Mother Earth: The Celtic Goddess of Sovereignty

by JoHarrington

Many of our oldest stories and legends conceal a divine journey to find a king or queen. The land itself is personified into a Lady. It's a concept which still has echoes today.

I once visited Ellis Island. So many Americans had passed through these halls, desperately dreaming and hoping to claim a part of the USA for themselves.

I looked up and noted how, in order to get there, they had to pass beneath the iconic Statue of Liberty. Part of me smiled. There was the Goddess of Sovereignty overseeing possession of the country again.

Part of me shuddered, because I knew that She was a Crone in this aspect and that couldn't be good. But Her presence, in that place, recalled a much older story; one which continues to reverberate throughout the ages.

World War I Poster: Side by Side - Britannia!

Rule Britannia! Britannia Rules the Waves!

And a whole world cringes and rolls its eyes at the arrogant presumption of those (formerly) imperialistic Brits.

Image:  Marianne of FranceLook at the poster above.  What do you see?

It was created by the artist James Montgomery Flagg and published as a lithograph. The poster advertized a mass meeting to be held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, entitled Britain's Day. The context was for American delegates to honor Great Britain for its role in the First World War.

None of that is particularly important for the purpose of this article.  What is interesting is how both countries are portrayed. 

Two symbolic figures stride across a green mound.  That's Uncle Sam and Britannia, which any onlooker would recognize instantly as representative of the USA and Britain.  But why?

Uncle Sam is quite a recent creation and he's easy to disassemble.  It's a play on words.  Un. S (of) America leads us more generally to the United States of America, but symbolically into Uncle Sam.

But Britain is a much older developed country and its representative is steeped in its Pagan past.  Britannia comes from the same source as Ireland's Ériu, France's Marianne (pictured above left) and the Welsh Mam Cymru.

None of these venerable and celebrated ladies are particularly ancient (with the exception of Erin).  But the idea that they encapsulate reaches right back into Celtic antiquity.

They each give form to the Goddess of Sovereignty. Nor are they alone in that.  Sovereignty turns up in modern day fairy tales, or the retelling of ancient ones.  The clue is often in the colors, though if there's a Celtic influence, it could also be in the presence of not one but three women.

It's unlikely that James Montgomery Flagg, while drawing Britannia in his poster, was aware of Her divine origins. He would have colored her red (with a black helmet) because he was drawing upon earlier depictions.

Wherever a story or artwork depicts three sisters (or a girl, mother and grandmother); and/or the colors white, red, black, or green and gold, then look very carefully at what is being told here.  You may have just glimpsed Sovereignty waving back from a old concept indeed.

Marianne, aka Liberty, in the French Revolution and the USA

Liberty Leading the People, 28 July 1830

White and red are the colors of the Maiden and Mother aspects of Sovereignty.  They denote a country being claimed.

What (or Who) is Sovereignty?

Your monarch, president or prime minister is your political sovereign. But the divine aspect is linked to the land itself.

Image:  World LeadersIn its simplest, most visible form, sovereignty is personified as our world leaders. 

Whoever is the nominal head of your state - be it through an election or a hereditary title (and if it was through violence and a coup, you have my sympathy) - is your sovereign.

The USA and France will argue that they are not ruled by Marianne, but by Barack Obama and François Hollande respectively, and they would be right.  But Liberty is lurking in the background. 

Her statue will stand long after both gentlemen have passed out of office. Her name will appear in speeches, whenever the politician needs to align him/or herself with the land itself. 

That might be in the actual soil.  But in the modern day it's more likely to be a cultural ideal, or an idea.  Both France and America had revolutions in the name of Liberty.  They changed their constitutions under Her watchful eye.

The Goddess of Sovereignty isn't merely a personification (and deification) of the country. She is its people too.  She represents the spirit of the population; and she watches out for their best interests, not that of the actual sovereign.

In fact, if we go far enough back into history and the genesis of this idea, the Goddess of Sovereignty could be very dangerous for the sovereign.  She may demand his/her sacrifice.

