Marrying the land: how we broke the ancient bargain

The native pre-Christian mythology of the Celtic nations which stretch along the Western Atlantic seaboard of Europe is highly woman-centred. In our oldest stories, the creative, generative essence of the universe was female, not male; women represented the spiritual and moral axis of the world, and the power of men was predominantly social. But the Celtic divine female was a long way from the remote, transcendent sky-deities we’ve grown used to in recent centuries here in the West: she had one foot in the Otherworld for sure, but she was firmly grounded and deeply rooted in place, indivisible from her distinctive, haunting landscapes. In Ireland in particular, the Dinnseanchas — the ancient stories and lore of place, the foundation-stones both of personal and communal identity, and of moral obligations to the land and the tribe — tell us how so many major features of the landscape came to be named after women. Almost all Irish rivers, for example, bear the names of Otherworldly women. Ancient Irish literature is filled with stories of powerful women who were incarnations of Sovereignty, the goddess of the land who was its guardian and protector. Sovereignty was the spirit of the Earth itself, the anima mundi, a deeply ecological force.

11012383_10155806057790104_4218887461914557716_nShe’s been treated badly over the centuries, this old goddess of Sovereignty. She began to lose her power when stories from the ancient oral tradition of the Celts were committed to paper by Christian monks; their written words formed the new and only permitted truth. A goddess could not be tolerated in this brave new world: theirs was the only god. These powerful, complicated divine women who carried with them all the authority of the Otherworld, and the fertile and creative power of the land in all its ambiguity and complexity, were reinvented as saints. And if the qualities they embodied in their specific incarnations didn’t fit the new image of what a good woman should be, they were portrayed simply as ‘fairy women’, or remodelled as promiscuous, pseudo-historical queens. By the seventeenth century, when a woman could no longer be accepted in any significant position of influence, all that remained of the story of the powerful goddess of Sovereignty were the dreamlike visions or aislings in which she appeared to inspire the poets – a weak, melancholy maiden, romanticised and unreal.

In the days when our native traditions predominated, the power of Sovereignty — the power of women — was also the power to determine who should rule the land. In the old myths, Sovereignty’s power was paramount. If the power she bestowed was abused, then we invited disaster. During the reign of a king favoured by the goddess, the land was fertile and prosperous, and the tribe was victorious in war. But if the king didn’t match up to her expectations, he didn’t last long. And what she expected more than anything was that the king, and through his example, the people, would cherish the land. So it was that the ancient rites of kingship in Ireland included a ceremonial marriage, the banais ríghi, between the king and the goddess of the land, and so fundamental was that idea to the Irish way of life that those rites lasted into the sixteenth century.

In this sacred marriage, the king swore to uphold and protect the land and his people, and to be true to both; in return Sovereignty, the source of life, granted him the gifts which would help him to keep his oath. But the source of life must be respected. While there is mutual respect between the two partners – between the goddess and the king, between the land and the people, between nature and culture, between feminine and masculine – then all is in harmony and life is filled with abundance. But when the contract is broken, the fertile land becomes the Wasteland. And so it is that today we find ourselves in an ailing world, cut off from our roots. So we find ourselves in a Wasteland of unbelonging; in the throes of a worldwide environmental crisis of our own making which threatens the existence of so many species on this planet.

If Women Rose Rooted LRI began to write my forthcoming book, If Women Rose Rooted, because I believe we need to find our way out of the Wasteland, and I believe that women hold the key. The key is there, in the mythologies that are indigenous to my native lands. For women particularly, to have a Celtic identity or ancestry is to inherit a history, literature and mythology in which we are portrayed not only as deeply connected to the natural world, but as playing a unique and critical role in the wellbeing of the Earth and survival of its inhabitants. Celtic myths for sure have their fair share of male heroism and adventure, but the major preoccupation of their heroes is with service to and stewardship of the land. And once upon a time, those stories tell us, women were the guardians of the natural world, the heart of the land. The Celtic woman who appears in these old tales is active in a different way from their heroes and warriors: she is the one who determines who is fit to rule, she is the guardian and protector of the land, the bearer of wisdom, the root of spiritual and moral authority for the tribe. Celtic creation stories tell us that the land was shaped by a woman; Celtic history offers us examples of women who were the inspirational leaders of their tribes. These are the stories of our own heritage, the stories of the real as well as the mythical women who went before us. What if we could reclaim those stories, and become those women again?


If Women Rose Rooted, which explores and expands upon these ideas, was published in March 2016.

61 thoughts on “Marrying the land: how we broke the ancient bargain

      1. I cannot begin to tell you how your words resonated in the marrow of my bones. I am a matriarch of my people, the Cayuga tribe of New York.

        I have been told by many powerful medicine people throughout my life virtually everything that you wrote down.

        I have a role to play in the restoration of the matriarchal paradigm as do most women . I understand the awakening and the fear that accompany this profound shift. Your words make it so much easier to understand.

        I tell other people that the great shift back to the matriarchy is not about women running things as opposed to men but about people being in good relation with one another and I use the example of there is no “head of the table” in a circle.

        What you wrote is true for every culture and people on great Mother Earth .

        I recently had something happened to me that was unexpected. When I asked what it was I was told it was the “rattling the bones of the ancestors “. When I saw the name of your website after reading your article I knew that I had to at least send you greetings and thank you for putting into words that essential message.

        My son and I recently returned from the western coast of Ireland. We meandered through so many breathtakingly beautiful places and I don’t have the words to express how deeply connected to that place I feel even though I am a full blooded American Indian.

        I look forward to reading your book and anything else that you write.
        Nya W’eh

        Gwen Leaffe Carr

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        1. Gwen – thank you so much for those words. Here, in our part of the world, we lost so many of our native traditions and ways of being long ago. The line is broken, whereas it seems that your people have held on firmly in spite of much hardship, and treasured your traditions. And so I hope that in focusing on our own native ways of being, reclaiming our old stories and wisdoms, we can make them part of who we are again. And part of who we are is the land, we women. We need to stand up for it – all of us sisters together, all around the world.

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          1. The memories are all there, stored in the ground. There was an excellent talk from an archeologist who described the act of using stone age tools to access the mind of the stone age people. You get the gist. A lot of the ancient sites could be rebuilt…

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      2. Dear Sharon, I too am excited for this new book and thank you so much for this writing and sharing. I posted it on Google + and also wrote a few more words about my own marriage to the Earth, which is ongoing. I was thinking that was the direction your article was going in when I first read the title. My celtic roots also run deep (my father’s lines) even as I live in the Pacific Northwest. Much magic is afoot. I produce a radio show on the New Earth and the creating of the Earth Heaven, and I’d love to interview you. It’s called Heart of It All. Let me know if you are interested. I just subscribed to your newsletter 🙂 Sheri@speakeasy.org! Thank you, love, Sheri

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    1. Thanks, Adrian. I should stress that although the book might rail against patriarchal institutions (and sometimes at the men who made them), and aims to empower women to change things, it also promotes a balance between the masculine and feminine – not simply a replacement of one by the other!

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  1. This information truly set my soul ringing ! I look forward to the reading and sharing of this book. For most of my life I have felt a stranger in a strange land, an orphan not knowing where my roots are set in the earth, knowing only that my strongest attachment is to the earth , to nature, to the waters, the beings, the air and wind. I feel my foot in the Otherworld always and I hear the faint call of my beautiful, strong Irish women ancestors. They are Calling me forward each moment. Thank you!

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    1. You’re welcome, Lynda. At the risk of stating the obvious, we can only ever set down roots in the place where we are now, in whatever part of the Earth we inhabit. But the ways and wisdoms of our ancestors are important for healthy, abundant growth, I think.

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    1. Tad, you’re quite right in the sense that there is no story about the creation of the universe, or this planet. However, there are stories in the Gaelic tradition about the creation/ shaping of the land by the Cailleach, who is as close to the ‘oldest of the old’ as we ever get.

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        1. Great blog – look forward to exploring it! (Also good to know that you speak Gaelic. I only have dribs and drabs, but my husband has set about learning both Scottish Gaelic and now Irish.) Yes, there’s a wee bit on the Cailleach in the book. But one of these days I’ll blog a little more about those particular creation stories … interestingly, she has a parallel in Brittany too: the Groac’h.

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          1. Sharon, thank you for sharing all of this. Wondering if you could direct me to any source material you’ve found in creation stories.

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  2. Sharon, you write meaningfully of your traditional connections to land and your ancestors, and the power of story.

    For those of us in different places, and without those traditions, I’m finding myself just reconnecting to the power of nature and the natural world, and encouraging others to explore that path.

    Thanks!

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      1. Hmm, I’m sure you’re right, with German and Dutch stories from my past ancestors on the dominant story-telling side.

        They feel somewhat removed from what seems like my heart-place here in the Southern Appalachians, though. And their work-oriented traditions are something I’ve tried to reorient in recent years, too!

        But, I connected strongly to “fairy tales” as a young girl, and those were from the tradition of northern Europe (Germany and beyond).

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  3. I live on the Isle of Man which is steeped in folk law and a beautiful Island. I live and breath Shamanically and every thing connected to Mother Earth and Father sky. Above and below. I look forward to reading your book.

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  4. Stumbled on your article through FB. I cannot wait to read your book. I am being powerfully drawn to stories of women being nurtured and rooted in the land (their true source of power) and am just beginning to practice this myself. Thank you for your work and your words!

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  5. I live on the top edge of the land …..In the Scottish Highlands. … The croft running down onto the sea. ….only Iceland way ahead to the left. What ancestral women worked out their lives up here .. .and how would a Goddess want me to celebrate this land . Sharon …I very much look forward to reading your book 💚

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    1. Laska: a good part of the book (there is a backbone of memoir holding together the ‘journey’) is about my time on a croft (running down to the sea …) on the far west coast of the Isle of Lewis, with only St Kilda to our left … so there will likely be much that resonates with you, about how it is to live and learn from a land of extremity. How do you celebrate such land? To me, it is about letting yourself fall. About not resisting the combined harshness and the beauty, but letting it strip you to the bones, letting yourself become it for as long as is necessary. Keep reading; I hope I can begin to make some sense for you (though there are older blog posts here that deal with these issues). And I hope you’ll share your own experiences of celebrating the land here.

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  6. It’s lovely to “hear” your voice again, Sharon, in this piece of writing. And I agree, there is much, much work to be done in this regard.

    My Indigenous Celtic roots are calling, and what I am discovering is richer than I ever imagined. Thank you for your contribution to my re-awakening.
    Blessings, JoAnne O’Brien-Levin

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    1. Good to hear you too, JoAnne, after rich and lovely time spent together in Beara. Kissing the hag is an awakening, for sure. Blessings on your work, too. Keep me in touch with it.

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      1. A little story: Thinking about my long journey to Ireland for the retreat, I kept thinking of finding the perfect book to read along the way. Time got away from me, and I never found it. Then, wandering through a bookshop in Cork, I discovered Old Ways, Old Secrets: Pagan Ireland by Jo Kerrigan. It was in that book, before the retreat, that I came upon the story of the Caillach, the Hag of Beara. So, you see, she found me first…

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        1. She’s sneaky like that 🙂 Actually, that’s a grand wee book. I’ve only just come across it myself. The fact that she’s a historian means that she is true to the old sources and doesn’t make things up, which is a rare, rare thing when people write about old Celtic ways …

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  7. We can remember the ceremonies and the stories need retelling. We are that future if we take it on to be our destiny. The Old ways resonate still and will gather momentum as these are the days of reckoning. So delighted to see your contribution . Please keep in touch. I am gathering stories from our Celtic past and rememberings in Wales where I am a Medical Herbalist for 35yrs. Pulling together now will give us strength for the days ahead.

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      1. We have much plant wisdom already. Herbal medicine is so eclectic these days from cultures all over the world . We also have many remedies given to the Pilgrim fathers by the American Indians who traded Culpeper’s herbal wisdom when they first arrived in the USA. We are promoting a one year course in Herbal medicine next year for the first time . It will include esoteric knowledge. http://www.myddfaiherbs.co.uk. We honour the old Celtic traditions the Bards who passed on wisdom through stories and songs.The Druids ,the priests and priestesses, the Ovates who were the healers who used plant medicines. Your work is providing a much needed Global focus for reclaiming our heritage . Thank you.

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  8. I am very impressed and interested in what you have to say and i look forward to the book. Thank You

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  9. I love your approach. I did my college senior history thesis on, “The Feminine Principle in Celtic Folklore and Society.” We have lost a lot by not honoring women and the earth. So much of life is now on auto-pilot. Thanks for a proverbial kick in the pants…

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  10. Hi Sharon. Loving this. But I need to Share/ say that “the, remote transcendent Sky dieties ” you mention are equally important to the Re rooting of the divine Sacred land energies.. Both are essential to the balance.. And the sky energies not REMOTE in the slightest. As you say a foot in both worlds.. From my experience they are not so far apart at all… For me to have healed the hurts, the sky companions were/are essential to being able fully and consciously and with deep honour and humility inhabit or be inhabited by the earth wisdoms…Companions on the way.. Big love to you..

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  11. I know when rain will touch the ground because I am the rain. I know when a flower will bloom because I am the flower. I know what you are feeling because I am you and we are all one.
    We women are creators, goddesses in a way, and we only have to dive into our souls to find the essence of life, of nature, of existence… Women are awakening after centuries of being silenced. Thank you all for your contribution to that awakening.

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  12. I enjoyed this post, and I am looking forward to reading “If Women Rose Rooted.” I live in Haiti and work with farmer organizations here. It’s a nation that operates in many ways similar to how contemporary Haitians’ ancestors lived. And you can see and feel how the strength of the women keep families and villages going. If their power was commensurate with their strength, Haiti would have risen long ago. Thanks for your research, passion and writing about women.

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  13. I really loved this and shared it on FB. My brother has studied Celtic mythology (as well as other world mythology) and disagrees with what you are saying here, specifically about the role of women. I am not as well read on the subject and I don’t know where to find information to correct him. Would you have any books or links I can direct him to with the source material? I would love to read it myself as well. If there is a page on your website or this one, I did take a cursory glance around and didn’t see it so I apologize if this has already been addressed. Thank you!

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    1. Yes, isn’t it interesting how (some) men seem to find the idea objectionable. It is inherent in the mythology, and I don’t frankly see how you can have properly studied Irish and Welsh mythology in particular, and miss it. It’s clearly there in all the source materials (the ‘Sovereignty’ issue has a particular focus in the Irish Historical Cycle, the notion of woman as the moral and spiritual authority of the Otherworld permeates the Mythological Cycle in particular; the Four Branches of the Mabinogi in Welsh literature is similar, offering stories of women like Ceridwen and Rhiannon …) and the Irish/Celtic studies academic literature is full of discussions on it and has been for a very, very long time. If he’d rather not go back to sources, perhaps you’d like to buy him a copy of my book, when it’s out 🙂

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  14. I recently returned from the Isle of Iona and what you say was so felt by me as I walked on that sacred land. I am also a midwife and these words you speak ring so true in wheel of life for women. Thank you for writing about this subject and I look forward to reading your book and perhaps meeting you one day (we visit the UK/Ireland frequently). Thank you again, Deb

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  15. I love this article! I agree with all the aspects of how women can approach this, but I also think that men can take from the myths a sense of how to make contracts with the land in order to create harmony for people and planet. I love that these stories give options of how to approach the land, to identify with her or to partner with her, to create sacred contracts within oneself and with others. These are greatly inspirational for me!

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    1. Yes, for sure there are lessons and meanings in the stories for men too. In focusing on women I never intend to exclude men. It’s simply that it is a different path and a different experience, and I choose to focus on the one.

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  16. The Dalai Lama stated … it is western women that will heal this world . I believe his statement … and I truly believe in what you are writing about here .. we need to connect deeply connect with Mother Earth and the spirits of place and nature and deeply listen and hear their messages. I am the guardian of a sacred land we call Blissland .. where we have a holy celtic well a ley line portal and much much more .. My husband and I will be both ordained ministers next July and we feel we have embarked on our spiritual journey to bring the yin the divine feminine .. gentleness , kindness and love in to this harsh yang world …. We are here to bring balance, harmony and unity in to this world .. Keep those stories flowing .. and thank you for writing this book to catalyse more women to step forward in to their natural power .. the power of love …. Bless you ..

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  17. Hello, Sharon — I got the notification of this post in my email but tucked it away for a time when I could savour it. I’m glad I did — your writing stirs up some quiet passions of mine, some long-held beliefs about the power of women – not as opposites of masculine energy, as you say – but as the creative/nurturing force that is so deeply necessary to heal the world. Your words — and the gorgeous material in your courses [your Wise Woman course is delighting me into fits of unseemly glee] — has inspired me to do something I’ve longed to do for a while – to write those themes into my fiction writing. I’m in a first-draft fugue of a story based on the old Year King myths – the sacred marriage etc, but from the feminine perspective. I like to think of it as guerilla story-fare…weaving the old truths back in through story. I had just started writing when this post turned up in my Inbox and so I took that to be a divine thumbs-up. 😉

    I can’t wait to read your book — thank you for all that you do, your work is a beacon. Many blessings to you.

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  18. Sharon, Thanks for these beautiful and true words. I ran across your post while researching Mor, Queen of the Island of Woman. I am working on a deck of Celtic Goddess cards and have discovered the truth of what you say here. I am of Celtic heritage (way back) and this has been such a wonderful journey, discovering the power of women in that ancient time.
    BTW – I’m having much difficulty locating information about Mor. Have you got any suggestions? Your upcoming book sounds wonderful.

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  19. Hello Judith – Mór wasn’t the Queen of the Isle of Women – so much that is factually incorrect is written about Celtic myths, so I’m afraid you might have come across an unreliable source there. When in doubt, try Patricia Monaghan’s Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology & Folklore; it’s a useful and reliable first source. Mór is actually the goddess of the land in Munster, especially Kerry. Her full name is Mór Mumhan, ‘the great one of Munster’.

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