Lady of the Depths: Primal Goddess of Celtic Shamanism

Copyright © 1988 Leigh Ann Hussey

The Lady of the Lake: bestower of Sovereignty, weaver of magicks, maker of the magical sword Excalibur, healer of the wounded King -- what dark visions of an elder and enchanted time her legend brings to mind! And yet, if we go back to the original Arthurian material, composed in Wales during the 12th century and earlier, we do not find her. Nor was she a product of the later French Arthurian romances.

The Lady of the Lake is older still, older than Celtic Christianity; she is the Irish Goddess/Saint Brigid, the Welsh enchantress Ceridwen, and many other Ladies of the Depths -- the primal Dark Mother Goddess, patroness of Celtic Shamanism.

The Lady of the Lake

Even within the Arthurian tales1, it is hard to picture the Lady of the Lake clearly; aspects of her turn up in many of the legendary Ladies. In most Arthurian material, she is called Morgan or Morgaine, but in the later French tales, she is also called Viviane and Elaine.

As Morgan le Fay, she is depicted as the enchantress and seductress who arranges Arthur's downfall, but also, paradoxically, as the one who takes him away to Avalon to be healed of his mortal wounds. As "The Lady of the Lake", she holds the sword Excalibur out of the waters for Arthur. As Viviane, she learns magic from Merlin and eventually imprisons him in a tree. As Elaine, she is the mother of Galahad the Grail knight, but as Morgan she is the mother of Arthur's usurping illegitimate son. She appears too as the keeper of the most Holy Grail.

What does all this mean? How can she be at the same time both good and evil? The answer lies not in the Lady as she appears in the Arthurian tales, but in her earlier forms as Brigid and Ceridwen.

Brigid of Kildara

In Ireland and pre-Roman Britain, there was a trinity of goddesses named Brigantia, or Brigid, "the Exalted One". Alwyn and Brinley Rees, in Celtic Heritage (1961), say Brigit "is described as 'a poetess...a goddess whom poets worshipped', and her two sisters, both of the same name as herself, women of healing and of smith-work respectively, are also described as goddesses." When the Romans encountered her in Britain, they equated her with their Minerva, for both goddesses bestow sovereignty, wisdom, inspiration, and skill in craft. A goddess-trinity may remind some of the three Fates of Greek mythology, or Norse mythology's three Norns; Brigid, as we shall see, is also concerned with destiny.

As goddess of poetry, Brigid is implicitly associated with Celtic shamanism -- the Irish and Welsh made a direct connection between poets and shamans. Song is magic: the word "enchant" includes a root word meaning "to sing", and in early Irish culture the word for poet, filid, also meant prophet. In nearly all the shamnic cultures, the shaman in trance receives incantations that are appropriate to sing for various purposes. The Reeses tell us, "early Irish poets...wore cloaks of bird-feathers as do the shamans of Siberia, when, through ritual and trance, they conduct their audiences on journeys to another world." T.G.E. Powell, in The Celts (1958), describes an Irish druidic divination method called tarbfeis, or "bull-dream", where a druid gorges on raw bull's flesh and falls into a trance while incantations are recited over him; in trance he sees the future High King of Ireland.

The same trances that brought prophetic vision to the Celtic druids brought poetry to their bards: in a windowless house with one door in each long side, bards lay under a bull-hide in utter darkness, waiting to receive the visions that inspired their poetry. As Homer began his Iliad, "Sing, Goddess, of the fury of Achilles," so the Celtic bards might have invoked Brigid, goddess of poetry, at the beginning of the poem or story that would indeed entrance their audiences.

Brigid is also a fire-goddess, as shown by the perpetual fire kept burning at her temple, Kildara ("the Church of the Oak", in the east of Ireland, the province of Leinster), even after it had become a convent and her vestals became nuns. She is the goddess of the Irish hearth, as Hestia was for the Greeks. Shamanic mastery over fire is demonstrated in many cultures. Tibetan Tantric monks sit in the snow and dry wet towels flung over their naked bodies. Siberian shamans are said to swallow burning coals and touch white-hot iron without harm.

The forge's fire, too, is Brigid's, for she is the goddess of the magical art of smithcraft. A Siberian Yakut proverb says, "Smiths and shamans are from the same nest," and one initiating Yakut deity or spirit, K'daai Masquin, initiates famous shamans by tempering their souls as he tempers iron. Brigid shows that smithcraft and shamanism also go together in Celtic culture.

In the Arthurian tales, the sword that symbolises Arthur's kingship is forged by women in Avalon, "The Isle of Apples". Brigid also had a magical apple orchard, according to a Gaelic folk song which may preserve some of Brigid's original myth2, to which bees came from all four quarters to take its richness back to the ordinary world. Because the idea of female blacksmiths is sufficiently unusual, there might be a connection between Brigid and the forgers of Excalibur.

Brigid is a shamanic trickster and shape-shifter as well. In two old legends, sovereignty was bestowed on Irish kings by a hideous hag who guarded a well; only the rightful king-to-be could bring himself to embrace and kiss her, whereupon she transformed herself into a beautiful woman and gave him to drink of the well. The king-to-be asks, "Who are you?"

Since Brigid is the guardian of many wells in Britain and Ireland, we might expect her to answer, "Brigid", but instead she replies, "My name is Sovereignty."3 But remember, the Romans renamed Brigid after their own bestower of sovereignty, suggesting that while this aspect of Brigid may not have survived in direct form after Roman times, it was familiar enough during them.

Note also, that the sword of Arthur's sovereignty, Excalibur, came to him out of a lake. The Lady of the Lake is a shadow of the goddess Sovereignty, the mother of kings and heroes, and she is indeed both hideous ("evil") and beautiful ("good"), both a manipulative enchantress and a giver of good things, in true ambiguous Trickster fashion.

Another tricksterish tale surfaces in the "Life of St. Brigid": she gets the land for her shrine and abbey from an avaricious bishop by getting him to swear that she can have as much land as her cloak will cover. 4 Although he thinks he's got the best of the bargain, he doesn't know Brigid is a goddess, whose lore tells that she hung her cloak on the sun's rays to dry. When she threw out her cloak, it spread in glittering billows for acres, and her sacred place was thus preserved. Perhaps Brigid's most clever trick was to transform herself from a goddess into a Christian saint, thus assuring that the very Church opposing Irish paganism would perpetuate her tales and lore.

Ceridwen and Taliesin

Just as Brigid, and a drink from her well, transforms an ordinary man into a king, Ceridwen, and a drink from her cauldron, transforms an ordinary man into a bard.

The story of Ceridwen comes from medieval Wales and is found in Patrick K. Ford's The Mabinogi (1977). Ceridwen, who lives on the shore of Llyn (lake) Tegid, has a son Morfran ("Great Crow"), so hideous in aspect that she knows he will only be able to make his way among nobility if he acquires "the spirit of prophecy" and becomes a "great prognosticator of the world to come."

Therefore, she decides to brew an elixir which will give him great wisdom; she gathers herbs and sets them to brewing for a year and a day, entrusting a boy named Gwion to tend the fire. Gwion, grasping what all the work is about, thinks it a shame that such an ugly fellow should get all the world's wisdom. When the brewing is done, three drops of the distillate spring from the cauldron; Gwion shoves Morfran aside, while his mother sleeps, and the drops fall on him.

Filled with wisdom, Gwion understands (about time, too) that Ceridwen will be enraged when when she finds out what he has done. Gwion flees the goddess in many forms, and in as many forms she follows him, through all the realms of this world: air, water, and earth. He becomes a bird, she a hawk; he becomes a salmon, she an otter; he becomes a hare, she a greyhound. He becomes at last a grain of what on a threshing floor, and she becomes a black hen and eats him up, only to give birth to him nine months later.

After carrying him in her womb and bringing him to birth, Ceridwen cannot bring herself to kill him, so she sets him adrift in a closed coracle (a hide-covered boat). Eventually, he is retrieved from the coracle after it gets caught up in salmon-fishing weir. He is given the name Taliesin (radiant brow) by his rescuer, and becomes one of the three greatest bards in Wales. Thus is Taliesin thrice-born: once from the cauldron, once from the womb of the Goddess, and once from the coracle.

The story of Ceridwen and Taliesin contains elements of a shamanic initiation. All initiations involve death and rebirth; Gwion/Taliesin does undergo death and birth anew. The devouring of the candidate, as Ceridwen devours Gwion, is also a part of many shamanic initiations, as Eliade points out. In many circumpolar cultures, a great bear, the Master Bear, eats up the candidate and vomits him out again new. Alexandra David-Neel, in Magic and Mystery in Tibet (1932) describes an ordeal in the chöd rite, where the initiate offers his body to be eaten by demons: "Come, angry one, feed on my flesh! Drink my blood!" The shaman must understand death, and take that pathway himself, if he is to guide others along it.

Gwion and Ceridwen's shapeshifting is a common theme in shamanism, too. The shaman must be able to change shape, or to fly, because the Otherworlds lie far distant. Joan Halifax, in Shaman: the Wounded Healer (1982), tells us: "To the heavens, to the well at the end of the world, to the depths of the Underworld, to the bottoms of spirit-filled lakes and seas, around the earth, to the moon and sun, to distant stars and back again does the shaman-bird travel. All the cosmos is accessible when the art of transformation has been mastered." Powell says, "Frenzy, trance, and shapeshifting, all point to some generic connection between the Celtic magician, of whatever name, and the shaman of the Northern Eurasiatic zone."

The bard Gwion/Taliesin's gifts of prophesy and poetry are given by the goddess' elixir; here again, in a Welsh story this time, we see the connection between bards and the shamanic function of prophesy, as well the goddess' bestowal of that prophesy. Ultimately, in the Celtic tradition, it the Goddess is always the Initiator.

The Well and the Cauldron

Whether Well or Cauldron, the Goddess' vessel contains the transformative essence. The Cauldron of Rebirth is a recurring theme in Celtic tales. In the Welsh story-cycle, the Mabinogi, warriors slain in battle are put into it and emerge alive. In old Welsh Arthurian material4, Arthur goes to the Underworld, Annwfn, to retrieve the same magic cauldron -- this is probably the origin of the Grail Quest, since the cauldron of Annwfn is also an inexhaustible source of food, as is the Grail.

Irish tradition has a story quite similar to that of Ceridwen and Gwion. It may even have originated from the same story, since the hero of this tale is named Fionn, which is the same word in Irish as Gwion in Welsh, only with a consonant shift (quite common between Welsh and Irish: the word for "white" in Irish is finn and in Welsh is gwyn)5.

Fionn apprentices himself to an old wizard-bard, who sends Fionn to fish for a miraculous salmon in a pool. Because the salmon feeds on magical hazel-nuts which fall into the pool, anyone who eats the salmon will receive great wisdom. Fionn catches the salmon, and the prophet directs him to cook it. The fish spits hot fat as it roasts, burning Fionn's thumb. He sucks it to ease the pain, and immediately gets all the benefit of the salmon's magic. For some reason, he does not then need to flee the magus' wrath, perhaps because the initiatory aspect of Fionn's story was lost. Yet, in true initiatory fashion, the wizard gives Fionn a new name to go with his new life. He was Demne; the wizard renames him Fionn.

Irish legend mentions another such well, called "Connla's Well" or "the Well of Segais", with nine ancient hazels growing over it; nuts dropped into the well and caused bubbles of mystic inspiration to form on the streams that flowed from it. Those who ate the nuts became visionaries and poets6.

Brigid's connection with wells and apples makes it seem likely that apples had the same property. The fact that European art and myth commonly portrayed Eve's "fruit of knowledge" as the apple -- Eve's fruit is never named in the Biblical account nor are apples native to the Middle East -- only makes sense if there was an already-existing European tradition of apples as a fruit of knowledge.

All over Britain and Ireland, dozens of sacred springs are named for Brigid; Janet and Colin Bord's Earth Rites (1982) contains a whole chapter on customs surrounding holy wells and fresh-water springs. They say: "Even when Christianity ostensibly ousted the pagan cults in Britain, water worship survived. The sacred wells became 'holy' wells, and the goddesses who had presided over them became nymphs and guardians of wells, or saints to whom the wells were dedicated."7

The hot spring at Bath, a sacred site known for its healing waters, was called Aquae Sulis by the Romans. It was also the location of a temple dedicated to "Sulis Minerva" -- Minerva being the Roman name for Brigid. Once again we see the healing aspect of Brigid, such as the Reeses described, and in the context of a well; not only does Brigid's spring transform men into kings, it transforms sick people into "well" people.

It was at one time thought that the isle of Avalon was a hill in Glastonbury, and indeed there is a well in at its foot, the Chalice Well, which is said to have restorative waters. The draught of the Grail was said to heal all ills; it is likely, given the theory that the Grail was once the Cauldron, that the Cauldron not only revived the dead but healed the sick. Ceridwen lives beside a lake and is the keeper of the Cauldron of Rebirth; Morgan is the Lady of the Lake and takes the dying Arthur away to Avalon, for the healing of his wounds.

Such springs often had trees associated with them, to which pilgrims attached their votive offerings. Brigid's temple in Ireland was "the Church of the Oak"; the Oak was the World Tree for the Celts, the indestructible tree which is the gateway to other worlds where one may seek knowledge. In other shamanic cultures, too, we see this idea of all the worlds of "non-ordinary reality" in the branches of a great tree, reachable by the shaman who climbs it.

One wonders if Merlin's ordeal at the hands of Viviane (another name of the Lady of the Lake), binding him inside a tree, might originally have had to do with the World Tree and initiation by the Goddess. The Goddess is the soul-leader here, the psychopomp. She causes the living to be reborn through initiation, and the dead to be reborn into new life -- the Irish said the "Summerland" of the dead was across the sea westward, as was Avalon in some of the British legends. Halifax, too, mentions "the well at the end of the world", to which the shaman-bird flies, and the Bords mention that "Bronze Age people and the early Celts saw wells as entrances to the underworld..."

The Goddess of Transformation

From these different tales we can make a composite picture of this Celtic goddess, who watches over powerful people from birth to rebirth. In the fire of Her forge, or the water of Her womb, She transforms an initiate; She is the source of vision and wisdom, the giver of spiritual or temporal power. The draught of Her vessel, be it Well, Cauldron, or Grail, nourishes, heals, inspires. She is the fearsome, spell-wreaking Morgan and the devouring Ceridwen. She takes the souls of the dead to their after-life or restoration across the sea, beneath Her apple trees. And She speaks to us yet, in dream and myth. We lie still in the dark folds of Her cloak, waiting for the moment when She will turn it over to reveal the fire of the stars.


1. For those unfamiliar with the huge body of Arthurian material, it may be useful to know that the Arthur most people know today is a composite of myths and legends from ancient Wales, medieval France (the origin of Lancelot) and Germany (the origin of Parcifal and part of the Grail quest), and most of all, from Sir Thomas Malory in the 1460s -- it is from Malory that T.H. White drew most of the material that has become familiar to American readers.

2. The song is "Brid Thomais Mhurchu", and the pertinent verse is as follows:

Tá gairdín mín milis ag Bidín taobh thall den sliabh Biddy has a fine, sweet garden on the other side of the mountain
Fásann úllaí ar chrann ann a bhaintear faoi dhá sa mblian Apples grow on trees there which are harvested twice a year
Tá na ródannaí meala ag na beach in ins gach aird den sliabh The bees have honey-roads in every cardinal direction from the mountain
'S tá siúcra donn craitche ar a mblaiseann mo ghrá den bhia. And there is sugar sprinkled on everything my love eats.

3. Rees & Rees, pp. 73-76

4. A poem called Preiddeu Annwfn, of which, unfortunately, no truly satisfactory translation exists, to my knowledge.

5. Rees & Rees, p. 250

6. Rees & Rees, p. 161; Ellis-Davidson, p. 26

7. Bord, p. 95


Bord, Janet & Colin. Earth Rites: Fertility Practices in Pre-Industrial Britain. London: Granada Publishing, Ltd., 1982

David-Neel, Alexandra. Magic and Mystery in Tibet. New York: Dover Publications, 1971 (orig. pub. 1932)

Davidson, H. R. Ellis. Myths and Symbols of Pagan Europe. NY: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1988

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972 (Bollingen Series LXXVI)

Ford, Patrick K., trans. & ed. The Mabinogi and other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1977

Halifax, Joan. Shaman: the Wounded Healer. New York: Crossroad (Thames & Hudson), 1982

MacCana, Proinsias. Celtic Mythology. London: Hamlyn, 1970

Piggot, Stuart. The Druids. London: Thames & Hudson, 1968 (latest reprint 1987)

Powell, T. G. E. The Celts. London: Thames & Hudson, 1958 (latest reprint 1987)

Rees, Alwyn and Brynley. Celtic Heritage. London: Thames & Hudson, 1961

Tolstoy, Nikolai. The Quest for Merlin. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1985

Copyright © 1988 Leigh Ann Hussey