Using theatre to promote a common European mythological heritage
Smashing Times are one of seven partners involved in Legend of the Great Birth, a European cooperation project funded by Creative Europe and implemented in the framework of the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018. Legend of the Great Birth is a Creative Europe transnational project that explores, through the use of performance, a common European mythological heritage, specifically in relation to the Myth of Creation, a myth present in a range of mythologies.
Mythology is an important part of the intangible cultural heritage of Europe. It consists of a complex system of stories that are transferred from generation to generation, carrying with them elements of a hidden past, of people and their traditions and of the landscape.
The seven partners are Theatro Aeroploio, Athens, Greece (lead partner); Smashing Times, Dublin, Ireland; Action Synergy, Athens, Greece; Fusion of Arts, Romania; Fondazaine Aida, Verona, Italy; Stella Polaris, Sandefjord, Norway; and Stowarzyszenie Teatr Krzyk, Maszewo, Poland.
The project has resulted in the creation of an original theatre performance, created with input from all project partners, and based on the theme of the ‘creation myth’ or ‘legends of creation’ from each partner country. The play contains a common scenario involving elements of mythological traditions from across Europe – including elements of Greek, Latin, Celtic, Nordic, and Slavic cultures. The mythological stories are diverse yet also share common similarities, promoting a reflection on the ‘united in diversity’ motto of the European Union and an exploration of a common sense of European belonging. The performance in each partner country is created from a common shared scenario inspired by myths of creation however each performance is uniquely different through individual interpretation of the original myths and performed with theatre, music, costume and video. Performances have taken place in six countries across Europe, Greece, Ireland, Romania, Italy, Norway and Poland, performed in a range of languages.
Winter Solstice Performance
Smashing Times were delighted to present a spectacular Legends of the Great Birth Céili Dancing and original Storytelling performance at the City of Dublin Winter Solstice Celebration Festival which was held on 20 December 2019 at TU Dublin Grangegorman campus and attended by over two hundred people. The Céilí featured traditional Irish music and dancing led by the renowned Brian Boru Céilí band, one of the most successful Céili bands on the Céiliscene in Ireland today. During the festival a series of storytelling performances took place which featured theatre and song to animate imaginative and mythological traditions from across Europe. Legends of the Great Birth was adapted and written by Mary Moynihan, directed by Dr Eric Weitz and performed by Carla Ryan, actor and singer; Geraldine McAlinden, actor and Peter Kelly, musician. The storytelling performance was presented alongside a Legend of the Great Birth Theatre workshop facilitated by theatre artist and director Michael Mc Cabe (who studied with the famous theatre, movement and mime artist Jacque Lecoq school in Paris), exploring myths of creation and legends from the Winter Solstice. People of all ages enjoyed this energetic and engaging céili and set dancing session intermixed with storytelling inspired by the Winter Solstice and Legends of the Great Birth.
In addition to a shared original theatre performance which took place in six countries across Europe, a range of associated creative activities and online digital resources are also in development. These include a costume exhibition, visual art images, creative workshops, a web portal, an e-learning course and a publication all inspired by myths of creation from across Europe., highlighting a common European dimension. Artists from the different countries have come together through a series of creative partner exchanges held in Greece, Norway, Ireland and Poland,
Benefits include increased cooperation between cultural operators and professionals from across Europe; an increased sense of belonging in a common European space; the sharing of European cultural heritage resources related to mythology and an increase in the use of e-learning as a tool for training in the creative and cultural sector.
To visit The Legend of the Great Birth project website, click here.
The project is coordinated by Aeroplio Theatre and is co-funded by the Creative Europe programme. The project partners are Smashing Times, Ireland; Action Synergy, Greece; Fusion of Arts, Romania; AIDA Fondazione, Italy; Stella Polaris, Norway; and Stowarzyszenie Teatr Krzyk, Poland.
Theatro Aeroploio, Topos Allou Theatre, Athens, Greece. Website: http://topos-allou.gr/ www.aeroplio.gr
Topos Allou is a cultural organisation and venue that creates and presents productions, activities and cultural to audiences in Athens and throughout Greece. Topos Allou has played host to a range of theatre organisations from across Europe including Fluxx Theatre, UK and Fondazione Aida, Italy. Topos Allou (which means a place of elsewhere) is a renovated neo-classical building built in 1925 with two theatre spaces hosting 220 and 60 people accordingly, presenting performances for adults and young people. Topos Allou incorporates Aeroplio Theatre, a children’s theatre that presents performances of classic and contemporary theatre works for children and young people of all ages from 3 to 18 years old and conducts activities and seminars for teachers and educators. Performances are inspired by mythology, history and literature as well as contemporary themes and artistic processes include storytelling, narration, puppets, shadow masks, props, objects, costumes, music, song and slide projections.
Smashing Times, Dublin, Ireland. Website: http://www.smashingtimes.ie
The Smashing Times International Centre for the Arts and Equality, incorporating Smashing Times Theatre and Film Company and Smashing Times Youth Arts Ensemble, is dedicated to the promotion, study and practice of the arts, human rights, climate justice and gender equality. Smashing Times is an international organisation working with artists and communities to create collaborative art practice in local, national, European and international settings. Our mission is to lead the development of the arts to promote and advance equality and human rights and to connect citizens to the arts, human rights, climate justice and gender equality.
Action Synergy, Athens, Greece. Website: http://action.gr/
Action Synergy promotes innovation in education and training in Greece, Europe and throughout the world. Action Synergy develops its activities through three departments; research and development, European education and marketing and business.
FOA – Fusion of Arts, Romania. Website: http://foa.team/desprefoa/
The FOA – Fusion of Arts Association promotes art, culture and artists from Lugoj and Romania both at national and international levels in solidarity with all public institutions in the arts fields. The aim of our interventions are to create a cultural and artistic study of the cultural values manifested in the fields of arts, and the mediation between the different forms of artistic expression – music, design, drama, direction, dance, plastic and decorative arts – and to improve the intercommunication climate at a social level through the values and principles we promote. FOA is involved in promoting a mission that is about the animation of a cultural space and building links between visual arts and other forms of artistic expression.
Fondazione Aida, Verona, Italy. Website: http://www.fondazioneaidait/
Fondazione Aida is a cultural institution in operation in the theatrical environment since 1983 and is recognised by the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Education. The Foundation’s activities address every age group and include the production of theatrical performances and festivals, educational workshops for children, kids, teachers and educators, free time and professional courses for technical, artistic and organisational operators as well as many other initiatives such as meetings, events and exhibits.
Stella Polaris, Sandefjord, Norway. Website: Web: http://www.stella-polaris.com
Stella Polaris is based in Sandefjord in Vestfold, Norway and present shows, courses and activities at local, national and international levels. Stella Polaris ‘takes us back to ancient celebrations and previous rituals of human life. In a world of jesters, storytellers, troubadours and fakirs, we want to bring back memories of our common ancestry and trigger a longing for something larger than life’. Performances take place in a range of venues including streets, courtyards, theatre, prisons, churches and festivals. In addition to performances, the company provides a training institution and works regularly with children and youth theatre groups.
Teatr Krzyk, Maszewo, Poland. Website: Web: http://www.krzyk.art.pl/
Teatr Krzyk are a Polish alternative theater company founded in 2002 in Maszewo, Poland by Marek Kościółek, a former actor of the Brama Theatre and a graduate of the Academy in Gardzienice. The company animates a range of performances and cultural activities including workshops and teaching programmes. The company has organised numerous happenings such as Together ’89, social projects such as Active Seniors in the Municipality of Maszewo and international exchanges.
The Great Melody
Article on myths and legends of the Great Birth
By Mary Moynihan
Mary Moynihan, Artistic Director of Smashing Times has written a ‘creation myth’ for ancient Ireland inspired by the song lines of Aboriginal culture. As part of the creation stories of traditional Aboriginal culture there is a belief that their ‘creation ancestors travelled across the country creating the landscape, the animals and the law under which human society was to live. The journeys of these ancestral beings across the country make up a song line’’.
A song line is a creation storyline that cross the country ‘putting all geographical and sacred sites into place in aboriginal culture’. Sacred ancestral stories are passed down from generation to generation through song lines telling the creation story of a particular piece of land and the cultural story of its people, as well as defining the land that people live on. The song cycles create a kind of cultural network that criss-crosses the landscape highlighting ancient sites situated along the song lines, tied together through creation narratives. The spirit of the ancestor beings who created the song lines live on in the landscape, animals and people as an ongoing presence and a song line is a way to remember not only the landscape and the creation myths but the stories of the people themselves which can be expressed through songs brought to life by each generation.
One story associated with the song lines is the Seven Sisters Mina Mina Jukurrpa story, a woman’s ‘dreaming site’ situated in the Tanami Desert near Salt Lake country. Dreamtime may be used to describe the ‘unique stories and beliefs’ as well as religious beliefs owned and held by different Australian Aboriginal groups . . . the Dreaming – or Jukurrpa in Warlpiri language – is seen as going from the past to the present to the future all at once, so it is something that sits outside ordinary timelines’.
The Seven Sisters refers to a group of stars in the sky known as Pleiades which can be seen in the night sky in the Northern and Southern hemispheres. In ancient Greek mythology the Seven Sisters stars are called Maia, Alcyone, Asterope, Celaeno, Taygete, Electra, and Merope. Their parents were Atlas, a Titan commanded by the god Zeus to hold up the earth, and Pleione, the mythical protectress of sailors’.
After a chance meeting with the hunter Orion, the Pleiades and their mother became the objects of his pursuit. To protect them from Orion’s relentless amorous advances, Zeus changed them into a flock of doves which he then set in the heavens. Zeus was also rumoured to have fathered children with three of the sisters. The Seven Sisters are also known as the ‘Water Girls’ or the ‘Ice Maidens’, due to their association with water, be it seas, rivers, rain, hail, snow, ice or frost. The Greek legends often refer to the sisters as ‘Oceanids’. Some sources claim that the name ‘Pleiades’ originates from the ancient Greek word ‘plein’, meaning ‘to sail’.
Within Aboriginal culture the Pleiades group of seven stars or Seven Sisters are a dreaming story related to an ancient song line that travels across Australia from the central desert up to the west coast. In the seven sisters dream time the stars are the
‘Napaljarri sisters being chased across land and sky by Jukurra-Jukurra (the morning star), a Jakamarra man in love with the seven sisters, specifically fixated on the oldest sister. When on Martu country, where the seven sisters take humanoid form and live on the ground, they’re known as Minyipuru. As they travel further east and decide to fly through the sky to escape their lustful pursuer (and at times avoid country belonging to others), they switch languages and become known as the Kungkarangkalpa’.
According to the myth, both the man and the woman have the ability to transform or ‘shape-shift’ with the man using various disguises such as a snake or a shaded tree or tempting fruit, in his efforts to try and capture and control the women. But the women are strong and clever and use various guises to outwit him and stay out of his control. They can change shape into rocks, trees or flowers.
‘Although he succeeds once in hoodwinking and brutalising the eldest sister, causing her to become dreadfully ill, ultimately the sisters, in a convincing and intelligent expression of female solidarity, outwit their antagonist’.
There is a mystery to the story of the Seven Sisters as there is with all mythical tales and adventures. The actual stars in the night sky that make up the Pleiades are often referred to in both Eastern and Western culture as the ‘sailing stars’ guiding seafarers to safety. The story of the seven sisters riding across the desert fleeing a sorcerer can be seen as a story of survival and solidarity as people flee from persecution in an effort to create a better world to live in. The sisters are not weak or victims, they are strong and defiant in their efforts to remain free. They are the warrior hunters in their attempts to continue to shine bright and to maintain a space that is their own. They are strong warrior women and their presence can be found in all cultures from Aboriginal to European culture offering key role models for young people.
In relation to myths and legends of origin, there are a wide range of traditional stories and narratives that have been passed down across the world. The myth of creation itself attempts to explain how the world came into being. Very often myths and legends can be used to pass down narrow minded or patriarchal interpretations and new myths and legends need to be re-invented to reflect traditions and ethics in society that we want to pass on particularly in relation to re-shaping the story of a woman that is powerful and in control of her body and able to live freely in a safe and equal world. Women are powerful beings today and in the past and it is important to reclaim and re-name myths that show women as powerful cultural heroes playing a key role in the past, present and future.
In relation to Ireland writer Mary Moynihan has created a narrative of origin inspired by songline and dreamtimes from warriors of an ancient past:
‘Once upon a time, there was no time. There was only a place of nowhere with no water, earth or air and no Gods, humans or animals. There was only the depths of nothingness and its dark, eternal quiet. And in this deep and ultimate silence, slowly a whisper grew becoming a sound moving across the endless dark. The song was the Oran Mór, ‘The Great Melody’, and it grew singing the darkness into light, a spiralling, momentum of sound reaching a crescendo and out of which a sea-horse was born. A white seahorse, a mare whose name was Lir. She became a piece of white foam and the Oran Mór did not cease here. She kept on singing as creature begot creature and more and more came, emerging out of the song until a whole ocean of white, foaming sea-horses created the deepest oceans’.Mary Moynihan from Legend of the Great Birth
In Celtic mythology there is no one single version of how the world was created. Some Celtic myths suggest the earth was created by giants who were the original Gods. In the myth we are using we say the earth was sung into existence by a primordial first God who came from the sea of nothingness. We have called this creature the Oran Mor and in our performance you hear her story and the story of many different myths from across Europe.
