by Stuart McHardy
In his book Egyptian Myth and Legend the great Scottish folklorist Donald Mackenzie mentioned that one of the stories of the Scottish Cailleach, or Hag, has her as the ‘chief of eight old women or witches.’ He goes on, “This group of nine suggests Ptah and his eight earth gnomes, the nine mothers of Heimdall, the Norse God, and the Ennead of Heliopolis.” Here he is clearly thinking about Egyptian mythology but his reference to Scotland and Norway is merely scraping the surface of a theme in myth and legend that is effectively world-wide.
My interest in what is best described as the Nine Maidens comes from the fact that a story of them survives close to where I was raised, on the north side of Dundee in Scotland. In this local tale the nine are sisters who were the victims of a dragon-like creature who was later killed by the betrothed of the eldest sister and the site is marked by a Pictish Symbol Stone, Martin’s Stone. The Picts, often cited as a mysterious, painted people, seem in reality to be the indigenous peoples of Scotland1. They left no literary records of their own and much of what we think we know of them relies on Roman sources. What has survived in Scotland from the time of the Picts - in previously accepted thinking the 3rd to 10th centuries of the Christian era - and been the cause of much discussion, and fantasy, is a vast corpus of carved standing stones with intriguing symbols, a considerable number of which are clearly pre-Christian. Some of the later Christian stones continued to use some of these earlier symbols. Just as Christianity spread by utilising previously sacred locations in many places so it seems that the early missionaries in Scotland co-opted an already established tradition of carving sacred stones to help spread their new message.
It was looking for stories, and their locales, about the Nine Maidens that I came to understand more about the Cailleach that Mackenzie mentioned, and to realise that earlier generations of folklorists who thought of her as being an import from Ireland had got it spectacularly wrong. The Cailleach, from a Gaelic root meaning ’the veiled one”, is actually more widespread in Scottish traditions and place-names in Scotland than Ireland. The idea of her coming from Ireland is because of a long term misunderstanding of Scotland’s past that claims the Scots came from Ireland, which modern scholarship has shown to be wrong2 and, I believe, probably based on early Christian propaganda in Scotland. She is also matched by other traditions about her in Scots, which like Gaelic, is an indigenous Scottish language, related to English and other Germanic tongues. What also became clear was that this Hag figure had originally been a Goddess figure, and that the Nine Maidens in the far past had been closely linked with her.
The Nine Maidens story of Martin’s Stone led to others, with a group of them based over the hill from the stone in the Sidlaw Hills who were early Christian saints linked to the ancient Pictish capital of Abernethy, and to the figure of St Bridget3. It is well known that Bridget was based on the pre-Christian figure of Bride and in Scottish terms her relationship with the Cailleach is quite specific. There are tales from several locations of the Cailleach going to a sacred well before even a dog has barked on the morning of Beltane, drinking of the waters and transforming into Bride. This is underlined by the old agricultural calendar of Scotland being divided into the Time of the Big Sun and the Time of the Little Sun. The Time of the Little Sun from Samhuinn (Halloween) to Beltane (1st May) was the time of the Cailleach, the Hag of Winter, a fearsome creature symbolic of death and destruction and the Time of the Big Sun was the time of Golden Bride, effectively the Goddess of fertility4. They are simply one and the same, different manifestations of the Goddess, Mother of All. In Scots language traditions they are echoed by the Carlin and the Maiden. There are several locations in the Scottish landscape where this duality is shown in closely linked sites where those named after the Cailleach are generally above or to the north of those linked with Bride, and recently it has been shown that some of these are definitely linked with solar alignments.
The Nine Maidens are linked to both aspects of the Mother Goddess and there are wells in various parts of the country named for them and some of these have been overlaid with Christian sites. Another nine that can be located in Scotland, which links to many other places in Britain are the nine sisters of Avalon mentioned by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Life of Merlin5. The stories of Arthur were common to all the P-Celtic speaking peoples of Britain and this included the tribes in southern Scotland and the Picts to the north. All traditional stories and particularly those which have mythological components are linked to the environment of the communities that tell them to each other – how else could they register with children, particularly in a world where literacy was unknown? The nineteenth century fascination – still alas lingering in certain quarters - with finding an origin point for traditional tales is an exercise in futility – stories belong where they are told and none is more genuine than another. Thus the stories of Arthur in Brittany, Cornwall, England and Wales are every bit as ‘authentic’ as those that survive in Scotland, but they are no more so. In Scottish terms the Isle of Avalon, for the people of the Lothians and Fife at least, would probably have been the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth, its name, in Scots, meaning exactly The Isle of the Maidens. It is also a place that archaeology has shown to have been a place of pilgrimage from pre-Christian into Christian times. This Arthurian link is underlined by the fact that the earliest known mention of Arthur is in a poem written in Edinburgh circa 600 CE by a bard of the Gododdin, one of those P-Celtic-speaking tribes6. In other Arthurian material the Nine crop up in the story of Peredur who is given his final warrior training by the nine Witches of Caer Lyow whom later he destroys, something that is also said of Arthur’s companion Cai.
But just as the Carlin tales survive in Scots alongside the Gaelic stories of the Cailleach so the Nine occur in other Germanic traditions. In Norse tradition they are the daughters of the Sea-God Aegir who become the nine mothers of Heimdall. These sea-maidens also occur in an ancient Irish tale, Ruadh, son of Rigdon, where there are hints of sacrifice, and as in so many other versions of the motif, the nine are linked with a single male figure7. The Norse traditions also include the white and black groups of nine who are involved in the killing of Thidrandi in a tale that some have seen as a Christianizing motif of pagan thought. They are also there in the story of Svipdag who meets Menglod, Goddess of Healing who has nine companions and there are other instances in other Sagas. Also in Norse tradition there is a reference to Nine Maidens of the Mill. This is the Mill in which the body of the Ice Giant Ymir was ground creating the earth itself8.
In recent times some female folklorists in Norway in particular have been working on the theory that the Norse Pantheon of Gods was in fact a creation of the early Christian scribes who were intent on hiding the reality that pre-Christian ideas of the world in Scandinavia saw the dominant force of the universe as being a feminine one, and that the most powerful of all the Norse supernatural beings was originally Freya.
Several nineteenth century folklorists noted that the motif of the Nine Maidens occurred in other places and one of these was the reference from the 2nd century Greek geographer Strabo who refers to the nine Druidesses of the Isle du Sein off Brittany who were called the Gallicenae9. They were known as healers, shape-shifters and seers, motifs that recur with the Nine Sisters of Avalon and others. The more recent name for the island is Isle des Druidesses, suggesting that at least locally they were understood to be some kind of priestesses. This reflects various of the British nines, like the sisters of Avalon and even the witches of Caer Lyow while the presentation of the Nine Maidens as Pictish saints seems a later echo of this idea. The Gallicenae are matched elsewhere in Breton lore by the nine companions of the deadly spirit, the Korrigan, who, through shape-shifting, lures heroes to their deaths. In another similar tale the putative early Christian saint, St Samson of Dol, meets one of a group of nine aggressive women who seem almost demonic. In some cases it would appear that the Christian church absorbed the nine and in others demonised them.
In other European locations the nine show themselves, in Ireland, in Romania, and it is worth noting that the Valkyries of Norse and Germanic tradition are often nine in number. However the oldest European reference to them is a truly spectacular one. Recently research in Portugal has uncovered mainly Christianized versions of the nine but in Catalonia we have a visual representation of them of considerable antiquity. The Magdalenian cave painting at El Cogul, near Lerida, shows nine women dancing round a spectacularly priapic male and this depiction could be as much as fifteen thousand years old. Most commentators on this to date have remarked on the ritual appearance of this scene and it does point to the possibility that many of the nine groups as being some kind of priestesses10. As we shall see this is potentially not the oldest referent to the Nine Maidens.
Those folklorists who have, generally in passing, noticed the Nine Maidens have generally assumed that they are related to the Muses in Greek mythology. After all it has been a cornerstone of European academic thinking for a very long time that everything came from Greece, or later, Rome. This is why the study of the cultures of those two societies is referred to as the Classics, they supposedly set the standard. That this is due to the education of Christian scribes who created all early European literary sources is certain. By this way of thinking the Muses must have been the original groups of nine maidens. In fact Greece itself had many different groups of nine females all of whom appear to have been priestesses and like many of their counterparts elsewhere are generally located on mountain tops or by springs. And many are associated with healing and prophecy. These include the Pierides, the Maenads, the Telchines and as the Greek scholar and poet Robert Graves pointed out, Lycaon the Pelasgian, son of the bear goddess Calisto, had a wife Nonacris, whose name appears to have meant the Ninefold Goddess11. He mentions the possibility of an early matriarchal society in Greece and suggests that its origin may well have been in East Africa, an intriguing thought given that current thinking is that this is the original cradle of humanity.
Before following up that thought it is necessary to point out that the current investigations at the Ness of Brodgar in Orkney clearly show that as early as 3,000 BCE, long before the raising of the Egyptian pyramids never mind the rise of Greek culture, what was probably the biggest stone structure on the planet was raised there. The investigation of this site is on-going but it clearly shows a highly sophisticated society in the north of Scotland before what many scholars have long liked to think of as the time when European culture actually began. The survival of a considerable number of remnants of pre-Christian belief in Scotland point clearly to a belief system focussed on the idea of a feminine Godhead, a system which appears likely to have encompassed these groups of nine females in some way12. The idea that cultural development and the sophistication of ideas had to be imported into Britain is no longer tenable.
Recently there was bit of a stir in the British media about the idea that some folk tales could be shown to be more than five thousand years old. This was based on complicated linguistic and statistical analysis and was presented as a major discovery. Well, not really. As long ago as 1991 it was pointed out in Australia13 that Dreamtime tales of the indigenous tribes talked of giant marsupials, the bones of which had been found in several locations across Australia and sometimes alongside the remains of hearth fires. Because these bones were originally discovered during bauxite mining, a clear physical stratigraphy led to dates for the bones being put forward. In the 1990s it was thought some of them dated as far back as 40,000 BCE, though arguments exist that suggest they were long extinct even then. Stories of these giant creatures had continued to be told in non-literate traditions right up to the present.
Now I have already stated that stories live where they are told and that the search for origins for story-types is essentially futile. In general I believe this to be true but when it comes to the Nine Maidens motif – which incidentally does not feature in the main reference work for such material, the Arne Thompson Motif-Index of Folk Literatures - we may well have an exception.
In the course of my researches, I came across links to other cultures as far away as the Americas and the South Seas as well as noting the survival of the Nine Maidens motif amongst shamanistic beliefs in Siberia, but the most remarkable of them all is probably a traditional story from Kenya. There the Gikuyu people of Kenya claim descent from a group of nine sisters who, like so many of their counterparts, are linked to a sacred mountain, in this case Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak14. It is fascinating that the Gikuyu people live so close to that part of the world where the oldest remains of homo sapiens have been discovered. Current thinking sees modern humans as originally emigrating from Africa some time around a hundred thousand years ago and as we have seen stories can certainly last for forty millennia, it is worth asking whether the idea behind the widespread occurrence of these stories of Nine Maidens originated in Africa and accompanied homo sapiens as the species spread across the world.
However there is something else about the Nine Maidens. Having started out investigating the phenomenon in the mid-1970s over the years I have been led to many discoveries. Not least of these is the extent to which the Cailleach and the Carlin, remnants of the Mother Goddess, continue to exist in Scotland. It is not only in place-names but in story that they live on. Through understanding that remnants of old belief can survive in place-names I have ended up making several archaeological discoveries, a couple of examples of which should suffice here. One of Scotland’s mountains, Lochnagar, which acquired an odd fame through its association with Queen Victoria, has a couple of Cailleach place-names, Caisteal na Cailich and Allt na Cailleach. There are no extant stories of the Cailleach associated with the massif as the local population were ‘cleared’ by Victoria’s predecessors to create the shooting estate that she bought. Thousands of years of human interaction with a sacred location eradicated to pander to the whims of the obscenely rich. However, what could not be eradicated were the two breast shaped peaks on the massif, Meikle Pap and Little Pap. As in many place in Scotland such paps appear to have been the foci of ancient belief in a Mother Goddess15 and it was in observing Lochnagar from a distance that I began to understand some of the ideas surrounding the Cailleach. The name means the veiled one – leading to the ironical adoption of the term for Christian nuns in Gaelic - and this is a fair description of the mountains of Scotland with so many of which she is associated. She is also a weather worker in an old belief and it was watching the weather change over Lochnagar from Glen Clova that this became plain to me. The high mountains she is associated with: Ben Nevis, Ben Cruachan, Ben Wyvis, set in different parts of Scotland, are all what can be described as weather nodes – they are where all too often the clouds descend before the rain, hail or snow spreads out across the land. This is myth as observation. There is also the interesting fact that every Midsummer people from Aberdeenshire and Angus go up the mountain to see the Midsummer sunrise. This also happens on Ben Lomond, the Hill of Fire or Beacon Hill and Ben Ledi, translated as Leth Dia = with God by some and which has Cnoc a Cailleach on its summit. No one knows how old these ceremonies are but they continue.
Intrigued by this I went up Lochnagar with my son Roderick, not to the summit where the Midsummer pilgrims gather but to the top of Meikle Pap. It is crowned by dolorite, a rock that seem is common to many such places of ancient ritual. And there on the highest point were two holes that look like eyes. The eye is a well enough known symbol of the Mother Goddess and to find these suggests this was possibly a spot of considerable sanctity. Now some may think these are bulluans, or naturally made holes and it’s not beyond possibility. However we now know that people responded to locations in the landscape they found significant and either way it is a significant place. Meikle Pap overlooks Glen Muick, the glen of the Pig and as I have shown elsewhere16 porcine creatures have long been associated with Goddesses.
However the ‘eyes’ on Lochnagar have led me to a more recent potential discovery. I recently posted a digital work on You Tube called MYTHOGRAM1. It is a geomythographical analysis of a specific location in the Lomond Hills in Fife. One of the locales I draw attention to in the mythogram is the Devils’ Burdens, a group of rocks said to have been dropped on a coven of witches by the Devil and hence became known as The Devil’s Burdens. Noticing that they too were dolorite and realising that this story of the Devil was simply a Christian reworking of the well-known Scottish motif of the Cailleach dropping her lippen or apronful of rocks, to create various parts of our landscape, I went to the Burdens to see if this dolorite outcrop also had a pair of eyes. The photograph is attached. As yet I have had no confirmation that these ’eyes’ are artificial, but I am unconcerned. If I see them, then others potentially also have and it may not be too much of a stretch to think that they were seen as a marker of the Goddess herself before the monks came. Whether further investigation of the site turns up anything more is in a way irrelevant. I was looking for the eyes and I found them, and I suspect Geomythography is going to lead to many more discoveries. I have recently been teaching a course on Geomythography for Edinburgh University’s Centre for Open Learning and an introduction to the subject can be found at http://www.stuartmchardy.worpdress.com and have come to realise that the path the Nine Maidens put me on, all those years ago, goes ever on.
2. McHardy, S A, 2012, A New History of the Picts, Luath, Edinburgh
3. McNeill, M, 1957, The Silver Bough, V2 McLellan ,Glasgow
4. Mackenzie, D A, 1935, Scottish Folk Lore and Folk Life Blackie and Son, Glasgow p 137
5 .Parry, J.J., 1925, "The Vita Merlini" in University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature, Uni. Illinois Press, p199
6. Koch, J T & Carey, J, 2003, The Celtic Heroic Age, Celtic Studies Publications, Aberystwyth p318
7. McHardy, S A, 2003, The Quest for the Nine Maidens, Luath, Edinburgh p112
9. Spence, L, 1945, The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain, Rider, NY p 52
11. Graves,R, 1961, The White Goddess, Faber & Faber p367-8
12. Mackenzie, D A, Ibid p 136ff
13. Isaacs, J., 1980, Australian Dreaming; 40,000 years of Aboriginal history, Lansdowne Press, Willoughby, N.S.W.
15. McHardy, S A 2012 The Pagan Symbols of the Picts, Luath, Edinburgh, p125ff
16. McHardy, S A, Ibid, p 60ff