In ancient Europe the major deity was the Great Earth Mother. The first works of art were female figures and images of a fertility nature representing female genitals or breasts. Women represented sensuality, the erotic, regeneration and fertility. She was the relatedness of all life forms. In later agricultural societies, a fertile pregnant woman symbolised the source of all life.
With the coming of warrior people from Europe, a male dominated hierarchical culture had an impact on the lands of the Earth Mother. Tribes, such as the Celts, mixed with the existing Goddess people, absorbing the Goddess knowledge balancing the Earth Mother with the Sky Father concept, and producing a culture which existed on hunting and agriculture. Men and women were represented as equals.
One of the major themes associated the Goddess with a particular body of water - usually a river. The Goddess of the Boii tribe was known as Boann, linked with the River Boyne in Ireland. To the Sequana tribe She was Sequana, linked with the River Seine of France, and once known as the Sequana. The Sequani were also linked to the River Sankarya of Anatolia, the river that was known as the Sangarius to the Greeks, and thought to be an area where the Amazons lived. This association with various bodies of water appears to be linked with the Celtic devotion to the Goddess as “The Great Mare”; the white breakers of the ocean were described in Irish legend as the white man of the Morrighan’s head; Macha, the colt “returned to the seas” is referred to as the “Daughter of the Sea”; and Epona was a name of the Mare Goddess in Celtic Europe.
Ancient sacred springs and healing centres of the Goddess became dedicated to the Christian saints, sometimes taking the Goddess names directly such as the many wells of Saint Bridget in Ireland, and Saint Modren’s Well in Cornwell. The landscape itself was also seen as the sacred body of the Great Mother with the mountains and rivers holding Her life. Great stone monuments and megaliths focus on the earth’s energy and harmonise it with the cosmic forces.
Another aspect of the Goddess is the ability to shape change. The Morrighan and Cerridwen transform themselves into numerous animals, while Macha, the Caillech Beur and Rhiannon take the form of horses. This shape changing aspect of the Goddess is one that recurs repeatedly and unless it is to be viewed as a purely poetic metaphor, it may have encouraged those who worshipped the Goddess treat all animals with respect and caution.
Warrior women are found in the descriptions of Scathach, Aife, Medb (Maeve), and the nine Gwyddynod of Gloucester. Actual historical records of the actions of Boudica, the Queen of the Iceni tribe who led a rebellion against the Romans in 61 AD, and of Cartimandua, the queen of the Brigates who signed a peace treaty with Claudius of Rome, suggest that the more legendary figures were based upon historic realities. Another warrior figure is Tailltiu who is said to be the mother of Lugh, and is honoured at the Feast of Lughnasadh (Lammas), 1 August. The prehistoric mounds of New Grange in Ireland are said to be associated with the Goddess Grainne.
The most ancient Celtic Goddess is Danu, the Mother of the Tuatha de Dananns. She is said to have brought the dawn of being for those who dwelled upon Her banks, giving them sustenance and life. She was firs mentioned in the Irish Lebor Gabala (the “Book of Invasions”) dated at about 1,000 CE. The Welsh Mabinogian calls Her Don and this image of the Goddess probably originated during the periods when the Celtic tribes inhabited the mainland of Europe, with Danu being closely linked with the River Danube. In places like Brittany She was Ana or Anna, who became Saint Anne.
The changing nature of the Goddess saw Her as mating then replacing the husband with her son or even staying independent for a time. Nothing is static in the laws of nature, the wheel spins, growth comes from change. It can be hard to define any Celtic goddess clearly as She so often changes from one character to another, defying definition. Sovereignty of the land is one of Her major roles. This means that the Goddess is the land and any king or any man who wishes to understand his harmony with the land, or who needs to see his responsibility to the land and all life force, must undertake a trial or sacred marriage with the Goddess.
In modern times the Goddess is re-emerging and being defined. She is a symbol of the feminine principle and archetype in both men and women, and with the forces of regeneration.
Source: "Ancient Mirror of Womanhood" by Merlin Stone