Torch held high, the woman leads the procession down the green hillside toward the fields on the night of Meán Samhraidh. Her torch stings the eyes, the sun come to earth, and her face seems part of that too-brilliant light – first yellow-gold, then blinding white. Her names come to you: Áine, Grian. mother of stars and kings, wife of Manannan, in whose arm she rests during the darkness of night – but not this night.
Catalonian Sun Goddess from the Hogmanay Street Party, Edinburgh 2005, by Stuart Yeates via Wikimedia Commons
The bright woman holds her torch over the fields in blessing, and the priestesses at her back follow suit. She inclines her head toward the waiting crowds. It will be a good harvest, the whisper runs, a susurration through the abundant grasses.
Where’s the sun god?
Modern Pagans frequently honor the Sun at Midsummer – and rightly so. The solar body is the ultimate progenitor – giving birth to the entire solar system, and setting the planets in their orbital dance. Without the Sun, the Earth would be a frozen rock, devoid of life – if indeed it existed at all. The Sun, too, is the product of other suns in times long past, in a cycle of star birth and death that dates back to the early days of the universe. “We are stardust,” Joni Mitchell sings, and it’s quite literally true.
In many Neo-Pagan circles, the Sun is honored as a male deity, drawing on classical conceptions of the Greek Helios and vaguely Native American concepts of Father Sky. Wiccans often hold that the divine masculine is solar in nature and the feminine lunar. It seems right and natural, the arguments go; don’t all cultures divide the celestial bodies in this gendered way?
No, as it turns out.
Cultures hold a diverse array of views when it comes to the Sun. In fact, Sun Goddesses abound, from the Japanese Amaterasu to the Canaanite Shapashtu. The very word “sun” derives from the Norse and Germanic goddess Sunna, who transverses the daytime skies with her solar chariot; her brother is the Moon, Mani.
Let us turn back the sands of time, and consider the ancient speakers of the original Indo-European language. Ceisiwr Serith’s reconstructed proto-European pantheon proposes a solar female, who may or may not be the sun, depending on whether you consider the solar disk a symbol of the ancient Sky Father or a deity in his or her own right. While Serith considers her the maiden who conducts the sun through the sky (70), she seems to be associated with the sun itself in his reconstructed ritual practice. Citing the presence of sun-wheels and red ochre – similar to blood – in graves, Serith associates this reconstructed goddess with the soul’s journey after death and subsequent rebirth (71) – a mythology that strongly resonates with the Norse Sunna, who will be eaten by the great wolf that pursues her at the end of days and replaced by her own daughter in the solar chariot.
The mythology is murkier in the Celtic realms, as remaining stories were filtered through the world views of Christian monks. Likely owing to the influence of Wicca, modern Pagans typically consider Lugh to be a Sun God. In some ways, this makes sense: his name likely means “bright” and he is often described in terms of light. However, Celtic scholar James MacKillop notes that Lugh doesn’t appear to be the Sun (MacKillop 7), and indeed the Romans considered him synonymous to skillful Mercury rather than solar Apollo. Ogma “Sunface” is also not a solar god, despite the title; instead, he was compared to Hercules, as odd as that may have seemed to the Romans for a god of eloquence.
Some researchers, such as Anne Ross, have thrown up their hands and said that there was no Celtic sun god – which would make them perhaps the only people in the world without solar mythology. It’s more likely that there are Celtic sun deities – but that researchers, influenced by hidden but common biases, were looking in the wrong place.
The cultural bias against Sun Goddesses stems in large part from the Victorian period, when the study of world mythology became more widespread and the field of comparative religion established. Scholars often used Greco-Roman mythology as a basis for comparison – understandable since the classical world had long formed the foundation for scholarship as a whole.
Other cultural attributes also come into play. Christianity occasionally used solar imagery to describe the Son of God (“sun of righteousness” is one such term from the Book of Malachi), a cultural inheritance scholars likely drew on when they espoused theories of the solar hero and interpreted the Christian religion as a sun cult.
Perhaps most important was the structure of patriarchal Victorian society itself, in which women – legally considered property – were seen as the “reflected light” of man. American feminist poet Marge Piercy perhaps states it best in her poem, “The Moon is Always Female”:
The moon is always female but the sun
is female only in lands where females
are let into the sun to run and climb.
In the poem, she offers a sentiment that Áine herself – lover, queen and rape victim — would agree with: “I want only to be myself and free” (92-3).
Sun Among Maidens
Celtic sun deities weren’t absent; rather, like their Norse, Germanic and even Lithuanian neighbors, they were originally female. Often, they were associated with healing springs, a prime example being Sul or Sulis at Bath, whose name means “sun,” note Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick. Female figures decorated with solar symbols are found among the Continental Celts and the Irish word for sun, grian, is a feminine noun. Along those lines, the modern Irish phrase for “fairest of maidens,” grian na maighdean, literally translates as “sun among maidens” (Jones and Pennick, 88).
In addition to grian, mythology gives us a name: Áine. Sharon Paice MacLeod translates her name as “brilliance,” while Caitlin and John Matthews say that it means “delight, pleasure, agility, melody,” and consider her connected to the vitality of life. A member of the Tuatha De Danann, she is described as either the wife or daughter of Mannanan (Rees 134-5) and is linked with the southern province of Munster, where she is the ancestress of the kingly line.
T.W. Rolleston notes that Áine isn’t often mentioned in bardic literature, but her name crops up frequently in folklore. In one tale, she plants Cnoc Áine – a hill in County Limerick considered particularly sacred to her – with peas in a single night at the request of her human son, the local earl. In another tale, the locals were unable to perform the Midsummer rite with torches one year – only to have Áine herself lead an Otherwordly procession (128). Like Serith’s Sun Daughter and other solar deities, she is associated with horses – either riding one or becoming one herself (Monaghan, 72).
Folktales describe Áine as spinning sunbeams and making gold cloth, and also tell of her sister, Cailleach, the hag of winter (Monaghan, 72). Patricia Monaghan considers Áine and the Cailleach (the “veiled one,” or hag) as two sides of a single goddess: the strong sun of the summer and the weak sun of the winter. Other authors hint that this winter-sun is Grian, whose own mound, Cnoc Greine, was seven miles away from Cnoc Áine. MacLeod notes that the two are both the daughters of Fer Í, “man of yew” (125), which could indicate that they are two faces of the same goddess.
Other sources name her father as the Druid Owel, the foster-son of Manannan, or as Egobail, a title of the Dagda associated with the yew tree. She is considered to have many mortal lovers – some unwillingly; she survived rape by Munster king Aillil Olum, whom she killed with magic (Rolleston 127). The lineage of Áine was also woven into County Limerick’s human O’Corra family, who considered her a supernatural ancestress (MacLeod 125).
However, there are other, less-solar views of Áine. James MacKillop considers Áine solely as a goddess of desire, a malevolent face of Danu, Anu or Ana (8-9). The Matthews also associate Áine with the mother goddess Anu (283). Interestingly, there are hints that the sovereignty goddess Ériu, from whom the land takes its name, is also linked to the powers of the sun by virtue of the circlets and rings she wears (MacKillop 62). As Ériu’s name essentially means “abundance,” however, it’s more likely that she is connected with the Earth itself.
In some traditional Lughnasadh rites, a girl on a stone seat was offered flowers as a representative of Áine, considered by Alexei Kondratiev to be a face of the Land Goddess (205). Interestingly, in his reconstruction of Midsummer rites, he focuses not on Áine – the focus of traditional torch-carrying rites in Munster – but on the Gaulish god Belenos, even as he quotes the Carmina Gadelica prayer that describes the sun in feminine language.
The Matthews have a nuanced view of Áine’s nature; they consider Grian as the goddess of the Sun itself, while Áine is the inner sun of vitality, “the seed of the sun which inhabits our veins” (284). Because of her association with the spark of life present in the blood, medicinal bloodletting wasn’t permitted on her holy days – the Friday, Saturday and Sunday before Lughnasadh – lest the life bleed away from the patient entirely (Matthews 284).
Glorious Mother of Stars
Eyes lifted to the daystar, the modern Druid considers Áine: Sun Mother, lady of blossom and desire, protector of crops, queen of the blood-fire of vitality.
Her holy days are, appropriately enough, Meán Samhraidh (Midsummer) and Lughnasadh – when the sun and life’s vitality – “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as poet Dylan Thomas phrased it – are at their height. But you needn’t wait for a holy day to celebrate Mother Sun; modern polytheist Aedh Rua honors her with the sun prayer from the Carmina Gadelica at her dawn rising (91).
Hail to thee, thou sun of the seasons,
As thou traversest the skies aloft;
Thy steps are strong on the wing of the heavens,
Thou art the glorious mother of the stars.
Thou liest down in the destructive ocean
Without impairment and without fear;
Thou risest up on the peaceful wave-crest
Like a queenly maiden in bloom.
Carmichael, Alexander. Carmina Gadelica: Hymns & Incantations. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1992
Jones, Prudence and Nigel Pennick. A History of Pagan Europe. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Kondratiev, Alexei. The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual. New York: Citadel Press, 2003.
MacKillop, James. Myths and Legends of the Celts. New York: Penguin Books, 2005
MacLeod, Sharon Paice. Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief, with Newly Translated Prayers, Poems and Songs. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2012
Matthews, Caitlin and John. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom. Rockport, Massachusetts: Element,1994
Monaghan, Patricia. O Mother Sun! A New View of the Cosmic Feminine. Freedom, California: The Crossing Press, 1994.
Piercy, Marge. The Moon is Always Female. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Rees, Alwyn and Brinley. Celtic Heritage: Ancient tradition in Ireland and Wales. London: Thames and Hudson, 1961.
Rolleston, T.W. Celtic Myths and Legends. New Y ork: Dover Publications, 1990. (Originally 1917)
Rua, Aedh. Celtic flame: An Insider’s Guide to the Irish Pagan Tradition. New York: iUniverse, 2008.
Serith, Ceisiwr. Deep Ancestors: Practing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Tucson, Arizona: ADF Publishing, 2007.