Just as King Arthur rests eternally in Avalon’s safe keeping, so too does the memory of the Holy Isle endure, embedded in the lore and legacy of Britain’s legendary king. What remains are but tantalizing glimpses of the Apple Isle and her inhabitants—a barge full of mourning queens … a samite-enrobed arm emerging from the surface of a glassy lake, holding aloft the sword Excalibur … a paradisaical land of healing where dwelt Nine learned sisters, skilled in all manner of art, science, and sorcery. These scattered images suggest the seeds of something quite extraordinary to have cast such long shadows over the mystic landscape, and over the centuries, visionary writers from Sir Thomas Mallory to Marion Zimmer Bradley have grown and expanded upon these mythic elements, adding their own enchantments to Avalon’s ever-evolving story.
But the essence of Avalon is more deeply impressed in our collective memory than these few tales, the mythic origins of which can be found far afield from the realms of legend and richly imagined fiction. History teaches us, through the lens of Classical sources, that Celtic women stood side by side with men in service to their people as Druids—that elite class of priests, judges, seers and healers who have been a source of wonder and spiritual inspiration since ancient times. In addition to these women druids—called “bandrui” in Old Irish—who played important and direct roles in Celtic societies, we also know that there were enclaves of Holy Women who dwelt apart from the rest of society, often on secluded islands and in sacred groves. Where history provides us with a few direct examples, many more can be found in the realm of legend; these are significant because myths reflect the realities of the societies that birth them, providing windows into their culture and philosophy.
The Roman geographer Pomponius Mela gives an account of the Gallicenae, nine priestesses who dwelt on the Isle de Sein off the coast of Brittany. Famed for their oracular gifts, healing powers, and possessing the ability to shapeshift and control the weather, these women were said to live in perpetual virginity (meant in the old sense of being beholden to no man, as they would leave their island periodically to take lovers) and perform ecstatic rites in service to the Divine. Breton legend speaks of another group of nine women called the Korrigan, powerful shape changers and healers who dwelt deep in a sacred grove, and whose stories appear to reflect ancient rites of kingmaking.
In Ireland, nineteen priestesses kept the perpetual flame of the Goddess Brigid alight at the Shrine of Cill Dara—a tradition that endured into Christian times in honor of St. Brigid, herself said to have been a bandrui before her conversion to Christianity. The Irish Immram tale, “The Voyage of Bran,” begins with the invitation of an Otherworldly woman, holding a silver branch from the trees of Emain Ablach(the Plain of Apples), encouraging Bran and his men to travel to Tír na mBan, the paradisaical Island of Women.
In Scotland, Scáthach was a famed warrior-Queen who lived in Dún Scáith, the Castle of Shadows, an almost impenetrable fortress on the Isle of Skye. She trained only the best and bravest men in the arts of war—among them, the Irish hero Cúchulainn who came to her to earn his place as a warrior. Scáthach was gifted with the power of prophecy, and some believe she was a Goddess and psychopomp who escorted the souls of those who died in battle to the Western Isle of the Dead—Tír na nÓg, the Land of Youth.
The Welsh poem “Prieddu Annwn” or “The Spoils of Annwn” describes a raid on the Otherworld by Arthur and his men. They journey in Arthur’s boat Prydwen to the islands of Annwn, seeking the Cauldron of Inspiration. This magical vessel is found in the Revolving Fortress of the Otherworld, where it is tended by Nine Maidens who warm it with their breath. These nine women have been interpreted variously as muses or seeresses, breathing in the mystical vapors of the cauldron that entrances them and allows them to speak oracular verses.
These mystic women are reminiscent of the Nine Morgens who dwell on Ynys Afallon—the Island of Avalon. In the “Vita Merlini,” Geoffery of Monmouth describes the women of the Apple Isle:
Nine sisters rule there by right of birth over those who come to them from our lands. Their leader is more skilled at healing and more beautiful than her sisters. She is called Morgan, and has learned the properties each plant has to cure sick bodies. She also has the power of changing her shape, and of flying through the air on strange wings like Daedalus. She can be at Brest, Chartres or Pavia whenever she wishes, or glide from the sky onto our shores.
Whether considering history, myth, or legend, it is clear therefore that there is an established tradition across the various Celtic cultures of enclaves of Holy Women living in seclusion and renowned as powerful healers, oracles, and shapeshifters. They are keepers of sacred wells, perpetual flames, and magical vessels. They serve as initiators, teachers, and kingmakers. They appear to serve a liminal purpose, with one foot always in the Otherworld just as surely as their very memory has one foot in the shadowland of legend. Although we cannot know for sure, it may be that these Holy Women served a different function in Celtic society then their Druidic counterparts, as they seem to be depicted as “other” than Druid. Even still, they may have drawn upon a common set of spiritual traditions and beliefs, differing only in the way they manifested their service. Similar to the way in which Catholic priests and monks comprise different ecclesiastic orders in the same religion, the existence of both Celtic priestesses and bandrui need not be redundant; indeed, the majority of Celts were not a part of the Druid caste, yet surely they had beliefs and Divinities in common.