Books about Sovereignty - the Concept, Idea and Reality

Sovereignty isn't just a state. Buy these studies to learn more about the philosophy and actuality in the past and today.

Mother Earth and Father Sun

This is not an idea peculiar to the Celts, but that is the race and culture which we are focusing upon here.

Image:  Mother EarthThe cultural image of the Earth as a woman isn't new, but it's very pervasive. You rarely, if ever, hear of Father Earth, despite many of the biggest religions stating categorically that it was a male deity who created the planet.

Celtic spirituality most certainly views the Earth as a Goddess.  It's all a matter of duality, which has its basis in fertility.  The sun is male, the Earth is female.  The union between the two allows plant life to grow.

The foliage is male (the Green Man), the Earth is female.  Fruit and nuts can only be gathered after the two have procreated.

The Triple Goddess - so representative of the Fate of human beings - has a consort in the Horned God, who is both the hunter and the hunted amongst animal kind.  The hunting ground are the plains, forests and mountains of the land, ruled over by feminine elementals.

It's all about male + female = off-spring.  It's a fertile notion, which is currently being underpinned in childbirth labors all over the world right now.  The very real and basic origin of life transplanted onto the land itself.

Macha: Ulster's Goddess of Sovereignty

Prof Miranda Aldhouse-Green on the Goddess of Sovereignty

One of the leading academic authorities on Celtic spirituality is Professor Miranda Aldhouse-Green of Cardiff University.

She has discussed the Celtic ideas of kingdom, and its link to the land itself, in several of her books.  The best source is Celtic Goddesses, wherein she devoted a whole chapter to exploring the mythical and historical evidence.

This is how she introduced the Lady:

'The goddess of sovereignty as personification of the land was responsible for its fertility, and this role was symbolised by her apparent sexual promiscuity and polyandry.  But her marriage with several successive mortal rulers was not the result of unbridled sexual appetite but of the need to choose the best consort for the well-being of Ireland.'

Celtic Goddesses by Prof Miranda Aldhouse-Green p70-71

Buy Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins and Mothers

More Goddesses of Sovereignty

Also known as Geraint Son of Erbin, this tale from the Arthurian Romances looks like the usual Sovereignty story. But there's much more going on than that!
A conspiracy of ravens is interwoven with the Morrigan mythology like a Celtic knot. But why are these birds so linked with Ireland's darkest deity?

The Celtic Sacral King and the Goddess of Sovereignty

Step away from all you know of how rulers are made. We're venturing back into the semi-fabled Golden Dawn of the Celts now.

There were queens back then (Cartimandua and Boudicca spring immediately to mind), but the ruler of a tribe or people was more commonly a man.  In fact, Prof Aldhouse-Green argued, in Celtic Goddesses, that a nation would have to be in severe crisis to have a female leader.

This was nothing to do with a lack of worth associated with Celtic women.  It was all to do with duality.  The monarch married the land itself; and the land was female.  Female + female does not equate fertility.

Female monarchs should be seen, in the context of ancient Celtic society, as a last line of defense. The threat is so far gone that it's no longer about making the land fertile, but defending it with the last ounce of blood.

This would certainly fit the history of both Boudicca and Cartimandua.  Their Iceni and Brigante tribes respectively were under severe pressure from the Roman invasion.  Boudicca's roaring rage - akin to the well established danger of getting between a mother and her child - and Cartimandua's seductive Celtic Cleopatra routine both served their people better than any man with a sword.

But that's very circumstantial.  In ordinary times, a society needs more.  It needs fertile crops and plentiful hunting in the forests.  That involves appeasing Mother Earth Herself, who frankly doesn't care less about whether it's your tribe, next door's tribe or no tribe who feeds on that exact spot.

There is one divine lady who does though.  That's the Goddess of Sovereignty for your people and your territory.

She looks for the right man for the job.  She tests him (usually in three aspects, this being Celtic divinity and all) before making Her choice.  While the Goddess of Sovereignty supports the chosen (sacral) king, She will intercede with Mother Earth to arrange a marriage between human and divine.

