The Search for the Celtic Themyscira: Was There Really an Island of Celtic Warrior Women?

"The Siren" by Edward Armitage. 1888. Oil on canvas. Leeds Art Gallery

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While doing research for my recent article on female druids (a.k.a. the ban-druí), a familiar archetype kept popping up: the famous/infamous island of women.

No, Themyscira was not the only island from antiquity to have a ban on permanent male residents. According to Greek historian and geographer Herodotus (circa 484 –  425 BCE), Themyscira isn’t even an island (although it was likely located on the coast of the Black Sea).

Image of the DC Comics island of Themyscira (DC Comics) source: Superman/Batman: Apocalypse

As I’ve pointed out before, comic books often take a lot of liberties when interpreting source material. So while Greek mythology tells us that Themyscira was the capital city of the Amazons, there’s no indication that it was invisible or off the charts (literally). Case in point: both Theseus and Heracles find their way there.

But I digress…

The island of women—sometimes warriors, sometimes enchantresses, sometimes virgins, and sometimes some combination of the three—is a surprisingly common mythological motif. The Odyssey alone has (at least) three such islands. So before we explore two women-only islands from the ancient Celtic world, let’s revisit three of the most famous women-only islands from Greek mythology.

3 Islands of Women in the Odyssey: a Nymph, a Witch, and the Sirens

1. Calypso (island of Ogygia)

For seven years, Odysseus is stranded on the island of Ogygia, home of the nymph Calypso. And by “stranded”, of course, what I really mean is “held in sexual captivity.”

Calypso enchants the Greek hero Odysseus with her singing as she weaves on her loom with a golden shuttle. At night, the nymph has her way with him…which he definitely seems to be okay with at first. But finally, after seven years, Odysseus says, “You know what? I should probably get back to my wife Penelope” (paraphrasing).

After some divine intervention, Calypso agrees to let Odysseus go and brings him materials to build a boat. As he pushes off the shore, the nymph conjures up a favorable wind to help him.

2. Circe (island of Aeaea)

Circe and Scylla in John William Waterhouse's Circe Invidiosa (1892)
Circe and Scylla in John William Waterhouse’s Circe Invidiosa (1892)

Homer describes Circe as “a dreadful goddess with lovely hair.” She lives alone on the island of Aeaea—unless one counts the menagerie of docile wolves and lions that accompany her.

Like the aforementioned Calypso, Circe sings while she weaves, and she uses this enchanting music to lure Odysseus and his crew to her island. A feast prepared. The men are hungry, and they don’t notice that Circe has laced their food with a magical potion. Poof! They are turned into swine.

Unlike Calypso, Circe is not a fan of men. Turning them into pigs highlights her opinion of them. 

Thanks again to divine intervention, Odysseus avoids this porcine fate. However, he does stay with Circe for a year. And despite Circe’s disdain for the opposite sex, they absolutely get it on, with Circe even bearing Odysseus three sons.

Before sending our hero on his way, the island-bound witch/goddess offers Odysseus some advice for the journey ahead (which will come into play later).

3. The Sirens (the Sirenum scopuli)

“The Siren” circa 1900. Waterhouse painting found at The Art and Life of John William Waterhouse

While it’s clear that Calypso and Circe could both carry an enchanting tune, they were really just the opening acts for the sirens. 

Yes, the sirens. You’ve heard of them, I’m sure. They are female creatures who sing so beautifully that sailors steer their ships right into the rocky coastline of their island(s) in an effort to hear them better.

Popular culture depicts the sirens as beautiful, licentious women—or sometimes as beautiful, licentious mermaids. But originally (we’re talking back in the 500s BCE), the sirens were shown as having the bodies of sparrows and the heads of human women.

Following the advice of Circe, Odysseus has all of his men plug their ears with beeswax as they approach the sirens, making them immune to the sirens’ call. Odysseus, for his part, leaves his ears unplugged and has his men tie him to the mast of the ship. Hearing the siren song, he orders his men to untie him. They make his bounds tighter instead. Thus, Odysseus is able to hear the deadly sound of the sirens without succumbing to it.

Later authors (post-Homer) claim that because the sirens failed to attract Odysseus to their shores (i.e., because Odysseus was able to resist their charms), they flung themselves into the sea.

Female-Only Islands in the Ancient Celtic World

At this point some of you might be wondering why in Hades I just spent so much time writing about Greek mythology on a website that’s ostensibly about Celtic and Irish mythology. My two-pronged response consists of A) those ancient Greeks told some good stories, and B) the only accounts we have of ancient Celtic Themyscira-like islands come from Greco-Roman sources, and those sources typically describe Celtic religions through a Greco-Roman lens.

For example, in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico, Julius Caesar labels Celtic gods in terms of their closest Roman equivalents rather than using their native names. Thus, Visucius (or Lugus) became Mercury, Belenus (or Mapanos) became Apollo, Lenus became Mars, Poeninus became Jupiter, and Sulis became Minerva.

So, fair warning: the classical accounts of these two Celtic islands bear all the hallmarks of Hellenization/Romanization. Still, they are interesting accounts.

The Island of the Samnitae/Namnitae

William Blake’s watercolour of Comus and his revellers, 1815

At first, this story seems to tick all the Greco-Roman mythology boxes. There’s an island in the ocean near the outlet of what is now the Loire river. It is inhabited only by women. They leave only to find men to have sex with, then they return. They perform sacred rituals in honor of “Dionysus“—so probably Sucellus, who in addition to being a forest/agricultural god (equated with Silvanus) is the Gaulish/Celtic god of alcoholic drinks.

But toward the end of the account, things take a violent turn.