It is the exploration of the expression of Celtic British spirituality found in these sacred sisterhoods that informs and inspires the Avalonian Tradition today. We gather in all-women groups, journey to places of pilgrimage in the British Isles, study the history and language of the ancient Britons, practice traditional forms of Celtic healing and divination, explore Celtic arts and music, immerse ourselves in Cymric folklore and mythology, and seek to understand the cultural context that birthed our spiritual path. However, although we are working to establish a land sanctuary for learning and inner contemplation, we are not looking to literally recreate these ancient women’s enclaves. Instead, the work of the Avalonian Tradition is to remember the symbolism inherent in the legends of Avalon, to reclaim the underlying meaning of the lessons of these stories, and to renew them in such a way that underscores their continuing relevance for the woman of today.
Myths endure because they have something to teach us. Not only do they provide us with insight into the cultures that birthed them, but their timeless themes and allegorical symbolisms resonate with the human psyche on an unconscious level. There is great wisdom encoded in these archetypal patterns, and the lessons they teach are multi-layered—operating both in a practical manner as well as in the realm of the spirit. On the surface, myths can teach us how cultures believed it was important to behave, the direction to which their moral compass pointed, and their philosophy on the way the Universe was ordered. Celtic myths are especially rich in their depiction of the Otherworld, and go to great pains to describe what happens when the accepted social order is not maintained.
The idea of Avalon developed in a cultural context quite different than that in existence today in Britain, and over the centuries, different overlays of meaning and form were ascribed to the Island of Apples. To the ancient Britons, it was the Island of the Dead, and local Somerset tradition holds that Gwyn ap Nudd, Lord of the Wild Hunt, dwelt beneath Glastonbury Tor—a contender for the site of ancient Avalon—and gathered the souls of the dead to the Otherworld each Samhain through the portal of that strange spiraled hill. Archaeology suggests that the indigenous peoples of Britain, and the Celts who came after, both considered Glastonbury a sacred place, as did the early Christians who built their first religious settlements in Britain on the site. Arthurian mythos depicts Avalon as an island paradise that provided every needed thing of its own accord, populated by a mystical sisterhood with healing powers. Through the ages, poets have romanticized the idea of a Utopian Avalon, while mystics and modern Neo-Pagans associate Avalon with its Otherworldly roots, seeing it as the Summerland where souls dwell after death, awaiting their turn to be reborn.
Whether these legends are based on the memories of ancient enclaves of cloistered priestesses, or if indeed they are solely the stuff of myth and folklore, there is no question that what they represent to the modern-day seeker is deeply meaningful and symbolically transformational. Many women who feel a calling to the Apple Isle today are drawn by the idea of a dedicated Sisterhood, immersed in learning and centered on maintaining a temple to the Ladies of Avalon. Deeper still, the legends of Avalon herself can serve as a road map to guide the seeker down the inner pathway that leads to the Sovereign Self and union with the Divine within.
Like many journeys to the Otherworld in Celtic myth, tradition holds that the Island of Apples—abundant with orchards hanging heavy with the sacred fruit of wisdom—can be reached by undertaking a voyage over the waters of mist-enshrouded lakes or out past the Ninth Wave of the sea—that threshold boundary between what is known and unknown. Those who seek Avalon are called, then, to traverse the deep, reflective waters of the unconscious, moving through the layers of illusion that restrict our ability to see with clarity, so that we may journey past the farthest reaches of our self-imposed limitations. It is then that we are able to reach that distant land, that Shining Isle of wisdom that lies at the core of each of us.
And what awaits us when we at last step foot on Avalon’s shores? We find ourselves in a place of healing and wholeness—that part of ourselves that provides us with all that we could ever need, that teaches us the art of self-change so that we may drink deeply of the cauldron of inner sovereignty, and brings us into the presence of the Lady of Avalon—she who holds aloft the silver branch and invites us to partake of the fruit of wisdom. For though we who are drawn to Ynys Afallon journey down a pathway only dimly illuminated by the glow of legend, and lined with stepping stones of symbol and metaphor, our inner voyage brings us to a very real place of transformation and rebirth. This inward spiraling is a reflection of those ancient priestesses who dwelt apart, immersed in their service to the Divine, and living in the boundary places that straddle this world and the Otherworld. And just as we must seek their ways in the shaded overgrowth of history, we must also make our way through the perils of our shadow-selves in order to reveal the Blessed Isle where we, like Arthur, can dwell with the timeless and ageless source of our wholeness—the Lady of Sovereignty who empowers us with the Sword of Truth, the Vessel of Transformation, and the Fruit of Wisdom plucked from the orchards of Avalon within.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. The Life of Merlin. Translated by Neil Wright, in Myths and Legends of the British Isles, edited by Richard Barber, the Boydell Press, 1999.
Telyndru, Jhenah. Avalon Within: A Sacred Journey of Myth, Mystery and Inner Wisdom. Llewellyn Publications, 2010.
Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal