MYTHOLOGYMy novels The Swan Maiden and The Raven Queen are based entirely on ancient Irish myths. The Dalriada Trilogy was based on history, but I did wind elements of Irish and Welsh mythology through the three novels.
To read an interview with me in which I discuss Celtic mythology, click hereTHE SWAN MAIDEN and The RAVEN QUEEN »
THE DALRIADA TRILOGY »
THE SWAN MAIDEN and THE RAVEN QUEEN
- The Ulster Cycle
- The History of the Ulster Cycle
- A Window on the Iron Age?
- Read the Original Story
- Swans and Ravens
The tale that inspired The Swan Maiden is called “Deirdre of the Sorrows” or “The Sons of Usnech” in various forms. I followed the known versions of this story fairly closely as far as the basic plot goes.
The Raven Queen is more a “re-imagination” of Queen Maeve’s life. We don't have one coherent story about Maeve as we do with Deirdre, and there are contradictions and confusions in the snippets of myth about her, so I felt I could largely create my own "woman behind the myth" tale. However, as a major part of its plot and climax, it includes Maeve's role in the famous Cattle Raid of Cooley, known in Irish as Táin Bó Cúailnge.
I have strayed from The Tain and other tales about Queen Maeve to reimagine this much-maligned, yet endlessly fascinating mythical Irish woman, leaving episodes and minor characters out, and changing minor storylines. The major storyline, however, reflects The Tain.
The Ulster Cycle
The story of Deirdre and Naisi, and Queen Maeve, is part of the group of old Irish tales called “The Ulster Cycle”, the most famous of which is the Táin Bó Cúailnge, translated in English as The Cattle Raid of Cooley.
The Ulster Cycle revolves around the exploits of King Conchobor (anglicized as Conor) and his Red Branch warriors, including the famous Irish hero Cúchulainn. The Táin describes a war between Queen Maeve of Connacht and Conchobor over a famous bull.
Central to the story of The Táin is the defection of a large number of Red Branch warriors, led by Fergus mac Roy, from the Ulster side to the Connacht side. The tale of Deirdre and Naisi, set out in The Swan Maiden, appears to be a foretale that explains this defection. The consequences of this event go on to drive the plot of The Raven Queen.
History of the Ulster CycleThe historical background to these tales is confusing. The early peoples of Ireland were not literate, and before Christianity the stories were passed on orally by bards. Nothing would have been written down until after the coming of Christianity in the fifth century, but the earliest surviving manuscripts were made in medieval monasteries much later even than that.
Thomas Kinsella takes his Deirdre translation from the twelfth-century text the Book of Leinster, although the language of the prose sections is actually eighth or ninth century, and the verse sections a century or two older. Further than this, we are stretching back into the mists of time
I have mainly followed Kinsella’s sparse early version of the Deirdre story. However, from the time that Conor’s envoys are sent to retrieve the fugitives, I switched to the later fifteenth-century version of the story. This was found in the Glen Massan manuscript, discovered in Scotland - for Scotland also lays claim to the Deirdre story.
This later version was used by Lady Gregory in her famous retelling of the Táin Cuchulain of Muirthemne (reprinted, Gerrards Cross, 1970), which embroiders the story with much more detail.
A Window on the Iron Age?There was an early belief that the Ulster Cycle described the Irish Iron Age in the centuries before Christ, known by many as the time of the ancient Celts. Modern scholars don’t like this idea, and instead of the tales giving us a “window” on Irish prehistory, think they merely reflect the later period in which they were written down.
Since they were transcribed by Christian monks, no one really knows how faithfully these tales of so-called Celtic pagans have been copied, and whether the bias of the writers and the society in which they lived — medieval Ireland — meant that events have been changed, or even left out. Is this why the beautiful maiden Deirdre and the fiery Queen Maeve are both scorned in the original myths as being manipulative, selfish, outspoken women, possessing frightening sexual powers over men? We will never know.
For much more on this, see my Fact vs Fiction Page under the Inspiration, and then History pages.
Read the Original Story
For The Swan Maiden, I used Thomas Kinsella’s The Sons of Usnech (Dolmen Press, 1954). The same version of the tale is included in the more widely available The Táin by Thomas Kinsella (Oxford University Press, 1969), from which I also drew inspiration for The Raven Queen. For the latter part of the novel I followed Lady Gregory’s Cuchulain of Muirthemne (reprinted, Gerrards Cross, 1970).
The text of Lady Gregory’s book can be seen at http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cuch/lgc10.htm Go to the chapter on “The Fate of the Sons of Usnach.”
A good copy of the earlier Book of Leinster tale used by Kinsella is at: http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/usnech.html. If the page has changed, go to Mary Jones’s site at http://www.maryjones.us/ and look under Celtic Lit; Irish texts; the Book of Leinster; and the section “The Exile of the Sons of Usnech”.
At Mary’s site you can also find the full text of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, The Cattle Raid of Cooley, upon which I based the major part of The Raven Queen's plot. Other versions are all over the web.
Swans and RavensSwans are not connected to Deirdre in the Irish versions of her tale. However, Scottish folklore says that Deirdre and the Sons of Usnech flew back to Scotland in the form of swans, and can still be seen floating on Loch Etive today.
Myths about women being turned into swans, or goddesses appearing as swans are rife in Irish mythology. There are also bird references in Deirdre’s tale — she has a dream of birds appearing with blood in their beaks, to warn her not to go back to Erin.
Birds are strong Otherworld symbols, since they move between earth and the heavens, and therefore to the Celts, they could also enter the Otherworld. Ravens and swans are often associated with goddesses, or appear as Otherworldly messengers, or shape-shifters. For all these reasons, I wanted both Deirdre and Maeve to have strong associations with birds, since they both hover on the borders of The Otherworld.
Ravens, because of their intelligence, are also seen as sacred birds, and often as agents of prophecy. Being carrion eaters, they are also associated with death, war, and the goddesses of death and battle. In Ireland, the goddesses Morrigan, Badb, Nemain and Macha were all associated with war and death in various combinations. Macha, a red-haired goddess of war, is also the founding mother goddess of Ulster (the Ulaid) and of its great fortress Emain Macha. Since Maeve is also portrayed as having red hair and being very warlike, I linked her with the goddess Macha in the book, and gave Maeve, like all good war goddesses, an association with ravens. Some scholars think that Maeve's prominence in the myths suggests she may have actually been a goddess figure originally, reduced by later scribes to a mortal woman, scorned for her sexual exploits and supposed war-mongery. I say she was fascinating!
THE DALRIADA TRILOGY
The two main mythological ideas I used in the trilogy were those of the horse goddess, and the sacred wedding or mating between the King and the Goddess of the Land.
The Horse GoddessRhiannon is one of the most famous Welsh goddesses; she was a symbol of fertility and abundance. Her name probably means “Great Queen,” and she was also a symbol of sovereignty or tribal protection. In some of the tales she is described as riding a white horse.
This gave me the idea of calling my first heroine Rhiann, and calling the first novel in the trilogy The White Mare.
The ancestors of the Celts were a horse-riding and raising people, and horses seem to be central to their society. They were not used solely as beasts of burden, but as mounts for the nobles and warriors, enabling them to show off their wealth. They were clearly loved for their prestige, their beauty and speed.
Iron Age excavations have uncovered thousands of decorated fittings for horses, for riding reins and harnesses as well as terrets and fittings to harness them to chariots. Roman and Greek writers speak of the Celtic veneration of the horse. They often appear on Celtic coins. Though we have limited evidence of them being used in battle, they were certainly an important part of making warriors look strong and terrifying as they raced up to battle, to scare their enemies.But the cult of the horse is not mainly military. One of the most widespread of Celtic goddesses is the horse goddess Epona (epos means horse in Gaulish). There are Roman-era inscriptions and statues to her in Britain, Gaul, the Rhineland, North Africa and Rome. She is often portraying fertility and abundance, shown alongside foals or suckling mares, and holding sheaves of wheat, loaves of bread, or fruit.
There is another important aspect to Epona, as described by Miranda Green in her excellent book Celtic Goddesses.
“The early Celtic kings were selected from the knightly elite of society; where the ability to afford a fighting horse was a mark of high status. Sovereignty involves the guardianship of tribal boundaries and the keeping of peace, so that the business of raising crops and livestock can progress undisturbed. Epona is female, and so is her horse. This is surely a deliberate identification of a spiritual entity in whom the power of fertility was intense.” In other words, Epona and other horse goddesses are also symbols of tribal protection and sovereignty.Epona is often identified with the Welsh goddess Rhiannon. So my character Rhiann is a priestess, a royal lady called the “Mother of the Land”, who rides a pale grey horse. She was named after the Welsh mother goddess, who represented fertility and the protection of the land, and who rode a white horse.
Since in my books, royal blood passes through females, specifically Rhiann, the horse symbolism of fertility is also apt. And since it was by marrying her that Eremon gained leadership of the tribe, she is also playing a sovereignty role, protecting her territory by choosing the strongest man.
There are even hints in some old writings and myths that in Ireland, on his inauguration a king actually mated with a white mare, which was then ritually eaten. In this way, by joining with the horse goddess, he was mated to the land he was sworn to protect.
I didn't go that far!
Goddess and King
The horse goddess symbolism in relation to kingship is continued in the theme of the sacred goddess and king.
Irish myths contain the idea of sacred marriage: the ritual union of the goddess of the land, the fertile, fecundant spirit of the earth itself, with the mortal king. This means that on his inauguration, the king enters into a sacred partnership with the kingdom. The union with the goddess legitimizes his rule and gives him sovereignty, allowing the land to prosper.
The goddess would only enter this marriage if the king was suitable, and even after marriage, she could reject a weak ruler in favor of a man who was better for Ireland’s well-being. She therefore validated a king’s rule, and was the symbol of the land’s fertility through crops and livestock.
In Irish myth, goddesses and magical women often perform this role, and in the marriage rite they hold a cup of liquor to the king to drink, thereby forming the contract. This idea is strongly connected to Queen Maeve. Her name means "she who intoxicates" and comes from the same root as "mead" - a connection to her giving the sacred fertility drink to a king? She is also described as being married to many different kings and princes, and scholars wonder whether this means she was once a fertility / sovereignty goddess, "demoted" by the medieval monks into a mere human female - making her bolshy, bloodthirsty, and sexually provocative for good measure.
I used this goddess-king idea in all three books of The Dalriada Trilogy, with my human characters acting as the mother goddess of the land in conferring rulership on the kings. I also touched on it during Deirdre’s defeat of King Cinet near the end of The Swan Maiden.
See Miranda Green’s book Celtic Goddesses for more detail.
I also drew the gods and goddess that my characters worship from mythology: some Irish gods, some Welsh, some Gaulish, as we don’t know what language the proto-Picts spoke in Scotland.
The King StagAmong red deer, every year the stags fight each other for supremacy and for the right to mate with the hinds. The fights ensure that only the strongest males can pass on their genes. This may have given rise to a mythological idea that every year, the old King Stag must give way to new, younger blood.
Some writers wonder whether in the distant past, perhaps leadership among early peoples was also decided this way: each year, a new King Stag was put in place to mate with the priestess or goddess of the tribe, and the old King Stag was sacrificed. I used hints of this idea in my books — there are visions of the King Stag who joins with Rhiann at her moon-bleeding rite, and later I describe a stag rite that helps the hero win a physical battle.
One of the most well-known Celtic gods is Cernunnos. On the silver Gundestrup Cauldron, one of the most famous Celtic artifacts, he is shown with a headdress of antlers. He is known as the horned or stag god, and is related in Welsh myth to Herne the Hunter.
The OtherworldMy books play around with ideas of reincarnation, rebirth, and being able to travel to the Otherworld through dreams and trances, gaining visions of past and future. These motifs are all drawn from Irish and Welsh myths.
Reading Celtic myths, one is struck by how fluidly people and spirit beings move between the Otherworld and “This World.” The Otherworld exists alongside our own world, beyond a flimsy veil, in parallel as it were. It is not a heaven that is far distant, in the sky. It is all around us, all the time.
There are particular points of entry into The Otherworld: caves, springs, rivers, groves, and swamps. They are often watery places, at the borders where the two worlds touch each other. We have ample evidence that the Celts venerated and worshipped at such places: archaeologists have found thousands of offerings of valuable goods deposited in bogs and rivers, and shrines built at springs, the most famous being Bath in England, which was dedicated to the goddess Sulis.Peoples who lived earlier than the Celts - known as Neolithic and Bronze Age peoples - built underground tombs and mounds, such as Newgrange in Ireland. The carvings suggest that these Neolithic and Bronze Age people believed the hidden passages they created were pathways to their realms of spirit, or the dead. These ancient tombs littered the landscapes the Celts later inhabited, and so they also appear in Celtic myths as gateways to the Otherworld. They were the realms of the sidhe, or Otherworld beings; later turned into the fairy folk. Sidhe might indeed mean "the people of the mounds."
This idea of the closeness of the Otherworld, its parallel nature, the fluidity of traveling back and forth, and the sacredness of natural places is central to all my books.