Am gaeth i mmuir
Am tond trethan
Am fuaim mara
Am dan secht ndrenn
Am séig i n-aill
Am dér gréne.
Song of Amhairghin.
I am the self established
In the heart of all contingent beings;
Also, I am the beginning, middle and end
Of all contingent beings.
The Poet WB Yeats once remarked that up until the battle of the Boyne Ireland belonged to Asia. A nineteenth century scholar by the name of Charles Mackay wrote an etymological dictionary of Gaelic in which he surmised that the origin of the word Asia itself could be derived from the old Irish ais meaning back and ia meaning country or land, Asia being the ‘back land’, the land from which we are derived. I do not wish to go into the relative merits or validity of Mackay’s linguistic hypotheses regarding the word Asia, but rather to draw attention to the Zeitgeist of late nineteenth century linguistic and cultural scholarship, and to the general truth adumbrated in the notion of Asia as being our spiritual homeland, the place from whence we came. It was an exiting time to be studying languages. In 1796 the British scholar Sir William Jones had discovered that the origins of Greek and Latin words were to be found in India’s ancient language Sanskrit, leading him to suppose that Sanskrit is the mother tongue of European languages. This pioneering work was developed further by the German linguist Paul Kretschmer, who showed that Indo-Iranian (Sanskrit and Persian), on the one hand, and Italo-Celtic (Latin and Irish) on the other had a surprisingly close set of words in common. Many of these words were religious or political in nature. The most striking being the word for king. The Sanskrit word is raja, Latin rex, Irish rí similar to the German Reich, whose basic meaning is ‘to reach’. I shall come back to this point later on. Here are some standard examples: Sanskrit- arya‘freeman’;Irish- aire- ‘noble’;Old Persian- naib ‘good’; Old Irish noeb ‘ holy’; Sanskrit sraddadhati ‘believe’; Latin credo, Old Irish cretid; Sanskrit badhira ‘deaf’; Old Irish bodar; Sanskrit pibati ‘drink’; Old Irish ibid; Sanskrit minda, ‘physical defect’; Latin, mendum, menda, Irish mend ‘stammering’.
This comparative linguistics was given further shape by Adolphe Pictet in his ground-breaking book ‘De l’affinite de langues celtiques avec le Sanscrit’(1815) It was in the spirit of such existing linguistic discoveries that Dr. Murray, Late Professor of Oriental Languages in the University of Edinburgh declared: ‘without a considerable knowledge of Gaelic, no person can make any proficiency whatever in philology.’ The same could be said, a fortiori, of Sanskrit.
Scholars such as Myles Dillon, Windisch, Bergin and others have examined the grammar and syntax of the Old Irish and Sanskrit languages and have found striking similarities of structure, the details of which, though fascinating for the philologist, are too complicated to be explored here.
There are, however, many more examples of vocabulary, some of which we shall encounter anon. But this list should suffice to show that Old Irish and Sanskrit are astonishingly close, that the language and culture of ‘this scraggy isthmus of Europe minor’ as Joyce called it, Ireland, Europe’s westernmost Island, bears traces that stretch across the European peninsula as far as India in the east. We Irish are in a unique position with respect to Indo-European scholarship; we have a language and a mythology which is as old and probably older than that of Greece and Rome, a cultural heritage which links us like an umbilical cord with a pre-historic world. I should say at this point that Ireland’s Sanskrit heritage is deep and expansive in content, almost infinite in suggestion. What follows, then, is rather an attempt to explore or to come to terms with some aspects of Irish and Indian culture and to tease out some of the philosophical implications for our world today; in other words, to see how they might enable us to think in a different way about ourselves and this world in which we live.
The Goddess Danu
Let us start with myth. The word mythos comes from the Greek and means ‘story’ or ‘narrative’; but it is a grand narrative that explains our origins and delineates the forces of good and evil. Mythology is not only about the origins of this world but that of another world that exists alongside it, the world of the gods. But one should be careful not to confuse mythology with the popular use of the word to denote something that is necessarily false. One cannot prove or disprove the existence of gods or the supernatural; they are an indelible part of the history of the human mind. As some critic once put it, every mythology is someone else’s religion. Therefore, in studying myth, we are not concerned about whether the gods actually existed, rather, the form of consciousness which believed in or posited the existence of such supernatural beings and the understanding of mankind that underpinned it. We are exploring the world of symbolism, from the Greek symbalein meaning ‘to throw together’; a symbol is suggestive of something beyond itself and intimates another world, a mysterious world more intuited than understood. The word mystery comes from a Greek verb meaning ‘to close the eyes and mouth’. Such practices are a long way from the cold light of scientific rationality.
It is said that in the beginning there was darkness upon the reddening volcanic earth until a drop of water trickled furtively from the barren soil. This trickle gathered pace becoming Danu, the goddess of the divine waters pouring herself over the earth. Soon the volcanoes were cooled and hardened into mountains, the darkness was lifted from the sky and the earth’s crust began to breath. Then a tree sprang from the animated soil, an oak tree. Primeval men named it Bile. When Danu and Bile mated two acorns fell to the ground bringing forth Dagda, ‘The Good God’ and Brigantu or Brigit, breos-saighit meaning ‘fiery arrow’ or ‘The Exalted One’. And thus, we are told, a great and steady migration of mankind began under the guidance of the meandering waters of Danubius, today’s Donau or Danube, Don, and also the Rhone (ro Dhanu, ‘Great Danu’). The story as we have it in Ireland says that Danu’s destination was an island on the western fringes of Europe, Inis Fáil, the isle of destiny and her children became known as the Tuatha De Danann, the ‘Children of Danu’.
This is the Celtic creation myth that has been handed down to us and it is a good place to start in our exploration of Irish-Indian relations as Danu also appears a mother goddess in the Rig-Veda of India. She is sometimes known as Anu or Ana; in Vedic mythology she is associated with the forces of evil, giving birth to the seven Danavas, ‘the dark beings of the ocean’. However, the notion of the evil ones being creatures of the ocean is also in Irish mythology in the form of the Fomorii ( fo-mhuir meaning ‘below the ocean).
The Fomorii are said to have fought the Tuatha De Danann in the Cath Maghtuireadh or the Battle of Moytur celebrated in the festival of Samhain 30th of October, the end of the Celtic year, and they were born of a goddess named Domnu, who is the evil counterpart of Danu. In the battle the leader of the Fomorii Balor of the Evil Eye is defeated by Lugh the god of light and wisdom when he flings a stone into Balor’s eye; we shall come back to Lugh later on.
Indian mythology recounts the struggle between the children of the Adityas, the children of the goddess Aditi, and the Danavas, the children of the Goddess Danu. Here the Danavas represent the forces of darkness. The Rig-Veda saga tells of the cosmic struggle of the sky-god Indra with the Danavan dragon Vrtra, who has caused a deadly drought. However, Indra’s thunderbolt releases the seven waters. In both myths the basic meaning is that of light conquering darkness. Lugh the sun-god conquers the dark forces of the children of Domnu while Indra the sun-god conquers the dark forces of the Danavas, releasing the divine waters once more. In both myths we have the notion of the primordial waters existing before creation and the triumph of life or light over darkness or death.
Some scholars have argued that the reason for the discrepancy of meaning between the Irish and Indian Danu is probably due to internal fighting between different Indo-European tribes. This is plausible when one considers the history of religion but Professor David Frawley has tried to explain the opposite meanings of the Irish and Indian Danus by drawing attention to a group of wind gods in the Rig Veda known as the Maruts. The Maruts, he claims, are often referred to as ‘sudanavas’, meaning ‘good Danus’. They are also associated with lightening and power and come in the form of ‘good’ serpents helping Indra to slay the dragon Vrtra. Their leader is Vishnu and they are the sons of Rudra (Shiva) and Prishni (Shakti). He writes:
‘ perhaps these Sudanavas or good Danus are the Maruts, who in their travels guided and led many peoples including the Celts and other European followers of Danu. As sons of Rudra, we not various Rudra like figures such as Cernunos among the Celts, who like Rudra is the lord of the animals and is portrayed in a yoga posture, as on the Gundestrop Cauldron in Copenhagen’
The seal in the National Musuem in Denmark ( Danemark meaning the mark or place of Danu), shows the Gaulish god Cernunnos surrounded by animals seated in the yoga position. In Hindu mythology the god Shiva is known by the epithet pasupati meaning ‘ lord of the animals’. Excavations in Mohenjo-Daro in northern India by Sir John Marshall revealed seals dedicated to the Pasupati suggesting worship of this god. However, we know that the civilizations of Mojenjo-Daro and Harappa are pre-Aryan or pre-Indo-European. What this suggests again is that the Indo-Europeans incorporated and subsumed previous cults making them part of their own; it is as though new mythologies take shape out of the fragments of the previous culture.Professor Myles Dillon makes the astonishing suggestion that the Sanskrit pasupati comes from peku-poti- ‘which in Irish would become Echoid, the name of many Irish kings, one of the names of the Dagda himself’.
The Sanskrit root da connotes the semantics of giving and is manifested in various forms in Indo-European languages as dare in Latin and Italian, dar in Spanish and Portuguese and mutates to tabhairt in Modern Irish. The notion of Danu of the divine waters conveys the sense of generosity, bountifulness, expansion, a primordial giving. However, in the Vedic myth, Danu becomes associated with the dragon as the representation of evil and has the opposite sense of contraction and drought.
Lug and Indra
There is also a similarity between Lugh and Indra. Both gods are associated with the Sun and light and neither of them were the leaders of their warring tribes. Lugh becomes the leader of the Tuatha Dé Danann for just thirteen days when he takes over from Nuada of the Silver Hand, while Indra only proves himself in the eyes of his peers when he defeats the dragon Vrtra. In the Vedic myth Indra is associated with the bull symbol reminiscent of the famous Irish epic ‘An Táin Bó Cuailgne’ The Cattle Raid Of Cooley, from which today’s Brú na Bóinne or Boyne Valley gets its name. The symbolism of the bull in terms of the sun and moon is common to most Indo-European and Hebraic cultures, but it is at this point that one can begin to detect the significant of Yeats’ mention of the Boyne Valley in the context of the orient. The Irish bó meaning cow or bull is cognate with Latin ‘bos’ and Greek bous. Linguists claim that the root of this word approximates to the Sanskrit gauh which mutated into ‘cow’, Kuh and krowa in Germanic and Slavic languages, while the Sanskrit ga was replaced by ‘bó’ in the Celtic and Italic tongues. However, in both instances what we have is a pre-Indo-European symbol appearing in both the Celtic and Vedic cultures, showing how they both incorporated and subsumed symbols of a previous culture. Bóand was also an Irish goddess of fertility represented in the form of a cow.
A peculiar feature of Indo-European languages is the fact that there the word for hand is different in all the various linguistic groups, for example, manus, cheir,hasta, hand and lám account for the Latin, Greek, Slavonic, Germanic and Celtic branches of Indo-European
respectively. From this anomaly some scholars such as Hermann Gǘntert
concluded that this was due to the cult of the god with the long hand. There
are Bronze-age rock-carvings in Sweden of such a fertility god with a long hand. This god also appears in the Caucasus and in Southern Russia. The Irish god Lugh is sometimes referred to as Lugh Samildánach ‘possessing many crafts’ but he is normally called Lug an Lámhfhada, Lug Of The Long Hand or arm. I have already mentioned the Indian word raj (king) which is cognate with the Irish rí and the German ‘Reich’. The notion of a king’s reach expressed in the image of the long hand is best revealed if we look at the German ‘Reich’. The German verb reichen or ereichen is cognate with the English reach and means the same. In this instance the German brings us back to Lug, but the Rig-Veda also tells us about the Indian god Savitar, who is described as stretching out his arms and as ‘having a large hand’(prthupani). So, here we have two sun-gods, the Celtic Lug and the Indian Savitar, whose accession across the firmament and cosmic power was likened in both instances to the stretching out of long hand or arm.
Although some discrepancies and variations occur with respect to the meaning some of the gods in the Celtic-Vedic pantheon, the similarties point incontrovertibly to a common origin. But what about the particular culture that arose out of these myths? How was this religion practised and who were the practicioners?
Druids and Brahmans
The word Vedas in Sanskrit means ‘ knowledge, wisdom, insight’, from the root vid meaning ‘to see’, hence the Latin ‘video’. The priests who practised this from of religion in Europe were called Druids. The word druid is composed of two words, dru meaning oak, like the Classical Greek drus and vid as in the aforementioned Sanskrit. So, a druid was literally an oak-seer. The oak tree was sacred to most European cultures, though not necessarily to India; this is probably due to the obvious geographical and topographical differences, for the tree plays a central role in Indian culture also, right up to Buddism of today.
The druids were the sacerdotal class of Celtic society. The Roman writer Strabo (40BCE) wrote, ‘ among all the tribes, generally speaking, there are three classes of men held in special honour: the Bards, the Vates and the Druids’.But Caesar more accurately describes the three classes as druides, equites, and plebs. These three classes correspond to a similar threefold structure in Vedic society, that of Brahmin; kshatriya and vaishya, meaning ‘priest’, ‘warrior’ and ‘husbandsman’ respectively. In more recent Irish history, that is to say, up until the 12th century, Irish society showed a threefold structure of fili, flaith and aitheach. The fili were poets, historians and lawyers and were the equivalent to the pagan druids. The flaith was a warrior or nobleman corresponding to the equites, while the aitheach was a labourer of the land.
Like the Brahmins of India, the Irish Druids were held in very high esteem by their people. The image of the druid in white robes practising divination under the oak trees come from the writings of the Roman author Pliny the Elder (1BCE). The Druids took twenty years to learn their craft while the Brahmins are said to have studied for 12 years.
Ancient Ireland and Ancient India show remarkable similarities of law and custom. The laws of India are called the Laws of Manu while the Irish system is known as the Fenchas Mór or more popularly the Brehon Laws, from the Irish breitheamh meaning ‘ to judge’. There are ten forms of marriage under Brehon law. There are eight under the Laws of Manu. Comparisons also come to the fore in the procedure for legal redress. In both sets of laws fasting is mandatory. The Sanskrit of this is prayopavesana ‘waiting for death’. This involved the creditor fasting outside his debtor’s house until a solution had been reached. In the Fenchas Mór the procedure requires the guilty party to fast aswell, but here the debtor is also required to fast until a pledge is given to submit to arbitration.
Regarding the cosmologies of the Celts and Vedics, there are also a number of parallels. The Celts believed in four interrelating realms of existence; the netherworld, the earth world, the heavenly world of the dead and the white realm of supreme deities. The Vedic cosmology also has four different interrelating worlds: the astral world of the dead, world of deities, supreme being and primal energy aswell as a fourth nertherworld. In both instances the worlds are divided up into different realms inhabited by spirits.
The Celtic word for the realm of earth is bitus, giving the Modern Irish ‘bith’; this word is cognate with the Sanskrit bhu which is the word used by the Brahmins for the earth world. Both the Celtic and Vedic cultures had a similar word for the divine, devos in Celtic, deva in Sanskrit, both meaning ‘shinning one’. Metempsychosis or the doctrine of the transmigration of souls was central to the Druidic religion; in spite of its centrality to Hinduism there is no clear reference to this in the Vedic texts but in book 4 of the Rig-Veda it reads:
‘ for thou at first producest for the holy Gods the noblest of all portions, immortality: thereafter as a gift to men, o Savitar, thou openest existence, life succeeding life.’
The word for soul in Sanskrit is atmen, the Irish is anam . We are told that both Brahmin and Druid practised a form of meditative breathing that generated body heat and produced ecstasy; they also performed sacrifices over fire. The Vedic fire-god Agni and the Celtic Aedh are unmistakably close, as are the sun-gods Sulios in Celtic and Surya in Sanskrit. Even the putative words of invocation in both cultures suggest a common origin, gutuater in Celtic and hotar in Sanskrit.
One of the most intriguing discoveries in Celtic scholarship was the Coligny manuscript, whose astral calculations show that they were made about 1100 BCE, and again show startling similarities to Vedic cosmology.
In a gloss on a manuscript in Wurzburg the word budh is used to denote a ‘point of fire’ or the ‘planet Mercury’. Budh is also the word used in the Vedas to name the planet Mercury. In the Sanas Chormaic, a tenth century Irish dictionary, the word budh/bott is given as ‘Áine’s fire. Áine is a Celtic deity often associated with the moon. We find boudi and budh in all Celtic languages. It is the root of the Modern Irish word buachaint ‘to win’ and bua ‘victory’; its basic meaning is to be victorious, elevated, exulted, enlightened ;it actually appears as boud, the verb ‘to be’ in Breton. It is the meaning of the British warrior queen, Boadicea, who revolted again Roman rule in AD 60. This would suggest that Buddhists everywhere have at least some knowledge of Irish!
The ancient Bardic poetry of Ireland and the poems of praise in the Vedic tradition show a common source. These were called danastuti ‘praise of generosity’ or narasamsi ‘praise of a warrior’ in the Rig-Veda. They often eulogized a king’s prowess or at the opening of a horse-sacrifice. Horse sacrifices continued in Ireland until the middle ages. We know that the horse was associated with the sun. The Sanskrit word for horse harat also means ‘bright’, ‘replendent’ or ‘light of the morning’. There is another Sanskrit word which links our two traditions asvamedha ‘horse drunk’; it refers to the banquet in which a horse was sacrificed. Medhu in Sanskrit; meduos in Gaulish, methys in Greek; medus in Old Church Slavonic; mead in English and the Modern Irish meisce all mean ‘drunk’. A tribe in Zagarros in modern day Iran around 830 BCE were called Medes, presumably due to their dipsomania!
Celtic-Vedic and Indo-Irish philosophies
There is one more aspect of our two cultural traditions which leads us to the heart of philosophical enquiry and that is the Celtic and Vedic conception of truth. Truth as a form of cosmic order is called rta in the Vedic texts. It is conceived as the fons et origo (source and origin) of the universe beyond gods and men. The term Brahman, ‘holy power’, from the root brh, ‘to grow, to increase, to roar’. The power of the hymns is in the chanting or the roar itself. The god Brihaspati, is the lord (pati) of the roaring power (brh), the patron of the Brahmans. The texts speak of rivers flowing with truth, the sun spreading out from truth etc:
‘By means of Truth the sun is warm, by means of Truth the sun shines, by means of Truth the wind blows, by means of Truth the earth endures.’
This notion of truth as an all-pervasive and originary force is also common in Irish literature. In ‘The Testament of Morann’, an early Irish text, a prince is instructed in the noble virtues:
‘ Let him magnify truth, it will magnify him
Let him strengthen truth, it will strengthen him.
Let him guard truth, it will guard him.
Let him exalt truth, it will exalt him.’
Druidic priests refused to write down their knowledge; they believed that the recitation of their verses had magical power. Some theorists claim that this is the origin of the word Celt; in Modern Irish ceilt means ‘to hide’. But the Proto-Indo-European root kel ‘to hit’ is more likely. Truth for the Druids became actual in its verbal invocation. The word had magical significance. We can hear echoes of this in John’s Gospel where it says that in the beginning was the word (logos) and the word was with God and the word was God. Certainly, this notion of divine pronunciation through sacred texts is still the basis of the world’s great religions.
The 18th German philosopher Immanuel Kant posed what has to be the central problem of Modern Philosophy, namely, how the thinking subject or human being can know the object of experience. What is the basis of my knowledge? Who am I? Is there such as thing as a unified self rather than just a bundle of sensations which gives the illusion of being a self? Kant concluded that we can only know objects as they appear to us but not as they are in themselves. One of his successors Arthur Schopenhaur, who read Indian philosophy, concluded that the world and the being who perceives it are illusory; the world is merely my representation with no basis in reality. For Schopenhaur, suffering is the basic form of human existence and this is caused by what he calls the Wille-Zum-Leben, the will-to-life, the infinite desires that characterize the life of man. For Schopenhauer there were two possibilities of release: death and the contemplation of art.This idea is taken straight from his readings of Vedantic and Buddhist philosophy and it is the notion of maya or illusion. For the Vedic philosopher brahman is the ultimate reality. In the Upanishads the realization of the equation of the soul (atmen) with brahmen the divine creative power of the universe is the ultimate goal. The escape from the vicissitudes of the empirical world is the aim; for the basic state of being is suffering (duhkha) and this world is illusion, maya. Reunion with Brahmin can only come about through release, moksha. The selflessness, stoicism and asceticism of this philosophy appealed to Schopenhaur. Another German philolgist, philosopher and vigorous polemicist Frederich Nietzche also sees the problems of European philosophy as having been anticipated and overcome in the Vedantic thought of India.( Vedantic means that philosophy arising out of the Vedas, the goal of the Vedas) Speaking of Kant’s attempt to reconcile the thinking subject with objective reality, Nietzsche exclaims:
‘the possibility of an apparent existence of the subject and therefore of the ‘soul’, may not always have been strange to him- the thought which once had an immense power on earth as the Vedanta philosophy’.
In the context of European culture Ireland has produced little in the field of philosophy; this is partly due to the anti-intellectual influence of the Roman Catholic Church after the 12th century Norman Invasion of Ireland and again in the early years of Independence. One of the difficulties in identifying a uniquely Irish way of seeing the world is probably due to consequences of the druidic aversion to writing. It was the arrival of Christianity in the 5th century CE which introduced mass literacy to Ireland. This did lead to a glowing period of intellectual activity with the foundation of monasteries in Ireland and on the European continent, but the predominant textual influences were Greek and Latin. However, if we accept that these Vedic texts in some sense constitute our own intellectual heritage, then it follows that Christianity in Ireland was grafted onto a similar philosophical soil. With this in mind we could read some Vedic ideas into the 9th century Irish philosopher Johannes Scotus Eriugena’s conception of nature, which some commentators have understood to be a form of pantheism. Pantheism is the idea that nature and God are one, nature being a manifestation of the divine being. Though certainly influenced by mystic Greek writers such as Plato,Plotinus and Proclus, it is by no means inconceivable that Eriugena would have drawn upon a particularly Celtic-Vedic Weltanschauung or world view. Eriugena had a major influence on German Idealist philosophers such as Georg Frederich Hegel, who declared in one of his lectures that Eriugena was where true philosophy begins. Put simply, Idealism is the view that the external world, the world in which we live is somehow mind-dependent. But his Eriugena’s ideas did not find favour with the Church and Pope Honorius III promptly burned his great work Periphyseon in 1225! Our seventeenth century philosopher, Bishop Berkeley, though certainly no Gael, went so far as to claim that all our knowledge of this world is based on ideas or illusions and that the origin of these ideas was God. Since it was impossible to know how we formed ideas through the senses, the ecclesiastical Berkeley induced a divine Being as the source. Both of these Irish philosophers formulated theories which are in some respects not unlike the philosophies of India. WB Yeats had a life-long friendship with the Indian writer Rabindrath Tagore, who introduced him to Vedantic philosophy. There are certainly traces of Indian thought in some of Yeats’s mature work. Yeats wrote “ it was my first meeting with a philosophy that confirmed my vague speculations and seemed at once logical and bounless”.
More recently, another Irish philosopher the late John Moriarty has written philosophical books drawing on Celtic and Vedic ideas. Moriarty extols the serenity and sense of wonder of the Indian ‘sage who comes back speaking Upanishads amongst us.’
‘Then the gods said to Indra: “O thou Worshipful One, find out what that specter is.” “Yes” he answered; and he ran toward it, but it vanished before him. In that very place he came upon a woman of great beauty, Uma Haimavati, the Daughter of the Snowy Mountain. He asked her: “What was that spectre?” She answered: “Brahman. Through the victory of that Brahman you attained the glory in which you take such pride.” From this Indra learned of Brahman.’
Apart from these abstruse speculations, one of the features of mythology that interest me is the way in which aspects and motifs of conquered cultures are subsumed into the narratives of their conquerors. Sometimes these motifs and symbols are distorted to reflect the ideology of the new hegemonic culture. The Aryan tribes who invaded the ancient Indian civilizations of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa were patriarchal and showed contempt for what they perceived as the phallic-worship of the previous culture; the male sky-gods Indra and Vishnu are extolled and a male-dominated society takes shape. And yet the Maha Kali, the primordial mother goddess who is pre-Aryan, pre-Indo-European, asserts herself. It is through his encounter with a woman of great beauty that Indra is initiated into Vedic wisdom. As Heinrich Zimmer writes:
‘ In this episode of the Kena Upanishad, where the mother goddess appears for the first time in the orthodox religious and philosophical tradition of India, she- womanhood incarnate- becomes the guru of the male gods. She is represented as their mystagogue, their initiator into the most profound and elementary secret of the universe, which is, in fact, her own essence’
What is interesting is the way in which the warlike, masculine ideology of the Indo-Europeans is infiltrated or even absorbed by what appears to be a pre-existent cult of the goddess. This veneration of woman as a symbol of fertility and the cycles of the seasons is still a feature of Hinduism today with people speaking of ‘mother India’.
One could argue that the Celtic branch of the Indo-European family was less inimical to women than that of the Vedic; there were apparently women druids and women play a prominent role in the mythology. Ireland itself is called after a triple goddess known as Éirú, Banbha and Fodhla, and it is Eiriú which has stayed with us, from the Sanskrit arya ‘noble’, which is also the origin of the word Iran. It is almost impossible to tell if the veneration of women is Celtic is due to the culture of pre-Indo-European Ireland, but the arrival of patriarchal Christianity in the fifth century CE put an end to the role of the goddess. We mentioned Brigit earlier. Although worshiped as both a warrior goddess (her Indo-European name sometimes derived from briga ‘strife) and as a fertility deity, she becomes a docile saint under the new patriarchal Christian order. We also see covert manifestations of this primordial goddess worship in Ireland’s worship of the Virgin Mother Mary. Though Mary is de-sexualised and therefore de-naturalised in Christian culture, her mass devotion in Ireland certainly has its roots in our pagan past; as in India, it may even precede the arrival of the Aryan Celts, but it was like the Maha Kali of India, subsumed by the new culture, and like the spectre which Indra saw, it haunts the new warlike order, reminding it of its origins and, at the same time, its lack of wisdom. The Kali of India also haunts Irish Christian culture in the form of the Sheela na Gig, a vulva opening goddess depicted in some Irish churches. Her origin is obscure but the Irish word for witch is cailleach and she resembles the Indian Kali.
Some theorists claim that early Irish goddess associations with war, as in the case of the Goddess Macha and Morrigan but also Brigit, reflect a patriarchal interpretation of pre-Indo-European culture. It is a strange phenomenon that all the great religions of the world have been patriarchal in structure, leading inevitably to the denigration of the female role in society, when one considers that for thousands of years before the advent of all these religions goddess worship reigned supreme. This is reflected in the circular designs in Brú na Bóinne and in the many sculptures of goddesses around 25000 years ago. It is a cyclical view of the universe. In this world-view the serpent who sheds its skin every year represents the cyclical nature of the seasons becoming a symbol of life. In such a culture black becomes a symbol of fertile soil while white becomes representative of death, the opposite view of our Indo-European heritage. There is also a striking absence of warfare symbols in pre-Indo-European culture.
The development of our Indo-European heritage began in tandem with the taming of the horse; the invention of the chariot , the creation of new weapons such as the bow and arrow and the spear, as well as the ascendancy of the male gods and their concomitant ideology of war and conquest. Scholars have identified these as being an essential factor in the Indo-European expansion. Professor Marja Gimbutas amasses an extraordinary amount of evidence to argue that the pre-Indo-European cultures of Europe were matri-focal, and that their interpretation of time was circular in accordance with the seasons. She also interprets the goddess figurines of the Neolithic period as portraying a pacifist ideology. She writes,
‘ The Goddess-centered art with it striking absence of images of warfare and male domination, reflects a social order in which women as heads of clans or queen-priestesses played a central part. Old Europe and Anatolia, as well as Minoan Crete, were a gylany’.
Gylany is a neologism from the Greek gy for woman and andros for man.If this is the case, could it also account for the ideologies of the civilizations of Mohejo-Daro and Harappa? Could this have been the dragon that Indra slayed, Vrtra the son of Danu, the primordial earth goddess? These are possibilities which require further study.
In Paleolithic times when reproduction was understood as an act of magic, part of a woman’s body were given macrocosmic significance. This accounts for the many symbols of breasts, buttocks, vulva etc which have been excavated from this time. If we look again at the myths in Irish and Vedic texts of the primordial waters which precede creation and their association with the goddess, the association with the pre-natal amniotic fluid becomes plausible. Similar structures to our Megalithic dolmens are to be found in India where they are known as Sarasvati. It is possible that our connections even precede our Indo-European cultures.
This idea of pre-Indo-European cultures being a gylany, a society where men and women were equal, has been vigorously disputed by other anthropologists who have presented some evidence to the contrary. But the very fundamental tension between the sky-cult of the male gods and the earth-cult of the female manifests itself throughout Indo-European culture. It is not only a binary opposition that reflects the difference of the sexes; on a more fundamental level it reflects the opposition of nature and civilization.
Our realization today that the temperature of the earth and the ecological order are being adversely affected by the activities of man suggests that this conflict is approaching its historical apogee. In spite of our scientific progress the world is still mired in war and barbaric destruction. The invention of new technologies has always produced new and more lethal weapons, new and more efficacious ways of killing. The invention of the chariot was decisive for the expansion of our Indo-European ancestors, but the very word itself contains its nefarious darker side. Ca in Celtic means ‘together or both’ as in the Latin co. Riot means a ‘wheel’; so the chariot is the two-wheeled machine. However, the Indo-European root ratha is the word for wheel. In Old Church Slavonic rati means war or battle. Modern Serbian has rat for war. The Old Irish word is rátha while Modern Irish has ruathar meaning ‘ to attack’; this is cognate with the Greek aritmos for riding and the Greek verb rhaein ‘to destroy’; it gives us the English riot, the Latin rota and the German ritter -‘knight’ and ausrotten meaning ‘ to extinguish or annihilate. The later example should serve as a note of caution; Hitler’s barbarians used the verb ausrotten a lot when they believed they were the heirs of Ancient Aryan supremacy. The taming of the horse and the chariot enabled man to conquer nature but it also enabled him to conquer his fellow human beings. The chariot became synonymous with war and destruction just as the airplane was and still is used to drop bombs. The advancement of knowledge has also meant the exhaustion of the planet’s resources and the destruction of nature’s equilibrium.The poet Horace once remarked ‘Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret-Even though you drive her out with a pitch-fork, nature always returns. In his insatiable desire to control and exact profit from the resources of the earth, homo sapiens has become homo rapiens, rapacity has replaced sagacity. Now with the threat of ecological disaster upon us, it is about time we took nature seriously, and it is in this context that our ancient mythological and linguistic heritage can provide continuous intellectual and spiritual nourishment, for it is only by tracing historical paths of introspection that we can come to terms with our world today. If a certain form of thinking has brought about these circumstances, a form of reason that has alienated us from ourselves and our environment, then it is clear that a new intellectual paradigm is needed. I am not talking about an ou-topia a ‘non-place’, but an eu-topia, simply a ‘good place’, a better world. One should not allow the cynical ideology of our times to confuse the former with the later.
When speaking with the Persian King Xerxes, the Greek leader Themistocles remarked that
“the speech of man is like rich carpets, the patterns of which can only be shown by spreading them out; when the carpets are folded up the patterns are obscured and lost”
Modern Irish and Hindi, Sanskrit and Old Irish, these languages and the rich mythologies they created reveal, when they are unfolded and spread out, the unique and brilliant tapestry of our common heritage, the fathomless depths and soaring heights of the Indo-European mind. As the Eastern and Western tributaries of Danu, our two cultures echo in unison across the Eurasian continent.