(Interview) Women and Shamanism: An interview with Max Dashu by Hearth Moon Rising

Women’s history scholar and Mago contributor Max Dashu released a DVD this year called Woman Shaman: The Ancients. It contains two discs of early art work showing goddesses and female shamans from around the world. Recurrent themes are explored in depth, such as serpents, drums, staffs, and mirrors. The DVD documents the rich variety in worship patterns and artistic expression in ancient history, as well as the pervasiveness of female spiritual power. The following is a discussion with Max about the DVD.

I’m wondering what inspired you to create this DVD.

I’m really interested in the subject. I’ve done a lot of research on it. It’s also part of my spiritual practice. The recovery of these ways is something I think is really important. A lot of people have been denatured of their ancient cultural heritage and aren’t really quite sure how to follow that back, how to retrace it. It’s part of my overall women’s history research, where I have a concept of female spheres of power, and this is one of them. We have stereotypes of what women are about, the conventional ideas of what women’s place is, and what women have done in the past has been misrepresented. One of the major spheres of power for women in a lot of societies was various forms of spiritual leadership. That would include everything from medicine women, priestesses, oracles, diviners, healers and prophets to formal roles that involved community leadership. I use the word “woman shaman” as an overall term that might cover those most exhaustively.

Can you give us a generic definition of shaman?

The original source is a Northeast Asian term out of Evenk and the Tungusic languages, Manchu and a lot of other related cultures. It referred to a person of any gender who was able to enter transformative states through incantation, drumming, dance and other practices, and work with spirit helpers in the states of dreaming which allowed them to access wisdom from the spirit realms. And so you have precognition, prophecy, divinatory powers, the ability to heal, to retrieve souls—this is the classic definition of shaman. Because English became so impoverished in words describing all of these realms and states and acts, scholars began borrowing terms from indigenous societies—“shaman” from Siberia, “mana” and “taboo” from Pacific island cultures.

What part does the natural world play in that?

It plays a huge part, because the whole cosmology is based on the idea that nature is alive and conscious. We’re living in this matrix of being, and so trees and rivers and mountains, all the animals, the birds, the plants all have powers. We can interact with those powers, relate to them and they can help us. The shamanic world view talks a lot about people offending powers, like they uprooted a tree or did something that angered the guardian spirits of a particular place. And so a lot of times shamanic healings have to do with removing these obstructions that are laid in the spirit world as a result of acts like that or offenses to ancestors. The shaman will be carrying on back-and-forth dialogue between them and whoever the spirit being is, attempting to discover what is the cause of the illness or whatever misfortunes that are happening.

There are the academics in anthropology and other areas who would say the word “witch” is not a shamanic term and witchcraft has nothing in common with shamanism. What are your thoughts on that?

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Meet Mago Contributor, Max Dashú

Max2011Max Dashú teaches global women’s history and heritages through images. In 1970 she founded the Suppressed Histories Archives to research mother-right, female spheres of power, goddess veneration and shamanic arts, as well as patriarchy and the history of domination. Drawing on a legendary collection of some 30,000 images, she has created 130 slide talks, which she has presented at universities, women’s centers and bookstores, conferences, festivals, libraries, prisons, museums, and schools. (http://www.suppressedhistories.net) She also presents them online as webcasts. Dashú has keynoted at conferences such as the Association for Women in Mythology and the Pagan Studies Conference, and presented at international conferences in Germany, Bulgaria, Mexico, Britain, and the US. Her articles have appeared in Goddesses in World Culture (Praeger, 2010), Feminist Theology, and other anthologies and journals. “Breastpots” is the latest in her series of posters on female heritages. Dashu has just released a new double dvd Woman Shaman: the Ancients (2013), following up on her acclaimed video Women’s Power in Global Perspective (2008).

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(Essay 2) The Midsummer Dancers by Max Dashú

Priestly accounts accuse the entranced dancers of being possessed and questioned whether they were christians. An old Belgian chronicle described them with the verse Gens impacata cadit / Dudum cruciata salvat: “people restively fall, doubting the cross saves.” [Bachmann, 201] “A contemporary poem speaks of their being opposed to the faith, haters of the clergy, and indifferent to [its] sacraments.” [McColloch, 256-7]

The Liege Chronicle of 1402, also written by a monk, says that the dancers first came to Liege for the consecration of the Mary Church, where they leaped and danced before the altar: “On their heads they bore a sort of wreath, and as they leaped they cried ‘Frilis’.”[Bachman, 199] The wreaths, leaping dances and gathering at Marian shrines turn up in other descriptions of the wandering dancers. Johan of Leyden wrote that they wore wreaths on their heads and kept crying out, “Frijsch, Frijsch” as they danced. [Bachmann, 200]

A much later version in Koelhoff’s Chronicle of 1499 has the dancers shouting as they leap, “Oh Lord St John/so, so/ Whole and happy, Lord St John!” [Bachmann, 203] The word Frisch is no longer being used, but its meaning is retained (and confirmed). Fragments of the old call survived in the Fulda region’s midsummer bonfire cry: Haberje, haberju! fri fre frid! [Grimm, 618]

Across Europe it was customary to dance around Midsummer bonfires. The Swedes used nine kinds of wood in their blaze, and wove nine kinds of flowers into the dancers’ garlands. In many places people gathered nine special herbs, usually including hypericum and mugwort. The Spanish gathered verbena at dawn and leaped over the fires (as the Catalans still do). The Letts sang and gathered hypericum and a plant called raggana kauli, “witch’s bones.” People observing these old pagan customs were called “John’s folk,” after the saint whose day fell on the old pagan festival. [all Grimm, 1467]

Mugwort, Artemisia Vulgaris Herbs in the Artemisia family are regarded as sacred in North America (desert sage, among others, has purifying powers), China (where it is used in moxibustion smudging by acupuncturists) and Europe, where it also was used as a smudge to remove negative influences and was said to protect those who wore it.

Mugwort, Artemisia Vulgaris
Herbs in the Artemisia family are regarded as sacred in North America (desert sage, among others, has purifying powers), China (where it is used in moxibustion smudging by acupuncturists) and Europe, where it also was used as a smudge to remove negative influences and was said to protect those who wore it.

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(Essay 1) The Midsummer Dancers by Max Dashú

How people dealt with distress in a time of extremity by reviving the old pagan dances.

Midsummers Day was holy all over Europe. Irish and Scots, Swiss and French, Germans, Lithuanians, Italians, Russians, and Swedes celebrated the climax of the light with celebratory rituals. At midnight on the holyday’s eve, said Spanish tradition, the waters are blessed with special power. Maidens rushed to be the first to reach the springs. The first to drink the water received its “flower,” and left a green sprig to show others that it had been collected. People brought this water home as medicine. They took off clothing and shoes to bathe in the Midsummer’s eve dew, which had blessing and curative powers.

Everything was possible on this night of mysterious power. The dark sky was alight with bonfires, and people dancing around them, singing “Long live the dance and those who are in it/Señor San Juan! / Even the stars will join in/ Viva la danza y los que en ella están!” Long live the dance and those who are in it!” The Church had succeeded in renaming Midsummer’s Day after one of its saints, but not in eliminating the ancient customs.

Basque woman musician

Basque woman musician

At sunrise the sun dances with joy, and the entire world is washed clean, full of grace. The xanas emerge from their wells and caves, combing their long hair, and people sought gifts of abundance from them. (Xanas are faeries whose name is derived from the Roman dianae, or dianas.) At Salas tradition prescribed going to the xana’s fountain on St John’s morn to say, “Xana, take my poverty / Give me your wealth.” [Canellada, 249, 262]

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(Essay) Searching for Diana by Max Dashu

After a long hiatus, I’m back to work on the manuscript—most recently on Diana: goddess of the Moon, of the ancient Sabine and Capuans, and a goddess of women and of enslaved people. With the greatly expanded reach of Google as a research tool, many topics blossom in amazing ways, but in this case I was struck by how little quality material was available. But women’s religion usually goes unattested, especially by sources as patriarchal as the classic Roman writers.

So much attention goes to the relatively late Roman legend about the rex Nemorensis (“king of Nemi”). This was supposed to be an ancient line of priests of Diana who had been fugitive slaves or criminals, and who gained the priesthood by murdering their predecessors: “who slew the slayer and shall himself be slain.” Nothing about this story, of course, fits with anything we know about Diana. James Fraser wrote about the rex Nemorensis in The Golden Bough (although he concluded that such priests actually served the forest god, not Diana).

The title comes, of course, from Diana’s oldest sanctuary of Nemi. But this story about the rex Nemorensis seems to be quite late; all the sources for it date to the 1st century CE and later. The lack of attestation for such an ancient tradition puzzled more than one scholar. “The problem is peculiarly obscure,” commented Arthur Gordon, a respected scholar of Diana, and an earlier commentator agreed: “It is curious that in none of the inscriptions that have been found is the priest of Diana mentioned…” Gordon confirmed that there was no record of such priests or what function they might have served. 1 In the 1960’s, the distinguished classicist Joseph Fontenrose was one of the first to discount the story as false. 2 Yet it continues to be told.

So where are the priestesses? The picture is murky, since the scholarly literature does not seem to mention any. But Plutarch (also a late source) tells us that no man was allowed to enter her temple, a tradition also reported for the women’s mysteries of Bona Dea. 3 We can eke out more by looking at what is known about the goddess and her temples.

Diana’s sanctuary of Nemi stood in the Alban hills. (This place was also known as Aricia, after aDiana of Nemi, threefold goddessfemale water-spirit). There, a volcanic lake lay in a crater surrounded on three sides by steep, forested cliffs. On its shores three statues of the goddess stood in a sacred grove. Later, around the 4th century BCE, a stone temple was added. Diana Nemorensis or Nemoralis (“of the sacred grove”) was related by name to the Celtic forest goddesses Nemetona, Nemetobriga, Arnemetia. All these titles refer to forest sanctuaries.

Diana had another ancient hilltop grove at Tifata, further south near Capua. This goddess was known as Diana Tifatina. On the Palatine hill in Rome, there was a sanctuary of Diana Noctiluca (“light of night”) that was kept illumined til dawn. Diana had another grove at Tibur, where she was called Opifera, “help-bringing.”4 This place was the very old shrine of the Tiburtine or Albunean sibyls, prophetic women linked to the goddess Fauna, also known as Fatua Fauna or Bona Dea, the “Good Goddess.” She was an explicitly feminist deity, called Dea feminarum, “the goddess of women,” whose myths speak to female oppression and resistance, and who was known for all-female rituals. (See “The Women’s Mysteries in Rome.”)

The name of Diana means “luminous, shining,” and comes from the same Indo-European root as our words “deity,” “divinity,” and the Latin dea (“goddess”). She is literally the Goddess. She is light and strength and the boldness of women. Her name is also related to Dione, goddess of the Greek oracular priestesses at Dodona, the “black doves” that Herodotus said had come from Thebes in Egypt. Diana also shares a common root with Jove (originally Diuve), a form of Jupiter, and with dies, Latin for “day.” The core meaning of “shining” in these names and words also describes the moon, and this is the core essence of Diana. Like many other moon goddesses, she had power in birth, life, death and the underworld.

Diana was a threefold goddess, like Hecate, with whom she was often compared and associated.5 Both goddesses hold the title Trivia, “three roads,” charged with all the magical potency of the crossroads. An inscription at Aricia does call Diana a great mistress of sorcerers, an attribute she retained into the middle ages.6 Diana, like Hecate, is a protector and defender of women.

The ancient image of Diana at Aricia was three statues linked together in front of trees, as we know from numerous coins. The trees are probably cypresses, which were connected with Diana, the dead, and chthonic spirits. This triune quality stayed with Diana; centuries later, Horace was still calling her diva triformis. 7 One of her three forms holds a bow, another a poppy, both attributes borrowed from the Greek Artemis, at least according to most of the scholars. I’m not so sure about that, given the Diana-like attributes of the Italian huntress and warrior Camilla of ancient Volscian legend. But I digress.

The triple goddess on the Arician denarii has other “un-Greek” attributes that go back to the Etruscans—like the short curly hair she sports on the obverse side of the coins. This was a commonDiana with Etruscan coiffure style for Etruscan women around 500 BCE. Later coins show Diana with loose, undressed hair that looks positively wild next to the tightly coiffed and veiled classic Roman femininity. Another striking thing about these “maiden” profiles is the witchy dragon-headed wand that appears to their left. The reverse of these coins depicts Diana as a single goddess holding a stag by its horns, in archaic Greek style, with a spear in her other hand. 8

four coins with images of Diana

Diana with maiden’s tresses and with spear and stags. Roman coins

The lake at Nemi was called the Mirror of Diana. It was fed by the spring of Egeria, another nymph who was worshipped at Nemi. Women carried torches to Egeria’s waters to pray for children and easy birth. “Almost countless clay models of the uterus have been found near her shrine, together with the torch, the symbol of midwives and of the Mater Matuta, who in the early hours of the morning opened the uterus and bade the baby come forth.” 9 Diana Lucina herself was a guardian of birthing mothers. 10 She shares this title of Lucina with Juno, another ancient Italian goddess, who goes back to the Etruscan goddess Uni.

The first Roman temple of Diana was founded on the Aventine hill, outside the city limits. It was inaugurated on August 13, the festival of Diana, back in the early days of Rome. On that day a league of the eight Latin tribes raised a bronze pillar in Diana’s new Roman precincts, inscribed with laws governing the festivals of all Latin cities. The inscription was known as the Aventine canon. All this testifies to the political and cultural importance of this goddess in ancient Latium. She oversaw political treaties between tribes, laws, and the oldest religious calendar of Rome.

However, for the Roman patricians, Diana retained a definite aura of otherness. She was and remained a foreigner to them, as a Sabine goddess and therefore a plebeian goddess—the conquered Sabines being the first settlers of the plebeian Aventine hill. And so the August 13 festival of Diana was known as servorum dies festus, “a holiday for slaves,” or simply dies servorum, “day of slaves.” 11 In this quality of compassionate protector and liberator, Diana resembles the goddess Feronia, in whose temple at Terracina slaves were emancipated. 12

Diana’s connection to slaves is one of several ways that she resembles Artemis of Ephesia, whose temple was a refuge for fugitive slaves. 13 (And this is the one aspect of the rex Nemorensis story that has some truth to it: that slaves took refuge in the temple of Diana—but not by killing each other.) Strabo related an old tradition that the statue of Aventine Diana was modeled on that of Artemis Ephesia, by way of Massilia (Marseilles). 14 An older story, going back to the 6th century, says that the Nemi sanctuary was founded by Orestes and Iphigenia, who had fled the temple of Artemis at Taurus on the Black Sea, carrying her image with them. 15 This legend is dubious, though many scholars think that Diana did take on the huntress aspect from Artemis, possibly via the Etruscans. However, Greek influences were also strong from the south, and are visible in what remains of the temple of Diana Tifatina.

But this mixture of influences is typical. We can look back and discern similar strands of transmission and exchange throughout history. They are everywhere, because culture is like a web. Look at the Sumerian theophoric name Ku-Bau, borne by a woman trader who founded a dynasty at Kish, and compare the name of her goddess (Bau) with the great Syrian goddess Kubaba of Carchemish, and the Anatolian mountain goddess and “Mother of the Gods” Kybele. The Romans brought the sacred meteorite of Kybele (Cybele as they wrote it) from her sacred mountain to their imperial capital, and from there her veneration disseminated across much of north Africa and Europe. As Kybele travelled, she exchanged titles and symbols with Isis and Juno and Tanit and Atargatis. The devotees of these goddesses recognized their commonalities in the last great flowering of the Magna Mater in the first centuries CE.

The women who came with torches to Aricia for Diana and Egeria also welcomed Isis into their sanctuary. Stone reliefs of ecstatic dancers in the Egyptian rite were raised there when Isis veneration swept across the Roman empire. Similar welcomes for Isis were rolled out at Paestum and Pompeii and other places where women reverenced the local goddess, whether Fortuna or Hera or Ceres. Britons combined Celtic veneration of ancestral Mothers with that of Minerva and Diana. At Metz and Lyons and Autun, Gaulish people honored Kybele, who was worshipped with Demeter at Eleusis, with Bona Dea near Marseilles, and with Isis in Libya.15 We’re in a similar period of cross-pollination under empire now.

It seems as if I’ve strayed from Diana, but she underwent this cultural journeying process herself, as Minerva had in an earlier period of the Roman empire, becoming syncretized with Celtic goddesses of healing springs, as Kybele also was. But somehow it was Diana who emerged in late antiquity as the quintessential pagan goddess that the Christian clergy were desperate to stamp out. Through a process of giving Roman names to everything, what scholars call the interpretatio romana, all other goddess came to be conflated under the name of Diana. It was she who was associated with ecstatic states, and those who underwent them were dubbed dianaticus or dianatica (compare lunaticus, which came to mean crazy person but originally meant someone under the influence of the moon).

It was Diana, too, who was said to lead hosts of spirits and women on shamanic flights through the night skies. The origins of this tradition in late Roman times, and their transmission through the early middle ages are most obscure and difficult to track. They are under the historical waterline, lying in the pagan corners that were kept carefully hidden from church and state. We know this much: by the ninth century, Frankish bishops were denouncing beliefs in Diana as a goddess of the witches, eager to stamp them out as “an illusion of the devil.” So Diana shines in the darkness, in the foundational myth of the European witch tradition.

Bibliographic Notes

1. Gordon, Arthur E., “On the Origin of Diana,” 186; and Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1911, “Nemorensis Lacus,” 369, which cites Strabo, Pausanius, and Servius as the first sources for the rex N. legend.

2. Fontenrose, Joseph, Ritual Theory of Myth, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966

3. Plutarch, Roman Questions, 3.

4. Noctiluca is mentioned by the old Roman writer Varro; on Opifera: Palmer, Robert E.A., Roman Religion and the Roman Empire, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974, pp. 58, 77; and Ogilvie, R.M.: Early Rome and the Etruscans, Atlantic Highlands NJ: Humanities Press, 1976, pp. 65-7

5. On triune Diana and Hecate: Green, Carin M. C., Roman Religion and the Cult of Diana at Aricia, Cambridge University Press, 2008, 134; on the goddess of sorcerers: Alföldi, “Diana Nemorensis,” in American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 64 No. 2, April, 1960, 141

6. Alföldi

7. Alföldi

8. Hurd-Mead, Kate Campbell, A History of Women in Medicine, from the earliest times to the beginning of the 19th century, Haddam CT: The Haddam Press, 1938, circa p. 49

9. Green, 135

10. Gordon, 185; Plutarch, Roman Questions, 3

11. Servius, ad Aen. viii. 465, in Gordon

12. Altheim, in Gordon, 185

13. Strabo, IV, 179f

14. Servius, in Gordon, 180

15. Vermaseren, Martin J., Cybele and Attis: The Myth and the Cult, London: Thames and Hudson, 1977, pp. 36, 133-4, 128.

(This article was first published here: http://www.suppressedhistories.net/secrethistory/diana.html)

(Book Review) Jezebel: the Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen by Max Dashu

A very short review of Lesley Hazelton’s book

Front CoverDon’t let that last part of the title fool you. Hazelton shows that this ancient queen of Israel, a Phoenician princess married to king Ahab in Samaria, was never a harlot. She is not only reclaiming Jezebel but lays bare the way fundamentalist totalitarianism works. She provides a really important analysis of the way that Elijah and Elisha dragged down the Israelite kingdom by their attacks on religious pluralism and on the queen specifically. (Jehu to Yoram: “What peace, when your mother Jezebel’s harlotries and sorceries are so many?”) Their actions turned two allies, Phoenicia and Syria, into enemies and quickly resulted in Israel (the northern kingdom) being made into a tributary province of the fell Assyrian empire.

Seal inscribed with the name of Jezebel.
(Egyptian influence was pervasive in Canaanite and Hebrew art of the time.)
Hazelton points out that the princess of Tyre’s real name was Ithabaal, and says that several centuries after her assassination, scribal spin doctors rendered it as Jezebel, meaning “woman of dung.”

There are some errors in the book, most of them minor. The most serious is her casting Astarte as wife of El (that’s actually Athirat, Asherah in Hebrew, who is not the same as Ashtart) but this does not affect her main thesis. She does a good job of breaking down the equation of polytheism with “harlotry” (zanah) and how this eventually made Jezebel to be regarded as a whore in the historical record and still today in popular cultures.

