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The Cult of Nine Maidens in Northwest Europe

Updated on April 4, 2017
Chris Pinard profile image

My primary interests center around the folklore, customs, history, and mythology of the Celts, the Germanic speaking peoples, and the Slavs.

Heimdallr and his Nine Mothers
Heimdallr and his Nine Mothers

Mothers of Heimdallr

When exploring mythology for passages regarding nine maidens, one of the more prominent examples would be the tale about the nine mothers of Heimdallr. These Jotun sisters birthed Heimdallr into existence. This passage may raise a few eyebrows. Simply, how can nine women bear a single child? It seems obvious that these legends must be metaphorical in nature. The name Heimdallr can translate to “great world,” and likely is part of the Norse creation mythos. Therefore, the symbolic elements already are evidenced. The following in an excerpt of the aforementioned passage from Henry Bellows version of the Poetic Edda:

One there was born in the bygone days,

Of the race of the gods, and great was his might;

Nine giant women, at the world's edge,

Once bore the man so might in arms.

Gjolp there bore him, Greip there bore him,

Eistla bore him, and Eyrgjafa,

Ulfrun bore him, and Angeyja,

Imth and Atla, and Jarnsaxa.

Strong was he made with the strength of the earth,

With the ice-cold sea, and the blood of swine.

Aegir

This isn’t the only attestation to the nine maidens within the corpus of Norse lore. There are also nine daughters of Aegir. These sisters bear a striking resemblance to the nine mothers of Heimdallr. Yet, the names of these beings don’t match with the former. This has led scholars to be divided with respects to identifying the two groups of maidens as being synonymous. Their names are identified as follows:

  • Blóðughadda - Bloody-Hair. This might be a reference to red seaweed or red sea foam.
  • Bylgja - Billowing.
  • Dröfn - Comber.
  • Dúfa – This name likely means “pitchy.”
  • Hefring (Hevring) – The rising one.
  • Himinglæva – A name that denotes the reflective quality of water.
  • Hrönn - Spilling Wave.
  • Kolga – Cool Wave.
  • Uðr (or Unn) - Frothy Wave.

Njord
Njord

Njord

Being that these maidens were daughters of sea giants (Ran and Ægir) they are understandably identified with various types of waves or qualities thereof. It is also interesting to note that Njord (the sea god) was also said to have nine daughters. Is it possible that all three of these groups of Nine women in Norse lore are related and possibly even synonymous with each other?

Yet, there is even another reference to nine entities within Norse myth. Within the Voluspa (Part of the Poetic Edda), one can find reference to “witches within wood.”

I remember giants born before time:

Those who in the olden days had me fostered!

Nine worlds I remember; Nine witches within wood!

The Mead-Tree like a thorn in the ground.

Völuspá Stanza 2 Poetic Edda

Valkyries
Valkyries | Source

Volvas and Valkyries

Valkyries were also often noted to be nine in number. One specific occurrence of this can be referenced in Helgakvida Hjövardssonar, a prose work wherein the son of the king witnesses nine Valkyries traveling by while he is performing Utiseta (Sitting out).

“Three times nine girls, but one girl rode ahead,

white-skinned under her helmet;

the horses were trembling, from their manes

dew fell into the deep valleys,

hail in the high woods;

good fortune comes to men from there;

all that I saw was hateful to me.”

Yet another interesting occurrence, this time from the Saga of Erik the Red mentions a “coven” of nine volvas. These were priestesses who had the power of oracular divination. It is quite probable that these were similar to the Halj-Runnos of the Goths. In Getica by Jordanes, it is mentioned that King Filimir expelled these holy women for the crime of practicing the dark arts. This likely is a reference to necromancy. Within their very name is the word that the Norse would associate with one of the abodes of the dead (Hel). Even as early as the first century there were those who witnessed the presence of these women among the Germans. In his commentaries on the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar speaks of the Matrons who divine the outcome of battles and see into the future.

Morgan Le Fey
Morgan Le Fey

Morgan Le Fay

The nine maidens can also be found much further afield, namely Britain. Celtic folklore has a plethora of references to nine maidens. The first of these can be found in Arthurian lore. While Arthurian tradition isn’t exclusively Celtic, it has proven to be a repository of regurgitated legends that were once found amongst the Celtic peoples.

Geoffrey of Monmouth was among the first to write about nine maidens in Arthurian lore. He stated that these nine women were headed by Morgan Le Fay. Certainly, this name is evocative of the triple goddess found in early Irish lore (The Morrigan). The following quote can be found in Geoffrey on Monmouth’s work titled “Vita Merlini:”

There nine sisters give pleasant laws to those who come

from our parts to them, and of those sisters, she who

is higher becomes a doctor in the art of healing and

exceeds her sisters in excellent form. Morgen is her

name, and she has learned what usefulness all the

herbs bear so that she may cure sick bodies. Also

that art is known to her by which she can change

shape and cut the air on new wings in the manner of

Dedalus. When she wishes, she is in Brist, Carnot,

or Papie; 1 when she wishes, she glides out of the air

onto your lands. They say that this lady has taught

mathematics to her sisters Moronoe, Mazoe, Gliten,

Glitonea, Gliton, Tyronoe, and Thiten the most

noteworthy on the cither. To that place after the

battle of Camblan we brought Arthur, hurt by

wounds, with Barinthus leading us, to whom the

waters and the stars of the sky were known.

Edinburgh and the Nine Maidens

Not only can one locate the names of the nine sisters in the aforementioned quote by Geoffrey of Monmouth, but one can also discover the characteristics that they are associated with. It is notable that they were skilled at healing, mathematics, and shapeshifting. Morgan Le Fay shares one similar feature to the daughter’s of Aegir. They are known for being island dwellers. This island imagery is evocative of the otherworld. In Norse and Celtic folklore islands were inherently sacred and seen as gateways to the lands of fairy. Further strengthening this otherworldly connection is the fact that Heimdallr’s mothers are also beings that dwelled on a wind shielded island (land of immortality), which sounds familiar to the concept of Avalon.

Legends also associate Morgan Le Fey with the immediate vicinity of Edinburgh castle. It is stated that the site once held significance to her cult, and that of her eight sisters. As Christianity began to dominate the British Isles the legend of St Monenna seems to have assimilated much of Morgan Le Fay’s folklore. It was said that St Monenna was one of nine who maintained a residence in the Edinburgh area.

Replica of Medieval Woodcut Depicting Witches
Replica of Medieval Woodcut Depicting Witches

Predur's Nine Witches

In other grail romances the nine sisters make yet another appearance. In Peredur Son of Efrawg, nine witches play a significant role. These hags are said to reside in Gloucester. The protagonist of the story lodges with the women, only later to discover that they killed his cousin. Many Arthurian scholars see in this tale vestiges of a Celtic sovereignty goddess. It may be quite likely that Morgan Le Fey is a later adaption of the earlier Celtic goddess “The Morrigan”. This would not be an unreasonable hypothesis as she was associated with at least a triple form. However, the source material regarding The Morrigan doesn’t agree with respects to her three names. When taking an inventory of primary documents, it appears that there are more than three guises of the Morrigan. It may be possible that there were as many as nine. Among the many names that are found associated with her are: Anu, Badb, Macha, Morrigan, Nemain, Fea, Be Neit, and possibly Boann.

Nine maidens even feature in the ninth century poem "Preiddeu Annfwyn". In this tale Arthur makes a raid on the Celtic underworld in search of a magical cauldron. This magical vessel was tended by nine maidens. It was from these goddesses breath that the cauldron was warmed.

Woodcut of a Hag
Woodcut of a Hag

Cailleach and Scottish Lore

Another Scottish legend tells of the Cailleach leading eight witches. Folklorist Donald MacKenzie mentions in his work Egyptian Myth and Legend that it was common in Scottish folklore for the Cailleach to have eight sisters. It is possible that Morgan and her sisters may come from similar origins or be one and the same as these witches.

In other Scottish tales, nine maidens are associated with wells or water. While not island dwellers, this water affiliation may harken back to an earlier sea or lake association. Often the nine sisters were killed by serpents or had snake associations. It is hard to say if these maidens bare any relation to the Cailleach and Morgan, as there is precious little to explore in this stories.