In the Irish myth known as The Great Melody, the island of Ireland is born into being out of a song that becomes woman and the woman is the creator of the oceans, land, and sky.
song is simply there and the song has sung the darkest ocean into being. And out of the song emerges
a she-woman creature that is the eternal spirit of the Óran Mór, emerging to
become one with her creations’.
The Great Melody – An Irish Myth of Creation
Story Monologue by Mary Moynihan
(copywright Mary Moynihan)
Once upon a time, there was no time. There was only a place of nowhere with no water, earth or air and no Gods, humans or animals. There was only the depths of nothingness and its dark, eternal quiet.
And in this deep and ultimate silence, slowly a whisper grew, becoming a sound that moved across the endless dark. The song was the Oran Mór, ‘The Great Melody’, and it grew, singing the darkness into light, a spiralling, momentum of sound reaching a crescendo and out of which a sea-horse was born. A white seahorse, a mare whose name was Lir. She became a piece of white foam and the Oran Mór did not cease here. She kept on singing as creature begot creature and more and more came, emerging out of the song until a whole ocean of white, foaming sea-horses created the deepest oceans.
The song is simply there and the song has sung the darkest ocean into being. And out of the song emerges a she-woman creature that is the eternal spirit of the Oran Mór, emerging to become one with her creations. The Oran Mór has become woman and her name is Ladra the White Ancient. She sings the sky into being and then sings the oceans into a furious storm with the wild seas flying upwards, the white foam sprinkling a millions stars into the black sky. A star falls to earth creating a string of islands and as Ladra walks the earth, from her feet spring the sacred sites. A seed falls, growing upwards towards the ancient sky to become a giant Oak tree.
Out of the Oak tree, the Gods are born, giving birth to more Gods. The Gods live in the invisible spaces listening to the eternal spirit woman Ladra sing. And in her dreams the raindrops fall and flower, plants and trees are born, blowing hopes to humans’ dreams in male and female and many other forms. Giants too are born as Ladra in fury hurls pieces of bark from the Oak tree to earth. The Giants wander coming to rest in places where they lay down to sleep, and over centuries they become mountains.
The primordial sea melody, the Oran Mór, sings on today, filling creation – for all those who can hear – with its divine harmony. It flows through the giant mountains, submerged cities, invisible worlds, the mystic rivers and sacred wells and through every living creature, an invisible life force, a font of creation for all who can hear its song.
And so it was that the world began in nothingness and silence, followed by song and it was the song that sang the land and sea and sky into existence through the eternal spirit of Ladra to become part of our conscious mind and memory. It is Ladra, the White Ancient who dreams humans into being, culminating with the singing into existence of the ancient Celts.
Over time Ladra The White Ancient dreams of a human being and she draws a woman called Cessair to Ireland. Cessair arrives in a boat and some say she is the granddaughter of Noah fleeing the Great Flood. And so begins the first invasion of Ireland.
Note by author: The above legend is similar to the Aboriginal Song lines. The melody of the song describes the land over which the song is sung, and maps the journey and helps in finding one’s way within the world. The song creates the land and sea, and in Ireland it is the White Ancient who creates the Gods, singing and dancing the ways of the world into existence.
The Female in Early Irish Myth and Legend
Article by Mary Moynihan
The first evidence of human activity ever found in Ireland was at a ‘Mesolithic (middle Stone age) settlement at Mount Sandel in County Derry (in the North of Ireland) radio-carbon dated to about 7,000 BC. The Irish language and a Celtic cultural tradition were prevalent in Ireland prior to the arrival of Christianity around the fifth century AD. ‘Early Christian Irish monks recorded earlier Irish myth, legend and history as well as their own religious culture in their writings’, however it is not clear when the Celtic tradition and the Irish language first appeared in Ireland or how they developed.
The ancient Celts worshipped both male and female Gods, and they regarded the essence of all life as female. The portrayal of Celtic female Gods in Irish myth and legends shows a culture where women were central to society and had positions of power.
‘In early Irish mythology and legend, the feminine is quite dominant in the otherworld as well as on earth. The land of Ireland and features of its landscape such as mountains, rivers and lakes are frequently associated with female Gods and other supernatural females. Early Irish deities did not have specialised areas of influence like those of the Greeks and Romans, for instance. The same Irish female God could be a young woman or a hag, a mother or a virgin, a warrior or a seductive temptress, depending on the occasion. In mythology, it was Ériu who gave her name to Ireland but the names of her two sister goddesses Banba and Fodla were also used. Another trio of sister goddesses were all called Brigid and they were patrons of fertility, healing, smiths and poetry. They presided over a perpetual fire and the spring festival of Imbolc. Anu was an important goddess of pre-Christian Ireland and gave her name to two breast-shaped hills in Kerry called the ‘Paps of Anu.’ She may be identical to Dana after whom the Tuatha de Danann are called. Eamhain Macha (now called Navan Fort) near Armagh, was named for Macha who, according to legend, was forced while pregnant to race against the king’s horses to save her husband from shame and dishonour. She won the race, gave birth to twins immediately and died cursing the men of Ulster to suffer the pains of childbirth at times of greatest difficulty. 
Celtic goddesses occupied strong positions, often reflecting the lived reality of women in Celtic society.Celtic women were free to bear arms (this was true in Ireland until at least the 7th century), engage in politics, and become Druids. As Moyra Caldicott aptly states in ‘Women in Celtic Myth’ . . . ‘one of the things I find so refreshing in the Celtic myths is that the women are honoured as much for their minds as for their bodies.’ 
Smashing Times have created an introduction to the stories of warrior women in Ireland from ancient times to the mid-15th century. The women are both mythical and real and are an example of the great warrior women from the past. The stories can be found on www.smashingtimes.ie. The stories are:
- Druid Women
- Morrigan Macha, a supernatural, mythical figure associated with birth, death and war
- An Cailleach Bhéara is a mythical, Irish, shapeshifting, female God with a range of forms and functions
- Grace (Grainne) O’Malley, a pirate Queen and female warrior
A Legacy of Powerful Women today
As part of its European-wide work, Smashing Times are raising awareness of the stories of women in Ireland and Europe during the past century and today. Smashing Times have conducted two European projects, the first is called Women War and Peace and raises awareness of women’s stories in Europe from WWII and the second is called Women in an Equal Europe and raises awareness of women’s stories across Europe today. Both projects were supported by Europe for Citizens and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Reconciliation Fund.
Women, War and Peace used the creative processes of theatre and film to explore the role of women in Europe from WWII and the power of the EU in promoting peace and gender equality today. The project resulted in the creation of an original theatre performance The Woman is Present: Women’s Stories of WWII by Deirdre Kinahan, Mary Moynihan, Fiona Bawn Thompson and Paul Kennedy; a short film Tell Them Our Names distributed internationally and screened at the Kerry Film Festival and London Eye International Film Festival; and the creation of a Women War and Peace book with a foreword by Marian Harkin, MEP. The book contains 23 women’s stories highlighting women’s experiences during WWII and ways to promote human rights, gender equality and peace and can be accessed here: http://www.epageflip.net/i/748584-women-war-and-peace
Women in an Equal Europe is a European art-based project using creative processes of theatre and film, a feminist framework and online digital resources to promote a greater understanding of women’s rights and the positive changes that have come about in relation to gender equality as a result of belonging to the EU today. Twenty-one women were interviewed – six from Ireland, five from Spain, five from Croatia and five from Serbia. The interviews are contained in the Women in an Equal Europe Book, which can be read by everybody, to promote a remembrance of women’s equality and experiences of life in Europe, ensuring women’s voices and stories are equally heard and acknowledged. Women interviewed include Olwen Fouéré, Actor, Director and Creative Artist; Senator Ivana Bacik, Barrister and Reid Professor of Criminal Law at Trinity College Dublin and Labour Party Senator; and Mary Lawlor, Human Rights Activist, Founder and current board member of Front Line Defenders and Adjunct Professor, School of Business, Trinity College Dublin. The women interviewed from Spain include Pilar Mena, a specialist in Labour Relations, a Teacher and Human Resources Consultant, at the European University of Valencia. The women interviewed from Croatia include Biljana Gaća, a City Councillor from Vukovar, Croatia and women interviewed from Serbia include Ivana Novakovic, Professor of Human Genetics, Faculty of Medicine, University of Belgrade, Serbia.
The Women in an Equal Europe Book can be accessed here.
Many women and men are working together today in Europe to create equality for all and many groups are still fighting for equal rights. A key part of fighting for equality for men, women and trans people is to acknowledge and accept differences while also recognising what we have in common. All the countries in Europe share common myths and legends as well as their own unique ones and also share stories of powerful men and women in history and today who are campaigning for equality for all. Remembering our myths and legends and the stories of great men and women in history is a key part of exploring our differences and commonalities and promoting an equal Europe for all.
Smashing Times website pages on important women in Irish mythology: