By Marina Storino Holderbaum
Fertility is an important matter to any culture given that it is closely linked with crucial concerns associated with survival and prosperity. This subject has several meanings, which are related to the maintenance of both the human life and the community structure since it comprehends social relations, sexuality, conception, food production, science, art and all kinds of generative activities. The Irish Celtic society was not distinct from the others and reflected their worries in their religion and culture as we can see in this section of Barry Raftery’s work Pagan Celtic Ireland.
“Food production, inevitably, was the principal preoccupation of the mass of the people and, as in all pre-industrial societies, took up much of their waking day. The main Celtic festivals were related to critical phases of the annual agricultural cycle. Lughnasa, the greatest feast, was a celebration of the successful harvest”
The food production as a decisive factor of subsistence is a recurrent theme in Irish traditions, but human reproduction was additionally a vital issue to the social existence, and its influence was mixed up with agrarian cults in the form of marriages between the gods, phallic symbols and mother deities. The inauguration of the Irish Celtic kings in Tara is a good example of how fertility was a main subject to the Celtic culture, for this ritual represented the symbolic married among the king and the “Land”, which is personified for different deities in the Irish vernacular literature. In his article Lia Fáil: Fact and Fiction in the Tradition, Tomás Ó Broin exposes how Nuadu’s myth demonstrates the divinity of the Lia Fáil.
“’Nuadu Finn Fáil… used often visit the Lia Fáil, playing with it and courting; for the prophets had foretold to him that he would be king of Ireland, wherefore he was called Fair Nuadu of Fál thereafter.’ This short narrative is very illuminating. Nuadu is an ancestor deity, probably the same as Nuadu, king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, appearing also as the god of the source of Boand, and spouse of the river goddess Boand. At least the Lia Fáil is female. Moreover, since Nuadu belongs to the deity class, and his consorts, like Boand, are Goddess this should make the Lia Fáil a Goddess also. We must be witnessing the actual foundation of kingly inauguration at Tara, something begun when Nuadu courted the Lia Fáil. If so the Lia Fáil is the Tara king’s otherworld spouse.”
To the Irish Celts, the female deities were the personification of the Land itself and the sovereignty, the marriage between the king and the “Land deity”, what in the citation above is represented by the Lia Fáil, was fundamental to the approval of kingship. It is through the inauguration that the king is accepted or not by “Land deity”, and being accepted by her; he guarantees, in principle, the fertility of the Land and the prosperity of his kingship, although your actions as a king were crucial to the maintenance of this prosperity, as well as the deity’s approval. Tomás Ó Broin gives us a good illustration of how the Lia Fáil would answer to a king in this ritual.
“The Goddess, in other forms, joins with the Lia Fáil in showing concern or grief: she may take the guise of some fairy woman, or some element in nature: the life-giving water is her favorite medium. In Agallamh na Senórach when the king of Ireland is on the Lia Fáil it cries out, and is ‘answered’ by the principal waves of Ireland, Tonn Chlíodna, Tonn Tuaithe and Tonn Rudhraighe.”
The water’s sources as chosen elements to serve as deity’s symbols were not an unusual option to the Celts, in fact, it was a very common symbolic choice to these people, and their meaning is quite explicit since water is essential to all the productive activity. Anne Ross in Pagan Celtic Britain explains the importance of the water sources as locals of fertility cults.
“Springs, wells and rivers are of first and enduring importance as a focal point of Celtic cult practice and ritual. Rivers are important in themselves, being associated in Celtic tradition with fertility and with deities such as the divine mothers and the sacred bulls, concerned with this fundamental aspect of life.”
The water sources as springs, wells and rivers were from fundamental importance to general aspects of human living, agriculture and cattle breeding, what influenced the productivity of the soil as well as the fertility of animals and humans. These issues had central places in cosmology and cult because they were a matter of great concern to the society, what becomes clearly evident when taking a look in some mythological tales where the origins of certain rivers were described as being resulted of particular deity actions or bodies, as Anne Ross mentions.
“Not only do rivers have goddess-names, but Irish cult legends occur which purport to account for the naming of such rivers. For example, two rivers, the Boyne and the Shannon, allegedly owe their origin to the actions of the goddess (Boand and Sinann) who defied the magic powers of a certain well (the Well of Segais, the Well of Coelrind) as a result of which the well rose up in anger, mutilating and drowning the goddess and, turning into a mighty river, rushed seawards. This motif is also found in comparatively modern folklore and is one which clearly has a considerable ancestry with its possible origins in genuine cult legend. Again, the connection between the fertility aspects of the goddesses and rivers is suggested by the description of the ritual mating of the Irish raven-goddess, the Mórrigan, with the father-god, the Dagda, across a river, the goddess having a foot on either bank.”
The king was the responsible to sustain the fertility of the soil, and the society’s wealthy by his connection with the Land and the Otherworld that was established in his inauguration. The fertility’s character of the king is his capacity to provide prosperity to the Land and to the society; he is the charge to create the link between the “Land deity” and the people. His function while sovereign was of a redistribute of richness since he was the one who received the tributes and redistribute it. In shortage times, he was also the responsible to grant the surviving of the social group, what frequently happening in the form of cattle raids campaigns, which are widely described in the Irish Celtic mythology. Tomás Ó Broin describes the ritual of Tara which the king or, in this unusual case, the fili, standing on the Lia Fáil solicit approval and inspiration from the Otherworld.
“Stepping on the stone has all the appearance of a rite; certainly it is no casual or brief encounter. We get confirmation of this from a quatrain attributed to the poet Cinaed (Ua hArtacáin). The situation of Cinaed is a little different from the usual for he, the poet, and not a king, is the suppliant, but we collect some more information about the nature of the Lia Fáil – a brief but useful account. In the first couplet Cinaed says:
In cloch for stait mo dí sáil
Húaighi ráiter Inis Fáil…
Here putting feet on stone takes on a clear appearance of ritual, for the position seems necessary for an announcement. Moreover, Cinaed remains standing on the Lia Fáil while he delivers his quatrain. I conclude that the poet gets help and approval from some supernatural being through the stone; he derives authority from it. From this it would appear that the king also is in communion with some otherworld spirit when he stands on the Lia Fáil; he too gets authority confered in him. It is a bit of surprise to find a poet on the Lia Fáil, but not incredible, if we admit that primitive poetry is oracular.”
Ó BROIN, Tomás. Lia Fáil: Fact and Fiction in the Tradition in Celtica, vol. 21. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1990
RAFTERY, Barry. Pagan Celtic Ireland: The Enigma of the Irish Iron Age. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London 1998.
ROSS, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain. Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago, 1967