The Nine Maidens A Short Introduction
North of Dundee, a city on the north bank of the river Tay in Scotland, there is a range of hills called the Sidlaws. The name of these hills derives from the Gaelic term sidhe (shee) a word meanig fairy or fairies. At the foot of these hills there is the broken stump of a Pictish Symbol Stone known locally as Martin’s Stone. The Picts were a confederation of tribal peoples who lived in Scotland between the first and ninth centuries AD and who left a unique , highly stylised and beautiful series of symbols which they carved on standing stones all over the north and east of what we now know as Scotland. Recent research points to the fact that he Picts were a pagan people who worshipped a goddess figure before the intrusion of Christianity. Their symbol stones have intrigued the archaeologists and historians for centuries and are only now beginning to give up their secrets though we will never know the full meaning of the symbols carved on these intriguing monoliths. However some of these strange stones have legends attached to them and Martin’s Stone is one of those. As a child I walked past this ancient relic many times and paid it little heed. However as my youthful interest in the distant past grew I became more and more aware of the remnants of previous peoples that fill the landscape of Scotland, particularly those like Martin’s Stone that were close to where I lived in my childhood and youth. The story that is attached to the Martin’s Stone is one I cannot remember first hearing, or reading, but I do know that by the time I was in my mid-twenties with a degree in history and an increasingly critical attitude towards what was handed down as history, I was ready to be stimulated, stirred and sent off on a quest that has lasted over two decades.
The stimulus for this quest came from a simple four line poem that had survived in the oral tradition as the explanation of Martin’s Stone’s existence.
It was tempit at Pitempan
Draigelt at Ba’dragon
Stricken at Strikemartin
An killt at Martin’s Stane.
The story was that one hot summer’s day the farmer at Pittempton , now a farm just to the north of Dundee, was working in the fields. It was very hot and he called his eldest daughter to go to the nearby well to fetch him a drink of water. When, after a few minutes she had not returned he sent his next eldest daughter to find out what was delaying her. It is likely he thought the eldest had met up with her suitor, a local lad called Martin, and that he thought sending her sister would hurry her up. The second sister too failed to return and one after another the farmer sent his nine daughters to the well to brnig him water. When all had gone and none had returned the farmer, growing angrier by the minute, set off to the well himself.
When King Arthur was taken to Avalon by Morgan and her sisters at the end of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur we see one of the great romantic portrayals of the Celtic world. The great king is spirited off to the otherworld there to be healed and wait again the day when he is most needed. It is a picture drawn from the deep well of Celtic myth and legend and has found resonance in the eats and minds of peopl o everycontinent for hundreds of years. It is a beautiful picture, sad yet uplifting and full of that glorious mixture of sorrow and beauty that so many associate with the myhtology of the Celtic races. Certain aspects of ths picture however are drawn from a broader base than the Celtic world and from a past that perhaps is not so distant as you might think. For who are Morgan and her sisters, the inhabitants of the island of apples – Avalon?
In the book The Quest for the Nine Maidens (see Books) I have shown that these wierd sisters are merely one of multifarious representations of a remarkably long-lived institution that underpins and infuses the mythology and folklore of the Celtic, Scandinavian and Iberian worlds and beyond in a time scale that seems to have lasted for millenia.For what the past two decades of research have shown me is that whether they hide behind the names of early Christian saints or Gaulish druidesses, Valkyries or Muses there was a sisterhood known to historians in the Classical world and remembered by that other strange sisterhood, the witches as late as the 16th century in Scotland, and who are remembered in a cave painting from near the dawn of time in Catalonia (El Cogul) but have almost been forgotten by the modern world. And it is fitting that they should have allowed themselves to be discovered in a search that started many years ago into that other great puzzle of the past – the Picts, the ancient tribal federation of Scotland that were known to the Romans as the Caledonians.
The quest has taken me to the folklore and mythology of my native Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Brittany, Norway, Greenland, Iberia and Romania. For the purposes of this book I intend only passing reference to the sisterhoods of the Classical nations of Rome and Greece though it seems more than likely that they originated from the same source as the other groups whom I generically refer to as the Nine Maidens, the name under which they first drew themselves to my attention. Diviners, weather-changers and shape-shifters the Nine Maidens lived,like Morgan and her sisters, on islands in the sea or in lochs and lakes, or on the tops of sacred hills and worshipped the oldest form of Godhead humanity has known – the Mother, representation of all life and the planet on which that life lives. And now as the poison in her waters spreads and the rape of her forests, plains and mountains accelerates we would be well to remember the worship of this sisterhood of the distant past – while we still can.