Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries


what's new?

introductory articles

in-depth articles


join the email update list

Anglo-Saxon Twilight only

Anglo-Saxon Twilight
is currently sponsored by
Heart of Albion Press
publishers of Bill Griffiths'
User Friendly Dictionary of Old English

The queen of the valley

One of the more splendid tales from the medieval Irish literature tells of how king Eochaid attempts to find a worthy successor between four brothers. After an inconclusive first round, the brothers are sent out, one after another, on a hunting expedition. On their route they encounter a well guarded by a hideous old woman who says they can only have water from the well if they kiss her first. The first two brothers refuse and are compelled to return back before they can complete the hunt. The third brother gives her a peck on the cheek and is rewarded with a dipper-full of water and the enigmatic promise of a 'touch of Tara'.

The fourth brother, who is known in later legends as Niall of the Nine Nails, is less coy. He lays with the hag – the Irish word, banais, is a euphemism along the lines of later Biblical translations of Genesis which read 'And Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived'. She turns into a beautiful woman and reveals herself to be the Sovereignty of Ireland, known as Flaith Erenn, or Flaithius Erenn. She grants Niall not only all the water he needs but also the kingship for many generations – twenty-six of his descendants will be High Kings of Ireland. The third brother, who pecked her on the cheek, is granted a minor royal line.

Wonderful as this story is, it is only one of many in the medieval Irish literature which reveal that a king must be 'appointed' by Sovereignty. However we must be aware that we are not reading a record of how things were, but legends transmitted orally for many centuries. By the time the tales are written down it is how the past was thought to have been – but not necessarily how it was.

Furthermore, we must be cautious about taking key aspects of these legends too literally. Niall of the Nine Hostages was probably a real person, but he seemingly lived either in the late fourth and early fifth centuries or in the sixth century – though people claiming to be his descendants were still ruling Ireland in the tenth century. Because of the later political importance of the dynasty Niall seemingly founded, numerous legends about him were created and then inflated. Given the immense time span, one thing we can be sure of: if Niall did once exist then everyone alive now who has Irish ancestry will have some of his DNA.

In contrast to the historical plausibility of Niall himself, the 'loathly lady' is a common character in tales told throughout the world. In Ireland a variation of this story involves the earlier Irish high king Lugaid Loígde. In late fourteenth century England the same motif appears in John Gower's poem Confessio Amantis and Geoffrey Chaucer's The Wife of Bath's Tale. Indeed the eponymous wife declares that the achievement of the sovereignty, although rarely attained by a woman, is something which all women desire. The anonymous The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, written in the early fifteenth century, retells the same legend recounted by Chaucer.

The 'loathy lady' is simply a great basis for a story. She is mythic rather than real. But the reason she is part of these legends is 'real' enough – it is because there is a real need to show that Niall was properly appointed by Sovereignty. As with so much in myth, we need to look at why events happen more than at what purportedly happened.

From four brothers to many weddings

Another recurrent Irish legend is how, when kings were inaugurated, there was a sacred marriage between the king and a goddess representing sovereignty. Later sources have confused the evidence but it seems that the rite was once associated as much with provincial kings as with the over-king at Tara (Bray 1999: 110). Gerald of Wales, writing in the twelfth century, famously described just such a rite involving the people of 'Kenelcunnil' (Cenel Conaill) – despite regarding the whole event as distasteful:


When the whole people of that land has been gathered together in one place, a white mare is brought forward into the middle of the assembly. He who is to be inaugurated, not as a chief, but as a beast, not as a king, but as an outlaw, has bestial intercourse with her before all, professing himself to be a beast also. The mare is then killed immediately, cut up into pieces, and boiled in water. A bath is prepared for the man afterwards in the same water. He sits in the bath surrounded by all his people, and all, he and they, eat of the meat of the mare which is brought to them. He quaffs and drinks of the broth in which he is bathed, not in any cup, or using his hand, but just dipping his mouth into it round about him. When this unrighteous rite has been carried out, his kingship and dominion have been conferred.


There is every reason to think that this is a much older custom which spanned Indo-European cultures, as there are direct parallels to the Vedic inauguration rites, the asvamedha, although it was the queen who slept symbolically with a freshly-sacrificed stallion, which was later cooked for a communal feast.

We would expect such inauguration rites to only change slowly over the centuries. Customs associated with the succession of tribal power, enacted at most every few years and of profound importance to the society, are exactly the sort of rites which change slowly. The British coronation customs, for example, are largely built up of symbolic objects and rites which go back many centuries.

Such deep historical roots may also have survived, in a rather distorted manner, as the Roman rites called Equus October, 'October Horse', performed on 15th October each year during the earlier centuries of the empire. These were far from being a sacred marriage however. Instead chariot races were held and the right-hand horse of the winning team was sacrificed. The horse's head and tail were cut off and used separately in the two subsequent parts of the ceremonies. The rest of the horse was burnt as an offering to the gods as the Romans – like the British today – disdained eating horsemeat.

I would simply dismiss Equus October as an entirely separate example of horse sacrifice, except that the date is the same as the current Indian festival of Navarathri, the worship of nine manifestations of the goddess. It is also very close to the time of the dísablot or 'sacrifice to the Mothers' which was once widespread throughout northern Europe. I will return to the significance of these rites at the end of this article.

Sovereignty and mead

I will also return to the idea of Sovereignty being associated with white horses. But, for the moment, let's stay with Irish kings. In an entirely different legend, King Conn of the Hundred Battles visits an otherworldly house. There he is given food and drink by a woman who identifies herself as Flaith Erenn – Sovereignty. She asks in turn 'To whom shall be given this cup with the red drink?'

The Irish for 'red drink', dergflaith, is a play on words, as flaith means both 'drink' and 'sovereignty'. Intriguingly this may not be merely two words with different origins sounding the same but instead a real shared origin. The Sanskrit word urj– is derived from the same Proto-Indo-European root, *reg–, which means both 'nourishing drink' and 'strength, vigour'. (See Anglo-Saxon royal inauguration sites and rites and Proto-Indo-European origins of words) and is cognate with a word describing Cúchulainn's 'battle fury'. Afterwards, the master of the house – a phantom – recites for Conn a prophecy on the Kings of Ireland.

The 'red drink' refers to the mead used in the banais or 'sacred marriage' of royal inauguration. Mead is a word found throughout Indo-European languages and means both 'honey drink' and 'ritual beverage'. By association it is the drink of libations and sacrifices. The same word is the origin of the legendary Irish queen Medb – her name means 'the one who intoxicates'. But it isn't that simple! 'Medb' is also one part of the names of the Gaulish royal name Epomeduos and the Indian name Asvamedha. Both of these are understood as ''Horse Sacrifice(r)'. That is, med– in its wider sense of sacrifice rather than narrower Irish and modern English sense of 'honey drink' (although almost certainly it is this narrow sense which gives rise to the wider sense).

Queen Medb appears many times in one of the cycles of legends associated with the Connacht lineage or Feis Chruachana, based at Cruachan. She has a reputation for seducing young heroes – even boasting to her husband that 'I never had one man without another waiting in his shadow'. However we should think of these legends as the later elaboration of a tutelary goddess of the Feis Chruachana. Medb had her counterparts in the other regions, although less information has come down to us. The Boyne valley retains the name of its tutelary goddess, Bóinn, and the River Shannon also seems to preserve the memory of Sinann. Ulster's royal centre, Emain Macha, is named after the tutelary deity of the Feis Eamna, the goddess Macha. She appears as three different figures, one of whom claimed her father's sovereignty and held it by force of arms. Another is forced to race against horses while she is pregnant – and still wins the race, but immediately gives birth to twins and dies, uttering a curse against the Ulstermen, to the effect that they will share her labour pains at their moment of greatest need.

Back to the horses – and before

Macha, as a goddess associated with horses, bears comparison to the Gaulish goddess Epona and the Welsh Rhiannon of the Mabinogion. Even though the surviving legends do not explicitly describe Epona or Rhiannon as goddesses of sovereignty, this idea has become popular. Fairly simple notions of a 'goddesses of sovereignty' may only go back about a thousand years. However nuanced ideas about sovereignty may well be many millennia older. I have suggested elsewhere (see Anglo-Saxon royal inauguration sites and rites) that the hill figures of horses found mostly in Wiltshire are distant successors to images of such tutelary equine goddesses.

The surviving medieval legends reveal that there needed to be a symbolic marriage between the king and the sovereignty of his realm. Sometimes this was represented by a sacrificial horse, and sometimes by banais with a goddess or supernatural woman – who occasionally bears a cup of mead or offers water from a well she guards.

The geographical span and interwoven complexities of these legends is in itself evidence that by the time these accounts are recorded by medieval authors the practices and beliefs associated with them have been current for a long time. The linguistic evidence also indicates that at least some aspects are shared across most Indo-European societies. However there is limit to how far back they go as we have no evidence to suggest that horse 'worship' or sacrifices are common before the Iron Age – archaeologists have provided abundant evidence that cattle were the highest status domesticated animals before then, while pigs make up the largest quantity of ritually-consumed animals, followed by sheep and goats.

Back to Britain

After that lengthy discussion of Irish kinship and sovereignty you may need to reminded that Twilight is really about Anglo-Saxon England. The Irish 'excursion' was however needed because surviving Old English and Middle English literature simply provides much less evidence.

But what evidence we do have 'resonates' well with the Irish lore. For a start we have several rivers whose names still retain the names of tutelary goddesses, such as the Severn (from Sabrina). The Savenake Forest– once a much larger area of woodland straddling the Kennet valley on the Wiltshire/Berkshire border – just might take its name too from Sabrina. In Ireland the river Lee flowing through Cork was formerly known as Sabrann, The modern Welsh name for the River Severn, Afon Hafren, suggests the earlier form was probably closer to hafren. Geoffrey of Monmouth recounts how a princess called Hafren drowned in the river Severn, which was then named after her. This might be the last vestiges of legends about a tutelary river deity called Hafren.

Interestingly, Hafren and Sabrann are not Celtic names. They are certainly not more recent. Which leaves only one option. They are among the only words which have survived from a pre-Celtic language once spoken throughout the British Isles. Quite when such a language was spoken is unclear but the first half of the Bronze Age and perhaps the later Neolithic would be sensible guesses. With so little to go on we can have no real idea of the meaning of these surviving names, though presumably they once had the sense of 'river' or 'river deity'.

In both Wales and Scotland the various rivers called Dee commemorate a tutelary goddess. And the Scottish one retained some of these associations until the mid-twentieth century for the Scottish Travellers who still maintained deep ancestral links with that area. As I have discussed in more detail elsewhere (see The three-fold living landscape), Stanley Robertson (1940–2009) was the last to commit most of that ancestral tradition to memory. Towards the end of his life he wrote, in Traveller dialect:


Ma mither used to say that this particular land [here] between the river Dee and the river Don – and they used to say lang ago that the Don wis the warlock and the river Dee wis the witch. And this land between it wis for her bairns. This land wis oors aa richt because there's only twa hooses. But this road has been known for many, many supernatural happenings ... there's a lot o happiness on this auld road. And every time I ging up it I could aye sort o feel the spirits o the past…
(Robertson 1988: 128–9)


As I will discuss later in this article, we should not think of such tutelary goddesses as 'merely' river deities. They would once have been the guardians of not only the water but also the valleys in which the river wound its course. Almost certainly the most sacred places would have been the various natural springs which fed into the various tributaries. The sanctity of such springs alive and well in Christian times. Indeed, since the 1970s there has been ever-increasing interest in locating and restoring the more notable examples.

Three books from Heart of Albion are devoted to holy wells:

cover    cover    cover

A Greek excursion

While I am well aware that there are significant gaps between Greece in the sixth century BCE and England in the sixth century CE, nevertheless they are both Indo-European 'iron age' societies. One key difference is that the Greeks generally built their shrines and sanctuaries of stone, some of which survives for archaeologists to investigate, and they were much more literate so left inscriptions at these sacred sites for historians to ponder over.

Susan Cole has pondered more than most about the temples to Artemis and looked at their location in the landscape (Cole 2004). Cole notes that many of her sanctuaries are on boundaries, including coastal borders. Political boundaries, in Greece as in England and elsewhere, often follow watersheds (see Trubshaw 2012a: 59–64) . By definition there will be springs fairly close to the summits of the watersheds, and these will be regarded as the sources of larger streams and rivers.

For merely practical reasons alone sanctuaries need to be situated near to reliable springs. The water at the shrines to Artemis was thought to be especially efficacious for childbirth and children. This was in part because Artemis was the goddess of 'transitions' – whether travel or significant stages in the human life cycle.

Susan Cole recognises that Artmesis's shrines serve several overlapping 'functions'. She is the protector of boundaries, and also the protector of people travelling past the boundaries of their own polis – fairly predictably her sanctuaries are close to routes over the watersheds. Significantly she is not associated with mountain peaks, but with the passes in between. Her protection of 'dangerous passages' extends seawards – major shrines dedicated to her are found in harbours.

And the idea of a Artemis as both a goddess of 'passages' and of watersources comes together in the belief that she was goddess of water in a channel or confined valley. I'll come back to this when I discuss the word gyne later.

The Tribal Protector

TOT ring

A second or third century Romano-British ring dedicated to Toutatis.

In recent years metal detectorists have discovered over eighty metal rings inscribed with the letters 'TOT'. These are seemingly votive offerings to the deity Toutatis, whose name means 'tribal protector'. Most are made from silver, although a couple are gold and about a dozen are bronze or a similar copper-alloy. They date to the second or third century AD, although the designs of the rings are closer to Iron Age precedents than Roman styles of the time. To put this is perspective, the eighty-or-so inscriptions to Toutatis outnumber the inscriptions on Romano-British jewellery to all other deities combined.

These rings were all found in or near the tribal territory of the Corieltauvi – in other words Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and parts of adjoining counties. Indeed the distribution of the finds suggests they were deliberately placed at shrines near the boundaries of the territory. While Toutatis seems to be a male deity – there is an inscription from a silver votive offering at a shrine in Barkway, near Royston in Hertfordshire, which is shared with Mars – both his function and the location of the shrines in the landscape seem closely related to the Artemis cult of Greece.

There is no evidence that the cult of Toutatis survived into the post-Roman period. But the concept of 'tribal protection' and shrines on boundaries may well have done. And, in the absence of any dedications or other inscriptions, perhaps it is safest to make no assumptions about the gender of such protective deities.

The kin and ken of the sovereign

However such tutelary female deities who give their names to rivers were not only the sovereigns and protectors of 'her land'. They were also sovereigns and protectors of the people who call that land their own. While the term is alien to European sensibilities, she personifies the sense of 'ancestral lands' that are more prominent in traditional societies of the New World and other former colonies. The nearest we have are Scottish clans which retain a close link to specific localities – and some place-specific Irish lineages too. In truth, English people too had a much greater sense of belonging to the village of their birth until widespread movement to towns and cities took place in the late nineteenth century onwards, largely breaking the ties with the place of birth.

To understand sovereignty we need to think of place, place of birth and kinship to other family members as all intimately woven together. And the clue is in 'kinship'. 'Kin' are our blood relatives. The Old English word cynn has the meaning of either the family or the race of people we identify with.

And the word 'kin' has a number of surprising linguistic relatives, all from the Proto-Indro-European (PIE) root word gene- (meaning 'to give birth, procreate'):

  • Old English cennan 'beget, create'; Scottish dialect ken (with the sense 'to know', as in the nineteenth century popular song 'D'ye ken John Peel') [Confusingly 'to ken' comes from PIE gene– but 'to know' comes from the PIE root word gno– ]
  • kin
  • kith (native country, home – in the sense of the place you ken or know) [Kith is a late development of this group, entering English from other languages where it had the sense 'people you know'.]
  • kind – as in 'one of a kind'
  • German kind ('child' – as in 'kindergarten')
  • genus (Before the sense of biological classification arose around 1600, the Latin and Greek origins of this word denoted 'race, stock, kind, family, birth, descent, origin, offspring'. In other PIE-derived languages the primary meaning is also 'beget, birth, origin'.)
  • genes and genetics
  • genii as in genii loci 'spirit of place' but really 'spirits of the dead'
  • Greek gyne 'woman' (which gives us such modern words as 'gynaecology' and, rather indirectly, 'queen' and 'king').
  • Latin cunnus ('vulva'), Old English quean, Middle English quim and, yes, Modern English c*nt.
  • 'cuni' ('wedge') as in 'cuneiform'
  • canine / kennels
  • canals (in the origial sense of 'ditches') and channels

The modern word 'queen' comes from the Old English cwen which originally has the sense of 'woman or wife', perhaps 'honoured woman', and rapidly becomes the term for the wife of a king. English is one of the few Indo-European languages to have a word for 'queen' that is not a feminine derivative of a word for 'king'. However cwen also evolves into the near-homophone 'quean', which starts life meaning 'young, robust woman' but within the Anglo-Saxon era has shifted to denote a female serf or prostitute. The ambiguity between the perceived status of 'queens' and 'queans' in Anglo-Saxon society descerves further consideration!

The concept of kingship is by far the 'late starter' in this list – the other meanings were established before Germanic-speaking societies had kings. And the best guess is that kingship more-or-less as we think of it now emerged in the Iron Age. Old English cyning 'king, ruler' is cognate with Proto-Germanic *kuninggaz, Dutch koning, Old Norse konungr, Danish konge, Old Saxon and Old High German kuning, Middle High German künic and German König.

Cyning seemingly has the literal sense of the 'followers of a family or race'. As kings are thought of as the leaders, not followers, of their people then clearly the -ing component must be interpreted more broadly, with the suggestion that the king is descended from noble birth. In other words, he is the 'follower of the blood line', with the strong implication that the blood line is a mother-daughter one (just as one can only be Jewish if your mother is Jewish, a belief shared by many traditional cultures including the Hopi). For reasons that will become clear later in the chapter, the origin of the word 'queen' (unquestionably from Proto-Indo-European root gene– ) is much more relevant than the origins of 'king'.

As the early sense of 'kith' is 'native country, home' some of you may be wondering if the word 'country' is also derived from these words. It is not, simply a homophone which enters English in the mid-thirteenth century (with the sense of 'district, native land') as a borrowing from the Old French contree which in turn is a contraction from the Vulgar Latin terra contrata, 'land lying opposite' or 'land spread before one' (the Latin word contra meaning 'opposite, against', as in modern English coinages such as 'contraflow'). In the manner of thirteenth century aristocratic affectation, the French loan word replaced the Old English word 'land' which had a similar meaning.

While we're following through with these words and usages, the alliterative phrase 'kith and kin' is also fairly late (first recorded towards the end of the fourteenth century) and originally had the sense of 'country and kinsmen'.

'Kin' seems to be close to another Old English word, 'beget'. Indeed, deliberately using what was already an anachronism, the King James' translation of the bible tells that 'Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob, and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren' and indeed a number of other lineages linked by the same word, 'begat'. These biblical accounts read as if only the men mattered to family history. Clearly that is not the case and Issac's mother also begat Issac, just as Issac's wife begat Jacob – not to mention any sisters Jacob might have had, who otherwise remain outside this account. The matriarchal line of descent matters at least as much as patriarchal lineage – which is probably why the Old English words cynn and cennan ('kin' and 'beget') sound so similar.

And, if for a moment we can ignore the insulting manner in which the word 'cunt' is normally used and instead consider it – as it might once have been – a 'neutral' term for the place from which we are all naturally begat, then this word too fits naturally alongside cynn and cennan.

The dogs in the ditch

At first glance the appearance of the word 'dog' seems out of place. Indeed it is not the English word 'dog' but the Latin word canis which belongs here. Dogs are distinct for their long 'canine' teeth, although using the word 'canine' to refer to dogs rather than teeth is a modern usage in English. As an example of how words evolve over many centuries, our word, hound, shares the same etymological origin even though 'canine' and 'hound' sound so different. We also use the word 'kennel' as a synonym for 'dog house'. Kennel enters English via the Norman French kenet, meaning 'little dog' – which makes sense if you know that the modern French word for dog, chien, was once pronounced with a hard 'k' and '-ette' is the diminutive.

Quite why the ancestors of the word canis are close kin to gyne and other words in this linquistic genus is difficult to ken. Just possibly the association is with cuni (wedge-shaped) as dogs have prominent wedge-shaped teeth – their canine teeth no less. Neat but not convincing. Another possibility arises from dogs being among the first animals to be domesticated. Did a distinct breed of dog evolve with each human kin group, so that the dogs from one group were distinct from another's? After all a great many modern breeds take their names from the place where the breed originated, from Alsatians to Yorkshire Terriers. If so, then to see a dog from another kin group would have been a clear sign that their human owners must be nearby too.

In Welsh myth and lore, the Hounds of Annwn (Cwn Annwn) were the spectral hounds of the otherworldly paradise, Annwn. When escorting souls on their journey to the Otherworld they might be led by a fearsome hag called Mallt-y-Nos, 'Matilda of the Night'. However the same hounds are also referred to in Welsh folklore as Cwn Mamau ('Hounds of the Mothers'). This is a curious mix of death and birth, all the more curious because the hounds of Annwn were seemingly albionos – snow-white with red ears. In some now almost-lost sense, dogs were the closely associated with The Mothers (The Mothers), a 'loathly lady' and even a land, albeit an otherworld.

Because dogs were domesticated in the Neolithic, several millennia before horses, my guess – and it is no more than that – is that the links we still recognise between white horses and tutelary goddesses of sovereignty were preceded by similar associations between white hounds and the female spirits of place. At some time I will elaborate my thoughts as to why these cannines might not have been dogs as we know think of them but 'water dogs' – creatures we now regard as taxonomically distinct and refer to as otters and beavers. But if there is any sense at all in that suggestion it was back in the Neolithic and would have been long forgotten by Anglo-Saxon times. That said, in Devon there is a River Otter and in Northumberland the Otterburn. These are matched in Scotland by Strathconan and several River Conans -all of which have the possible sense of 'dog river'. In Wales the River Cynlais in Brecknock means 'dog river', while six streams and a bay incorporate colwyn, 'puppy' (Breeze 1998).

However there is the final meaning associated with this group of words – canals, channels and ditches. Indeed it is the origin of the words 'canal' and 'channel'. Does this sense derive from the small streams which run off from natural springs? In other words the sort of 'wells' guarded by the loathly ladies? After all the Old English word wella, which gives us the modern 'well', does not denote a hole dug in the ground where the water is accessed with a bucket on a rope. Instead it denotes a natural spring plus the water running away from it. So a 'stockwell' is such a watercourse crossed with a 'stock' or hefty plank of wood (the sense of stock that, together with a lock and barrel, makes up a shotgun or rifle).

Several thoughts come to mind. One is that if such water sources were associated with female protective spirits or deities then such a channel could quite reasonably be referred to by a word that alluded to the part of the anatomy where a woman urinated. Indeed it may be more an association with the more creative act of giving birth, a sense of the goddess sharing her creative powers to produce the water on which the lives of the people and animals living on the land depended.

Not unrelated to this is the episode in Skáldskaparmál where Þórr and his servant Þjálfi are struggling to cross the river Vimur when suddenly they are deluged by a river flowing from the vulva of a urinating goddess. Whether this has any links to the seemingly more effete expression 'raining cats and dogs' I will leave to your imaginations…

Earlier I discussed how Artemis was associated with water sources and the water running through restricted passages such as narrow valleys. She is also the pre-eminent protector of women in childbirth. While it would be wrong to use the attributes of a sixth century BCE Greek goddess to help explain sixth century CE England, what the attributes of Artemis do seem to reveal is something of the shared origin of the various cognate words such as kin, gyne (the Greek word for a mother) and canal.

Weaving together the words

In winter the somewhat warmer water emerging at springs from deep in the ground (typically 10 to 13C in England) would make fish active and easier to hunt. Ideal places for the 'water dogs' I alluded to previously, and for water fowl also predating on fish.

Now add these rich associations to the sense of sovereignty spanning springs, rivers, the valleys and the people who live in the valley which I have previously discussed. Does the sense of water 'channel' – the water running away from a spring – now seem more like a natural association with gyn-, cunt, ken, kin and so forth? It still leaves the 'canine' connection a little obscure, unless you are willing to accept my speculation about otters and beavers, when all these seemingly disparate senses fit together rather well!

Bringing all this together, we are left with two early root words that seemingly encompass:

  • a race of people with a shared bloodline;
  • a country one knows well and thinks of as home;
  • the ownership or 'kingship' of that country and its people;
  • dogs
  • water channels and – by extension – natural springs.
Clearly these meanings are not exclusive but have an overlapping sense for which we have no modern word. However was this composite sense shared by the earliest understanding of sovereignty? So early that by the Iron Age and the Anglo-Saxon era it has already evolved significantly, although not beyond recognition?

Queens, queans and quims

The real evidence we have for such sovereign goddesses of the land are the river names such as Sabrina, Hafren and Dee. If you are fully aware that everything about your life and survival is intimately connected to the land and the reliability of pure water sources then it is a very small leap of faith to assume that the same landscape is shared with the gods and goddesses. The same intimate association between the land and the people would have extended into the realms of the deities too.