The wedding ceremony is the coronation. The marriage is the reign. The divine aspect is in the etymology of what we call this.  It's not a 'reignty', it's a 'super reignty', now spelt 'sovereignty'.

Only the most physically adept man will be acceptable, because he was ritually mating with the land itself.  Their 'children' would be the future of the realm itself: politically, diplomatically, spiritually and practically, in terms of crops, game and bounty.

In Welsh legends, there is Nudd Llaw Ereint (Lludd/Llew of the Silver Hand), who was the best potential king of the selection.  But he had lost his hand.  It was a physical imperfection that did not bode well for the marriage. 

It would look like damaged goods presented in tribute to the Goddess, but moreover the king personified his people and land in that marriage.  It would leave both of them with the same imperfection.

To get around this detail, Nudd was given a silver hand, crafted by a blacksmith.  Now whole, he was able to be king.  Though, given the three calamities which plagued his reign, it wasn't a subterfuge welcomed by the Goddess!

Stephen Lawhead's Song of Albion Trilogy

Time-travel AND Llew Silver Hand, what more do you want?! Buy these modern novels to immerse yourself in an engrossing tale of ancient Celtic kingship.

The Colors of the Goddess of Sovereignty

It pleased Medieval writers especially to disguise their Sovereignty stories in attempts to misdirect their audiences. But the colors remained strong clues.

In Celtic lore, the Goddess of Sovereignty is likely to split into the Triple Goddess.  She is the same divine lady, but divided into Maiden, Mother and Crone aspects.

However, you might not see them all.  Depending on the story being told, you may be focusing in on just one part.  All three women might be Maidens, or Mothers, or Crones.  They may all wear the same colors.

Every story of a sacral king begins with the end of a reign, not a beginning.  The king is dead, long live the king and all that.

Therefore the main lady lurking is the Crone.  She'll be in black; or you won't be told the coloring of her clothes, but she'll be in an unhappy situation. 

She will be the daughter held practically prisoner in a home; the new and scary step-mother; or the hag turned away from the door.

She will represent the old king trying to hold onto his power; or else a doomed king inadvertently refusing access to the Goddess of Sovereignty.  Usually, he starts to fade into the background right around now.

Meanwhile, at least one female character will be mentioned as wearing white (Maiden), or white and red together.  She will be mingling with potential princes out in the world; often sent out by the Crone.  This is Sovereignty on the hunt for a new king to replace the one on his way out.

As soon as a successful monarch has been found, the color red will become more prominent.  This is the gentleman making a consort of the Mother aspect.  He's claimed her.  He's married the land.

Hereafter, red will be there as long as Sovereignty is giving Her full support, but hasn't quite gone away.  She will always watch, throughout the reign, until it's time for Her to wear black again. But while She has a prominent position (while She's in red), She's not given up full control to the king. That's no king.  That's one with strong potential.

Only when our female character dons green, i.e. steps back and lets him reign, is he fully trusted.  NOW he's king.   In a variation, either the monarch or the Goddess will wear gold.  This recalls the sun, so becomes symbolic of that marriage between king-made-God and Mother Earth; or, more usually, it's all about bounty and fortune.

Of course, the biggest give away is when there is a new ruler at the end of the story!

La Belle Dame sans Merci (The Beautiful Lady without Mercy)

"La Belle Dame sans Merci hath thee in thrall!" John Keats

A Scottish Cinderella

Check out this Celtic story, retold here by Wizzley author Ragtimelil, with reference to the Goddess of Sovereignty. Hint: I've already disassembled it in the comments there!
We all know the story of Cinderella, but I never knew she was Scottish.

A Queen Marrying Her People

Watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, in 1952, with reference to the Goddess of Sovereignty. It's a religious rite, steeped in Christianity, but pay attention to the colors.

Please note that Elizabeth is NOT the Goddess of Sovereignty.  This ceremony would remain the same regardless of the gender of the monarch.

She is the sovereign.  Hence there are elements in this coronation which stretch back through the centuries; and have their origin in the receiving of power from the Goddess of Sovereignty. 

