2. The Goddess Transformed

Questions to consider . . .

  • Why are the five brothers being tested?
  • How are the different women in this story transformed?
  • Why is water such an important part of the Sovereignty Goddess’ myth?

The Sovereignty Goddess contains within herself the sacred feminine, just as the king or the great hero contains within himself the sacred masculine (yes, these aristocratic myths do have very fixed gender roles!)

Knowing that the sacred feminine is also part of the Goddess, we could, for example, reword the question:

How is water connected to the sacred feminine?

. . . or perhaps even . . .

What aspect of the sacred feminine is represented by water?

Now, as well as containing the sacred feminine, the Sovereignty Goddess is also specifically a goddess who has a relationship with a king, and as we’ve already seen, the drink — or in this case the water — can symbolise the gift she gives him.

What is that gift?

Further Reading

The paper linked below discusses how women generally feature in Medieval Irish Literature, and includes a broad overview of the subject, including some of the texts we’ve already covered and several others you may wish to read.

Women in Early Irish Myths and Sagas

Notes and References

Red Hand of the O'Neils
Red hand of the O’Neills
Dyfi Estuary
Circe, Williams
Maiden, Mother, Crone


  • Echtra Mac nEchach (‘The Adventures of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedón’) c. 1000, in John Kock (ed.), The Celtic Heroic Age, trans. John Carey, 203-8:

[The king of Ireland] had five sons: Brian, Ailill, Fiachra, Fergus, Niall. [The queen] . . . was the mother of Brian and Fiachra and Fergus and Ailill. Cairenn . . . daughter of [the] king of the Saxons, was the mother of Niall. The queen had a hatred of Niall, for it was in infidelity to her that the king had begotten him upon Cairenn; and so the queen put great hardship upon Cairenn. 

This is how great the hardship was: she alone had to carry the water of Tara, and every slave woman was left to her own will apart from her. And she was forced to do all this when she was pregnant with Niall, so that the infant might perish in her womb. She reached her time of giving birth, and for all that she did not cease from her toil. Then she bore a son upon the green of Tara, lying beside her bucket. 

And she did not dare to take the boy up from the ground but left him in that place exposed to the birds; and none of the men of Ireland dared to take him away for fear of [the queen], for everyone stood in great fear of her. After that Torna the poet came into the midst of the green and saw the baby all alone, and the birds attacking him. Torna took the boy into his bosom, and revealed to him everything which would happen after that . . . 

After that Torna took the boy with him and reared him; and neither Torna nor his foster-son came to Tara after that until the boy was fit for kingship. After that he and Niall came to Tara, and came upon Cairenn fetching water to Tara. Then Niall said to her, ‘Leave the work alone.’ ‘I do not dare’ she said, ‘because of the queen.’ ‘My mother will not be toiling,’ he said, ‘and I the son of the king of Ireland.’ Then he brought her to Tara, and put a purple garment upon her. The queen was angry, and thought ill of that. The men of Ireland were saying then that Niall would be king after his father. [The queen] said to [the king]: ‘Judge between your sons,’ said she, ‘which of them will get your inheritance.’ . .

 . . . Then the boys went and hunted. They went far astray after that, after [the wood] closed up around them on every side. When they rested from their wandering they built a fire and cooked some of what they had killed in the hunt, and ate until they were full. After that they were parched with a great thirst from the cooking. ‘Let someone go to find us water,’ they said. ‘I will go,’ said Fergus. The lad went to find water until he came upon a well; and he found an old woman guarding the well. This is how the hag was: every joint and limb of her from top to toe as black as coal. 

The gray bristly hair growing through the top of her head was like the tail of a wild horse. She could cut off the green branch of an acorn-bearing oak with the sickle of green teeth that was in her head, reaching to her ear. Her eyes were black and smoky; her nose crooked and wide-nostrilled; her belly sinewy, speckled, fluxy, diseased; her shins crooked, twisted, knotty, broad as shovels; and she had big knees and gray nails. Fearsome was the appearance of the hag.

‘Well, then,’ said the lad. ‘Well, then, indeed,’ said she. Are you guarding the well?’ said the lad. ‘I am,’ said she. ‘Will you permit me to take some of the water with me?’ he said. ‘I will,’ she said, ‘if I get a kiss on the cheek from you.’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘No water will be obtained from me,’ she said. ‘I give my word,’ he said, ‘that I would sooner die of thirst than give you a kiss.’

After that the lad went to where his brothers were, and told them that he had not found water. Ailill went in search of water, and came upon the same well, and refused to kiss the hag; and he turned back without water and did not admit that he had found the well. Brian, the eldest of the sons, went in search of water and came upon the same well; and he refused to kiss the hag and turned back without water.

Fiachra went and found the well and the hag and asked for water. ‘I will give it,’ she said; and give me a kiss for it.’ He gave her a peck [on the cheek]. ‘You will visit Tara,’ she said. That came true: two kings of his race obtained the kingship of Ireland, Dathi and Ailill Molt; and none obtained it from the race of the other sons, Brian, Ailill, and Fergus. Then he turned back without water.

Niall went in search of water and came upon the same well. ‘Give me water, woman,’ he said. ‘I will,’ said she; and give me a kiss.’ ‘Besides giving a kiss, I will lie beside [you].’ Then he sank down upon her and gave her a kiss. But when he looked upon her after that, there was no girl in the world whose manner or appearance were lovelier than hers. Every joint of her from top to toe was like new-fallen snow in hollows.

She had plump queenly forearms, long slender fingers, straight rosy calves, with two sandals of white metal on her gentle soft white feet and a great mantle of purple fleece upon her clasped with a brooch of white silver. She had bright pearly teeth, and a large sagacious eye, and a mouth red as partaing. ‘That is a change of shape, woman,’ said the lad. ‘That is true,’ she said. ‘Who are you?’ said the lad. ‘I am the sovereignty . . . ,’ she said. And she said this:

‘King of Tara, I am the sovereignty;

I will tell you its great benefit.

      [It will belong] to your descendants forever, above every kindred;

that is the true reason for which I speak.

With your hospitality, and harsh advance in battle,

men will not be able to withstand you.

You will be strong and skilful . . . ;

you will be a bloodstained victorious leader.

Brilliant sturdy Tara will be yours,

and supremacy over the men of Ireland;

your progeny will not be deprived of its fief

save [by] two from the lineage of Fiachra.

. . .

‘Go now to your brothers,’ she said, ‘and take water with you. And you and your descendants will have the kingship forever except for two from the race of Fiachra—Dathi and Ailill Molt—and one king from Munster—Brian Bóroma. All of those kings will be without opposition. And as you have seen me at first fearsome, wolfish, terrifying, and at last beautiful, thus is the sovereignty: for it is not obtained without battle and conflicts; but at last it is fair and gracious to anyone.

But do not give the water to your brothers until they give you gifts: until they cede their seniority to you, and you hang up your weapon a hand’s breadth above theirs.’ ‘It will be done thus,’  said the lad. After that the lad said goodbye to her, and took the water to his brothers; and he did not give it to them until they granted every condition which he asked of them as the girl had instructed him. Then he bound them not to go against him or his descendants forever.