The Company of Nine – An ancient template for women’s magic

Guest Post by Cherry Gilchrist

We, who come among the dead as far
as to the very Goddess, nine girls,
maidens, lovely in our dancing,
in bright loveliness of folded
woven-work, with fine-sawn necklaces
of ivory, shine, brilliant
to the dead eye as forgotten daylight[i]

Recent research has revealed the presence of an age-old template for women’s votive groups: it’s a company of nine women, often known as the nine sisters, maidens or ladies. Here, it’s embedded in an ancient Greek poem, describing how nine female spirits pass through the realms of the dead to the Goddess. Fast forward to the British myth of nine sisters conveying the dying King Arthur to the otherworld of Avalon, add in the classical Nine Muses and we may begin to see that there is a story here – a story of nine women engaged on sacred tasks.

I knew about this to some extent when I first wrote The Circle of Nine, back in the 1980s. The book was based on nine feminine archetypes that certain groups of women were using to understand the principles of the female psyche, and how they worked as archetypal forces in our own lives. We called it Nine Ladies, taking the name from the stone circle in Derbyshire which we had visited on one auspicious occasion. As I wrote the book, I came across a few more instances of the nine, but with no internet resources to draw on, I couldn’t investigate much further. Now, in the re-writing of the book, I’ve been able to research the Company of Nine more fully. And my findings show that it is more than an occasional occurrence – it seems to be, rather, the fundamental template for groups of nine women engaged in a votive or sacred task. It’s widespread in time and space, found from Africa to Russia, and from around 10,000 BCE until just about the present day.

The Circle of Nine coverThis has been an exciting discovery – there’s a wide range of types of these companies, and I can only describe them briefly here.[ii] However, you’ll find more in my book, where I’ve dedicated the opening chapter to the Company of Nine. (The Circle of Nine: An Archetypal Journey to Awaken the Divine Feminine Within – Red Wheel Weiser, Sep 2018).  Each ‘company’ has its own identity, and ranges too from groups of women with a historical presence, to those who exist in myth, folklore, or within the symbolic contours of the landscape. Each group seems to have a specific task or function; their briefs range widely, from divination to healing, serving a saint or goddess, or even simply dancing for joy. Their job is often to help others, work magic or see into the realms of the future.

The Nine Priestesses of Sena

A very fine example was recorded by the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela. He reported that a group of nine priestesses lived on an island called Sena, lying off the coast of Brittany – possibly the one known today as the Ile de Sein in the Bay of the Dead, thought of as a portal to the ‘otherworld’. Here, the women tended the oracle of a Gallic god, and were ‘endowed with singular powers’. Navigators visited the priestesses asking for guidance, wanting to know their future, and to gain assistance in charming the winds and seas. The women were also renowned for their ability to shape-shift into different animal forms, and to heal serious wounds and diseases.

These priestesses seem to have had a historical basis, and later historical accounts relate that in medieval times, companies of nine women were known to travel around Scandinavia, acting as seeresses. One such ‘volva’ or spae-queen is recorded in an Icelandic saga from Greenland, and described as she visits a remote village, dressed in special robes, and pronouncing her predictions from a throne erected by the locals for the occasion. These forecasts related to weather, health, and future marriages within the community.[iii] Legends abound too; in Brittany, nine witches or spirits are said to inhabit the mountain of Dol. These myths spread out geographically –  St Samson, a dragon-slaying saint who is also associated with Mount Dol as well as with Wales, is said to have had an encounter with a magical woman – or ‘crazed hag’, depending on the source – a wild woman from a company of nine sisters living in a wood. She claims to be the last of her kind. [iv] Indeed, it’s often the case that such wise women, oracles, witches and healers are said to be ‘the last of their kind’. This perhaps embodies the memory that the company of nine comes from an ancient source, and hints at the slipping away of this way of expressing feminine wisdom, as societies and religions evolved.

Nine Stones in the Landscape

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Visiting the Nine Maidens Circle at Belstone, Dartmoor

The landscape too bears many traces of the nine, coming back to my first association with the Nine Ladies stone circle in Derbyshire. Nine Maidens, Sisters or Ladies appear many times over in the UK as stone circles, stone rows, and wells. According to one study, for example, there are at least six circles in Cornwall called Nine Maidens or Nine Stones.[v] Sometimes, although the names don’t carry female connotations, examining local folklore shows that they’re related to tales of nine women. Many of the stone circles bearing the name of ‘nine’ also carry a legend about nine girls being turned into stone for dancing there  at a prohibited time, such as the Sabbath. In the Nine Maidens circle at Belstone, Dartmoor, a site I often visit, it’s said that if you enter the circle at midday, and let the world go still around you, the nine maidens will start their dance again…

One curious proof of the importance of nine as the number of the maidens in a stone circle, is that this is often in defiance of the actual number of stones standing. Nine is stubbornly adhered to, even when scholars assert that it should be ‘men’, as the Cornish word for stones, or ‘noon’ – as we’ve seen,  the time of day at which standing stones are often said to move – or even ‘nineteen’ as the true number of stones. Of the six Cornish circles named for the Nine Maidens, apparently only one has nine stones and it’s doubtful that this was the case originally.[vi] Plainly, none of these explanations holds good for all the different geographical examples of nine maidens in the landscape, and it’s a far more natural and plausible conclusion to accept that ‘nine’ is what folk intended to call them! William Bottrell, the nineteenth century Cornish folklorist, who denied the veracity of ‘nine’ in the names of the megaliths nevertheless said: ‘You know everybody hereabouts uses nine in all their charms and many other matters.’ Nine does indeed have magical connotations, and it’s likely that the template for the ‘company of nine’ derives from the idea of the triple goddess, a feminine trinity of cosmic forces. This has often been related to the phases of the moon, and to the phases of a woman’s life as maiden, mother and crone.

Nine Maidens, nr Zennor, Cornwall

The Nine Maidens stone circle at Zennor, Cornwall. Painting in Oils by Robert Lee-Wade

Ancient Tradition

I believe that our original call to form the Nine Ladies groups was prompted by touching on a very ancient tradition, which was associated with that particular stone circle in Derbyshire. But although the tradition of the company of nine women may be ancient, it’s important to emphasise that it was not necessarily associated with these stone alignments when they were first built, some 4000 years ago. It’s more likely, in my view, that the nine were attributed to these places later on, after the original purpose of the megaliths was forgotten, at which point the stone circles and rows could well have served as ritual places for a different mythology. But that’s not to say that this mythology itself may not have very ancient origins.There is one really early image of the nine, which could push the timeline right back to between 10,000 and 7,000 BCE. This is a cave painting from Catalonia, which depicts nine women dancing round a male with an erect phallus. Perhaps the dance of the nine maidens was one of the very earliest of rituals.

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Nine Young Women dancing around a male figure, from a prehistoric cave painting in Catalonia

There is much more of the story still to uncover, but my guess is that the nine maidens played a part in an early magical and perhaps shamanic type of religion, allied to the elements and the spirits of nature. It probably arose in pre-historic times, spreading to different parts of the globe and remaining in folk memory. Traces of it still abound. Here’s a shaman’s song from Mongolia, describing the Nine Sisters as they dance between heaven and earth:

We play on the rays of the sun
We ride on the rays of the moon
We rise into the heavens
We descend onto the hills

…Nine young ones danced
They met a glowing mother
Three times in the ritual
We will dance the ancient dance
All nine will dance together! [vii]


P1010772Cherry Gilchrist is the author of books on alchemy, Russian mythology, women’s spirituality and traditional Tarot. She’s travelled to far-flung places such as Easter Island, Siberia and the Silk Road in her quest for ancient traditions. Her own background is in Tree of Life Kabbala and western meditation. Cherry currently lives in Topsham, Devon, with her husband, artist Robert Lee-Wade.

The Circle of Nine: An Archetypal Journey to Awaken the Divine Feminine Within
is published by Red Wheel Weiser in Sep 2018.

Pre-publication, you can access a sample e-reader text at https://www.calameo.com/read/0055709746d8b1d726d86


[i] From a 7th century BCE Papyrus.Translated by Brooks Haxton from the ancient Greek, Dances for Flute and Thunder , (Viking 1999) Quoted by kind permission of the author.

[ii] The only other specific study I’ve found is The Quest for the Nine Maidens, Stuart McHardy, (Luath Press Ltd, 2003) . This has many useful references and focuses primarily on Scotland.

[iii] The Saga of Erik the Red posted at http://sagadb.org/eiriks_saga_rauda.en, translated J. Sefton, 1880

[iv] See Celtic culture: a historical encyclopedia. Vol. 1-, Volume 3 edited by John T. Koch, p1558 and also Stuart McHardy, p65

[v] “The Stone Circles of Cornwall”, B. C. Spooner, Folkore (Vol 64, Dec 1953), pp. 484-487

[vi] ibid

[vii] Siberian Shamanism: The Shanar Ritual of the Buryats (Inner Traditions, 2015) pps 18 & 19 Translated and reproduced by courtesy of the authors  Sayan Zhambalov, Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps

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Day of the Cailleach

Today is the traditional day of the Cailleach in Scotland, called Là na Caillich. On March 25th, the winter reign of the Cailleach comes to an end. Here’s a little video all about it with some beautiful images.

You can read about Là na Caillich on the Tairis Gaelic Polytheist Website.

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The Otherworld in the Celtic tradition

Interesting article by Sharon Blackie about the Otherworld and Shamanism.

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The Red Spear of Lyra

A little bit of space amazingness: it seems that our recent interstellar visitor has an unusual shape – long and thin as in this artist’s reconstruction. The interstellar object, named ‘Oumuamua (Hawaiian for scout) came from the direction of the constellation Lyra, passing through the solar system earlier this year, swinging past the sun in early September at a speed of nearly 200,000 miles per hour. It’s now on it’s way out again.

Eso1737a

‘Oumuamua

By ESO/M. Kornmesser (http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1737a/)
[CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D,
via Wikimedia Commons

 ‘Oumuamua is not icy like a comet, but has a reddish colour like some outer solar system objects. A bit more reading suggests that the colour could be down to Tholin or ‘space tar’, a complex mix of organic chemicals formed in space from simple molecules by radiation. Some researchers have speculated that Earth may have been seeded by organic compounds early in its development by tholin-rich comets, providing the raw material necessary for life to develop.

It all seems like a science fiction film – but it’s not.

What a time to be alive!

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Scorhill Stone Circle

“To the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”
William Blake

Last week I went with a friend to see Scorhill stone circle on Dartmoor. It was a magical visit on a lovely autumn day, and the fire of my imagination was kindled!

The Valley

Walking over the gentle hill from the village of Gidleigh, the view opens up onto a moorland valley, with the stone circle resting on the slope below.

circle

Walking down the hill to the stones

The valley is huge, and the open vista makes my heart expand to meet it. To the left below us there is a river, and there are other smaller streams glinting in the valley. Even on the hilltop there are small pools of water.

river

Looking to the left, the North Teign river flows through the valley

The Stone Circle

The stones themselves are beautiful, filled with sparkling crystals and painted with lichen. The largest stone is about 8 foot tall. If you look closely you can see black protrusions in this stone, like crystalline balls embedded in the rock. According to one commentator [1], they represent women’s breasts, and are the reason why this stone was chosen for the circle, but there are other stones in the area with the same ‘breasts’.

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Closeup of the stone with crystals and lichen

According to Dartmoor 365 [2], if you stand in the centre of the circle, you can see the sun set over this tall stone on a midsummer evening.

We watch the clouds on the horizon, forming shapes which change by the minute: a bird, a fish, it’s gone.

Imagine a summer night at the stones, with the bowl of the valley beneath our feet, and the bowl of sky above. Stars, moon and planets slowly swing by. What constellations and planets rise and set on the horizon? Behind which hills? At what hour? There would be the usual two circles in the sky – one the path of the stars, and the other the path of the sun, moon and planets. Perhaps at special times, beacons were lit on the hilltops, making another circle of light. And at the centre of it all the stone circle – in vibrant stillness.

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Looking across the circle to the tall stone

A Legend

There are many legends about the stones – my favourite is a modern one told on the Legendary Dartmoor site:

“A modern happening reported in 1998 was that a small herd of moorland ponies were seen to walk up to the circle. The herd leader entered the ring of stones and stood there for about a minute, it then rejoined the rest of the ponies. One by one all the ponies did the same thing, went into the circle stood there for 30 – 60 seconds and then came out. All the animals faced the same direction whilst they were stood in the stone ring. It was suggested at the time that the ponies were ‘taking energy’ from the stones – who knows?”

I wonder what direction the ponies were facing? My guess would be that were facing south-east towards the rocky outcrop of Kes tor. I don’t know why I think that.

The River

Walking down the hill from the circle to the river, we first cross the Walla Brook, a lovely fast flowing stream with many-coloured water plants waving in the flow.

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The Walla flows into the North Teign River, and as it approaches the junction the sound of the water becomes musical. The shape of the stream bed and the boulders it flows around make it drum and tinkle and trill as it flows.

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Walla Brook

The Tolmen Stone

Just downstream of the meeting point of the Walla and the Teign is a large boulder which has a hole in it big enough to allow an average sized person through. Called the Tolmen stone, its name derives from the Celtic words for hole and stone, (in a similar etymology to the Cornish Men an Tol stone).

tolmen1

The Tolmen Stone

The Legendary Dartmoor site has several stories about the stone, including the legend that it was used by Druids for purification: wrongdoers would be lowered through the hole into the water for lustration. Possible other associations would be with fertility or healing, and of course the stone forms a portal.

There are some nice pictures of modern use of the stone here!

tolmen2

Looking down through the hole

Imagine on a summers night, people walk down into the valley, coming from Kes Tor perhaps, and they pause at the river, listening to the music of the waters. One by one they cross the bridge and step out onto the Tolmen stone. With help where needed each one passes down through the hole into the waters of the river, making a transition to sacred land. They wash and then sit a while by the river before walking up to Scorhill circle and the special night.

 


Notes:

[1] Burl, A. 2000. The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, London: Yale University Press. Quoted by Legendary Dartmoor

[2] “Dartmoor 365: An Exploration of Every One of the 365 Square Miles in the Dartmoor National Park”, by John Hayward. (Scorhill is in square E.12).

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Vine Month

According to the Celtic Tree calendar today is the first day of Vine month, and the grapes on my little vine are ripening, whilst the birds and I keep a watchful eye!

There are quite a few vineyards nearby, and with global warming we might see them extending up into the north before long. People think that the Romans brought the vine to Britain, but I came across a New Scientist article [1] suggesting the possibility that Ancient Britons were amongst the first to cultivate the vine.

So remember your ancestors! Drink a little wine or a little grape juice today and welcome in the season of mellow fruitfulness! Hwyl /|\

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[1] New Scientist article.

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New Scientist, 3rd Dec 1987 [1]

 

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Worshipping Space

A friend asked me the other day what I worshipped in nature – was it trees, rivers, mountains for example? I’m not quite sure about ‘worship’, but thinking for a while, I went for space – that unthinkably huge collection of galaxies, stars and planets that surrounds us, extending to the unbelievably distant, but still within sight in the night sky.

Then I listened to this great BBC podcast of a program with Martin Rees, Bernard Carr and Fay Dowker talking about the multiverse – the idea that even beyond what we can see there may be other universes. From the idea of us on earth at the centre of everything, we’ve been moving our thoughts outwards to other stars with planets like ours, to galaxies like ours made of 100 billion stars,  to clusters of galaxies visible to us, and now many universes making up a multiverse.

What a time to be alive!

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Hubble image showing about 10,000 galaxies. Via Huffington Post

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