By: Celtic Bard Jeff
Water had a special magic for the Celts as a symbol of vitality and inspiration. The fact that it could capture lights (for example, a reflection of the setting sun) could not be rationally explained and was taken as proof of supernatural properties. Wells and springs were charged with magic powers. Lakes and rivers were the dwelling-places of otherworldly beings, like the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legend.
Áine is the Celtic Goddess of love, the sun, fertility, water, summer, and sovereignty. She is honoured for her ability to grant abundance and fertility over the land. Being a Goddess of the sun Áine is said to have been given the nickname “bright”.
Áine is also known as a Faery Queen and was honoured as such in the province of Munster. It is said in myth that Áine made love to many humans which created a magical race of faery people. Some people today are said to be related to this race. Daughter to Eogabal, king of the síd of Knocking. Áine is also honoured as a lunar deity. She is said to have been able to shape-shift into “The Red Mare”, the horse who could never be outrun.
In Celtic myth, Áine was almost raped by King Aillil Aulom of Munster. This ended with Áine biting off the king’s ear which gave him the name “Aulom” which means “one-eared”. Because of this Áine saw the king unfit to rule and took away his sovereignty over the land.
There is another tale in which Áine did not get out so lucky. While bathing, Áine was approached by Gerald, Earl of Desmond. She was not able to protect herself from being raped this time. Áine became pregnant and gave birth to a son, the second Earl of Desmond. It is said that she did indeed make Gerald pay for what he did by turning him into a goose. ¹
Áine is honoured at Mid-Summer when the land and animals are at their peak of abundance and fertility. She is also celebrated at Lughnasadh. Áine is a nature Goddess and is associated with all the animals, flowers, and the land. Áine was worshiped in the province of Munster and in Co Limerick there is a hill that is sacred to her called Knockainey Hill. She is also associated with lakes and rivers.
Áine is often remembered as a Celtic goddess of love. But she was also a deity of wealth, sovereignty, and the summer. Her sensitive and joyful personality brought her many followers in the Celtic world. The heart of her cult was located in Limerick, Ireland, though her fame spread like the sun’s rays over many other regions.
Associations between Áine with Venus, Aphrodite, and any other love deity are vague. She was an overly complex goddess. One may assume that the goddess of love would have had bright and happy myths surround her, however the legends about Áine are rather depressing. Stories often told of the goddess being raped and murdered, as well as facing many other difficult situations.
Yet these sad stories actually brought her closer to the women who lived in the tough Celtic world. It is important to remember that when the Celtic army worked for others or fought for their land, women also had to protect their homes, towns, and settlements. Therefore, death, cruelty, and sexual abuse were unfortunately quite common for women.
Despite the sad tales, Áine brought women hope and reminded them of the joys of summer and more pleasant times. This may be why she was worshipped instead of some other deities.
Celtic legends say that Áine was the daughter of Egobail, who was a member of the legendary Tuatha Dé Danann. In folklore, she was also recognized as the wife of the sea god Manannan Mac Lir – a deity who was very important for Celtic warriors. In ancient Irish myths and legends, Áine is described as a Faery Queen, a goddess of the earth and nature, and a lady of the lake. It was believed she brought luck and good magic to her worshippers. Some identify her as a brighter side of the famous goddess Morrigan.
Áine is also known as the goddess who taught humans the meaning of love. She took many human men as lovers and bore many Faerie-Human children. There are countless stories about her escapades with human lovers. Most of the stories about Áine and her lovers were happy and peaceful tales, but some were also sad or disturbing.
One of the unpleasant legends speaks of a man who didn't want to learn the meaning of love but was only driven by his sexual desires. This lout was the King of Munster called Ailill Aulom. According to the traditional story, he raped Áine, so she bit off his ear - which made people call him ‘One-eared Aulom.’
In Old Irish law, kings needed to have a perfect appearance and a complete body. Thus, Aulom lost his authority. This story shows that Áine was also a powerful goddess of sovereignty. As a deity, she granted power to good people, but also took it away from the bad ones.
The legendary story attributed to Cormac mac Culennain, king bishop of Cashel (d.908), published in the Leabhar Laighnigh c. 12th century AD explains this tale. It says:
1. Let one of you ask me the history of the wonderful yew: why is it alone called the Yew of the Disputing Sons?
2. Of what wood is the poisonous, handsome tree – subject of such treachery? What nature of friendship originally existed before the disputing sons gave their name to it?
3. From his territory Ailill chose this meadow for the pasture of his horses: from Dun Clare to Dun Gair, from Ane to Dun Ochair.
4. The slender sidhe-folk disliked this invasion of their land; they used to destroy the grass every Samhain – no story to equal this!
5. Ailill went with Ferchess mac Comman to view the fine grass; they saw on the plain three cows and three people herding them.
6. ’These are the thieves!’ said Ailill, haughtily. ’A woman and two men, without doubt, and their three hornless cows.’
7. ’It is they who have trampled the grass and consumed our property to rob us, singing the sweet music of the sidhe to put the race of Adam to sleep.’
8. ’If they are singing the music of the sidhe,’ said Ferchess mac Comman, ’let us go no nearer until we melt some wax for our ears!’
9. They could not hear the sweet music after they had thrust wax into their ears. Suddenly, each party saw the other: a surprising encounter!
10. Furiously, Eogabul (of the sidhe) and Ailill grappled point to point; Eogabul was stricken down, and Áine (of the sidhe) was overthrown.
11. Ailill came to Áine, overpowered her and lay upon her; he had knowledge of her then, not by consent but by force.’
12. Áine took her knife to Ailill, no lying testimony mine! She sliced off his right ear from the head bent over her, so that afterwards he was called Ailill Bare-ear.
13. This enraged Ailill then; he thrust his spear into Áine; he did her no honour, he left her dead.''
Although Áine died in this story, she remained immortal in Irish mythology and in the pantheon of Irish deities. As a goddess of the moon, she also became a deity of agriculture and cared for the crops. Her celebration took place on August 1st.
Áine is also part of the Triple Goddess group with her two sisters - Fenne and Grainne. Tradition says that during the full moon they ride their horses and play in the Lough Gur, a lake dedicated to Áine in County Limerick.
The old deities still have a place in modern Ireland. With the rising popularity of Brigid, Morrigan, and several other ancient goddesses, the cult of Áine appears to be expanding once again as well. Her cult is still strong in and around Limerick, but with the continued growth of the religion called Wicca, her story is also spreading. ²
Sources: ¹ Stair na hÉireann; ² Ancient Origins Images: Illustration of Áine. Photo Source: ( © Caroline Evans ) Tradition says that Áine and her sisters Fenne and Gráinne play in Lough Gur. ( Patryk Kosmider /Adobe Stock)