Cornwall also holds special significance with respects to the nine maidens. There resides a megalith that is known by the epithet “the nine maidens”. In the Cornish language the site is known as Naw-Voz, which means “Nine Sisters”. While nine in number, the legend associated with the site simply makes reference to the women being turned into stone due to their dancing on the Sabbath. Could these women be Morgan and her sisters?.

Gallic Island of the Nine Maidens was found off the Coast of France
Gallic Island of the Nine Maidens was found off the Coast of France

Nine Women of the Sein

Not all references to the nine maidens are found in the medieval period. Pomponius Mela makes mention of a group of nine sorceresses or holy women who were known to inhabit an island in the west. “In the Brittanic Sea, opposite the coast of the Ossismi, the isle of Sena (Sein) belongs to a Gallic divinity and is famous for its oracle, whose priestesses, sanctified by perpetual virginity are reportedly nine in number” He further says “They call the priestesses Gallisenae and think that because they have been endowed with unique powers, they stir up the seas and winds by their magic charms, that they turn into whatever animals they want, that they cure what is incurable among other peoples, that they know and predict the future, but that it is not revealed except to sea-voyagers and then only to those traveling to consult them.” This quote is quite pithy. It contains many similarities to the sisters of Morgan. Firstly, these women inhabit an island, just like the Morgan and her sisters. Similarly these women are endowed with the ability to heal. Further, they are priestesses and have shape-shifting abilities that are also associated with Morgan. One can even make additional connections to the nine volva mentioned in Erik the Red’s saga.

Odin and a Volva
Odin and a Volva

Etymology and a Death Cult?

How might the references to nine sisters be related? It is possible that this group might have Proto-Indo-European origins. The presence or “Mor” in the name Morgan might give some clue to where these sisters originate. Scholars have several theories as to what Mor means. Some have associated it with the Irish word for ocean, which could make sense seeing that these women were island dwellers. Further evidentiary support for this claim is the fact that the Fomorians (mythological titans of the Irish), seem to have a similar etymological origin, and they too are associated with the sea and the underworld.

Another interesting concept that prevalent within these quotes is that the nine maidens are associated with death in some capacity. Morgan and her sisters assist with taking Arthur to Avalon (the otherworld). The daughters of Aegir are known for taking men to their deaths. The Morrigan is explicitly associated with death, and just about every other passage regarding Morgan in Arthurian lore makes some association to death.

Aegir Father of the Nine Maidens
Aegir Father of the Nine Maidens

The Numbers Three and Nine

So, why are there nine maidens? Western European people appear to have held the number 3 and 9 as having special significance. Why this number? Where did the reasoning for its veneration originate? It is possible that it had celestial origins. Most noteworthy in the Pleiades. While it is sometimes known as the seven sisters, it is also noted for having nine bright stars. In his book Rediscovering Vinland, Fred Brown states that the Pleiades were known as Freyja’s Hens. Being that Valkyries and the seidr practicing volvas are closely associated with Freyja, it is quite possible that these stars represented her priestesses or Valkyries. These entities assisted in gathering the battle dead. It is also likely that the Nebra Skydisk, which depicts the Pleiades (and which was excavated in Germany), may have held a religious or spiritual function. Might there be a mystery religion associated with these nine sisters? Little can be stated for certain, but it is a strong possibility. Being that the Daughters of Aegir have strong connections to death along with the volvas and The Morrigan, this indicates a strong possibility that they are indeed associated with a similar cult and or mystery religion.

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    • rebelogilbert profile image

      Gilbert Arevalo 6 months ago from Hacienda Heights, California

      Very good study of nine sisters in mythology, Chris. I think it's fascinating mythology and religion have something in common. I'm by no means suggesting faith in God is fiction. It's true, mythology in different cultures have similar story lines. The same thing occurs in religions of the world, too. Stories are passed on through time, and story tellers love to offer their particular spin.

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 6 months ago

      Excellent! I love that you explore not only Norse, but also Arthurian as well as Celtic myth and find overarching parallels to this theme.