The Raven, The Horse, The Goddess
The Raven, The Horse, The GoddessBy Sorita d’Este
“I knew by the voice of the raven, each morning since you journeyed from me, that your downfall was true and certain.”
The Lay of the Wife of Meargach, Ossianic Society 4:173.
In the British Isles, the Raven is probably the bird most commonly found associated with Gods and Goddesses who were worshipped and celebrated here by our ancestors. The Raven also occurs on a regular basis in the mythology and symbolism of the Saxon and Norse deities. Likewise worship of horse Goddesses was widely spread throughout the Celtic world. Horses represented wealth and power, and their speed and nobility were seen as being a way to be closer to the Gods. Horses further feature heavily in Celtic Christian literature, further emphasising their enduring importance as religious icons.
Probably the best known association of a Goddess with Ravens can be found in tales of The Morrígan, the Irish Celtic Battle Goddess, who is known for her shapeshifting abilities, particular when she appears as Badb (whose name translates as “raven” or “crow”) an example of which is found in this old manuscript [MSS Trinity H3.18]:
“It is one of the three Morrígna, that is Macha and Badb and Morrígan. Whence Mesrad Machae, Macha’s mast, that is the heads of men after their slaughter. As Dub Ruise said: There are rough places yonder, where men cut off Macha’s mast; where they drive young calves into the fold; where the raven-women instigate battle.”
In the Táin Bó Cúailnge we see the Morrígan appear as a raven when she warns the Brown Bull of Cúailnge of the impending attempt to steal him, whilst Badb appears in her raven form to stand on the dying hero Cú Chulainn’s shoulder.
The entire race of Giants, the race of Gods known as the Túatha dé Danann, is symbolised as ravens in the prophetic dream of Eochaid, King of the Fir Bolgs during the First Battle of Moytura. In this dream, recounted in the Cath Muighe Tuireadh, Eochaid sees a great flock of black birds invading Ireland.
But it is not only the Morrígan who appears as a Raven, the name of the Welsh Goddess Branwen translates as “white raven”, so it is clear that she also was seen as being associated with these birds. In Gaul Epona, who is usually associated with horses was sometimes depicted with ravens, as was the Gallic Goddess Nantosuelta.
Macha, one of the three Morrígna discussed above, was undoubtedly associated with horses. Her name which means “pasture” links her to grazing land, indicating a possible equine link, but it is in her role as the divine, yet mortal bride of the wealthy farmer Crunnchu we find the most obvious links. As his wife she brings him great prosperity, but she warns him to never boast about her to anyone.
Of course he ignored her warnings and boasted to others that his wife could run so fast that she would easily outrun the King’s horses. The King upon hearing this boast imprisons Crunnchu and the only way for Macha to save her husband is to run against the King’s horses in at the Ulster Assembly. Appealing to the crowd and the King, Macha who is nine months pregnant, asks them to let her first deliver her babies. She pleas saying with them saying: “a mother bore each one of you”, but her pleading is ignored and she is forced to run. As a result she warns them that she would curse all of Ulster for what they were doing to her. As she wins the race she gives birth to twins, dying in the process. As she does so she curses the Ulstermen with the “ces noinden” a weakness curse which would cause them to become as helpless as a woman in childbirth for five days and four nights whenever they needed their strength the most. This would last for nine generations and laid the foundations for many future events.
The Welsh Goddess Rhiannon had a white horse that could outrun any horse without even breaking sweat and when she was unjustly punished for killing her son (who was in fact still alive) as recorded in Pwyll Prince of Dyved, in the White Book of Rhydderch she was forced to take the role of a horse herself, carrying people as punishment.
The Gallic Epona, who was adopted by the Roman army and brought to the British Isles is probably the best known horse Goddess. Her name means “Divine Horse” and the depictions of her usually show her riding a horse. The Goddess Áine was also sometimes known as “Lair Derg” meaning “Red Mare” which might suggest that she was also given equine qualities.
But the Raven and Horse were not exclusively linked to Goddesses, they are also strongly linked to a number of Gods. Famously the Saxon God Woden’s two ravens, Huginn and Muninn (“Thought” and “Memory”) would fly around the world each day and then return to his shoulders to report what they had seen.
Other Gods associated with Ravens include the Irish God Lugh, who is warned by two ravens of the approach of the Fomorians before the Second Battle of Moytura. In the founding myth of Lugudunum (London) recorded in De Flavis of pseudo-Plutarch, I.4. we learn that the location of the new city was chosen when a flock of ravens landed there, the reason why it was named after Lugh, the God of Ravens! A further association with the city of London and Ravens is found through the “Tower of London” which was built on “Bryn Gwyn” (White Hill) the location where Bran’s head was buried to keep Britain safe from invasion, which it did until King Arthur dug it up and chucked it into the Thames declaring that he was the only protector Britain needed. The name “Bran” also means “raven” and so the belief was born that if the ravens ever left the Tower of London terrible disaster would befall Britain, which is why to this day some are kept at the Tower of London.
The associations between horses and male Gods are fewer, but they do exist. The Irish God Fergus is given the name “Son of Ro-ech” which means “Great Horse” thus indicating an association. He is described as having large genitals, which certainly fits in with horselike features. Less known is the “Rider God” of whom images linking him with horses have been found all over Britain, the number of brooches found depicting him from all the British Isles suggests that he was a very popular figure with the Roman legionnaires.