The Nine Maidens

If you’ve taken even the most cursory glance at Celtic regional folklore, it’s likely you’ve come across a remnant of the Nine Maidens cultus. The word ‘Celtic’ is frequently bandied about as some sort of unified group of peoples with fancy knotwork and plaid and bagpipes, and I don’t want to start off on the wrong foot by coming across like that’s what I’m conveying here. When I say Celtic regional folklore, I mean that there are notable instances of the Nine Maidens surviving in Celtic regions – Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, etc.

Let’s begin with Scotland and the folklore surrounding the deity Bride as well as St. Bride, and the Cailleach. Scottish folklore differs somewhat in the sense that the Cailleach and Bride exist as a story of duality. The Cailleach reigns over the land, the hag descending from her mountain throne on Ben Nevis and touching the land with her hammer to put frost on the ground and blanket the earth with snow.

Bride’s role in this story becomes multi-faceted as two variations of this tale are known. The Cailleach, the Queen of Winter, is said to have imprisoned Bride so that her reign would never end. It is Aengus who dreams of Bride and frees her from her prison and it is when Bride breaks the ice in the stream and plunges her hands into the water that the hold the Cailleach has on the land is broken and the long winter

In the second version of this story, the Cailleach (Mackenzie tells us her name is Beira) makes her way to a well at the end of winter each year, drinking from its waters. Youth and beauty are restored to her as the guise of the hag or giantess falls away and she becomes the lovely Bride. At the same time, the thawing begins and the spring is ushered in. Whatever the case may be, whichever story is correct; the story of Bride and the Cailleach stands out as a piece of mythology unique to Scotland, and, based on the numerous place-names of Bride and Cailleach throughout all of Scotland, very likely originated within Scotland. This presents an interesting look at pre-Christian deities and their veneration in Scotland, which unfortunately does not have the plethora of written works that we see in Ireland.

The reason this story is directly connected to the cult of the Nine Maidens is that in the case of the Cailleach, there is said to be nine in number. These cailleachs are directly connected to the seas, the storms, and the seasons and this is most visible when considering the folklore of Corryvreckan – the cauldron of the Cailleach. At the end of fall, it is said that the Cailleach (Beira) washes her plaid in the waters of Corryvreckan until the garment is washed white. The plaid is then spread across the land, setting into motion the winter storms.

“The Cailleach is the genius of winter and the enemy of growth. Her chief seat is Ben Nevis. She ushers in winter by washing her great plaid in the whirlpool of Corryvreckan
(Coire Bhreacain – the Cauldron of the Plaid). Before the washing, it is said, the roar of a coming tempest is heard by people on the coast for a distance of twenty miles, for a
period of three days until the cauldron boils. When the washing is over, the plaid of old Scotland is virgin white.” This theme of the Nine Maidens being directly connected to storms and water is something we will see many more times, in addition to the connection between the maidens and cauldrons.

Bride herself is part of the folklore of the Nine Maidens, but this is seen much more prominently in the folklore surrounding St. Bride. In the regional folklore of St. Bride (or Brigid/Brighid/Bridget/Brigit/Brighde), the saint is said to have been accompanied by a retinue of nine women – priestesses, nuns, maidens, virgins, etc. They’re given
different descriptors based on the story or the location. And in other stories, there are nineteen women attending her total. At face value, this may seem like something specific to the saint but with the the matter of how widespread this story is,
stretching not only across Scotland, but also featuring heavily in Ireland where the nine or nineteen women at Kildare maintained Bride’s fire, it seems more than likely to consider that this retinue is part of the pre-Christian mythology of Bride.

In addition to this, it’s the wells and practices that tell us there’s more to the story. F. Marian MacNeill writes in The Silver Bough:

“The parish church at Sanquhar in Dumfries-shire stands on
the site of a chapel dedicated to the saint, and not far off is
St. Bride’s Well, where the young girls of the district used to
repair on Beltane morning, each bringing an offering of nine
white stones, symbolic of the traditional nine virgin
attendants of the saint.”

It’s interesting to note that although the Cailleach is part of the nine, Bride stands separate from them – they are her attendants and she is not counted among them.

Moving forward to the veneration of local Scottish saints, again the Nine Maidens can be found – this time in a much more straightforward manner. The Ballad of the Nine Maidens tells the story of the nine sisters, daughters of St. Donald who
retired to the Glen of Ogilvy to live out his remaining days. The daughters attended him there, building a rough home for themselves and St. Donald, as well as a chapel, and working the land while subsiding on one meal a day of barley bread and water.

“Nine maidens fair in life were they,
Nine maidens fair in death’s last fray,
Nine maidens fair in fame alway,
The maids of Glen of Ogilvy.

And to their grave from every land,
Come many a sorrowing pilgrim band
The oak to kiss whose branches grand
Wave o’er the maids of Ogilvy.”

A few miles south of Glen Ogilvy lies Strathmartine and another story of Nine Maidens, and here a new layer is added to the story of these women. A man living at Pitempton Farm sends one of his nine daughters to fetch water from the well. When she fails to return, he sends another daughter to go to the well (and presumably, find the missing daughter). One by one, the daughters do not return from the task, leaving their father to take up the investigation.

At the well, he finds a blood-soaked dragon residing in the depths of the well. It’s apparent at once that the dragon devoured all nine of the daughters. The father gathers
together a mob, led by Martin the blacksmith who was the lover of one of the daughters, and the beast is pursued and slain at Martin’s Stone.

“I was tempted at Pitempton,
draiglet at Baldragon,
stricken at Strike-Martin,
and killed at Martin’s Stone.”

Martin’s Stone, or the Balluderon Stone. Sourced from Wikipedia.

The tale provides an explanation of place names and adds new information to the story of the Nine Maidens – their deaths. The lore of the Nine Maidens at Pitempton is not the only instance of their deaths, or the only version; and in Hector Boece’s Chronicles of Scotland, the story becomes even more confused, pertaining to seven sisters instead of nine. These maidens make their way to Abernethy and in some of the legends, are noted for living in a hollow oak tree, while the nine daughters of Glen Ogilvy are alleged to have been buried at the base of an oak tree.

Abernethy is also an intriguing bit of detail here as it links straight back to St. Bride in the Scottish folklore marking the location as her burial site. St. Bride is also an unusual saint in that she is strongly connected with oak trees – typically eschewed for their druidic connections.

Stepping out of Scotland, the stories of the Nine Maidens can be traced across Europe – standing stones in England, Edinburgh Castle, Arthurian legend, and of course smaller
islands with their own myths of nine women – like the Gallisenae on the l’île de Sein.

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon. Edward Burne-Jones. c. 1881-1898

Standing stones present a twist to the story of the Nine Maidens, deviating from the connection to water. Dating back to the Bronze Age, the stone circle of the Nine Maidens in Devonshire is incomplete and has also been called “Seventeen
Brothers”. There are more than nine stones in the circle and they stand as a marker on the top of a burial mound. The story goes that the maidens were turned to stone for dancing on a Sunday.

The site itself presents as liminal, with stories of curses and the curious behavior of the stones – said to still be seen dancing on occasion.

“And now at every Hunter’s Moon
That haggard cirque of stones so still
Awakens to immortal thrill
And seven small maidens in silver shoon
Twixt dark of night and white of day
Twinkle upon the sere old heath
Like living blossoms in a wreath
Then shrink again to granite grey.
So blue-eyed Dian shall ever dance
With Linnette, Bethkin, Jennifer,
Arisa, Petronell and Nance.”

The Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor, Ruth St Leger-Gordon

Nine Maidens stone circles can be found not only in Devon, but also at Boskednan, in Cornwall. While only nine stones are now left standing, it was documented in 1754 by William Borlase that the circle was comprised of nineteen stones. This circle aligns with Carn Galva, the highest point of the surrounding moorlands.

It may be unrelated, but it’s interesting that the Lacnunga and the Anglo-Saxon Metrical Charms contain some incantations that tell a story of nine sisters, counting down to one and then none; or contain themes of an object broken
into nine parts to enact that magic of the charm. This is a common practice in healing charms.

“A snake came crawling, it bit a man.
Then Woden took nine-glory twigs,
Smote the serpent so that it flew into nine parts.
There apple brought this pass against poison,
That she nevermore would enter her house.”

“Tetter, tetter, thou hast nine sisters,
God bless the flesh and preserve thy bone,
Perish thee tetter and be thou gone,
In the name of the father, the son, and the holy ghost.”

And from the First Merseburg Charm:

“Once the Idisi set forth,
To this place and that;
Some fastened fetters;
Some hindered the horde,
Some loosed the bonds from the brave –
Leap forth from the fetters!
Escape from the foes!”

The “Idisi” who are referenced in this charm are deities, ghosts, or spirits particularly associated with Fate. This may include norns, Valkyries, and fylgjurs. There is also speculation that ‘Dis’ may be referring to a group of fertility goddesses, hence ‘Disablot’, tied directly to veneration of the dead.

It seems relevant to note here that the Norns, known to most to be three in number and directly entwined with life, death, and fate; are spoken of in the Poetic Edda in a way that implies there are more than three:

“Tell me then, Fafnir,
For wise thou art famed,
And much thou knowest now:
Who are the Norns
Who are helpful in need,
And the babe from the mother bring?”

Fafnir spake:
“Of many births
The Norns must be,
Nor one in race they were;
Some to gods, others
To elves are kin,
And Dvalin’s daughters some.”

There’s a lot more to explore within the concept of the Nine Maidens myth and how it has spread throughout Europe – much of it is unintentionally obscure and it can turn up in the most unexpected places. Of course, not all of it is relevant – that’s part of the mystery, piecing together what fits and what is nothing more than coincidence. That being said, with what we know of the folklore surrounding Bride and the Cailleach, as well as Arthurian and Welsh folklore, there are hints of historical practices that show evidence of Nine Maidens veneration and from there, we can build on it to
create our own methods of communicating and working directly with them:

To begin with, the best thing to do is to set aside space for them. In my own practice, this space is incorporated within my ancestral shrine. Nine stones are stationed in a circle and in the center is a dish for scrying – I personally prefer the style of the tazza or pedestal bowl.

I engage with the Nine Maidens as a group of spirits who can, should they so choose, assist with divination and oracular sight, healing magics, weather sorcery, and shape-shifting. The stones may be large or small, but when placed with flame to light them in a darkened room, large stones cast peculiar dancing shadows on the walls which I have found to facilitate trance.

For Calling a Storm:

Knotting the blue cord nine times and binding a stone at each
knot, take up the chant:

Nine of the mountains, nine of the glen,
Nine of the winds, the moors, the fen.
Nine to churn, and nine to coil,
Nine whose breath made cauldron boil
Nine maidens for their sins atone
Nine who danced now set in stone,
The Nine Maidens of the slaughter
Born once more as serpent’s daughters.
Nine now to fly, calling thunder, storm, and rains,
Dancing now, spinning fast along the knotted stanes.

The cord, now knotted with the stones must be drenched in
water and spun and swung through the air, strike the ground
with it, work the words, build to a frenzy.

For Scrying in Water:

Thrice times three, a serpent’s feast;
Lover of one did slay the beast.
Buried ‘neath the oaken tree,
Nine Maidens lain at the lee,
Nine now I do entreat:
From hollowed tree, nine borne forth,
Death hollowed eyes to see the course.
With whispered song, what I long to see,
Reveal to me, that which is and what will be.

In darkness by candle light, pour the water into the bowl. Inhale at the start of each line, speaking the words slowly and letting them weigh on your tongue. As you reach the end of the line, exhale and let your breath move across the surface of
the water, rippling it. Inhale, breathe the words, and exhale across the water. You will have repeated this action nine times by the end of the last line.

Gaze into the water and let your eyes slide out of focus, allowing the images to come, whether it’s via actual sight or imagery in your mind’s eye. It’s been my experience that you should pay attention to physical signs as well, pressure in the head, face, or ears; feeling particularly hot or cold. These are good indicators that you have been heard, that they are present.

These are just a few ways that I would suggest as entries for engaging with the Nine Maidens – however you choose to approach them, keep in mind that it is a relationship that requires work and practice, as reaching out to spirits that are relatively unknown always is. Take your time with this, they have a lot to give to those who are patient.

Resources and Further Reading:
S. A. McHardy – The Quest for the Nine Maidens
J. G. Mackinlay – The Cult of the Nine Maidens
Donald Mackenzie – Egyptian Lore and Legends
Donald Mackenzie – Scottish Wonder Tales
R. St Leger-Gordon – The Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor
F. Marian MacNeill – The Silver Bough

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