On this topic, she has a wonderful discussion of how the notion of “sacred prostitution” was canonized by 19th and early 20th century (European/American) scholars, a development we are still seeing the effects of even among some Goddess-oriented scholars today. It’s worth quoting her on this: “The old-style gentlemen scholars, hampered by Orientalism and blinkered by misogyny, simply could not conceive of women as priests. To the, there was only one possible explanation for the presence of women officiating in the temples of the Middle East: a consecrated woman could only be consecrated to sex.” (75)

Also, she identifies the “Jezebel, who calleth herself a prophetess” that John of Patmos denounced in Revelations 2:20-23, as the popular Christian teacher Thyatira. The true name of the original Jezebel is Ithabaal, “woman of Baal (lord)”. Hazelton says that the Bible writers twisted this name into a form that translates as “woman of dung.” She has something to say about that too.

Although the book has extensive endnotes, it is written in an easy to read style, at times journalistic and occasionally poetic. She doesn’t fail to draw parallels to modern fundamentalisms.
(Originally published here: http://www.suppressedhistories.net/articles/jezebel.html)

(Article) Stone-Raising Spinners by Max Dashu

The megalithic sanctuaries built by the elder kindreds of Europe remained an enduring presence on the landscape in the wake of invasions and migrations, long after the peoples who built them were submerged in the ethnic tide. The ancient lore surrounding the great stone monuments became mixed with new religions and stories, but retained its emphasis on powerful women and goddesses. In medieval Europe these sacred stories survived as the fairy faith, where female deities and land spirits mix with the ancestral dead. 

International folk tradition credits the faeries with raising dolmens and other megalithic monuments. These accounts laid great emphasis on the builders’ power as spinners, typically saying that a fata or goddess or lady carried the giant stones on her head while walking and spinning.

 Dolmen of Losa Mora, Rodellar, Aragon

An old Aragonese legend of the Dalle Morisca said that “a woman appeared who spun with her distaff and carried the great horizontal stone of the dolmen on her head. As she reached the place where the dolmen of Rodellar now stands, she set the stone in the position in which she had carried it.” [Gari Lacruz, 287] In Portugal, a spinning moura carried the wonderfully carved Pedra Formosa of Citania de Briteiros. [Gallop, 77]

The Basques named a dolmen at Mendive after the lamiñas. One of them brought the capstone from faraway Armiague balanced on her head, spinning as she went. In some versions she carried the boulder on her little finger. [Sebillot IV 21] The goddess Holle also carried off a boulder on her thumb, according to Germans of the Meisner district. [Grimm] Another Basque tradition says that the witches built dolmens in a single night, carrying stones from the mountains on the tips of their distaffs. [Barandiaran, 173]

This theme of “one night’s work” recurs in Irish traditions of megaliths built by the Cailleach (crone). The Maltese also tell it of their ancient temples . A woman with a baby at her breast is said to have created the oldest of them, the Ggantija. “Strengthened by a meal of magic beans, she is said to have taken the huge blocks of stone to the site in a single day, and then to have built the walls by night.” [von Cles-Reden, 78] The Ggantija is on Gozo island, which Greek tradition called the island of Calypso, daughter of Oceanus. The Maltese still point out her cave below Ggantija, which an 18th century writer describes as a labyrinth. [Biaggi, 13-14]


 The Ggantija


A dolmen in Devon was called The Spinners’ Rock. English tradition says that three spinning women erected the megalith one morning before breakfast, amusing themselves on the way to deliver wool they had spun. [Stone Pages, joshua.micronet.it/untesti/dmeozzi/homeng. html, 6-97] Dous Fadas, a dolmen on the road from Clermont to Puy in Auvergne, was named after fées who spun as they carried its stones. In the Dordogne valley three young women elevated the standing stones of Brantôme with their distaffs. In the upper Loire valley three spinning fées carried stones on their heads to build the dolmens at Langeac. [Sebillot IV 21]

The French folklorist Sebillot noted that many menhirs are shaped like distaffs or loaded spindles. They were said to have been put in place by supernatural spinners. [Sebillot, 5] In 1820 peasants near Simandre in Ain told a researcher that the Spindle of the Faery Woman, a great standing stone, had been placed there by la Fau who carried it in her arms. It was the only one left of three menhirs planted in the ground by three fées on their way to a gathering. [Tardy, Le Menhir de Simandre, 1892, cited in Sebillot IV, 6]

At Rocquaine on the island of Guernsey a woman of very small stature was seen climbing the cliff beyond the beach, knitting and carrying something in her apron as carefully as if it was a dozen eggs or a newborn. She suddenly stopped and, with great ease, hurled a fifteen-foot stone into the plain above. [Sebillot, 7]

The Woman Stone at St Georges-sur-Moulon fell when a giant woman from the Haut-Brune forest was descending the hillside. Her apron-strings broke, releasing the stone she was carrying in it. In Scotland it is a basket-strap that broke as the Cailleach carried earth and stones on her back. They spilled out to form Mount Vaichaird, or the rock piles called Carn na Caillich. The Cailleach shaped the hills of Ross-shire and much of the Scottish highlands by carrying loads in her basket. [MacKenzie, 164]

In Ireland, the Cailleach Bhéara had two sister-hags who were guardians of Kerry peninsulas. Once, when the hag of Beare fell on hard times, the hag of Dingle decided to help her by giving her another island. She roped one of her own and dragged it southward, but it split into two before reaching its destination. [O Hogain, 67] This is reminiscent of the story of Gefjon, who made king Gylfi laugh and was granted the boon of as much land as four oxen could plough in a day and a night. She yoked her giant sons as oxen to a plow and pulled a huge chunk of land into the sea, leaving a huge lake in Sweden. Gefjon named the new island Zeeland.

These tales reach as far as Finland, where giants’ daughters carried huge rocks in their aprons and tossed them up near Päjände in Hattulasocken. The Scandanavian merwoman Zechiel and her sister wished to visit each other, and set about building a bridge of stones across the sea. But they never finished; Zechiel was startled by Thor’s thunder, and the enormous stones scattered out of her apron. In Pomerania, a giant’s daughter wanted to make a bridge across the sea to the island of Rügen. She brought an apronful of sand, but dropped it when her mother threatened to punish her. The spilled sand became the hills near Litzow. [All Grimm 536-7] A Scottish variant has the devil threatening to take an old Donside witch unless she made him a rope of sand before nightfall. She grinned and did it easily. Later it broke, and its remnants are the low sandhills called the Kembs of Kemnay in Aberdeenshire. [Buchan, 268-9]

In some stories the menhir-carrying lady metamorphosed into the Catholic goddess. In Pléchatel the Holy Virgin was walking along spinning with the Long-Stone on her head and the White-Stones in her apron. She dropped her spindle and when she bent to pick it up, the stone on her head slid off and plunged into the ground just where the spindle had fallen. Meanwhile the stones in her apron rolled out and landed in a pattern of thread coming from the Long-Stone spindle. [Sebillot IV, 7]

Sometimes the only trace of the legend is a place-name. The people of Elbersweiller in Alsace called a local menhir the Distaff in the 1700s, and other German stones were called Kunkel (distaff). The namesofsome stones show cultural drift away from the original pagan goddess: St Barbe’s Spindle, Kriemhild’s Spindle, the Distaff of la Madeleine or Gargantua’s Wife’s Spindle. [Sebillot IV, 5] Saint Lufthildis was said to have marked out her lands with her spindle from her hilltop dwelling, the Lufteberg. [Eckenstein, 25]

Assimilation of saints’ names is unsurprising given the long campaign to christianize pagan culture, and the peasantry’s refusal to give it up. Under these circumstances a synthesis was inevitable. Strange associations arose when biblical characters were projected into the old faery lore: the strongman Samson was said to have carried the standing stones in the Gaillac region—but while spinning! St Radegonde carried the Standing Stone of Poitiers—with the capstone on her head and the five pillars in her apron—and set it in the ground. In the same way, St Madeleine carried boulders to build a dolmen in an island in the Vienne river. [Sebillot IV, 22-23]

In Aveyron the Virgin carried the boulders of the Peyrignagols dolmen, one on her head and one on each arm, spinning as she walked. During the trip she filled seven spindles with thread each day. This ancient monument was known as the Holy Rocks. The dolmens of Valderies and Peyrolevado were said to be raised the same way, and they too were eventually credited to the Catholic goddess. [Sebillot IV 22]

Other megaliths of the same type fell under the church’s ban, and came to be called Devil’s Stone or were otherwise demonized. Yet popular memory kept on connecting the archaic stone temples with the faeries and witches. The Aragonese described megalithic sanctuaries as places where witch assemblies took place. They called the dolmen at Ibirque, Aragón, the Witches’ Hut; others retained goddess associations. Spanish and Portuguese traditions of supernatural moras at these monuments may allude to their ancient north African origins. [Gari Lacruz, 287-8]

Basques said that the lamiñas (faeries) or sorguiñes (witches) built the dolmens of Mendive, as well as the country’s oldest bridges, houses, castles, palaces and even churches. [Barandiarán, 85-6, note] The western Basques often say that devils built the bridges, though they also name the pagans or Moors. Several dolmens are known as Sorguinexte, “witch’s house.”

In Sardinia the ancient nuraghe were sometimes called Nuraghe Istria, “witch’s tower.” The witch-goddess Lughia Rajosa lived in one of these neolithic towers. Her enchanted distaff (Rocca fatata) guarded great wealth: herds, thousands of jars of grain and oil. The distaff moved around in the day, while Lughia slept, and whistled to warn her when intruders came. It was told that youths often tried to rob her animals or firewood. She defeated many of them, but one managed to push her magical distaff into the oven. Not knowing how to cry, Lughia turned into innumberable insects who cried for her. Now she flies as a cicada amidst the nuraghe towers. [Fiabe Sarde, 44, 78-81]


A Sardinian nuraga (neolithic tower)

A Breton dolmen called the Spinner’s Bed was inhabited by a supernatural sorcière. Standing on the stones, if she threw her spindle to the right it reached to mount Roc’h goz in Plestin; when she hurled it to the left it fell at Beg an Inkinerez in Plougasnou, three miles away. Another powerful fée was said to live in a dolmen at Tregastel, called Gouele an Inkinerez, “Bed of the Spinner.” This fée was able to hurl her spindle enormous distances, like a shaman projecting her power. [Sebillot IV 28] In the 13th century, an account of an old woman tried as a heretic at Reims described her as throwing a ball of thread in this way, and flying after it like a witch. [Kors/Peters cite]

Sometimes the legend of the building faery was assimilated to historical figures. Maud of Hay, a noblewoman whose husband feuded with king John of Robin Hood fame, was captured, ransomed, captured again, and walled up for life in the king’s tower, along with her children. Folklore remembers her by her maiden name, as Mol Walbee. Posthumously she acquired a reputation as a powerful witch. The Welsh said that Mol Walbee singlehandedly built the castle of Hay in Breconshire in one night. As she carried stones in her apron, a nine-foot “pebble” dropped into her shoe. She kept going, but the stone irritated her, so she threw it across the Wye river. It landed three miles away in Llowes churchyard, Radnorshire. The church does not seem to have been an accidental target. In another tale, a monk interrupted Moll’s midnight incantations, exhorting her to give them up. She grabbed him, carried him to the Wye and dumped him in the river, where he drowned. [Trevelyan, 129]

The Mascos built themselves a home at the Cabano de los Mascos near Ceyrac. (The name of these faeries comes from mascae, an ancient word for witches that shows up in early medieval witchcraft laws.) They too carried enormous blocks atop their distaffs. At the Tioule des Fadas, a fada gathered chunks of granite so large that ten bulls would have been unable to budge them, and built a shelter for herself and her sheep. She carried the largest stone on the tip of her distaff, spinning as she walked. [Sebillot, IV 21]

 La Roche des Fées, Essé

In French accounts the fées bringing stones for their megalithic temples often throw them down haphazardly when they find out that the building was already finished. [Sebillot, IV 7] So it happened with fées carrying stones to the Roche-aux-Fées at Essé. When they heard that no more stones were needed, they stuck one boulder upright and scattered the rest alongside it. Another group of fées, hearing their sister call to them not to bring more stones, let them fall and be buried deep in the earth. [Grimm 413] 


One legend has Margot-la-Fée walking along with a stone on her head, knitting, when she spotted a motionless bird on the ground. “So you die in this country?” The answer was yes. “And here I am carrying this stone for a monument—it’s not worth the trouble to build.” And she threw the rock where it stands today, at Poterie near Lamballe. [Sebillot IV 22]

Copyright 2000 Max Dashu

(This was first published in “The Old Goddess”:

http://www.suppressedhistories.net/secrethistory/oldgoddess.html)