Retelling a story from the polymath Poseidonius (born 135 BCE, died 51 BCE), whose works have not survived, the geographer Strabo (born 64-63 BCE, died 24 CE) writes:

In the ocean, he says, there is a small island, not very far out to sea, situated off the outlet of the Liger River; and the island is inhabited by women of the Samnitae, and they are possessed by Dionysus and make this god propitious by appeasing him with mystic initiations as well as other sacred performances; and no man sets foot on the island, although the women themselves, sailing from it, have intercourse with the men and then return again. And, he says, it is a custom of theirs once a year to unroof the temple and roof it again on the same day before sunset, each woman bringing her load to add to the roof; but the woman whose load falls out of her arms is rent to pieces by the rest, and they carry the pieces round the temple with the cry of “Ev-ah,”and do not cease until their frenzy ceases; and it is always the case, he says, that some one jostles the woman who is to suffer this fate.

source: Geographia, Book IV Chapter 4

Ah, yes, your classic, fix-the-roof-but-first-rip-a-fellow-community-member-to-pieces-and-run-around-the-temple ritual. The gods will be pleased.

It seems likely that this story—like so many stories—has been tainted by the Greco-Roman male perspective. However, according to French archaeologist Jean-Louis Brunaux, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the women of Samnitae/Namnitae story as false. (Side note: While Strabo wrote “Samnitae,” it’s widely believed he meant “Namnitae,” a.k.a. the Namnetes, an ancient Gaulish tribe native to Brittany.)

Here’s the thing: the annual re-roofing of the temple would have been common practice given A) Brittany’s climate and B) the fact that roofs back then were made of reeds and branches.

Also, parading around the temple? Turns out “circumambulation” was totally a Celtic rite back then, one that Poseidonios himself had previously documented amongst other tribes.

Finally, according to Pliny the Elder, dropping new material—as in building material, not like that new track I just dropped on SoundCloud—was a serious taboo in Celtic culture. So it’s entirely possible this account of religious women (sometimes believed to be druidesses) being “rent to pieces” by other women over some dropped sticks is…true? 

Steve Trevor was lucky he crash-landed on Themyscira.

The Île de Sein

mythological painting, Circe (1910), oil on canvas

Another island off the coast of Brittany, another ancient account of a women-only Celtic community. The women who lived on the Île de Sein, or island of Sena, were known as the Gallizenae. Like the women of the Samnitae/Namnitae, they are often described as priestesses, or druidesses, and they clearly worship a Celtic deity (although it’s unclear which one). That’s where their similarities end.

According to the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela, writing in 43 C.E., the Gallizenae are life-long virgins who are imbued with supernatural powers. Specifically, they can control the weather, predict the future, cure every disease, and transform into different animals. (Note: that last power, therianthropy, is common in Irish mythology.)

But enough of my rambling. I’ll let Pomponius Mela tell the tale:

In the Britannic Sea, opposite the coast of the Ossismi, the isle of Sena belongs to a Gallic divinity and is famous for its Oracle, whose priestesses, sanctified by their perpetual virginity, are reportedly nine in number. They call the priestesses Gallizenae and think that because they have been endowed with unique powers, they stir up the seas and the 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.

source: De situ orbis libri III

British novelist and travel writer Katharine Sarah MacQuoid added to the lore of the Gallizenae in the late 19th century, describing the island women as wearing black headdresses and using witchcraft to lure sailors onto the rocks. 

Regardless of whether the women of the Île de Sein steered wayward sailors in the right direction or murdered them on the rocks—or both—there are obvious parallels with the island women described in Homer’s Odyssey. Calypso controlling the wind. Circe turning men into animals (and keeping a menagerie of lions and wolves, who might also have once been people?). The sirens luring sailors to the shore.

So is the story of the Gallizenae a total fabrication? Chances are, there’s at least some granule of truth in it.  A pair of megalithic menhirs—standing stones—on the now flat and treeless Île de Sein certainly suggest a history of ritual activity.

Final Thought: Did Brendan the Navigator Ever Stumble Upon an Island of Women?

an illustration of St. Brendan the Navigator, dating back to 1304
an illustration of St. Brendan the Navigator, dating back to 1304 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The short answer: No.

The longer answer: Dude was a priest! (And later, a saint.) No way in hell (pardon my word choice) he’d have written about visiting an island of women. If, in 530 C.E., St. Brendan the Navigator returned to his monastery at Clonfert with stories of virgin pagan druidesses wielding god-like powers, he wisely kept them to himself.

What we do know about Brendan’s fabled journey—thanks to the The Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot), first published in the 9th century—is that Brendan visited an island of sheep, an island of grapes, an island that turned to be a whale’s back, and, interestingly, an island called the Paradise of the Birds.

Yes, the Paradise of the Birds was an island filled with beautiful birds, including sparrows, that sang beautiful, captivating songs.

See where I’m going with this?

Is Brendan’s bird island a veiled reference to the bird-bodied, human-headed sirens of Greek myth?

Meh, probably not.

Or rather, I’ve yet to do enough research to make a strong case for it.

But it did make for an intriguing ending, I should hope.

Terracotta vase in the form of a siren, circa 550–500 B.C.

Further Reading

War, Women, and Druids: Eyewitness Reports and Early Accounts of the Ancient Celts by Philip Freeman

The Druid Animal Oracle by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm

Midlife Dawn (Druid Heir Book 1) by N. Z. Nasser

The One and Only Crystal Druid (The Guild Codex: Unveiled Book 1)
by Annette Marie

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Want to learn about modern druidry/druidism?

I recommend the audiobook The Path of Druidry: Walking the Ancient Green Way by Penny Billington (narrated by Jennifer M. Dixon). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 15-hour audiobook for free.

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