Using theatre to promote common European mythological heritage
The Legend of Great Birth is a project implemented in the framework of the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018. Its aim is to promote, through the use of theatre, the common European mythological heritage, specifically in relation to the Myth of Creation.
Mythology is a very important part of the intangible cultural heritage of Europe. It consists of a complex system of stories that are transferred from generation to generation and form a very significant basis for the identity of a country. Mythology hides the deep and rich past of different peoples, their traditions, and in the same time it forms their future. It influences the formation of a social consciousness, and acts as a connecting element between its citizens. It is an ark that hides its traditions, its customs, from metaphysical, pagan elements to customs of everyday life up until our present times.
The project is going to present around 60 performances in total based on a common scenario that includes elements of the mythological traditions from all over Europe (Greek, Latin, Celtic, Nordic, Slavic, Dacian). This common scenario is going to be brought to the stage in six different countries and performed in local languages by local actors.
The structure of LeGreBi is built around a central event, which is the theatre performance around mythology as intangible cultural heritage, together with many other activities. The programme of activities consists of various sub-events that address many forms and many categories of audience. These events are support events that are going to be organised inside the theatre (such as costume exhibitions, visual art creation, workshops, etc.). There will also be support tools that can be used also outside the theatre, such as a web portal and a publication focusing on the myths of creation and underlying their common elements.
The project is also going to develop an e-learning course in order to build the capacity of the professionals. 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.
To visit The Legend of the Great Birth project website, click here.
Irish Myth of Creation
By Mary Moynihan, Smashing Times
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.
The above legend is similar to the Aboriginal Songlines. 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.
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.
The Female in Early Irish Myth and Legend
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.
Below are pages on important women in Irish mythology: