), was held at Tara, which was the centre of the cult of sacred kingship presided over by Medb. Known in Irish literature as banais ríghe (‘wedding-feast of kingship’), with banais or ban-fheis, literally signifying ‘sleeping with a woman’, this feast was celebrated by each king during his reign and symbolised his union with the goddess of sovereignty, who embodied the territory over which he ruled.2453 An episode contained in Cath Boinde, mentions this festival in Tara organised by Eochaid Feidleach, gathering the provinces of Ireland, which could not be held without the presence of Medb:
‘Gnithis feis Temra la h-Eochaid Feidleach co cuicedaib Erend imi acht Meadb agus Tindu. Hirailid fir Erend ar Eochaid Meadb do breith sa n-aenach. Cuiris Eochaid Searbluath a bain-eachlach ar cend Meadba co Cruachain. Teid Meadb arna marach co Temraid cor cuiread graifne in aenaich leo co cend cæcaisi ar mis.
The festival of Tara was held by Eochaid Feidleach, with the provinces of Ireland about him (all) except Meadb and Tindi. The men of Ireland bade Eochaid bring Meadb to the gathering. Eochaid sent Searbluath, his female messenger, to Cruachan for Meadb. Meadb goes on the morrow to Tara, and the fair-races were run by them for a fortnight and a month.2454 ’
The link between this feast and the goddess of mead-intoxication and the name of the banqueting hall of Tara, which directly refers to mead, must indicate that mead was consumed on very specific religious occasions, for instance in the context of ritual and sacral kingship, which ultimately implied the connection and participation of the divine world. The celebration was undeniably a drinking feast, celebrating the new representative of the gods, that is the king, in which sacred mead must have played an important role in contacting the otherworld – as mead was ritually drunk at the funerary ceremony of the Prince of Hochdorf.2455 It may be that the king, in drinking the sacred beverage, symbolically swallowed the goddess, this marking his union with the goddess of sovereignty and conferring him his divine powers of king.
The pattern of the lady bestowing sovereignty on the future king by offering him a cup of alcoholic drink undoubtedly lays behind the early legend of the foundation of Massalia (Marseilles) related by Aristotle in the 4th c. BC. This text relates that Petta, the daughter of Nannus, King of the Segobriges, had to choose the man who would become her husband, i.e. the future king, by offering him a drink. It is significant that her name, Petta, means ‘a portion (of land)’. This indeed indicates that she is the very representation of the land-goddess. Therefore, this early classical text echoes Irish mythology and attests of the antiquity of the Celtic belief of the goddess of intoxication embodying and purveying sovereingty. The legend is the following:
‘As Nannus was celebrating his daughter’s marriage, Euxenes happened to arrive, and he was invited to the feast. The form of the marriage was thus – after the meal, the maiden was to enter and to give a bowl of drink which she had mixed to the man preferred by her among the assembled suitors. He to whom she offered it would be the bridegroom. When she came in, the maiden gave the bowl – whether by chance, or by design, to Euxenes. Her name was Petta. At this, her father considered that she had acted in accordance with divine will. Euxenes took her as wife and lived with her, changing her name to Aristoxene, and even still there is a family-line descended from this woman in Massilia.2456 ’
There is therefore a very strong correlation between mead, the goddess of intoxication, and sacred kingship; a pattern which is present in many Irish medieval literary accounts belonging to the Cycle of the Kings.2457 The earliest and most relevant examples are as follows: Baile Chuind Chétchathaig [‘The Frenzy of Conn of the Hundred Battles’], an obscure 8th-century text listing the High Kings of Tara in the form of prophecies, describes various kings ‘drinking’ the sovereignty, which is identified by significant female symbols.2458 In Baile in Scáil [‘The Phantom’s Frenzy’], composed at the beginning of the 11th c. AD, King Conn Cétchathach met Lugh Lámfhota and an otherworld lady, wearing a golden crown and seated on a crystal throne, who revealed herself as Flaith Érenn, ‘the Sovereignty of Ireland’. While pouring the red ale (derg-laith), she asked to whom the cup should be offered, and Lugh answered by naming every monarch from the time of Conn onward.2459 This personification of sovereignty is generally identified as the land-goddess Ériu.2460 This legend reflects the close relationship bewteen flaith ‘sovereignty’ and laith ‘ale’, a pun referring to the double function of the goddess of sovereignty, who simultaneously embodies the intoxicating drink and confers kingship on the future monarch by handing him a cup of ale. Similarly, in the early 11th-century legend entitled Echtra mac nEchach Muigmedóin [‘The Adventure of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedón’], Niall Noígiallach and his brothers met a hideous hag guarding a well, whom Niall accepted to kiss in return for water. The hag immediately turned into a beautiful lady, who identified herself as in Flaithius, ‘Sovereignty’.2461 A similar story is recounted in the c. 13th-century Cóir Anmann [‘The Fitness of Names’] about the five sons of Dáire Doimthech, each called Lugaid, who all except Lugaid Laígde refused to lie with a frightening hag who offered them ale. The following morning, the hag transformed into a beautiful maiden and declared “I am the sovereignty, and the kingship of Ireland will be obtained from you” (missi in flaithius 7 gébthar ríge nÉrenn úat).2462 The pattern is also reflected in the goddess figure associated with the Beara Peninsula in west Cork: Cailleach Bhéarra (‘the Hag or Old Woman of Beara’). Significantly indeed, in a poem dating from the 8th c. or early 9th c.,2463 entitled The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare, which describes her as an miserable ugly old woman bemoaning her past youth and beauty and cursing her decay, she relates that she possesses her own ale, that is mead and wine, which she used to drink with the kings of Ireland:
‘A-minecán ! már-úar dam; / cech dercu is erchraide. / ĺar feis fri caindlib sorchuib / bith i ndorchuib derthaige !
Rom-boí denus la ríga / oc όl meda ocus fína; / in-díu ibim medcuisce / eter sentainni crína.
Rop ed mo choirm coidin midc / …………. / oc do guidi-siu, a Dé bí, / ……….. fri feirg.
I am cold indeed; / every acorn is doomed to decay. / After feasting by bright candles to be in the darkness of an oratory !
I have had my day with kings, / drinking mead and wine; / now I drink whey-and-water / among shrivelled old hags.
May my ale be cups of whey / …………. / praying to thee, O living God / ……….. against anger.2464 ’
In this passage of the poem, she is clearly represented as an emanation of the land-goddess conferring sovereignty on the future king through the offering and consumption of mead, like Medb. Cailleach Bhéarra is undoubtedly a land-goddess in origin, more particularly associated with west Cork, and embodying the obscure or negative aspect of the earth goddess, like the Mórrígain. In the introduction to the poem, she is indeed described as the mother or ancestor of peoples, like Danu, and as having several husbands, like Medb:
‘Is de ro-boī Caillech Bērre forre: coīca dalta dī a mBērri. Secht n-aīs n-aíted a ndechaid co dēged cech fer ēc crīne ūade, comtar tūatha 7 chenēla a hui 7 a īarmy, 7 c[h]ēt mblīadna dī fo c[h]ailliu īarna sēnad do Chuimíniu for a cend. Do-sn-ānic-si āes 7 lobrae īarom. Is ant is-rubard-sii.
This is why she was called the Old Woman [or ‘Nun’] of Beare: she had fifty foster-children in Beare. She passed into seven periods of youth, so that every husband ued to pass from her to death of old age, so that her grandchildren and great-grandchildren were peoples and races. And for a hundred years she wore the veil, after Cuimíne had blessed it and placed it on her head. Then age and infirmity came to her, and she said. [The poem follows here].2465 ’
Admittedly, this early poem can be interpreted in various ways. Anne-Marie Chalendon indeed explains that:
‘The dying old woman symbolizes the Sovereignty of Ireland, whose lovers (the pagan kings) died without leaving heirs. The poem, a reflection of the inexorability of the passing of time, emphasizes the painful passage to Christianity, all the more so as the old woman is depicted as a religious figure, for the word cailleach derives from the Latin pallium, which signifies ‘veil’, and originally designated a nun.2466 ’
The passing of time and the passage from paganism to Christianity are undeniably essential themes, but it cannot be denied that the ancient pattern of the land-goddess conferring sovereignty on kings by serving them an intoxicated drink is reflected in this early poem about Cailleach Bhéarra. From all of this, it follows that the Celtic goddess of intoxication must originally have presidedover the religious ceremonies celebrating the new king and personified all the rites and cults attached to it. The early account of Athenaeus and the various surviving Irish medieval accounts lend support to this theory.
It is clear then that the rites of intoxication, generally undertaken through the consumption of a sacred beverage, were of great importance in ancient times and most certainly very complex. Enabling human beings to make contact with the deities so as to require their help, they were held at different times, for various purposes and in various contexts. The drink was the only key to the otherworld because its intoxicating virtues allowed the ‘natural world’ to see another reality and to open up to the supernatural world. Even if there is little direct evidence concerning the Celts as regards this practice, it is clear from the names borne by goddesses that the rites of sacred intoxication in relation to the divine held a very important place in their society.
It has been argued here that the Goddess of Intoxication embodied the drink itself, its mighty ensnaring powers allowing human beings to shuffle off their mortal coil, as well as the complex framework of rites and cults attached to it. The intoxicating beverage must have been ritually consumed on various occasions which required the help and advice of the divine world, such as on the occasion of funerary rites to ensure the travel of the deceased to the otherworld, as the Cauldron of Hochdorf proves; and on the occasion of the inauguration of a new king, who, by drinking mead, would have swallowed the goddess – for she embodied the beverage – and thus symbolically mated with the one providing sovereignty. Mead-intoxication rites would also have been undertaken before battles so as to be divinely possessed. The Goddess of Intoxication would have therefore personified this ‘war furor’ reached after ‘ingesting’ her, and would have played a significant role in the preparation and course of the battle. Finally, the Goddess of Intoxication must have had a role of healer and must have represented all the rites of intoxication attached to curing, for she possessed some important beneficial virtues in her beverage.
Interestingly, in an obscure Irish text on peotic theory and methodology, dating from the late 7th c. or early 8th c., poetry, which is called “the words of fair-woman” (briathra bhan bhfionn), that is the otherworld woman, is simultaneously compared to mead and to a beautiful otherworld woman, which are both its metaphor and personification:
‘Fo-chen aoí iolchrothach, iolghnuisioc, ilbhrechtach, bé sháor shonaisg.
Welcome poetry multi-shaped, multi-faced, mutli-magical, a woman noble easily joined.
Aoi co baoi? […] co delbh I ttadhbhas? […] .i. riocht inghine macdhacht.
Poetry what is it? […] In what shape does it appear? […] in the form of a beautiful maiden.
Fo cen aoi. ingen tsoifis, siur chelle. inghen menman. […] muchaidh ainbfhios […] i ttigh medhrach miodhchuarta.
Welcome poetry, maiden of good knowledge, sister of sense, daughter of intellect […] she quenches ignorance […] in the joyful mead circling house [the feast of Tara].
Áile tech miodhchuarta. miolsgothaibh. […] Áile laith go meala maith, dotégh I ttech a clú clothach […] fo chen laith ; Áile laith. Áile laith líoghach, fo chen laith lioghach. lán binn buadhach, brúctaidh fri híath nAnann.
The beauty of the mead circling house (Tara) with best honey […] the beauty of drink (liquid) with good honeys, it goes into a house with enduring fame […] welcome drink, beautiful drink. Beautiful the colourful drink. Welcome colourful drink, full sweet sounding, splendid, it bursts over the land of Anu.
Fo-chen easgra bélmhár. bledhmhár, deoghmhár, dermhár, dían a deogha, derg a luisi, lóichett a chloth. fo chen. Áile esgra n-udmall n-airgid. fledhmhar, deoghmhár […].
Welcome gobelet of big mouth, plentiful fine drink big bobbled, strong its drink red its flushing valuable its fame. Welcome. Beautiful the gobelet bronze golden feastful, drink-plenty […].2467 ’
This archaic poem suggests several ideas. Poetry, mead and the otherworld woman being equivalent, it once again shows that mead was seen as a goddess, who was its very embodiment. Here it may be possible to see a reference to the Mead Goddess, who would have in this case provided the gift of poetry. This idea is highly likely, for poets must have used sacred intoxication to further the complex work of poetic creation, which, besides, required divine intervention.