Content warning: Sexual Violence
- Place of origin: Ireland.
- Name meaning: Radiant, bright, glowing, glorious, famous.
- Domains: Sun, summer, cattle, fertility, abundance, sovereignty, love.
- Symbols: Red mare, sun.
- Feast days: Midsummer.
Áine (pronounced like the ‘aun’ in faun, and ‘ye’ in yesterday) is a deity with a troubling story – though she represents so many positive things, two myths places her at the mercy of violent men. To me, these myths make very little sense. While there are going to be people shouting from rooftops that we can’t judge old myths by modern standards; I must repeat; there are irreconcilable internal inconsistencies in these myths, even if we only consider them as products of their time.
Both the Earl Gerald FitzGerald (1300’s), and King Ailill Aulom (200’s) are said to have raped Áine. She avenges herself by violence or by magic; she bites off Ailill’s ear, and turns Gerald into a goose (and maybe kills him too). There is some contention about consent in the story involving Gerald (multiple versions of the tale exist), but a consensual lover doesn’t normally feel the need to enact revenge, so…
My question is; how does a mere mortal man rape a deity? Among normal humans, rape is an incredibly complex issue that we, as a species, have yet to find an adequate means of dealing with. It’d be nice if the victim could just turn their assailant into a goose. What a fantastic deterrent – geese can’t drive cars, have jobs, own property or hold positions of power over others! And, herein lies the problem with the myth. Normally, the rapist holds some form of power over the victim; there is some reason that the rapist thinks they can get away with their actions. They might just be bigger and stronger than the victim, they might hold a position of authority and respect in the community, or they may be influential in the victim’s social circles or workplace. The victim tends to be extremely aware that they lack power, and if they ‘make a fuss’, they will be the one who suffers, not the rapist. In other words; there is normally a power imbalance in favour of the rapist.
In these myths, the mortal men do not have authority over the deity. She’s a deity of sovereignty; she’s the one who makes people into kings and earls in the first place. She has power over the harvest, and thus the life and death of the people in her lands. She has the power to turn Gerald into a goose, and to bite off Ailill’s ear without worrying that he’ll kill her for it. She doesn’t fear her acts of retribution being questioned or judged. So how on earth does the assault even happen? What kind of idiot assaults someone they are aware is capable of divine retribution? What is this sort of tale supposed to mean? It doesn’t make sense.
The Ailill myth, taken in the original context, is about the right to be king. Ancient Irish law required kings to be ‘unblemished’ and ‘whole’. The loss of an ear results in Ailill being dethroned. I’d like to take the story to mean that no rapist should be permitted to hold a position of authority, and that women had the right to avenge themselves by maiming their rapists… but that’s an extremely modern interpretation. Raping women wasn’t really treated as a serious crime by the ancient Irish. They saw women as property, to be used and abused as their male ‘superiors’ wished. If this is a cautionary tale for would-be rapists, then it only applies to rapists assaulting deities.
It seems far more likely that this was a myth created for a political purpose (and this is pure speculation); Ailill was dethroned because he lost an ear – probably in combat. He may have been popular; may have had supporters among the other nobles, or even the common folk. By the 200’s, the law requiring kings to be unblemished was losing favour, so there may have been people who questioned the rightness of ejecting Ailill from his position over something as small as an ear (I mean, it’s just an EAR. Not like it’s his sword arm or anything. He can still do all the things a king needs to). His successor may have been nervous about a possible uprising, and thus wanted to ensure that nobody would ever support Ailill if he tried to take his position back. What could the new king do to protect himself from being challenged, short of killing Ailill? Propaganda. A story is spread around about how Ailill raped the deity that confers the authority to rule the land, and how she punished him for his transgression against her. The implication here is clear; if the people choose to support Ailill as king, Áine will destroy the harvest, and the people will starve. It’s an elegant and bloodless solution.
