That fairies were supposed to be ruled by a King and Queen is an idea that found its greatest literary fame in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, where the plot revolves around the central fairy characters King Oberon and Queen Titania. These weren’t inventions of Shakespeare’s but characters gathered from continental Europe’s Germanic/Frankish past, and from classical antiquity: ‘Oberon’ was a medieval French name for a fairy in the 13thC ‘Les Prouesses et faitz du noble Huon de Bordeaux’ , and ‘Titania’ was the Roman poet-mythologist Ovid’s collective name for the daughters of the Titans in his Metamorphoses (1stC BC/CE). When Shakespeare brings them together in his story the two appear in opposition to one another and do not co-exist easily, providing a masterful and entertaining subtext for the narrative of the story. In truth, though, although tales of Fairy Queens are common in the mythology and folklore of Atlantic Europe, they are often referred to as single or at the very best in some state of conflict with their consort: There are no consistent old traditions involving a united fairy king and queen, and the queen gets by far the most mentions!
So … who or what ‘is’ this Fairy Queen, and why is she such a significant figure in folklore? Although she appears in the mythology of many European countries, I would like to focus on her Celtic-Atlantic persona before discussing others:
In Ireland fairies have a folkloric aspect as well as mythological and literary one in the guide of the fairy tribe of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Translated this means the ‘Tribe of the Goddess (D)Ana’, and this ‘Dana’ or ‘Danu’ or ‘Ana’ (or one of a number of variants) we must presume to be the Fairy Queen of this race, albeit one that (unsurprisingly) the christian monks who recorded and embellished the tales of these otherworldly forebears in the middle ages failed to give much credence to for her eponymous role. Indeed, we cannot take as literal literary fact anything which is said about the true nature and origins of this great forebear figure, as Christian writers were on the whole aiming to extirpate or render ‘harmless’ the true traditions rather than preserve them. Luckily, by ‘reading between the lines’ of legends and folklore and by studying traditions and place-names we can quite profitably gain more information about what She was believed to be.
Pronounced ‘Awnya’ or ‘Ownya’, with historic local variations. Probably also Ana, Anu (and its metathesis Una). A legendary Bean Sidhe ancestress of the Eóganachta, former ruling sept of Cashel district during the middle ages, she has also left her mark upon the landscape in the form of many names dedicated to her: The Paps of Anu/Aine (hills in Co. Kerry), Knockainy (‘Aine’s Hill’, Co. Limerick), Dunany (‘Aine’s Fort-House’, Co. Louth), Toberanna (‘Aine’s Well’, Co. Tyrone), and Lissan (‘Aine’s Fort’, Co. Derry) and another Cnoc Áine in Co. Donegal, as well as a plethora of attendant features named after the goddess. Even in the Isle of Man, she is remembered in a couple of place-names: Cronk Keeill Aune/Ainn/Ane (Hill of Aine’s Church) in German parish, and ‘Chibbyr Unya’ (Aine’s Well) in Marown parish near West Baldwin. It is possible that the terminal ‘-own’ of Marown could also be a remnant of her name, incorporated into that of a local saint. Even the holy Island of Iona (Hy Una) off Mull in the Hebrides (Hy Brides) seems connected to her. Aine is also claimed as an ancestral Bean Sidhe by the O’Connors (Ó Conchobhair) of Knockainy (Limerick) and again (under the name variant Una) for the O’Carrolls (Ó Cearbhail) who once ruled the ancient lands and kingdom of the Éile (the ‘Éile Ó Cearbhail’) who preceded the Eóganachta dynasty at Cashel who share the same named ‘Banshee’ as mentioned above. Cashel was once an important pagan centre and gets a mention in the Patrick hagiographies as such. Carrickfergus also had a legend of a Banshee called Ouna. An archaic Irish name for the Celtic/Atlantic New Year festival of Samhain Eve was ‘Ee Owna’ (Owna’s Eve) (Charles Vallancey recorded this in the late 1700’s). The Manx called it Oie Houney, which is the same. The Celtic names for the start of Summer (Beltain) and the start of Winter (Samhain) are both suffixed with -ain, suggesting the names might originally refer to this goddess who appears to have an intimate relationship with the natural cycle…
So… she was fairly widespread, but also once very special: The 10thC text referred to as Sanas Cormaic or ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ and another early etymological text called Dúil Dromma Cetta claim that she was mater deorum hibernesnsium – ‘Mother of the Gods of Ireland’. They also associate the name Buanand – a name with implications of cattle and nursing – with this Ana, Anand, Anu or Aine. ‘Buanand’ is actually quite etymologically close to the name ‘Boand’ – another legendary woman, associated with the eponymous River Boyne which feeds the fertile Boyne Valley in Leinster, rising near Kildare (home of ‘Saint’ Brighid, no less). The River Shannon also has an eponymous legendary female – Sinand – whose name again contains the -and suffix. In fact, the variants of the Celtic words for rivers in general share the same word-sound and root as Aine (‘Awnya’): Abhainn (Irish, Scots Gaelic), Awin (Manx) and Afon (Welsh – pron. ‘Avon’). As we shall see later, this was significant to the ancient mythological structure of the Atlantic European peoples.
Although special in Europe’s Atlantic Northwest, it is possible that this goddess once had a much more wide-reaching influence upon the religious landscape of Europe, that the vagaries of linguistics and Southern Europe’s religious transformations of the late Bronze Age and Iron Age have hidden from us. Of particular note are the following concordances:
VENUS: The Irish name for Friday is Aoine (in Manx: Jy Heiney) which is equivalent to the Roman name Dies Veneris (Day of Venus) providing an implicit linguistic and conceptual link between Aoine and Venus. The English name ‘Friday’ is linked to the Germanic Venus: Freyja/Frigga/Frijja, which itself has linguistic/philological similarities to the other Atlantic Celt goddess-saint Brighid/Bride/Bridget/Brigantia (ie – Brig an Dea): The ‘B’ is often interchangeable with ‘V’ which interchanges to ‘F’. ‘V’, ‘Bh’ and ‘Mh’ and ‘W’ share the same plastic relationships, especially where Germanic and late Celtic languages intermix. The Celtic languages’ tendency towards lenition often drops and softens the principle consonants, hence the apparent interchangeability of Vaoine and Aoine, perhaps more explicit in the Manx Heiney (ie – Veiney). The association between Venus (who merged with the Greek idea of Aphrodite) and water in Roman mythology is implicit in the tales of her birth from sea foam, the sea being the confluence of all rivers which ultimately arise from springs and wells (hence the Celtic ‘veneration’ of these things, and the linguistic links between Aine and rivers & wells previously noted. Romans claimed Venus to be the mother of their founder-ancestor ‘Aeneas of Troy’ – read Vergil’s Aeneid for proof of this. AENEAS SOUNDS PRETTY CLOSE TO AOINE/AINE, DOESN’T IT? The link between these names is highly interesting, given the appraisal of linguistic links between pagan goddess names given above… Roman religion was Occidental looking to become Oriental, hence the link to Troy!
DIANA: The cult of Diana (merged with the Greek religious ideas of Artemis) was a later introduction to Rome and her most sacred grove site near ancient Rome was the lakeside sanctuary at Lake Nemi in Aricia. Her head priest was the Rex Nemorensis who was traditionally a slave who gained succession over the former incumbent of the title by armed combat (a motif of the slain regenerating hero implicit in the Druidic tradition of metempsychosis). Roman authors equated this with a ‘barbarian’ origin, which may have been correct – most of their slaves were of ‘barbarian’ peoples of north europe. The name ‘Diana’ is a conjunction of the words ‘Dea’ and ‘Ana’, again pointing again to Anu/Ana/Anand/Aine. Anna Perenna was another Roman goddess who represented the Year, and may have the same origins behind the curtain of Rome’s confused historical religious landscape. ‘Ainne’ in Irish also means ‘a circle’, suggesting a link to the Latin word for Year: Anna. As we will see, the relationship between an earthly natural goddess and the year goes deep into Celtic tradition. Diana/Artemis represented the pre-fertile or virginal mistress of the forests and the herds of the wilds.
ATHENA: Crossing East to ancient Greece, the goddess Athena is also linked to the ‘Ana Hypostasis’ of the barbarian peoples of the north. If in doubt, try pronouncing the word ‘Athena’ after the Irish style: What you get will be something that sounds like ‘A-Heena’, again similar to Aoine and therefore to Venus. The celtic language wordsound ‘a’ means ‘the’. The Greek ‘Thea’ (Latin ‘Dea’ or ‘Dia’) denotes goddess and the terminal ‘-ena’ of Athena might indicate a vowel-plasticity relating to ancient ‘Ana’ or ‘Una’ of the Atlantic north. Athena represented the goddess of mechanical and ingenious skills. Her Roman equivalent was Minerva – suggested by epigraphic evidence to be a favourite of the Romano-Britons who had abandoned their traditional faiths in favour of the new Imperial cultural franchises.