In the article on royal inaugurations (see Anglo-Saxon royal inauguration sites and rites) I discussed how Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian kings were thought to have a special relationship with the deities. I also discussed that clues as to the antiquity of this 'divine kingship' can be seen in origins of the modern word 'royal'. In Anglo-Saxon and throughout German-speaking northern 'royal' denoted, as now, anything pertaining to a king. But this meaning steadily – and rather slowly – evolves from an earlier meaning of 'pertaining to a god'. The Old English and Old Norse word reg is also cognate with 'regal', royal' and 'rule' – all of which come from a common root meaning 'to rule, to lead straight, to put right'. But that leadership was originally that of god not a mortal monarch – the word reg in Old English and Old Norse means 'gods', not kings.

While the exact chronology when reg and its related words denoted 'god' rather than kings is open to extensive debate, it was a time when 'god' did not denote exclusively male deities. Indeed, that time is sufficiently far back for ideas of female sovereignty of the land to still be very much part of peoples' understanding. Some evidence for this can be discerned in one of the Irish legends where the sovereign deity serves the king a 'red drink', dergflaith. As already noted, this is a play on words, as laith means both 'drink' and ' sovereignty' (see Anglo-Saxon royal inauguration sites and rites).

Since Anglo-Saxon times we have called the wife of a king not a sovereign but a queen. However the history of the meaning of this word is itself intriguing – for some considerable time the word was at best double-edged and one would have to be careful who one referred to as a queen!

Despite the vagaries of English spelling, phonetically 'queen' is 'kween'. And the origins are clearly with the Proto-Indo-European word gwen, meaning 'woman or wife', with some scholars supposing that the sense was 'honoured woman'. As if we need confirmation, the Sanskrit versions of this word are janis 'a woman' and gná, 'wife of a god, a goddess'.

Somewhere in this word soup are lost of the origins of 'quim'. It appears in written English in the 1610s as slang for 'vulva' but is of unknown origin. While it may have descended from Old English words such as cynn and cennan, more likely it is related more closely the Old English word cwen. From its original meaning of 'wife', early on in Old English it split into two more specific meanings – the wife of a king (modern 'queen') and a now-archaic word 'quean' which starts life meaning 'young, robust woman' but within the Anglo-Saxon era had shifted to denote a female serf or prostitute.

By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries quean had only the sense of a woman or girl who showed casual or improper behaviour. (For those who really need to know everything, using 'queen' to denote homosexuals appears to originate in 1930s Australia and is presumably a misspelling of 'quean'.) The absence of early written forms means scholars cannot be certain that quean goes back much before the late sixteenth century. But it certainly sounds like it is one of the ken/kin/kith/king/queen/cunt family.

Kilpeck sheela

One of the oldest female exhibitionist carvings in England – the twelfth century 'sheela na gig' at Kilpeck, Herefordshire.

We still have queens with their quims on a surprising number of churches in Britain, and a few castles in Ireland as well. We generally refer to them as 'sheela na gigs' (although the Irish shee lena ghee ('the fairy woman with her quim' would be more accurate; see Trubshaw forthcoming ch.8). Strictly we have no way of knowing if they really are successors to images of sovereignty, although Meghan Rice has suggested that the earliest examples on Irish churches could have been part of the cult of St Columba, or Colm Cille, competing against the cult of St Patrick.


Roman statue of Baubo lifting her skirt.

We certainly know that such figures have a long antiquity – small figurines to the goddess Baubo and associated with 'obscene' women-only annual rites date back to Classical Greece. Intriguingly, such annual rites are still maintained in some parts of rural Greece, even though these communities long since converted to Greek Orthodox Christianity (see The Mothers and Trubshaw forthcoming ch.8)).

Apis worshippers

A modern drawing depicting Ancient Egyptian women lifting their dresses to worship Apis.

The Greece rites seem to go back further, to Ancient Egypt as the cult of the sacred bull known as Apis was associated with fertility. Egyptian women went on pilgrimages to his cult centre at Mephis and lifted their dresses to reveal their genitals and 'womb'. Several clay statuettes have been discovered showing this gesture.

See also The quain tree and the weoh cwen


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013–14


previous article     index of articles     next article
index of introductory articles
email comments and suggestions
join the email update list
what's new?

Anglo-Saxon Twilight only