Gerald’s myth is the more recent of the two, and is a poetic adaptation of the Ailill myth. This tale was created to explain Gerald’s mysterious disappearance. As this was a complete disappearance, he couldn’t just lose an ear in the story. He had to lose his human form (and maybe his life). The theme of men being taken by fairy women was reasonably common – attracting the attention of the sidhe was incredibly dangerous, let alone insulting one of them. Disappearances and unexpected deaths were often explained through fairy kidnapping. This case is not an exception. It’s just… a less dignified example of that category of tale. Though, it does reinforce Áine’s status as someone who is quite willing and able to punish rapists.
So, what does Áine represent today?
Updating Áine for modern worship isn’t difficult. She keeps her original domains of summer, the sun, and abundance, and gains the status of patron deity of rape victims and abuse survivors. She strips power from those that would abuse it, and offers her protection to those that were unable to defend themselves. She is sorely needed in this role – as a survivor herself, she is best positioned to empathise with and help others who have experienced similar abuse.
She retains her feast on midsummer eve, and midsummer’s day she is revered through a joyous celebration of abundance. Dancing, games, attending a fair, or dressing up in brightly coloured clothes would all work well for this – you could go for a walk and gather flowers to make wreaths. You might also consider attending a protest against misuses of power, volunteering for a charity that cares for victims of abuse, or for neglected animals, especially horses.
Another thing you could do is arrange to go on a date with your sweetheart – go somewhere fun, or stay home and play music you love. Have a picnic in a park, or even just invite friends over for a nice lunch.
For those unfamiliar with Áine; she is either the daughter of the Dagda or the ocean deity Manannán mac Lir. She has a brother named Áillen, who was an excellent harpist and singer, though he also had an affinity for fire. He enjoyed annually burning Tara down – that’s the place where Irish kings went to be crowned. One might say he had a dislike of kings, perhaps due to what one did to his sister. Their mother is uncertain as both possible fathers got around a bit – different sources list several different wives. In my personal opinion, determining the ‘true’ parents of these two isn’t particularly important for their worship. In ancient Ireland, children were often raised by foster parents, so there are decent odds that both fathers are equally valid. Still, it would be nice to know who they called ‘Mum’, if anyone.
Áine had a possible sister deity or alter-ego – Grian – whose name means the sun, burning, or heat. Little is known about Grian, though there is speculation that she ruled over the colder seasons and Áine ruled over the warmer ones. There is also a possibility that Grian was another name for Macha (or any of the deities Macha might be an alter-ego of). All this speculation is… questionable at best. There’s not enough evidence (that I’ve been able to locate, at least) to say much about her for certain, apart from her name.
Áine wasn’t one of the few Celtic deities whose influence spread far and wide across most/all the Celtic lands. Sites named for her tend to be in Ireland, toward the northern end. Her name may have been a localisation of one of the other summer or sovereignty deities’ names, but the fact that none of the myths are confused about whether Ailill assaulted Áine, Macha or Brigid (for example) tells me that she was not considered equivalent to those other figures at the time the myth was created.
There are a lot of ambiguities in Irish myth around the names of deities – many names appear to be titles: Dagda means ‘good god’, Morrígan means ‘phantom queen’ or ‘nightmare queen’, even Macha means ‘of the plains’. These could all easily be titles. In the case of Morrígan, the name is definitely used as a title as it can be found in plural form (Morrígna) and is assigned to multiple deities (Nemain, Macha, Badb, Anand, Fea, Ériu, Banba and Fódla) whose names could also be titles. Thus, we wind up with a tangle of contradiction that can’t easily be sorted out. Fortunately, excluding the ambiguous relationship with Grian, Áine doesn’t suffer from much contradiction in the recorded myths.
The reason I believe she may be able to have a more global influence in the modern day is how universal a number of her associated domains are. The same sun shines on the whole world, everywhere experiences some sort of summer, cattle are commonly farmed, and people from the dawn of time have spent a great deal of time and energy on love. On the darker side of things, the entire globe is affected by abuses of power.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my ramblings; I’ve got a lot more rambling to share with you if you’ve the patience for it!