AINE: Goddess of Midsummer, Goddess of the People
by Lana Jarvis
Aine [pronounced On-ya] was the ancient sovereignty Goddess of the province of Munster in South West Ireland. Although She was a very powerful, important tutelary Goddess, still very much honoured and respected by the local people up until the 20th century, very little is known about Her. It is through the fragments of history, folklore, legends and the very people of Limerick, that Aine lives and survives today. She has never been Christianised, and traditions (recorded up until the 1970s) relating to Her that were practised remained truly pagan .
Aine is associated with Cnoc Aine, (Knockainey, Co. Limerick). A hill, with three ring barrows upon its summit, now lost to the memories of the older generation and where sheep quietly graze, was once the most powerful, Royal ceremonial centre of Munster. Here Kings undertook the Bas Fis, (coronation ceremony) and within Irish myth, performed a sacred marriage with the tutelary Goddess, to secure the Kingdom . The Oenach festival continued here up until the 20th century .
Legends and traditions grew about the hill to celebrate Aine as the people’s Goddess. At Samhain Aine is said to emerge from the sidhe of Aine, a cairn located to the east of the barrows, with Her red bull. The local people lit bonfires on all nearby sacred hilltops in her honour .
Another important and time-honoured festival was St John’s Eve, (23rd June) which celebrated Midsummer. The men of the locality would process around the summit of Cnoc Aine with lighted cliars (torches) then run down through their cattle and fields to bestow good luck upon them for the forthcoming year . The people understood that Aine and Her sidhe would then undertake a similar procession around the summit and barrows on this very night.
There have been accounts whereby the magical and mundane worlds united and it is said that Aine Herself appeared to local people. On one St John’s Eve night Aine appeared to a group of girls who lingered upon the hill to watch the festivities.
She thanked them for the honour that they had shown Her, but asked them to leave as Her otherworld friends wished to have the hill to themselves. It is said that Aine pulled back Her cloak to reveal a portal into the otherworld, whereby the Sidhe had already started to gather upon the hill .
Another account speaks of a year when the procession decided not to light their cliars, to show respect for a local man who had recently died. They found that although their procession was in total darkness, the supernatural gathering burned their torches even brighter, as if to compensate for the humans. Aine was seen leading the procession! . These stories were retold by local people and many 19th century families living around the hill claimed direct descent to Aine, so much was She honoured and loved . They spoke of Her in near human terms as ‘the best hearted woman that ever lived’, yet She reminded them on occasions of Her supernatural nature.
4 kms north west of Cnoc Aine lies another sacred site of the Goddess, the enchanted Lough Gur. Oral tradition states that Aine not only created the lake but presides over it . Local people considered it to be of the sidhe and ‘no one would willingly spend a night within a mile of the shore. Such was its fearful reputation and potency!’ . However this was not always true. On the night of a full moon it was traditional for sick people to be brought to the shores of the lake, so that the moonlight could shine brightly upon them.
The night was known as All Heal and if the person did not recover by the 8th or 9th day, it was then thought that they would hear the Ceol Sidhe, a song that Aine would sing to comfort the dying. The sick would then ’fall asleep’ to the sound of the banshee wail. Up until the 19th century, it was thought that each family household had its own banshee, who would be heard wailing outside the house to escort the dying to the Sidhe. Following the death, human keeners would continue to wail in mourning .
Lough Gur itself is prehistoric and has remains of hut circles, enclosures, limestone outcrops and caves which date back to the Neolithic period. Due to votive offerings discovered within the lake and caves, it is regarded as a Neolithic Ritual centre. Aine has strong associations with the lake and surrounding landscape. She manifests as a mermaid maiden, a Lammas mother and crone/otherworld deity linked to the Tir an n’og .
As the maiden, Aine has often been seen in the persona of a mermaid, combing Her hair in or nearby the water. In the mid 19th century it was reported that Aine came out of the lake and sat upon the Surdeachan, a flat topped limestone slab also known as the ‘house-keepers seat’ to comb Her hair with a golden comb. In 1971 Tom Carrol affirmed that ‘She still sits on the Surdeachan, combing her hair with a golden comb and she’ll continue to do so (un)til her comb is worn out and Her hair white’ .
Legends associate a cave at Knockadoon with the Tir na n’og (Celtic otherworld) and it is from here that Aine arrived to sit on the Surdeachan (also known as the birthing chair) to give birth at Lammas to Eithne (Gaelic for kernel or grain). In folklore, Aine and the pagan God Crom Dubh are seen as harvest deities. It is indeed Crom Dubh who carries Eithne ( in the form of a sheaf ) from the Surdeachan, across the lake to the henge monument bearing his name. Annually, Eithnes were plaited from barley, oats and grain . In legend, Aine also births a supernatural ‘otherworldly’ son, Gaeroid Iarla, whose spirit can be seen every 7 years riding the shoreline of Lough Gur, which will not be released until the shoes of his horse are as thin as cat’s ears! . Again Aine is linked to the ‘otherworld’.
Her crone aspect is not evident until we meet her as an old woman at Lough Gur. In the 19th century it was recorded that the lake disappeared by magic every 7 years, and at these times a supernatural tree (likened to the tree of life) covered in a green cloth was revealed and protected by the old crone, who had the power to raise the waters if the tree was ever in danger . Although there are few tales associated with Aine within Her Crone aspect at Lough Gur, there are many tales at Cnoc Aine. Here She is seen as the ‘hag of Knocmainey’ who was charitable if you accepted her modest demands but was revengeful towards those who harmed or exploited Her.
Today Aine is seen both as a Sun Goddess, due to Her associations with Midsummer, and at times as a Moon Goddess. This may relate to the ’All Heal’ ceremonies performed at Lough Gur. Regarded as a fairy Queen in folklore and like the Sidhe, She was originally associated with the Celtic Tuatha De Denann .
Celebrating the Goddess Aine
I was very fortunate this year to embark upon a Goddess in Ireland pilgrimage, in the company of 7 wonderful Goddess loving women. In Limerick we drove down through tree lined roads to Lough Gur – the enchanted lake of Aine. It was breathtakingly beautiful, and on a quiet Sunday morning, with the sunshine dancing upon the rippling water, it was easy to imagine why the local people held such reverence towards it. We retold the legends of the lake and found a shady glade, away from others, overlooking the lake whereby Sue and I played lilting tunes on our tin whistles; which eerily echoed around the whole area.
As a group we decided to look for the Suideachan/housekeepers chair, where there has been many reports of Aine’s manifestation. We did not find it and sadly the lady who was on duty in the visitors centre had never heard of it! Thankfully it is not completely lost to the mists of time as Michael Dames’ fantastic book ‘Mythic Ireland’ has a great photograph of it & explains its location!
Knoc Aine was a little more tricky to find and after several wrong turns, we decided to ask a lady where the sacred hill was. Again, the young lady looked puzzled at our request but invited her elderly grandmother to speak to us. Immediately she smiled and directed us up to the hill, informing us that as a child she used to play upon it.
Here, sitting proudly above a sports field and several houses, the ancient ceremonial centre of Kings and their Goddess now rests quietly in the landscape. No longer do the locals honour Aine at Samhain and Midsummer. She is now a distant memory in folklore and tradition. Thank Goddess for the memory of the older generations, those who document folktales and researchers who have kept the tales and traditions alive for us. Aine remains at these quiet spots and Her energy can still be called upon to those who genuinely seek Her presence; as we found in undertaking our Summer Solstice ritual.
Within our ritual group, we ‘embody’ a specific Goddess from our Celtic wheel of the year. This year, straight back from Ireland, we decided for the first time to call in Aine. Choosing a high,craggy hill in West Cornwall which overlooked the sea and surrounding countryside, Aine was embodied and She came with power, sovereignity, beauty and wisdom.
Traditionally in Penzance, West Cornwall, St John’s Eve is celebrated with an evening torchlight procession, music and a dancing pagan ‘Obby ‘Oss, known as Penglaz, which leads the procession of people holding torches, not unlike the cliars at Cnoc Aine, throughout the town.
Here, dressed in red and wearing our Summer Solstice flower crowns, we dedicated our involvement to the Goddess Aine and remembered our Irish cousins who undertook their torchlight procession on this very night. Aine, Goddess of sovereignty (of the Province of Munster) awaits patiently for Her daughters and sons to reclaim Her. Let us honour Her so that she may again become ‘Goddess of Midsummer – Goddess of the people’.