Elizabeth arrives in white - Maiden - not yet in possession of her realm. But her throne is red - Mother - in full ownership of the land.

She is surrounded by peers and religious leaders, who are all wearing white and red cloaks.  Elizabeth herself starts with a matching one, but it is thrown open to emphasize the white.  Red and white together indicate a change in monarch.  Very fitting for a coronation!

Finally, she's covered in gold.  No longer a Maiden in white, as she's anointed monarch of the land.  That mantle could have been equally red, green or gold.  But, let's be honest, the latter looks the part and leaves no doubt in the modern view as to what's going on.

Britain is officially a Christian nation, so all of the bishops et al. are men (women weren't ordained in the Church of England in 1952).  But you should see them as the true representatives of the Goddess of Sovereignty there.

In amongst all of the 'please look after the Church of England!' stuff, listen to the interlaced words. They are binding Elizabeth, as monarch, to the land itself. 

"The things that I have here before promised, I will perform and keep, so help me God." She says, but why the 'help me'?  Is she asking for divine guidance in the performance of her duties?  No, the extolment would have come first if that was the case.

The hint here is that, if she didn't live up to her promise, she would be sacrificed.  The 'help me God' is an acknowledgment of dire consequences in betraying the land and its people.  Again it's symbolic, as it's highly unlikely that the British people would cut her down in the 21st century.

There is just one element in all of this which would have made our Pagan forebears (and people like me today!) raise their eyebrows.  For the first time, a Scottish minister is allowed to participate.  That's fine and dandy, but he wears black.

Black is the color of the Crone.  That's a loss of power.  It's fascinating to place that against the fact that, at the time of writing, Scotland is preparing a referendum on devolution.  Scotland could well be lost to the British throne within Elizabeth's reign.


Jacques-Louis David (Anointing of Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine) Art Poster Print

As a Gallic country, France is also subject to ancient Celtic ideas. The colors of their coronations also fit.

Ériu Is Our Queen

This appeared in Northern Ireland in 2012. It was in response to Britain's Queen Elizabeth II meeting with the First Minister Martin McGuinness.
Image: Ériu Is Our Queen
Image: Ériu Is Our Queen

Northern Ireland is still controlled from Westminster.  Britain's queen is their queen, at least politically! 

The response to this message - claiming a much older sovereignty - was immediate.  British paramilitary police officers (PNSI) rushed up the Black Mountain and a member of The 1916 Society was injured defending the display.

Though the tableau was reacting to a very modern situation, the symbolism was ancient. It pit the Irish Goddess of Sovereignty against the woman who was nominally their actual sovereign.

The legendary precedent is that Ériu will always win in those circumstances.

Erin Go Bragh Flag

It translates from Irish Gaelic as 'Ireland Forever', but Ireland is given the name of its Goddess of Sovereignty.

Death of a King: The End of Sovereignty

So what happens when it all turns black? The Goddess of Sovereignty becomes the Crone, when the land isn't made fertile by the monarch.

There is something implicit in the notion of the sacral king.  It's already been alluded to several times.

If the land isn't prosperous, then Celtic society would have viewed that as the fault of its monarch. After all, this is the man in sacred union with the land itself.  If that doesn't bear fruit then, not to put too fine a point on it, he's shooting blanks.

Remember that in Druidic religion, the God died once a year, in order for the new God to be born. We call that the autumn harvest these days.  The King was the representative of the God to his people.  He might not have to die every year but, if all was going bad, then he might have to do just that.

The sacral king was the pre-ordained human sacrifice, if judged absolutely needful.

Even in Christian times, long after such practices were thought barbaric, it would be a perilous situation for any king who didn't lead from the front in battle.  Fast forward to the 20th century, and many revolutions saw monarchies topple all over Europe.  It was a sacrifice for a better nation state, just at one step removed and stripped of religious imperative.

When the Goddess of Sovereignty decided that it was time for someone to go (acting as the divine will of the people), then She would be depicted in black. It's a tradition still played out at modern British funerals, when it's implicit in the death notices that mourners will don black to attend the funeral and wake.

But when ancient Sovereignty wore black, the old king was still living.  She would screech out onto the battlefield as Morrighan or take to stirring her cauldron as Cerridwen. As the Washer at the Ford, She would wash the clothes of the doomed monarch.  As the Banshee, She would scream three warnings.

Then She would turn her back.  If natural causes or battle were unlikely to take the old king away, then it really would come down to sacrifice.

Once the Crone has done away with the old, or at least determined that the old king must go, then She will send the Maiden out looking for a replacement.  The cycle will go round again.

Books about Historical Celtic Religion and Pagan Human Sacrifice

Buy these studies to learn more about the reality. I can personally recommend anything by Ronald Hutton and Miranda Aldhouse-Green.

From Three Back into One Again

Once the Goddess of Sovereignty has Her king, there's no need to be the Triple Goddess.

The point of the Three-in-One aspect of Sovereignty in these tales is to find and test a new monarch.  Once safely installed as ruler of the land and its people, She fades back into the landscape again.

Often this is literally.  The Goddess of Sovereignty can be found all over the Celtic landscape.

I recall standing at the edge of the stone circle at Callanish, in the Hebrides, reading the information left for tourists.  It directed us to look up, across to the horizon of mountains in the distance.  The range was said to be a goddess.

Indeed, the contours did suggest a lady lying down, covered in a mantle of green grass.  Two rather prominent mountains were her breasts.

I've seen this many other times too.  Only a few weeks ago, I was standing on Moel Famau (Hill of the Mothers) in North Wales. 

If you know where to look, and how to read the Celtic place-names, the green covered lady emerges throughout the land.  She is Sovereignty and she sleeps only as long as the king is true.

The Earth Goddess: Celtic and Pagan Legacy of the Landscape

Using a blend of text and photographs, this study seeks to demonstrate how the sites and landscape of Britain and Ireland still show signs of the ancient religions of the Earth/...

View on Amazon

Echoes of the Goddess: A Quest for the Sacred Feminine in the British Landscape

Explore sacred sites, unearth long lost religions, and uncover the mystical side of Britain's landscape, in the search for the divine feminine. In pre-Christian Britain the Grea...

View on Amazon

More on the Celtic Goddesses

These articles have all been written within the Wiccan religion, rather than as a Celtic historical spirituality. There's a lot of cross-over!
The Triple Goddess is a major deity in Wicca. She is a single being, who is viewed as three divine women: Maiden, Mother and Crone.
The Triple Goddess is a major deity in Wicca. She is a single being, who is viewed as three divine women: Maiden, Mother and Crone.
The Triple Goddess is a major deity in Wicca. She is a single being, who is viewed as three divine women: Maiden, Mother and Crone.
Wiccan funerals are all about honoring the dead, but not in a way that assumes that they've gone. In fact, a place is set there for them.
Updated: 05/17/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 05/24/2014

LOL Yes, it does!

frankbeswick on 05/23/2014

Glastonbury Tor resembles a breast.

JoHarrington on 05/22/2014

You're on one of those scholarly, spiritual journeys that I love so well. Enjoy your own!

And yes, I am giggling at the fact that you missed the introduction and went straight into the higher academia. :)

Ember on 05/22/2014

I find it funny that I've managed to read some of the more complex pieces and THEN I read this one, which introduces it much more simply... xD

I feel like I've added another piece to the puzzle now, though what I'm piecing together exactly, I've no clue. :|

JoHarrington on 10/26/2012

You're not the only Wizzley author encouraging me to write a book right now. I'll have to give it some thought. :)

Ragtimelil on 10/26/2012

I would think so. There's so many layers.

JoHarrington on 10/26/2012

As I was writing it, I was finding it so hard to keep it condensed. This IS the short version! Maybe a book could be in it.

I'm glad that you liked it. <3

Ragtimelil on 10/26/2012

Fantastic! I love the videos! When is the book coming out? :-))
It really explains a lot!

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