Embark on a scholarly exploration of Aine, a complex and multifaceted figure in Irish mythology, often described as both a Goddess and a fairy queen. In this blog we will try to briefly explore the various layers of Aine’s identity, touching on historical texts, folklore, and modern interpretations. We will delve into the etymology of Aine’s name and its significance in Irish culture. Investigate the dual roles linked to Aine and try to answer the question; Aine, Irish Goddess or Fairy Queen?
Just before we drive in though I would like to say that, though asked many times in the past, I have never had any personal connection with this Aine and would like to give some good resources for anyone exploring her to check out.
- Myth, Legend and Romance by D.r Daithi O’hOgain
- Gods and Goddesses of Ireland by Morgan Daimler.
- Fairy Faith in Ireland by Lora O’Brien
The thing with exploring all of these deities and connections is that there needs to be a healthy amount of scepticism as well as a lot of open minded curiosity.
Divine origins of Sidhe Folk?
When we look to find the ancient Gods of Ireland we most commonly consider them to have come from the Tuatha Dé Danann. Yet for all of the stories we have of this ancient and powerful tribe and the many places in the island that still bear some connection to them, there are few among them actually referred to as deities. Whether this is some ‘policy’ of those who documented the tales into print or not, most Gods of Ireland are considered to have come from that tribe. Most, but not all as there are references to some possibly older powers in the island, Crom Cruach, the Cailleach, and even Lir, father of the famous Manannán. So where is Aine among this tribe?
Well there is an Aine said to be daughter of the Dagda but what we have about her is limited to a paragraph in the The Prose Tales in the Rennes Dindshenchas and a mention of her death ‘or the love that she gave to Banba.’ which comes from the Lebor Gabála Érenn vol. 4. ed. and translated by R. A. S. Macalister.
Yet the Aine that we are talking about has a very different origin. Said to be daughter of Egobail a druid, and the sister of Aillen a sidhe from the tales of Fionn who was known to burn Tara every year at Samhain. This Aine seems less of the divine and more of the sidhe, but given that the tales of Fionn and the Fianna fall within the later Fenian cycle of Irish lore one has to wonder about the possible influence of previous tales.
The Goddess of…
A quick internet search will give a whole host of things associated with Aine, everything from fertility, sovereignty, summer, wealth, midsummer and the sun, command over crops and animals and is also associated with agriculture. Though some of these we can easily point to a source, for her name translates as “brightness” for example, others become increasingly more challenging and may relate more to the tales of her than any clearly defined pantheon role.
In fact, unlike other pantheons of the world, the Irish Gods are seen more as ancestor deities each with a broad range of interests and expertise. They therefore do not conform to the classic pantheon roles as seen in some other cultures.
Many attempts have been made over the centuries to make the Irish Gods “fit” to other pantheon formats, ie, having a God for the sun, for the harvest, for death etc. One of the most well known proponents of this fallacy was none other than Julius Caesar during his conquest of the peoples of western europe. As such when we go looking for Aine there may be things that have been attributed to her to fit this narrative rather than coming from the original lore of the island.
Much of what we have presented to us of Aine’s lore and influences actually comes from those families who claim to be descended from this mythical figure. Though as we will see, even here there are some questionable elements that cannot be ignored.
A Semi Divine Lineage
There is a very common practice observed throughout Irish history of tracing one’s lineage back to the first tribes or even the Gods themselves. This was not just some fanciful supposition or privileged posturing. We know from the rules of Ireland Brehon Law that many of one’s rights and privileges depended less on the merits of the individual than on the family, Tuath, or territory that they come from. In fact many of the ceremonial or ritual sites in the island existed to serve the needs of one family or other and during conflicts between Kings these sacred sites were commonly targeted and ferociously defended.
Here is where we find our story of Aine again and in the context above we may be touching on the themes of both sovereignty and fertility, but alas not in the honourable manner of the older tales.
One of Munsters ancient tribes was known as the Eoghanacht and in their territory (now known as Limerick) there was and still remains a hill known as Cnoc Aine, Knockainey is the modern translation. In the story told of this tribes Otherworldy lineage, one Samhain Ailill Ólom, son of the famous Eoghan Mór encountered two people of the sidh atop the hill of Cnoc Aine. One was said to be Eoghabail and the other Aine, his beautiful daughter who was playing music on a bronze instrument. Ailill’s companion, a seer poet called Fearcheas set upon and slew Eoghabail, but for Aine the assault was rape.
This is not the only example of this type of theme as in many traditions a chieftain or king would need to have a union or be wed to a Goddess in order to ensure their sovereign right to rule and as the Eoghanacht claimed her as their ancestress to secure their right to rule, it’s possible that this tale may have been crafted by rivals trying to undermine their semi divine lineage.
Alas Aine is not solely claimed in this manner as another family later laid claim to her bloodline to secure their position in Ireland’s society. What is odd about this second family is that they are known to be one of the more famous families among the mediaeval Norman invasion of Ireland, the Fitzgeralds.
Where before Aine was said to come out of the hill of Knockainey, this new turn of the tale has her Lough Gur. It is said that the first Earl of Desmond came across a beautiful woman combing her hair by the lake. He stole from her a magical cloak which then bound her to his will. Then Maurice, the self-styled ‘king of Aine’, conceived of her a son who became the focus of much folklore linked to his mother, Gearoid Iarla. Much of that folklore links to the lake as it is said that beneath its waters one can glimpse a great palace of Aine in the Otherworld, and that on certain occasions she or her son are said to ride out of the waters of the lake on fine steeds. Indeed the mythology of Geraoid even goes so far as to say that he still lives beneath those waves and will return one day in times of Ireland’s great need.
Some Fitzgeralds to this day claim Aine as the family’s banshee and it is her cries that warn of an impending death in that clan.
A Real Living Connection
What we do know is that the belief in Aine, no matter the confusion of her origins, took a real and prominent root in the land and the culture of the people who live there. There are many examples of folk traditions in Knockainey involving Cnoc Aine itself. In midsummer the local folk would gather and host festivals atop her hill. Bundles of straw would be set on fire and carried to the hill top and from there down among the fields to help bring prosperity to the land. The tales of her appearing on the hill are many, as are her appearing in the guise of a beggar woman and if helped by a poor family she would bring them blessings of abundance in return.
So where does this leave us in our pursuit of Aine? The tales hold many themes that are very common in Irish folklore, from the comb connecting her to the lore of the banshee, to the cloak which holds power over her seemingly to reflect that of the Ronta or selkie myth as well has here coming in guises and testing peoples worth linked to many a hag tale. When we take all of these many well known themes and apply them to the knowledge that noble families of Ireland, even those of invading lineages, wished to intentionally right themselves into the narrative of the land to justify their rights and privileges you can see how we end up with questions concerning Aine. Does this refute her divine nature, or even her existence at all?
Yet despite all of that there is a real history of active practical engagement with folk beliefs directly attributed to this entity. The belief of generations has been carried down through time in the tales and practices of Aine and the places connected to her. Is this what it takes to validate her existence and her influence?
We have gone through a lot in our exploration of both the academic and the folk lore of Aine and for all that I have shared with you, I have also read so much more to try to bring you this piece.
Yet despite all of that It seems I personally haven’t found an answer to the question of Aine, Irish Goddess or Fairy Queen?
Where To Now?
If you think that Irish Paganism as we teach sounds interesting, and might even be something you’d like to explore further, you can always: